By Maxim Mower
While spending time across The Pond for a couple of UK shows, Michael Marcagi, spoke to Holler about his viral 2024 song, ‘Scared To Start’, his dream collaborations and more.
Given recent events surrounding TikTok rights, Michael Marcagi will be feeling glad he signed to Warner Records, and not Universal. Marcagi's well-earned status as a folk prodigy has been directly cultivated - as he himself admits - via the social platform.
After spending four years fronting alt-rock band, The Heavy Hours, in 2023 Marcagi decided to take the plunge and explore the folkier, John Prine-inspired impulses he'd been leaning towards as a solo artist. His subsequent explosion in popularity over the past few months has been sparked from the two crucial touch-papers that every artist needs: impeccable timing, and lots - and lots - of talent.
Having teased the yearning, wintry anthem ‘The Other Side’, which was then released in December, Marcagi uploaded a TikTok clip of another track he'd been working on. Entitled ‘Scared To Start’, the sparse, atmospheric ambience fused with the escapist cries of the lyrics to produce a visceral, haunting earworm. The clip immediately picked up traction and rapidly transformed into a viral sensation, being used to soundtrack videos of expansive, rural American landscapes.
Marcagi recalls, “It just blew up overnight. I was really, really lucky and I'm super grateful for it. I remember texting my manager and I was like, ‘Oh, this is super weird. This TikTok I made has 5,000 plays on it - I hadn't made a TikTok that had gotten more than a dozen likes’. Then he was like, ‘It'd be crazy if we woke up tomorrow and it had 10,000 plays’. We woke up the next day, and it had 700,000!”
Part of the appeal of ‘Scared To Start’ is the alluring fantasy of packing up your life, casting aside the troubles of modern life and starting a new life in an isolated bucolic idyll. Marcagi cleverly uses the sense of losing himself in his love for a romantic partner as a microcosm for this broader idea of upping sticks.
Michael Marcagi explains where the inspiration came from for ‘Scared To Start’, “I wrote it about a relationship, and just feeling consumed with someone and not taking notice of the outside world. It's about not doing what the world is telling you to do - like the lyric ‘live out of cars and bars’. When you're so wrapped up in love, you have this feeling of, ‘I don't care what we do. I just want to go for what I believe in’”.
At the time of writing, less than a month after the official release of ‘Scared To Start’, the song has already surpassed 24 million streams on Spotify. Marcagi is keeping the momentum going, with the unveiling of his debut five-song EP, American Romance, on February 9th, featuring the previously teased fan-favourite, ‘In The Light’. The EP builds on the vulnerable lyricism of ‘Scared To Start’ while exploring new sonic textures, all glued together by Marcagi's evocative, ethereal vocals.
As you listen to Marcagi's music, and particularly when you hear him discuss his feelings of being ‘stuck’ and ‘isolated’ when he had to move back in with his mom during the pandemic, there are inevitable comparisons to be drawn with folk's man of the moment, Noah Kahan, and the emotions that coloured his 2022 Stick Season record. Marcagi cites Kahan and The Lumineers as key inspirations.
With Michael Marcagi now being tipped as one of the most exciting new voices to emerge in the alt-folk space this year, you can't help but wonder, did he have any sense of just how big ‘Scared To Start’ would become when he shared that original TikTok?
Marcagi laughs warmly, “It sounds weird, but I really did! It's a song I've had in my back pocket for a long time, even while I was in the band, and I've always loved it. I sent a demo version to my manager and when he heard it, he instantly said, ‘I think that song is special’. Originally it was really rock and over the top. It was ridiculous. But I've always thought if I could record it in the way I wanted to, it would turn out to be a good song. Having said that, I never thought it would take me to London! But no, I always had a special connection to that song, and when we finished recording it in New York, I remember driving home feeling as though we finally cracked the code. It felt like I'd achieved what I was looking for”.
As Michael Marcagi prepares to return to the studio this month, as well as plotting more US shows and a full-blown headlining UK and Europe tour for later in the year, it feels like somewhat of an understatement to say he's living the dream.
This was endearingly accentuated by the fact that, during his enchanting sold-out set at London's Omeara, Marcagi kept laughing into the microphone and muttering in disbelief, “This is the best night of my life”. The crowd echoed his appreciation, repeatedly chanting his name to the tune of The White Stripes’ ’Seven Nation Army’.
