Researching the Brooklyn-based playwright and singer-songwriter, Marla Mase, I had learned that the Huffington Post and Chorus.FM had reviewed her previous records. I listened to Marla’s latest concept album she had released with her label, True Groove Records, in October 2016, Miracles~Lost and Found. I felt moved and nostalgic for a time when I had an affinity for power-pop punk tunes that replayed endlessly in my head throughout the day.
Tracks like “Dreamland” and “A Gun” contain driving power chords and major chords that move in rapid duplets. Lyrics in these choruses, such as We are living in a dreamland, and in “Truth Comes Down” where Marla talks – rather than sings – the truth comes down in unison with the short and accentuated beats produced by the drums. The song that stood out to me the most was “A Gun.” Marla seems to be almost playfully singing in an alto range, There’s a boy right here he’s holding a gun/ A boy right here he’s holding a gun/ He wants to be in a gang, and wants to go ‘bang’/ He wants to be someone.
Some music theorists who possess a penchant for classical music or jazz would say that this musical composition is simplistic. Attentive listeners of popular and rock and roll music would say that this musical composition has a potential for marketing success.
While Marla’s Miracles~Lost and Found strikes a chord with me – no pun intended – she is not necessarily a stickler for writing music both compositionally straightforward and intriguing enough to be enjoyed by a market saturated with mainstream genres. According to a review Chorus.FM had written about one of Marla’s previous records Half-Life, “It’s obvious that spoken word and poetry looms large in her most recent release, but the problem is that poetry and other forms of writing intended to read and spread a message don’t always lend themselves to good, listenable music.”[i] This criticism written in 2014 about Marla’s old record got me to listen to Half-Life. This particular record has a very different tone and style compared to Miracles~Lost and Found.
My research on Marla’s musical repertoire led me to a few questions: did Marla define herself as a musician or a performer; what inspired the change between the fusion of eclectic funk, rock and experimental fusion, and spoken word of Half-Life and the power-pop and post-punk inspired Miracles~Lost and Found; and what concepts was Marla looking to convey? I welcome Marla Mase to a full-length feature interview on Music Historian.
When I asked Marla about her musical background, she explained, “I think of myself as a writer first. I have always been a writer and a performance artist. I write many plays [and] that’s where the music part originates. I did take many years of piano lessons.
“When I was younger, I used to joke and say ‘I should be a rocker, but I don’t really write music.’ But I do come from a musical family. My mother writes music, and my brother is a songwriter, sister-in-law and so was my grandfather. That’s how I started getting into all of this stuff.”
I wondered how Marla made the connection between music and playwriting.
“I was writing plays, one woman shows, monologues and performance pieces for about ten years or so. Then I fell into a super hard time. I basically broke. A lot was going on with my family, my daughter was sick for years and finally it caught up to me. I mean it was 24/7 of constant anxiety. Then I discovered that when I sang, I [experienced] a minute of release. So I started to sing. Then, I would go to my acting class and perform and started singing other peoples’ tunes. It was healing.
“Then I started writing a ton of songs, they just came to me, and I was putting them in my one-woman shows, performing them a cappella. I knew I needed a musician. A friend of mine introduced me to Tomás Doncker, an amazing songwriter/guitarist/producer. We began working together, first on my shows, then on albums and eventually we ran the label together. He just really believed in me and my work.”
Marla’s story so far explains how she got started in music professionally. Afterward, more opportunity began to follow. “The windows open very quickly,” she said again. “We released the first album and the soundtrack to the one woman show (Brief Night Out), and then I released another album, Speak, six months later.”
It was not long before Marla started receiving attention from other musical professionals. During a sound check, a woman spotted Marla. This individual brings American prodigies to China and brings talent from China to perform in the United States. Although the woman admittedly said that she found Marla interesting, and liked what she did; the meeting between Marla and the curator of performance talent (if I may), did not immediately produce leads.
“We met, it did not work out. She was looking for more classical stuff. Literally [though], a year-and-a-half later, she called me and said “I never forgot you, Marla. I have a friend who is part of the UN.” Then boom! The next day I was going to China with my band for International Day of Peace.”
