Talks with Mary Fahl

 

Mary Fahl

Mary Fahl's website

 

Mary Fahl Live at the
Mauch Chunk Opera House

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CEV:  When and why did you start singing?  

MF:  I can’t remember not singing. My mother remembers me singing in the crib.  It’s just always been an essential part of who I am.
It’s what I’m here to do.

CEV:  What was the first musical instrument that you learned? What is your favorite?

MF:  The only instrument I’ve ever learned is the guitar.  My grandfather  bought me a 12-string when I was around 11 and I taught myself to play.

CEV:  Did you have a voice or instrument teacher when you first started singing? What was the most important thing they taught you about playing or singing?

MF:  I never had voice or music lessons of any kind until I was an adult and even then, I’ve only been to a few voice coaches to learn some warm-up techniques.  I always left when they started trying to make me sound like everybody else.  The best music teacher I ever had was Rob Kapilow. He was wonderful.  I worked with him in my early 20’s.  I don’t even remember how I got to him, because he’s a conductor/composer, not a voice teacher.  I would just bring in material to sing for him and he helped me to understand the deeper layers of what I was singing.  He taught me to get inside a song the way a conductor would.   

CEV:  What are your fondest musical memories during this time of learning and exploring your creative side?

MF:  I always loved doing theatre especially performing in musicals and I always loved reverb. Even as a kid I’d find dingy stairwells with great acoustics and stay there for hours with my guitar. I couldn’t afford to buy many albums back then, so I really treasured the ones I had listened over and over again. I got deep inside the music.  I’m not sure anyone does that anymore because there’s just too much music out there and it’s so readily available.  I miss that experience of an album becoming part of your DNA.

CEV:  You have quite a powerful voice on record and live from the YouTube clips I've seen, was it always so strong right from the beginning or has that been something you've built up to along the way?

MF:  When I was a growing up, I was constantly singing along with records. I always preferred female singers with strong, womanly, mostly alto voices.  I suppose that’s how my voice developed into the sound it is today.

CEV:  Was singing professionally something that you wanted to do or were you encouraged by others to pursue it?

MF:  Just out of college, I wanted to be in musical theatre but I wasn’t very “castable”. I never looked the way I sounded and I suppose I still don’t.  When I was a kid all I wanted was to be a professional singer but as I got older it seemed too impossible.  I was always very shy, so it was challenging for me to make the kinds of professional and creative connections you need to make in order to succeed in the music business.

CEV:  Tell me about the formation of October Project and your eventual decision to leave to pursue a solo career.

MF:  I met Julie Flanders quite by accident. I was introduced to her on 5th Avenue by a mutual friend and she invited me to her birthday party.  We became fast friends and she introduced me to her songwriting partner and boyfriend Emil.  The first time I heard their music I knew we were going to form a band and I knew we’d get a deal.  There wasn’t even a question in my mind … it was just “when” and “how” and “let’s go”.  The combination of their songs and my voice blended so beautifully it was as if the songs had been tailor made for me.  Emil, Dave and I worked together for a year or so rehearsing and honing the sound, then Emil invited Marina to join the band and the final sonic piece was in place.  We were all incredibly dedicated. We worked hard and, little by little, began to develop a following in NYC that culminated at the Café Sine scene in the early 90’s where there would often be a line around the block to see us.  

It was one of those rare creative clusters that happens every so often. In a relatively short period of time, we got a deal with Epic.  It was all very heady and exciting.  Our first record did very well and I still think it’s a classic that stands the test of time.  Our second record was another story.  Epic didn’t think we had a “hit” and you could feel them pulling away.  When we were finally dropped, I suppose we could have gotten another deal somewhere, but it just didn’t make sense for me stay.  I’d learned a lot from the experience, but I didn’t see myself growing as an artist within the framework of OP.  I was told in no uncertain terms that I would never be able to write with or for the band and there were so many things I was itching to do and explore creatively that just couldn’t have happened in that environment.  I knew I had to take a different path.  

CEV:  What did you learn from your time with October Project?

MF:  Those were formative years for me  - for all of us I suppose.  In retrospect, everything since OP seems easy by comparison.  We spent long weeks touring in a van around the country in very unglamorous venues and dingy hotels. It was grueling and often very stressful, but I really developed as a performer and learned how to deliver “the goods” to an audience night after night under any conditions.  I also learned a tremendous amount from the producers we got to work with especially Glenn Rosenstein. He taught me how to make a record and what was expected of me as a professional.

CEV:  You became involved with doing commercial work after you left October Project. How did this come about and were you continuing to sing while you did the commercial work?

