Marc Martel Sings Freddie Mercury In 'Bohemian Rhapsody'
Audiences in cinemas around the world are watching the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody – it debuted at No. 1 at the box office last weekend – but no one has experienced it quite like Marc Martel.
“I was a very unique experience for me as far as not being able to just sit and enjoy it like I would enjoy a movie that I’m not in,” the Montreal-born singer said Tuesday. “It was very cool and weird."
Martel is heard, not seen, in Bohemian Rhapsody. For the film's performance sequences, the vocals are a blend of the late Freddie Mercury’s (using master recordings), Martel’s, and actor Rami Malek’s.
“Even I didn’t know beforehand where they were choosing to use me,” Martel told iHeartRadio.ca. “I tried to see as little as possible while work was being done on the movie so that it could be mostly a surprise for me.”
Martel can’t say much else about his work on Bohemian Rhapsody (his manager cited a non-disclosure agreement) but in an interview published in August, the singer said he spent a few weeks recording at London’s famous Abbey Road studio before filming even began.
Martel was a natural choice to help bring Mercury’s iconic voice to the big screen. In 2011, he was hand-picked by Queen’s Roger Taylor to front The Queen Extravaganza, a live production that toured around the world, after auditioning with a mind-blowing rendition of “Somebody To Love.”
It wasn’t Martel’s first day at the races, though. In the late ‘90s, he formed Christian rock band Downhere with Jason Germain, his roommate at Saskatchewan’s Briercrest Bible College.
Between 2001 and 2011, the group released six studio albums – four of which won Juno Awards.
Martel recalled how his voice was often compared to Mercury’s but said he “didn’t think that sounding like Freddie Mercury was particularly unique.”
He explained: “I’m of the mind that it’s a big world, there are a lot of people in it, and surely there are other people who have that ability to sound even closer than I can.”
But, Martel soon realized he was on to something.
“When Roger Taylor told me, ‘When I listen to you sing it’s like Freddie walked into the room,’ I thought, ‘Oh wow, this is something different that I happen to be able to do.’ I guess that was the moment that I started to embrace it a little more.”
“We were very lucky to find Marc Martel. That voice. You listen, close your eyes and you think it’s Freddie. It’s really uncanny.” - Queen's Roger Taylor, to the Daily Record in 2013.
Downhere announced a hiatus in 2012 and, except for a live reunion two years ago, its members have focused on other projects. For Martel, those projects have been predominantly related to Queen.
Martel is currently touring in The Ultimate Queen Celebration – which will have a run in his native Quebec next year.
He said performing the tribute show gives him “a lot of added purpose” because he’s aware of how much fans feel a connection to the music.
“It brings people so much joy and nostalgia and frequently I see people tearing up in the front row,” he said. “It’s different than what I envisioned doing as a young musician but it’s definitely so rewarding.
“I didn’t grow up listening to Queen so I don’t have that super emotional attachment to the music like a lot of people who come to the shows. I get emails from people telling me that Queen was their solace in difficult times in life.”
For fans who can’t make it to The Ultimate Queen Celebration, Martel has just released Thunderbolt & Lightning, a collection of seven Queen songs.
“It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for awhile,” he said of the album. “I picked some songs that are very obvious ones and a couple that I wish people were more familiar with, like [1976’s] ‘You Take My Breath Away’ and [1975’s] 'Love Of My Life.’
“They’re not note-for-note recreations. I don’t see much point in doing that. We tried to take each song in a fairly different direction than they are known for. The moments that I enjoyed the most on this record are when I felt like I really broke away from the original versions.”
Martel also revisited the song that started it all, “Somebody To Love.”
He said: “It’s probably my favourite Queen song. The end part I took in a completely different direction from the original.”
Martel is grateful for the opportunities that his gift of sounding like Mercury has given him. But, he said, “I’m really starting to feel the need, or the desire, to start writing my own stuff again.
“The last couple of years have been very Queen-focused, for which I am so thankful – a working musician is a happy musician – but I grew up in music as a songwriter. I don’t think any songwriter grows up dreaming that one day I’m going to spend most of my time performing someone else’s music.”
The 41-year-old has been living in Nashville for 18 years (“It’s the longest I’ve lived in one spot so it really is home”) but returns to Canada at least a couple of times a year to visit his parents in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, near Montreal.
Don’t count on a Downhere reunion, though. “We kind of shut things down indefinitely,” said Martel, who remains in touch with his former bandmates.
“You never say never, I guess.”