Miko Marks is feeling like a kid again -- musically speaking, that is.

"I'm like, 'Is this really happening?' I still feel like ... I haven't done this before," she tells The Boot a few weeks prior to the Friday (March 26) release of her new album, Our Country. In her voice, there's joy and excitement, both certainly well earned.

Marks moved to Nashville in 2003 and released two albums in the mid-2000s; neo-soul star Erykah Badu, a college friend, even starred in one of Marks' music videos. Her debut record, Freeway Bound, won Country Album of the Year at the 2006 Independent Music Awards, and she was named New Music Weekly's Best New Country Artist that same year. She played CMA Fest several years, and People dubbed her "Nashville's hottest new country star."

Still, Marks found it difficult to exist in Nashville's country music scene as a Black woman and an independent artist. After several years of trying to break through, she left Music City for California.

"I didn't see another album in my future. You know, I was just like, 'Oh, you put out two projects back in the early 2000s,' and I was just gonna sail off into the sunset -- still singing, because I still perform and do shows around my area," Marks says, "... but I didn't see an album."

But then, in the summer of 2019, Marks had a dream: She was playing with Justin Phipps and Steve Wyreman, two talented musicians with whom she previously worked. She had no idea what the two men -- the former of whom founded Redtone Records and the latter of whom has worked as a player and producer with everyone from Rihanna to John Legend -- were up to now, but Marks took it as a sign that it was time to work together again.

"All I knew is that [Justin] and Steve were just amazing musicians and great writers," she explains, adding with a laugh, "And so I was like, 'We need to do something; I have to sing ... What are y'all doing now? I know you're not doing anything!'"

They were doing things, though, and offered Marks not only a song ("Good Night America," a standout on Our Country written by Phipps that Marks calls "like truth serum"), but a record label and their band, the Resurrectors, Redtone Records' house band. They started there, and continued to cut songs throughout the first three quarters of 2020, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We did ["Goodnight America"] and we liked what we heard. We were like, 'We want to do another one,' and so the album kind of happened on a limp-along basis ... We just kept putting one song down after the other, and just kind of moved with the organic flow of everything," Marks recounts. "... We just were banging them out. And I was really, really, really happy to be performing again, and putting down music on a record because I didn't know I would do that again."

In the middle of the pandemic and without official plans for a full-length album, Marks found creative space, free from any particular long-range idea or vision until she found it in real time. And while Our Country offers lighter moments, too -- the exuberant "Pour Another Glass," for example -- it's steeped in the turmoil of not only 2020, but before and beyond.

Although she did not complete "We Are Here" until 2020, Marks had begun writing the song in 2018, spurred by the ongoing water crisis in her hometown of Flint, Mich. "I wrote [the song] for my town, but also for all the people that are marginalized and economically stifled and just forgotten ... We tend to forget about the people that are less fortunate and who are suffering like that," she says, noting that although the issue is no longer making major headlines, it's still happening "and it's just -- it's disheartening."

"2020 and COVID really allowed me to go inward and really tap into some places that maybe I was distracted to tap into before. So the silence and the peace of the pandemic allowed me to do some real soul searching in my writing," Marks adds. "It was all of the pandemic silence, and it was the culmination of just the year in itself -- like, all things that are that are dysfunctional in our country. I was more attuned to that last year."

Walking back into making music in such a climate, Marks says, is "super empowering." Whereas her first go-around in Nashville "felt really just like this lonesome journey," this time, she feels uplifted and invigorated by the possibilities that come with both more Black artists in the genre being noticed and the country music industry's examination of how its systems put artists of color, women and other minorities at a disadvantage.

"There's this unity amongst us to really try to break down these doors, because they've been so high for so long. The walls have been so high for so long," Marks muses of the friendships she's formed with fellow Black women including Rissi Palmer and Mickey Guyton. "And I feel like we're on the precipice of a change in some way. I don't know what that looks like, but to see what I'm seeing right now. I never would have imagined, honestly."

More broadly, independent artists such as Marks -- who was on an independent record label in the 2000s as well and struggled to get major-label attention -- also have tools at their disposal now that they didn't back then. "When I started, we had MySpace, and maybe Facebook ... so it was totally harder than it is now," she points out.

"Social media has really kind of given the artist a little more power," Marks continues. "And I don't want to discount the power [of major labels] ... because they're still powerful, but the fact that we can livestream, we can go on social media, we can reach out to fans in a different way, and people are talking amongst themselves. Rather than waiting for something to be put out, you can put it out yourself."

It's powerful, too, Marks says, to know, as Black artist in country music, that she is simply claiming a space that is rightfully hers, not trying to co-opt it. "Country music needs to change, and it needs to be inclusive of everyone," she stresses, noting how the album title Our Country nods to not only the Black men and women who built America and have played integral roles in the country music genre even before its official start, but also to a vision of equality among all who live in the United States.

"Our Country is not just saying, like, 'Oh, this is my country, too' -- no, it's saying, 'This is our country, collectively, and how do we move through and make our country better?'" Marks explains.

For help answering that question, the album-opening "Ancestors" finds Marks looking to those who have come before her for knowledge, peace and direction: personally, in her career and for the world at large.

"I've just tapped into a different space, musically," she reflects. "I feel like I'm being led down a certain path, and it's the right path for me to be on right now in this space and time."

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