Toss a Pebble, Create a Tidal Wave
Toss a Pebble, Create a Tidal Wave
A Q&A with Mary Fahl
By Geoff Gehman
Jesus wandered in the desert for a month and change to find his spiritual strategic plan. Singer-songwriter Mary Fahl played a summer of open mikes in the middle of Pennsylvania to find her musical compass.
This boot-camp tour was ordered by Fahl’s husband-manager Richard Lutz, a prominent oceanographer who knows all about fathoms-deep treasures. He pushed his wife to perform cold at foreign venues, some in godforsaken places, to give her a more profitable live life, financially and emotionally. Fahl overcame her reluctance to perform solo, her concern about appearing amateurish, yet another girl with a guitar. She learned she really enjoyed not only singing stories but telling stories about singing. She discovered she could hold the attention of listeners who knew nothing about her, even bikers.
For Fahl, the 2009 sojourn was another adventure in an adventurous career. In the 1990s she sang lead in October Project, an ensemble popular for cinematic folk and progressive rock. In 2003 she recorded an 11th-century Arabic traditional for a record for a Sony classical-crossover label. Three years later she finished a stirringly intimate, experimental interpretation of Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon,” the release of which was shelved when her record company died. All these projects were anchored by her remarkably distinctive contralto voice, a lustrous, vaulted, Celtic, operatic, medieval siren.
Fahl’s next pilgrimage is her first band show in 10 years, a Sept. 7 gig at the Mauch Chunk Opera House that will be recorded for a DVD. She’ll perform with musicians from her CD “From the Dark Side of the Moon,” which she issued herself in 2011. She’ll partner with pianist John Lissauer, a film composer (“Gods and Generals,” “Seven”) who produced her most recent CD, “Love & Gravity,” as well as two Leonard Cohen albums, including the one with the original version of “Hallelujah.” Fahl and Lissauer will play “Exiles,” which they wrote for the audiobook version of Anne Rice’s novel “The Wolves of Midwinter.”
During a recent conversation from her hilltop home outside Easton, Fahl discussed everything from the difficulty of writing a birthday song for her husband to the positive reinforcement of negative encouragement.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that wormed its way into your soul?
A: The runner-up was definitely the Doors’ “Light My Fire.” I was seven or eight when my brother brought home the single, and when I heard it I thought: “Oh my, I don’t know what that is, but I want a piece of that.” The one that just floored me was the Mamas & the Papas’  album “If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears,” the one with “California Dreamin’.” From the moment that first cut, “Monday, Monday,” came on, I was just knocked on my ass. I just loved all that beautiful harmony. You know, I wanted to make October Project a modern Mamas & the Papas.
I was kind of the impresario of my junior high school, getting everybody together to put on shows, a real ball of energy. I remember we put on a variety show and I sang “California Dreamin’”—in French. I think we were celebrating an international language day.
Q: What was the first movie song that laid you flat?
A: I tend to fall in love more with movie melodies. When I was little I just loved the score to “Dr. Zhivago.” It was not a movie for children but my sister brought me to it anyway. I still love Maurice Jarre’s music to all the David Lean movies.
I’m a huge film score buff. I love Rachel Portman’s score for “The Cider House Rules.” I love Thomas Newman’s score for “American Beauty”; that set a new standard. I went to see “Little Women” just because I heard a snippet of his score. My new favorite is Alexandre Desplat’s score for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” I don’t like big scores; I like the more delicate ones.
Q: When did you realize that singing had to be your calling, that you could move mountains with your voice?
A: I know exactly the moment. As a little kid I always sang. My mother said I sang even in the crib. There were older kids in the house so there was music all the time. We had one record player, so everybody had to listen to whatever was on. At one point the big record in our family was [the original Broadway cast album of] “My Fair Lady”–with Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews—and my sister would play “I Could Have Danced All Night” over and over. I remember I was in kindergarten and I didn’t have anything for show-and-tell. I had been singing “I Could Have Danced All Night” since I was three years old, so I decided to sing it for show-and-tell, sitting around in a circle.
My teacher stopped me and said: “Hold that for a minute.” And she went and got the school nurse and said: “Sing that again.” And then the school nurse said “Wait a minute” and she got the principal and it was “Sing that again.”
And I said to myself: “Oh, I must be really good.” Because no one in my family would have acknowledged my talent. From that point on I felt singing was what I‘ll do.
