Texas Songwriter & Guitar Maestro Marina Rocks Talks New Album ‘Austin To Houston’, Townes Van Zandt

“She doesn’t play guitar, she becomes part of it.”

This is Wrecks Bell, notable cog in the Texas music machine over the decades, talking about songwriter and guitar shredder Marina Rocks. Bell owns the Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe (OQAC) in Galveston, Texas, and famously played bass with Townes Van Zandt, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Lucinda Williams. Van Zandt even penned a song for him titled “Rex’s Blues.”

“The strongest ingredient in all music is the writing. My motto has always been, ‘Where Lyrics Still Count.’ This record is full of those lyrics. Marina Rocks is the real deal,” he says.

Bell met Marina at an open mic at the OQAC, asking her, “Do I know you?” to which she replied, “Do I owe you money?” And that effectively secured their lasting friendship and mutual admiration.

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Born during an Austin heatwave, Marina arrived in this world smoking and has never cooled off. A gift from her mom, she played her first guitar ’til her adolescent fingers bled- and then she played it some more. When she turned 12, her mom bought her a Marshall stack instead of a party dress, and the rest as they say is history. Penning the semi-autobiographical composition, “Shero,” she reflected her deep feelings of love and gratitude for a parent able to appreciate a daughter’s pursuit of the “beat of a different drummer.” 

When she lost her mom to breast cancer in 2018, naturally, Marina took it very hard.  

On the heels of her grief, she dove into the sessions that would eventually become her new album, Austin to Houston, a process that would help restore her faith in music and serve as fuel for the next chapter of her musical journey. With a renewed energy and sense of purpose, she also built a home studio nicknamed “Two-Fisted Pixie.” 

A Texas-centric journey in scope and process, the 33-minute 8-song collection is a spontaneous and challenging body of work that holds up under repeat listenings, and stands up to critical comparisons with even the great recognized practitioners of songwriting.

We got to chat with Marina on a Zoom call to learn more about her Lone Star background, relationship with Bell, her new album, and more.

So how has the year treated you so far?

It’s been very busy. [Releasing the album] was quite an undertaking. I released it in Mid-July in Europe first. I had someone interested in booking me over there, so I decided to start there. Because of the pandemic, the release date kept getting pushed back. I started in late summer or early fall 2020, and it’s finally out. 

Texas is home to some of the best songwriters and musicians arguably ever. Can you talk about how your geography and upbringing shaped your path in music?

I was born in Austin, and my parents loved music, especially my mom. She bought me a three-quarter-sized guitar. She found a variety of teachers for me to take lessons from. It influenced my style due to the variety of teachers I had. She had an appreciation for all styles of music, and that kind of carried over to me. I played electric guitar for many years, and always wrote along the way. And I was always a big fan of Eric Johnson’s playing. He’s an incredible, amazing guitarist. Very distinct tone. And Stevie Ray Vaughn of course.  

Let’s talk about your new album, Austin to Houston. Clearly there’s a nod to your roots, but are there other overarching themes and motifs?

Well I did some electric guitar work in some bands here and there, and kind of segued into my own acoustic thing because of my writing. It’s a lot of my life’s experiences, and stuff that I notice that’s going on in the world. I’m not very good at manufacturing a song. I’m inspired by things that happen around me, and social or personal events.

Do you find determining the order of songs on the album to be a challenge, and how important is that to you? What made you choose “Joy Ride” for the opener and “Sleepy Hollow (Revisited)” as the ender?

I figured after the last two difficult years for everyone, that starting off with an uplifting – I hope – song would maybe be a good way to start. And I went back and forth on the order, and kind of thought of it like playing a live set list and what I would do.

And I couldn’t help but notice you covered Townes Van Zandt’s “Nothin,” which I loved to see. Of all the great TVZ songs to cover, what made you choose this particularly dark one?

So Wrecks Bell moved to Galveston maybe 20 years ago, and started the Old Quarter down there. I’d heard about it, and went down there for an open mic one night. I got there late and was down there on the list. When I got through playing, I talked to Wrecks for awhile, and he said, “I want to book you. How many people can you bring?” I said, “None.” And he said, “I’m going to book you anyway.”

So Wrecks has a wake every January 1st for Townes’ passing, and people from all over the world will come to the Old Quarter for it. So he asked me to come play it, and I said, “Well I don’t know what to play,” and Wrecks said, “Why don’t you play ‘Nothin.’” And people liked my spin on it so much, that’s now what I play there every year, so I decided to add it to my album. Long story to get to your question. 

When was this and has he told you any wild Townes stories?

Maybe 8-10 years ago is when I met Wrecks. He will do a set of Townes’ songs, and has Townes’ finger picks, and has all of these incredible stories of his adventures with him on the road. It is worth the price of a plane ticket just to come see Wrecks do that. 

I see you’ve got a super unique guitar that has a gaping hole in it. Can you tell us more about it?

It’s a Godin Vintage A6. It didn’t start off with any holes. I sometimes use the face of it like a drum, and I used to bring with me a 15-inch bass cab, maybe 800 watts, so when I hit the guitar, it would kind of remind me of a kick drum. I wrote a song about this guitar and my journey to Houston. It’s called “Willie Hole.” I read where he [Willie] went onto the Old Hempstead Highway – an area for machine shops and folks in the drilling industry, blue collar type jobs – and he went into a bar there and tried to sell his songs. But the club owner wouldn’t buy them, but gave him a gig instead. 

What are one or two pinnacle moments for you as an artist?

Meeting a rep from Godin Guitars by chance in a Houston music store… it’s the little guitar that changed my life. And meeting Wrecks Bell, who then and now encouraged me & opened doors. 

What are some of your goals – whether musically or otherwise – for the rest of the year? 

On August 31st I’m playing in Austin at New World Deli, and September 15th I’m playing at Arnold’s for AmericanaFest. The 17th I’m flying to Paris – I’ve never been – and I have some gigs in Belgium. “Shine” off the record is #4 on Radio Benelux. They’ve been so supportive. Those folks are really nice. It’s going to be a good year.

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