MF:  After OP,  I needed work so I got myself a voiceover agent and began getting work doing a lot of soundscape types of tracks –foreign car commercials – that sort of thing. Some of it was actually quite beautiful.  Again, the lessons learned from Glenn Rosenstein, the producer of the first OP record, served me well in a commercial environment where there’s absolutely no hand-holding.  The recording has to be done quickly and accurately and still be emotionally filled. Concurrent with the commercial work, I was collaborating with Bob Riley of a wonderful 90’s band called Gracepool.  We’d get together every week to write and record.  It was a very healing experience for me. He was a lovely guy and incredibly kind to me at a time when I was very raw and emotionally drained.   Working with him I developed confidence as a writer and I think we got some wonderful songs out of that period.  Bob died suddenly and tragically a few years ago. I still miss him.

CEV:  Tell me about your collaborations with Stephen Schwartz and Ramsey McLean and what that meant to your songwriting.

MF:  Ramsey is just an incredible soul. A true “American Original” and one of my favorite people in the world. He’s so colorful, cultivated, and so knowledgeable about all kinds of music.  We started off writing together for other singers. We wrote “Redemption” with Aaron Neville in mind.  Working with Rams was also a great excuse to spend time in New Orleans which is one of my favorite places in the world.  I was lucky to get to know it well in all its decrepit beauty before the awful deluge.  As for Stephen Schwartz – I was basically set up with a writing appointment with him.  I had one hour of his time and I was incredibly nervous.  That said, I came in with a complete melody but no lyrics.  In his way of carefully asking a series of questions, he enabled me to come up with line after line of the lyric and then he took out my bridge and put in a much better one.  In one hour, we were done and the song we wrote was
“The Other Side of Time”.  It was a master class in songwriting.

CEV:  Looking back from here how do you feel about Lenses of Contact and was it what you were looking for in terms of your initial solo release?

MF:  Lenses of Contact was basically a demo that I decided to release commercially.  I would have liked to do a full-length record, but I didn’t have the resources at the time.  I opted for quality over quantity. I had exceptional musicians on that record like Tony Garnier from Bob Dylan’s band, Scott Healy from the Conan O’Brien band and Glenn Patscha from Ollabelle.  The record got wonderful press. In fact, I don’t remember one negative review, so that was extremely encouraging.  I decided that I might as well tour the record and see if I still had an audience out there.  I put together a great back-up band, which included Fiona McBain and Byron Isaacs of Ollabelle.  Everybody was wonderful to work and tour with and it was an incredible learning experience.  I proved to myself that I could put a band together, pay them honorably, take them on the road, and make it all work on my own which was immensely satisfying.  Moreover, by the time the Sony Classical deal came along, I was primed and ready.

CEV:  It sounds like Peter Gelb (head of Sony Classical) was really taken with your voice during your audition so much so that he signed you to the label. Was being on a classical label what you had in mind and how did that influence the content of the album, The Other Side of Time, that was released on this label?

MF:  The Sony Classical deal came completely out of the blue. They called me up to audition and gave me a week to prepare which turned out to be just after 9/11.  My backup band couldn’t get back to NYC, I couldn’t even find any keyboard players that I knew so I had to hire Henry Aronson, who I’d never even met before, to accompany me AND they insisted I sing something classical.  I should have been a wreck, but I love opera and already knew lots of arias by heart and I suppose there was a large element of grace involved.  The minute I met Peter Gelb, I felt completely at ease, as if an old friend had walked into the room.  I sang a few of my own songs, then Ben Aindi Habibi and then Nessum Dorma and, according to Peter, that’s what cinched it for him and they offered me a deal right then and there.  I have no idea why, but he really likes the way I sing classical arias, go figure.  Sony also liked my songs and thought what I did was very “cinematic” and, since they were known for their film soundtracks, they wanted me to make a cinematic record with some classical pieces AND I had to sing with an orchestra.  Those were my parameters.   The record was never intended to be “pop” or even “world” music.  

CEV:  Have you been as surprised as your fans that you have not achieved as much widespread notoriety as you should have?

MF:  Not surprised.  As Tennessee Williams once observed, fame is shy.  I was never in this for the notoriety or the money.  That said, it’s nice to have the musical resources at your disposal that great success affords, but I’ve probably become a better artist by being forced to strip away everything down to me, a guitar, a spotlight and a glass of water. Time will tell whether or not someday “the world will get it”.  

CEV:  Your latest release has taken a round about way of being released. What happened at the label V2 and how much did it bother you that the album you had hoped would be released shortly turned out to be delayed a few years?

