Miko Marks was singing in her church choir before she was fully able to talk. The church was a natural outlet for the music running deeply through her family. Her grandmother first opened Marks up to countless types of music, and she grew up listening to gospel and R&B, jazz and country — influences that later shaped her into a flourishing Americana musician.
“I try to bring who I am, total package, to the music, and that means so many things,” Marks said— Americana encompassing a “melting pot of different styles” in one genre. At 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater, Marks will be bringing her own, personal musical mixture to Chautauqua for the first time.
When Laura Savia, Chautauqua’s vice president of performing and visual arts, first heard Marks’ music, it quickly became one of her favorites, she said, and she started listening to her every day.
“There’s joy running through her music,” Savia said. “Joy often catches fire at Chautauqua.”
Marks’ upbeat and grooving performance will be just the right presence in the Amp for the opening week of the season, she said, as Chautauquans make their summer return to the grounds.
Marks weaves a multitude of diverse influences into the fabric of her music, from Black churches, spirituals and honky-tonks. She plays with sounds from the American canon, updated with her unique voice, Savia said.
“Her outlook has gone from the intensely personal to the more societal and national,” Savia said. “I hear her pulling together threads of American history, connecting her personal story and identity with this moment in time.”
Now, Marks is making the music she’s most wanted to make: “music that matters, that can speak truth to power, touch people and ignite changes within them,” she said — but it’s taken many years in her musical development to reach the songs she’ll be singing tonight.
“When I started out, I was just doing love songs; I didn’t have a lot of experience writing,” Marks said. But with maturity, growth, and simple life experience, she said she’s reached the level in her music where she can be the change-maker of her aspirations.
Marks said her two most recent releases, Our Country and Feel Like Going Home, will leave the meaningful legacy she’s been reaching for, as a musical artist and a “woman of color, moving and shaking in the country music world and Americana world.”
When Marks was making her place in the country music industry in the early 2000s, there were hardly any women, not to mention those of color.
“Now it’s too many I can’t even count, and I think that’s a beautiful thing,” Marks said. “I think the industry is expanding, but I also think there’s way more work to do.”
Marks said her following is growing among the Black community, which is also becoming more aware of Black Americans’ foundational roots in music.
“A lot of people of color don’t know the history of country music, but I’m seeing the tide turn,” she said. Audiences are more “open-minded,” more “colorful,” inspired by her joyous melodies.
“Her music leaps off the stage,” Savia said, and Chautauquans are likely to clap along and dance in their seats to her “lush and powerful” voice, backed by “first-class” musicians.
Savia has come to appreciate the “innate artistic curiosity” of Chautauquans and their willingness to expose themselves to art forms they may not be aware of. Even those who aren’t fans of country music, she said, will find something to enjoy at the Amp tonight.
Marks’ music stirs together a rousing and jubilant blend of styles in the amalgam that is Americana — a musical genre as diverse as its historical influences. It may be a new kind of music for some, but Savia believes the introduction will be a welcome one.
“Marks is emerging as one of the most important Black country musicians in her field,” Savia said. “It’s a privilege to introduce her to Chautauqua at a time when she is bursting onto the scene.”
Marks carries with her a lingering excitement from her debut last October at the Grand Ole Opry, one of the most venerated spaces in the country music world. Her grandmother, a major inspiration for Marks to this day, exposed her to the Opry at a young age. She said she’ll never forget the feeling of finally stepping on the Opry stage, as she’d dreamt of since childhood.
“My whole body welled up with chills and heat at the same time. I felt the spirits of those that had come before me,” she said. “And I made it through my performance, but not without a lot of tears.”
The reverberations of the energy from that performance are what Chautauquans can expect tonight.