The New Orleans rock duo feel like they've finally figured out who they are and how they work as a twosome with their debut album.
The way into Alexis and the Samurai’s new Move Into View is not a song they wrote, nor is it “Parlez-Nous à Boire.” That Cajun song led to the Cajun indie rock band Sweet Crude that they're a part of, but more central to who Alexis and the Samurai are is their cover of “Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.” The song didn’t end up in their set or on the album because they had deep insights into it, or because it was personally relevant. When Alexis Marceaux and Sam Craft realized that they needed to expand their repertoire for those nights that needed them to play on and on, they sat down with a book of standards and worked up quick versions of some of them.
Marceaux had always liked the song, but when she sings it, she’s not living the song’s lovelorn narrative, and the “you” she is singing to isn’t the person she wishes sent the letter. The love she’s really singing to is Harry Nilsson. It’s Brian Wilson. It’s pop music, and Craft’s piano makes that point as clearly as her vocal. After playing one chorus straight by their terms, they added percussion and Alexis and the Samurai-like filigrees—percussion and a processed vocal that makes Marceaux’s voice sound like it’s coming through an antique radio. Other songs on Move Into View blend the classic and the contemporary more subtly, but that dynamic plays out on the album again and again.
When I mentioned in our interview that I thought of Nilsson while listening to the song, both lit up.
“I think we’re definitely inadvertently influenced by Nilsson and his ear,” Sam Craft says. “I’d take it back farther to George Martin. Our mindset there was Brian Wilson, George Martin, Harry Nilsson—.“
“Especially in studio form,” Marceaux interjects.
That kind of pure pop is the through line in their music, regardless of how much Alexis and the Samurai music sounds like contemporary folk. One of Marceau’s less obvious touchstones is Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. “A lot of ear candy,” Craft says, picking up the thought. He points to St. Vincent as another touchstone for the band, particularly “Marry Me.”
“It marries her classical mind with a straight-up pop song sung simply,” he says. “Still in the modern era, you have Kimbra, Feist—.”
“I’m a huge Feist fan,” Marceaux adds. “She does that too. It’ll be super-hooky and poppy, then it will go to a dark place and come right back.”
Craft and Marceaux finish each other’s thoughts a lot, and their music reflects the kind of intimacy that makes that possible. The songs feel like they're complete once two have figured them out for themselves, and when they share them with an audience, it's really an invitation into their circle. The two were a couple for a while, but at some point they decided they make better bandmates than romantic partners. For many couples in music, that change works for about 10 minutes before the issues that ended the personal relationship also kills the professional one. Alexis and the Samurai certainly appear to have made it work since the two are the only members of the band and have to to function. Right now, they’re flourishing. Move Into View just came out, but they’ve been so creative recently that they already have six new songs that they’re recording for its follow-up. They’ll spend much of this summer touring in support of the album, and since Sweet Crude will release a new EP, Critters, June 8, the two have and will continue to spend a lot of time together. Instead of creating tension, Marceaux believes their past strengthens their musical dialogue.
“We can hone in right away rather than tiptoe around each other’s feelings,” she says.
It helps that the two have been performing together now since 2009 when Craft joined the Alexis Marceaux Band when she was preparing to record her Orange Moon album. He was still in the band Glasgow at the time, and eventually she was too. Since Glasgow had recorded before, Craft's studio experience made him a good person to co-produce Orange Moon. The two also performed in Susan Cowsill’s band, and when Orange Moon finally came out in 2012, they were ready to tour in support of it but no one else in the band could. They decided that between them, they could cover enough of the parts themselves that they could represent Orange Moon well enough on the road and toured as a duo. At some point, calling a two-person band Alexis Marceaux or The Alexis Marceaux Band began to seem weird, and Alexis and the Samurai became the name.
Marceaux had a cup of coffee as a contestant on The Voice in 2012. She didn’t have a lot emotionally invested in the show and its outcome, and thought that it might be a way to further promote Orange Moon. When she was knocked out in the battle round, she was fine with it. “I’m glad I got in and got out. It wasn’t really my cup of tea,” she says. Since her appearance on the show led directly to the Monday night residency that Alexis and the Samurai have performed for more than three years now, the experience worked out fine, she says.
“Outside of New Orleans, we were getting traction,” Craft says, but they were having a hard time finding their place in New Orleans. The residency has become its own scene and musical lab for them to work out new ideas. Because of it, Craft says, “We have literally developed an international fanbase.”
Onstage, the time spent together is obvious. Since they share keyboards and percussion instruments while performing, their stage set-up keeps them close together, and they do have the kind of easy, idiosyncratic banter and performance style that only comes with really knowing each other. They’ve talked about bringing additional musicians into Alexis and the Samurai to help flesh out the live sound, but each time it has come up, they decided against it. The challenge of making sure that each song gets what it needs is part of the fun of the band, and it forces them to think about the songs’ arrangements carefully. “It makes us better writers,” Marceaux says.
The two-person set-up also allows Marceaux to feel more integral to the whole sound. Regardless of what they can do, lead singers—certainly lead female vocalists—often simply sing, even if that represents only part of what they can do. Marceaux also plays percussion with Sweet Crude, and Alexis and the Samurai forces her to add guitar or keyboards as well. “I feel awesome when I can play something and sing at the same time,” she says.
Marceaux’s appearance on The Voice made sense because, frankly, she has a strong one, and it’s an instrument that she has been working on for years. Growing up, people drilled into her head that vibrato was bad—likely a response to the vocal technique’s overuse by Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and contestants in the early years of American Idol, all of which treated vibrato like $50 bills and they couldn’t get enough. Two of her musical heroes—Carole King and Karen Carpenter—reminded her that judiciously applied, vibrato could be a powerful tool.
“I wouldn’t even say it’s vibrato,” Craft says. “I think it’s healthy vocal tone. That’s shunned in favor of quirky, edgy vocal tones.”
“You have these long, sustained notes in pop music,” Marceaux continues. “It’s cool and I think it should happen. I really pay attention to that on this and the new Sweet Crude album.” On the other hand, she thought about singers such Britney Spears who have no vibrato, and sorting out these singers helped her decide who she wants to be as a singer and a songwriter. It has been a process with some vibrato-rich stumbles, but now, she says, “I’m 27 and this is my voice. It’s taken my whole life to find who I am as a singer.”
Marceaux credits Craft with introducing her to The Beach Boys and Radiohead, and her passion for Carole King and The Carpenters forced Craft to come to terms with them. “She’s an architect of song,” Craft says of King.
“She knows where the hooks should be, where the bridge should be, what an arrangement should be,” Marceaux says.
“Another big influence—this is kind of a translational thing—is taking Burt Bacharach and going into The Carpenters,” Craft resumes. “Burt Bacharach as interpreted by The Carpenters is another huge influence on what we do in the studio.”
Move Into View isn’t anywhere near as lush and swooning as “Close to You,” but Craft hears Bacharach in the duo’s chord-heavy choruses and the careful, precise marshaling of their musical arsenal.
It’s clear talking to Craft and Marceaux that conversations like these have gone on for years, and that performing on their own, as a duo, and with a larger band in Sweet Crude has helped them hone in on who they are together. Marceaux contends that it’s really only in the last year that they’ve really nailed down how exist together in the context of Alexis and the Samurai.
“We go, Okay, we’re playing this drum kit together,” she says. “Sometimes I’ll play the snare, sometimes you play the snare, but we have to come in together as one.”