This morning I had such a treat lined up for you all – we at LeedsBrowncoats were being joined by the wonderful Marian Call for a chat.
We lined up our calendars, made our morning cuppas and sat down for a truly inspiring discussion…which I then failed to record.
The rage. Oh the rage.
And I realised right at a moment when we were praising tech to the skies.
Embarrassing isn’t the word.
Nevertheless, those of you who know me won’t be surprised that I was taking notes so I shall attempt to get the main points down here. I’m going from memory here so the speech sections are as close as I remember them! Thankfully Marian speaks in a very quotable manner. Nevertheless, any mistakes are mine and will be rectified as soon as!
Details of her European and UK tour – HERE
The Lady Herself…
Warm and affable – the first impression that you have of Miss Call is that of a friend – albeit one you haven’t made yet! An astute observer with an immediately obvious wit, we were stuck into a conversation before I knew it.
A second later, her sincerity and integrity as a musician (aw heck, as a human being!) hit. Whatever the topic, Marian spoke in an informed, passionate and eloquent manner.
So whether we were touching on the real world implications of Battlestar Galactica (“honestly, take away the space ship and that’s just actual politics”) or the ongoing appeal of the characters from Firefly – a 14 episode series (“Everyone in the US knows a Jayne”), or the political underpinnings of her home state (“Alaska is the true outer rim”) – it was a considered viewpoint.
Me: I guess the most famous Alaskan outside the US at the moment is Sarah Palin?
Me: Former Governor Palin?
Me: Tina Fay
Marian: Oh we love her.
From there to here…
Initially, Marian didn’t set out to be a folk writer. She studied classical music at Stanford, honing her song writing craft.
At the outset of the interview, I cheekily asked whether the nerdy/geeky references were part of an organic expression or had she more cynically realised that the time was right to tap into that. That there was a market just waiting to be tapped into, comprising of those of us who loved The Guild or Doctor Horrible.
Far from being offended, she described her realization that the online world meant that she could seek out ‘her people’ – rather than blindly stabbing in the dark, reaching out and hoping for a meaningful connection as a Eureka moment. The reality was; she realised that her tribe were also actively seeking her out – even if they didn’t know it yet.
Marian is acutely aware of how influential her background and interests are in the music that she writes.
“There are always going to be geeky nerdy references in my music, because that’s who I am, but I also write songs that my grandmother understands and likes. That’s my goal – there are geeky easter eggs for those who’ll get them but the songs themselves…
I want my songs to be universal, yes, I’m a self expressive artist, but for a song to stand the test of time, it needs to contain a truth that others can relate to.”
One of her mentors is Jonathan Coulton (who if I recall accurately was first lauded on podcasts) – another writer with a geeky bent.
“His songs include deeper aspects of human pathos – the songs contain a truth. Those are the sort of songs that I want to write. I want to reflect my world accurately.”
We briefly touched on the benefits of being signed with a big label. Marian acknowledges that there are disadvantages to maintaining a solo path and how she sometimes get lost in her own admin but noted:
“The support from a label, yes, there would be greater security. But I don’t know anyone on one who is given complete artistic control. I just have no interest in writing or performing without that. It’s absolutely core for me.
I have backers – there was a kick starter campaign a few years ago that received a lot of attention – and my tours are often just requests from people who like my stuff, ‘hey, why don’t you come over here?’.
But not one of them – whether they have given a lot or a little – has ever tried to influence what I write about, or how I write it. Even when people maybe aren’t so interested in what I’m currently doing – they respect the process. They are very respectful. And I think they’d know if I wasn’t being myself”
On the Songs…
Marian has released five albums – excluding those songs that exist online and as part of her Song of the Month project. Got to Fly (my first experience of Marian’s work) included a plethora of references from Battlestar Galactica and Firefly. Nowadays, Marian struggles to find time to read or watch TV, so has been seeking out inspiration in unexpected ways.
“I’ve been taking on some fan recommendations recently. So I’ve written a song about Doctor Who. Now, I didn’t grow up with any of those shows, so I really was new to the whole thing. And I realised that I had to watch it to get any sort of sense about it. That’s been so interesting – having to learn about something new to appropriately honour the request”
A little later, when we began chatting about her home state, Marian reflected that she felt that my question about including geek references could have easily been about her geography also. (“I’m a total geography nerd. I love maps and I have a project for next year that going to be all about maps and the geography in my songs”).
