If you haven't picked up the new Mowest compilation, Our Lives Are Shaped By What We Love: Motown's Mowest Story 1971-1973, you are missing out.
The anthology features music from Motown's short lived West Coast venture, MoWest, and the tunes range from Syreeta's ahead of its time funk-jazz, the insanely smooth title track courtesy of Odyssey, to Lodi's hard-rock. The album is stylistically diverse, but showcases a moment when Motown freely partnered jazz themes, West Coast psychedlia, and proto-disco grooves with its classic "soul bubblegum" aesthetic.
One of the best songs on the album comes from The Nu Page, an obscure group who only ever cut one single. Though not a household name, singer and co-songwriter Marilyn McLeod was no stranger to the Motown hit machine when she worked on the song. McLeod was a staff writer, penning hits for Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Anita Baker, and more, when Mowest's Robert Gordy enlisted her to create the smooth sound of The Nu Page.
Up on the Sun spoke with McLeod, who discussed MoWest's legacy, her latest album, I Believe in Me, and her musical family, which includes her sister, Alice Coltrane, and her grandson, Flying Lotus.
Marilyn McLeod: No, because we just didn't stay together that long. There was really only three of us, and we got the name made up from Robert Gordy. He was the president of the publishing company, and he liked to do recordings and write songs.
We recorded it, and there was only three of us, called The Nu Page, but we had a band that played the music for us on the session. Melton Bolton played guitar, I was on the keyboards, and we had a conga player, and another writer, Horace Jones, so all of these writers: myself, Bolton, Horace Jones, Robert Gordy, and that was it.
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They had The Four Tops, and anything with a number [was popular], so we just said, 'we're The Nu Page.' They never released it. It was something we did, it sounded really good, and Gene Page came and put strings on it. He's passed away, but he used to be one of the top arrangers. So that's that's how The Nu Page came about. I like the song.
You came to be a part of The Nu Page through you association with Motown proper. You've written for Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and others as a staff songwriter.
Yes. I'm originally from Detroit. That's where I first started with Motown. In '72 they moved to California, and they took all their writers and every one who wanted to go. I wanted to get out of Detroit. It was really nice. The competition was still the same was as it was in Detroit. [Everyone was] trying to get the best songs, all the writers, at that time.
So where are you located now?
In California. I stayed. [laughs] it was too nice. The weather is beautiful, the scenery is beautiful. The earthquakes -- that's the only thing I don't really love -- but they have something everywhere.
So you cut that song with The Nu Page, but that was all the band ever did?
Yes. But I had got acquainted with Pamela Sawyer, and we did a lot of writing. We did "Love Hangover," of course, and "You Can't Turn Me Off" and "I Get High on Your Memory;" we did so many songs. And the album that I have out now, I Believe in Me. That's something we got out right now, and we're getting a lot of internet play right now. That was done with Janie Bradford [another Motown staffer], who did "Money, That's What I Want." That was a huge hit.
I really enjoy the entire album, but your song is one of my favorites. The record seems to illustrate a a common thread running between all of the songs, kind of a marriage of the Motown soul sound with psychedelic elements. With your sister being Alice Coltrane, probably been exposed to a lot of of avant-garde and psychedelic ideas. Was there a conscious decision to incorporate those sounds into the music?
I just believe it was me. My surroundings made it like that. I was listening to it, when Light in the Attic Records was trying to get [the album] together. I was shocked, 'cause that was the Seventies. It was running together, all the different types of music that were happening at that time. You know, they hadn't got up to the rap yet, thank goodness. I thought 'were writing something like today's sound.' It sounds that way to me. Does it to you?
I think so. It sounds very modern. I'm a little blown away by the musical legacy of your family, your sister, yourself, and your grandson, Flying Lotus, (who produced an artist we wrote about yesterday, Thundercat) who makes tremendous music. What do you think of his stuff?
I love it. I think he's doing such a great job, and from where he started, it's just incredible. He was making beats in his room, just beats beats beats [laughs]. It sounded really good. Then he started working with Stones Throw [among other labels, including Warp Records] and he started getting more creative, putting music to it, mixing in samples, and getting real life bass players... It's crazy. He has a great crowd and great following.
My grandson did a remix of "A Heart is a House." I tried to compare them, like 'what did he do' but I don't know. The one thing about it, is its bigger sound...it just sounds powerful...but it has the same melody. He didn't change much.
Flying Lotus: Lovers Melt 2, featuring The Nu Page about the 36:40 mark.
You have a very musical family, with your sister, your grandson, Ravi Coltrane... I read an interview with Flying Lotus where he talked about playing saxophone in middle school. I can't imagine a more terrifying proposition then picking up a saxophone when you're great-uncle was John Coltrane.
He did [laughs].
He's made his own sound. But that's one thing that is interesting about your family, it's all unique, but has a common feel, a sense of spirituality. I find that fascinating.
[Laughs]. Well I think it's a lot of DNA in there. You have to keep that in mind [laughs]. It's like you said, everybody's is in their own place, but there's something that still pulls me into all of us being in the same...something. I can't really put my hand on it, but it feels right, and I'm proud of my family.
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On my album, there's a song on there called "What Would Marvin Say," speaking of Marvin Gaye. And my sister Alice plays at the very end, the vamp the synthesizer, the saxophone, is Ravi's brother, the one you don't hear too much about. He calls himself Oranyan, he's playing saxophone, and it's like, 'you have to hear it.' The saxophone solo blows me away, every time I hear it, and I've been hearing it for a long time. It's meaningful for me, too. My sister passed in 2007, and we hadn't got the record out in that time...but to hear it now, that's great.
The new retrospective features a lot of sounds that labels like Stones Throw are currently carrying on. It must feel good to know that you influenced things that way.
It does. You know, I was having songs cut at Motown during the time of "Heart is a House," but some stuff gets pushed aside for the minute, but here it pops in another era of time. That's very interesting.