Marlee Walchuk of the pop duo SUGARBEACH
Interview & Review by Robert Urban for GAY GUITARISTS WORLDWIDE
Marlee Walchuk began public live performances at age 14 - no quiet start as she faced 16,000 fans at the Vancouver Coliseum as a teenager and was a regular on the Canadian TV shows. Her training at The Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in LA propelled her further into a music and acting career. She balanced her club performances with her studio singing for commercials and album projects.
Marlee’s hit single "God Bless the Woman" won 1st prize in the Canadian Song Festival and was on the Canadian A Playlist for 6 months. With pop/rock band Mistress she toured the US and Canada and was a massive favourite in the gay communities. Her 1st album “One More Chance” was released in the late 90's and she toured Canada and Germany with crowds of 10,000 people eager to hear her smooth, sexy and powerful voice. She was nominated for 5 BCCMA awards and won Best Vocalist in 1999.Tully Callender left Sydney, Australia and joined Marlee to form Sugarbeach in early 2007. She has always had her hand in some musical project or another which often took her to performing at the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Town Hall. Having grown a successful accounting firm in Australia, Tully's business background has been a great asset to Sugarbeach.
Review & Interview
Dare I say it - the "gayest" mainstream pop music act around isn't another ex-boy-band member.. or another George Michael spinoff... it's not even another male American Idol contestant. No, my queer brethren - as so many LGBT music fans already know - it's the highly successful, lesbian pop duo known as SUGARBEACH!
The two SUGARBEACH bandmates - Marlee Walchuck & Tully Callender (who are also married to each other) are all over the LGBT music, media & video charts. Everywhere one looks they seem to be appearing live at LGBT fests, events, parades and games around the world all at once. They are taking over!
SUGARBEACH's ABBA-like battle-plan for conquering the known pop universe is a tried & true strategy. Reduce a variety of popular song styles down to their simplest, hookiest, most-direct, most-accessible appeal - and then add in irresistibly catchy vocals. On their most recent cd release - NOT DESERTED (2009), the magic formula is applied to R&B funk with the title track "Not Deserted"; country-rock with "Run with Me"; techno/disco with "Mama I Love Her" and "LIving Out Proud"; big-ballad rock with "Give Me Your Body" - and so on down the line.
"Living Out Proud" - arguably the big hit single from NOT DESERTED, is a super-peppy pride paean based on a venerable, old-school gay dance-club groove. It's production/arrangement blends confectionary pop elements such as disco-beats ala The Weather Girls' "It's Raining Men" with techno synth-pads ala Limahl's "Never-Ending Story". No wonder "Living Out Proud" has been made theme-anthem for LGBT events all over the globe - from pride fests to gay games. This listener can't help but imagine L.O.P. blaring forth from drag-queen-topped-floats; or even accompanying leather-thonged, dancing-lad contingents; in gay pride parades all across the land.
Marlee's big, warm, welcoming (and, yes..."ballsy"!) singing voice provides an entertaining contrast against Tully's lighter, sweeter, more demure vocal approach. Together and in tandem the crooning duo covers a myriad of emotional bases and paints a wide range of vocal colors.
The icing upon the very sweet pop-tart-tunes of NOT DESERTED is the duo's strong, positive, openly-gay lyrics - especially as they are delivered by Marlee's big, self-assured, all-embracing voice. With pipes on par with greats like Ann Wilson/Alison Moyet/Dusty Springfield; and with her smiling, benevolent "Bette Midler" type onstage aura; - Marlee's a lesbi-gay pop-force to be reckoned with.
As part of media-saavy Sugarbeach's world-wide promotional onslaught, high-quality music videos have been released for several tracks from NOT DESERTED that have garnered even more popularity for the duo. These include "If I'd Known", "Nathalie", "Living Out Loud" and "Give Me Your Body". With their own "out & proud" brand of onscreen charm and romantic chemsitry - Marlee & Tully appear as camera-ready as they are already proven stage-ready.
- OK, first off, especially for our many members in the U.K. – Sugarbeach just got back from performing in England - tell us about your trip’s itinerary and your performance(s) there.
Our 10 days in the UK included: performing at Cornwall Pride, singing at Tully’s best friends’ wedding and touring the English countryside with no GPS (the only part of the trip we might rethink for next time). We played both the Picnic in the Park day event and the big evening Marque dance party in the middle of Truro.
