Marci is the solo project of Marta Cikojevic, who for the past five years has played keyboard for the Montreal-based band TOPS. Her self-titled debut album, released last Friday and recorded in close collaboration with her TOPS bandmate David Carriere, isn’t a drastic departure from the band’s lush, glossy style of indie pop, but it sees Cikojevic stepping out into the spotlight while embracing her own set of influences. From the classic ’80s-inspired pop of ‘Immaterial’ to the disco-inflected ‘Terminal’ and the dreamy ballad ‘Deeper Shade of Blue’, the sounds on Marci are delightfully varied and consistently danceable, often finding subtle ways of pairing infectious arrangements with a lighthearted sense of humour and an emotional undercurrent of longing. “Into the evening with my demons, gonna have a ball/ I gotta move into the groove,” she sings on ‘Terminal’, her smooth, expressive vocals shining with the confidence of someone who’s ready to be transported.
We caught up with Marta Cikojevic for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her upbringing, her songwriting journey, the making of Marci, and more.
You grew up in rural Ontario, the middle child of five sisters. When you discovered that you were drawn to music, was that something you felt like you could share with them?
Very early on, I wanted to play music and wanted to sing; I took piano lessons at a very young age. I used to walk around with a little tape recorder recording songs, like jingles and stuff with my sisters. But as I got older, I definitely got a lot more shy about singing and playing music. It just became a lot harder for me to do that kind of stuff around my family. Not that they weren’t supportive; they were always very supportive. But I was just growing up and getting really shy about it. But from a very young age, I was very interested in playing music. I recorded some songs with my grandpa when I was like 10. He was the one that kind of sparked my curiosity in music by showing me what he does and how he does it, and it was a really fun experience for me.
Are there any specific memories that come to mind when you think about those early days?
Yeah, it’s really hard to remember because I was very young and there aren’t that many memories anymore. But I just remember his setup in his apartment, this little desk that he had – he had so many cassette tapes laying around. He recorded to this Tascam machine – I now own one, which is really cool, to now have something that he used to have. And this was my first thing that I ever recorded on. But I remember he always had these ’90s and and ’80s keyboards that were really cheap digital keyboards that had all these weird pre-recorded drum loops and songs, you know, like a salsa song or a reggae song or whatever. A lot of those keyboards he would let me take home, and me and my sisters would play around with them. I was just obsessed with this little tape machine. I brought it with me everywhere. I would interview my friends and my family, or me and my sisters would make like a TV show or a radio show and we would make little like jingles to go in between the interviews. A lot of the songs in between were also from these keyboards where we would just press play and you’d hear a loop to instigate the break.
Do you remember the first thing you recorded on your own with the machine?
I mean, I still have tapes of songs that I wrote. Some of them are really just me singing, there’s no music. But I definitely do remember some songs, they’re really stupid songs about walking down the street or something like this. [laughs] But yeah, I definitely still have the tapes. I have a tape recording of the song that my grandpa recorded, and I hope to release it one day. It’s really cool. I’m so little and I’m playing the keyboard, and the song is just about the rain, the sun, the sky. It was really short.
Was that the first thing you recorded with him? Did you record more things together?
Yeah, that was that was probably the first thing that he recorded with me. We recorded some other stuff, but some of that stuff is kind of lost, I’m not really sure where the tapes are, or I’ve sadly taped over some of it. There’s one that I recorded over half of it because I wanted to do my stupid interviews when I got older. But little things that I’ve just recorded on my own, I still have a lot of the tapes, and some of them are really embarrassing to listen to.
I read that you also had these secret spots that you would go to sing and record. How often would you go to these places?
I guess I would go to them whenever I felt like I wanted to sing, or I would start singing and I could tell that it was too many people in the house, so I’d run off to one of these spots I had. There was this broken down van that I think was my dad’s but it stopped running, so it was sitting on – I lived in the country, so it was kind of sitting in a field. And I would go into the van often and do my singing in there. I also – this is the most outrageous one – I had this three-wheeler, so I would get on the three-wheeler and I’d be riding it around and I’d be singing my songs while I was riding the three-wheeler, thinking that no one could hear me because I was riding this machine that was very loud. But my mom told me later, she’s like, “Of course we could hear you, you had have to sing so much louder than then the three-wheeler in order to hear yourself.” She’s like, “I could hear you singing, you’re just driving around the field singing your songs.” I couldn’t believe it. I was so embarrassed when I found out. [laughs] But there were a lot of little spaces, even outside, like going to the forest, deep in where nobody could hear me.
What was growing up in the country like for you?
I look back on it very fondly. I loved growing up in the country. It was the best. I miss it a lot, actually, because now I’ve been living in the city for a while. We moved a lot as a family, so there were times where I was living in town; my country memories are definitely my fondest. Like I said, my family was pretty big, and my two younger sisters, we would hang out a lot. To have the space to just wander around and go into the forest, there were just all these cool locations that you could go and play and let your imagination run wild. I’m really happy that I was able to do that and had the space to do that.
In press materials, it’s mentioned that you’d never formally written songs before this album. When do you feel that started to change?
I definitely wrote songs and recorded songs, I just never felt like I could release any of them or they were never totally done. But when I was living in Toronto, there was this collective of friends called Rare Drugs, and they would put on these shows, like acoustic nights. Those were definitely my first experiences of actually playing my songs for other people. And at the time, I was actually playing guitar, which is crazy to think about – I don’t play guitar very much anymore. I can’t even really remember what some of the song titles are. But some of the songs that I recorded, these are demos that I sent to David. So I had a lot of fully fleshed ideas, but just never had the confidence to really put it out professionally or formally.
