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Sounding Out Mary

Mary Karlzen doesn't want to be anyone but herself

Over the phone from Miami, you can almost hear Mary Karlzen wince as it's suggested that she fits into a trend -- waifish female singers with a mouth-of-the-South voice who delve into personal experience from a woman's perspective. Though she brightens a little when the suggestion is fleshed out with the names of Victoria Williams and Sheryl Crow -- "I really like Victoria Williams," she says, "so I guess that's not too bad" -- she's still reluctant to be typed, even when an emendation is made to categorize the recent upswelling of female singer/songwriters as being similar to an upswelling of male singer/ songwriters in the early and mid-'70s, an upswelling that included such names as J.D. Souther, James Taylor and Jackson Browne.

"I listened to all of those," Karlzen admits. "In the late '70s I lied about my age to work in a record store. I was a real vinyl junkie. There wasn't anything good on the radio, so I listened to records all day, and that included James Taylor and Jackson." And Browne, she notes, did sing background on "The Way I See It," one of the cuts off of her debut CD for Atlantic, Yelling at Mary. But for all that, Karlzen doesn't really want to admit to sounding much like anyone but herself.

She has a point. Though the musicians on Yelling at Mary -- among them not only Browne, but also Heartbreaker guitarist Benmont Tench and John Mellencamp drummer Kenny Aronoff -- give the CD a feel that's considerably slicker and less rough around the edges than what her live show's reported to be, Karlzen's songwriting pretty much takes her across the map, from bouncy pop to introspective country to singer/songwriter angst to near rock. Like new bands such as Wilco and the Bottle Rockets, Karlzen has assimilated a broad enough range of influences to make it hard for her to fit into any one category comfortably. So, okay, she sounds like herself.

Still, that self sounds oddly Southern for someone who was raised in Chicago and didn't move south until she was 18, and then moved to the South of Broward County and Fort Lauderdale, a place not noted for its cotton-mouth accent. Karlzen shrugs off the curiosity by suggesting that she may have picked up her out-of-place voice when she was a mere infant and her parents left Chicago for a short time. But she seems to have taken to the image her voice suggests; on the cover of her CD she's dressed in long johns and overalls -- looking all of 15 though she's actually 29 -- and standing in front of a white clapboard house. The implication is one of cracker impishness, and if that's what people want to take from it, well, she's happy to let them.

But if they want to take from the photo a suggestion of naive or simply found talent, well, on that point Karlzen would beg to differ: she's had to work for her music. She began by playing folk clubs in Chicago, riding into the city with a friend and performing "sensitive singer/songwriter sort of stuff." When she moved to Florida to attend college, she didn't consider music her vocation, but then she joined an area band called the Sparrows, started having some success and figured music might be worth pursuing after all.

"Not that I thought it might be a career," she says. "I still had to have another job to pay the bills. But before, I never really thought anyone would want to listen to what I was doing. You know, you play acoustic and you sit in your room and write and never play for anyone, and I never thought anyone would want to hear what I had to say. So when people started to show some interest, it was like this wonderful door opened. I saw this as something I could do. Maybe I'll never be successful at it, but ... I don't know. It was kind of a learning experience. It was a great band."

Not great enough, though, to stick together. The Sparrows came close to signing with a major label, but trying to deal with business and music at the same time was too much, and the group fell apart. Karlzen was devastated. "I wasn't really planning on continuing music because it was so heartbreaking," she says. "But once you start doing music, it becomes part of your life, so I was recording and writing in my house, and making little 4-tracks and on the weekends going to play acoustic clubs." Mark Scandariato, who'd also been in the Sparrows, played with her on these dates, and eventually they came to the attention of Rich Ulloa, who'd worked with the Mavericks. Ulloa suggested that Karlzen do a CD as a solo act, something she wasn't particularly interested in. "I'd been crushed by my previous experience, and I didn't think I had the strength or the ability or the talent," she says. "I was feeling pretty worthless. So Rich came along, and he really had more faith in me than I did. So we kept recording, and it just turned into a CD."

That 1992 release, titled Mary Karlzen was "very lo-fi. We recorded it on a 16-track at Mark's house, did the vocal tracks in the bathtub," says Karlzen. "It was also very somber, which reflected the bad period I was coming off of." The Florida media liked what they heard, and Karlzen put together a band, recorded a follow-up EP, Hide, and went on the road. But outside the state she was still an unknown, which meant she could end up playing a club where the audience consisted of the bartender and a couple of his friends. So she found a Miami area filmmaker, did a video of a track called "A Long Time Ago" and started shopping it around. CMT and TNN both decided to give it a try, since the song had a bit of a country flavor, and eventually her videos ended up on VH-1, where Karlzen earned the distinction of having the most played indie video in the network's history. Then came opening slots for performances by Bob Dylan, John Hiatt and Jackson Browne, and the attention of Atlantic, which signed her for a CD, put her in the studio with such established hands as Aronoff, Tench and Los Lobos' David Hidalgo and told her to go ahead and create Yelling at Mary.

"I'd wanted to use my own band on the CD, but Atlantic thought they didn't have enough experience," says Karlzen. "They only let me keep Mark Scandariato as a guitarist. Not that it was too overwhelming to record like that, because the people were so gracious. If I told them to play left handed, they'd do it."

The CD has been out in the stores for two months now, but Karlzen says she has no idea how well it's doing. "I let other people handle the business now," she says firmly. "I just do the music. I tried to do the business before, and it didn't work." She has noticed, though, that in towns where her CD gets decent radio play, she attracts larger crowds than she's been used to in the past. Where it doesn't get radio play, though, "it's just a handful, " she says. "It's like starting all over again, and it can be really difficult, because you just get tired of going to club after club and playing for four people."

Still, starting all over is better than not starting at all, and Karlzen sounds like she's settled in for the long haul, just waiting for that overnight success. "Yeah, I guess you can say that," she laughs. "I suppose I've decided I can actually make a career of this music thing now."

Mary Karlzen plays at the Urban Art Bar on Saturday, April 9. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $6. Call 523-0192 for info.

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