April 21, 2015 Interview – Mary Ramsey of 10,000 Maniacs
During the 1980s, Alternative Rock was born, combining a variety of musical elements together to provide open-minded listeners with something new. What some may also call New Wave, one of the many trademark bands to dawn from the time was Jamestown, New York’s 10,000 Maniacs. Achieving three platinum selling records in the USA, the band rode success into the 1990s, to which they took part in a career defining moment on MTV’s Unplugged series on April 21, 1993. Following the departure of vocalist Natalie Merchant that same year, the band turned to a familiar friend in Mary Ramsey to become their new voice leading into the future. Now over two decades later, Ramsey and 10,000 Maniacs are still going strong, and in 2015, return to their Folk roots with their new album Twice Told Tales. Recently we sat down with Ramsey for a retrospective look at her joining 10,000 Maniacs, her experience as a part of the band, their new album, the effects of music, and much more.
CrypticRock.com – 10,000 Maniacs’ musical journey began some three decades ago, and in that time the band has achieved multiple platinum selling records. You became the lead vocalist back in 1993. Tell us what the ride has been like for yourself as the voice of 10,000 Maniacs over the past twenty years.
Mary Ramsey – It has been a lot of different things. It has been fun, adventuresome, and challenging sometimes. It has been a very nice vehicle for creative musical adventure.
CrypticRock.com – You clearly had a history with the band, opening shows for them along with John prior to joining the band. Your predecessor, Natalie Merchant, was a beloved member of the band. When you took over, did you feel overwhelmed, and did you feel fans were supportive of you right from the start?
Mary Ramsey – I met John Lombardo back in 1989, we formed the duo John & Mary. We had two CDs on Rykodisc Records back in the early ’90s. It was kind of a natural progression. In 1990, there was an album that came out called Hope Chest and Natalie asked John to come back and help mix this album of two. He co-wrote with her in the early days before the hits. When that happened, they had The Hope Chest tour in 1990 and that is when John and I opened for the band. I started doing background vocals then. I think a lot of people were very supportive. I think they were happy that the band was going to continue and there would be a familiar face. They knew who I was, and they knew of my music with John. I think I had a whole support system.
CrypticRock.com – That is great that people were so supportive from the start. You were actually a part of that classic 1993 MTV Unplugged album, playing viola and providing vocals. To many, that record is an intricate part of collection, even being a live album. Do you have fond memories of that performance?
Mary Ramsey – Yes, it was quite an amazing adventure too. There were a lot of exciting moments. I was doing the background singing and strings. I think the band was very excited about doing a stripped down version of their music. The unplugged was about taking a band’s sound and changing it so it is more of an acoustic type of setting. Then on top of it, you have an audience there, and the audience was very excited. When you are in a situation like that, the audience is as much on stage as the performers. It was a huge collaborative process that was going on. There were a lot of extra musicians, retooling some songs. I had a chance to observe it and be part of it. It was a lot of fun.
CrypticRock.com – It sounds like a great experience. Speaking of the MTV Unplugged series, many people think of Alice in Chains, Nirvana, and 10,000 Maniacs as the standout performances in that series.
Mary Ramsey – Yes, and in those other two bands the singers died, unfortunately. At the time, there was not really any other spot on television that was doing that. It is hard to remember, but MTV was the only place that you could see music videos. It was revolutionary.
CrypticRock.com – It certainly was. Things have changed a lot through the years in music. It is debatable if they are for the better.
Mary Ramsey – I know it is hard. I was just talking with Joey Molland from Badfinger. He and I are working on a song we are doing for WhyHunger, it is a site which helps feed kids around the world. We were talking about how the music business has changed. You do not want to be discouraging because there are some wondered things going on, but it is also pretty clear there are some pretty wonderful things from the past as well.
