Since the beginning of the music industry, it’s been easy to see that there are at least two kinds of artists, and the main difference lies somewhere in the metaphysical realm of intention. Some artists have truly great ideas that resonate with others because they speak their truth. Others write music specifically to sell, and they’ll do anything to do so – including ignoring their hearts and spewing who-knows-what into the world.
New York rock poet Marla Mase falls squarely into the former category. Why waste precious life not being open and honest with the other souls who share your world? She expresses and says what she wants in free flow poetic form, much like the great Patti Smith, and she does so with a fearless ease. Currently working on her 3rd CD “Personal Affairs”, Marla discussed her music, her inspirations, and of course, “divine restlessness.”
Marla, I have to say, I admire your approach to your work. There don’t seem to be many musicians losing themselves in poetry or performance art out there today. What were the catalysts for you personally that led you to the “nothing out of bounds” approach to your art? Most artists are afraid to put themselves out there so fully.
Thanks James. I don’t even think about it actually. It’s just who I am, sort of ‘balls to the wall’ I guess – and if I’m going to give it away I’m going to give it away. Or perhaps there’s a bit of, “well now’s my chance, to say how I feel, express what’s inside of me and I want to be as truthful as I can. I want YOU (whoever that may be) to know. I want you to really know who I am and I don’t want to be half-assed about it. (like I may never have this opportunity again so I better give it my ALL.) I’ve been told I’m very passionate. (I wrote my Master’s Thesis on Passion in 2003 and it seems since that time I just can’t shake the passion thing.) As a child and even way into adulthood I felt kind of silenced at times, not by others, but by myself, by unspoken rules of how to be, you know the ol’ proverbial ‘children should be seen and not heard’ and inside I was dying for people to know me, for me to know me and me to know them — like people really have no idea who I am, what I’m about, and for that matter no one knows who anyone is or what anyone is about and that bothers me. I want IT, the truth, the core to be exposed and known. I want Intimacy, I crave true connection.
It’s fitting that you have a song called “Divine Restlessness” because I think that term could very well describe your work. It’s as if you’re discarding perceptual barriers that the public typically puts on communication.
You’ve got the itch, so to speak. There are certain themes that are pervasive in my work-one of them is ‘on being an artist’ – it took years for me to understand and accept that that’s who I am and was the cause of my apparent ‘restlessness’ – and I do feel/know that it comes from outside of myself—but truth is it is very hard for me to relax and settle in – especially when my kids were little and I ran a business and then at night when I ‘should have been’ free I still felt like I had something I needed to do. And now I know. It’s like I’ve been given a job, a task, I can choose to do it or not, that’s up to me, but the task is there, the injunction is there and so too the urge (to write, to SPEAK, to take what’s been given to me and communicate it.) It may sound high-fallutin, it felt like it was even to me for many years, like I was making it up, but I wasn’t —eventually I just surrendered. I still can’t settle in and relax (unless I’m in the sun on the beach), I’ve been given a job to do, so I do it – I wrote a poem once about my grudgingly taking my place in the line of ‘sentries’ and I have a short solo piece called ‘Big Bang Theory’ (way before the TV show existed) which addresses this as well. It’s like, “OK I’ll do it. I don’t know what that IT is, but I’ll do it because I’ve been summoned.”
You seem to take effort to emphasize all aspects of your psyche, and it’s refreshing. Do you think most people put forward only what they see as their “socially acceptable” qualities?
Hard for me to say what other people do, I guess so, but for me because I’m me and it’s myself I don’t see it as being ‘out there’ or ‘controversial’ or ‘in your face.’ Well I know I’m an in your face artist but that’s where I like to be (HAH) – I want to push people out of their comfort zones – actually I don’t intend on doing that but it happens because people are really uncomfortable seeing someone else being comfortable and someone who is not afraid to put it all out there. I once did a show in this pub in Buffalo (part of their Infringement Festival) and literally this guy was sitting 3 feet from me—I was doing my song DFWME- and he refused to look at me—I was 3 feet away on my hands and knees and begging for HELP. “Help Me Help Me.” He was so uncomfortable that he wouldn’t even turn his head to look at me, and as a performer I thought, I am going to beg him for help until he looks at me, I will not stop until he looks at me. (it was interesting for me to see what would happen and a clear example of how people refuse to look at what’s happening right in front of their faces—even if he looked at me and laughed or shook his head, or gave me the finger, spit at me, something, anything, but to pretend I wasn’t there…whoa – it was very telling.) He never did respond. And so a piece of me is still their begging/waiting.
Where has the response to your work been the strongest?
