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Interviews

Mary Ann Redmond: On the Verge

By Published: January 20, 2003

I think the most important thing is defining your own truth...and after that, being courageous enough to honor it...My truth is being able to play and sing and squeeze some marrow out of it.

Mary Ann Redmond's powerful, passionate voice inspires critics to poetic heights. Dan McClenaghan, reviewing her Prisoner of the Heart CD for this site, wrote: "she can belt it out to shake the walls down or caress a lyric like she's petting a cat." Goldmine admired her ability to go from a "fragile whisper" to a "riveting roar." Others use words like "soulfulness," "sass" and "spine-tingling," and compare her to everyone from Judy Garland and Etta James to Janis Joplin, Dusty Springfield, Aretha and Tina. Guitarist/singer-songwriter Redmond has been popular for a decade in the D.C. area where she lives,headlining at Wolf Trap and working an average of 200 nights a year. She's on the verge of her national breakthrough after years of roaming the musical range, when her peers honored her with 14 Washington Area Music Awards (Wammies) for Best Female Jazz Singer, Best Female Blues Vocalist, Best Pop-Rock, Best Roots Rock/Traditional R&B, Best Urban Contemporary.

Redmond is no cookie-cutter vocalist, singing about things she hasn't experienced: she writes songs that come straight from her gut to settle in yours, with melodies that stick in your head and grooves that start up your feet. Her latest CD, Here I Am, is a stunning, versatile mix—and available, like Prisoner of the Heart, through amazon or Redmond's Web site.

In our phone interview in January 2003, Redmond turned out to be as real as her music: earthy, warm, honest and funny. It was a refreshingly diva-free zone.

All About Jazz: I played the CD for some friends and they all want to know the same thing, WHERE *IS* SHE?

Mary Ann Redmond: Awww, that's nice. I'm ready. I've never been one to seek out fame and fortune and all that, but I love what I do. It's fun. So I'm blessed.

AAJ: So you're ready for the big national push?

MAR: Well, I'm ready to work a little harder. I think that's basically what it entails, and my friend Jeni Haight—my operations manager and best friend in the world—has just been sort of running amok—like, "we're going to do this if I have to drag you up the mountain sort of thing." And I've got my other friend John Jennings, who produced Mary Chapin [Carpenter] and helped with my last record, Here I Am—he's just incredible—he's going to be doing the next CD. We've got the songs sort of sketched out for that, but we haven't been in the studio yet. We'll see what happens with that.

As for me, I'm always working and staying afloat—it would be nice to actually have the money in the bank before the rent payment is due, but either way is good. It keeps life exciting the other way, you know, hand to mouth—keeps you motivated. (laughs)

AAJ: You said something about songwriting being like psychotherapy you don't have to pay for.

MAR: Yeah, when you write songs you get to work through your issues—it's all healing. I truly believe life is about how much crap you can pull away and how real you can be and truth—honoring your truth—but it's not always easy, and I don't always get there...but I'm workin' on it.

AAJ: I'd love to see you perform.

MAR: You ever come down to DC? My best gig is the State Theater down here. The guy who owns it, he's so nice, keeps asking me to call him and rebook it, he's been asking for March or April, but they're probably booked by now—maybe May or June. It's a gorgeous old theater. Post-interview update: The Mary Ann Redmond Band will be at the State Theater on March 15.

We're supposed to be up in New York soon—some interview with the House of Blues radio. I'm gonna go up there and talk to the peeps, see what they want to know—see if there's anything I can tell them. I wanna be booked there but I don't know... it's like, who do I have to sleep with to get a gig around here? (laughs)

AAJ: Oh, THAT old song...

MAR: It doesn't work when you're 43, it's more like, "Well, do you have a niece? Can you send up your daughter?" I don't have a daughter, but thanks for pointing that out to me.

AAJ: ...and have a good day.

MAR: Yeah, have a nice day. I'll just take my spinster ass outta here and sit by the fire with my cat.

AAJ: It's inevitable that you'll end up in places like the House of Blues once you stop staying in that little burg you've been in.

MAR: I'm ready. Right now I've got the coolest place that I'm renting—it's a log cabin on 2 1/2 acres, with a stone fireplace and a Jacuzzi upstairs that has its own hot-water heater because it's just so big... it's hard to get me out of there. It's lovely, it really is fun. Before this I lived with some roommates who were kind of party animals, and just to be able to walk around nekkid is a real good thing—to have your own space.

AAJ: I wouldn't want to leave that, either. Meanwhile, I was reading about all the different Wammies you've won. You said you were going for polka and metal next.

