Based in South Florida, Y&T music released Shine, the 2021 album by renowned folk-rock singer-songwriter Mary Karlzen and, with its cross-section of memorable tracks, it’s a keeper. Combining modern-day folk-rock energy with pure pop songwriting, the album is a stellar showcase for Mary’s music. She’s been compared to singer-songwriters Sheryl Crow and Nanci Griffith yet there’s also a kind of New York style Marshall Crenshaw vibe on Shine as well. A more country-rock version of The Bangles would also be a good comparison. Speaking to mwe3.com about the origins of the title and title track, Mary says, “One night, Jansen, the producer of the last CD, Wanderlust Diaries, sent me an email with the song Shine attached. He said he messed around with it just for fun. One listen and I just started bawling. It was just like the way I always heard it in my head and once again I had that feeling like I needed the world to hear it too.” Many fine musicians back Mary up on the 12-track album including Ben Peeler (guitars) Garry Tallent (bass), Kenny Aronoff (drums), Mark Goldenberg (guitars) and many others. Mary might be well remembered for her Dualtone Records and Atlantic Records albums, yet her 2021 Y&T album is right up there with her finest works. Soaring studio production and mixing work by Jansen Press is another fine selling point. Even with a kind of all-star backing band in the mix, the songs on Shine makes it a contemporary pop-rock album not to miss. ytmusiconline / marykarlzen.net
mwe3.com present an interview with
mwe3: Where are you living these days and what do you like best about it? You are from Chicago originally right? And your record label is based in South Florida. So, how did you meet Rich at Y&T Records? I used to buy CDs at the Yesterday & Today record store when I lived in Florida in 1989 and 1990. Y&T have some great CDs out recently including the anti-war tribute they did called Make Music Not War: Put Down That Weapon which I know you also appear on a track called “Soldiers”. Tell us about recording that track.
Mary Karlzen: I live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I know Milwaukee has been the brunt of many jokes, like in the Simpsons, when Springfield is declared the country’s fattest city, Homer yells, “In your face! Milwaukee!” We get that a lot. Honestly, Milwaukee is a hidden gem. It’s like a small Chicago, without the traffic and ‘Da Bears. If there’s something we don’t have, Chicago is 90 minutes away. Yes, I’m from the burbs of Chicago so I was torn when becoming a Packer’s fan. After high school, I moved to Fort Lauderdale and got into an all-girl band called Vesper Sparrow. We became very popular in the area and that’s how I met Rich. One night, he came out to see us at a show. Yes, Yesterday & Today was an amazing place to buy all kinds of music and collectibles. It was really a crying shame that MP’3 killed the record store. There is nothing like thumbing through LPs looking for something special. I worked at a record store all through high school, Musicland at the Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, Illinois. Then I went to work at Rolling Stone Records in Norridge, Illinois. Had to lie and say I was 16. But enough about my resume.
As for “Soldiers”… I was asked to contribute a song and it had to be an anti-war cover. It was written by James Taylor, one of my all-time favorite song writers. I believe it’s about the Civil War. At the time, we were in the last year of Trump’s term and I felt our country has never been as divided as it was since the Civil War and I feared another was on its way, so it seemed the right song for that time.
mwe3: What era of music history did you grow up in and how did you first become exposed to pop, folk and rock music? Were you listening to music back in the 1970s? It’s amazing how strong the music of the 1960s and ‘70s is still even today. Were the Beatles and Bob Dylan big influences in your musical upbringing and do you have a favorite Beatles or Dylan album?
Mary Karlzen: The late 1970’s but mostly 80’s music was what was playing around when I was in school. I have three older brothers who mostly listen to singer-songwriters like Jim Croce, James Taylor and John Denver, so I heard a lot of that in the house. My dad was a huge country music fan so while my friends were listening to Journey and Styx, I was forced to hear all the old country stars like George Jones, Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn. I hated at the time, but now I am so grateful to have had that exposure. Once I started working at the record store, the doors flew open to a whole new world and I basically exchanged my paycheck for records. That’s when I discovered a lot of the Southern California songwriters like Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones, CSN&Y which I think I gravitated to in my writing. My music collection was very eclectic because of the store and I loved all kinds of from New Grass Revival to Keith Jarrett but also fell in love with Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Dan Fogelberg and Nanci Griffith. I did have all the Beatles records and some Dylan but they weren’t the artists that made me what to pick up a guitar and write songs. The artists that compelled me to write were James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Rickie Lee Jones, Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell and Nanci Griffith, among a few others…
mwe3: Where and when was Shine written and recorded? Were any of the tracks on your new album Shine written and recorded during the 2020 pandemic? Was the Shine album recorded in one period of time and were the musicians in the same room while recording or was it done remotely? I know that has been quite a challenge this past year so how did that impact you? Many artists seem to just download contributions from the other musicians these days. I don’t mind as I’m mostly interested in the finished product. I guess concerts were out of range this past year for you too?