For this musician, it seemed like a world of yes started emerging. I then became interested in what ignited the switch from spoken-word poetry against rock and roll music, to power pop punk tunes. However, keeping in mind that Marla is a writer first and foremost, a blogger must also think about influences and inspiration that do not always parallel music.
“When I released Brief Night Out, Speak and Half-Life, those are all very niche; there is a lot of spoken word, rock and roll, and mixes. Miracles~Lost and Found is more of a traditional album. On the surface, it is more song-oriented; you can sit down and listen to the ‘nice’ songs. With the other ones, maybe somebody does not want to hear spoken word. I just go where ‘it’ tells me to go. I write according to what I think, by my inspirations. In a lot of press written about me, they say that I am a genre-hopper. I have written Reggae songs and all sorts of genres. For me, as an artist, you just write what makes sense. That’s where there is a lot of mixes, the change.
“With Miracles~Lost and Found, the inspiration was… this story I had heard.” Marla shared the story with me – a religious fish butcher, during his work one day had a spiritual experience. A fish had started talking to him. The fish told him The Messiah was coming. Naturally, the main character became frightened. He began yelling “kill all the fish!” He started chopping up all the fish but then accidentally cut off his hand.
Marla had heard this story years ago, and she thought, “…‘this guy was praying for a miracle his whole life, and waited for a sign of the Messiah. Then it happens, and he freaks out. He cannot handle the miracle.’ That’s when I thought of writing about this entire concept for an album, Miracles~Lost and Found. How many things happen in our lives that we don’t recognize as a call to transcend? Or, we pray for this stuff, but when it happens, we say ‘No!’ Either you don’t notice it, or you can’t handle the hugeness of it.”
Regarding the difference in musical composition between the previous records which Marla mentioned and this latest one, she and her producer, Tomás, collaboratively decided to make the songs simpler. According to the playwright, both she and Tomás had the following attitude about Miracles~Lost and Found: ‘Let’s keep it simple, and to the point. Too much talking these days.’
When Marla describes Miracles~ Lost and Found in greater detail, she says “…I have two or three-minute songs, whereas, on the old albums, I have six-minute, half-funk, spoken word [songs]…with Half-Life, a lot of it was written with the beats first. Tomás and [True Groove Sound Engineer/Producer/ and Partner in the Label] James [Dellatacoma] would give me some of the beats and instrumentals, and I would write the lyrics around those. Most of the time, it is me coming in and [saying], “Hey, I have an idea for a song,” and I will sing a melody.”
On Miracles~Lost and Found, listeners can expect to hear Marla structure her vocalization more around the harmonies in the music and the chords created on a piano or guitar. After learning about how Marla composed her lyrics in the previous record Half-Life, I wondered whether, in Miracles, she focused first on writing the music and then the lyrics.
“Sometimes it is the lyrics; sometimes it is the melody. For example, the song “Always” was [already] together. My mother, who is suffering from Lewy Body Dementia, wrote a line in my notebook – ‘Now is the time we must say goodbye.’ Her condition makes her not be able to read and write. As soon as she sees a blank page, she thinks it fills up with words, just like in Harry Potter – there is a blank page, and then words just appear. I was trying to show her [and tell her], “You actually can write, Mom. If you close your eyes, you still know how to write.””
Marla came across this notebook again one day while in a coffee shop. She revisited the sentence her mother had written. Thinking about the sentence, Marla then puts a melody to it, which is the same melody within the track “Always” on Miracles. Another melody which had stayed inside of Marla’s mind for a while was the verse in “A Gun.”
“I don’t play the guitar, but sometimes, when I was alone in my house, I would just take out the guitar and play around on my own. I would always have this [melody] “There’s a boy over there, he is holding a gun…” [she sings the song]… Every time I stayed there alone, I would rant and make up a song. Then I said, “That gun song is coming into this album. It’s amazing because it is one of my favorite songs, and I have listened to people who say they like it. This song has been in my head for years, and I thought “Why?””
