We’re an odd bunch, us humans. Searching for meaning, searching for purpose, searching for identity in a wide variety of places. We think we’re content even if subconsciously we realise that we aren’t, and we all have our own weird and wonderful habits that make us all unique to each other. But what I reckon is the most quirkiest of quirks of all in the human race- and one might want to disagree with me on this, but maybe you all won’t- and that is that we are all seemingly obsessed to find again, or at least try to recreate what is lost. Think about it for a moment. We don’t like change, we like to stay in the comfortable. And the best example of us trying to control every aspect of our lives is when death comes knocking at our door. Yes the proverbial and literal monster that comes like a thief in the night when no one is watching nor listening. One minute you’re here and the next poof you’re gone, and no one remembers you. So I guess I can understand why we as humans would like to be remembered after we’re gone, or even still try to live as long as we can without the deterioration of the human mind.
Time and time again man has tried to cheat death with varying results. Walt Disney put himself into cryostasis way back in the day, in an effort to try to stay alive past the dawn of the century so that he can have direct influence on his films in the future (but this was to no avail!), while actors who have passed away still have an impact in films as their digitised versions are now on screen- examples include Carrie Fisher and Peter Cushing in the latest Star Wars trilogy. Even the iconic queen of gospel Whitney Houston, who passed away quite a while ago, is touring in 2020 as a hologram and is singing new songs and new arrangements of songs. But long before technology has tried to fool us into thinking that our idols are still around even if they aren’t; our heroes did die, and we had to find some way to cope with their loss. While Christian pop artist Tauren Wells could somewhat pass for a young Michael Jackson vocally back in the day (and I’ll write about Tauren Wells in a later instalment of this blog series!); the real event that rocked the whole world was Freddie Mercury’s passing some time ago.
Queen, the widely successful rock band that the Brit fronted, was disbanded because, well no one could replace Freddie- in voice and in stage presence- yet a nationwide search in 2011 for a legitimate replacement for Freddie to play in an authorised tribute band, led the world to glimpse the prowess of a humble man plying his trade, who has now been placed in the spotlight as ‘Freddie reincarnated’ or the closest thing as Freddie as we’re going to get. Given that Queen is one of the headliners of the massive 9 hour Bushfire Appeal concert in Sydney in a couple of weeks time, you may be forgiven for thinking that I’m talking about Adam Lambert, who came runner up on American Idol in 2009 and is now the lead singer of Queen. But no, I’m not talking about Adam at all. I might someday in this blog series- but rather I’m briefly delving into Marc Martel. Former lead singer of Christian rock band Downhere and a strong believer in Jesus. Writer of songs. Yet also an uncanny resemblance to Freddie Mercury, and thus a popular entertainer and performer amongst fans, critics and casual listeners alike!
Hands up who knows Marc Martel? Anyone? Like really, really, really? I big superfan would know that his previous hits in Downhere include “The More”, “Let Me Rediscover You”, “You’re Not Alone”, “Rest”, “A Better Way” and the Christmas hit “How Many Kings”. But for the general public who aren’t fans of Downhere… how about if I say that Marc’s the guy that vocally sounds eerily and somewhat creepily like the late Freddie Mercury from Queen- even more so than Adam Lambert? How about then? Marc Martel, originally from Downhere from the mid 2000’s to the early 2010’s, is quite the performer, having shown off his vocal chops in Downhere before. Yet since that band was marketed to Christians, the world hadn’t had the chance to hear Marc in action vocally. That was until one day in 2011 when Marc submitted his cover online of “Somebody To Love” by Queen, when band members were looking for unknown guys to form a tribute band and subsequently tour. This video went viral very quickly and had him on everyone’s radar? Ex-Queen members Roger Taylor and Brian May took notice, the general public took notice, and critics took notice. The rest is history, as Marc transitioned into ‘the guy who sings Christian music the no one knows about’, to ‘the guy who sings Queen music and pulls it off perfectly that everyone knows about’! After fronting The Queen Extravaganza for a while, Marc launched his own cover band of Queen, separate from the decisions of the remaining band members of Queen, and with their blessing too. In 2016 Marc started The Ultimate Queen Celebration, and now tours when he wants to, singing however many Queen songs he wants to- which is a lot going by public demand. It isn’t known why Adam Lambert came along and replaced him in the tribute band- perhaps it was because Adam is gay and is willing to wear the mascara and eye shadow that Freddie often wore, and Marc wasn’t willing to compromise on his Christian beliefs. Or maybe it was because Marc sounds too much like Freddie and the remaining band members would be too emotional when Marc sings Freddie’s songs. Regardless of the decision and regardless of how many critics and fans prefer Adam over Marc and vice versa; no one can deny how talented Marc is and how good God is, that he allowed things to fall into place so that Marc could minister to a section of the music market that he never ministered to previously and never thought he’d be able to!
