We live in an era where just about anybody can become famous.
Well, that’s not completely accurate. Millions of plebes across the land, thinking they’re the next Mariah Carey or Michael Bolton, cue up their iMovie and prove to the world, via YouTube, what everybody’s been telling them all along: “Keep your day job.”
But then there are the rare instances when a budding artist’s video goes Contagion-viral, because the person who made it actually is an über-talented musician. That’s what happened to Irish-Japanese singer-songwriter Marié Digby (pronounced MAR-ee-AY) in 2007. When her label, Hollywood Records, shelved her forthcoming album for six months, a frustrated Digby recorded a cover of Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’ with just an acoustic guitar—and raw, unproduced vocals—and uploaded it to YouTube.
“You know, I still watch that video, and I do not understand what’s special about it,” says Digby. Tell that to the 22 million YouTubers who’ve clicked play since.
The associated buzz prompted her record label to relent, releasing first the cover as an iTunes single and then the full-length album, Unfold, which debuted at No. 29 on the Billboard 200 album chart in April 2008.
Since then, she’s been prolific, releasing four LPs whilst showcasing a combination of lyrical chops and piano balladry that recalls early Ingrid Michaelson or Sara Bareilles albums. With her latest offering, a three-song EP entitled Chimera, Digby has launched a triple Salchow of transformation, going full-on radio-pop with her sound.
We caught up with her to discuss a number of subjects, including what goes into a viral video, naked Chris Isaak on the beach, being half-Japanese, and a bunch of her hidden talents…
Did your parents force you to take piano lessons like mine did?
[Laughs] They didn’t force me. I just took a natural liking to it. When I was little, my mom took me to see Cats, the Broadway show—I was like three or four years old—and they stopped us at the door and said, ‘We don’t admit children under the age of eight or nine.’ And [my mom] begged them to let me in and [said], ‘If this kid makes a peep, you just kick us out, but I promise you she’ll be quiet.’ And I was just mesmerized. We had a piano already, [and] I came home and started trying to learn the songs, so I think that’s what made [my mom] feel like she should put me in classes. That, and being an Asian mom, which is part of the deal. So I wasn’t forced.
You’re a few years younger than me. Have you ever bought a CD, and if so, which one was it?
My first-ever CD was Nevermind by Nirvana.
What drew you to that?
I’ve always been a rock kid, and I remember it was such a treat to go to this place called the Warehouse [a record store in Los Angeles], which kids won’t know about nowadays. I used to go there after school. I would be dropped off, and my mom would go get coffee or eat at a nearby restaurant, and she would let me roam around for hours. They had listening booths, and so I would first pick out albums by their covers—and I don’t know what that says about me, because there’s a naked baby on [the cover of Nevermind]—and [then] I’d go and preview them. I bought the ones I loved, and it was just like having a treasure in your hand.
I think anyone in our generation had that experience. Remember when we used to have those gigantic folders that would become 20 pounds, because they were just stuffed with CDs and their covers? It was like my proudest collection. I actually have to admit that I still have a ginormous collection, and I’m looking at them right now. I have several hundred just piled, and I don’t even know if they have CDs in them. I just cannot get myself to throw them away.
What is one artist in your collection that would shock people?
Let me take a look. I mean, I’m a metal kid. I grew up on Slayer and Metallica and Primer 55 and Sepultura. Sepultura is probably one of my favorites. Chaos A.D.!
That shocks me.
That got me through high school. Yeah. I was an angry kid.
That’s hardcore shit!
Yeah, I think I’ve lost a lot of hearing in my ears from all the metal shows I went to. I’m not even kidding.
You got your big break covering Rihanna’s song ‘Umbrella’ on YouTube. I have a guess as to why it blew up: You have a much better singing voice than Rihanna does. Care to comment on that?
[Laughs] Um, I disagree. My theory is it was just the collision of all sorts of good things like timing, how big that song was, how big the artist was, [and] the freshness of doing an acoustic cover. Because that wasn’t really happening at the time: using YouTube, which was relatively new. So I think I just had a lot of good things going for me. I don’t think my performance is particularly special.
You’ve also covered Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game,’ which came out when I was a kid. The video always made me blush.
Would you ever want to make a music video where you’re rolling around naked on the beach with Chris Isaak?
[Laughs] Well, yeah. Hell yeah! What is he, 60 years old now? [Editor’s note: she’s close, he’s 58.] Although Helena Christensen… I don’t think anyone can really beat that. You can’t get more beautiful than her. But actually I just released a video, which is probably the raciest, most provocative video I’ve ever done. I’m kind of waiting to see t the reaction from my existing fans. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a little pushback. But [there’s] definitely a lot of rolling around and skin.