MAR: I don't remember saying that, but it's pretty funny.

AAJ: I also noticed that you studied opera. In "You Send Me," there's a line where you go on for bars and bars—you don't hear anything trickling out—and I wondered if you learned that breath control from opera.

MAR: I think part of it is that is my mom sang, and it's something that you have, but I studied at VCU in Richmond—I remember operatically, you'd have to sustain through the end of your phrase—and I'm sure some of it has to carry over. You learn stuff in spite of yourself. (laughs) So I'm sure it helped.

AAJ: I bet. And you probably don't smoke...

MAR: Well, I used to. I quit like 10 years ago. It was starting to bother me—like last night, even singing in a smoke-filled club (cough, cough). From everything I've heard, Streisand smokes, or smoked, and Aretha smoked, and you hear these things, but I'm losing my voice here. It's either keep it or not. Eat, or smoke. Okaaaaay... (laughs)

AAJ: Speaking of smoke damage, have you heard Joni Mitchell recently?

MAR: No, but I saw that review [very negative piece about Mitchell's new CD in the New York Times]. There's no need to lob rocks at anybody quite that hard, especially somebody who's given that much to the music. I mean, she's just brilliant, absolutely brilliant... it made me sad..

AAJ: Me too, even though I heard her last album and it was like, "Oh please, don't do this. Stop now. Let's not do a Sinatra, just stop now..."

MAR: Yeah. But even Sinatra in later years, the phrasing is still there. And Tony Bennett. God bless them. I know they were put here to do what they're doing, and they're going to have to drag me off the stage, sitting in my wheelchair or up on my walker—"Let me sing *one*!" Here she comes again, get 'er off the stage... I just love it. It's what I do. A lot of us who don't have the notoreity the big dogs do, we do it because we love it. It has its own reward, I guess. It has to, or we'd jump off a bridge. (laughs)

AAJ: As far as writing, your lyrics get right to it. I really liked the line, "Love is a crime and an alibi.."

MAR: (laughs) That's not my lyric. Mike Jones—he wrote that one. Too Precious is a brilliant song.

AAJ: Oops... but...

MAR: (still laughing) And that was your favorite?

AAJ: (trying to recover) Um... I also really liked, That's All.

MAR: A lot of people comment on that one...most people have been there at some point.

AAJ: And "Here I Am"—I mean, "Here I am/And there you go"—what more do you need to say?

MAR: Yeah. If you talk about psychological stuff, my first dad died when I was 7. And then my mom remarried, and my second dad was killed when I was 12. I'm sure a lot of what I write about is from a real old, abandonment-issue kind of place, you know, and it's all about the healing: how you pick partners that tend to repeat your old stuff, and how you heal out of that, take responsibility for it and go on. Get out of the victim thing. Writing songs about it does seem to clear it out a little bit.

AAJ: Back to the Wammies and that category thing...

MAR: How many of these suckers do I have to win before I can trade 'em in on a Grammy? It's like food stamps! (laughs)

AAJ: The Grammys are pretty weird this year, I noticed...

MAR: Really? Who...? (stops) You know what, I know nothing about the music business. That's probably the reason why I'm sitting my butt here in Great Falls for all these years. I'm also not competitive.

AAJ: And you also don't seem to fit in any bin at Tower Records.

MAR: People ask me what kind of music I do, and I really don't know what to tell them.

AAJ: Do you have a word for it? It seems to skate over all these different categories.

MAR: An old boyfriend used to call it "Confessional R&B with a pop edge." I think I write pop music but sing it like more of an R&B singer. But I've got blues and jazz—such a mix of stuff that I love—that comes out depending on what the song is. I really don't know... My favorite vocal CD of all time is Rachelle Ferrell's First Instrument—if you're a jazz fan, she's just a monster. When you hear her, you won't want to talk to me anymore. She's incredibly gifted. If I could sing like that, I would die a happy woman. She's got another octave.

AAJ: Where did that jazz award come from? There really isn't a whole lot of typical jazz on your CD.

MAR: "Prisoner" got a lot of airplay, especially on 102.3 KYS HUR, the old black station. "Since I Fell For You"—with all the lick stuff, the improvisation at the end—was on high rotation for a few weeks, which is a big deal for a local artist. That was the year that I won the Best CD, Best Jazz Artist, something else—I think they just don't know where to put me, either. Since then, I usually win best blues artist. I love singing blues, but it's certainly not all that I do.

AAJ: If they did nominate you for a Grammy, what category would it be in?

