New Orleans-based band Marina Orchestra describes their music as “Rock ‘n’ Roll Soaked in Tropical Sun Vibes,” and honestly, I don’t think I could come up with a better title for the group myself.
Their songs feature a dynamic brass section with African and Caribbean-inspired rhythms, and captivating guitar solos. The group uses a wide array of instrumental brushstrokes to paint a tropical-dipped, surf rock-inspired soundscape. The blend is a perfect playlist for vacationing in a land far away from presidential elections or global pandemics. Somewhere where the sky is always blue, palm trees always sway, and applying the right amount of sunscreen is the biggest thing to worry about.
Marina Orchestra was founded by Justin Powers in 2010, who remains the primary songwriter, vocalist, and lead guitarist. The group has seen up to 30 members come and go throughout the years, and they’re currently composed of eight musicians and vocalists.
The band originally formed in Knoxville, Tennessee, before relocating to The Big Easy in 2015. Since the band formed, they’ve kept themselves busy by releasing three albums, performing at Bonnaroo, and watching their song “Before You Walk Away” be named one of the Top 5 Singles on the WWOZ New Orleans Music show.
The group also involves itself in activism for social justice issues. Advocating for environmental awareness is especially important, something they use their social media platforms for sharing articles and resources related to the cause. Powers is specifically passionate about rainforest conservation, an appropriate issue for a group whose music and aesthetics are so inspired by botany and nature.
Marina Orchestra released their latest album, Night Life, on October 30th. The album is inspired by the group’s move to New Orleans, reconnecting with nature, and striving for environmental change. The album’s lead single, “Let it Roll” was released in March at the height of pandemic anxiety. Despite its rather dismal release date, the song is refreshingly optimistic. It reminds all of us of an ancient wisdom: to just “let it roll”. Its tropical rhythm and lighthearted subject matter are the perfect escape for anyone during a year that has been difficult for many.
We caught up with Powers to discuss Night Life, the creative process behind the rock ‘n’ roll soaked in tropical sun vibes, and much more.
So how did the band meet, and what made you decide on the name Marina Orchestra?
Justin Powers: I started Marina Orchestra in 2010 as a project for me to channel my songwriting into. I assembled some friends I had played music with in the past, and it was the first time I was the band leader. Now, ten years later, we’ve cycled through over thirty members between two cities, Knoxville and New Orleans. The line up has been rather fluid with myself as the constant. I named the band after the house I was living in while in Knoxville that was dubbed “The Marina”, named so for its deck on high stilts.
Your music seems to span across multiple different genres. Which artists or groups would you say inspires you the most musically?
I will shout my musical influences from the rooftops! I’m such a fan of music from everywhere on Earth, and I’m so grateful to live on such a musical planet. I’ve spent countless hours sifting through record stores and the web for my next musical infatuation. Sir Victor Uwaifo is a massive influence for Marina Orchestra among many others like Orchestra Baobab, Toots & the Maytals, Taj Mahal, Los Shapis, Tom Petty, Professor Longhair, Wailing Souls, Les Shleu Shleu, Justin Hinds… I really could go on for ages. You can also take a look on our Instagram for the tag #marinagrooves. Every week I feature an album that has been good to me, it’s just a small way for me to amplify the music that has inspired and influenced Marina Orchestra.
And how does music out of the Caribbean influence your sound?
Caribbean music is baked into my musical identity, even though I grew up in the Chicago area. I was making trips downtown to catch Desmond Dekker live when I was still underage. Caribbean music is ubiquitous in our society even if it’s not fully recognized: Beetlejuice had everyone swinging from the rafters with Harry Belafonte’s Calypso numbers, The Little Mermaid exposed us as kids to the joy of Calypso. Even Chicagoan Bo Diddley went ahead and wrapped up Rock n’ Roll with the Afro-Cuban clave rhythms. I was always drawn to these musical elements found sporadically throughout my universe growing up and it was a matter of time as a young person that I finally pinpointed the regions they originated from, the Caribbean, yes, being one of them, but Africa, too, as a major source for all music.
You released your latest album, Night Life, on October 30th. What was the creative process like for the record?
Night Life was written over the past five years while I’ve lived in and explored my adopted city of New Orleans. My creative process typically involves listening to ambient noises while walking, biking or doing garden work. Inevitably, a rhythm or a melody will seep into my consciousness, oftentimes it’s a song or artist I’ve been obsessed with, but sometimes it’s something new. I’ve taken in a lot of musical information over the years, and sometimes I guess it all gets jumbled into something new. From there, I’ll spend a few months flushing out the ideas, adding lyrics and a structure that benefits all the parts. I’ll eventually cook up a demo and present it to the group and we get to groovin’.