What was it that gave you that confidence to send these demos to David and pursue songwriting in that way?
Obviously, my friends – the few people that I would show my songs to, they’d say, “These are really good, you should do something with them.” And then, of course, being in TOPS definitely gave me a lot of confidence as a songwriter. It taught me a lot about song composition, and I became a better piano player playing with them. I showed them some of my demos and they were all so supportive and lovely. It was very nice to be able to share that music with them. I think that’s honestly a big reason as to why I put the music out. I’m so grateful for the friendship that I have with them.
Working with David on the production for this album, was there something that stood out to you about the way he approached the songs outside the context of TOPS?
David is a great pop writer, and I feel like a lot of his production styles, the things that he hears – I’m always so amazed and surprised. It’s so cool to have someone else else’s ears doing something completely different than yours. But I feel like him and I, we both like a lot of the same music, and I feel like we have a really good rhythm when it comes to writing. Which is something that we discovered, obviously, playing in TOPS together, but then coming to Montreal and testing it out, it was just a very immediate, like, “Oh, this is gonna be really easy.” We’re both very similar in the way that we work. It’s also really nice to be able to work with someone and there’s no ego involved. Everything is very honest, you can be very honest and open, and you never feel like you’re gonna hurt someone’s feelings or anything.
On ‘Terminal’, I love it when you sing “I gotta move into the groove,” instead of simply “to the groove.” It’s more about escaping into something rather than just dancing, and I feel like it encapsulates a lot of what the record is about.
Yes, I think you’re absolutely right. I wanted to capture that feeling more – escapism – and I feel like that theme definitely comes up a lot on the record, almost without even realising it. Listening to the record, I’m starting to hear it more – I was going for more for like, I don’t know, being there with the music and with the songs or with the feelings, but then a lot of the themes I am seeing is like escapism. Which I think also says a lot about the time that I wrote the songs and that we were working on the songs, which was during 2020, so much was happening, so naturally our brains wanted to get out. It makes a lot more sense to me now looking back.
Can you explain your definition of “terminal”?
The word was used, honestly, because I kept wanting to say “turning on,” but it just didn’t work that well on the song. So “terminal” became the word, and it worked with the theme of the song so well, it just happened so magically. The term, I wanted it to be like, something is so good that it transports you to heaven. I don’t want to say “You’re dead,” but it just transports you to a different place. And also the meaning of being at an airport terminal, like you’re going somewhere.
The way you utilize backing vocals and your own voice on the record is something I really appreciate. How did you feel hearing other people’s contributions on the record, vocal or otherwise? And when you’re singing, do you feel like you’re stepping into a different role?
I love everyone’s contributions to the songs. I love hearing other people’s voices or other people’s playing. My friend Chloe [Soldevila], there’s one part in ‘Immaterial Girl’ that she sings and I purposely turned her voice up more, just because it’s so lovely to hear. Even now, listening back to the songs, when I hear Chloe it makes me so happy. Or Jane [Penny], she’s the one who says “It’s entertainment” on ‘Entertainment’. I really like hearing other people on the songs and I think that it makes the songs so much better. I definitely would have used more people, it’s just hard with scheduling and sometimes it’s just easier to do a lot of it yourself. I’m glad you notice and like the backups, because I feel like the backup vocal production was something that I think David did such a good job on. It’s incredible. It’s gonna be hard to pull off live though, because now I need a lot of backups.
I definitely feel like a different person when I’m singing. I feel like myself, but I feel like my most self, I’d say. It kind of just feels like the right place to be. It feels like every time I do sing, I almost gain more confidence. It feels really good. And I think it’s something that now that I’ve allowed myself to do, I’m not feeling insecure about it anymore. It definitely feels like Marci; it feels like this alter ego, but at the same time, deep down it’s very much me. It feels very grounding.
Have you imagined how your younger self would react if she stumbled upon any of these songs?
Oh, definitely. Definitely have thought about that. I mean, she would be so thrilled. She’d be so stoked. I think she’d be very, very proud of – me, I guess. [laughs] I almost wish I could show her.
One of my favorite vocal performances on the album is on ‘When Love Had Just Begun’. What do you remember about making it?
This is a David song, actually. This is a song that he showed me, he played the piano and I sang along, and it’s the ballad on the record. Because it’s someone else’s song, I feel like sometimes it’s hard to maybe pull something like that off. I was afraid that I wasn’t gonna be able to do it, because I needed to do it well for him. But I’m very, very happy with the way that it turned out. I think a lot of people have said that to me about that song, because it’s pretty emotional, I guess, right? It feels that way when – even now, I’ve been singing it again and practising because I’m definitely going to be playing that one live. It’s nice to re-sing it and go there again. We were gonna leave it as a piano ballad, but then ended up putting drums on it and a bunch of other flourishes, which I’m happy we did. It would have been nice on its own, but it was standing out almost too much from all the other songs.
What are you most proud of yourself for achieving when you look back on this whole process?
I mean, I’m just happy that I did it. I’m happy that I followed through with something that I wanted to do and I finished it. I’m proud that I let go of my insecurities in regards to singing. I think that was the most surprising part of this process, was that I had a voice that I could use and that I wasn’t afraid to use it. It took a while – it still is sometimes really embarrassing when I start – but I think going forward, learning more about how to use my voice even better, I’m really excited for. I’m definitely most proud of coming out of my shell and actually going and singing, and not being afraid to be cheesy or whatever, going all the way with it. I’m excited to go further.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.