By now, you’ve probably seen the new, black-and-white Apple ad for its iPhone + AirPods that does as much for its product as it does the music behind it (if you haven't, check it out above).
“Play Marian Hill,” is the first (and only) phrase uttered in the bright, prancing commercial, followed by a subtle robotic beat, a twitchy piano, a whistling electronic ambience, and the softly skittering voice of Samantha Gongol – from the Main Line duo’s 2016 tune “Down,” off their debut album, Act One.
It’s no surprise that with such a showcase, “Down,” long outside the Top 200, jumped onto iTunes’ single sales chart at No. 12 after the commercial’s Jan. 14 debut. It rose to No. 8 this week, with Act One at No. 7 on the album chart. Also this week, Marian Hill released “Back to Me,” a high-profile duet with Fifth Harmony’s Lauren Jauregui.
Pretty good for Gongol and Jeremy Lloyd, childhood friends who met at Haverford High School and who named their jazzily electronic songwriting-singing-production duo after two characters from The Music Man (Marian Paroo and Harold Hill).
“That’s the theater geek in us,” says Lloyd, who, after high school, studied music theatre at Yale University; Gongol split for Manhattan and music business courses at New York University. Marian Hill’s occasional third member is experimental saxophonist Steve Davit (a Drexel University music industry major), whose smoky, supple subtone gives Marian Hill’s bluesy, jazzy vibe greater heft. “He’s our secret weapon,” Gongol says of Davit.
Like any lifelong pals, Gongol and Lloyd — both 26 — each anticipate what the other will say, finish each other’s sentences, and talk quickly over each other while doing so. “We had classes together in middle and high school,” says Gongol. “There was Seventh Heaven choir, rehearsal mornings at 7 a.m.,” says Lloyd.
Even as Main Line kids, they wrote songs, but not together. Gongol was more the waifish singer-songwriter type (“I wasn’t very good,” she says, laughing), and Lloyd balanced writing his own show tunes and acting with creating a studio production aesthetic (“in a very amateur way, slowly getting better,” he says).
Gongol was a fixture on Ardmore’s open-mic scene, North Star Bar, and World Cafe Live, with Lloyd joining her for open mics at the latter. When they got together as Marian Hill, it was his home-studio vision and their merging of styles – with a shared love of jazz and blues – that turned the twosome inward to a sound that, though it has references, is without easy categorization.
“That’s the highest praise, as that is what we were going for,” Lloyd says of songs like their first co-written/recorded one, the blues-hoppy “Whiskey,” in March 2013. “I think being in theater heightens the drama of the song, with its lyrics always going under intense scrutiny,” says Lloyd. “They have to be about something. And Sam’s voice has to be clear and upfront.”
With “Whiskey” recorded, Marian Hill began uploading it onto music blogs and SoundCloud, with EPs such as Play, co-starring Davit and his sax, following in 2013.
Gongol says of Davit, “He’s amazing, especially as we’re about the organic and the improvisational as well as cutting things up in the studio."
"Whiskey” got the band internet attention, management, PR representation, and, finally, after the release of another EP, Sway, the Universal label, which released Act One. “Our fans ate it up, but it didn’t expand our base,” Lloyd says pragmatically.
By the end of 2016, the pair seemed uncertain what would come next for Marian Hill. “We had buzz, but no plans,” says Gongol. They played festivals such as Bonnaroo, received good reviews from the New York Times, and appeared on The Late Late Show with James Corden, but Act One stalled on the charts. Enter Apple and iPhone + AirPods.
Gongol, Lloyd, management, and label cannot discuss the minutiae of the Apple deal or how the multimedia giant came to them and their music.
“What we can say is that we couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity; not only the exposure during high-profile television events like football games, but the fact that the look of the commercial is so in tune with our aesthetic," Lloyd says of the ad.
“It’s so rewarding to see something done so well connected to who we are as musicians,” adds Gongol. “Everything else -- the iTunes sales, and all other opportunities coming our way -- is gravy.”
Lloyd and Gongol note that their lives haven’t changed radically yet due to Apple, but they feel as though a tidal wave is approaching with deals and tour showcases in the offing for spring. Having a new single, “Back to Me,” on the charts in tandem with Jauregui certainly helps the momentum.
“Between the ad and this single, we no longer feel as if we're pushing a boulder up a hill by ourselves,” says Gongol.
“There’s a lot of help with that boulder,” adds Lloyd.