In the Key of Type: A Conversation with Marian Call
Singer-songwriter Marian Call lives in Anchorage, Alaska, but has a huge following around the world. Her complex harmonies and witty lyrics include references to science fiction shows like Firefly and Battlestar Galactica and to being a geek (even if it’s not always going to be chic). Her latest work is Something Fierce—a fan-funded double album. Volume I is called “Good Luck With That” and volume II is “From Alaska.” Art and skepticism do complement each other wonderfully in her work, but Call has slightly a different perspective: “In the end, I feel I’m firmly on the skeptic side, I believe. But I don’t see picking a side as my role as an artist. I see communication as my role.” Kylie Sturgess interviewed Call about her music and where skepticism harmonizes with art.
The first song that I ever heard from you was a live performance. I was at Dragon*Con and suddenly there was this person in the middle of the Parsec Awards performing on a typewriter. The song was “I’ll Still Be a Geek After No One Thinks It’s Chic,” a.k.a. “The Nerd Anthem.” I noticed you were hanging out with Phil Plait, who many skeptical people know—so obviously, geek cred is well and truly established. Are you a skeptic as well?
Not enough of one, I think, to align myself too firmly? There are a couple of points on which I don’t feel that I fully belong, but I also tend not to align myself to groups in general. I would rather be very open to interpretation, and I’d rather keep my lines of communication open with all sorts of people, including groups who can’t tolerate each other.
It’s kind of funny that I love Phil dearly, and I love the skeptics’ organization. And I’ve played a lot of shows with and for skeptics, and I identify pretty strongly with them. But when it comes to being a card-carrying member? I also have a very large group of very conservative, say, young-Earth Christians, who also come to my shows and pagans, and Buddhists, and people from all different sorts of religious and political backgrounds. I actually really like that, and I would like to encourage more of it. I see my space as an artist, as creating a space where these people who generally don’t dialogue very well, are compelled to like the same thing and be forced to talk cordially to one another in real space.
I think that that is a vanishing experience, now, where it’s much, much easier to select our company so that we only hang out with people who agree with us.
As far as my personal views, I would definitely fall on the skeptic side. But I try not to align myself with any groups, because that makes it easier for me to reach people who object to one another, you know what I mean? I see myself as a peacemaker in this universe, and as a dialogue creator. If I were ever to try and do something good for humanity, it would probably have to do with getting people who don’t like each other to talk together in a cordial fashion and to understand one another.
That’s one of the things I enjoy finding out about skeptics, that there’s a tremendous scope, and there needs to be a tremendous scope: different experiences, and different interactions. That’s what makes it so fascinating.
Absolutely. It’s a continuum, rather than an “in or out” situation. At least, I should hope!
How would you describe the differences between your albums? Some of them have a kind of a theme, and then it sort of evolves from there, doesn’t it?
It does. The albums are quite different and the way that you came to the music is pretty common. A lot of people came to it that way. First they found Got to Fly, usually through some sort of geek or skeptic connection, or a fandom connection. Then found the other music, Vanilla and Songs of the Month, and then came to, hopefully, Something Fierce, the new one.
Got to Fly was a special piece, because it was a commission to be about Firefly and Battlestar Galactica. A company that liked my geek-themed music that I’d already published came to me and said, “What would happen if you were licensed to release singing about these things, and you wrote a whole album for us?” I said, “Oh. OK, well here goes!”
Afterwards, a lot of people became fans because of the fandom, little bits and pieces. I’m hopeful that a lot of them have stayed fans through the other music, which is less. . . . It’s all geeky, is the thing. It’s all nerdy stuff, because I am a nerd and that shows through no matter what’s happening, and the language, and definitely a lot of music nerd stuff in there. Songs about unexpected topics, I think, that geeks tend to prefer. Others are about, like “Dear Mr. Darcy,” a type of love and a type of relationships that is very peculiar to overthinking, shy, nerdy people, of which I am one.
I’ve noticed quite a few literary references throughout: Shakespeare, Neruda, T.S. Eliot, Ogden Nash—were you always interested in literature when you were starting as a musician? Has this been a passion of yours as well as the kind of nerdy technological side and the science fiction side?
Oh, yes. I would say the literature comes long before. When I was a little kid, I always had a book under the desk. It was usually a classic. I had this love affair all through school with Dickens and Hugo, Neruda. I read a lot of Neruda translation; “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Elliot is one of my favorite pieces of work ever, ever, ever. Lots of Shakespeare. I remember getting into trouble in sixth grade—I was reading Shakespeare under the desk during our spelling tests. I remember feeling a vague sense of injustice about that!
So how may instruments do you play? I was looking at the liner notes and noticing quite a few. I was like, “Oh! She does this as well. Wow.”
Oh, no. Absolutely none. I play no instruments!
I play the typewriter, and the rain stick, and the kazoo in my show! But as for other things, I know how music works. I know music theory very well. These days I’m probably a terrible reader, but I used to be a very good sight-reader. But I am not a very good reader anymore and I don’t really play any instruments, at all. So I will cover up for a missing instrument. Like if there’s something that’s got this gigantic hole and I feel like it needs to be filled, sometimes I’ll lay down a synth patch, or some keyboards, or some bass. I’m capable of playing some of these instruments, but that doesn’t mean that I’m by any means qualified or should be allowed to. I did a lot of the percussion myself. That was all right.
People who look for you online are most likely going to see you posed with a typewriter—what’s that all about?
Oh, absolutely. Well, I love the sound of it. I really love the sound and I wanted the sound on my very first album. I love how evocative it is. You instantly think of something and what you think of is literary and kind of nerdy, antique, old-fashioned, probably feminine historically and analog. I just love that suggestion that the typewriter brings to it and I wanted it in the music from the very beginning. I never thought of playing it live in my show until after I had done a lot of shows and people started asking, “Where’s the typewriter?”
I said, “Oh, I guess. Why would I play a typewriter at my show? Who does that?” And of course, that was exactly why I should play a typewriter in my show!
So I started playing it. And actually, I bought one that I’ve become dearly attached to because she’s been to forty-nine states with me now and up and down the coast a couple of times. All winter she sits in my car and she gets frozen and unfrozen. I have to remember to take her into the gigs long enough before the show that she’ll unfreeze! I absolutely love that typewriter. . . . Nothing else sounds quite like it and I really, really enjoy just having it embedded in there. If feels both symbolic and evocative. And I don’t know, it just feels right. It feels like me.
Marian Call is currently touring California and hopes to hit Europe next. Her website can be found at MarianCall.com.