Q: Speaking of soundtracks, why did you think film composer John Lissauer was the man to produce your new record “Love & Gravity”? I know you love making cinematic sounds and he certainly knows how to make cinematic sounds.
A: I first worked with John when he arranged songs for [Fahl’s 2003 CD] “The Other Side of Time.” Right from the start I found him one of the most honorable, decent human beings. Since I left October Project I have made it a point to work with people who are ethical and lovely and fun and great at what they do. I’ve been though long-term experiences where it’s been just hell. I’d tell producers that I’d like to record new songs and they’d tell me [put-down, pat-on-the-head voice]: “Yeah, we can put you with some other writers.” It’s like: “Go fuck yourself!”
The minute I met John he treated me with a deep amount of respect. He’s always treated my ideas with deep respect. He’s always made me feel like I can do anything—including writing a song for the audiobook of Anne Rice’s “Wolves of Midwinter.” My publicist volunteered me, without asking, to write music for the audiobook because in the novel [the October Project song] “Take Me As I Am” [and Fahl’s voice] runs through the head of the lead character.
So I immersed myself in the book. I wrote lyrics, then I told John “I need you!” I needed a minor key and I needed big drumming, because it’s essential in the book. He helped me make [“Exiles”] a big movie song, a big James Bond song. Which is very different for me because nowadays I won’t write anything I can’t play onstage. John helped give me the confidence to say “Oh, what the hell.”
Q: Do you have a favorite story about a breakthrough on “Love & Gravity,” a memorable tale about a song with a really circuitous route?
A: I actually have three favorite stories. “Sirens” sort of downloaded into my brain.while I was shop vacing my mother’s basement and I came across a waterlogged copy of Edith Hamilton’s [classic book] “Mythology.” I started reading about the sirens and realized their reputation as monsters who devoured sailors was not true at all. So I wrote a song from the sirens’ perspective.
I wrote “Gravity” for my husband, who asked me to write him a song as a birthday gift. He doesn’t have a materialistic bone in his body; his kids buy him shirts and he leaves them stacked up, unopened. I really labored over the song; it was excruciating. The key came when Rich did something behind the scenes for someone at work and saved somebody’s job. Somebody said “Geez, Rich, you could turn a river around” and I said: “Wait a minute, ‘turn a river around’–that could really work.” When you’re stuck on a song usually it’s missing that one thing that pulls the whole thing together.
The last story involves [Joni Mitchell’s] “Both Sides Now.” The first time I played it live was for a free outdoor festival on Long Island. It was pouring rain and we had gone inside. No one was there but elderly people who come to anything that’s free. I thought, geez, this is a really tough sell. So Rich says: “Play something they know. Play ‘Both Sides Now’; everybody knows that.” And I did and it went over extremely well.
Rich convinced me to keep playing “Both Sides Now” in shows. People tend to go nuts over it; young fans who have never heard it before like it, too. My feeling is don’t bother doing covers if you can’t make them your own. I’m not a cover band.
Q: Do you have a favorite memory of October Project, when all the planets were aligned?
A: I’d say it was in the late ’80s, the first time I met Emil [Adler, vocalist/keyboardist/co-writer]. He played “Where You Are” and “A Lonely Voice” and I was singing along with him and it was like I knew the melody before he played it–and his melodies are complex. And I remember thinking: This is it. I knew we were going to form a band and this band is going to get a record deal. From that moment on, no matter what happened, no matter how we struggled, it wasn’t if, it was when.
It’s like when I met my husband. It wasn’t a feeling of “Oh, this is the man for me!” It was like it was all green lights.
Q: How about something about October Project that could have been improved?
A: The way it was structured, it was just doomed to fail. There were two writers and no one else was allowed to write, ever. Plus, the writers were the only ones making any money. If you’re going to do that, just hire people to sing your songs. Don’t pretend that we’re a band and it’s all for one and one for all.
Another problem was that my suggestions were never taken seriously. I suggested that we record “Ben Aindi Habibi,” an 11th-century song, and they laughed and laughed and made fun of me. I ended up putting it on “The Other Side of Time.” It’s one of my most requested songs.
