Miko Marks’ path to music is filled with guardian angels who saw a light in her — at times before she saw it in herself. But once she stepped into that light, Marks set forth on a storied musical career comprised of two studio albums and a collection of Independent Music Awards. In spite of the hardships, still she persisted, Marks releasing her exquisite third studio album, Our Country, in 2020, her first since 2007’s It Feels Good. The album provides both healing and growth for the Oakland, California-based country singer as she uses her powerful voice to elevate worldly topics ranging from Black Lives Matter to the water crisis in her hometown of Flint, Michigan.
In this edition of Female Friday, Marks opens up about the impact of the Loretta Lynn’s biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter, her defining experiences in Nashville and how she stands in her truth through Our Country.
What drew you to music and when did you know that you wanted to make music your career?
My mama drew me to music at a very early age, like three years old. I was singing for family, singing in the church. I didn’t quite get it at that time, but she was always like ‘Miko, come and sing a song for us.’ Little did I know that she saw something in me, she thought I had a gift. My second grade teacher who didn’t know me from any other student, she got me my first piano lessons and really took time out of teaching to help me grow musically. I had a lot of little angels along the way, as far as music. I have a vivid memory of watching Coal Miner’s Daughter when I was really young, and that story in and of itself resonated with me because [Loretta Lynn] came from such a low economic status and impoverished and grew into this phenomenal legend. I was inspired by that story. I was inspired by the music and her writing from her experience in life. I was like ‘that’s what writing is about. You just tell your stories, and what better way to tell a story than through country music?’
I go from genre to genre, but I have an affinity with country music because of the stories, because of the musical background of the music. It’s something that I’ve loved all my life, as far as being exposed to music. I was in gospel, classical, R&B, but mainly rooted in gospel and blues, and there’s a fine line between those genres as far as the foundation of country music. I had my first flight to sing at Carnegie Hall when I was 15 because my little magical choir from high school got chose to do this thing, and so my first flight was on a musical journey. There were all these things that pointed me in the direction of music, even when I didn’t really want to believe it.
Tell me about your childhood growing up in Flint, Michigan and later attending Grambling State University in Louisiana for college?
I spent a lot of time in choir and on the road, singing at church conventions, things of that nature, and a lot of time at my grandma’s watching Hee Haw, listening to music, listening to Kenny Rogers, Patsy [Cline], all the things that my grandma had in Mississippi before we migrated north to Michigan for the automotive industry jobs. We brought all the music with us, so I was not lacking in that area as far as country music is concerned because my grandma was a huge fan. She listened to the Grand Ole Opry. All the R&B greats who came out of Michigan and Detroit, I miss all of that. I was really blessed with a well-rounded musical sphere.
[Grambling] had a great music program I was able to get involved with. I got a chance to sing down there and start my own musical group, and that was really great. Erykah Badu happened to go to the school at the same time I did. We were singing in the hallways and she came around the corner singing with us. We did not know her. She came around the corner singing the song we were singing and we were like, ‘you want to be in our group?’ [laughs] And she was like ‘Yes.’
I was dabbling in country music on the side in the shadows for myself. I wrote my first song “Climb My Way Home” while I was at Grambling. I was exposed to much more country radio when I was in Louisiana, so I got a chance to really dive in and leave my station where it was. It was such a slower pace of living and quiet. I was able to really nurture my love of country music.
Did you ever have an epiphany or a moment of ‘I believe now. I see what everyone else saw in me?’
There was that moment. I was a late bloomer. I graduated college, moved to California, started a family and music wasn’t on the radar, even though I enjoyed singing. Then my husband was like ‘you need to quit your job and you need to sing full-time. I support this, so let’s do it.’ We made a demo at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, which is a legendary studio. My husband was my biggest fan, he’s playing my music for everybody who will listen. Ron Cornelius, a producer out in Nashville, heard me and flew me down and we cut some records.
What was your experience like as a young, independent artist trying to break through in country music and work through the Nashville industry, especially making your debut album, Freeway Bound?
I was wide-eyed, bushy-tailed, ready to go. I was young. I was hopeful. I felt really strong about my gift and I was like, ‘this is going to work out for me.’ I thought ‘if you can sing and you can do it well and you can hit all the buttons, you’re going to be great.’ But little did I know that there were things that I didn’t necessarily pay attention to at the time. I didn’t know that me being a person of color would affect my chances at having success in Nashville. I had no clue. One that was really hard for me to swallow was I would perform at the [CMA] Fest every year from 2005 to 2008. Then they changed the criteria to where you had to be this charting artist, you had to sell so many records, and so it threw me out of being a participant in the Fest. I grew an audience while I was there every year, the room would be packed, so it just sucked the wind out of me, the fact that I could no longer participate because of these new rules. That was definitely a blow. Secondly, I met with some really big labels, two of the top labels in Nashville, and I was told that my music was really awesome, it was great, you sound wonderful, but we don’t know how to sell you. And I’m like, ‘what do you mean sell me? The music will sell itself,’ in my mind. But I learned that was basically a quiet way of saying that because I was a person of color, I would have a hard time.
