Major Mary

Local hero Karlzen wrestles with her image and herself

The songs on the album Yelling at Mary, to be released this week, are instantly likable. They are spunky. They are poignant. They are insightful. They are fun. They are feisty. They are introspective. They are, in sum, much like the woman herself. And they are about to make 1995 a very good year for Mary Karlzen.

Of course to hear the self-effacing singer-songwriter tell it, the album's going to tank. That's Mary. She gives you one of those aw-shucks smiles when you tell her how much you like nearly every song on the album. "Really?" she asks. "I like about six of 'em. I think my tastes are going in a different direction. [The other six] are more like where I used to be. Those songs were written so long [more than a year] ago. I guess people still say, 'Oh, Mary Karlzen, she plays country,' but we're nothing like that now. The band is going in a much more progressive-alternative direction."

Ask her how it feels to be on the cusp of stardom and she'll give you the same kind of ingenuous reply. "When you appeal to a broad range of people, sometimes it means you've done something mediocre. But I don't think I have to worry about that [popular success] with this record," she chuckles. "That's the only thing about being on a major label [as opposed to Miami-based independent Y&T Records, which released her first two CDs]. It reaches a lot more people.

"That's why I write songs. It's discouraging when you don't get feedback," she continues. "You're not sure you're communicating with anyone. It's like when you first sent a fax, and afterwards you'd call the people to see if they got it. A woman came up to me once and told me a song 'took her soul for a ride' and that made me feel really good, that I'd touched someone. Being on a major means I have the opportunity to touch more people like that."

The affiliation with Atlantic is already paying dividends. Witness WSHE's decision to play Karlzen's promo-only "Run Rudolph Run," not to mention the first official single from Yelling at Mary, the ebullient "I'd Be Lying." "It's kind of exciting," Karlzen sheepishly admits. "Something about getting in my car and hearing it on the radio for the first time." She sounds embarrassed to admit to such satisfaction.

The temptation to portray Mary Karlzen as a sweet "little girl" who risks being eaten alive by the mean old music business is seductive. She brings out the protective instinct in people. Away from a stage she looks more moppetlike than she does in front of an audience; while she's not exactly tiny, Karlzen is much closer to the petite end of the scale than she is to the Amazonian. Her wardrobe runs to baggy thrift-shop surplus, she giggles contagiously with childlike abandon, and her wispy blond locks always look a little wind-blown.

The image is occasionally reinforced by her singing and songwriting. Three songs on Yelling (especially "Wooden Man") find Mary crooning in a pitch that calls to mind Shirley Temple, Bernadette Peters, or Alvin and the Chipmunks. On helium.

Surprisingly, however, with the exception of the opening verse of "Wooden Man," which will have listeners wondering if the motors in their tape and CD players are speeding up, the effect works. Yet Karlzen swears it's unintentional. "Once in a while," she recounts, "we'd do vocal tracks and Kevin [McCormick, the album's producer] would say, 'A little less of the little girl,' and I'm like, 'What is that?'" And yet in some ways she still sees herself as a little girl: "Doesn't everybody? Everybody still has that feeling in them, that longing for security. No matter how old you are."

And then there's the album title. Yelling at Mary. But don't confuse Karlzen's vulnerability with naivete or an inability to take care of herself. "Don't think for a minute you can hurt me," she warns in "Everybody's Sleeping." This is a woman who admits she once put her hand through a plate-glass window trying to punch a boyfriend on the other side.

"Don't get me mad," she shrugs.
Most of her compositions coat a message of emotional toughness with a veneer of sentimentality. Even a straight-ahead rocker like the popping "I'd Be Lying" (lifted directly off Karlzen's 1993 Y&T Records release Hide) has an undercurrent of melancholy. "If I said I didn't miss you/I'd be lying," the singer laments. Memories and past relationships are key to Karlzen's writing. "I grew up in a family that wasn't very vocal at all about feelings, so maybe this is my way of letting it out, a byproduct of many years of being nonverbal," she theorizes. "You can't write songs about the future, you know what I mean?

"Besides," she laughs, "I don't think about the past as much as I used to."
Karlzen's songs have always been heavily autobiographical. "All of it," she says. "I mean, it might not be my story but it's seen through my perspective."

Yelling at Mary's lyrical content is no exception. After all, how much clearer can a song title be as far as whose viewpoint is being expressed than "The Way I See It?" And Karlzen's dissatisfaction with the musical landscape in South Florida, where she has lived most of her adult life but has always felt like an outsider, is palpable in the unambiguously named "Anywhere Is Better Than Here."

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