[the audition video], it was pretty nuts! It was one of those things that doesn’t really happen to people very often — something that you literally fantasize about that literally comes true. People would compare me to Freddie Mercury incessantly. It just became this joke after a while: “I wonder how many people are gonna tell me I sound like Freddie Mercury after this show?” Usually, it was at least five people who would come up to me and say, “Do you know who you remind me of?” And I’d say, “Yeah, I know exactly who I remind you of!”
So I started thinking, “I don’t know that it’s a particularly unique ability to sound like Freddie Mercury — there are lots of tenor rock singers in the world who I think have a similar sound — but maybe I have that little bit more that gives the music that uncanny feeling?” And so this friend of mine in Nashville got wind of an audition contest that Roger Taylor of Queen was putting together, and he forwarded the information about it to me. And as soon as I went to the website, I was thinking to myself, “There’s a good chance I could win this — I mean, if what thousands of people have told me over the past ten years is true, I don’t know how I’m not gonna win this!” And, sure enough, after I uploaded my audition video the next day, my life went haywire for about a month or two.
If you’ve got a talent, society says to use it or lose it. In the case of Marc Martel, his talent of sounding like Freddie Mercury has put him into a unique position. Usually the one to write most of the songs in Downhere, Marc was unconsciously placed in the unfamiliar category of being a cover artist- only singing Queen songs because the public demanded it, yet Marc still possessing and containing the gift of songwriting, wanting to bring it out to the fore. Would the public still love and accept Marc if he abandoned the Queen stuff and wrote his own music? We can answer that question later on in this blog, but for now, why don’t we quickly dive into Thunderbolt and Lightning– Marc’s first foray into an official Queen cover EP?
Thunderbolt And Lightning is a compilation of some of the songs that started Marc’s incredible and remarkable solo journey, and the songs from Queen that mean the most to him. Because Marc has never recorded any Queen songs in the studio for an album/EP before. And for those of us, like myself, who were intrigued every time Marc toured with his Queen band and sung songs for the masses; I reckon this EP is for us. Not for the Queen die-hard fans or the guys who prefer Adam’s vocal chops over Marc’s. But for those of us who are interested to hear how Marc delivers these songs every night on tour and for us to marvel at what goes through his head as he delivers some of the most iconic rock songs ever to grace our radio airwaves and our music stores. In fact, Queen’s music (of which I’m not that much of a fan, but I know enough to appreciate everything they do!) has had, and continues to have so much of an impact on today’s society, that a biopic movie released in 2018 called Bohemian Rhapsody, with Rami Malek playing Freddie Mercury, and the singing voice of Freddie being a combination of Rami, Marc Martel and Freddie himself. So if the world before has no idea of who Marc Martel is, then they obviously will now!
As for the songs on Thunderbolt And Lightning, there are 7 in total (as well as a reprise of one of the songs, bringing the track list to 8!), and there are thousands of reviews online for these iconic Queen songs, and maybe a few online right now for Thunderbolt And Lightning (my personal favourite review is from Jesus Freak Hideout!)– and because these reviewers are so much well versed in Queen material than I am, I’m just going to keep this ‘analysis’ brief. After all, everyone probably knows these covers, even if they do not know they are Queen covers. “We Are The Champions”, the catchiest pop song ever according to scientists, and made popular in media through the Mighty Ducks films with Emilio Estevez. Hopefully Marc’s version or even Adam’s version will be present in the new Mighty Ducks TV series to be released on Disney + later on in the year. While “Under Pressure” is a duet with Kevin Max, in which the original is featured in a ton of movies in the background (just listen to the first few bars and you’ll know what I mean!)- and the original featured David Bowie on guest vocals. And everyone knows about “Bohemian Rhaspsody”, the most famous Queen song ever, and a song that lyrically doesn’t really make a lot of sense, but a song that is catchy nonetheless and a song that doesn’t need to make sense to us listeners because…it’s Queen! “Don’t Stop Me Now” is also covered by Marc as well as “Somebody To Love”, an actual studio recording of the song that propelled Marc to mainstream stardom. And a couple of lesser known Queen songs in “Love Of My Life” and “You Take My Breath Away”, ones which I’m not that familiar with but songs I’m sure Marc nails vocally to perfection. Though “We Will Rock You” is absent from a track list that is overall the best of the best from Queen (as far as stand out singles go!), Marc has created a masterpiece. That’s all I can say about this stellar work of art because it truly is magical; and needs to be heard to be believed.