Well, I have a pretty wide range of fans. I definitely get the people who grew up in the classic rock era—hippies, art rock lovers (those guys love me)—I’m compared to Patti Smith, Janis and Jim Morrison a lot. But I also get young people (I have a bunch of Polish teenage/young 20’s girls/boys who love me—they love my rawness, at least that’s what I’m told) – and they are all over the place-in Brasil, in UK, in Greece, in Poland, in Japan. It seems they really get me over in the EU, particularly the UK, where I’m being played on radio, interviewed, and in the process of organizing a tour—they are less ‘afraid’ of my emotions, metaphors, symbolism, and are looking for something different than what they’re getting. The people who like me all say the same thing – they love my honesty, that my lyrics express what most people think and feel and would like to say but would never have the courage to say it. They also say I’m an inspiration. Again, it’s hard for me to talk about this, express this, because for me it just feels like me—nothing unusual, nothing risky. Oh yeah, for a woman who is told she is a role model and an inspiration for women I would say that I have as many if not more male fans than I do female – they also love my raw honesty and I’ve been thanked for that over and over but I cannot help but think it also has to do with my sexuality: that I have it, that I stand in it, and that I am very comfortable with it. I guess one could say I’m provocative — Oh yeah, that’s one of the other pervasive themes in my work - sex.
Who are your music heroes?
I always loved Pete Townsend—his lyrics, his songs. I, as did everyone else, listened to a lot of Beatles (particularly loving tunes like Fool on the Hill, Nowhere Man, Across the Universe—I remember sitting with the Love Song compilation album and listening for hours and hours, yes I’m a huge romantic) –my first concert was a Styx concert (funny huh?). As a teenager I was a disco girl (I’m from Brooklyn, very Saturday Night Fever) and my brother who was rock-n-roll made fun of me (I didn’t even know who The Doors were when I was 15) – but as I changed I began to like Squeeze, Talking Heads, B-52’s, The Vapors, James Brown, Parliament, U-2, THE STONES, Bob Marley, Tracy Chapman (later on), Peter Gabriel. I like show tunes (as a very young kid—West Side Story/Sound of Music/Oliver/Fiddler on the Roof—later on, I loved Chicago/Spring Awakening, Cabaret). I also played piano from age 6-12, all classical music so I love classical as well (Rachmaninoff ) – basically I love GOOD MUSIC -whatever genre it is. But I do have a soft spot for a great lyric. Tomás Doncker my producer, guitarist, co-writer has probably been my greatest mentor—he believed in me from the get-go and I’ve learned a lot about music via him, his band. Remember music is new to me (not the listening but the creating) – I am a writer first and suddenly out of nowhere songs started coming to me, one after the other, (after a nervous breakdown of sorts) and I thought, shit I better get some musicians to work with me—I was writing this abridged version of my longer play Man/Woman called A Brief Night Out and I was doing the songs acapella and I knew I needed musicians, real musicians – lucky for me I hit the jackpot on the first try with Tomás. (His diversity and knowledge of music is formidable—and he was there in the early 80’s playing with all of them…those downtown NYC icons.)…..anyhow many of my heroes were writers: Kafka, Kundera, Theodore Dreiser, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Bronte Sisters, Tennessee Williams, Gogol, to name a few. Yes I was an English Major.
Who in music today do you admire and listen to often?
I am not consistent with this, I go through moods, phases—not so long ago I was in a Mavis Staples groove, then it was Pink Floyd (love the song Mother, want to do that cover), David Bowie, Peter Gabriel (the Book of Love), I love Eminem (he’s the real deal; he reminds me of me a bit, no matter if you love or hate him, you know he’s coming from a real place and that’s what counts to me—where it’s coming from—we happen to have the same birthday too and the same initials – hah), Aimee Mann, Garbage, Stina Nordenstam – I have a lot of friends whose work I admire, names you wouldn’t know but who are up there with the best….
How does your song-writing process work? Is it a free flow of consciousness or is it more focused and pre-meditated?
Definitely free flow of consciousness – all my writing is done that way – as I said before, it just comes to me and then it’s up to me whether I stop what I’m doing and grab it before it moves on. When I get an idea I quickly take my cell phone, go to the voice recorder and sing in to it so I don’t forget or lose the inspiration and then I get back to it later. Or sometimes I’ll just stay with it and finish it then. The focus part happens when I get together with Tomás — some songs are completely fleshed out prior to our meeting and others are more like floaters – I have the concept, the chorus, and then together we fill in. Lyrics are very easy for me—just give me a tune, a beat and I’ll make something up on the spot. That’s how Squirm was written – Tomás just started playing this groove and I just turned to him and said “I wanna shut the shit down. Burn my affirmations….” But usually I have the lyrics, a tune, and I go to him with them. My rock opera A Brief Night Out (BNO) was written like that – that’s what I was working on when all the songs started coming to me—except it wasn’t a rock opera at first, it was an abridged version of a play but as the songs started coming it switched from being a play to being a rock-n-roll musical/a rock-opera. Of course it’s still a play, I still act in it but it revolves around the music—or shall I say the music is the fulcrum –it moves the story forward. Right now I’m in the process of putting together a SPEAK Show – not a rock opera like BNO but a performance art piece with spoken word (all my shows have spoken word) and lighting and visuals – I want to mess around with body image –and pose the question, ‘what is a body?’ Basically I want to mess around with people’s perceptions of body in a fun rock-n-roll Mase sort of way. The music from the SPEAK album will be the central core of the show, so it’s a rock concert in essence, but there will be some interesting off-shoots, and some things to think about, that I can promise.