While Marla brought the melody and lyrics for both the verses and the chorus in “A Gun,” Tomás brought in the cello and orchestra into that song. Regarding the message, Marla asserts that this “A Gun” is not a pro nor anti-gun tune. The artist does share that at the time this song was written, the massacre in Paris (November 2015) had already taken place. She finished the demo and said to Tomás, “I just got a really weird feeling.” An hour later, on her smartphone, she sees the news about the shooting. If I put myself in Marla’s shoes, I would have gotten frightened, even if I am aware that these two occurrences – the massacre in Paris and the composition of a song titled “A Gun” – have no connection to each other.
Moving on, I remember that Miracles~Lost and Found had been defined as a concept album. I wondered about the themes in the record, and I correctly picked up on one – disillusionment. I learned that while I picked up correctly on the theme, it held little to no relation to Marla’s motivations for the songs on Miracles.
“Parts of Miracles~Lost and Found refer to what I have gone through, like dealing with depression, people in my life who are depressed, suicidality, and addiction. “Dreamland” was initially written as a reaction to my Mom being sick. She would say, “What is it all for?” Then I added in ‘I am hungering for more.’ We fight and battle; we do all of this in life, then we die. Not to be negative but, what is it all for? I think the disillusionment in the song is ‘we are living in a dreamland, let’s just pretend it is all right,’” says Marla, reciting a lyric in the chorus.
Something quite common among songwriters, which Marla also emphasizes is that sometimes you are not entirely aware of what you are writing. After Election Day 2016, “Dreamland” seems to have taken on a new meaning.
“We played at the Bowery Electric two days after the election, and I was pretty upset about the results. When I sang “Dreamland” to the audience that night, I did not feel it was about my mother then, but about people, all of us in America. Maybe that is what we have to do, pretend [everything] is all right, so we can get through. Then maybe that is a bad thing because we are trying to numb ourselves, like with the media.” Marla specifically refers to frivolous stories that receive attention. One story that comes to my mind is the one Time Magazine (online) covered about fathers doing ballet with their daughters.[ii] The artist expresses that the purpose of this type of reporting is to help people pretend that everything is fine, or feel distracted.
“Obviously as a whole, it is not the first time it has ever been done…,” says Marla. “You throw something one way, distracting people of the world from what is important.”
Another theme which emerges on Miracles~Lost and Found is the rude awakening. One example of a song that embodies rude awakenings is “56 Trees.”
“On the surface, I see a song that would be on the soundtrack for a film, like that Christopher Guest movie, the one that made fun of folk songs,” she explains. The film Marla refers to is called A Mighty Wind.[iii] “I feel the song seems a little bit [like the] sixties, but then there is this weird operatic thing [that happens]. I wrote this years ago as a reaction to a headline I saw – 56 trees were removed for fashion week at Lincoln Center.
“It sounds like I am this super tree-loving environmentalist, which I never really was, and then half-way through, the song equates the removal of trees in the middle of the night to people disappearing in the middle of the night. Where ever they live, in countries all over the world, people are told to move. But now, I am just thinking, that today, this could apply to what is happening with immigration. Boom: family gone! You are just thrown out. When this album, at least for me, when it was done, I felt like ‘Wow, there is a lot of depth in it.’”
Marla’s explanation about her motivations and themes that have come out of her songs is a prime example of how artists think when it comes to creating music. During my studies as a music history undergrad, I received the advice that many successful musicians and composers hid their real inspirations from the public. As a music blogger, I continue to ethnographically investigate how musicians and singer-songwriters create music.
When talking about original inspiration, writers must decipher what could be shared with a reader to create a cohesive story. The same also applies to writing music. Marla’s choice to keep the songs on Miracles~Lost and Found straightforward, appears as a suitable example. Even with lyrics and music, which to some might seem simplistic and partially politically-charged, even without meaning to, there is a candor behind Marla’s messages.
Marla’s next step for Miracles is to create a theatrical concert adoption of this record with Lisa Milinazzo. Lisa had expressed an interest in directing her, especially after she had heard Marla’s music.
