Xander Marsden, recently released his self-titled EP via the Make Records label. The 15 year old’s debut was produced by songwriter/musician Billy Mohler, whose own wildly diverse career has taken him from jazz studies to pop stardom to eclectic collaborations with the likes of Macy Gray, Jon Brion, Liz Phair, among many others.
Fron Billy Mohler:
“In Xander, I found an incredible maturity in his understanding of music and the depth of his songwriting,” Mohler says. “When I was in my early 20s I was in the exact same situation, coming from the jazz world and challenging myself to be in the rock world. Xander has an amazing willingness to be challenged, so working with him has been a rewarding experience.”
Mohler’s journey has made him a particularly keen mentor for Xander, whose musical development suggests a much different path than the one he’s taken. Starting out with piano lessons at the age of 6, he quickly switched to guitar under the influences of Slash and Eddie Van Halen. A blues undercurrent took root through listening to the likes of Jimmy Page and Gary Moore, and a hint of jazz complexity through studies of greats like Joe Pass. The pitfalls of the child prodigy – empty virtuosity, a career ended by adulthood – lurked not far away, but somehow Xander tapped into an inner well of emotional expression and an urgent need to share it through his music.
“I discovered that songwriting felt so much more creative and rewarding than just playing guitar,” he explains. “I really wanted to express myself, and I found that a simple song can affect someone so much.”
“Simple” may not be exactly the right word for a song with the self-consciousness and self-affirmations of “Hello Man” or the restless striving of “Town Sleep,” a song that captures the universal feeling of being trapped in one’s place and looking to escape into life. But the songs’ complexity is to be found in its cinematic imagery and poetic allusions, not in its technical intricacy. Xander’s skills align more with the indie rock creations of Kurt Vile, Courtney Barnett or The War on Drugs than with the heavy shredders that initially inspired him to pick up the guitar.
Much of the music on Xander Marsden was inspired by life developments that may seem minor to an outsider, but anyone who’s ever been a teenager (i.e., everyone) can recognize how seismic they can feel. The songwriting process coincided with Xander beginning high school as well as his family’s move from one Southern California community to another. The fact that the two cities are separated by less than 15 miles may seem minor but is far from insignificant to a young man still discovering his personal, let alone musical, identity.
Zander Marsden on “Town Sleep:”
“It was a song I wrote when I felt like my stress was overwhelming and I had to keep up on things when I really just needed some sleep. The stress and exhaustion was from balancing my school life with my music life and how I wanted to excel at both.”