The following interview was featured on the Token Skeptic podcast, Episode #85 — On Something Fierce.
The Sunday night chat-room for every live-streamed episode of Skeptically Speaking is packed. Around fifteen to twenty regulars converge (with a dozen anonymous lurkers) to not only listen to the broadcast, but banter, joke and fire questions at the moderator, KO Myers, which he passes onto the studio in Edmonton, Canada.
Suddenly there’s a technical glitch; instead of listening to Desiree Schell coax information from scientists and policy creators, we’re listening to a woman singing about being a geek to the taps of a typewriter.
The response is immediate: Who is she? What is that song? That’s so me! How wonderful! Everybody forgets to grumble about interview-interruptus and instead pepper KO with questions about the name of the song, album, singer.
“In the end, I feel I’m firmly on the skeptic side, I believe. But I don’t see picking a side as my role as an artist. I see communication as my role.” – Marian Call
Singer-songwriter Marian Call has just finished her 49>50 Tour, which went all around the US (and most of the provinces of Canada). She lives in Anchorage, Alaska but has a huge following around the world. Her complex harmonies and witty lyrics include references to Firefly, Battlestar Galactica and being a geek (even if it’s not always going to be chic).
Her latest work is called Something Fierce and it is a fan-funded album as well as being a double album – volume I is called “Good Luck With That” and volume II is called “From Alaska.” For this interview we discuss her music, how fabulous her fans are – and just how many instruments does she play (besides the typewriter)?
Kylie Sturgess: For people who aren’t familiar with your music, I tried to find a way to describe it, and it’s kind of a difficult style to pin down. Then you Tweeted something about how someone said your work was “Django Death Metal Typewriter Jane Austen Music” – I thought… Wow. That’s fantastic!
Marian Call: I think some of the time it’s accurate. I tend to mesh very unlike styles and very unlike topics. In that case, it was my guitarist complaining about all the many different styles I was asking him to play at the same time: “Yes, like that. Like jazz, but with more power chords, like pretend it’s Black Sabbath. Don’t forget this is about Jane Austen, so it has to be kind of springy and light, a little bit…” and he was just cracking up!
Sturgess: And the typewriter is great.
Call: Yes, there’s quite a few mixed styles. I think the new record is, I guess you could call it “Indie Pop,” or “Indie Fusion Acoustic Pop,” or something like that, but really the nice thing about being able to toss the word “Indie” in there is that it saves you from having to explain too much. Because I think people are coming to expect that genres are more fluid than they used to be. It is difficult to describe, but I think it’s sort of acoustic… Oh, bother. I don’t know! I had a lot of practice describing my older albums, but not this new one, so I’ll have to work on it!
Sturgess: Did you always intend to be a musician, from the very beginning?
Call: Well, there were phases when it was on and off, you know? I was, at some points in my life, determined to be a musician, and at other points I swore it off completely, that I would never, ever do it again. Obviously, the universe has won, and now laughs at those points in my life when I swore I would never do music. I’ve had an on‑again‑off‑again relationship with it. It’s sort of the Gilbert Blythe of my career. But I enjoy the other arts, too, so, we’ll see what other things I wind up doing as well.
Sturgess: I love your new album. I downloaded it and, unfortunately, half the songs are now sticking in my head, wherever I go driving anywhere, so I have to keep playing it all the time. I keep humming “Dear Mr. Darcy” at traffic lights, and eventually someone’s just going to throw something at me, I just know it!
But your albums are quite different, from the very beginning: Vanilla was one that I discovered a little later, but it was one… Got to Fly was the first one that I bought after seeing you do a live performance. How would you describe the differences between them? Some of them have a kind of a theme, and then it sort of evolves from there, doesn’t it?
Call: It does. The albums are quite different and the way that you came to the music is pretty common. A lot of people came to it that way. First they found Got to Fly, usually through some sort of geek or skeptic connection, or a fandom connection. Then found the other music, Vanilla and Songs of the Month, and then came to, hopefully, Something Fierce, the new one.
Got to Fly was a special piece, because it was a commission to be about Firefly and Battlestar Galactica. A company that liked my geek‑themed music that I’d already published came to me and said, “What would happen if you were licensed to release singing about these things, and you wrote a whole album for us?”
I said, “Oh. OK, well here goes!”
That was pretty amazing, and I’m really grateful to Quantum Mechanics for giving me the opportunity to do that. Afterwards, a lot of people became fans because of the fandom, little bits and pieces.
I’m hopeful that a lot of them have stayed fans through the other music, which is less… It’s all geeky, is the thing. It’s all nerdy stuff, because I am a nerd and that shows through no matter what’s happening, and the language, and definitely a lot of music nerd stuff in there. Songs about unexpected topics, I think, that geeks tend to prefer.