At one point Emil told me: “You could never do this on your own.” And I said to myself: “Thank you, you just provided the jet fuel for my career.” I needed that kind of negative encouragement. It helped me realize that failure was not an option. It also made me realize that when I became a solo artist I would pay my musicians well and treat them decently. It was a gift.
Q: We both consider “Dark Side of the Moon” an album for the ages. It’s that rare record where every song puts me in a different time and place, yet the entire record is timeless and placeless. Why do you think it’s so important; why do you call it “a Gnostic allegory”?
A: The message of that record is that it’s very difficult to keep yourself steadied and centered in a world filled with nothing but chaos and distraction, a world of illusions and lies. You have to find an inner anchor of some sort; you have to free yourself with truth. Seeing through the distractions and all the illusions–that is a very Gnostic thing.
I think of “Dark Side of the Moon” as a song cycle. Take the first track, “Breathe”: “Breathe, breathe in the air; “all that you touch, all that you see”: be present. It’s the breath of the goddess. Then down you go, into the rabbit hole, a vortex, chaos chaos chaos. And then there’s that state you get to when your illusions have been punctured in “Time.” And how do you get out of that? Well, there’s “Money,” the heart of commercialism.
“Us and Them” is about the eternal refugee, the woman with the dark scarf over her head, being shoved from one country to another by the military industrial complex. “Any Colour You Like” is a primal kind of thing, that ecstatic state, that personal connection with something beyond yourself.
Some people say “How dare you cover ‘Dark Side of the Moon’; it’s a sacrilege.” My point is, well, it’s a great piece of art that you can interpret many ways.
Q: Tell me about your decision to play open mikes in the middle of Pennsylvania, which seems like another dark side of the moon.
A: When I played with a band, I was always in the red; I never made a dime, never. After I got married my husband said: “This is silly; you should try it on your own.” I told him: “I don’t want to get up there by myself; it’s amateurish.” I never wanted to be a girl with a guitar; I dreaded that at all costs. To which Rich said: “That’s ridiculous.”
So, in the summer of 2009, he dragged me out to the middle of Pennsylvania. He would find the most obscure open-mike night in god-knows-where, so, if I bombed, no one would know. I’d tell him [mock wail] “I don’t do open mikes!” and he’d say: “Oh, get over yourself!” He’d just push me in the car and off we’d go.
Some places were biker bars: scary, even frightening. I would say to him: “I will do this, but if one person recognizes me, I’m gone.” And he’d say: “Oh, get off your high horse.” One night I was in the middle of nowhere, basically, and this basically worse-for-the-wear girl recognized me from October Project. Which was weird, because my hair color is different and I’m not wearing black and in October Project no one knew what we looked like. I wasn’t even singing any October Project songs.
I’m truly grateful that Rich pushed me. The experience made me realize I could grab listeners who didn’t know anything about me and hold their attention. It changed the nature of my show. I started telling more stories. I was able to reveal myself in a way I would never have done with the guys in the band. I had fun in a way I never expected.
Q: What would you like to do within the near future and within reason? How about singing on the soundtrack of another IMAX film about the deep sea supervised by your husband?
A: You’re not the first person who’s suggested that to us. We’ve actually done some benefits together, one in a planetarium at the Vanderbilt Museum on Long Island. Rich’s IMAX film was shown and I performed a concert. It was really, really fun.
But I’ll tell you I’m not going down in that submarine, no way, no how. Even watching it on screen I get so claustrophobic I can’t breathe.
Mary Fahl: The Scoop
(1) Her birth name is Mary Faldermeyer.
(2) Her song “Going Home” opens the Civil War film “Gods and Generals.”
(3) Her version of the Irish tune “The Dawning of the Day,” with new lyrics memorializing 9/11 firemen, was sung by Irish tenor Ronan Tynan during a re-dedication of 7 World Trade Center.
(4) Her 2003 record “The Other Side of Time” includes a rendition of the Donizetti aria “Una Furtiva Lagrima.”
(5) She performed in “Murder Mystery Blues,” a musical comedy based on Woody Allen short stories.
(6) One of her favorite songwriting tips is courtesy of Bob Seger. “I remember him saying that you have to learn to write badly before you learn to write well, that you may write 10 bad songs before you write one good one,” she says. “It takes a lot of courage to write badly.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He agrees with Mary Fahl that Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” is a killer, especially the lush, late-in-life orchestral version on “Both Sides, Now.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.