But for those of us who reckon Marc is now a one trick pony can rest at ease. Both My Way Vol 1 EP in 2018 and Impersonator from 2014 have attempted to reconcile the fact that Marc sounds like Freddie Mercury but can also sing other stuff too! “Take On Me”, originally by Swedish pop band a-ha, was covered by Marc on My Way Vol. 1, as we are met with plenty of saxophone and a jazz undertone, as Marc seamlessly makes this 1984 iconic and timeless classic his own. “Don’t Stop Me Now”, originally by Queen is also present on Marc’s 6 song cover EP, and this is the song where Marc shines the most vocally, due to his vocal similarity with Freddie, and the song where it sounds like he’s having a blast, and a ton of fun. Hand claps, brass instruments and guitars are abound, and then the tempo is brought down a bit in the piano led ballad “Unchained Melody”, made famous by The Righteous Brothers, where Marc effortlessly displays a fair chunk of his vocal range, which pass off immensely in the stirring, epic crescendo that is the final chorus. In essence a love song from one person to their significant other, Marc transports us into a magical place, where we feel inspired and brave to step out in faith and do the things that scare us. “My Way” by Frank Sinatra is another personal highlight, as Marc ardently declares that everything he does is his decisions, and that no one can tell him how to do things, as he has done it his way. “Take It With Me”, from Tom Waits is probably one of Marc’s weaker covers, yet it is the bouncy and cheerful Beach Boys melody “God Only Knows” that is covered quite possibly the best by Marc, as the EP ender could’ve possibly ended in disaster, given the timelessness of the melody and the popularity of the band. But thankfully Marc does the song justice as we hear one of the best renditions of the track ever, in my honest opinion! And as for the hits on Marc’s solo debut album, well I haven’t heard that much of the songs, but the tracks that I have heard (inclusive of “Dead Ringer”, “Stalemate”, “Say The Word”, “Ringo Starr” and the title track), show us a different side of Marc- the alternative rock side that’s way, way different to the arena rock Queen side. All sides are Marc Martel, and each side reminds us that God has blessed this talented musician, and no doubt he will inspire and bring God’s love to the world in ways that we all could never imagine and never comprehend. Personally I reckon Marc could’ve fit the band Queen permanently, but ultimately it’s better like this- with Marc having more freedom to do what he wants and show the world more and more sides to the person God intends for him to be.
Where Marc has shined the most, not just vocally but also in line with his personal beliefs, is in his Christmas albums. Sure the Queen stuff is great and nostalgic, but when it all boils down to it, Marc is a devoted Christian, with his mission being first and foremost to make Jesus’ name famous in whatever sphere of influence he is in. Originally I thought that because Marc is now recording music in the mainstream, that he wasn’t a Christian anymore (yep that was my shallow thinking back then!), and thus I was apprehensive yet still quietly eager to check out Marc’s music, But there’s good news though- Marc is still a Christian, and is now instead making music for believers as well as non-believers alike, as evidenced by his thoughtful interview with Andrew Greer. With Marc having released 3 Christmas EP’s culminating in a release called The Christmas Collection last year, one could roll their eyes at the discovery of Marc being so devout a believer that he had to release 21 Christmas songs- isn’t that overkill you might ask? Well actually I for one though love Christmas music, and would listen to holiday tunes all year long if I could. Yet in all seriousness, even in Marc’s Christmas songs we hear a wide variety of musical genres.
In many ways, my favorite thing about Christmas is the subtlety. There are many aspects of Christmas in this song. I love Christmas because it is a time of year where you can make it as meaningful as you want, and I’m grateful we still live in a culture that allows for that. At its heart, we are celebrating the beginning of life. We are celebrating the birth of a Child, and that God made Himself a Man and could truly experience humanity so viscerally. He went through all of the range of emotions we go through, as a perfect Person, and this song boils it down to a simple way of understanding part of that story.
Having spent some time outside of CCM the past few years I’m sensitive and I make sure I’m not just preaching to the choir, but also making this life giving message completely accessible to anyone who hears it. God stepped in and did exactly the opposite of what people expected. In our fallen natures we think of justice and vengeance, and Jesus came as a baby and showed us tenderness and forgiveness.
