Interview: Mary Fahl

Mary Fahl @ Caffe Lena

Mary Fahl is a singer-songwriter who has pursued her own uniquely individual musical path. Because of that, some who are familiar with her albums or earlier work as co-founder of the October Project might even say she is an sublime enigma, both as a performer and an artist.

Whether listening to her on a CD or live, Fahl’s lovely voice has a fantastic range and an amazing tone. Her vocal prowess captivates and tantalizes anyone experiencing it. In one song, her voice may be operatic, in the next supremely soulful or seductive, and in the one after that it’s down to earth and folksy. She is many vocalists in one, and few singers out there have that kind of control and vocal maneuverability. In other words, Fahl just glistens vocally behind the microphone.

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Her debut appearance at Caffe Lena on Sunday, September 19 attracted dozens fans, some of whom had driven quite a distance to be there. And none of them were disappointed in the least with her captivating performance. One stand-out song of her performance was Pink Floyd’s “Something,” which at first, might seem to be a far-fetched entry in her repertoire until you realize she is a fan and a musical visionary. Fahl definitely made the song her very own that night at Lena’s.

Her yet-to-be-released album “Mary Fahl: From the Dark Side of the Moon” is a personal tribute to that legendary English rock band, and it’s mind-blowing. She takes Pink Floyd’s material and keeps the essence of the album alive, but rearranges it brilliantly to be a platform for her emotionally tinged voice.

Q: Why did you decide to re-interpret Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side Of The Moon”? How did you come to choose that particular album to rearrange into a singer-songwriter setting?

A: I had been on Sony Classical, and after its merger with BMG, everyone on staff that I knew at Sony was let go, and my contract wasn’t renewed. They only wanted purely classical artists on the newly reformed Sony/BMG label. So I was kind of at sea…

I wanted to try something completely new and challenging to get me out of my funk. I wanted something that would incorporate theater and film, perhaps, but still be small budget and tour-able. I’ve always been a Pink Floyd fan and “Dark Side…” was one of the few records that I felt merited a re-interpretation that could hold up as a small performance piece/song cycle. In a way, like Kurt Weill’s “Seven Deadly Sins.”

What also made it interesting to me was being able to include lots of other interests of mine – especially on the spoken word sections. I used a chant in Sanskrit from the Bhagavad-Gita, quoting Robert Oppenheimer as he beheld the atomic bomb for the first time: “I have become death, the destroyer of worlds”…(Oppenheimer was a Sanskrit scholar in addition to being a physicist). It just seemed right for “Us and Them”. I incorporated some phrases from Goethe’s “Faust” (i.e., when Faust asks Mephistopheles: “Who are you?” and Mephistopheles answers: “I am the spirit who denies..”), some T.S. Eliot and some ancient Egyptian religious incantations at the beginning of the record. The Egyptian language was very percussive, and I needed something to replace the heartbeat Pink Floyd used in the opening track of their version of “Dark Side…” Suffice it to say, I had a ball!

We made the record in a friend’s small studio in Syracuse over the course of about nine months and brought it to V2 Records, who got it immediately. But they wanted us to prove that we could perform the record live with four people. I found a tiny, jewel box of a theater in Syracuse, and got the head of the theater lighting dept. at S.U. on board to build a small set and do all the lighting. We also incorporated some interesting, Maya Deren-esque films to accompany certain parts of the show.

The V2 fellas flew up for the peformance, loved it and offered me a deal that night. Tragically, just as the record was to be released, V2 went under. Needless to say, I was crushed. That said, when they closed their doors, they gave most of their artists lifeboats – I was able to buy my record back from them, and I now own the masters to “Dark Side…” I am exploring doing a digital release of it in the next few months.

Q: Some singer-songwriters look at what they did in collaboration with others in the past as “that was then and what I’m doing now is it,” yet at Caffe Lena, you performed songs from October Project. What are your thoughts about that undertaking, the two albums released and the legacy that exists from that group?