Mary Karlzen: Most of the recording was completed before Covid hit. So when the world slowed to a halt, Y&T did not want to release any music because people were mostly trying to keep from dying so music didn’t seem appropriate to release. It worked out well though because I realized it needed to be remixed and remastered so we had time and waited until Co-vid was getting roped in. I only went into a studio with other musicians for 3 tracks. When you don’t have much of a budget, working remotely is really the only option. I don’t like it as much but was able to get great musicians to play on it because it was affordable to do it that way. As for playing out, our last show was in Miami in late February of 2020, just when we started to hear about some illness that was going around.
mwe3: 2020 was the most difficult year for music and musicians in history. What did you do during much of the pandemic and do you think it will end well for us? Did you adapt to the weirdness of masks and gloves and I guess now the vaccines? It has to be among the worst era's in modern day American history. I grew up during the Vietnam war, and I was actually drafted in 1972 when I turned 18. Seems like the country was more united and civilized then it is these days.
Mary Karlzen: My dad was in the army for 25 years so I know what a sacrifice it is for men and women to give to our country that way. I have seen a lot of news footage from that war and it was horrible, not only the war but what it did to our country’s unity and how soldiers were treated when they returned. The politics of the last 4 years has done much of the same destruction and top that with Co-vid, a nightmare that came back every day when I would turn on the news. I am lucky that I don’t need to survive on what I make doing music. I’d be homeless for sure. Actually, I have never made money doing music. I know plenty of musicians that do rely on playing live and session work that were hit hard, but it feels like the fog is lifting and people are resilient. It’s already coming back slowly. The sun will shine again.
mwe3: Is there a reason why you call the new album Shine? Is that a positive word to describe the craziness we went through in 2020 and are still going through? Shine back can also mean reflection and God knows we’ve done enough reflecting this past year.
Mary Karlzen: I wish it was more metaphorical but, the title comes from a song on the CD. In 2019, I didn’t really think about music much. We had worked on the song a while back and it was put on the shelf. I didn’t like the tempo and it just wasn’t right. One night, Jansen, the producer of the last CD, Wanderlust Diaries, sent me an email with the song Shine attached. He said he messed around with it just for fun. One listen and I just started bawling. It was just like the way I always heard it in my head and once again I had that feeling like I needed the world to hear it too. It was the impetus for me wanting to do music again and got the ball rolling on the CD, so it seemed like it deserved the title spot.
mwe3: Is the lead off track on Shine, “Slowly Disappear” autobiographical and did you write it someone about someone specific? Watching someone disappear is hard no doubt. There’s a great guitar solo on “Slowly Disappear”, who’s playing it?
Mary Karlzen: That song’s really difficult for me to talk about. I am sure anyone that has a relative that suffers with a terminal illness or drug abuse or mental health issues will relate to the lyrics. The guitar part was played by the producer of the CD, Jansen Press. He lives in France and is the Gibson guitar ‘rep’ for a large part of Europe. He’s an awesome player and goes about the country doing guitar demo shows.
mwe3: The Shine album has strong folk-rock roots but it’s also quite a strong pop-rock album. A good example of combining both folk and rock is “Say You’ll Never Go Away Again”. Sorry to harp on the great guitar work on Shine but, again the guitar solo is blistering, who is on lead guitar on that one? Is that track written for someone in your family such as a child?
Mary Karlzen: That’s Jansen again on guitar. Yes that song is about my girls. When they were little we would make rocket ships out of large cardboard boxes and they would color them with their favorite colors, pink and purple. When they were very young, they were with me 24/7 and as they grow and gain their independence, the more they are away. It’s about that not wanting to let go thing, not wanting to lose that child to the world. Now they are teenagers and I can’t stand that I will lose them to the adults they will become. I don’t like the passage of time. It’s too cruel.
mwe3: How did you assemble so many great musicians to play on Shine? You’ve always been surrounded by excellent musicians, even going back to your early albums plus I’m amazed that some of the musicians on Shine, like Mark Goldenberg for example, also played on your 1995 album Yelling At Mary. Also how did you meet producer Jansen Press? The sound is excellent on Shine so I’m amazed that Jansen also mixed the album as well. It sounds clear as a bell with a great sound dynamic in play. What was it like working with Jansen?
Mary Karlzen: When I was first playing around South Florida, the guitar player left and Jansen answered an ad to audition. I was very lucky to find him. He eventually moved to Nashville, where he picked up the producing bug. His wife is a very talented singer-songwriter named Jolynn Daniel so he started producing her music and that led to him to work with others. There are some great players in Nashville so when we decided to record Wanderlust Diaries there, Jansen just called around town to see who was available and it was lucky Springsteen was not keeping Garry Tallent busy at the time. Jansen is great to work with as a producer and would highly recommend him to any artist. He knows what he’s doing and super dedicated to getting things exactly right. No pressure in the studio just good vibes and he creates an atmosphere where everyone wants to do their best for each song. For Yelling at Mary, that was produced by Kevin McCormick. He was the bass player and music director for Jackson Browne at the time and he knows all the LA ‘cats’ so he put the players together. Kevin was great to work with as well. I got lucky to get him.
mwe3: Another good example of the rock side of Shine is the song “Dumb Game”. Is it about the music business or the trials of working musicians? Is it a kind of cynical song? Who is playing lead guitar on that track? It just really clicks.
