Under the Gun Review is thrilled to bring you this exclusive interview with New York City’s multi-talented Marla Mase!
Marla is endlessly busy in her impressive flood of creative enterprises but she managed to take the time to speak with us candidly and in detail about her extensive medium-melding career, her newest album, and even a little about sex. So read through and get familiar with a genuine artist and human being, Marla Mase.
You have a lengthy list of creative outlets, but what originally got you inspired to get involved with music?
Truth is it came out of a very hard time in my life where there were a lot of difficulties, personal crises in my family. My daughter was sick (major depression, anorexia, self-harm (what a way to start an interview, ay?), marriage had fallen apart, other issues going on and so my anxiety was off the charts. I had become so fearful of everything and I mean everything (this is all much better explained in my song “DFWME” from my debut album A Brief Night Out or in the spoken word version of “DFWME” — yes it’s on YouTube) that it was hard for me to get through a minute, let alone an entire day. And what I discovered was that singing made me feel better. For a few moments, peace, and so I went to my acting class (coach) one night and I sang the song “Cabaret.” (First time really I sang in public like that) They were sort of blown away, not so much by my vocal chops but by the energy behind it. Then I came in and brought other songs and mixed them with my spoken word bits — and then the songs started coming to me. One after another, boom boom boom — and I started incorporating my own songs into my plays/words and I remember one night I was out with a friend of mine, Ruth, and she said, “Marla this is your thing. I know it. There’s something about it. It’s raw, imperfect and it’s what you were meant to do. No doubt about it.” In the meantime, the songs kept coming to me, I invited people to see my new work, the beginnings of A Brief Night Out (an abridged version of my longer play Man/Woman and what has become my first album, a rock opera and a theatrical play) and I realized I needed to find a musician. Another friend of mine recommended Tomás Doncker — she thought we might be a good fit. So I met with Tomás, showed him the video of my show — I could see he was genuinely interested, piqued, and we set up our first work session, and well, the rest, as they say, is history.
One last thing: for years I used to joke around and say what I really should be is a rocker but I don’t sing and I don’t write music. Oh well, next life. So I guess my next life happened sooner than expected. Also shows that our system really knows who we are, we just don’t listen (or at least I don’t).
I did take piano lessons for six years of my life, and was pretty good at classical music. (I always forget that.) I can still read and play.
You have an impressive array of styles and sounds in your music as well. What influences would you say play a large role in how that develops?
It’s truly subconscious. A song comes to me and it comes to me in a certain style/genre. That’s because as a living breathing person everything I’ve ever listened to is in my body, in my realm (rock, disco, funk, punk, big band, jazz, musicals — you get my point) and perhaps because I don’t come from a trained background, I don’t think there are any rules. I just go with what I feel. However, having said that, I cannot diminish the influence and stamp that Tomás Doncker has had on my music. Unlike me, he is a veteran and a true music lover. He lives and breathes it 24/7. And he knows how to play, write all of it. Truly. So when I come to him with a song I sing it to him and then he listens and within seconds he’s playing it and expanding on it and making it into something… When we first started working together it was me coming to him with a song/melody in mind (I write all the lyrics — as I always say, I’m a writer first) — as our relationship developed he began to develop The Mase Sound (regardless of what particular style/genre a song was), and so some of the songs on Speak Deluxe started with him playing a groove and then me making up lyrics on the spot. When I wrote “AnnaRexia,” I was on the beach at Coney Island, and there was all this reggae playing and it hit me, “Anna Anna Anna Anna Rexia, AnnaRexia” and I sang it into my voice recorder on my phone and texted Tomás: “I know what my next song is. It’s called “AnnaRexia” and it’s a reggae tune.” I sang him the chorus. When we fleshed out the song, he had very specific ideas as to what sort of reggae song he wanted it to be.
Regardless of all that, I like to dance, I like a groove and Tomás knows that and since he’s the Groove King (our label is True Groove) he makes sure to put in the groove that makes me, well, groove.
How did it feel to be invited to play the UN Global Peace Day in Linzhou City? You wrote a song specifically for the occasion as well, right?
