By David Rolland
By David Von Bader
By Rebecca Bulnes
By Laurie Charles
By Chuck Strouse
By Lee Zimmerman
By Laurie Charles
"I'm not Jill and I'm not Jewel," Karlzen told a reporter from Entertainment Weekly during an Atlantic Records showcase at the 1995 South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin. "I know we all start to blend together after a while."
Even worse, the offices of WEA -- the conglomerate comprising Warner Bros., Elektra, and Atlantic -- were in turmoil in 1995. CEOs were being fired and hired, and there was talk of tightening belts at all of the labels. Layoffs of both staff and artists seemed imminent. Karlzen, meanwhile, was on the road most of that year, playing with Scandariato and a couple of musician friends from Fort Lauderdale. They were living on approximately $90,000 of tour support from Atlantic. The tour was important: Because radio stations weren't playing her songs, it was her best chance to introduce her music to potential fans.
As it turns out, the tour was the high point of Karlzen's major-label career. She and her band opened for Billy Pilgrim (a folk-rock band on Atlantic) and for Charlie Sexton (a bluesy, roots-rocking singer-guitarist). In Los Angeles they played the Greek Theater and mingled backstage with Brad Pitt, Ellen DeGeneres, k.d. lang, and Ben Stiller. But at the end of the tour Karlzen and Scandariato broke up.
"Mark and I had this fight one night that was just ... I don't know, it was just tough," Karlzen recalls. "And then we got home and we just had a lot of problems." They did, however, agree to remain friends, and they still perform together.
Despite Yelling at Mary's poor sales, Atlantic picked up the option for a second Karlzen record. Encouraged, she indicated a desire to work with Don Smith, who had produced records by Cracker, Keith Richards, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. But Stark didn't like the idea. She favored Mark Bryan, the guitarist for Hootie and the Blowfish. He had almost no producing experience, but Hootie's Atlantic debut Cracked Rear View was in the process of going multiplatinum. "I thought, 'We'll give it a shot,'" Karlzen says. "'We'll give it three songs and see how it goes.'"
It went well -- at first. Karlzen liked Bryan, and she was a Hootie fan. But when the trio of songs was finished, she felt he hadn't quite captured the band's newly developed pop-rock sound. Ulloa and the band agreed, and Karlzen was given the unpleasant job of letting Bryan go. He took it well, she claims, and they still talk. But Karlzen adds: "After that it was all downhill with the label. I think they totally lost faith in me."
Tapes of the new songs were sent to Stark and Val Azzoli, the newly appointed co-CEO of Atlantic. Karlzen called Stark and said, "I want to use this other producer, Don Smith. I don't like what we've done with Bryan." When Stark mentioned that Azzoli was unimpressed, Karlzen told her that was why she wanted another producer. After Stark said a few vague words on the matter and then rushed off the phone, it dawned on Karlzen that this might be the beginning of the end. A few days later she was getting ready to go to the grocery store when the phone rang. It was Ulloa.
"There's a problem," he said gently.
Karlzen didn't need to hear another word. She hung up and went to the store. "It was like I was in shock," she says now. "I remember walking through my day not feeling anything. Not mad or upset or anything. Just numb."
"What happened in the mid-Nineties was there was a lot of downsizing," Stark explains. "Atlantic, over the course of the last three years, has laid off 100 employees. In so doing they also dropped a lot of artists, just trying to make the roster smaller. Basically it boiled down to the math, when push came to shove. I don't think that's necessarily a reflection on Mary. The press really caught on to what she was doing -- they really got it. And I thought it was only a matter of time before the public would get it. That's the one regret I do have: She never really got another opportunity."
Atlantic bought Karlzen out of her contract so she would not have to complete the second album. Karlzen used the money to buy back the master tapes of Yelling at Mary and a video she'd done with Atlantic -- a slicker version of "I'd Be Lying." That cost her $12,000. "But it gave me a lot of peace of mind," she notes. "I didn't want them to have control over me any more. I just wanted to totally break away and not be under anyone's thumb."
In the spring of 1996 Karlzen had Ulloa book some showcase gigs in Manhattan and invite people from various labels. The A&R execs showed up, listened, and had only good things to say. But nobody offered her a deal. Karlzen says she felt like she was wearing "the Scarlet D" -- for "Dropped." Karlzen relates that finally an acquaintance from one label pulled her aside and offered this advice: "Unless you do something different or change your name, you're damaged goods. You should just hide away for a while and come back up for air later. But right now no one's going to pay any attention to you."