A: I’m very proud of those records. It was truly a group effort, and we were all extremely dedicated and hard working. I think both the CDs (especially the first one) have held up over time. They don’t sound dated to me at all. And yes, I perform a few songs from those records because it’s a valid part of my history. Moreover, many people who come to my shows are unfamiliar with me as a solo artist – so they come expecting and wanting to hear some of the songs they loved from the old days.

I know how I am when I go to see someone in concert. I need to hear something I’m familiar with, and then I’m much more open to hearing a lot of new material. I still love some of the old OP songs and get a lot of pleasure singing them.

As for the OP legacy, it’s funny where OP fanatics will turn up. Either you’ve never heard of the band, or it changed your life! There doesn’t seem to be much in between.

I was in mainland China this summer, and the English teacher at Tsinghua University in Shenzhen, where my significant other was invited to speak, happened to be a huge OP fan and organized in two days a concert for me to perform! Is that a coincidence or what? His students were all familiar with OP due to his enthusiasm. They even sang a few songs for me, which was utterly delightful!

Q: After that, you signed a major label deal as a solo artist and recorded some significant music. What did it do you for you professionally? Emotionally? Are you still happy with “The Other Side Of Time”?

A: Getting signed to Sony Classical was a total surprise. It was a few years after OP broke up. We had been dropped from Epic/Sony, and I didn’t see any point in staying with the band after that. I wasn’t allowed to write any material of my own for the band or even collaborate with the writers and was basically treated like a hired hand. I just had so much more inside of me that I wanted to express. I needed to grow and explore as an artist, and I would never have been able to do that if I had stayed.

I started working with Bob Reilly of Gracepool – an absolutely lovely human being in every way – who died tragically a few years ago. We wrote together and made some demos. I got lucky with some TV commercials, singing all kinds of quasi-Arabic vocalese for products like Audi and Nike. It enabled me to hire some musicians and start touring. I basically had to start from scratch, in terms of building my audience. Can you believe that OP wouldn’t give me the mailing list we had so diligently built up over the years (and still won’t to this day – quite a sore point, as I’m sure you can imagine)? So nobody knew I had a solo career, and a large part of the OP audience still doesn’t know what I’m up to.

I didn’t think I’d ever get another deal, and I was fine with that. I just had a hunger to write and perform all kinds of material, especially material that wouldn’t be considered pop or even folk. I had started incorporating some medieval music, even some opera, into my shows. Not the kind of thing that gets you a deal then or now.

Then out of the blue, Sony Classical got in touch with me. They were looking for crossover artists but didn’t want to do the typical 3 Tenors kind of thing. They had me come up to audition for them and asked me to bring some of my own material, as well as some classical pieces. I sang 3 songs, including “Nessum Dorma.” Right after I finished, Peter Gelb (former head of Sony Classical and current head of the Metropolitan Opera in NYC) called me over and said, “Mary, we’d really like you to be on our label, what would you think of that?” I’ll never forget that moment because it was like being transported to heaven in an instant… (what a wonderful and courageous man he is… I’m so proud of what he’s doing at the Met these days.)

Sony wanted me to make an album that was cinematic, and they wanted me to sing with an orchestra. Those were the two guidelines I had. A couple of the songs I wrote were put into movies – “Going Home” was written for “Gods and Generals” and “Dawning of the Day” for “The Guys”.

I think some people didn’t understand what we were trying to do on “The Other Side of Time.” They thought I had sold out somehow, but the album was never meant to be pop, as it was on a classical label. And I think that cost me favor in the eyes of the “downtown” crowd. But I don’t really care. I am what I am, and I won’t pander to the hipsters for the sake of popularity. I also think there’s a purist element in a lot of critics who don’t approve of my eclecticism. They’d take me more seriously if I made an album that was all one genre, like an album of nothing but 11th century songs from Provence. But I’m not that kind of an artist either.

I suppose what I wanted to make was something like my version of those early Judy Collins records like “Wildflower” or “Who Knows Where the Time Goes.” We had those records in my house when I was growing up, and they had a big impact on me. They were incredibly eclectic and very beautiful. She covered classical and art songs, Leonard Cohen, Dylan, traditional folk and theater songs, as well as her own material.