It seriously blew our minds how warm and reactive the crowds were…there’s nothing like an audience going a bit crazy for you…we are still flying from it. Cornwall Pride is only in its 3rd year but it is growing rapidly. What people seemed most excited about was how openly gay we are in our music. I would have expected that to be even more commonplace over there but it doesn’t seem to be so. We would love to go back next year and tour more extensively, it is such a beautiful country.
- And for our many members in both Canada and Australia: Tell us how “Marlee met Tully”.
We met in Sydney Australia, where Tully is from, she was friends with my new partner at the time. I had come to Australia to pursue that relationship and Tully had been recently married to a lovely man. I sat across a table from her the first night I arrived and so began the suppression of many feelings I could not really admit to. Her warmth, her million dollar smile, her kindness were like sweet music to me. We were friends for 5 years before anything more evolved between us.
Eventually, it was clear that our real happiness would reside in our being together. About 8 months later, we moved back to Canada, mostly so I could be back with my family. We are extraordinarily happy, more so than I’ve ever dreamed of.
- How is the LGBT music-scene/presence in Vancouver, B.C.? Any LGBT bars, community centers, support groups, or pride fests/parades – that offer live music and thus an opportunity for LGBT musicians and music fans to come together?
Vancouver’s LGBT music scene is definitely growing thanks to some key, dedicated event organizers like Terry Costa who is also the entertainment director of Vancouver Pride. He is filling one high profile club with constant entertainment and is a driving force behind using LGBT headliners at our hugely popular Pride events.
Our Davie St Village is loaded with great gay bars from hang-out pubs and lounges to thumping dance clubs with some live entertainment. One of our passions is helping to encourage venues and events to hire more queer talent which is one of the reasons we are launching our LGBT internet music video station, RightOutTV. As far as support groups…yes, one of our biggest is Qmunity www.qmunity.ca which is also located in the Village and provides programs, support and activity groups for youth and adults plus a health clinic and counseling services. It was also the location for Pride House Vancouver during the 2010 Winter Olympics.
- What similarities/differences did you notice between pride fests in England and those in Canada or the U.S.?
Just from our personal experience, we noticed that any Prides we’ve played outside of Canada with maybe the exception of New York, seemed to have more opposition surrounding them.
In Charlotte, North Carolina the police were everywhere keeping us safe and keeping an eye on the religious protestors with megaphones damning us all to hell. We didn’t feel unsafe as there were plenty of us and lots of help, it was just not something we had experienced before.
While walking through Truro before and after the shows we did hear some homophobic slurs from young guys wandering around but again, it was fairly mild and we know homophobia mixed with alcohol is a particularly bad combo. On the other side of it, the appreciation and support we’ve gotten from the UK and U.S. has floored us! We are looking forward to being back in both countries and are already making plans to do so for next year.
- We always love to hear about new LGBT music artists - Who were some of your favorite U.K. LGBT acts that you met and performed with while in England? Or on other recent Sugerbeach tours?
One of the best things for us when we travel is meeting new LGBT artists. To be honest, I can’t say for sure who was gay out of the groups we performed with as their music isn’t always a tell-tale sign but I will give you their names as they were all excellent! Simon J Bailey, Benji, Hollie Barrie, Lisa Scott -Lee, Melissa Totten (Madonna Tribute) Nothing For a Minute, Michael Hinch and Nicolette Street.
In Halifax this summer, we performed with Summer Osborne whom we loved! She is from St Louis, her velvet voice and intelligent songwriting made us instant fans and friends.
- OK – there are so many places around the world named “Sugar Beach”. Which was the inspiration for your duo’s name? Toronto’s Sugar Beach?
We came across a painting of Sugar Beach in Hawaii and it just clicked with us. The ‘sugar’ is sexy and playful and the ‘beach’ is so much of what we love about Australia. We have only recently realized that there are many places and resorts with the same name including Toronto…I guess they all liked it too.