It was very exciting of course especially because of the way it happened. About a year and a half prior I was sound-checking before a gig in this little club downtown — it was my song, “Scream.” No one was in the club except for this one woman, a Chinese woman, and she was moving and smiling while we were testing out the song/sound. When we were done, I passed her, and she said, “I really like what you do. There’s something different about you — you’re special.” And I, of course, being a glutton for compliments (or starved for them-guess, it’s the same thing) was so happy and grateful that she liked my work and so we started talking a little bit and it turned out she had done concerts in China before — brought over a bunch of American prodigies and vice versa — brought Chinese kids over here — but she worked mostly with classical musicians. We had decided to meet a week later, we had a conversation about some of her ideas to do other concerts and that was that. Fast forward a year and a half later, I get a message from her. “Hi Marla, I don’t know if you remember me, but I never forgot you and I think I have a great opportunity for you in China.” I called her back, she said her friend is the head of the Friends of the UN in NYC and he is putting together an event for UN Global Peace Day in China, and she recommended me. We met the next day, along with her friend and she told him, “YOU MUST TAKE MARLA!” — he looked at my work and forwarded me the invite on the spot. I said, “That’s it.”
And that was it, me and the band were going.
As far as the song was concerned — well, they sort of asked me to write something and my initial reaction was, “Shit, I only write about war and sex, how am I going to write about peace?” But I thought War/Peace-the same thing really — and so piece by piece “Piece of Peace” came to me. I presented it to Tomás and he knew immediately what I was going for and he transformed it into this rock/punk anthem. I’m very proud of that song.
On your newest album, Speak Deluxe, what was your main focus and primary goal for the album when you really began to write and record it?
When I write songs I don’t really have a focus and goal in mind — not usually. As I said, the song just comes to me and with Speak (both the original album and the deluxe edition) it was the same thing. I had all these songs and when we started putting it together I realized they all had a similar theme or thought — being silenced, confined, hungry or were about topics people don’t like to SPEAK about (including sexuality, like in “She Hooked Him UP.”) Body image, sexuality are big for me — I think it’s important women own their sexuality and their bodies as well, rather than hide, act invisible or be something they are not. It’s very important to feel comfortable in one’s own skin — physically, psychically and spiritually. Actually, it’s only when the album is recorded and done that I see the connections between the songs. During the writing, making of it, I’m just going by instinct. I thought of the title Speak way before the album was written. As far as Speak Deluxe, well, I had 6 new tracks and I didn’t think they belonged on a new album, they felt very much like they belonged on Speak to me, so we decided to just re-release Speak in a deluxe edition.
How would you say it differs from your previous work?
My first album, A Brief Night Out, is very personal. As I said it came out of a longer play I wrote called Man/Woman and it is a story. It’s a theatrical piece. I perform it as a play either solo or with another actor playing all the male roles. Hence, we bill it as a rock opera. It is a rock opera. And yet the album stands on its own. Speak is less personal (although I guess ultimately everything is personal), it has more groove in it than A Brief Night Out, and it is not a story (although one I can imagine can see it as such) — it is still theatrical however. Can’t help that; it’s who I am.
So you touched quite a bit on the themes in your work but could you expand on that a bit?
Freedom, confinement, sexuality, love, passion, body image, social responsibility (“AnnaRexia,” “Dance The Tango,” “Scream”) of the media and of the individual (“Divine Restlessness,” “Scream), denial and change (New Cell Phone), animal intuition — In general I don’t like to play it safe I guess (“Lioness” might best sum it up) — people are afraid of the ROAR, the animal, they prefer when the beast is not agitated. Keep the beast sedated, lethargic, confined — it’s safer that way for all — same with the princess in “Open Up My Heart” whose well-intentioned family does not want her to jeopardize herself by having her “live too fully.” It’s very political and it’s personal as well. Fear dominates and keeps us stagnant. Musically, the tone of Speak is groovin’, funky, tribal, soulful — it’s global soul, music that fuses the spirit, the soul of peoples, cultures from “Brooklyn to Ethiopia,” as Tomás likes to say. (Tomás has been coined as the Godfather of Global Soul, a new genre of music) — As a side note, the music counterbalances and compliments the lyrics — both can be aggressive, tribal, angry, irreverent, sexy and of course FUN. Like life, full of paradox.
As I mentioned before, you obviously have a lot of other areas of art you work with. What can you tell me about your plays, monologues, and erotica?
As I said before I consider myself a writer first. It all begins with the word for me so I have lots of stuff written. I wrote a play called The Canarsie Line which was put up in 2002. That too came out of a pile of different writings that when put together made up a story. It is about a Brooklyn Jewish family living in Canarsie, Brooklyn in the 1970s. (where I grew up.) It’s a monologue play with a couple of scenes in it. Very funny and very dark. Actually, when I wrote it, I said, “I’d love to make this in to a musical, you know, play up the whole disco vs. rock scene.” (I was a disco girl when I was a teenager by the way and my brother was rock so there was plenty of teasing going on) so who knows I could bring it back now that I’m doing music. Same with Man/Woman — that is a play about a Woman having an affair, and she is on stage the entire time, being spun from one man in her life to the next: husband, lover, father, judge, G-D — and of course with herself. Come to think of it, when I workshopped that play we did hire an actor who was also a musician and he had created a theme song for the lovers, for the man and the woman, and was going to be our musical director, so I guess I did always want to bring music in to my work. Actually that actor/musician now has a play on Broadway which he wrote all the music for. As far as monologues, well, my plays, my poems, much of my work stems from the monologue, that’s my strength as a writer — and erotica — I just like sex, that’s all — it’s fun and playful and intense and magical and when with the right person it reaches into that non-thinking part of oneself. I like that part the best. The not-thinking. Ok, TMI, as far as erotica — I’m good at it, writing it — it’s really quite easy and yes it is FUN.