But at the same time, it’s not all as literally, “We’re talking about Firefly and Battlestar” as Got to Fly. If I had to characterize them, I would say that Vanilla was my first very special, very private creative undertaking. I did it when I didn’t really know what I was doing yet, I didn’t know how to record music. I didn’t know how to produce an album, but I did it, just kind of all on instinct and with my family and my own little music community. That was wonderful, so it was very much produced in solitude, and I like that that’s what came out. I spent a lot of time on it.
Got to Fly was a commission; so it was fast and dirty and quick and fun and thrilling and a very heady experience, making Got to Fly. Then the Songs of the Month are little scratch tracks, little bonuses on funny topics. I really enjoy them still. Some of them I’ve re‑recorded a little bit better.
Now this new one, Something Fierce – I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time on the road. I’ve spent a lot of time meeting people and really getting grounded in the way that my life looks, now that I’m a touring musician. This is the music that comes out of that.
It’s very real‑life music, a lot of real experiences, a lot of vulnerable topics. But at the same time, some very silly things, like one song is actually about Windows Vista! One is for the Space Shuttle. One is for the astronauts heading up on the Space Shuttle, as they did, and I hope they will again.
Others are about, like “Dear Mr. Darcy,” a type of love and a type of relationships that is very peculiar to over‑thinking, shy, nerdy people, of which I am one. So it’s a much more personal bent, and the production quality is much, much higher, because I really had the time and the money this time to make it the way I wanted it. I’m very proud of how it came out.
Sturgess: That’s great. You’re the second person I’ve ever known who’s ever managed to rhyme ‘orange’ and ‘door hinge’ in a song!
Call: Yes. There are a couple of famous rhymes with orange. People will often quote the Ogden Nash or… Who else? Someone else rhymed it with syringe. I can’t remember who, but there are one or two rhymes with orange despite popular conventional knowledge and I thought I would try to work it into a song.
My father told me, “You know rhyming with orange on the first song, isn’t that a little like gunning your engines at the stop light? It’s kind of rude.”
Sturgess: That’s fantastic!
Call: I cracked up. I was trying to write some simpler songs. I feel like songwriting is a really amazing craft that I’m only beginning to approach. People who can write a truly simple, memorable chorus and hook, a very simple song I think, that’s amazing. I can only barely do that. I only come close sometimes. Otherwise, I just bury my songs in lots and lots of words and lots and lots of rhymes.
So I was trying to simplify for this record, write some cleaner, simpler songs like “Highway Five” and “Good Morning, Moon.”
And then once in awhile by contrast, I would just explode in this kind of frenzy of rhyming, and words, and complex rhythms in songs like “Dear Mr. Darcy” and “Temporal Dominos.” That was how I got it out of my system.
Sturgess: I remember the first time I ever heard a typewriter in a song was Dolly Parton’s “Nine to Five.” So just to see you at the front playing it I thought to myself, “Yes! Dolly Parton – a strong image in female music. Go for it!”
Call: I find that it has been used in popular music a lot. Of course not anymore, but it used to be used all the time and it was usually to evoke the women’s working life. I just thought that felt very right. The women’s working life or else the writer’s life, one of those two and they both really, really resonate with me.
Sturgess: Your new album is twins really, two-in-one – In fact, congratulations on the twins! Where can people get it and what’s happening next with it? Are you going to be touring again with the new album?
Call: Yes. You can get it at Mariancall.com. Pretty soon it will be on iTunes, and Spotify, and all over. It will be available everywhere; Amazon, you name it. It should be available in all regions. But right now, you can get it at bandcamp.com which is my preferred vendor because they are a fantastic company and they don’t take very much money from me. They just send it straight onto the artists.
So I highly recommend, www.bandcamp.com. We ship all over the world from there. We shipped plenty of stuff down to Australia now actually. I hope some of it will arrive shortly. And I will definitely be touring again in the next year. Right now, I think I didn’t realize how much that would take out of me, having twins! And so, I’m kind of recuperating at the moment.
I had planned on some recuperating this fall, but oh my goodness. After the album came out, I just immediately got sick and was flat on my back. I think my body was holding out for the moment when it would be out. And now my body is saying, “Hey, guess what! Were going to hang out in Alaska for the winter and chill. Cool our heels a bit.”
But I do have grand tour plans for 2012. And I’ve been telling people, “I’ll come down under as soon as I have enough friends there who are willing to come to shows to make it worth it.” I would really love to get there. So I hope that if people are really enjoying the music down there, they’ll spread the word. That’s really how it happens.
Sturgess: Brilliant. We’ll make it happen because as you said, social networking is a fantastic way of connecting with people, and we’ve got that.
Call: Absolutely. I look forward to coming there and meeting some folks who have been fans from the very, very beginning. I think that will be an exciting day – I can’t wait!