Mary Fahl is an expressive, emotional singer/songwriter who first achieved fame as lead singer and co-founder of the mid-1990s NYC-based chamber-pop group October Project. As a solo artist, Mary has released several albums, including a reworking of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” an original studio album, “The Other Side of Time,” and her newest release “Love and Gravity.” Mary will be at The Cedar this Friday, November 4th with her earthy, viscerally powerful contralto that Boston Globe critic Steve Morse calls “a voice for the gods that can transport listeners to other realms.” We spoke with Mary in advance of her show.
Q) What were some of your early influences?
A) So many! I grew up the middle child of a big family during the sixties. The air in our house was always filled with great music my older siblings were listening to. Lots of Dylan, Beatles and Dusty Springfield. Judy Collins too. I always loved her. I was crazy about the Mamas and the Papas when I was kid. It’s funny that I ended up in October Project – a band known for two guys, two girls and lots of harmony. As I got into my teens, I discovered British folk: Sandy Denny, June Tabor, Linda Thompson, that’s the well I drank from. I loved Renaissance too. I actually got to sing with Annie Haslam last year, my teenage dream come true! Annie lives near me in Pennsylvania.
Q) Your work weaves together many world and classical traditions. What musical genres or artists are currently inspiring you?
A) Rufus Wainwright, Sufjan Stevens, Laura Veirs, The Cinematic Orchestra, The Durutti Column, Magnetic Fields… I listen to lots of different music, but I find myself going back to these people over and over again. Most of these artists have an orchestral element to what they do that I’m very attracted to.
Q) Your songwriting talents came to the forefront after leaving October Project: on “Love and Gravity,” you wrote 7 of the 10 songs on the album. What is your songwriting process like?
A) Well actually, I wrote quite a few of the songs on my Sony Classical album,”The Other Side of Time,” too. As for the process, it’s different for every song. I keep notebooks around the house in case I get an idea. Those notes have saved me over and over again. I learned that trick from Ramsey McLean years ago. Ramsey is a wonderful lyricist who worked with Harry Connick Jr. on Harry’s early records. I co-wrote “Redemption” with Ramsey.
Typically, the melody comes first and then it (the melody) tells me what it wants to say. That’s a very challenging way to write, but I think my best songs come from that method. It’s lets my unconscious do the work. When I write for movies or in the case of the “Exiles”, an Anne Rice novel, it’s much easier. The book or movie gives me a context to start with. I love the process of entering the inner life of the characters and writing lyrics from their perspective.
I find it very difficult to write about my own life. First of all, I’m happy… that’s a problem. 😉 My life doesn’t have the tremendous ups and downs that it used to. I have a really good marriage – and it’s much harder to write about a solid, steady relationship in an interesting way. I do like to co-write, although I haven’t done much of that lately. I find if I get stuck on a song and it’s not going anywhere compelling, I’ll call up one of my songwriting pals that I trust and let them take the song in another direction. I’ve done that quite a bit with Byron Isaacs of the band Ollabelle. We’ve written a number of songs together and Byron will always take the song down an interesting road that I wouldn’t have thought of. You can only do that with another good songwriter though.
Q) In addition to your original songs, you also do covers, like the Joni Mitchell classic, “Both Sides Now.” How do you re-imagine a cover song to make it your own?
A: First of all, a really great song will hold up under many different interpretations, and if you’re going to do a cover, there’s no point unless you’re going to bring something fresh to it. When I hear a great song that I resonate with, a song that I feel compelled to sing, the process of making it unique happens organically. I always keep in mind that there will be solo performances of the song where it’s just me and a guitar, so I start by trying to make it interesting on the guitar. Then there is the emotional experience of the song that I bring to the interpretation. It’s going to be different for me than for another singer. Sometimes just slowing a song and pairing it down to its essentials will reveal textures and emotional layers you might not have heard in the original version.
Q) Your music is very cinematic. Do you find yourself influenced by film or visual mediums?
A) Very much so! Several songs on my Sony Classical album “The Other Side of Time” were inspired
by films – especially classic films. “Dream of You” came to me one night while I was watching Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and “The Station” was inspired by the David Lean film “Brief Encounter.” I’ve also written for some major motion pictures including the opening song for the Civil War epic “Gods and Generals”. I also listen to film scores quite a bit. I especially love the work film score composers Alexander Desplat and Thomas Newman.