As befits someone who commuted between Los Angeles and Nashville while searching for a record deal, Marcel likes to write about life on the road. That focus is obvious in both the title and contents of his new album, You, Me and the Windshield, which arrived in stores Tuesday (May 13) on Mercury Records. (To simplify matters, the singer has dispensed with his hard-to-pronounce last name, Chagnon.)
Marcel’s metaphoric road is still a bit bumpy. His first single, “Country Rock Star,” which was released last year, barely made it into the Top 50 on the Billboard chart. More worrisome still is the fact that his second single, “Tennessee,” has yet to reach the charts, even though it has been at radio stations since late February and is supported by a picturesque video.
On the smooth side, though, he’s dating the delectable Jessica Andrews and is co-writer of her new hit, “There’s More to Me Than You.” Indeed, he has two songs on her current album, Now, and co-wrote all 13 on his.
“It’s kind of a weird situation right now,” he says, speaking by phone from an office at Mercury. “We’re just kind of like hanging out and trying to get a buzz going. I’m going to do the radio stations I haven’t [visited] yet. I plan to go and play for them — the typical radio tour.”
A native of Detroit, Marcel says his family moved to the city’s ritzier Grosse Pointe Farms section when he was “7 or 8” to take advantage of its superior school system. He attended grade and high school there and won a hockey scholarship to the University of Illinois in Chicago. “My dad’s family always had [musical] instruments,” he says. “Someone was playing flute, someone was playing guitar, my dad was on the drums. The [Fender] guitar I have was one that my mother bought for my dad for Christmas in the ‘70s. My dad let me take it when I was going to Anchorage, Alaska, to play semipro hockey. It was a sentimental thing.”
Twenty credits shy of a business degree, Marcel left college to play semiprofessional hockey. After that exhausting regimen took its toll, he headed for Los Angeles with dreams of a career in music. In his four and a half years there, he did the usual odd jobs –waiting tables, gardening — to stay afloat, as well as some singing and acting in commercials.
Marcel had been drawn to country music since hearing Garth Brooks ’ “Friends in Low Places” when he was 15. But it was seeing The Thing Called Love, a movie that chronicled the songwriting life in Nashville, that persuaded him to give Music City a try. He signed up for an “open mike” night at the storied Bluebird Café and was lucky enough to secure a slot in which to perform a few of his songs. Barbara Cloyd, who hosted the event, introduced him to various music publishers who, in turn, connected him with other songwriters. “It was kind of like an assembly line,” he says.
Gradually, he built up a network of acquaintances and associates in Nashville. One of them, his lawyer, sent a demo recording of his songs to Luke Lewis, head of Mercury Records. Among the songs on the demo were “Country Rock Star,” “Nothin’ to Lose” and “This Old Diesel,” all of which appear on the new album.
“[Luke] heard my songs, and he called me over,” Marcel explains. “The whole [Mercury] crew was there. I just went in and started singing. So Luke said, ‘Do you want a record deal or something?’ I was so nervous, I changed the subject. It was like, ‘Oh, man, you ought to hear this song!’ Nothing happened. That was about that end of that conversation. So I’m sitting there, kicking myself, saying ‘What was I thinking? You wanted a record deal, and you changed the subject.’ But two weeks later, Luke called me back and said, ‘Let’s do this. Do you have anyone you want to produce you?’ And I said, ‘Actually, Byron Gallimore and I have been talking, and I totally want to go with Byron. He’s my dream producer.’”
Gallimore, who had made a name and a fortune for himself producing such heavyweights as Tim McGraw , Faith Hill and Jo Dee Messina , learned about Marcel through songs he had pitched to Gallimore’s production office. “On Jan. 2 of 2001,” Marcel recalls with loving exactitude, “I met Byron and [his wife] Missi for breakfast at the Waffle House.” At the meeting, Gallimore offered to produce him should he get a record contract. About a week later, the deal with Mercury came through. Soon after, the Gallimores introduced Marcel to Jessica Andrews, another of Gallimore’s production clients and already famous via her hit “Who I Am.” (Andrews duets with him on the new album in “I Won’t Hold You Down.”)
The mono-monikered singer says he and Gallimore had carte blanche in making his album. “Luke’s the greatest. He’s such a believer in music and songwriting. He totally understood what I was doing. He gave me so much leeway. People couldn’t believe he was kind of like letting me run the show.”
Despite the slow start for “Tennessee,” Marcel says the label remains determined to get it played on radio. Consequently, they haven’t yet decided on a follow-up single. “There are three of four [possibilities] sloshing around right now,” says Marcel. “But we’re still on ‘Tennessee’ and still hoping to jump over this little lump we’re in and get some record sales.”
During Fan Fair, Marcel will return to the Bluebird to do a show with Andrews, fellow songwriter James Slater and singer Bekka Bramlett. He’s also tapped to perform at the party that follows the Academy of Country Music awards special on May 21.
In spite of its strains and disappointments, Marcel says he’s completely enamored with the musical life. “I can’t get enough of it. It’s all I do. Think of songs. Sing songs. Write songs. Listen to other people’s music. I don’t want to do anything but music. I know that this is my thing forever. I want to be doing this 30 or 40 years from now.”