Spotlight artist of the month April selection - Kerry “2Smooth” Marshall

This month we’re featuring Kerry “2Smooth” Marshall and his unique guitar style.

Welcome to our Spotlight Artist of the Month April selection. Here we place the focus on one musician that you should absolutely get to know. In this edition, we’re featuring a man that has toured the world performing, fought for his country, teaches passionately and has garnered a reputation for his unique and captivating sound on guitar. Ladies and gentlemen, we give you Kerry “2Smooth” Marshall.

Born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Marshall’s interest in music began as a child in church. Though drawn to the guitar, he didn’t pick one up until he moved to Birmingham in 1991. Eventually, he would get some friends together, save money and moved to L.A. in pursuit of his dreams.

Prior to moving out West, however, Marshall’s life took a very different turn. He would follow in his parent’s footsteps by joining the United States Army. Marshall was deployed to Iraq on multiple occasions, where he found himself in the thick of combat. Once his military tours were over – and with a degree in criminal justice under his belt – Marshall turned his full attention to creating and teaching music. He has since toured the world playing with artists like Jason Derulo and Ty Dolla $ign.

Modern Art, Marshall’s sophomore album, is due out later this year. However, fans have the first single, entitled “Puppy Love,” to tide them over for now. Additionally, Marshall will soon launch the web-based “Kerry’s Camp.” Through this site, guitarists of any level will soon be able to access both pre-packaged lessons and live one-on-ones with Marshall himself.

Amidst his busy schedule of touring, writing, recording and teaching, the artist sat down with to talk life, war, music and giving back. While we had him, Marshall also played us a little something.

Kerry "2Smooth" Marshall
Photo: Kerry "2Smooth" Marshall Did you hit the ground running with guitar right away or was it slow and steady?

Kerry Marshall: Oh, it was very slow and steady. Like, when I first started playing I was that guy that was awful. At our church, the main musician would play on Sunday. They would have me play on Wednesday and Thursday or Wednesday and Friday. And … [they] would be like ‘Man, just turn it down' [laughing]. But I stayed with it. I heard melodies in my head I couldn’t articulate when I first started playing. But I wanted to, so I kept with it.

TCC: When you were deployed did music take a back seat or did you keep it going?

KM: I kept it going. Like, honestly for me, I brought a guitar and that was my outlet. A lot of stuff that we dealt with – music was my serenity, like kind of my safe place, my haven that I would just use in order to really just get away from the things that I saw every day. To kind of erase the things that I saw. So I stayed playing. I even formed a couple different groups while I was out there. And I won a talent show while I was there. So music was definitely a central part of what I was doing.

TCC: At risk of asking an unimaginably broad question – what was your experience like over there as an artist and a person?

KM: I was in combat. We were the guys that were on the ground. That kicked in the doors. That did the patrol … I remember being on one patrol and losing eight guys in one day. So the stuff that I saw was extremely graphic. It was very – I don’t think any common person could handle that. Even some of my army buddies couldn’t handle it. So me having the guitar, being able to have the music, was really just like my safe place, my refuge, that I could really just lock in and erase the things that I had seen or dealt with that day.

TCC: Looking at your music before and then after those experiences, how do you think it’s changed?

KM: You can definitely hear a maturity in my playing. I try to tell a story when I’m playing. I try to make an emotional connection when I’m playing versus before I played just to play. Now there’s a sense of purpose of why I play, of how I play. So people can actually feel what I’m saying to them. Being deployed allowed me to make more of an emotional connection within myself versus just kind of randomly playing. I wanted to make people feel something. Because if I could play a melody – or I even had to play “Amazing Grace” a couple times for funerals. People just came up to me afterwards like ‘I felt what you were saying with your instrument.’ That kind of triggered something and I always want to have that same effect every time that I play.

TCC: We hear a lot about people coming back and trying to adjust to “normal” life back in the States. Do you think that music helped you make that transition back?

Kerry "2Smooth" Marshall
Photo: Kerry "2Smooth" Marshall

KM: Yeah, I still had some difficulties and I still wrestle with difficulties of dealing with PTSD. Music just kind of like – sometimes when I can’t communicate that I’m frustrated, I’ll just grab my guitar and I can play out that emotion and be able to cope with whatever is going on. So even being able to, like I said, share this gift with so many other people, it’s definitely very therapeutic. It helps me just to focus and to be able to kind of get out those emotions that I’m having without reacting in such a way that’s not acceptable in society. So yeah, I would say that music definitely is – it gives me security. It’s like a security blanket. I know at the end of the day that I can always play and I can always get out what I’m feeling. It’s really like a sense of who I am.

TCC: Having seen first hand the power of war and of violence, can you talk a little about what you think the power in art and music is?

KM: Music is the universal language … it evokes an emotion in all of us. That, we can all look at each other and we may not speak the same language, but that song or that melody can make us feel the same thing. And we can look at each other and agree and be like, ‘that did something for us’ ... it makes us feel unified and connected.

TCC: It sounds like when you are not actively performing you are also producing and teaching. So it seems like you are doing a lot to bring that [feeling] to other people.

