A Conversation with Marian Call – HuffPost 10.22.14

Galen Hawthorne: Give us a little about the 2014 autumn tour.

Marian Call: This is the Portland to Portland tour! Fans in Portland and Maine always get confused and disappointed when I don’t mean “their” Portland, so this trip goes from one to the other! My first concert was at XOXO Festival in Portland, Oregon. I also recorded a live show in Seattle. Then I headed east and began playing all over the Midwest, nearly every state north and east of Iowa, in fact, plus Toronto and Montreal. I hit the Eastern Seaboard and Portland, Maine in October, and then I head west again, hitting Colorado and Utah on my way back to Portland, OR for a final wrap concert in November! I’ve released two albums, a set of originals called Sketchbook and an album of cover songs called Marian Call Sings the Classics vol. I so there’s a lot of new material on this tour. There are a lot of house concerts, but then house concerts are my favorite kind of concerts. I think everyone should host and attend them more often, they’re the best way to hear music.

GH: You tour so frequently, you must enjoy it somehow. Do you find you really get something important out of it beyond promotion?

MC: The food! The scenery! The friends all around the country! I truly love traveling. I do it more than I’d like and faster than I’d like, but all the same, it’s not a bad life. I was never really interested in the US but now that I know it all so well, I really love it. And I love seeing familiar cities and highways and people over and over again. But mostly the food. Let’s be honest.

GH: What have you been most excited for the on this tour?

MC: If you mean excitement as in suspense, I’m excited to see whether my car holds out! I’ve been driving her pretty hard and this will be her last tour. I’m also excited for (again) food and people. And I get to play some cool venues: Fermilab, the particle accelerator, and Fiske Planetarium in Boulder, plus a Halloween concert that is sincerely at a secret laboratory in Denver. Plus a number of comic shops and game stores.

GH: What has been or will be a challenge on this tour?

MC: It’s always a challenge bringing people to shows. There are often hundreds of fans in a city who don’t come, and there’s a ton of work that goes into getting just a small percentage of fans excited enough to show up at a concert. I’m so grateful for everyone who turns out, and I work really hard to make sure everyone in a city has a chance to hear about the show. Still, with all the chatter and noise in people’s lives lately, it’s hard to cut through.

GH: Give us a little rundown of your current album, Sketchbook.

MC: My latest record was a surprise to most fans, out of nowhere, because I made it sort of privately on the road. A couple of songs began in the studio, but most were recorded in the homes of people who hosted us while we traveled the country last year. Normally my albums are big and sweeping and collaborative, this was small and raw and intimate and personal. Because it’s short and the audio quality isn’t perfect, I wanted to be sure people know what they’re buying — so I called it Sketchbook, which fit the nature of the songs, and I used recycled cardboard packaging that I stamp and illustrate by hand. There’s even a space for the album owner to do their own doodling while they listen to the album–the CD jacket for Sketchbook is a sketchbook.

GH: What’s your general writing process like for an album?

MC: I mostly write about very concrete scenarios or characters or objects, not so much my feelings. I avoid love and romance mostly, I’m more interested in science, geography, psychology, our relationship to time, the natural world, sharks and bears and dinosaurs. I suppose I think of a concrete scenario or situation–real or fictional–and try to figure out how that sheds light on the way that all of us humans are the same at our core. I think love and romance have mostly been covered by other musicians.

GH: What’s your recording process like?

MC: All my albums have been made so differently, I’m still learning! I’d like my recording process to be better, but as an independent artist the fundraising process and tight funds mostly dictate what I can do. So I tend to do recordings quick and dirty in the studio, encouraging my musicians to improvise and do their own thing, then I spend tons of hours editing afterwards to sculpt the soundscape that I want.


GH: Was there anything really different during the creation of Sketchbook?

MC: I mostly recorded Sketchbook myself, and usually under less-than-ideal circumstances — waiting for a truck to go by outside, shooing a meowing cat out the door, forgetting to plug in my laptop and losing a take, things like that. It was really homemade. That said, I got a better vocal sound than I’ve had on other records, because I tried to let it be really raw and honest — and because I was in the middle of touring, which is both the most stressful and the most rewarding thing I do.

GH: I see you have a cover album now, too, with a pretty wild assortment of tracks. Tell us about the Kickstarter that led to it and maybe go over how you picked out some of the songs that went on it.

MC: I did a very successful Kickstarter back in 2012 for my first live album and a tour of Europe, and as part of the stretch goals for that Kickstarter, I agreed to do some cover songs, which I rarely do because of the licensing fees. I chose music that was formative for me–everything from Beatles to They Might Be Giants to cartoon show theme songs–and I know a lot of those songs resonate with my fans. It’s been really fun working on “Reading Rainbow” and Muppets songs for a change!

GH: You do covers during your live shows, but how was recording a cover album different from recording your own albums?

MC: Covers are a lot more fun and lighthearted live, but recording them is nervewracking — you love and respect the original, and you want to do it justice. You want your fans to know how much you adore the work and bring something new to the song without being gimmicky or flippant about it. Striking that balance takes a lot of thought and preparation as well as a little audacity.

GH: What advice do you have for new artists?

MC: Take a good look at the innovative things other artists are doing, especially artists you respect–but know yourself, know your audience, and don’t copy others just to copy them. Don’t do a Kickstarter just because everyone’s doing a Kickstarter, don’t jump on a new website just because people tell you that you should; really investigate what works for you, because your own path will probably not be exactly like anybody else’s right now. There are more ways to have a little success in art than ever before, and also more ways to be disappointed. Also — day jobs are great. Artists without day jobs spend the time you *would* spend at a day job doing boring promo work or updating websites or driving, not doing extra art. It’s still the same struggle to find time & resources to create new things, except they have no safety net. Work on your craft. You can’t skip that part. Being pretty good is not good enough. Even if you only plan to play three chords, know how to play every chord in every key without a capo. Even if you only plan to play in one style, get competent in every style. You need to be really good and really experienced and really hardworking to stand out right now, because there are more people in the game than ever before. Spend your 10,000 hours on your craft, because no amount of online gimmicks and promo will make up for that. And last, make sure you know why you want to make your art. Do you crave an audience? That’s the wrong reason to be an artist. If you crave an audience you probably need therapy first. Do you love making your art? Do you find yourself and your reward in the making of it, even if nobody notices and nobody’s listening? That’s a much better place to be.

GH: What’s down the line for Marian Call? Any pie in the sky projects right now?

MC: I’d love to spend more time blogging about what I’ve tried over the years, about what’s worked and hasn’t worked. Like the 50 States Tour, the Pseudo-Scholarship Fund, about music streaming vs. downloads, that kind of thing–there’s not much time for that now, but I want to do more writing in the future. Maybe a book someday, who knows. There’s a new holiday EP due out in December, as well as a new studio album on the horizon for next year. And more cover songs coming too. So much music!

GH: Tell me a joke if you’ve got one.

MC: What’s brown and sticky? A stick.


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