And what made you decide “Let It Roll” to be the album’s lead single?
Once we began mixing the album, “Let It Roll” came together very quickly and easily. It seemed like a natural candidate for a first single too, since it had an upbeat vibe. I sent the track out for digital distribution with a month lead time for us to do some promotion on it. By the time that release date (March 27th) had come, the country was in COVID lockdown. I could never have guessed we’d be trying to promote a single while the nation felt like it was jumping off the rails, but ‘Let It Roll’ is a hopeful song, and somehow I think it was able to provide a release for people. We had a huge response from that song and the subsequent accompanying music video. Marina Orchestra has made a name for making positive music and when things get real dark, I think a little bit of light goes a long way.
Is there one track on the album that you’re especially proud of?
My favorite song on the record is “Down With That”. Sometimes songwriting can be so tricky, like carving a statue from a block of stone. I had been influenced by Thomas Frempong, he was part of the Burger Highlife scene which was Ghanian immigrants living in Germany in the 1980’s. I had come across his music in my online digging and seriously vibing on it. At the same time, I was trying to break from a mold of songwriting that I alluded to earlier. A lot of my music is quite positive, optimistic…happy you could even say. DWT was an attempt for me to shy away from me pigeonholing my songwriting. I definitely stretched my legs out for this track and I think it shows.
How does Night Life compare to your previous two albums?
Night Life is different in many ways. First off, this batch of songs is a bit slower overall in average BPM. I think there are many factors at play here. One was me trying to buck the “happy” music trend I had created for myself. I really wanted to expand my songwriting repertoire. Age might have another thing to add to this equation too. I’ve definitely begun slowing down in my mid-thirties and looking at things more closely than when I started MO. I’ve become even MORE infatuated with the natural world than I was as a kid, if that was even possible. I’ve been getting involved in the process of how things grow and helping things grow. There is a meditative quality to this practice that calls for a more resting tempo. That’s not to say that this album is not groovy, these songs are still quite danceable.
Marina Orchestra used to be based out of Knoxville, but is now based out of New Orleans. Of course New Orleans has quite a music scene and history, but how does Knoxville compare if at all?
Knoxville has a great and tight knit music scene in my opinion, however not quite as storied and historic as New Orleans. There are some really great groups in Knoxville, well at least when I left there was. I haven’t exactly kept up on the local scene. But it is hard for Knoxville to hold a candle up to New Orleans, most cities would have trouble doing that. The music scene in New Orleans obviously has the giants, the musical families, the legendary players who have toured the world and come back home to NOLA to play in a dive bar. You’ve also got a whole wellspring of people, transplants and locals, who are out there making a name for themselves. There is a diversity of genres, but everyone respects the legendary players, they are the teachers of this city. There are so many bands here, so many performers, it’s truly an embarrassment of riches.
And what made you choose New Orleans over say a short drive to the west in Nashville?
That is a great question, because I seriously considered moving to Nashville. Speaking of musical cities, Nashville is a boon! I really did have to choose between a few cities when I was looking to leave Knoxville, and Nashville was certainly way up on the top of that list. The short answer is, I didn’t just want out of Knoxville, I wanted out of the region- I needed a dramatic change in my life. For a music industry career, Nashville is an obvious choice. But New Orleans has something else going on. Music doesn’t feel like a business here, it’s more of a way of life. Lots of “hanging out, lookin’ at each other, waiting for something to happen” as Allen Toussaint said. And it’s really quite fulfilling to be able to play several gigs a month to a rotating cast of tourists and at the end of it all we’re just hanging with friends. I can’t exactly speak to what the musical cultures of Nashville are like though. But you know the New Orleans vibe, it’s different here. I can’t explain it.
Is there anywhere in particular you look forward to performing once it becomes a thing again?
Well, we were rearing up to hit the festival circuit right before COVID. We were booked for New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, French Quarter Festival and Festival International in Lafayette, LA. I’m really hoping to get that momentum again. The whole reason we recorded this album was to have something new to promote while we did those gigs and all the opportunities that come along with that.
Finally, this year you’re celebrating your 10th anniversary as a band. Which memory amongst those 10 years stands out the most?
I’ve had a blast over the past ten years with Marina Orchestra, even though the members are all different. We’ve had some massive fun with our Mardi Gras performances, notably we’ve been the post Krewe Du Vieux party band at Buffa’s on Esplanade the past three years in a row. There is nothing quite like a sea of revelers all dressed up in their Mardi Gras best and pulsating together, its pandemonium. Whew, I can’t wait for COVID to be gone.
Thanks for the interview! We can’t wait to play in Nashville again one day soon.