A dynamic, young musician has burst onto the Columbia music scene in recent years. If you frequent restaurants such as The Grand on Main Street, Cantina 76 or Za’s on Devine Street, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the tones of musician Marcus Gullen and his guitar.
But the guitar wasn’t Gullen’s first instrument. He started playing drums when he was two years old and studied orchestral percussion, Latin percussion and even six-mallet marimba, according to Gullen.
"I have formal training in those areas," Gullen said.
Beyond drums and guitar, Gullen also plays the keyboard and sings, making him a versatile and multifaceted performer. While he is best known as a singer, Gullen started singing almost by chance.
“I started playing drums for an artist, and then one night the artist was sick and couldn’t sing, and so they were like, 'Can anybody else sing?' I’m like, 'I’ll give it a try, I guess,'" Gullen said. "That's kind of what started it."
The results are an active musical career that features him as the lead singer for a variety of bands and combos. His 2017 album “Peace’d Together” showcases his musical range through funk, country and rock styles woven together by his mellifluous vocals.
Diving into the unfamiliar is a theme for Gullen.
Whether it’s using a loop pedal for the first time during a live show or finding innovative ways to overcome the obstacles of the pandemic, Gullen said he has found immense value in just going for it.
“I’ve always been one to just dive in headfirst,” Gullen said. “Sometimes it can be a fault. Because, you know, I get in over my head. But, to me, you forfeit learning opportunities if you don’t. Sometimes when you’re too cautious, you miss out on the growth.”
Greg Sword, Gullen’s manager, is often asked to dive in with him. A recent example is their St. Valentine’s Day show that expanded their typical performance into a full-scale event complete with a chef.
“This is even a learning process because we’re adding an extra layer to it in terms of having a chef,” Sword said. “These are different realms that I never quite thought I would cross into.”
Sword said he is willing to take these leaps because of who Gullen is and what he brings to Columbia.
“I realized, this is somebody that can bring things that need to be brought into the music community,” Sword said. “When he came in, I’m like, 'This is the attitude that other musicians need to have.'”
Jim Graddick, a violinist in Columbia for over ten years and a USC School of Music graduate, said Gullen’s influence is a “rising tide that lifts all boats.”
“He makes Chapin feel like a little bit more of a sociable place because people go out to hear him,” Graddick said. “Chapin is funny because it feels like a small town but it’s such a vibrant musical community, and a lot of that is just because of Marcus [Gullen]. He’s really turned it into a destination for live music.”
Gullen’s impact on the Columbia music scene is especially remarkable considering he has only lived in the area for about three years, according to Sword. During this relatively short time, he has re-energized live music in South Carolina’s capital.
“Marcus brings so much energy with him whenever he gets on stage. It’s electrifying, really,” Graddick said. “I mean he kind of brings the atmosphere with him.”
In addition to concerts, private gigs and weekly performances at restaurants, Gullen’s upcoming projects include a series of singles that are to be released throughout the year. For these singles, Gullen is trying a new creative approach, one that embraces “everybody’s input on the song,” instead of just his own vision.
Relinquishing control over a creative product can be daunting for an artist, but daunting doesn’t seem to faze Gullen. Odds are he will dive in and make a splash.
Correction (Feb. 24, 2021, at 11:07 a.m.): A previous version of this article stated the photo is courtesy of Greg Sword. The photo was taken by Rodrick King and provided by Greg Sword.