RR LogoMichaela Foster Marsh: The Matoke Tree, Starchild & Robbie Burns

Michaela Foster MarshHave you ever had the feeling that you have been somewhere before or met someone before or had a certain experience previously? Some people refer to it as déjà vu. Scottish (by birth), Canadian (her citizenship) singer, songwriter and author, Michaela Foster Marsh, who now lives in Glasgow told us about feeling just that way when she was writing her yet to be published book The Matoke Tree. Although Ms. Foster Marsh’s novel is fictional, it was inspired by the death of her brother Frankie, whom her parents had adopted when he was thirteen months old, the same age as Michaela Foster Marsh Frankie’s parents were Ugandan students studying in the U.K. and other than that, not much was known about the background for Frankie’s family.

Michaela Foster Marsh says of her book, “It covers a lot of ground, race, religion, ethnic cleansing, love and betrayal. I did lots of research. I had almost finished the book before I went to Uganda. I was glad that I did it that way around and I almost didn’t want to go in case it burst my bubble if I had got things wrong, but in actual fact when I got there I realized it was unbelievable. It was dreamlike. The things that I had written about and the people that I had invented in my book fictionally actually existed.  In my book Dembe is a fictional character. I knew nothing about Frankie’s mom, except that she had come here to study as a teacher. I didn’t even know what part of Uganda the family was from, but in my book I placed her as a teacher at Gayaza high school. It turned out that she went to that school and that is where she studied as a youngster. She was one of the best students in Gayaza. When I got there that was my link to find the family, because her picture was there. It is a whole story in itself. The true story is worth writing. Uganda from the moment that I (went there), it was as if someone had planned that trip for me my entire life. It was as if somebody was holding my hand. Doors opened for me. I got to speak to politicians and I got to speak to people that you couldn’t reach. Ugandans asked how I was able to reach these people, doctors and lawyers. I don’t know what it was, but it was like somebody had definitely planned it. There were delays and setbacks going to Uganda. There were disappointing circumstances and I was supposed to go there before and it fell through at the last minute and I was devastated. When I actually went nothing could have been more perfect. It blows my mind still with what I achieved in three weeks. We worked very hard and got up very early and got to bed very late. I covered a vast amount of land and interviews and (time) at the orphanage. It was just incredible and it started at my living room table from a letter that I read about Frankie (when he was) wondering about his mother. I thought about who she must have been and how hard it must have been for her to give up her child. I thought about what her life must have been like and I just invented her (Dembe).”

“When Frankie died (in a house fire when he was twenty-seven) we got hundreds of cards from people and there was one card in particular from a teacher who taught us in primary school and she said she remembered that Frankie and I always told people that we were twins.  We were pushed in a twin pram and that is kind of how it was. I never really thought about it. We bathed together and we never thought you are black and I’m white. Maybe it is strange for some people that we thought like that, but for us from the time we could talk we were together and as adults we were very close,” she says.

Ms. Foster Marsh eventually moved to Canada and became a Canadian citizen. She returned to Scotland to visit her family and it was shortly after returning to Canada that she learned of Frankie’s death.

Frankie’s death was the catalyst for me starting music. I had been writing songs from the age of fourteen and I had always just kept it very much to myself. When something bothered me I would write about it, so I wrote a song for Frankie. I tried to do a home recording of it for the family. It has never appeared on any album, because it is just too personal. I wanted to give them something that was really nice. I booked three hours in a recording studio in Canada to record this song. Not having any idea how long it would take I booked three hours, because they had these packages. I sat down and I sang the song and the guy said that’s it, it is recorded. I said I booked three hours what are you going to do? He said, do you have any other songs? I said yes and he said do you want to record them, because I have you down here for three hours. It was just the sound engineer and I. I played through about six songs and we chatted. We recorded them one after the other. A week later the owner of the studio phoned me and he said we have been playing your demo in here and we can’t understand why you are not in the business. This was in 1994. That was just months after Frankie died. I went to see them and they said, we think you have a very unusual voice and we think you should be taking this seriously. Can we help? Then another studio who had worked with Alanis Morissette in her teen days heard about me and they got in touch with me. One thing lead to another and I sent demos to EMI, to Sony Music and Warner Music Canada. Warner was the first to get in touch with me. They said they really liked it, but that it was very rough. It was just a rough piano and vocal tape. They had no idea what I wanted to sound like or what production values I wanted, so could I go away and make a demo with a band or something. I found some local musicians and I got (someone) to produce the very first version of “Naked In The Water,” (from the 1998 album Fairy Tales and The Death of Innocence),” she says.

The song “Naked In The Water,” won some regional song contests and then Michaela Foster Marsh was invited to compete in a National songwriting competition in Toronto. Numerous people from the recording industry were present, including Bonnie Fedreau who worked in A&R for Warner Music, prior to moving to EMI.

“We thought we were going to get a record deal and the head of EMI came out to hear me play and sing and said to me, you are the next Kate Bush. The champagne got opened and there was going to be a record deal on the table. Of course the record deal didn’t happen, but the album did quite well independently. The album (Fairy Tales and Death of Innocence) also got some tracks on Dawson’s Creek. I gave up my job to move to Toronto. The album took a long time, it wasn’t a quick album and then my dad died in the middle of that. It was just delay, delay, delay with that album. It was one thing after another. EMI was still interested in that (project). The buzz in the industry was that it was all going to happen and it would be great. Then for whatever reason EMI felt it wasn’t a commercial enough of an album. They said they didn’t think it was going to fly,” says Ms. Foster Marsh.

