By Michael D. Minichiello
This month’s West Village Original is singer/songwriter Denise Marsa, born in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1954. In addition to a decades-long career in the music business, Marsa owns Key Media Group, a public relations and marketing firm. She also mentors young singers and bands in navigating the industry. On November 26th, she will present her one-woman show about her life in music, The Pass, at Revelation Gallery at St. John’s in The Village. Visit the show’s website at www.thepassmusical.com.
“I had good parents who were very affectionate and always encouraged me when I was growing up,” says Denise Marsa. “Except when I told them I was moving to New York. Then they freaked out! But I was headstrong and said, ‘I don’t want to hear it. This is what I’m doing.’ That was in the seventies when a lot of not so great stuff was going on here, so I don’t blame them. But I was paying my own way, just like I had paid for my own education, and I reassured them that I wouldn’t be chewed up and spit out.”
What drew Marsa to music in the first place? “I was always musical,” she says. “My brother got a drum set for Christmas one year and I just started playing it. Same with the piano. I had both the instinct and the inclination. And my mother really pushed me. I think she had been overshadowed by her siblings growing up, so she put her energy into me. I was singing, taking acting classes and I landed my first professional gig in musical theater at age eight.”
Fast forward all these years, and it was when Marsa was performing her songs in a couple of clubs that the idea for her current show came about. “My life has been funneled through song,” she says. “There are people who are passionate about songwriting and I’m one of them. It’s like breathing for us. When I did those club shows, people came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Why aren’t you a household name? You’re like a female Billy Joel or Elton John.’ Well, that’s a long story. The story of my life, really! It’s about timing and where you put your energy. It’s about choice. Did I want to be rich and famous, or did I want to stay true to myself? It’s a struggle to be an artist trying to stay relevant throughout it all. I’ve had a lot of luck but at the same time, things just happen out of your control. I’m sure part of it was me as well. There are so many things I said no to early in my career. But it doesn’t matter now because I do what I do, and I still love doing it. My one-woman show is a vehicle to tell my story and get my songs heard. It’s also where I started: in musical theatre. I’ve gone full circle.”
These days, in addition to developing her show and running her PR company, Marsa is committed to mentoring young singers and bands. “When I was younger no one really empowered me to understand the music business, let alone the entertainment business,” she says. “So instead of being angry, I decided to take my energy and put it towards helping young people protect themselves. I love doing it. There are a lot of dreamers in the music business but only a small percentage actually make a living in it. I think my experience can be instructive.”
Marsa has lived in the same apartment on Christopher Street since she moved here over 40 years ago. How is the neighborhood different from those days? “Oh my God! How isn’t it different?” she replies. “My perspective, though, is that New York both changes and doesn’t change at the same time. By that I mean when you live in The West Village you get a chance to hold on to a bit more of the charm of life. And I think the most charming part of New York is The West Village, hands down. Everything is smaller so maybe smaller is charming. But the people themselves live large lives in small spaces. I’ve done that as well.”
“My apartment is full of history too,” she continues. “It’s small and dates from 1810, but I have a lot going on in that small space. My building has a backyard and it’s been a very magical existence. I come into my house and shut everything off. Sometimes I wish I had one extra room. But this is what it is, and it’s also a reminder to make the best of what you do have. That’s always been my attitude: ‘Make it work!’”