Selling at Mary

Heading north on I-95 toward her home in Fort Lauderdale, Mary Karlzen takes a sip from a bottle of Miller Lite and returns it to the cup-holder hanging from her dashboard. It's well after three o'clock on a recent Sunday morning, and Karlzen has just finished headlining a show at Tobacco Road. "Ma-ry! Ma-ry!" the crowd yelled when she was done. Lost in thought, she stares at the road.

"I definitely believe in reincarnation," she says. "And I think we get smarter and smarter with each life. I think our souls learn. You know how you meet some people who seem so dumb, so naive? And you just think, 'Man, you must be on your first life.'"

Karlzen, age 32, has wised up in the past few years. In 1993 she signed a contract with Atlantic Records, one of the biggest labels in the music industry. She felt as if she had finally broken the tape at the end of a grueling marathon of near-misses, mild successes, and total failures. Now she was about to live out every musician's dream: to write songs, play music, make records, and get paid for it.

Things didn't quite work out that way. As one former label executive notes, "The easy part is getting signed. When you get signed, that's when the real work begins."

While at Atlantic, Karlzen recorded her major-label debut and toured for several months to support it. The album earned widespread critical acclaim and sold respectably. But in the end corporate politics, economic realities, and the ever-changing music market outweighed Karlzen's talent. After two years she was dropped by the label. No other record company wanted to touch her.

"Commitment to long-term artist development" is a common catch phrase among presidents and CEOs of major labels. In fact, such commitment is very rare. Industry insiders say it takes approximately one million dollars to successfully break a new band these days. As many as 25,000 albums are released each year, and an estimated 85 percent fail to make a profit.

Given the vicissitudes of public taste, major labels tend to take short-term gambles on new bands that may or may not score a hit. The alternative -- investing time and money to develop a few promising but unproven artists -- is simply too costly. Karlzen found that out the hard way.

"Man," she says, one hand on the steering wheel. "I am gonna be so smart in my next life."

By 1993 "women in rock" were beginning to capture the imagination of the public and the music industry. Melissa Etheridge and Mary Chapin Carpenter won Grammys that year, and Polly Jean Harvey and Liz Phair were at the forefront of the alternative scene. "Chick rockers" were much in demand by artists and repertoire executives known as "A&R"), the people responsible for finding, signing, and developing new artists.

Karlzen seemed to fit the mold: a five-foot-four blonde who drives a Jeep Cherokee. With her small features, fair skin, boyish haircut, and little-girl voice, she comes across not unlike Juliana Hatfield, a former indie favorite who also wound up signed to Atlantic. Karlzen grew up in northeast Illinois (in Palatine, not far from Chicago), where her parents owned a small grocery store and her grandmother owned a farm; as a teen, she moved with her family to South Florida. To this day her favorite outfit is a pair of overalls. She's generally quiet and sometimes shy around strangers, but never timid. Karlzen exudes an edgy confidence, as if she might be packing a weapon.

"Her bad days are really bad, and her good days are really good," explains Mark Scandariato, Karlzen's onetime boyfriend and current guitarist. "Her persona is so strong that it just carries over to everyone. I remember that from touring: When Mary's having a bad day, the whole van is quiet. When Mary's happy, the whole van is partying."

Karlzen's mood was good in the early Nineties. She persevered as a singer-songwriter even though her first band, the all-female Broward quartet Vesper Sparrow, had broken up after five years. Through her manager Rich Ulloa (owner of the local Y&T Records label, and the man who helped orchestrate a major-label deal for another of his clients, the country-rock band the Mavericks), she caught the ear of Jennifer Stark, a young A&R executive working in Atlantic's New York City offices.

Late in 1993 Ulloa convinced Stark to fly down to watch Karlzen perform at Miami Beach's now-defunct Stephen Talkhouse. At the time, Karlzen's music mixed equal parts country, folk, and roots rock. "What drew me to Mary," Stark recalls, "is that I thought she had a really interesting hybrid of American music. There are a lot of other artists who are doing that now, but at the time there weren't. In a lot of ways she was ahead of her time."

Stark left Miami promising to speak to the higher-ups at Atlantic. In December a low-budget video that Ulloa had produced for Karlzen's song "I'd Be Lying" was picked up by VH1. He called Stark, and within two days Atlantic offered Karlzen a deal.

"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.

"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."

"And it was so true," Karlzen contends. "That's when I just went home. I started riding my bike and wasting my days."

For several months she would ride to Treetops Park in Davie in the morning, then spend the rest of the day writing in a journal. She wrote fiction, memoirs, thoughts -- but not songs. Occasionally she got on the park's swing set and pumped her legs furiously, trying to lift herself toward the sky. Around dusk she would ride back home.

"It's really hard to encourage somebody," says Scandariato. "You get used to that feeling that when you walk into a place, everyone's there to see you and rally around you and support you. And when all that gets taken away, it's quite an awakening to realize that you're not on the pedestal any more. I guess she had to come to grips with that. And it was a difficult transition to watch."

But late in 1996 Karlzen began writing songs again. She recorded and released a four-song EP with Scandariato and the band with which she had toured. She bought the Cherokee so she could haul guitars and amps. In 1997 she wrote and recorded twenty new songs. Ulloa is busy preparing packages to send out to major labels.

"There are a million billion bands out there, and everybody's vying for the same spots you are," Karlzen says. "That's why you can't do music thinking that you're going to get anywhere. You just have to do it for yourself. If you think someone's going to come along and validate you, that ain't going to happen. You have to do it just because it's in your heart to do."

For Karlzen, Atlantic Records is in the past. These days she's doing things the way she wants to, and she's happy with her new songs. If her recent show at Tobacco Road is any indication, her local following remains as strong as ever. Another trip to the big time may or not be ahead of her, but with her trunk full of gear, Karlzen keeps on driving.

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