Interview with Marian Call

Nerdtastic singer-songwriter Marian Call has just finished her massive 49>50 tour which saw her travel all around the US to play in every State. With a fantastic voice mixed in with the witty, dark and ingenious lyricism of a fine poet, it’s not difficult to see why she has such a huge following all around the world. She writes really great songs that are full of complex harmonies, chord progressions and chock-full of geeky subject matter and underlying references. If you’re looking for some smart, geek-edged, soulful music to pluck your little nerdy heartstrings, then look no further. This week, we sat down with the Alaskan based songwriter to talk Firefly, comics and songwriting.

How would you describe your music?

I work in nearly every genre, from classical to jazz to punk, so I go with what it all has in common:  it’s clever. It’s alternative.  It’s mostly acoustic.  It’s whimsical.  “Alaskan folk funk” has lately been the catchphrase, though I’ve heard “Acoustic joy jazz” as well.  The next album will probably be “acoustic indie alt-pop” or something like that.  Labels get less and less useful as music gets more interesting!

Got to Fly was inspired by Firefly and BSG. Are there any other geek shows that inspire you and will we hear songs about them in the future?

There are a lot of geek concepts that inspire me; sometimes they’re shows, sometimes they’re not.  Got to Fly was commissioned to be about Firefly & BSG, so of course that’s what I wrote about!  For my next album you’ll hear references to those, though I also have songs about beer, Jane Austen, zombies — general geekery that transcends franchises.  ST:TNG may make an appearance in the future, though lately I’ve been writing about computer stuff — Windows Vista and Twitter in particular — and I’m on sort of a NASA kick right now.  Oh, and the endlessly deep awkwardness of geeky relations between geeky lovers.  *facepalm*

I hear a few TS Eliot and Shakespeare references in there too. Do you naturally write with a geek edge or is it a conscious thing?

I’m glad you caught those!  My ubiquitous literary references are conscious ones but they spring forth without effort.  If there’s one kind of geek I really embody, it’s the word nerd — rhyming poetry especially.  The typewriter embodies that for me.  I’m in love with language.  My word nerd lyrics spring from a very natural place, but it’s also “natural” for a geek like me to be self-conscious and deliberate about everything; so to truly answer your question, it’s naturaland conscious at the same time.

What was the idea behind  the 49>50 tour? What spurred you to decide to take on such a mammoth task?

Would you believe I did it on a whim?  I never had a lifelong dream or aspiration of doing something like this, it just felt right when it occurred to me one day.  I asked Twitter about it when it popped into my head, and they had an overwhelmingly positive response, so within about three hours I was committed.  In some ways I had nothing better to do, so why not do something crazy and totally absorbing?

Besides, 50 is such a nice, round number, and 49 is a perfect square.  They feel nice together.

Did you miss anything being away for so long? Any home comforts that you were glad to get back to?

I missed Anchorage food terribly, actually, despite all the amazing stuff I enjoyed on the road.  I really love eating and drinking at my favorite places here at home.  And by the end I deeply missed familiarity.  Between, say, Bend, OR (8/20/10) and NYC (10/9/10), and then again from NYC (10/29/10) to Chicago IL (11/7/10), I saw almost nothing familiar.  Nothing I’d ever seen before even once.  Every day was totally different, and the landmarks kept shifting.  It’s really exhausting, even psychologically damaging, to go several months without seeing a single known thing — dizzying and unsettling.  There were a few months of emotional knots to work out after going so long like that.  I have no idea how you’d research the effects of that experience, since it would be so hard to create an experiment that does that to a person; it’s like the opposite of solitary confinement.  I’ve often wondered how my brain coped with it (and whether it did).

Have you got any pre-show superstitions or, you know, sacrificial rites?

I take a few minutes in the washroom to do my makeup and be alone.  On tour I’m almost never alone as I have an accompanist with me and I do homestays — so for a minute or two right before the show, I close myself away and do the girly lipstick thing.  And sometimes Twitter.

Can you tell us a little about Something Fierce? Does it have a central theme?

I’m very excited & nervous about the release of Something Fierce.  It’s very geeky in the spontaneous T.S. Eliot quotes way that you mentioned above, but it’s not explicitly about a franchise like Got to Fly was — that was a commission, of course.  So this is more clever music for people who like to enjoy music with both cranial hemispheres.

It’s a two-disc project; one disc is subtitled Vol. I: Good Luck With That and the other is Vol. II: from Alaska.  The first is about life, love, and spaceships.  The second is a bit more melancholy and moving, and it’s music about my relationship with Alaska, which is very important to me.  Alaska broke me down and built me up, it gave me space to find who I am, it empowered me beyond words even while it makes me feel smaller than I ever have.