There's a dawning realisation towards the end of our conversation that, in a twist that seems both wonderfully poetic and ironic, Michael Marcagi has spent the last few weeks living out the lyrics to the very song that propelled him to this point.
As he considers this, his eyes light up, “Exactly! For the past month, I feel like I have definitely been living out of cars and bars - and planes..!” Judging by the deserved success Michael Marcagi has enjoyed and the quickly burgeoning fanbase he has amassed, it seems this jet-setting lifestyle of adventure is one he'll be getting used to.
In addition, Michael Marcagi touched on his appreciation for and his hopes of collaborating with Noah Kahan, the process of writing ‘The Other Side’ and more.
“I feel very honoured. That's an extremely nice compliment. Those are two guys I look up to a lot, and I want to earn my way up into the same conversation as them - but there's still a long way to go. I listen to their music all the time, and I've seen both of them live. Especially with Noah, he has such a way with words to paint exactly how he's feeling, and to make you feel heard. He'll sing about very unique things that he personally feels, but he still manages to make everyone else feel like they share the same pain. Like how on ‘Stick Season’ he's like, ‘I love Vermont’, and he has crowds of people who have never been to Vermont singing back, ‘I love Vermont!’”
“I would really love to do a song with with Noah Kahan. I think that would be super cool. Everything he's touching, and every song he writes, just seems to be hitting right now. He's a very, very good songwriter, and he's at the top of his game.
But if we're talking my all-time [dream collaboration], The Lumineers have been a big inspiration for me since high school. When their first album came out, I remember hearing folk instruments on the radio for the first time and thinking, ‘This is amazing! This guy's playing the acoustic guitar and mandolin - and it's on the radio. This is awesome’. I've gotten to meet Wes, the lead singer from The Lumineers, a few times, and he's a really, really nice guy. So I think if I could do collaboration with anybody, The Lumineers would probably be my first choice”.
“If I'm 100% honest, there have been times where it's been super overwhelming. It was a lot. It went from, ‘Oh man, I'm gonna give music one last shot and tease these songs’, to then, the next thing I know, I'm flying around and trying to figure out what to do with these songs. I've had people telling me, ‘No, you're doing this wrong. You've got to do things this way now and you've got to obey these rules’. And I was like, ‘Oh, shit, this is happening very fast’...Especially because it all started around Christmas. I was expecting to have a solid week and a half just hanging out with my family. But I ended up driving to New York the day after Christmas to try and get ‘Scared To Start’ finished.
I've luckily got a really good team around me...I think this has been the first week where I've been like, ‘Alright, I can chill out a little bit’. It was a lot, but I'm finding the groove now”.
“That song was written at the peak of the pandemic. It came from a place of feeling completely stuck and alone, and I knew I wasn't the only one feeling that way....I had just moved back in with my mom, and I remember feeling like all the people I wanted to be around me were not able to be. Plus it was winter, and it was just miserable. I wanted to be on ‘The Other Side’ of this. I wanted to be anywhere else but here”.
“There's a song on the EP called ‘In The Light’, which I'm super pumped about. That's probably one of my favourite songs that I've gotten to work on and write. I'm excited to get more music out, especially as we're in a time right now where musicians have the freedom to just keep releasing music and not have to wait six months in-between songs”.
“I've never played here before, and our manager was getting lots of messages about how ‘Scared to Start’ had taken off in the UK. My manager just said, ‘You know what, screw it. Let's do it’. Again, it links back to the idea behind ’Scared to Start’, of not waiting for anything. It was a case of, if we have the opportunity to go, then let's go. I'd never been to the UK, and I'm so glad I came. It's been so fun.
I've always been told that the UK fans are way more passionate and much better behaved than those in the US. Also, I don't think I could sell out a room like this in my hometown. So to be in a different city so far away from where I live, and for people to come out and support my music, that honestly might be the most overwhelming thing for me. This is just crazy. It doesn't make any sense, but I'm just super thankful that people are willing to come out and listen to me perform”.
“Aside from the songs on the EP, I have two more that are pretty much done. I'm going back in the studio in February to try and get four or five more songs recorded, to finish out a ten or 11 song album. I'm excited for the day where I have like 12 songs out in the world...We definitely can't do the hour-and-a-half headline slots right now!”