MAR: I'm goin' for Queen.... (laughs) I don't know. I'm not worried about winning another award. I love the fact that they've honored me, but it's really about loving what you do. I'd like to get on the next level and travel a little more and play to bigger audiences—hopefully, that will be in the cards.

AAJ: Oh... that will be inevitable. Just buckle up and keep going.

MAR: Yes, ma'am.

AAJ: Now, here's a delicate question. The people I know who've heard your music without seeing your picture have said, "she's black, right?"

MAR: Yes, I am. (laughs) What do you mean I'm not black? You mean I've been singing like this for 27 years and I'm not black? You're the first one that told me, dammit. Now I'm going to have to start singing like Tiffany!

AAJ: God forfend. Does this ever become a problem?

MAR: When Prisoner first came out [1994], and was gettin' that radio play, we were booked to open for the O'Jays at the Carter Barron, a thousand-seat amphitheater, basically a black crowd. We went out and with the first song it was like, okaaaaay, who's this, and then we went into "Since I Fell For You," and as soon as I hit that first note, the whole crowd just started applauding because they'd heard it on the radio—and they were like, "Oh, look, it's a little white girl singing that!" I was a little nervous, 'cause I'd played for black crowds who were a little cool, but I've also been fired for having too black of a sound at some cracker clubs that wanted me to sing like Madonna. But that was a long time ago and I really think everything is healing so much, racially, at least that way. I'm hoping.

AAJ: Who are your influences? I hear a lot of Michael McDonald in there.

MAR: (Does dead-on imitation: "I can't forget/We're not in love anymore.")

AAJ: (On floor, laughing)

MAR: Phoebe Snow, I used to listen to her a lot—gosh—so many people—Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Wonder—I love Aretha, love Gladys. A long time ago I had a development deal with Motown. Steve McKeever came out to see me play, and David Sonnenberg from Goth Communications—he has Joan Osborne now—got me a deal for three songs.

AAJ: What happened?

MAR: Steve got moved out of his position. Well, they signed me, even if it was a development deal. It's pretty cool that my only big record label deal was with Motown.

AAJ: What do you when you're not doing music?

MAR: Ride Hector.

AAJ: Hector?

MAR: Not my boyfriend. He's the horse that I lease about a mile away from me. I just love him. He keeps me sane. I do spin classes and Pilates, and go see other bands, and work—I love working. I write, and I play guitar almost every day. It's a dirty life, but somebody's gotta do it. (laughs)

AAJ: What do you consider your major achievement so far—musical or otherwise?

MAR: I think—gosh—I think it's figuring out that the most important thing is defining your own truth, whatever that might be. And it's tricky, because as you evolve, that changes. And then after that, being courageous enough to honor it. If you can live your life like that every day, that can be a pretty major achievement. My truth is being able to play and sing and squeeze some marrow out of it.

AAJ: What's your next project?

MAR: John Jennings and I are working on CD #4. Prisoner just got released overseas, and Here I Am is being picked up by a distributor company in Europe. We're also planning a tour for this spring to Chicago, Detroit, and Grand Rapids—it's a land we haven't been to yet.

AAJ: Where would you like to be in 5 years?

MAR: Preferably not sounding like Moms Mabley and not looking like Barbara Bush. But, other than that, I don't know—just happy and healthy and with my feet on the ground. Maybe I should have bigger goals, but I just want to sing and play and write and work with the people I'm blessed to work with.

AAJ: What would you like people to know about you?

MAR: Oh... my...

AAJ: Anything you want to tell them?

MAR: Ahhh.... gosh... I really hadn't thought about telling them anything. You have me stumped. I'm not really a "hey, look at me!" kind of girl anyway. I don't have that hustling, "come and see what I got" kind of thing. It's just not in me. I'd just tell them: Check it out, listen to the music, hope you like it, support live music, come see a show.

Mary Ann expressed what many vocalists often feel in her "Life is Short: Autobiography as Haiku" article, published in The Washington Post on Dec 16, 2001:

I'm singing a ballad at the pub. Right in front of the cramped stage sits this guy swilling his fifth half-price Corona. Apparently, with the savings, he's invested in a pack of Marlboro Reds. I'm stuck there with his smoke billowing up my nostrils, while he yammers incessantly about sleeping with some woman named Miranda. And I'm thinking..."I don't deserve this."

Four days later, I'm playing to a sold-out crowd at the State Theater. I'm singing the same ballad while hundreds of people are hushed and listening. It's incredible. And I'm thinking... "I don't deserve this."


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