It’s clear that her place in the world has played a significant role in her view of the world.
Certainly she speaks longingly of her home. Indeed she has promised herself that next year she will travel a little less and aims to spend at least three consecutive months in the one place. Again, she seemed completely sincere … but with a new album coming out, a new tour being put in place and greater levels of engagement with her fan base (or backers as Marian views them) coming from all over the world; this last seemed a little more like wishful thinking!
Her latest album will be released in December and its very inception has been a bit of a surprise to those around her.
“This is a very personal album. It’s acoustic – just me and a guitar. After the huge Something Fierce – a double album with a full band which was very bombastic; I wanted to create something different.
For me, this album is like my journal being made available to my backers. In fact, every song on it will have a hand written version or draft in my journal. It’s personal.
I’ve written it on tour – which is obviously insane – and recorded it as and when. One of the songs – well I was playing and staying with a host family. I had just met these people and they were putting me up and I had to excuse myself. ‘Sorry, do you mind if I go lock myself into your kids bedroom – I just have to get this song written and recorded NOW’ That was a difference experience! And the host family were totally cool with it.”
Social Networking and The Postcard Tour
Currently Marian is touring Europe and will be visiting the UK this month – performing in Sheffield, Manchester, Birmingham, Bath and London. While the London shows are all booked up; there are still spaces available oop narth and Marian would LOVE to see YOU there.
(It’s actually how we met online – Marian was delighted to find the LeedsBrowncoats group as she sometimes struggles to let people know where she’s touring. We need a signal. Like the Bat-signal. Someway to communicate to all Browncoats without having to rely on computer literacy!)
An avid user of social networking, Marian speaks about her friends online and the social networks that helped her get started with a sincere affection that can’t be faked. She is also vocal about the changes that she likes and those she doesn’t. We touched on the NSA revelations recently (“It’s SF. It’s actually what these books and Firefly and the like have been saying for years. The Alliance WISHES it had this level of monitoring”) and the sort of online landscape that we as participants want around us.
When I joked that I looked forward to the apocalypse as my whole life I’ve heard that the geek will inherit the earth, she immediately quipped that we have the best tech guys…but we need to get more farmers onboard too!
On this tour, Marian has come up with a novel way to engage with her fan base. At every location that she plays, Marian will pick up a handful of local postcards. These are filled out at the concert by attendees – sometimes there are song lyrics, a little note, a message to a stranger or a quick sketch.
Marian then takes these to the next location and passes them onto a new audience.
While this was initially envisioned as an ‘analogue twitter’ the project has swelled. People are posting in cards from all over the world, sharing their experiences even when not able to physically attend. Marian has had postcards from as far afield as Japan and Brazil – places where she has no plans to tour … yet.
“On the one hand, I love social networking. I feel at home online. On the other, I wanted to do something that embraced my physical being – it’s so important to be able to pull back to myself.
You know when you’re online, talking with a bunch of people and you leave feeling so free, so accepted and so connected. Then other days, you do the same thing but you feel flat, empty and isolated.
This generation and the next, we have to learn how to approach the Internet. How to find a balance between our online connectivity and being in the real world and connecting with people who are in the same room.
So much of online interactions now have descending to click bait. Like the rollout of enforced image viewing on Twitter. With their IPO, I feel like my house has been sold above me. This and the rollout is so obviously being implemented as a sales tool – it isn’t how I want to engage – I don’t want to be viewed as a unit to some corporation. It makes Twitter like every other social network.
Ultimately, it’s about choice. Our choices. We need to decide how we want to interact online and off.”
That engagement online has taken on many new and exciting dimensions. In 2010, Marian went on the 49/50 tour – one where she was determined to perform in every state – starting from her home in Alaska. Joking about the difficulties of finding venues in smaller states; the reality becomes clear – there is a growing grassroots movement for music and musicians that are accessible, entertaining and operate within a creative honesty and integrity often missing in larger or more famous acts.
With the emergence of network free television; music acts that are in total control of their output and crowd sourcing – we – the viewing public – have a greater say in who and how we support. Marian is on the vanguard – a pioneer who is charting out this new territory. And first and foremost, she is one of us.
One can’t help but feel that (especially given her love of geography) the map making is in safe hands.
Contact Marian Call on twitter – @MarianCall
Details of her European and UK tour – HERE