Friday, 10 April 2009

Music Interview - Maria Muldaur

Maria Muldaur More Sultry Than Ever: I Finally Got the Voice I'd Always Wanted

By M.D. Spenser

Few singers have built such a varied career as Maria Muldaur.

She was part of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early ’60s, and later sang and played fiddle in jug bands. In the early ’70s, she was half of an eclectic duo with her then-husband, Geoff Muldaur. Then, divorced and solo, she scored a massive pop hit in 1973 with ‘Midnight At The Oasis’.

More recently, her voice has become much richer and over the last several years she’s done the deepest Blues of her carer.

Her latest album, “Yes, We Can” explores the black social consciousness music of the early ’70s. She’s backed by a group she calls “The Women’s Voices For Peace Choir”, which includes Joan Baez, Bonnie Raitt, Phoebe Snow and, of all people, the actress Jane Fonda.

In a recent interview, sounding enthusiastic and girlish at 66, Muldaur seemed to talk with no full stops, one thought running into the next. Some excerpts from that conversation:

MD: Before we get to the new album, I want to ask in general about your recent work. It seems that you’re singing now better than ever. How would you say your singing has evolved over the years?

Maria: From when I was a teenager, I’ve always really loved the Blues, and rhythm and blues. And when I was 17, I discovered and fell in love with Bessie Smith. And a little bit after that I fell in love with Memphis Minnie and a lot of these early Blues women, and have always loved Mavis Staples and all of the black gospel singers.

So, even though I was given a very nice little light lilting soprano voice, in my soul of souls I’ve always wanted to be a Blues and gospel singer. And just as the years make everything on a person go south, so to speak, the good part of it was that it also made my voice go south. If you hear what I’m doing now and then you put on ‘Midnight At The Oasis’, you wouldn’t even think it’s the same person.

I find it a very gratifying and nice little unexpected gift, having matured over the years, that I finally got the voice I’d always wanted to have.

Your albums over the last decade have been quite distinct from each other. There’s the Blues-rock of “Southland Of The Heart”, piano Blues in “Meet Me Where They Play The Blues”, vintage Blues in “Richland Woman Blues”, pop in “Heart Of Mine: Love Songs of Bob Dylan”, and now a social justice album. Did there come a point when you felt released from the constraints of Top 40 and free to take on whatever projects you wanted?

I was never in the constraints of Top 40.

I grew up in Greenwich Village, which is where what I always laughingly call the folk scare of the early ’60s started. I got exposed to Appalachian mountain music, Delta Blues. They were rediscovering and bringing up north people like Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, and black gospel music and bluegrass.

I was in a band with—you know who (bluegrass artist) David Grisman is? We were in a band together in 1962 called Maria And The Washington Square Ramblers. It was a bluegrass band and I was the lead singer.

And then, of course, for many years I was in a jug band, first the Even Dozen, which I was in with David Grisman and John Sebastian (later of The Lovin’ Spoonful), and with the Kweskin Jug Band for about eight or nine years. And then I did two albums with Geoff Muldaur as a duo, and those were pretty eclectic.

So when we broke up, both musically and personally, I got the unexpected opportunity to go out to California and do my own solo album. I made what really, if you look back at it, was a very eclectic album. The first song is a Jimmie Rogers song. I did ‘Don’t You Feel My Leg,’ which was an old New Orleans Blues. I did ‘Walkin’ One And Only’, which was a Dan Hicks song, which is a very hip, kind of early swing kind of thing.

So really, the fact that there was this song that I did as a favour to my young guitar player, ‘Midnight At The Oasis’, just was another gift from above that everybody just fell in love with that song. And it was on the charts for almost a year, it was nominated for a Grammy in several categories, it went gold and eventually platinum, etc. And that was when I became known to a larger audience maybe as a pop artist.

But really, if you go and look at my next album, it starts with a Skip James song, and has some swing tunes on it that I did with (saxophonist/trumpet player/clarinetist) Benny Carter and a big band.

So what I’m saying is I’ve always been about exploring different kinds of American roots music. And that little foray into the Top 10 was a happy accident that I’m very grateful for, but that’s never been what I was about.

How was it making “Sisters & Brothers” with Eric Bibb and Rory Block?