- In many of your videos and pride fest performances, you both appear as vocalists. I enjoyed discovering your live video of Sugarbeach live at the Rhizome performing Pink’s “Dear Mr. President” – with Marlee on acoustic guitar. You are quite the confident, solid guitar strummer. Outside of your hometown area, Does Sugarbeach also perform in a “live” or “live band” “incarnation?About once or twice a year we get to enjoy the addition of our live band members but only in Vancouver. They all have work and commitments that prevent them from travelling. When possible Tully and I fly our instruments with us so our show is mixed with us playing live with our tracks and some songs are played just acoustically on our own. (Tully plays keyboards and sax and I play guitar and keyboards) We love both but with budgets, borders and schedules to deal with it is so much easier for us to travel on our own.
- Who are your favorites and main influences? Which artists? Which bands? - What was your all-time favorite live concert-going experience?
I was the youngest in a musical family. My brother and sister were well known in Canada and the UK with several albums and their own TV series, The Judy and Jim Show on CBC. So I was influenced heavily by their music and what they listened to. Blood Sweat and Tears, the later Beatles albums, Gladys Knight were often playing.
As a little girl I would listen to Barbara Streisand and Bette Midler - loving their emotional and theatrical approaches to singing. For years I rarely missed a Jann Arden concert. She is such a beautiful writer,,,so haunting and often full of despair yet on stage she is nothing short of a stand up comic. The emotional rollercoaster she takes her audiences on was always a pleasure to experience.
- Tell us how you first came to have an interest in the guitar; any special thoughts on the guitar, and what it’s meant to you in your life.
Because I’ve always thought of myself as more of a singer, the guitar was interesting to me because I could accompany myself, move around and not be blocked by a piano. So even though I taught myself keyboards as well, I still much prefer to perform with a guitar.
The guitar takes on your personality, it is loaded with nuance possibilities and emotional expression that keys don’t allow quite as much. I’m sure most piano players would disagree. I have always worked in bands mostly as a lead singer that had amazing lead keys and guitar players and I was always supporting them with rhythm so I never really focused on being a player who solos.
However, I have recently picked up a Digitech RP255 processor pedal along with an electric guitar for the first time and have unleashed a monster within! That first time you strike a power chord with a great dirty distortion something in you changes forever. It was hysterical…it must have released some extra testosterone in me and I felt like I just wanted to jump in front of a band and live out all my Rock God dreams! Then it occurred to me…I need to learn how to play all over again. I could hear every ringing string, every badly bended note…it was shocking and my respect for the great electric guitarists has highly elevated.
So now I sit practicing every day that I can, going back to basics with scales and techniques from the internet. It’s a funny time to be starting all of this but I am determined to be soloing by next summer.
- Do you play guitar and/or piano or any other instruments on the Sugarbeach releases?
I play some piano on If I’d Known but as my strengths lie in writing and singing the songs, I prefer to use great players who’s whole life have been about mastering these instruments when it comes to recording time. My brother, Jim Walchuk does most of the keyboard work and programming drums as well as some of the bass and guitar and we have brought in top notch players like David Sinclair (from Sarah McLaughlin’s band) and Andreas Schuld who has played with practically every major Canadian recording artist. It’s such a treat and an honor to hear what great musicians bring to your songs.
- I’m a huge Heart fan. After seeing the live Rhizome video, I can’t help but fantasize Marlee and Tully covering some Ann and Nancy Wilson songs (or even covering some songs Ann and Nancy cover!) In addition to above-mentioned Pink - do you enjoy covering songs by any particular bands/singers?
When we play with our band we are often doing events where people are there to dance so we do cover quite a few artists. For me, there is no one that can cover Heart better than Heart so I too sit in awe of them but have yet to cover them.
We do several from Pink, Melissa Etheridge, Amanda Marshall and Tully sounds great on Katy Perry and Sheryl Crow tunes. We even have fun with some old disco tunes like I will Survive and Don’t Leave me this Way…one of our most popular covers is 4 Non Blondes, ‘What’s Up.’
- Can you relate some special feelings or experiences about being a lesbian and/or woman in the mainstream music world... especially regarding your struggles and formative/learning years as singers/performers/instrumentalists? Has acceptance for LGBT performers come so far that it’s now pretty much a non-issue?
I wish I could say that it is a non-issue. Perhaps more so for artists who don’t intentionally write openly gay lyrics. One of the purposes of Sugarbeach is to push boundaries in order to create change. Whether we perform to a gay or straight crowd we talk about our relationship and the issues that effect us that made us write these lyrics.