She decided to release the album independently and arranged for distribution, but the distributor “went bust.”

In 2006 Michaela Foster Marsh released an album with a rather provocative name, I Undid Orion’s Belt and she laughs when she is asked about the title of the album.

“It is a fun title. Obviously Orion is a constellation represented as the figure of a man with a sword at his side and three stars on his belt. In Greek mythology Orion is a big hunter and a handsome giant, a sexual giant who hunts all of these virgin goddesses. He is a big narcissistic womanizer. In Egyptian mythology you have to go through the constellation of Orion to get to the eternal kingdom. The stars of Orion match up with the pyramids. Mythology is a metaphoric language and I am fascinated by it and how it opens up human truths and the subconscious. I don’t think that we really understand our motives. Sometimes, it takes a relationship to wake us up and to awaken things within ourselves. The unfortunate thing for Orion is he gets killed by this virgin goddess. Undoing somebody’s belt has a sexual connotation, but in mythology there is often a lot of destruction and it is all about teaching. In order to get through to a spiritual realm, we often have to transcend into that world. By having an illicit relationship with another you are often taken into that spiritual realm.

You can see yourself in these (mythological) people, the archetypes. If you look at some of the gods and goddesses and then you look at people, you can start to unlock a bit of your own psyche. People three thousand miles away were writing stories that were very similar. The human psyche is very connected. Why do we all love fairy tales? Fairy tales have been distorted and you understand that fairy tales are not nice little…some of them are very hard going. If you break them down, we are really getting into some heavy duty psychology of how people tick. We all have a shadow part of ourselves and of our psyche that we can’t express. The good part doesn’t always want to connect with the other part. That is why I like to write about it and why I like reading it.”

The exploration of human psyche and sexuality is explored in the song “I Must Confess,” and both the lustful phrasing by Ms. Foster Marsh and the lush arrangement by Russian orchestrator Kirill Shirokov create an intense and provocative mood.

“When I was doing the Orion album I really wanted that big orchestral powerhouse, because of the theme of gods and goddesses,” she says.

In 2009, Michaela Foster Marsh teamed up again with Kirill Shirokov, this time they also co-wrote the songs for her album Seriously Red. They were joined by Rolf Soja who wrote the seventies song “Yes Sir I Can Boogie,” with Frank Dostal, as he collaborated with Ms. Foster Marsh for two of the songs that appear on the album.  

Her song “Passing Chance,” about seizing the opportunity for love when it comes knocking on your door is breathtakingly beautiful and Shirokov’s arrangement is powerful and stirs the emotions of the listener.

“Again the exact same thing happened to us in Germany, we had a record deal pending and it fell through at the last minute. They pulled the plug and they signed some seventeen years old. We had the Seriously Red album and we didn’t have the record deal,” she says, also noting that Seriously Red was released independently too.

She plans on writing another book. “I don’t know if it is ready to be written. I am taking notes. I started to write a follow-up to The Matoke Tree, but I wanted to write the true story. The true story is not quite ready to be told yet, because I am still (uncovering) information and getting to know Frankie’s family. Frankie was adopted, my father was adopted and my ex-husband was adopted,” she says, segueing into another topic she has strong feelings about.

“There is a lot of multicultural adoption going on and some of it I don’t like at all. I just fear for what the children are going to be like in twenty years. Now it is like these children are accessories and I witnessed it (in Uganda). It is sickening. One time I had to leave, because I was so furious at what was happening. For thirty thousand dollars U.S. (you can adopt a child) and if you are prepared to barter and you know how to work the system you can probably get a child for fifteen thousand U.S. dollars. The lawyer is making money, the judge is making money and the home (orphanage) is making money. I don’t want to generalize here, but it was mainly Americans that I met (who were paying to adopt), but I am not saying that it is just Americans. They are coming in from the Bible Belt, praising the Lord and saying the Lord has told me to do this and they are walking away with a child, like he or she is a frickin’ handbag.  I am not saying that some of these people are not going to be good parents and that they aren’t doing it with the best intentions, but often they don’t know what they are getting into,” she says.  

These days, Michaela Foster Marsh devotes much of her time to the charity that she founded Starchild, in memory of her brother Frankie Marsh. Starchild raises money to provide financial assistance to homes for orphans in Uganda.

In 2012 Michaela Foster Marsh went Celtic, for one song and adaptation of Robbie Burns’ poem “Ye Banks and Braes,” a song that was first taught to her by her father when she was growing up. She recorded the song in a Canadian studio with a friend who is a bagpipe player. She has been encouraged to record more Celtic music and for good reason.

During the past year Ms. Foster Marsh’s song “Great Gods,” from her I Undid Orion’s Belt album, was featured on the television program Breaking Amish.

Please visit Michaela Foster Marsh’s website where you can listen to some of her music.          Return to Our Front Page

Interviewed by Joe Montague

Photos courtesy of Michaela Foster Marsh protected by copyright © All Rights Reserved

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