I tried to improve my songwriting on these discs, I’m always thinking actively about that.  And I tend to hide behind flashy jumpy melodies and crazy chord changes and thousands of words, and I know I need to overcome that.  So I was attempting to write simpler, to really engage the ancient craft of songwriting, to make something beautiful and lasting and moving, sometimes with three or four chords and a repeating chorus, which is hard for me.  And I like the results.  But sometimes my crazy love for words and chromaticism comes bursting out, and I write a song like the track from which the title comes (it’s called “Dear Mister Darcy”) — and that song uses every chord in & out of the key, has double inflections and crazy syncopation, and nearly 1000 words with complex internal rhyme schemes.  I couldn’t hold it in.

What’s your ultimate goal as a musician?

Sustainability.  I’d like to be the village fiddler, not a superstar — I want to sing for my supper and make a decent living and pay off my debt, and be financially free to really pursue art and support causes I believe in.  Eventually I want to build my career more around empowering other artists and communities than around my own work.  That’s the long-term goal.  I have to work out my own career path before I have much to teach anyone else though.

Is there anyone you’d love to collaborate with?

Oh, plenty of people!  The geeky indie film/entertainment set, like Felicia Day & Kim Evey and that circle, or Discovery Channel folks like the Mythbusters.  Then there are the straight up non-geek musicians I admire, like Anais Mitchell, Peter Mulvey, Kris Delmhorst, Danny Schmidt, who I’d just love to play with someday.  Local folks, like my jazz community here in Anchorage or the amazing singer-songwriters and roots and classical ensembles we have up here.  And of course, other geeky musicians, like Molly Lewis, Jonathan Coulton, or They Might Be Giants.

Age old question that’s gotten some recent debate – Buffy or River – Who’d win in a fight?

River.  With her brain.

Why do you think people are so inspired by sci-fi?

Sci-fi — good sci-fi anyway — takes the core common elements of our humanity and spins them out to their extremes.  Sci-fi examines what humans might do in total isolation, in extreme postapocalyptic desperation, in a perfect future or past world without sickness or sin, in contact at last with the ultimate “other,” aliens, in a life of perfect leisure & boredom served by robots.  Science fiction takes our tendencies, runs with them to their craziest conclusion, and then asks what’s left of humanity at that end — it projects our fears on a hypothetical screen and plays them out instead of running from them.  I love those stories.  I grew up reading tons of Ray Bradbury, he was one of my favorite authors as a girl.  And I find that all the sci fi I love the most runs along that line of questioning.  If it’s just about spaceship porn, zombies, or pretty CG without addressing underlying human nature, I’m not all that interested.

If Firefly had been allowed to run and you could have been involved in anybody’s backstory who would it have been and how?

Ooh, I could pretend I haven’t thought about this, but I have.  I’d probably be involved in the political side of the story, most connected to Mal and perhaps playing a part in bringing him around to confronting the Alliance openly.  I’d be initially underestimated and turn out to totally impress him and challenge his desire for isolation.  Then I’d probably die.  Cuz, y’know, Joss.

How about a quick fire round?

Star Wars or Star Trek?

How can you ask me this?  I hate you.  I loved both so deeply as a child there’s no way I can do it.

Species counterpoint or Harmonic analysis?

Harmonic analysis. Hate counterpoint.

Favourite composer?


Marvel or DC?

Dark Horse.

Favourite episode of Firefly?

Objects in Space.

Favourite character?


Favourite BSG episode?

You Can’t Go Home Again.

Favourite character?

Lt. Gaeta.

Favourite song to play live?

Whichever one I’m playing right now.

I hear you like comics, that’s awesome. What are you reading at the moment?

I’m new to comics actually, just beginning.  I didn’t know there was much besides superheroes & anime, but now that I do, I’m diving in.  Love Fables, loved Y: the Last Man, love Umbrella Academy, currently reading some Neil Gaiman and The Runaways.

How did you get involved with ThinkGeek and w00tstock

w00tstock I’d have to thank Phil Plait for, since he pestered Peter Sagal and Peter Sagal pestered Paul and Storm.  More than that, all my fans pestered Paul and Storm until they invited me.  So thanks, guys!  I loved doing it and I hope they let me do it again someday.

I bothered Thinkgeek on Twitter because I wanted a shirt they sell in a girl cut, and they couldn’t get it in a girl cut.  We got to talking, they said they’d like to meet me, I said I’d like to meet them, and ba-da-bing ba-da-boom, we had the bestest concert anyone’s ever had!  It’s still up for viewing online at Ustream and soon on Youtube.

What’s your gaming poison?

Legend of Zelda, N64 & earlier.  Also certain quirky tabletop games: Gloom, Killer Bunnies, Carcassonne, Ingenious, Settlers, Exploding Cows, and lots more.  My family plays lots of cards, too.

What’s your most treasured geek possession?

My typewriter.  No recreation is like the real thing.

What advice would your letter to your 16 year old self contain?

Ask yourself less often whether you ought to be doing what you’re doing, and more often whether you’re actually happy doing what you’re doing.

And I’d reiterate a Jewish proverb I was already telling myself then: “When you die, God will not ask you why you were not more like Moses.  He will ask you why you were not more like you.”

All photos are by Brian Adams, the Anchorage-based photographer extraordinare. To check out more of his pictures of Marian or any of his other work click here or, alternatively, any of the pictures above!

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