KM: I remember growing up in the game learning how to play guitar. And I wanted more. I wanted to learn to play like the guys I looked up to. And I tried to reach out to them sometimes. I would never get a response. So I told myself that when I got to a place that I felt that people would want to come see me perform or whatever, I wanted to give back. So in that, I find joy in helping the next person achieve a goal that they want to do. Everybody may not be able to play the same thing that I play, but to be able to give them the chords, or show them ‘This is how you do it.’ It’s just like, mentoring the next person, or pouring into someone else – that’s like no other joy that you get … When I see the guys post a video and tag me in it, I’m really inspired to keep going, to keep trying to give back to the next person.

TCC: It seems like you spent a lot of time touring with artists in kind of a wide array of genre. What’s that like, kind of changing gears?

KM: It’s really cool to be able to go from playing pop music on stage with Jason Derulo, to be playing R&B with Ledisi and Chrisette Michele and to be playing hip hop with Ty Dolla $ign. It’s amazing because I want to feel like a jukebox. I don’t want to be ‘Well that’s all I can play and that’s it’. I want it to be well rounded. I think that came from being in the military, about just trying to be as polished as possible in all facets.

TCC: So bringing it back to you and what you’re working on right now specifically. You have played all these different genres. You’ve been all these different places. When it comes to what you’re doing right now in your work with “Puppy Love” and Modern Art coming out, how would you describe your own personal sound at this moment in time?

Kerry Marshall "Puppy Love"
Kerry Marshall "Puppy Love" cover art

KM: My own personal sound is really progressive. It’s like a mixture of gospel, pop, neo-soul, R&B. It’s like a huge gumbo. If you’re eating gumbo you grab a whole like cup full of whatever. You’re getting a whole bunch of stuff that makes this amazing food in your mouth. So that’s essentially kind of like what my sound is.

But "Puppy Love" was my ode to Snarky Puppy. I met snarky Puppy like maybe like five or six years ago … A friend of mine, Mark Lettieri – who is their guitarist – asked me ‘Hey do you want to sit in on one song?’ I’m like ‘I can’t play with you, you guys are at a whole ‘nother level.’ So sitting in with them, at that moment we played Quarter Master and we took it to church. We went to church like toward the end and I was like ‘I love this sound.’ Like they got horns, they got keyboards, they got bass, they got guitar, they got drums, they got percussion. But they were all real guys. They were all real people …

I was really fortunate to be able to get one of the trumpet players from the band to actually play on the record, to really get that Snarky Puppy sound. People hear the record and just to hear their story about how it makes them feel, it’s – it’s just overwhelming. Because when you make stuff, you never know what the reception is going to be. Given the overall reception, even from the people in Snarky Puppy, how they love the song. That was like, that was my gratitude right there. That was good enough for me. If nobody else bought the record, the fact that they like it, because I really made it for them, that’s all that mattered to me.

TCC: So let's talk about the other people playing on this as well … How did you meet these guys? Who are they?

KM: So, Middle Class Party essentially are my friends. I met them at an audition three years ago. In L.A. you get you know, they call it a 'cattle call' where they have an audition and like people from all walks of life all over the world will be there. And so we happened to be at the same audition and we all said ‘Hey man’ like ‘You sound really good’ and we got connected. We wound up kind of being on some of the same gigs. The bass player and I played for Chanté Moore together, the drummer and I played for Ty Dolla $ign together. And then they played for everybody else.

So we started doing local gigs and were like ‘We should just make a band.’ Came up with the name Middle Class Party. And so like you know I always likened music in a band to playing in the NBA. Like you want to have a good team that you can win the championship with. So, you know what, I want to win the championship with my team. But ultimately I want to win a Grammy with you guys. So, I’m almost like why should I go out and like employ everybody else when I got everything that I need right here? So I asked them to be on the record.

TCC: Can you tell us a little bit about what listeners will find when the rest of the album comes out later this year?

KM: There’s going to be a lot of really cool melodies and different vibes that you – I want to create music that you can just vibe to. Put in your car and just you know like you roll all the windows up and you’re like dancing and you just don’t know why you’re dancing but the music just makes you move. So it’s not going to necessarily be like one particular genre. That’s why I call it Modern Art. It’ll be like a mural. How they have different pieces. But like when you step away from it you see this huge masterpiece. So it’s going to be essentially the same thing. All different types of music will be on there … I want you to listen all the way through like those old school records that you listen to from the beginning all the way to the end. You don’t have to skip around.

TCC: Is there anything else that you want to share?

KM: I really just want to be an inspiration. I’m a regular guy, that had a dream, that came from a small town – I mean, Birmingham is not a big, huge city – that wanted to play guitar and just liked playing. I want to encourage people. If you have a dream: Number one, make a plan. And then execute that plan. And there will be failures along that line. Don’t let that discourage you. Because failure is part of the process … make the necessary adjustments and you can be successful at whatever you do.

You can get Kerry “2Smooth” Marshall’s “Puppy Love” and 2013 album, ‘No Ordinary Conversation,’ on iTunes.

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