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."
"I didn't really want 'Anywhere Is Better Than Here' on the record," she frets. "It's an angry song." But it neatly encapsulates the singer's burning desire to get out of town and find something better for herself, a recurring theme in some guy named Springsteen's early material, as well.
"I could listen to Born to Run the rest of my life and I've listened to it a million times already," she admits. "You can't help but want to emulate your heroes. All those ideas that made you want to write in the first place are going to creep in there."
In "Another Town, Another Place" there's even a momentary instrumental flourish that sounds like a tip of the hat to "The Ties That Bind," a Springsteen tune that Karlzen and company have been known to perform as an encore. "I never intentionally did that; his song modulates to another key. But yeah, it's definitely there," she acknowledges. "When I was twelve I wrote a song called 'Here, There, and Everywhere' and I thought it was the best song I'd ever written. I didn't realize I'd just rewritten a Beatles song."
Karlzen claims that the trip from being a self-described geek in high school to cutting an album for a major label with help from the likes of David Hidalgo (Los Lobos), Benmont Tench (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), and Jackson Browne has done little to change her self-image. "Those things are cut in stone," she reasons. "The way you perceive yourself and the way you think the world sees you don't change. You get to a point where you don't care what anybody thinks of you. That's sort of where I am now. I don't play music to please anybody but myself."
Still, Karlzen admits to being thrilled to record with Jackson Browne, who contributes backing vocals to "The Way I See It." "He didn't just come in and do the usual harmony part," she gushes, sounding every bit the starstruck fan. "He asked me about the lyrics, about what I wanted as far as the feel of the song. He sang the part over and over. He would hear flaws in his voice that no one else could.
"Not only was my youth shaped by his music, but also by his politics," she adds. The No Nukes concert film, which Browne and Springsteen headlined, made a big impression on a teenage Karlzen A so much so that she got arrested for participating in a sit-down protest at a nuclear power plant. The police released her when they discovered she was a minor.
"I was always interested in politics in high school. All my friends were like ten years older than me, and my family was into politics," she says. The 28-year-old environmentalist is vocal in her disillusionment with the political apathy that seems to grip her peers. "When I was in college I tried to start up a group called Young Democrats as an alternative to the Young Republicans. It was awful. Nobody cares."
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While she hasn't completed the cycle from idealist to cynic yet, Karlzen admits to a degree of resignation. "You're not going to score the big touchdown any more, whatever that is. My goal now is just to enjoy the passing of time."
But doing interviews and all the promotional nonsense required of a major-label recording artist interferes with that enjoyment. "I keep getting these questions about what the album title means," she says. "Or, 'What do you think about women in rock?' Why don't you ask me about men in rock? It's like I have one thing in common with other women in rock. It's like annulling your individuality. Why not a comparison like Rickie Lee Jones sounds like Tom Waits, you know? I never was a Melissa Etheridge fan. I mean she has a great voice, a very strong, raspy voice, but I was just never heavily into her music. But everybody compares me to her. I don't know why. I don't sound anything like her. I think people compare you just because you're a woman and you rock." One reason might be that Kevin McCormick also produced Etheridge's first three albums, but such a conclusion is ultimately unfair, implying that McCormick is a one-trick pony, which the Karlzen album proves is not true.
"I'm just getting comfortable with the concept that you have to talk to people about your life," Karlzen sighs. "It's like, now wait a minute. Where did I sign up for that? You start writing music out of passion and love and all of a sudden it becomes your job and you have to go up on-stage and play for people and you have to look good and you have to say the right things and stuff you never bargained for. Maybe if I saw all that before I started to write, I wouldn't be doing this, because it's all this stuff that I never counted on doing." She cuts herself off. "Here I am complaining again. People probably look at me and say, 'What are you complaining about? You're doing what you love and getting paid for it.'"
Mary Karlzen performs at an album-release party at 10:30 p.m. Monday at the Hard Rock Cafe, 401 Biscayne Blvd, 377-3110. Admission is free.