It was like falling off a log. We did it in a town called Unity, New Hampshire. Rory Block’s been my soul sister for years, and we both absolutely drink out of the same musical fountains of the early Delta Blues and so forth. And Eric Bibb was a much more recent discovery of mine, and I love his voice and his whole kind of very soulful, preacher-like way of writing songs and singing and playing the guitar—I just adore him.

We got up there and sat around in the living room of this little bed & breakfast for a couple of days and thought of different songs, and ended up cutting the whole album in a couple of days. It was just a wonderful experience.

You mentioned Bessie Smith—I can’t imagine anyone else doing such a wonderful job of singing ‘Bessie’s Advice’. How did you happen to record that?

I’m glad you asked this, because this is just indicative of what a serendipitous little meeting of the minds and hearts and souls we had up there in Unity, New Hampshire.

Eric, almost as an afterthought, said, “Maria, you know, when I heard I was going to work with you, I wrote this song. It’s called ‘Bessie’s Advice’.” And he played it for us in the living room.

And I said, “I really like the song, I love what it has to say, but it needs a bridge, and it also needs to have—you know, because the whole song’s about if your man does this or that or yells at you or punches you—it’s all negative”. I said, “You have to have the other side where it talks about what if he’s just what you want, you tell him ‘Come on in’”.

And I sat down at the piano with (keyboardist) Chris (Burns) and—this is almost like a scene out of one of those Tin Pan Alley movies—you know, I’m trying to sing it to him, and he’s going, “This chord?” And I’m going, ‘No, no, no, more minor’.

I’m sitting at a stool at the edge of this grand piano, and Eric Bibb has a pencil and a piece of paper, and we get to the bridge, and he’s scribbled out the bridge and put it in front of me. And then as we were sort of shaping the music of the song, he was finishing the last two verses. I was throwing in my two cents with, “No, no, no, it should say something more like this”.

And it just kind of flowed from his pen onto the paper. And what you hear on the record, we recorded it about five minutes after that happened.

It’s wonderfully atmospheric.

I mean, talk about hot off the press or fresh out of the oven. The song was finished and the producer said, “Now, go in the sound booth”, and I thought he was getting sound. I, of course, wanted to rehearse it and rehearse it. And he said, “No, no, just do it. It sounds great.” Ba-da-boom, ba-da-bing.

The new album, “Yes, We Can,” is a departure, isn’t it? Were you worried that a protest album would come off as preachy?

I don’t give a damn. I mean, A), I don’t worry about anything. B), I mean in terms of what I’m presenting to the world, I pray about it.

I don’t write, so I have to reach deep inside and figure out what’s resonating with me at any particular time. And what was on my heart and mind was the very dismaying and deplorable condition of the world right now.

So I said, Oh, I’ll make a protest album. But then I quickly decided, no, I don’t want to look back with derision. I want to look forward with vision and present a positive outlook, something to give people hope.

Back in ’60s, when I was living in the village as part of the whole folk scene, there was one faction of people that were trying to discover authentic American roots music of various sorts. And then another faction of the folk scene was people who were into protest songs. And even though I totally espoused the causes they were singing about, the words were humourless and kind of jingoistic, and the music was a little too simplistic. It just didn’t captivate my ear.

So the whole notion was—aww, but wait a minute, I don’t like protest music.

But then I suddenly thought of all the wonderful songs of social relevance that a lot of the black soul artists in the late ’60s, early ’70s were singing. They were certainly very aware of all the social ills that needed to be addressed. And they wrote and recorded wonderful songs that addressed those issues very eloquently but yet with a total groove. It was like protest music you could dance to.

So that’s when I thought of Marvin Gaye, and I did ‘Inner City Blues’, and I thought of ‘War (What Is It Good For)’, and ‘Why Can’t We Live Together’.

One of the secrets seems to be in having the music funky enough that it doesn’t seem in any way preachy.

Because that early stuff, they were just sort of strumming relentlessly on acoustic guitars. To me, it has to be artful. The first, quotes, protest music I ever liked was Bob Dylan, because he raised the bar a thousandfold. ‘Masters Of War’ and ‘John Brown,’ both of which are on this album, he wrote when he was 21. Can you imagine that? I mean, it’s just amazing.

One of the most moving songs on the album is ‘John Brown’—a mother sends her son off to war hoping for glory and he comes back maimed.