There have been times when the crowd energy was a bit stunned or a few people have left but it doesn’t matter. What’s important is that people who might not necessarily have had any LGBTQ people in their lives walk away from our shows with a sense of us as a solid loving couple. For me that is where the change comes. If you are homophobic and you find yourself laughing at the jokes and enjoying the music of a gay/lesbian performer, you will feel more connected to them and much more likely to support them and their community.
I spent so many years writing nebulous lyrics so as not to offend anyone or commit career suicide, that we now make it clear we are singing woman to woman and about gay issues. This approach does eliminate us from most opportunities open to straight musicians but we don’t sweat it…we’re in for the long haul and we truly believe that we will, along with our fellow “out” artists see the changes.
As women in the mainstream music business, I learned early on that in or order to make it easier for myself, I needed to learn about everything! Altering programs on my keyboard, which frequencies are feeding back, how to hook up and run the PA, how to deal with agents, tour routing, writing harmonies, sitting in without charts and above all how not to be a princess and always help carry the damn gear. I always felt treated well by fellow musicians.
There was a period of time when I was leading an all-female band called Mistress that some male audience members refused to believe we were playing our instruments and accused us of air playing to some prerecording and I did think…hmmm would this even cross your mind if I was a guy?
- On an indie-level, lesbian/women’s music has a venerable history of mutual support and networking amongst women musical artists. Tell us how the women’s indie music scene was of help to you as you began your musical journey of recording, performing, touring; and of opportunities you feel it offers to lesbians and/or women musicians.
You’re right there is a lot of support now for indie /women’s music and I am so happy to see it. It certainly wasn’t always as strong as it is now but between organizations, co-op radio, web based sites and just the opportunities afforded by the internet in general, there is no excuse for not being able to build a decent career.
We frequently search for new sites that promote women’s/lesbian music and they are always happy to hear from us and super helpful. Although, it is more common now to see great female musicians, it wasn’t that long ago that even a decent female musician would have a crowd going crazy because it was unusual and a fabulous form of feminism.
- Beyond their award-winning popularity in the LGBT world, have your openly-gay pop anthems such as “Living Out Proud”, “Mama I Love Her” and “I Just Love Girls” garnered notoriety/airplay in the “straight” mainstream media?
Certainly not that we know of… we haven’t seen the royalty cheques yet if they have. I think we are still some time away from hearing openly gay lyrics by “out” artists on a regular basis on mainstream radio but it seems that the public is becoming somewhat comfortable to listen to innuendos from straight or bi artists going out on a limb. My feeling is…whatever it takes to get us there…bring it!
- Among the many pop styles that comprise Sugarbeach’s sound – the dancy electro-pop aspect of your music no doubt attracts a large gay male following. How does it feel to be a lesbian music act so popular with gay male audiences? Do you love your gays? :-)
Both Tully and I grew up unashamedly loving pop music. I also can’t suppress my energy for any length of time onstage…I gotta move. So it was natural for us to head in the dance-pop direction. What we love about it all is that we are liked by the guys in our community and that makes our crowds mixed and inclusive…that was our dream. So yes we are thrilled…and we definitely love our gays!
- What are your current and future musical projects? Including any new cds, touring and other promotions.
Our biggest new project is an LGBTQ music video channel that we are producing and launching on Livestream called RightOutTV. It is internet based so it can be viewed globally and it will feature only openly “out” artists that have good quality live or produced music videos. We wanted it to run like TV so that audiences are exposed to artists they don’t know as well as the ones they do. Our plan is to rotate and update the videos so it is always fresh.
Sugarbeach will host it giving bio and new career info on the artists every few songs and filming interviews when possible. We will launch it in October and are already doing press on it and have set up a facebook page as well. We will also promote the artists to Gay Prides and LGBTQ events worldwide in hopes that we will see these brave and dedicated musicians filling the Mainstages.
Once this is up and running, we will be editing a few more of our own videos and have plans to release new Sugarbeach singles. We are still planning our summer schedule for next year, but we will definitely include the U.S. and possibly Britain. We will also be involved with the Outgames in Vancouver in 2011.
Visit Marlee Walchuk & Tully Callender of SUGARBEACH and check out their music at: www.sugarbeachmusic.com
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