With Marc showing us timeless classics and reimagined obscure Christmas tunes, I reckon for this upcoming Christmas season or for any Christmas season, immersing yourself in Marc’s holiday music is a must. There’s the grandiose big booming epic anthemic Christmas tunes (“Mary Did You Know”, “Ave Maria”, “Hallelujah Chorus”, and “The Christmas Song”), as well as poppy and traditional adult contemporary tunes (“It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas” with Plumb, “O Come All Ye Faithful” with Jason Gray, and the Mariah Carey cover “All I Want For Christmas”), not to mention the piano focused material (“Christmastime Is Here”, “Little Town Of Bethlehem”, “Have A Merry Little Christmas”), and the anthemic and more for KING & COUNTRY-like “Little Drummer Boy”. But who could also forget “How Many Kings”? But in each of these holiday melodies, Marc is definitely having a blast, and definitely giving God the glory- Marc excels deeply even though genre-wise they’re all quite different, and it’s also evident that these songs are enjoyable, even if Marc doesn’t really reinvent the wheel of Christmas music. Even though I reckon that after you listen to Marc’s music you may think that his voice is too big to be ever associated with pop music or acoustic music; I tend to disagree- as I believe that if Marc does sing pop music, or any genre other than ‘his own genre’, it won’t lessen the impact of his voice, but would rather make the whole genre of pop, or whatever genre he’s singing in, better overall. Am I making sense? I hope so!
I’ve also said time and time again that belief in the stories behind the song and the calling behind the song is paramount in terms of whether an artist is genuine, and whether an artist is as influential as the public makes them out to be. And as we can see how hard Marc has worked, as part of Downhere and also as part of his solo career and in the Queen tribute band- he certainly deserves all the praise and all the accolades! It’s not an easy feat trying to step into the shoes of one of the greatest vocalists of human history, but Marc does this to aplomb and great skill. With Marc Martel becoming his own person musically after splitting from Downhere and recording his new solo material, both the cover EP’s My Way Vol 1 EP and Thunderbolt and Lightning as well as Marc’s original solo album Impersonator is a fitting and well-timed reminder of how brilliant Marc is as a singer and entertainer. We may not know the future and what’s to come from Marc, but the future is looking up for him. Perhaps a reunion with Downhere could be possible. Maybe more Queen stuff? But whatever it is, God’s got it all under control. Marc is just following where God leads!
Reimagining well-loved songs always comes with an appropriate sense of risk, danger, and terrifying moments of self-doubt. When it comes to artists like Queen, though, who are veritable giants of recording history, that feeling is magnified. Throughout their career, they apparently set out to avoid all shortcuts; were never happy to merely repeat sections of songs (as is quite customary in all genres of popular music), and everything was through-composed. They habitually pushed the boundaries of available technology beyond what even its inventors envisioned.
Near the end of Freddie’s life, he explored other styles of music beyond rock, including opera, so with that in mind, the show also includes a segment of familiar songs in the flavor of what they might have sounded like had Freddie ever gotten the chance to sing them. For instance, I perform ‘Ave Maria’ by myself on piano and also the great opera aria ‘Nessun Dorma’ in the style of Freddie, so it gives the night some imaginative elements in the spirit of Queen, rather than strictly the letter of Queen. You could call it a greatest hits show with a twist where I get to explore other things that I wish Freddie could have recorded himself and wonder what could have been.
Living in the States, I’m finding that Americans in particular are kind of discovering Queen still, even though they’re the second biggest thing to The Beatles in the rest of the world. As a result, America isn’t satiated with Queen cover bands like they are in the UK and Europe, so gigs keep falling into my lap. I try to walk a line between being my own artist and indulging in this Queen thing, but it’s so much fun and people have been knocking down my door that it’s hard to say ‘no’ and it’s a standing ovation every night. It’s really just me answering the call of a huge desire for Queen’s music to be performed with Freddie’s sound.
I grew up believing a lie that I had to have one sound as a singer, but after I put that false belief aside, I realized I can have as many sides as I want. I’m having the best time of my life as a professional musician right now where I’m involved with so many different things it’s impossible to get bored. Between anything Queen-related, my own recordings and these fun little side projects, I’m more diverse and happier as an artist than I’ve ever been!
Does Marc Martel make the list for you all when you write your own ‘Influential Artists of the next 5-10 years’ list? Is there any song (other than “Stalemate”, “Dead Ringer”, “Impersonator”, and the covers of “Somebody To Love”, and “Under Pressure”) that has impacted you on your journey through life thus far, or even your walk with God? Let us know in the comments. Till next time!