DFW Music News

Nicole Marxen Is In Full Bloom as a Soloist

Nicole Marxen has a red-hot EP, Tether.
Nicole Marxen has a red-hot EP, Tether. Daven Martinez
George Harrison once said you can tell a lot about a person based on how they tend their garden. At the moment, singer Nicole Marxen’s garden is in full bloom.

“I’ve been getting really into flowers,” she says, smiling brightly in a darkened room in her home. “At the beginning of the pandemic, I redid a bed in our backyard and got really into perennials. I’ve got black-eyed Susans, I’ve got roses, I’ve got irises. It’s blooming like crazy.”

Marxen, who has spent the better part of the last decade as one of the frontwomen for the Dallas-based group Midnight Opera (formerly Siamese), recently released her debut solo EP Tether. But at this moment — 6:30 p.m. on a Tuesday — Marxen is thinking about her plants and her mother.

“My Mom was always gardening,” Marxen says. “She passed 10 years ago. I was going through a tough time, and that was a way that I could reconnect to her, if that makes sense. Choosing something that she was passionate about to focus my attention on a little bit. I used it to pull myself out of the place that I was in. It was fun to obsess over something and learn about something I didn’t know about.

"And plants are really cheap too,” she adds with a  laugh. “It’s easy to buy a lot of them.”

Whether she's discussing gardening or music, Marxen speaks with a calm precision that is relatively uncommon among musicians and music nerds alike, who have a tendency to either gush or undersell themselves. As if coming from an audiobook narrator, each of Marxen's words is well-articulated and chosen carefully. As a result, her answers are fleshed-out and well-rounded, like a fully written paragraph or a finished musical composition. It makes sense when considering that, despite the chaotic sound of Tether, Marxen’s compositions are very precise.

The album's songs are designed to sound like they’re coming apart at the seams — an inherent part of grief, one of the EP’s chiefly telegraphed emotions. They were written in the wake of her mother’s sudden passing, and she waited until the right moment to record and release them under her own name.

“These were songs that I had written but seemed too precious to bring to the band,” Marxen says. “Because when you’re working with other people, it’s a big collaborative effort, and I had a very clear idea of where I wanted to take [the songs]. It just became an experiment to see if I could do it. That had a very clear sound that I was going for, and luckily my producer Alex Bhore is very much on that wavelength and knew where I wanted to take it. It was very instinctual.”
click to enlarge Singer Nicole Marxen is now a solo artist after playing dress-up with Midnight Opera. - DAVEN MARTINEZ
Singer Nicole Marxen is now a solo artist after playing dress-up with Midnight Opera.
Daven Martinez

The four songs on Tether are a genreless conglomeration of catharsis that one is tempted to call “dark,” but feels so inherently personal to Marxen’s experience that classifying it would be a disservice. The album is experimental in its sonic presentation, and Marxen says Bhore has helped her guide the songs in the direction they needed to go without much discussion.

“As I’ve started to grow as a songwriter, I’m very much open to experimentation as far as ‘How do you write a song?’ Sometimes I’ll just pick a key and compose intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-outro, not even think about what it’s about, and see if that sticks. Sometimes I’ll start with a synth tone and a vibe, and see where that takes me.”

While Marxen works tirelessly on her own pursuits, she says the status of Midnight Opera is more or less one of hibernation.

“I am just focusing on myself right now,” Marxen says with a sly, confident grin. “We have a release that we will put out hopefully soon, but we definitely took a hit with COVID. We were planning to come back and put out a bunch of new music and start playing, but that became not feasible, so unfortunately that’s on the back burner.”

So it goes. In some ways, the hiatus of Midnight Opera is a blessing for Marxen, as the songs she’s releasing on her own have been germinating for nearly a decade. Given the fact that most of the material was written from a place of intense personal grief, Marxen says she was initially hesitant to revisit songs written when she was in such a different place emotionally.

“I thought that might be an issue,” Marxen says. “I didn’t want to keep reinvigorating my grief, but I think I’ve been performing so long as a musician that I trust that songs will begin to take on their own meaning and their own lives. You can start at one place, but you’ll end up somewhere else. That’s a beautiful thing and I think it’s really healthy to have that relationship with art.

"I’m in a good place now, so it’s not so hard to talk about what happened and that I have been through difficult times. Now, as I’ve been performing these songs, it’s been empowering to own my experience and share that vulnerability with other people.”

Marxen says that her songwriting has expedited greatly in her life post-Midnight Opera and especially post- COVID.
click to enlarge Nicole Marxen is a flower in her garden. - DAVEN MARTINEZ
Nicole Marxen is a flower in her garden.
Daven Martinez

“Luckily, with COVID I had a lot of time to really hone that craft and not worry about what came next” she says. “I have a record written, and it’s just a matter of recording it all. You know, different songs — much like the writing process — sometimes just come out quicker. You have to be patient for the puzzle pieces to reveal themselves. I definitely have a lot that I’m excited about, and I’m excited to see where they go content-wise and with their production. I have a lot to look forward to.

“I feel like everything I’m doing right now makes sense. Midnight Opera is a very special project, and I will always love what we created together. It is truly a melding of our different tastes and styles, which is really cool that we can do that, but this just makes sense to me.”

Marxen takes a long pause and appears to think particularly hard about her next sentence. “It feels authentic to who I am and the art that I’m making," she says.

Midnight Opera was a constant exercise in experimental performance. The group changed its narrative, themes, costumes and characters with each show. Marxen has a staunch stance on whether her solo work, and songs in general, can be too personal to release,

“I think it’s all fair game,” she says. “With this new record that I’m working on, I’m really pushing myself to write about things that are kind of uncomfortable. There’s a lot of that on the EP, but Midnight Opera existed in this fantasy world, which was great, but I feel like with my solo stuff it’s been a challenge — a welcomed challenge — to ask myself ‘Who am I?’ ‘What do I care about?’ and ‘What is worth exploring and being vulnerable with?’

"I think that your art should always challenge you and keep you growing. I don’t want to get too comfortable with what I’m doing. If that means being more honest, I think that’s a cool thing.”

While most musicians can never escape their music or legacy, Marxen is an artist whose music and legacy are a product of her own determination and diligence, a flower in her garden. As she assesses whether to stay in or take a break from that "fantasy world," she takes a deep breath, looks up, and dives back in.

“I think it’s fun to be a character for a little bit, but I needed to hold myself more accountable and say something personal, because I hadn’t done that before,” she says. “I think it’s important to keep dreaming. I’m still that goober. I keep those worlds separate, but there’s a part of Midnight Opera that will never escape me.”
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Vincent Arrieta
Contact: Vincent Arrieta