What are the biggest challenges for an artist like yourself? Censorship? Getting noticed through the mediocrity perhaps?
That’s a compliment James or at least I think it is, so thanks. Yes, as with most artists, it’s the getting noticed – it’s being accepted by the machine or getting the machine to break down and decide to take a risk (a risk these days is Dove doing a Curvy Girl Ad – I mean think about it – how crazy is that?– that a bonafide risk in our day and age is putting a bunch of curvy women on a billboard or in a magazine or on a commercial – wow! I think we can do a lot better than that. (And don’t get me wrong I was thrilled about it, because it was a step in the right direction as far as what we are selling, but still that’s how skewed we are….to think that the most controversial thing a company can do is to endorse CURVY WOMEN) – So what I need is someone in the machine or NOT, some one who sees the direction WE, the collective We, are heading and wants to stop it and DO SOMETHING ELSE – who says NO, let’s put THIS out there in the world instead, ‘WHAT IS THE MESSAGE WE ARE SENDING’ (a line from my new reggae tune AnnaRexia) because really WHAT MESSAGE DO WE REALLY WANT TO PUT OUT THERE – we need people in the media, in business, in the arts to take responsibility—girls/women/boys/men are impacted by all these messages bombarding us – what do we really want to sell? Anything will make money if you hype it up enough so why not hype up something that might actually shift things around a bit, that will stir things up and give people confidence to be who they are. (I’m clearly not a machine prototype—I’m not a teenager, nor in my early 20’s, I don’t fit in to the safe category and yet of course I believe that’s exactly what is needed these days and if it’s not me, it needs to be someone, an army of someones—role models (and I don’t try to be any of these things but I know who I am) someone who is not afraid of being themselves (and part of that comes from my being ‘older’ – someone once said “YOU have the rebelliousness of a teenager AND the wisdom of a woman.”) So I say why not a woman who is intelligent, hot, sexy (and over 40), comfortable with her sexuality, who shares her experience, her fears, her neurosis and her courage in the hopes that it might help someone else – what do I need to be private about?—of course some things are private-but I am not embarrassed by who I am, what I’ve done, what I’ve gone through. I’m a human being, I have flaws, I make mistakes, I’m neurotic, AND I am also courageous, strong, intelligent, creative, wonderful. I believe people need to see what’s real and not continuously be fed what is not real. Not real leads to people hating themselves, wishing they were something they are not and wanting to be something that in reality doesn’t exist.
Quite honestly I never thought about censorship of my work (other than when I was up for a tour in China and I thought, shit, so much of my work would not be acceptable over there—for someone who thought herself apolitical I suddenly realized I am very political-not in the obvious ways but by what I represent – I like to remove the veil on things and expose them—mainly on myself but on other things as well.
I have to say that through social networking I have built up quite a following, I see that people are craving something else, the ones who like me LOVE me (I think I’m that type of artist—you’re either into what I do or you are NOT into what I do, same when I perform live-you either LOVE it or you’re uncomfortable-or you’re uncomfortable at first and then realize, ‘hey this is pretty cool actually and the music is dope. It’s actually all a lot of fun.”-) and I’m very very grateful for the generosity of spirit I’ve experienced – people supporting my work for no reason other than because they LIKE it, because I have impacted them in some way – and they want to see me succeed and their willingness to let others know about my work is truly remarkable—I will never forget those people, truly. I know I’m the real deal – (is that obnoxious to say? Is it ok to say something good about oneself? ) – I have some serious fans out there – quoting me-my lyrics, my blogs, calling me a GODDESS, a rock icon—I think people are missing that identification – an artist who by being herself makes it safe for them to be who they are – she’s flawed, she’s imperfect, she’s messy, and still she’s unafraid – – she’s just like me – we’re all scared and hurt and sexy and strong and beautiful – all of us –
What else can we expect from Marla Mase in 2012? What can you tell us about “Personal Affairs”?
Well I’ve already written recorded and mastered the first tune AnnaRexia—it’s a reggae track featuring Hawk from Method of Defiance—this is a very important project to me (and yes it’s a project) on many levels. It’s sort of hush-hush now until everything is in place but let’s just say Awareness Needs to be raised on the subject of Eating Disorders and Anorexia. I have a lot of people already interested in doing what they can and yes the SONG IS DOPE! The rest of the album? Hmmmmm, well let’s just say I’ve been listening to a lot of Grace Jones these days…
By James Moore: email@example.com