MF:  V2 let all its artists know about 2 months before the fact that their ship was going down.  They were really great to all of us with albums scheduled for release. They gave us all “lifeboats” in terms of buying back our masters.  That said, I cried many tears over what happened.  I loved the label and I loved and believed in my record.  I suspect every creative person has had to learn to deal with disappointment and there’s a therapeutic value to it. You acknowledge your battle scars, gird yourself for the next round, and go on. It takes a lot of devotion, perseverance and commitment to your craft and, in the end, I really love what I do – I can’t “not do it”. Moreover, I like remaining teachable and having to start over again forced me to learn a whole new set of skills.

CEV:  I thought it was rather gutsy of you to choose to take on a classic album such as Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon as your latest release. When did you first start thinking about doing it and were you nervous that it was going to be put under a microscope and ripped apart by Pink Floyd fans around the world?

MF:  I wanted to do something different from the normal singer/songwriter type of record and I needed a big challenge.  
“Dark Side…” seemed like the perfect vehicle to do that.  To me it was a classic song-cycle that takes you on an odyssey into the chaotic wasteland of modern life.  It has all these incredible emotional arcs and valleys.  Performing the album in its entirety for V2 the night they signed me felt like a religious experience. It was thrilling.  As for getting put under a microscope, that happens every time you release a record, whether you’re interpreting a classic piece of work or performing your own songs.  Not everybody’s going to like it or get it.  That’s just the way it is but the positive feedback I’ve gotten has been tremendously gratifying.

CEV:  What approach did you take to this well-known music that made it your own?

MF:  I had no intention of making a “cover” record – why would I bother with that?  We basically deconstructed the whole thing and then gradually and thoughtfully put it back together.  

For example, I had to do something with the spoken word parts – so I decided to use some lines from T.S. Eliot, Goethe and even the Bhagavad Gita. I also did lots of vocal layering and substituted my voice for a good deal of the instrumentation not dissimilar to the soundscape voiceover work I had done.  More importantly, I approached this work with a powerful intention to represent the archetypal feminine principal.  Ultimately, I think I made it my own.

CEV:  Was there a favorite song on this album that you enjoy singing more than the others?

MF:  That’s hard to say, I loved them all in different ways.  “Brain Damage” is a passionate song that I love performing live.   “Money” was tremendously fun to record, so different from what I normally do.

“Any Color You Like” has a special place in my heart which I wanted it to be primal and innocent at the same time. Really, the whole record was like playing in a sandbox with good friends.

CEV:  So now that it is out there what has been the verdict from your fans and from the fans of Pink Floyd?

MF:  I was surprised how many Pink Floyd die-hards responded positively to the record. I was expecting much more criticism.  Of course, there are a few grouchy purists out there, but they never like me anyway.  The responses from my “old” fans have been incredibly positive and the record has brought a whole group of new fans to the table.

CEV:  Did you self-release From the Dark Side of the Moon or was it released on another indie label?  

MF:  I self-released the record in a digital format.

CEV:  How involved have you been in promoting your music and staying in touch with fans via social media websites?

MF:  My primary means of promoting my music is through my website (http://www.maryfahl.com).  Facebook has been a wonderful way for me to get my music out to new listeners, not to mention the thousands of old OP fans who weren’t aware of my solo work. That said, I’m still finding my way through the tangle of social networking. It’s a new world and one that’s somewhat alien to me.  I have yet to “Twitter” anything beyond a show announcement.   I’m just a naturally shy person. Why on earth would I bother people with my daily ruminations?

CEV:  Has it been easier or harder for you to get your music heard as an indie artist?

MF:  Well, social networking has made some of it easier, but let’s face it, it’s nice to have a publicist and marketing department with a big budget at your disposal.  The internet has leveled the playing field somewhat, but’s there’s an ocean of indies out there all clamoring for attention, so it’s fairer for everyone but tougher to get heard.

CEV:  Any final thoughts you'd like to share with your fans about your music or what's ahead? Musically what would you like to explore that you haven't already?

MF:  I’ve been doing a lot of shows recently to filled, enthusiastic rooms which is always so gratifying, and it’s given me a restored sense of purpose.  I’m always working on new songs and, hopefully, I’ll get a new album out by the end of the year.  

What I do in life is a profession – yes - but it’s also a sacred pursuit for me, and one that I’m in for the long haul. We live in extraordinary times in which humanity, all of civilization, is undergoing a transformation unlike anything in history, so my greatest challenge as an artist right now is to convey something that will bring some truth and beauty into this turbulent world and hopefully, create something that will endure the test of time.  

CEV:  Mary it has been a pleasure talking to you. I have enjoyed your voice for many years now and will continue to do so as long as you keep making music. I wish you much success in the years to come and a long, prolific musical career.