Mary Karlzen: That’s Jansen again on guitar! The song is about a combination of different things that were in my head at the same time. I’ve always loved the sound of bands like the Gin Blossoms, Toad The Wet Sprocket and Counting Crows so I think they were in my head when writing that song. The lyrics are, yes, a combination of learning how political our situation was at a record label and also going through a bad break-up at the time. When I write lyrics, I don’t start out by saying I’m gonna write about a certain thing. I just try to find a melody and say any words that come out of my face, not really thinking about it. Some of them stick in the process and then I start to whittle it down into one thing. It kinda feels like chiseling down something from a giant rock. So those two things were on my mind and the feelings about both were similar so I guess they melded together.
mwe3: Tell me about “Moon And The Sky”. It has a kind of prog-rock kind of melody. I feel this one would make a great stadium rock track, very anthemic. I was reading the lyric sheet for it, and you’re very underrated as a lyricist. Do you ever work with a co-lyricist and do you usually write lyrics first or melodies first?
Mary Karlzen: Thanks so much for the nice compliment. Once in a while, I like to write in 3/4 or 6/8 or whatever it is, because it gets me out of the same old progressions I always find myself repeating. I had just finished a book and there was this part about this husband and wife who traveled in an aerial, barnstorming stunt show in the 1930’s. They were wing walkers. One would fly the plane, typically a bi-plane, those ones with two sets of wings, and the other would walk out on the wing and do stunts. Well, the husband makes a mistake and falls from the plane to his death while his wife was flying the plane. I couldn’t stop thinking about how she must have felt. So the song is really told from her point of view about life after seeing her husband fall. Most of the time, the melody comes first and then I find the words. Sometimes I keep a journal and will page through that to see if there are ideas that fit the music. I have not been able to co-write very well. It just seems too personal sometimes, like they’re my babies and I don’t want anyone else raising them. Or if you are chiseling a rock, two people are going to see different things in the rock, so it’s difficult to find exactly what you see hiding there if someone else keeps changing the surface.
mwe3: Another great guitar solo on “The Burgeoning Road” with some great Leslie speaker sounds. It’s an interesting melody, kind of trippy sounding. What chord patterns are you applying there and are you singing to someone special?
Mary Karlzen: Jansen again! I don’t really know what I’m playing in the verses. I’m not that good of a musician to know the exact chords I’m playing sometimes. I think some kind of A but I just make up chords to match what I hear in my head. If it’s not a major, minor or a seventh, then it’s over my head. I think it’s pretty straight forward chords in the choruses. I was recalling something that happened to me in high school. The chorus is what an older man might say to a younger girl to dupe her. He says a bunch of lies and she believes him kinda thing.
mwe3: Does “Left Alone” also have a kind of progressive rock sound to it? I know it sounds strange to say it but on that track, you have a kind of vocal phrasing that reminds me of the singer from Yes Jon Anderson… You said it was about growing up as a teenager but I though was “Left Alone” was about the pandemic as there was so much loneliness and despair. Another killer guitar solo.
Mary Karlzen: So weird, I was never a prog rock fan. I hear that song as more of like something in a musical. I had discovered the music from the show Dear Evan Hansen and played it over and over, so I think that style crept its way into the song. Yes it’s about not knowing where you fit in, in the world and feeling so different than your peers. It’s also about feeling abandoned by a parent or, maybe God perhaps.
mwe3: I really like the cover art of Shine. Where is the cover picture from? So tell us Mary, what are you looking forward to in 2021 and how do you plan to promote Shine? I hope it makes the cut for a Grammy for best pop-rock album of 2020. At least it will bring the album to further exposure and listening consideration.
Mary Karlzen: Oh wow, you made my day! Thanks for the kind words. The pictures for all the artwork were taken at Lake Michigan by my house. The photo was not meant to be the cover or even used. It was taken with a phone so the quality is not great. It just seemed right when we got to doing the artwork. Don’t have a whole lotta plans for promotion. It’s really difficult to get any traction out in the wild world of music streaming so am I content for just making music for the love of it. Like I said, I’ve never made any money doing music and I don’t see that changing. I am already writing for the next CD. I have plans to record 5 or 6 songs in Miami in early June so that should keep me out of trouble, for a while…
MARY KARLZEN "SHINE" ALBUM CREDITS
“Say You’ll Never Go Away”
“You Still Belong to Me”
“The Moon and the Sky”
“One Step Away”
“Something That I Missed”
“Try To Find”
“I’ll Be There”
“The Burgeoning Road”