Marcus Foster could have had it easy. He could have dropped names; doors could have flung open. Had he pursued the frequently garish route of your usual Next Big Thing contender, he’d have got it quite easily, T4 specials and all the rest of it.
But Marcus Foster is no ordinary singer songwriter, and so he was never going to be quite so easily tempted into the tried and tested route of overnight success and instant fame. “Organic” is an awfully clichéd word, especially in such circumstances as a music biography, but his slow and stealthy gestation into a new artist of genuine note has nevertheless been just that. When you hear his songs, you realise it could never really have gone any other way.
After much anticipation and preparation, his debut EP is finally ready for release. Entitled Tumble Down, and featuring four tracks rich with languor and melancholic life, it sounds like the work of someone who has been doing this for years, forever. You listen to the four songs here, particularly the slow six-minute burn of the title track and the exquisite ache of Shadows of the City, and at no point do you imagine him to be only 24 years old. These are folk songs and bluesy too, but nobody would ever be able to describe them as “nu”, which, frankly, is a relief. They sound, like many great things, as old as the hills.
“I love narrative in songwriting, always have,” Marcus says. “The ability to delve into character and story, and to lose yourself completely in wherever the song takes you.”
He explains that he rarely sets out to write from an autobiographical standpoint, but that when he returns to his compositions several months down the line, sometimes even several years, he realises that the songs were in fact about himself after all.
“It’s like their meaning changes over time, they can become something else entirely,” he marvels. “I like that. It gives them life, I suppose”.
Marcus Foster was born in London. He was six years old when he felt inexplicably drawn to the piano for the first time, and began to take lessons. This was unusual, he points out, because although his family were a family of music lovers, none had a particular penchant for playing themselves. But Marcus did, and he became quietly obsessive about it.
By his early teens, he had discovered his artist father’s Bob Dylan records, and his journey was now well underway, sparking an interest that would take him backwards rather than forwards. This means that while friends at school were lamenting the loss of Kurt Cobain and obsessing over an emergent Britpop, Marcus was instead stumbling into a kaleidoscopic world of Tom Waits, Van Morrison and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. His reading was out of time too, Jorge Luis Borges and Kerouac, so no wonder the songs he was writing sounded like they came from the pen of a much older scribe.
“I was particularly obsessed with Tom Waits,” he recounts. “Not only did I love his voice, but also how he wrote his songs. They had such depth, so many layers, and were filled with the most amazing characters. He completely influenced the way I set about writing my own songs.”
By 14, he was playing the blues in West London dives, and here he must have made for a curious sight, only just a teenager playing songs in the manner of a broken down old crooner, his voice cracking over melodies already redolent with world-weary disappointment but also with the sheer uplift of true epiphany. By 18, he was being earnestly courted by EMI, but the man with the old voice had an old soul, too. He was in no hurry to rush anything.
“Besides,” he says. “I was still at school, and I didn’t want to give up my education. I thought it best to concentrate on that first.”
And so he did. He took a degree in Fine Art, specialising in sculpture, and finally an MA, which he completed just recently. It was while studying for his MA at the Royal College of Art that Charles Saatchi discovered his work, and promptly snapped up one of his creations. Saatchi was not the only one who liked what he saw: his degree show was subsequently exhibited across Italy and Greece.
“Sculpture is really important to me” he says, “and I see no reason why I can’t do both at the same time: sculpting and music. For me, one feeds the other.”
His MA completed, Marcus then returned to music. By 2008, things had cranked up several gears, almost by happy circumstance. His old school friend, Robert Pattinson, who had long harboured ambitions to act, received an unexpected breakthrough when he was cast as the lead in a film about teenage vampires called Twilight.
Marcus contributed one song to the Twilight soundtrack, entitled Let Me Sign, sung by Pattinson and two songs in the road movie Five Dollars a Day starring Christopher Walken and Sharon Stone, this was enough to light a fire under Marcus’s name, and create an awful lot of premature excitement.
Later, he decided to head out on a small tour of America by himself. “I thought,” he says, “it would be fun to test the waters.” Across the States, he found himself playing each night to a growing number of fans, not all of them Twilight aficionados but also an increasing number of intrigued onlookers drawn to the young man with the astonishing voice. The tour was a success, “and,” he beams, “I loved it. I learned so much.”
With astonishing rapidity, he had now became a word-of-mouth sensation, and by the middle of 2010 this still unsigned new artist had already racked up over a million hits on his MySpace page, while his Twitter account was followed in the tens of thousands. It prompted record labels to court him, and he eventually signed to Communion/Geffen shortly before Christmas. Communion Records is the label owned by Ben Lovett of Mumford & Sons, Kevin Jones, and producer Ian Grimble.
“It’s an exciting time certainly,” he understates. “And I’m still amazed, frankly, that all this interest has sprung up so quickly.”
Much of it makes him understandably wary: “I’ve been lucky enough to see what fame can do to somebody up close, and I have to say that I wouldn’t want anything like that for myself, not for all the money in the world. But I would like to continue to make music, and to perform it. It feels natural, and good.”
He certainly sounds like he was born for little else. If the Tumble Down EP serves as a taster of what he is capable of, then his as-yet-untitled debut album, due in the summer, should confirm Marcus Foster as the year’s most intriguing new star. It is rare to come across a new act who, can sing songs with almost spiritually redemptive powers, each soaked in such thrumming, gospel-esque fervour. Much of it is down to that voice, so raspy and full of throttle that you imagine he must have abused it from a perilously young age.
He smiles, awkwardly, suddenly 24 again. “I’m trying to give up smoking actually,” he says, “but it’s true I do like whisky…”
So he should. It suits him.