“When I did Miracles, I thought that I would like to create a show out of it… I had written Lisa years ago… I met her via someone, and I had talked to her about Brief Night Out. We were not friendly. Then, we hired her for a Broadway-bound musical, Diana and Navy and the Golden Tooth written by Phoebe Nir who is an artist on our label. She (Lisa), had directed the concert version of that, so we got re-introduced. Then we became friends. Now, we are very good friends because of that show. I was in [it], and I produced it. I was [also] in the show as a narrator character.
“She said, ‘I want to direct you, I think you are interesting.’ Her husband is [also] a fan. I gave them my music from Speak. They said ‘We love your music!’ I thought, ‘Wow!’
“We are doing it, and we will work [together] on the dramaturgy. Lisa is influencing where it goes, and it is great. I like collaboration… there is only so much that can come out of my mind just working with someone else. She thinks it is really important. For me, I just want to do another show.
“She says it has to happen now because of the situation and it is pretty timely. We plan on putting up in June.”
Aside from performing and writing plays, Marla also owns two party-planning businesses, PARTYpoopers and PartySWANK, where she has produced over 3,000 events in the last 25 years. I asked Marla what inspired her to take the risk of starting a business. Her honest answer was “craziness.”
“Years ago,” she began to explain, “When I first started getting into acting and loved it, I started thinking why don’t I act in my theater? I can do it myself. I was not yet producing anything, we [Marla and her husband] were living in Tribeca at the time before what it is now. There were many empty storefronts. I was with my husband at the time, Isaac. I told him “I want to get a space where I can do my theater.” He then came up with the idea of doing kids’ parties. I was not sure why because we did not have children then.
“And, I thought ‘I don’t know. Really?’ That morning, when he woke up and said it, there was a big kids’ fair on our block, on Duane Street. I thought ‘That’s so weird, it must be a sign!’ Then, we just opened the business, and I never thought I would have done it if I did not want to open my theater. It was not anything I never really thought I would… this is the weird thing, everything I am doing in my life, I never really thought I would be doing.”
Like any entrepreneur, Marla’s journey in owning her own business was long. “There was a period where I felt mad because I thought it [the business] took me away from doing my artistic stuff. Now, it all goes together. It does not take up all of my time. The way I balance it now is so much better than I ever did. At first, we had a venue; I used to own thousands of costumes. I got rid of everything, and now it is all me being an event manager. I am the middle man; I know who to hire, and when you know any good director [for example], you know to hire the right people. It works out, but you must have good taste.”
It seems like Marla would like to continue to work as an event manager for parties. Regarding her efforts in music and performance, she plans to release the theatrical concert adoption of Miracles and see where that takes her. She is also developing a memory play that she wrote (along with members of her family) called “The Pill.” Tomas Doncker and James Dellatacoma did the sound design and her mom wrote the music. Marla expresses the first reading of it as a “huge success.” She also says, “People came out laughing and crying. I feel very excited about this piece. It has super strong legs.
“I just want to keep putting out good work. To me, Miracles~Lost and Found is just one of many things I do. I am not downplaying it. I love the album. It’s not like that album where I am very performance art-y. Maybe some people think it is edgy and they hate it, or they believe that it is hip and cool; this for me, is a treat to say ‘This is an album for me to put on and hear a song, and then hear the next song.’ ”
Music and art, in general, take on a strange life. A singer-songwriter may have a particular motivation for a song in mind, and when they listen to the completed version of their song, it tells an individual story. However, if an artist performs that same song during a time within an environment where plenty of uncertainty, and even fear, fills the political and social landscape, their music can have new meaning. As a musician, playwright and performer, Marla does not seem rattled by this transformation. I would even say she welcomes it, and I would be curious to see how the theatrical concert adoption of Miracles~Lost and Found pans out.
[i] Music Reviews Staff Writer. (April 26, 2014). “monoblogue music: “Half-Life” by Marla Mase.” Chorus.FM. Retrieved from http://monoblogue.us/2014/04/26/monoblogue-music-half-life-by-marla-mase/ on March 11, 2017
[ii] Lang, C. (February 16, 2017). “These Dads Doing Ballet with Their Daughters is the Only Thing You Need to Watch Today.” Time Magazine. Retrieved from http://time.com/4673637/dad-daugheter-ballet/ on March 25, 2017