Mary Fahl in Colchester, 9/17/10
September 18th, 2010
About four months ago, to celebrate the publication of To Join the Lost,* I organized a house concert for Mary Fahl. This Friday, I had the good fortune to attend another one. At my house concert, when I asked Mary what she would like me to say as an introduction, she told me to speak from the heart and to keep it short. So I did. But seeing her again has revived thoughts of all the things I could have said. Here are some of them.
Each time she begins a song, it is a shock, the transition from an ordinary world in which a beautiful (but not too much so) woman stands in front of you with a guitar, chatting and joking and generally being charming and intelligent, into another place entirely. It is as if one opens a door and a huge wind comes through and blows the world away. Then the song ends and there she is, winsome as ever, with her stage patter. And even though you think you are ready for it, the next time she opens her mouth to sing there it is again, that wind and the huge red sun and suddenly nothing else.
There is the matter of her stage presence. I think the shock of hearing her sing is partly due to that. We exist only in relationship. The Mary Fahl who exists in relationship with her audience, I am sure, like any performer relating to an audience, exists nowhere else. But there are certain performers, like Mary, who appear to relate to the group watching them so easily and naturally, that it is easy for the group to believe that yes, this is who she is, she is being herself for me, as if she had no other selves – this is the “real” one. From there it is a short step to that sense of intimacy that is so similar to the intimacy we feel when we are enjoying the company of another person, alone together. She is telling me things about herself, she is funny, she is interesting. It is like being with a friend. It invites us to react to her from that part of ourselves which is capable of intimacy, that soft place of giving and receiving and mirroring laughter and tenderness.
There is another aspect of her stage presence which is worth mentioning. Some performers seduce us, work on us, manipulate us to like them, or, if not to like them, to react to them in some other way that they want to elicit. They bowl us over, they dazzle us, they cajole us, they demand our love. They more or less visibly work to keep our attention. Mary has a very different stage persona. She simply stands up there and appears perfectly confident that we will like her and find her interesting because, after all, she is likable and interesting. I have no idea whether she actually believes this of herself, or what insecurities and hidden demons may haunt her, if any. Somebody who stays up late at night watching “Armageddon porn,” as she says she does, must have her share. They do not exist on stage. This does not seem to be a matter of artifice. When she is in front of an audience, it is just who she is, whoever else she may be at other times. The result again is to bolster that feeling of intimacy, of good ordinary camaraderie. She is beautiful and charming and smart and knows that we will find her to be beautiful and charming and smart, and we are drawn in by her spontaneity and authenticity and the pleasure of being in the company of such a person, who apparently also is taking pleasure in our company. How irresistible. How ordinary.
Then the voice comes out. It is very hard to describe Mary’s voice. There are lots of beautiful voices, and it is hard to find words that meaningfully distinguish among them. One can resort to superlatives or hyperbole – “a voice for the gods” and “the best voice of her generation” appear on her web site, but such phrases describe nothing, they tell us only that the writer has thrown up his hands in desperation. Her range is alto, or maybe tenor, although she handles the ultimate “vincera” in “Nessun dorma” with more ease than a male tenor might. The timbre is at times reminiscent of a cello, and at times of a great pipe organ, and sometimes of both simultaneously, clear and at the same time smoky, pure and at the same time rich, soft with a cutting edge, capable of carrying passion or tenderness with dead true pitch whether in a whisper or at full force, throbbing with vibrato or bare as silk, colors as infinitely variegated as those that play across ocean waves. Instantly, we are no longer in the presence merely of that slender woman with the sweet face and high cheekbones. Something of primal power and complexity has swept into the room. The whirlwind. The still small voice at the center of the whirlwind.
Mirror neurons. When a primate sees another primate lift its arm as if to throw a rock, the same neurons are activated in the witness as if the witness, too, were about to throw a rock. When the word “love” rings out at the beginning of the line, “love waits for me around the bend,” in Mary’s song “Going Home,” strings in my body vibrate sympathetically, like the strings in a sitar that resonate beneath the melody. There is something in the tonal quality of her voice, its depth, muscularity, and delicacy, that facilitates this. To put it more prosaically, Mary’s singing voice, at any given instant, carries a lot of very specific information with great transparency and force. It’s not just generic pop song “love” she’s singing about, evoking no more than some generic mush of projected sentiment. It’s a particular soldier’s yearning for the love he believes imminently waits him upon his return home, that he believes will heal him. I have never been a soldier, never been in that situation, but I have the neurons that generate those feelings, and so does she, and she plucks them.