I have so many words floating around — in hundreds of journals — solo shows that have yet to be performed, little snippets, short stories — writing is my go-to when I feel. I have a lot of work written about being an artist and a writer. You know years ago before I got into any of this (theatrical writing, etc.) someone suggested I take a One Woman Show class and I was terrified. I thought, that is so wrong for me; I’m not Eric Bogosian, Sandra Bernhard, Whoopie Goldberg, Liv Ullman — that’s the opposite of who I am. I’m quiet, shy, not funny — but I went. And during the first class the teacher asked us to free-write on one word — my word was shoes — and off I went. When we were done we shared what we wrote and people were loving what I wrote. “Oh, you’re like Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Alan Ginsberg.” And I thought, “This? They like this? This is what I’ve been writing in my journals for years.” It was so easy for me because it was who I was, I had no idea it would appeal to people and on top of it to be compared to those iconic downtown (and yes music) artists. And out of that class, sprang all of this — the plays, the monologues, the music really. It was the beginning of my discovering my voice.
So, your creations play a role in your music (or vice versa)?
Yes, of course. Many of my songs have come out of poems I have written. For example “Blog” on Speak Deluxe has a poem in it, “Lioness” was originally a poem I performed, same with “DFWME,” “Smithereens” to name a few. And I do a lot of spoken word in my live shows and I go in and out of the music and spoken word intermixing the two. So YES and YES!!!
You have a show called Speak that coincides with the album. What details can you tell us about that?
Very excited about the show. It’s a multi-media performance concert based on the songs of Speak Deluxe and some of my monologues and it includes a troupe of 7 dancers, 7 actresses, and a whole slew of film/video imagery. It will be performed live with me and The Tomás Doncker Band and deals with all the themes I mentioned before (freedom, oppression, silence, body image) but specifically through the eyes, voices, bodies of WOMEN. It has been booked by one of the biggest summer festivals in NYC — (can’t officially announce it till they do), contract has been signed, we are in rehearsal — it will be put up on June 15 and August 17. It’s also being looked at by other festivals both here and abroad.
Do you have any touring plans in the works or are you mainly focused on the show for now?
I am going to Europe in less than two weeks to tour over there — March 29 – April 14. We have a bunch of shows in the UK, in Holland, Germany and Copenhagen so far. It’s my down-n-dirty/raw-n-raucous show as I like to call it — just Tomás Doncker and I — sort of our version of White Stripes/Black Keys, except it’s very Mase. Looking forward to it. And when I return, SpeaktheShow.com will be the priority. It is already a priority but when we get back it will be all about the show.
What would you say has been the biggest blessing of your career thus far?
All of it — I am beyond grateful that in the two years since I released A Brief Night Out I have been supported and generously blessed by strangers, people I’ve met through Twitter/social media, and I am proud of all that I’ve accomplished. I didn’t know if I had it in me to make things happen, to promote, to push, to believe in myself. It’s one thing to create (and that’s why I do this — to express what I’ve been given to express, that’s the Divine Restlessness) but it’s another thing to put it out there and be heard. And ask to be heard. And not stopping because I believe in myself. I’ve been blessed by the kindness of strangers, truly truly truly. And by my amazing friends and family. My parents are my biggest fans. Lucky Lucky me.
Out of all the mediums you are involved with, would you say music is your go-to vehicle for you to express yourself with?
It is these days, sort of, but still it’s the word — I go to the word. No, the word comes to me. Yes, the words come to me. And I can do with them as I wish or they can do with me as they wish — deny, ignore, fight, capture, play, and love.
What is your ultimate goal as an artist?
To do what I love and to be as honest as I can. There is so much power and hope when I see someone doing what they do, being who they are, without apology, without fear. The world needs more of that. Fearlessness. And Kindness. And if my squirming around on some dirty floor can help move that forward or give someone the courage to say, “Hey, I can squirm around like that too! Well then I’ve done what I’ve been bidden to do.”
Written and conducted by: Brian Lion – Follow him on Twitter