He wrote it probably because he was facing being drafted himself. I knew him way back in those days. And that was the Vietnam era. But how much more poignant the song is now, because back in those days, if someone was wounded badly enough, mercifully they usually died.

Now, they can bionically sew them back up, patch them up, you know, give them bionic limbs, and then in some cases they’re even sending them back off to battle. And yet there’s a lot of people in this country that think that’s heroic.

The way I do it, I took that version—which is, I think, really funky—from a version that the Staples Singers did. And Bonnie Raitt says that’s her favorite, too.

Was making the record fun?

Oh, my god, it was the most overwhelming project I’ve ever—because just to ask all these women of great stature, and who were heroes of mine, I had to screw up all my courage to call up and ask all these people, including Jane Fonda. But not a person said no.

And then they just so naturally took to the music. I mean, the version of “Masters Of War” I sing gives me chills. I said, “How are we going to do this?” because Dylan’s way just drones on and on, only a couple of chords.

And the drummer just started playing these ominous, war-like sounding, thunderous rolls on the drums, and then the keyboard player and the guitar player, they just came in with these really dark, moody, ominous chords. It wasn’t like it was all written down and we had a big grand plan. It just organically emerged out of the players because we were all of one heart, mind and spirit on this project.

I have to ask—can Jane Fonda sing?

I’m here to tell you she can sing. What gave me the idea was that I had done a benefit with her the year before for a wonderful film called “Sir, No Sir” (a documentary about soldiers opposing the Vietnam War).

So they had a big benefit to raise money to distribute it. At the end, Holly Near and Jane Fonda did ‘Down By The Riverside’, which has kind of been the anthem for peace-seekers over the years, an old black gospel song. And I’m standing right next to Jane, and I noticed how clearly she sang.

So as I’m sort of trying to plan this whole thing, she came into my mind.

First she was a little intimidated because Joan Baez was there. And she’s like, “Oh, God, what am I doing here? I’m not a real singer.”

And I said, “Now, Jane, just sing it like we were singing it at that benefit”. And she went out there, put on her little headphones and sang her heart out.

It’s really funny. When she starts singing—the lead part was already on, so—(sings) “I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield”—and we hear “ba bum ba bum”—“Down by the riverside”—“ba bum ba bum”.

And she’s doing the “ba bum ba bums,” and my main engineer turned around and said, “Well, do you want her to do that? Should I stop the take?” I said, “Are you kidding?”

She just reminded me of a girl in the eleventh grade choral group, just singing her little heart out.

Where did you get the idea to slow the song ‘War’ down, take out Edwin Starr’s grunts, and give it such a delicate, mournful reading?

Mournful—that’s it. I have to say credit goes to Joan Osborne and her band. I had never heard Edwin Starr’s version. But I had heard her version, and I kind of thought that’s how the song went.

And actually it’s funny, because the people at the record company didn’t like my version of ‘War’. And even my guitar player said, “Well, I miss that whole angry thing.”

I said, “But this isn’t about that”. I said, “These are women mourning. Their husbands, lovers and children are being killed for no good reason. The is the feminine take, the people who bring life into the world and nurture and nourish it for eighteen years till your child is grown. And then your child is snatched up and sent off for no good reason to be killed and maimed.”

And that’s my take on the song, and I had to fight to keep it on the album.

Overall, how would you like people to respond to hearing the album?

Well, my music has been the soundtrack—I mean, I could really write a little book, which would have to be X-rated, if I had written down all the little stories that people have told me.

People come up to me and tell me these stories about what they were doing or what they were inspired to do when they heard various songs of mine. So it’s clear to me that my songs have been the soundtrack to various love and lust affairs. People come show me photos of children they conceived to ‘Don’t You Feel My Leg’ or one song or another.

And the thought occurred to me that, if things continue as they are, pretty soon there won’t be any people to make love and make romance and babies, and no place to do so, either, and so it’s our hope that these songs will just give people the idea that instead of feeling utterly hopeless about what’s going on in this world, that they say, yes we can change things.

It’s just like, you know when you have to clean the whole house and you put on some really bumpin’ music to kind of motivate you? Well, I want this music to motivate people to do whatever they can on a local level to effect a change in this world.

Do you know what is next for you?

I would like to make a jug band album and an Appalachian old-timey album. And then I will feel like I will have gone completely full circle. I just follow my heart, and so far in all these years I’ve not run out of things to do or to sing about.

No comments: