Interview with Mary Fahl
By: Eric Schelkopf
Whether she is performing folk-rock or classical songs, what stands out in Mary Fahl's music are her distinctive vocals.
Fahl will perform in a solo acoustic setting when she drops by Martyrs', 3855 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, on Saturday, June 11. The show starts at 7 p.m., and tickets are $20, available at www.martyrslive.com.
She will perform songs from her extensive and eclectic career, including the October Project and the new CD "From the Dark Side of the Moon," which she recently released herself after the project was shelved when V2 Records folded.
I had the chance to talk to Fahl about her different projects and how she approached remaking the iconic album "Dark Side of the Moon."
Q - What should people who come out to the Martyrs' show expect?
I've been to Chicago in a number of different forms. Obviously, I used to be with October Project, and then I was on my own, but I came to Chicago with sort of a full band sound. I play solo acoustic now. Everything I do and write is solo acoustic. What I typically do is a combination of songs I have written for recent records. I do obviously old October Project songs, because a lot of people remember me from those days. I do maybe four or five October Project songs, a lot of my own stuff, and a couple of covers once in a while. Obviously, I will be playing selections from the "Dark Side of the Moon" record.
Q - Do you prefer performing songs in a solo acoustic setting?
I really kind of had to be dragged kicking and screaming into playing by myself. I was so used to a very big, grand sound. October Project music was very dense and very, very layered. There was a lot of noise on stage, you know what I mean? It was like a wall of sound. And then I gave it a try on one show. This was about two years ago. And I said, 'Huh, that's really interesting. I think I'll do another one.' And then I did another one and another one and another one. And at this point, I actually prefer it. I'd never ever thought I would say that. It's just a completely different show. I feel that in a funny way it is much more expressive of me as an artist. At this point, it would be hard to go back to being with a full band.
It forces you to really pare these songs to their basic essentials. You can't hide behind anything.
Q - Do you think it gives you more control over the songs?
Yeah, in a funny way, you do have more control. I sort of like to pace a song emotionally. And when you are playing with a full band, that's a harder thing to do. You really have to stay in a particular groove, or you are going to lose the rhythm section. With playing solo acoustic, I feel much more freedom. I discovered another side of myself as a performer doing that. I feel a deeper connection to the audience. I feel I can be more open with them. I'm more of myself than ever. It's like performing in someone's living room.
Q - "From the Dark Side of the Moon" is finally seeing the light of day. Do you feel good about getting the album out there?
It's a daunting thing to release a record on your own if you want to do it the right way. You can release a record, but it's just going to sit there. No one is going to discover it. It does take some doing to make sure you really get it out there and give it a chance. And I loved that album when I made it and I was heartbroken when V2 folded. Basically, they gave most of their artists lifeboats in terms of buy-back rights and so forth. So they were great. I didn't know what I was going to do with it. I sat on it for a while. I bit the bullet, and decided it was worth the investment of getting it out there.
Q - Why did you want to tackle the project?
"Dark Side of the Moon" is so interesting and has so much depth to it. It would be boring to make a covers record. Why do that? It's one of those records that you can reinterpret your own way. There is such a deep morality inside of it. It's still so apropos. It's the lament of modern life. I just heard it in my voice. It lends itself perfectly. It's a very powerful piece of theater, as well being pop music.
Q - But "Dark Side of the Moon" is such an iconic album. Did you feel intimidated at all in even trying to attempt the project?
There were points when I thought, 'It can't be done.' It was tough. That record has lots of spaces in it that are just instrumental. I had to figure out how I was going to fill it out. I ended doing it with a lot of chants, things that would just sort of come to me. I needed percussive things I could do with my voice. A lot of the instrumental music I did with my voice, with layering and so forth. For example, the opening of the record, the Pink Floyd version with that iconic heartbeat, I couldn't do that. So it's like, what do we do? I remembered the cover of the record with that pyramid. And it just came to me, pyramid, Egypt, ancient Egypt, ancient Egyptians, very percussive sounding language. So instead of doing the heartbeat, I did this chant, sort of calling on the goddess of the moon and the spirit of music to come and be in the room. It all rhymed, and it sounded like a heartbeat.
Q - What kind of feedback have you gotten from your fans?
So far, it's been great. I think it's a side of me they weren't expecting. I think women really like the record. I think it has more of a female perspective to it.
Q - I understand that you left October Project because there was a disagreement over whether you should be able to write songs for the group.
I had a lot of ideas in my head. When we first formed the band, it was sort of one for all and all for one. We all put in a lot of time and money, and so forth. And then after we were signed, it became very clear that the writers in the band felt that we were sort of working for them. I couldn't contribute any ideas, I couldn't contribute any songs. I was told flat out that I would never write for the band. So what do you do with that? There were so many things that I wanted to do. When we were dropped by Epic, it was like, why would I stay? Why would I start that process all over again with them? It didn't make any sense for me. So I went off on my own, started writing, and put my own band together.
Q - It seemed like after you left the band, you started delving into other musical genres, and that things really opened up for you.
At that point, it was my show, and I could do whatever I wanted. I always wanted to do a very eclectic kind of show, and I got the attention of Sony Classical because they were looking for different kinds of classical music, not the typical kind of crossover thing. They wanted something that was interesting. They just wanted some interesting hybrids. They liked the fact that what I did was very eclectic, and they thought what I wrote was sort of cinematic sounding. So I started to do that. I did the soundtracks to "Gods and Generals" and "The Guys."
Q - I imagine that over the years, your music has been labeled in different ways. How would you describe your music?
I remind myself more of Latin American singers like Mercedes Sosa, or even a sort of modern Judy Collins. I grew up on those records. My older sister had all those early Judy Collins records. She sang theater, she sang classical songs, she sang folk. And it kind of worked because they were very simple arrangements. When I was a little kid, that's what I wanted to do. It's not something that is popular now in terms of modern music, but it's what I do. It's what makes me happy.
Mary Fahl Biography
Mary Fahl is back ……. armed only with her guitar, that unforgettable voice and a whole new array of original songs. Alone on a stage, her uncluttered performances reveal what is essential about Fahl as an artist - genuine honesty and emotion, captivating melodies, and songs built around big ideas rooted in what it is to be human.
Blessed with a magnificent range, Fahl is an expressive, emotional singer/songwriter who first achieved fame as lead singer and co-founder of the mid-1990s cult band October Project, an East Coast folk-rock/adult alternative outfit that recorded two poetic albums for Epic: its self-titled debut album of 1993; and its 1995 encore effort, “Falling Farther In“. In a review of October Project’s first release, Allmusic.com dubbed Fahl the “lovechild“ of Stevie Nicks and Peter Steel and “a completely unique artist, sounding like no other vocalist of her era“.
Following her days with October Project, Fahl embarked upon a solo career with several notable collaborators, including Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked”) and Academy Award nominated lyricist, Ramsey McLean (“Sleepless in Seattle”). As a solo artist, Fahl was finally able to blossom as a songwriter – as she told Liane Hansen of NPR, cinema and film scores have had a profound influence on her music, envisioning each song she writes as a “tiny universe onto itself”.
In 2001, Fahl released an EP, Lenses of Contact (Roughmix Records), produced by Jeffrey Lesser. In Lesser, who had worked with a wide range of artists, including The Chieftains, Barbra Streisand, Loudon Wainwright III, and Lou Reed, Fahl found a compatriot who deeply appreciated her multi-faceted dimensions. All-Music Guide compared Fahl to Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins, although noting that she belted more than Mitchell and concluded that “this promising solo debut demonstrates that Fahl is a very spiritual and moving storyteller in her own right”.
Within two years, Fahl began to expand her repetoire to include a more exotic mixture of world, classical and medieval music. She caught the attention of Peter Gelb, head of Sony Classical (current head of the Metropolitan Opera) who was so taken with her first and only audition that he signed her on the spot – and shortly thereafter she released her first full-length album (The Other Side of Time) as a solo artist on the newly-formed Sony Odyssey label. The Other Side of Time featured songs that would grace two separate film soundtracks. “Going Home” was the opening song of Warner Bros. Civil War epic Gods and Generals. The album’s closing track, Fahl’s version of the traditional Irish ballad “The Dawning of the Day”, was showcased in The Guys. Fahl wrote her lyrics to “The Dawning of the Day” to honor the heroic firefighters who died in the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. Irish tenor Ronan Tynan recorded the song and has performed it at numerous 9/11 memorial services and at the re-opening dedication for the Seven World Trade Center.
The Other Side of Time revealed additional sides to Fahl’s style from Donizetti’s “Una Furtiva Lagrima” to the Medieval Andalucian “Ben Aindi Habibi”. These two tracks, which Fahl recorded in Italian and Mozarabic, respectively, were the first non-English language songs to appear on her records. The Boston Herald raved that “The Other Side of Time is a brillantly conceived album of broad proportions…..” and that “Mary Fahl has created a lush, cinematic, ferociously ambitious debut. Orchestral and multilingual, her stunning contralto floats from European cabaret and Irish folk to Italian aria and American art song.”
Subsequent to release of The Other Side of Time, Fahl acted in an Off-Broadway production of Murder Mystery Blues, a musical comedy based on short stories by Woody Allen. The play was originally performed at the Warehouse Theater in London.
In 2006. working with producers Mark Doyle and David Werner in Doyle’s small home studio in Syracuse, NY, Fahl began a “labor of love” – a step-by-step, song-by-song re-imagining of the musical Mt. Everest that is Pink Floyd’s classic album Dark Side of the Moon. Fahl recounts: “We had to have a good reason to make this ours. We weren’t interested in just trying to make good versions of great songs – there are Pink Floyd tribute bands for that – but, if we could re-invent the intention for ourselves, then we might stand a chance of being able to rediscover something that could give it a new life of its own. We came to perceive this work as a classic song-cycle …. a gnostic allegory for our times.” Following a theatrical performance of the piece from beginning to end, Fahl was immediately signed to V2 Records, and From the Dark Side of the Moon (mixed by Bob Clearmountain) was slated for release in 2007. Tragically, V2 closed its doors just prior to the release date, with recording rights reverting back to Fahl who plans to release the album in the Spring of 2011.
To quote Variety: “ She’s earthier than Enya, more nuanced than Celine Dion and avoids the bloodless goth of Lisa Gerrard”. With a myriad of powerful new songs that she’s written over the past few months, Fahl is back on tour, continuing to take audiences on a journey of emotional discovery and “transport listeners to other realms”(Boston Globe).