NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) — Andrew Peterson’s annual Behold the Lamb of God Christmas concert at Ryman Auditorium draws ardent, hometown Christian music fans and a lineup of their favorite performers. Many in the crowd Sunday night (Dec. 9) knew Marc Martel as the lead singer of Downhere, a band, now on extended hiatus, that once won a Dove Award.
They also had heard about Martel's vocal alter ego — a deceased British rock star of Indian descent and Zoroastrian faith whose story is being told on movie screens around the world.
So when Martel launched into "O Holy Night" from the Ryman stage Sunday, his vocal resemblance to Freddie Mercury, the creative force behind the rock group Queen and the subject of the biopic "Bohemian Rhapsody," drew knowing cheers.
Since 2011, when Martel auditioned for a spot touring with original members of Queen, he has traveled the world as a Mercury tribute artist. His audition video performance of “Somebody to Love” from 2011 is approaching 17 million views on YouTube. The gig had already earned him countless fans and a reliable living before the makers of "Bohemian Rhapsody" called upon him to fill out the sung portions of the Freddie Mercury role, played by Rami Malek.
If Martel shares little in faith, or fame, with Mercury, he has so bonded with the Queen frontman that, seven years into his two-sided career, he doesn’t even think of it as a duality.
“I feel like this is, in some ways, a more healthy work environment for me,” Martel said. “Not that I didn’t enjoy the Downhere days, playing to evangelical audiences all the time. I do miss that sometimes, being around people I can relate to on the most foundational things in life. But I love how integrated my faith is these days.”
For the movie, Martel recorded key sequences at the famed Abbey Road Studios in London, after which his voice was mixed with Queen's, and snippets sung by Malek. When Malek, as Mercury, is playing piano and writing “Love of My Life,” the vocals are all Martel. The movie earned the second-highest-grossing opening weekend in music biopic history, thanks largely to Queen’s loyal fan base, but failed to find critical approval.
Martel said he has no worries about his connection to the late singer, a gay icon who died in 1991 of AIDS-related illness. Martel admits, however, that if he were still fronting Downhere, sure, it might be a problem.
Martel was raised in Montreal, a city known for its low church attendance, by a pastor father and church musician mother. Early on, Martel said, it became his mission to show his unchurched friends that Christians could connect with contemporary culture.
While at a Christian college in Canada, he met his original bandmates in Downhere. In 2001, the group relocated to Nashville and landed a record deal. After a decade of touring and recording, the band was in a slump.
“We’d put out our last album – we didn’t know then it was our last album, but that’s what it ended up being – and for the first time it hadn’t been received better than the previous one,” Martel said. “I was told I wasn’t connecting with my audience.”
It was about this time that he tried out for Queen and began touring with the remaining members of the group in the official tribute show, The Queen Extravaganza. In 2016, he launched his own show, the Ultimate Queen Celebration. Between the two, he has gone to places that Downhere would likely never have taken him. And while touring can be grueling — his bookings for next year include Malta and Kazakhstan — his spirituality, he said, is richer than ever.
“I’m not trying to hide anything when I’m doing Queen," he explained. "I’m not preaching either. I don’t shy away from the fact that, when I sing ‘Somebody to Love,’ it has more meaning for me than the other songs because it was Freddie’s attempt at writing a gospel song.”
But don’t call Martel a Freddie Mercury impersonator.
“An impersonator is someone who pretends to be someone else. That’s not what I do," he said. "I’m a tribute artist. I pay tribute to the music as best I can. I sound naturally like Freddie, and when I do Queen songs, I change my voice a little more. I don’t normally sing in a British accent.”
He’s got two new albums out: a seasonal set of standards on “Christmastime Is Here” and “Thunderbolt & Lightning,” personalized Queen favorites that are, he said, still true to their origins.
He said he tried to watch as little of “Bohemian Rhapsody” as possible while it was coming together so he could enjoy it as a fan. He, his wife and his manager went to the theater in Cool Springs, Tenn., on opening day, and Martel spent two hours listening for and critiquing his own performances. He said he had more fun watching it days later, buying out a showing and enjoying the movie with 80 friends.
He’s taking five whole days off between his Behold the Lamb appearance in Nashville and his next Queen gig, in Miami, giving him a little time to beat jet lag from a performance in Hong Kong last week, study Scripture and fix his sedan, which broke down on his wife as she tried to drive home from the show on Sunday.
Unlike Freddie Mercury, Martel does not have people for that.