Now, the first line in the Weezer song, ‘El Scorcho,’ is: ‘Goddamn you half-Japanese girls/Do it to me every time.’ What is your most unforgettable trait?
My most unforgettable trait? Is that a physical trait?
It could be anything.
God, I don’t know. Let me think about that.
That’s what we journalists do; we put people like you on the spot.
Yeah, I mean, you ask these questions that we just wouldn’t think of normally. Like I don’t think, ‘What’s my most memorable trait?’ OK, I would say, physically, it would be that strange combination of being super-duper pale with freckles but having Asian eyes. It’s a combo that’s become a lot more popular. I mean, [in] my generation, there’s been an explosion of half-Asian, half-white kids. I’m half-Irish, so I’ve got freckles and the super-pale skin from my dad, but I still have my mom’s almond-y Japanese eyes and the dark hair, so I think it’s just a puzzling thing for people who haven’t seen other ‘half’ kids before.
Does it hurt that Digby is uniquely gorgeous? We’re going with “no.”
Now the new EP, Chimera, strikes me as a 360-degree turn for you. It’s a lot more produced than your previous albums. Any reason why you decided to do that now?
Well, it’s funny, I never really went into it going, ‘I want to do a really produced-up EP.’ It’s never really like that. I don’t ever [write a song] knowing how I want the production to be. It always starts on one instrument. Like for ‘Vanish,’ I wrote on a kalimba, and then we just started adding synths to it and bass, and it just came alive [once] it had a lot of elements [added] to it. I don’t know. It sounded right with a big, sonic landscape, I guess. I just do what the song calls for. Earlier on in my career, I wrote all my songs by myself on a piano or guitar, so it sort of shined most when it was bare. But I feel like nowadays, that hasn’t been the way that I’ve been writing songs, so I don’t know. I haven’t really analyzed it that deeply.
So do you define yourself as one of these ‘YouTube Stars,’ or are you trying to move away from that?
I think there was a point when I wanted to move away from it, because when I started posting videos, I did it reluctantly; I felt like it was a last resort. I was on a record label, had my album finished for half a year, and it had been shelved. And they weren’t doing anything for me, so I had no choice but to try and create my own buzz on YouTube. I didn’t want to do covers either, but I knew that no one knew who I was—no one would be searching for me—so that was my only way of attracting new people [to listen to] my original stuff.
So, you know, I keep going back and forth to this day. I mean, I’ve been posting videos now for seven years, and literally every day I feel differently about it. I’m grateful for everything that it’s afforded me, but I am also sick of it, especially because it’s so slick. [YouTube is] just inundated with kids with huge production teams and Auto-Tune. When I started, I was alone in the bathroom with the built-in microphone in GarageBand. I don’t even think I was using GarageBand; it was iMovie. And I think people liked it because it showed them that there were people that didn’t need production to pull off a song. Now, I get sick of it sometimes. Maybe you just caught me on the wrong day. I think I’ve just accepted that it’s part of my story, but it would be wonderful if I could continue without having to just cover whatever’s popular at the time.
A lot of your original songs seem to be directed at love interests. Are these specific people, who know these songs are about them (a la Taylor Swift), or are they all hypothetical lovers?
They’re all written about a specific person, and none of those people ever know that it’s about them. I never tell the actual person who inspired the song that it was about them, because it takes the fun out of it for me [laughs].
What’s a harder song for you to write: a breakup song or love song?
Happy songs. I think almost every artist will agree that writing a really quality, very original, happy song is hard. The sad stuff I can just shit out; it’s so easy. But a good quality, upbeat song is very hard to come by.
Everybody on the West Coast seems to be a musician and an actor and a really good basket-weaver and a million other things. What are your strengths beside music?
I train in MMA, so I love mixed martial arts and kickboxing. I’m a nature girl, so anything that involves going outside [or] hiking is my thing. I’m not a basket-weaver; I guess I need to add that to my list of powers. I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to the study of the cosmos; I’ve read pretty much everything that Stephen Hawking has put out. I’m obsessed with the study of time and space.
Any plans for a full-length album, and are you going to tour for the EP?
I haven’t made decisions on either one of those things. I still do love the concept of an album, and I’ve always dreamed of doing a 10-song album, because all of my favorite albums growing up were 10 songs. There’s a sweet spot about a 10-song album. But I think we’re in a different time, so I see myself releasing music more frequently, but in these small groups of three or five. That’s more likely than me doing a full album, unless I sign to a new record label, which is very unlikely. And for touring, I really want to do a live show—definitely here in Los Angeles—but I haven’t really thought about a tour yet. I just want to get these videos out and see what people are reacting to, which videos and where. And then I can think about where I’d like to tour.