Selling at Mary

"I thought, 'Here I am, I'm part of the Atlantic family,'" Karlzen says now. "Zeppelin was on this label!"

In the first few months of 1994, a deal was drafted and Karlzen received a $30,000 advance. She was contracted for only one album, but the label had the option of requiring her to make a second. Stark told Karlzen to send tapes of her songs to Kevin McCormick, a producer best-known for his work on Melissa Etheridge's first three albums. Later that year Karlzen flew to Los Angeles to make the album. That's when the trouble started.

She hadn't recorded in almost three years, and her tastes were changing, moving from country-folk toward pop-rock. "I was listening to Toad the Wet Sprocket and the Gin Blossoms," she remembers, "and that's what I was writing." But Stark was attached to Karlzen's folk-influenced songs, particularly "St. James Hotel," a somber, Western-style tune.

Karlzen and Stark battled it out over the phone one day. Karlzen remembers complaining, "I really can't record this song again. It's a waste of time." They discussed the matter civilly for several minutes, but Stark's patience eventually gave out. Karlzen says Stark ended the conversation with the statement, "I am the one choosing the songs for this record. I and I alone."

It was one of several turning points for Karlzen. "At that time I had a choice to say, 'Well then, I don't want this record deal,'" she admits. "But you second-guess yourself. You say, 'Maybe they know more than I do.'"

Apparently the label thought it knew how to market her looks. While in L.A., Karlzen went to a hotel to meet with Melanie Nissen, the photographer assigned to take pictures for the CD sleeve. When she arrived she found not just Nissen but also a hairstylist, a "groomer," a wardrobe person, and a make-up artist. By the time the photo shoot was over, Karlzen had been dressed up like a baby-doll chanteuse with blush on her cheeks, a heroin addict with too much eyeliner, and a farm girl.

"At one time," Karlzen says, "they wanted me to put on a tube top with a cat on it and a little bubble saying, 'MEOW.' I was like, 'No. That's not gonna happen.'"

Afterward she had to sort through 1000 photographs on contact sheets and pick one for the CD cover. She chose one of herself wearing overalls and a thermal underwear top, hair hanging in front of her face, shoulders hunched, arms hanging stiffly at her sides.

"I think people should listen to your music," Karlzen insists. "James Taylor once said that everything he wears is plain, all solids. He wants people to listen to the music and not look at him, because the songs are more important."

"You can say that all you want, but don't expect to sell records," offers Shannon O'Shea, who manages the trendy altrock band Garbage. "You look at Jewel and you go, 'That woman will put out!' Whether she does or not is irrelevant; it's all about projection. People respond to sex -- that's all there is to it."

Record companies also think that people respond to CDs peppered with notable guests. Yelling at Mary, which Atlantic released in January 1995, doesn't feature Karlzen's usual back-up band. Scandariato, then Karlzen's boyfriend, plays guitar on nine of the album's twelve tracks, and Karlzen's friend Kay Hanley, who fronts the altrock band Letters to Cleo, sings on "Stronger" and "Wooden Man." But the rest of the musical cast includes Jackson Browne, a long-time friend of the producer, who sings backup on "The Way I See It"; Los Lobos guitarist David Hidalgo, who plays on a couple of songs; John Mellencamp's long-time drummer Kenny Aronoff; and Benmont Tench, organist for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The production sounds smooth and professional.

"It's not really what I wanted for a first record," Karlzen confessed to an Ohio newspaper while touring to support the album. "I just wanted to make everybody happy, instead of staying true to what I wanted to do."

In their reviews, critics invariably compared Karlzen to Etheridge, Sheryl Crow, and Nanci Griffith. "A quality level rarely matched in debut releases," gushed the Boston Globe. People magazine called it "a polished work of folk-tinged rock." The Washington Post predicted "a fistful of potential hit singles."

But a hit single never came. With Stark pushing for a country sound and Karlzen pulling for a rock sound, Yelling at Mary wound up occupying a confused middle ground. The song "I'd Be Lying" received minimal airplay, and the album sold only 45,000 copies.

"Ten years ago that was enough," says Julie Gordon, a former A&R executive at EMI/ Enclave. "Now it's not. Labels are really looking for artists who can come 'out of the box' [immediately upon a CD's release] and sell a lot of records."

Quite a few women rockers were doing just that when Karlzen's CD was released. In 1994 Crow's Tuesday Night Music Club peaked at number three on the Billboard album chart. Sarah McLachlan's Fumbling Toward Ecstasy went multiplatinum. Mary Chapin Carpenter's Stones in the Road sold more than a million copies in only three months. Veruca Salt, Lisa Loeb, and Joan Osborne were signed to major labels that year, and Atlantic added Poe and Jewel to its stable, which already included Melissa Ferrick, Tori Amos, and Hatfield. The following year Jill Sobule and Victoria Williams came onboard. Karlzen remembers seeing memos circulating around the label's offices prioritizing certain artists and urging publicists to book them on Late Night with Conan O'Brien.

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