I loved that approach then, and I love it now. It’s what I try to do in my live shows, and I think it works. That said, I still think the industry doesn’t know what to do with me. They can’t classify me as one thing or another, so marketing me may be too much of a challenge for them. And yet, when I look out into my audience, I know that there’s a niche out there for me, it just hasn’t been found yet.

As for “The Other Side of Time,” I’m still proud of it. It was an incredible experience making that record. I got to work with wonderful people, and I think the record holds up over time. If I had one regret, it’s the length of the record. I don’t believe in albums with more than 10 songs. If I’d had my way, I would have shortened the record – but there you have it.

Q: In our brief chat at Caffe Lena, I was quite surprised when you said that Dave Van Ronk was a huge influence on you. I don’t think that most folks would expect that. Can you talk a bit about his influence?

A: I had all of Dave’s records. I just loved that ragtime guitar sound of his, and, of course, he was a great and totally unique blues singer. But more importantly, he was a tremendous interpreter of songs, probably the best interpreter of Joni Mitchell I’ve ever heard! Just listen to him on “Urge for Going” or “That Song About the Midway.” I loved the way he sang Jacques Brel songs, too. He could have been an actor – there was such drama and gruff passion in his delivery. He could really transport you, and bring you right inside a song. And he was cultured. He loved world music. Just check out and listen to “Honey Hair,” a Bulgarian folk tune that he adapted. It’s one of the regrets of my life that I never got to meet and know him.

Q: Some critics have described your music as being somewhere in between Nico and Joni Mitchell. How do you feel about that? Were either of those two performers an influence at all?

A: I guess I’d have to agree with them somewhat, although you could probably throw in a few more influences as well. I don’t think there’s a modern songwriter worth their salt who hasn’t been influenced by Joni Mitchell. She took the craft of songwriting to a whole new place and hasn’t stopped exploring and growing even after all these years. I would say that her clarity and honesty as a singer was an influence.

That said, her songwriting is much more self-reflective and confessional than mine. And musicially, she’s much more jazz-influenced than I am. As for Nico, I’ve just always been a fan. She was so strange and beautiful. I always loved the Germanic depth of her voice (maybe it’s something in my own Teutonic DNA that resonates with her). There is nothing warm and fuzzy about Nico, and she was growing into an interesting songwriter as well. She was a bit before her time in many ways. Her material verged on the classical, and it was closer to art songs than to anything pop or rock and roll.

Q: So what’s next for you? Are you doing any new recording? How is the evolution of your music unfolding?

A: As I mentioned, I’m hoping to do a digital release of “Dark Side…” -in the next few months – and thematically, that record is more appropos of our times than ever. I’ve also been going down to New Orleans periodically to record new material and now have about 9-10 of these under my belt that I’ll be releasing on a new album – hopefully within the next few months. I played several of these at Caffe Lena.

The songs I write now are primarily ones that I can play solo on guitar, and without a record company backing me, or a publicist etc., it’s the only way I can tour. In one way it’s limiting, but in another way it condenses what I write and perform down to its purest elements. I can’t hide behind a wall of sound or interesting instrumentation or licks. It’s all simple, bare arrangements now, and the songs have to have good bones if they’re going to hold up.

Q: You recently made your debut at Caffe Lena. Were you aware of its history? What were some of your feelings and thoughts on playing there for the first time?

A: I was indeed very much aware of Caffe Lena’s 50 years of tradition and significance. I’m a romantic when it comes to ghosts from the past. And they are surely everywhere at Caffe Lena. I loved looking at all the old black and white photos and reading about the history of the place. And it was an honor to be on the same stage as Dylan and countless other artists from a generation when music stood for something real and profound.

Visit Mary Fahl’s website for more info. She will also be taking the stage at the Towne Crier Cafe in Pawling at 8:30pm on Saturday, October 16. Tix are $20 in advance; $25 at the door.

Mary Fahl @ Caffe Lena, Saratoga Springs

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