Eastern Michigan University alumna Marissa Conniff is a top-ten finalist of Hitsville NEXT's "Amplify: The Sound of Detroit" music competition, preparing to perform on stage at Gem Theatre for the finale on March 15.
Detroit is home to an abundance of history, one specific area being musically, as Motown had large impacts on the sounds of soul, pop and rock music nationwide. To continue the legacy, The Motown Museum, or "Hitsville U.S.A," offers a creative and educational hub for emerging artists and entrepenuers in and around the city of Detroit.
“If you’re from Michigan, it’s like kind of impossible for you to not understand the impact of Motown and what that meant,“ Conniff said. “That’s what’s really amazing about it is that there’s still this Motown legacy happening and I’m invited to be apart of that, that’s like the coolest thing.”
The program, called Hitsville NEXT, puts on the annual music competition and also hosts programs, workshops, masterclasses and other events year round.
2023 is the first year since the pandemic that the competition will be live again, something that Conniff is super happy to be a part of.
Now 33-years-old, Conniff began singing super young and said that she taught herself how by listening to Christina Aguliera. Along with her passion for singing, the musician can now play a little guitar and piano and work audio recording equipment.
“That was sort of my escape, my outlet, when I needed time to myself and to get away from the things I was dealing with I went to music," Conniff said. “I told myself if I can learn how to sing this Christina Aguliera album then I’ll be able to sing anything and that got me pretty far.”
Moving into her formative years, Conniff participated in choir and theater at Woodhaven High School, and acted in shows at EMU including “Dead Mans Cell Phone” and “Pippy Longstocking.”
After graduating from EMU in 2013 with an arts management major and minors in marketing and theater, Conniff dove head first into her solo music career and performed original music around southeast Michigan.
“Life kinda happened and I kind of ran into these health concerns where it was like ‘you should have a baby now or you might not be able to have a baby,’“ Conniff said. "I really wanted a family so I had my child when I was 27 which was a lot younger than I had planned on being when I had him."
In March 2020, when her son was about two and a half years old, Conniff thought it was time to get back into music. But, COVID-19 came, and everything came to a standstill yet again.
Besides getting involved in a collaborative music app during the pandemic, the Motown competition has been Conniff’s first reintroduction to a music career.
“I’m stepping back out there again for the first time since my son was born,” Conniff said. “That’s like really exciting in a lot of ways to be like starting out with something so big.”
Conniff feels that her situation is unique to her runners-up, most of whom are doing gigs, while she is just getting going again.
Currently, Hitsville NEXT is having all ten finalists go through an artist development program to perfect their performances in every aspect with mentors Beth Griffith-Manley, Curtiss Boone, Kern Brantley and Tristan Andrews.
Each artist chose three songs and the coaches helped them narrow it down to one for the finale.
“I don’t know if I can say what song I’m doing yet, but what I can say is that I’ll be bringing rock and roll to this competition and I’m the only rock and roll person performing," Conniff said. “Right now I’m really focusing on developing myself as this rock artist so I’m really looking at people like Freddie Mercury, Brandy Carlyle, Paramore, Alanis Morrisette, those are my inspirations right now.”
Motown music helped break societal barriers for Black musicians, many of whom laid the groundwork for modern music. Conniff is grateful to be a part of a competition that highlights Detroit and its history, and loves the uniqueness and variety the city has to offer.
“I know what it means to a lot of people, especially the people in Detroit, so to be welcomed into that space, it’s very, very amazing as a musician," she said. "I do like that there’s like this side of Motown that was like very rock and roll, like they produced rock bands like Rare Earth is like a serious rock and roll band and they were on Motown records so I’m excited to sort of highlight that side of Motown.”
The EMU alumna is aiming to win a top-three spot, which will be decided by three judges.
First place will win $5000 and mentorships, as well as the chance to record a song at the Motown studios and do additional performances with the museum throughout the year. Second and third place winners will get the same, but with a smaller cash prize and no mentorships.
At this point in the competition, the finalists have all met each other and have heard one another sing, practicing at the studio at least once a week.
“We’re all like following each other on Instagram now that it’s all been made public, but we haven’t gotten to spend alot of time together,” she said. “I think that’s gonna change as like we rehearse more for the show because everything’s very individualized right now.”
Conniff said that her ultimate goal for the competition is to represent herself and hopes that it helps to kick her career back to where it was before having a child.
“Not many people get the chance to get to live their full rockstar fantasy, so like, I’m gonna live it and I figure if I do that then I’ve won," she said.
Aside from music, Conniff has her own marketing company called Upward Anthems.
It is important to her that she can pursue music while still having the time and ability to be a mother and a marketer. Often, Conniff feels that people make being a musician seem all or nothing, but she doesn’t agree.
“When I was growing up I was kind of like taught that if you’re gonna be a musician you have to do it full time at the level of Brittney Spears or you have nothing, and that’s really not true,“ she said. “I wanna continue living my life, I run my own marketing business from home, so I wanna continue running my business, living in Michigan with my family and doing gigs and singing, being a singer, I wanna have it all.”
Conniff’s biggest takeaway from being a part of the competition is the importance of believing in yourself, which she hopes all EMU students do as well.
“What I learned at EMU was that you get out of EMU what you put in,” Conniff said. “If you have any kind of aspirations, there are teachers and professors who are waiting for the passionate students to come banging on their door.”
She said that since everyone doesn’t take advantage of the opportunities at EMU, there are a lot of them out there just waiting for students to fill them in.
"I think kind of reminding EMU students that you go to a good school, you have a lot of resources at hand, take as much advantage of them as you can because once you get out of college things kind of change and those doors don’t swing open as easily," Conniff said.
People interested in attending the live performance finale on March 15 should stay up to date on ticket sales through Instagram @hitsvillenext.