A FEW MINUTES WITH: Mary Ramsey of 10,000 Maniacs

November 16th, 2016, 1:31 pm by Greg

By Don Wilcock

The band is not her life. It may not even be her obsession. But it is a joy.

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Mary Ramsey joined 10,000 Maniacs just after Natalie Merchant left the band in 1994. Merchant’s final album with the group was the live recording, MTV Unplugged. It sold four million copies. More than two decades later in celebration of their 35th anniversary, the Maniacs – who play the Cohoes Music Hall Saturday night (November 19) – have released their second live album, Playing Favorites. It features Ramsey singing her own hits, as well as those from Merchant’s tenure.

The album is electric, featuring added strings, horns and background vocalists and was produced by Fred Maher, whose credits include Lou Reed and Matthew Sweet. The songs may have more bells and whistles instrumentally, and the 14 cuts may all be “favorites,” but it will without a doubt sell a tiny fraction of the four million copies MTV Unplugged racked up.

“Selling CDs or selling music used to be the number one focus,” says Ramsey, “and touring was kind of second, but now it’s the reverse. I think getting out and playing music is where we feel we have a lot of focus. And certainly it’s where the financial benefits are (today vs. 1995). Selling music is kind of a labor of love. If somebody wants to buy it, that’s wonderful. It’s like writing poems or having books. There’s music all over the place with ways of getting it without paying for it.”

This band is a part of Ramsey’s life, but just a part.

She had to cut short our interview to teach a piano student. She took six years off in the middle of her tenure with the Maniacs and moved to California. She’s involved in theater productions in Buffalo, where she lives. She sometimes plays classical music on her violin – playing in the Erie Philharmonic helped pay her way through college. And she plays in the duo, John and Mary, with guitarist John Lombardo, who is also in 10,000 Maniacs.

“I still have the bohemian lifestyle which I’m happy about,” she says. “When I came back (from California) I appreciated (the band) more, and I felt like I added more, had more experiences and things like that. I’m kind of the mind that it’s good to try to diversify sometimes when it comes to the arts and try different things.

“I feel like I’m pretty content doing what I’m doing, teaching. I teach kids beginning piano or I’m involved in theater productions here in Buffalo. I sometimes play classical stuff. I play of course Maniac stuff, John and Mary stuff, I write. Maybe there’s more balance in terms of everybody has the potential to do a lot of different things.”

Though classically trained, Ramsey feels her role in 10,000 Maniacs gives her an opportunity to be more creative and break away from the stratification of playing music that’s set in stone. “You have to have a lot of skill (playing classical music), and you have to have a combination of a lot of technical skill like muscle technical skill, exactness and musicality, and I always felt I got to a point where I wanted to figure out who I am, not play somebody else’s piece to find out who I am. So, that sort of took me of in a different direction, and it worked pretty well.”

She chuckles, almost as if to say the words “worked pretty well” are an understatement.

“I’m happy I did that, although I totally respect and I have done a lot of classical playing in my lifetime, but I feel much more comfortable singing and playing my own music. And I think my playing is probably better.”

Ramsey joined 10,000 Maniacs when John Lombardo – who was a member of the band from 1981–1986 – rejoined in 1994. “We met in 1989, and then we became friends. We started writing songs and playing together (as John and Mary), and it was a nice fit. We enjoyed it, and we had a little bit of success doing that. We did a lot of touring, and that really got me into the realm of folk-rock music. He has a huge collection and knowledge of all sorts of music, especially British Isles folk-rock, reggae and punk. So usually when we’d travel around, he’d have all these cassette compilations of this and that: Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention or the Clash. The list goes on and on. So, he gave me a bit of education and also was helpful in terms of the songwriting.

“How did we get from there to here? I did background vocals and strings on Hope Chest (10,000 Maniacs’ Hope Chest: The Fedonia Recordings 1982-1983). John and I opened for that tour, and that’s how I kinda got to where I am now because when Natalie left, they asked me to join with John.”

The new live album contains many originals, but the two numbers on the CD that the band is best known for are Patti Smith’s “Because the Night” and Roxy Music’s “More Than This.” The first was a hit for the band when Merchant was at the helm. The Roxy Music song was Ramsey’s idea.

“I really love that song, and I suggested to the band: ‘Why don’t we see how it goes to put our sound on it,’ and it really worked for us. I think everybody just approached it with their instruments, and, of course, when we recorded it, we worked with Fred Maher, who produced the songs, but it wasn’t something that was over-analyzed. Everybody kind of grabbed the chords, and (drummer) Jerry (Augustyniak) put a certain beat on it, and it was a very natural fit. The song is very lyrical. So, it just was very easy to make it work. It wasn’t something that was very off-base. I felt that song inside, so it just kind of works. Nothing too complex.”

Ramsey is the same age as Natalie Merchant, 53. She’s five inches taller and is well aware of another big difference in regards to the success of MTV Unplugged. “We (she and John Lombardo) certainly didn’t feel any of that four million.”

WHO: 10,000 Maniacs
WHERE: Cohoes Music Hall, Cohoes
WHEN: 7:30pm Saturday (November 19)
HOW MUCH: $32, $42 & $52

BUT WAIT… We’re giving away a pair of FREE TICKETS for the 10,000 Maniacs concert to a lucky Nippertown reader! To enter the contest, just GO HERE and post a comment. Enter today! And good luck!