One thing carries over from Mary’s patter between songs to the singing itself, that is, the lack of apparent artifice. Her artistry is of the order that effaces itself, entirely in service to the song, a seemingly egoless music. The song seems to express itself through her. She doesn’t have to emote, or embellish. If she tried to do so, it would get in the way. Instead, she does what the music tells her to do, and has sufficient command of an instrument of sufficient quality to follow its instructions with all the power and subtlety the music possesses. When she sings of a raging child, we feel the rage. When she mourns her dead, we mourn. When she sings a medieval song of erotic longing, standing erect behind the mike, head tilted, moving only her fingers across the guitar, there is more genuine sexual feeling than in all the armies of rigorously choreographed hip-thrusting dancers who have populated Britney Spears music videos. That’s worth thinking about a little more. Singing “Ben Aindi Habibi,” Mary does not evoke sexuality by herself becoming a sexual object. Instead, she locates the sexual feeling in us. The sensation is not, “I want,” it is, “Yes, this is what it is like.” Instead of dehumanizing us by reducing us to quanta of marketable desires, she accomplishes the true artist’s task of giving us to recognize ourselves.
Having the intellect, imagination and maturity to understand whatever the music wants her to say on its behalf, Mary seems also to have no musical boundaries. She can sing anything. This is not just a case of “a little bit of country, a little bit of rock and roll.” Mary’s own songwriting tends to evoke a heritage primarily amalgamated of Celtic strains, the chamber pop she honed with October Project, and Stephen Foster, but Friday night she also sang us a fado-influenced composition of her own in Portuguese, a medieval love song in Mozarabic, “Nessun dorma,” and a medley from Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” all of them convincingly. Pop singers who dare to sing opera tend to go after it like Paul Bunyan hacking wood, but not Mary. The one thing she seems shy of is blues, but Friday night we got a brief snatch of Blind Willie Johnson’s “What is the Soul of a Man” that left me hungry for more. Hey, Mary, I’ve been playing blues harp for forty years. Next time you’re in town, let’s see where we can take it.
In our society, one is unlikely to encounter such an outsized talent in somebody’s living room unless one is rich, very well connected, or a personal friend of the artist. That is changing. House concerts are a growing phenomenon. Part of that is due to the collapse of the recording industry, which has been even more dramatic than that of the housing market and far more irreversible, and the consequent revival of a patronage-based system for supporting musicians. In that sense, going to a Mary Fahl house concert is like picking up a million dollar mansion for a tenth of its value at a foreclosure sale, and also like going to see that hot new pianist Beethoven some two hundred years ago.
But I think there also is something else at work here, peculiar to Mary. Artists like her, not easily pigeon-holed, don’t fare so well commercially in our emotionally straight-jacketed culture. Part of that is the difficulty of marketing something that is sui generis and therefore inherently unfamiliar, but only part. “Only connect,” said Ford Madox Ford, but Americans don’t do it. We keep emotional connection in its place, heavily shackled with Blake’s “mind-forg’d manacles.” (Hey, what’s music criticism without amateur social psychology and gratuitous literary references?) The popular arts that should be nourishing our culture are so contrived, so inhuman, so predatorily manipulative and empty in their technical virtuosity, that a sort of starvation sets in, for example, driving people to watch reality TV because there they can catch a glimpse of real emotion and feel that essential sense of connection. In music, people do not stray outside the particular little boxes of genre and subgenre in which they feel comfortable and safe enough to allow themselves to be touched. A world of feeling freely flowing from all sources would be too much, we shrink away from it. What, then, to do with an artist of Mary Fahl’s terribly wild potency? I am afraid that she is doomed to remain mostly on the fringes. I guess I can’t complain, hard though it might be on her, when I get to sit close enough to see her teeth glisten.
* Just got my second royalty check. I’m not quitting my straight job yet.