Our Country is your first studio album in 14 years. What was your headspace going into it?
It wasn’t even supposed to be an album, that’s what’s a trip about it. I did “Goodnight America,” it was written by Justin Phipps who’s the head of my label, Redtone Records. I reached out to him out of the blue in 2019 and I was like ‘we need to do some music,’ and I just meant let’s go somewhere and play a show. And he was like, ‘I have this song, ‘Goodnight, America,’ I want to send it to you because I think you’d be great.’ He sent me that song and I was floored. I have never done a song like that. I’ve never been political in my music. With the rise of what was going on with Black Lives Matter, with our voting, with the unclean water in my city, I was like ‘I have to do this song.’ So we did the song and that was supposed to be it, and then he was like ‘want to do another one?’ and then halfway through the pandemic in 2020, we were like, ‘I think we should do a full length project.’ It happened that way, which I’m really happy about, because I don’t know if I would have gotten there lined up like we’re doing this. It was very organic, and I think that’s why it’s the way it is. It’s a special project.
What was the writing and recording process for this album, especially with these songs that are touching on really important issues going on in the world today. What it was like to process all of that through song?
I started “We Are Here” about Flint in 2018. Because I had been away from my hometown for a long time, I was detached from finishing the song. Fast forward to 2020, I was not so far removed from a lot of all the horrible things that were happening in our country, so it gave me a chance to look back at “We Are Here” and really re-address it from the standpoint of my family. My entire family is still in Flint, so I was able to connect with them, get their perspective, get them to give me some footage for the video and really tell their story through song. That happened really organic because I hadn’t expected to do the song. Then I would go down to the studio…where we could all get together, which was [Redtone Records co-founder Steve Wyreman], myself and Justin. We sit down with pen paper, write, or hum and something would come in and be like ‘I like that lyric.’ It would be a beautiful experience, and I so craved it. I craved music all last year. I needed it. From being in this pandemic, being isolated, it was a way to get out all the pent up stress and anxiety. It was a way to self-medicate. Music is medication, I believe that wholeheartedly. I became stronger and a bit more rooted and grounded in my own purpose and more vocal about the things that I see going on around me and being less concerned with what people think, but more concerned with what people may feel.
Is there a song on this album that you feel was the most moving to either write or record?
I have to say “Mercy” because at the time that we wrote “Mercy,” Sandra Bland had died, Ahmaud Arbery had died. These senseless deaths were happening, and kids, even in inner city Oakland, [were] suffering and I just wanted to do a prayer for us all. That song really sticks out as one of my personal favorites because it’s asking for healing for us all. No matter what color, what you look like, we all need to heal in some way, shape or form.
How do you feel like you healed and grew through making this album?
When I finished my second album in Nashville in 2008 and nothing happened, I left broken. I left sad and disheartened with the whole experience, so I had pretty much given up on recording another album. I still performed because I still have a little following that wants to see me, so I did that for many years. I grew as far as my subject matter. I’m an older woman now, I’m 48, and I’m singing about different things than I sang about 13 years ago. I raised a son, he’s 24, and life happened to where I was able to put Our Country out in a really authentic way because it’s my truth as it stands today.
What impact do you hope that this album has? What impact do you hope to have as a person and an artist?
I hope this album resonates with the spirit and soul of the listener in some way. I hope you are touched. I hope you are moved into action on some level. I hope that the messages in the music really resonate. “Ancestors,” let’s take that one for instance, I hope it has you do a little bit more meditation, a little more prayer, a little more soul-searching on what you can contribute to this world.
I try not to think about [how to have an impact as a person and artist] because then I’m trying to guide where I’m supposed to go, whereas I want to be led. I want young girls and boys, people of color, to see me and say, ‘I can do that too.’ I want people to walk away like, ‘don’t give up. It might take you 20 years, it might take you 30, don’t give up on the dream.’ If I was gone today, I would be so happy because I would be like, ‘you evolved as an artist and you left here on a good note.’ That’s my main goal is to leave something at the table for someone else to eat.