CrypticRock.com – Absolutely. That is a conversation that could last hours. In your time with the band, 10,000 Maniacs has gone on to perform and release a series of albums. Take us back to that debut record, Love Among the Ruins, you did with the band in 1997. You played an intricate role in that album from singing to the lyric writing. Do you feel perhaps spending a few years as a part of the band prior to going right into the studio gave you a heightened level of comfort going into that album?
Mary Ramsey – Yes I do. I was lucky that I met John Lombardo when I did. We were able to form our own style of writing together, it worked and we both had confidence in it. Sometimes you have a situation where you have a creative process and you do not know what is going to come from it. If you are working with someone who gives you confidence and you give them confidence, you have this buffer to believe in what you are doing and not doubt it. I felt I had that. When I became the lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs, I had that protective sealer around me. I felt like I had done this with John and the writing with these guys is similar. It was like a family. We just continued on where we had been when touring. We had a comfort zone to be able to work together and write.
CrypticRock.com – That has to be very helpful going into a band. Instead of just going in and right from the start making a record. For any musician, there is a time you have to break in with one another and learn each other. You had that advantage going into that 1997 record.
Mary Ramsey – Yes, and I realize that more now than ever. Then I just took it for granted, I thought “Ok, here we go, we are going to do this, it will be like what I did working with John.” It was similar, it was a pretty smooth transition. The pressure was to try and come up with music that had the hit factor like they had. That is difficult, that is about a lot of things, not just talent. Certainly, I think we did a good job with a continuation of 10,000 Maniacs.
CrypticRock.com – The band certainly has continued on extremely well. In 2013 the band released their first studio record in fourteen years. Now in 2015, you release a special album of all traditional Folk songs as a part of a collection called Twice Told Tales. What was it like for you going into this new album, having an affection for Folk music?
Mary Ramsey – It was delightful. I perform with violin, and for me, those instruments fit so naturally into that style of music. It was almost as if the instruments were jumping up and down to say “let’s play this music!” It is where my musical sensibilities lie; the Celtic sound with my strings and even my voice, it was a perfect fit. The nice thing is it is interrupting songs. It is not about writing your own songs, you are continuing this tradition of telling these stories through song that have been handed down over the years. We had a really good time making this album.
CrypticRock.com – What is quite interesting about Twice Told Tales is most of these songs are between one-hudred to three-hundred years old, and the band do a fine job of translating them into renditions people from the 21st century can enjoy. Was that the objective going into the recording of the material?
Mary Ramsey – Some of it is was, but some of it was taking it as pure as possible. The two “Lady Mary Ramsey” tunes, I found them a few years ago on the internet. I Googled my name and stumbled on them. It was almost as if it was a cosmic thing, there were these melodies known probably sometime in the 1700s. I felt they would be kind of neat to use with the album as the book ends. Then taking the other songs, such as the song “The Song Of Wandering Aengus,” which is a Yates poem to music. We built the CD from there. It was a really interesting and organic album. We worked at Silver Creek, which is South of Buffalo, with Armand Petri in his house. We then went to Tarbox Road Studio in Cassadaga where we worked, also where the Flaming Lips and different other bands have played. That was kind of the middle of nowhere. It was the sense of being in the woods in nature and trying to bring out the natural sounds of the songs.
CrypticRock.com – That is what is so great about Folk music in general, it is all about the atmosphere. A lot of music is like that, but particularly Folk. What do you think makes it so magical, and through generations has connected with cultures?
Mary Ramsey – I think it is brilliant simplicity. When you have a song that has the voice put to melody, you are still speaking, but with a melody underneath. Then you have instrumentation that is sparse and not cluttered, it helps the listener really be comfortable. Sometimes, with some forms of music, your body tenses up because you are bombarded with so much. I think we as humans love to hear natural vibrations such as a lullaby or humming. Things that make us sleep or feel more relaxed. Not to sound too out there, but there are vibrations in our voices and the instruments that when you hear them, they connect to us. They really do change brain chemistry. It is really fantastic when it happens the right way.
CrypticRock.com – Completely understood. Music has a natural effect on people, which is hard to explain. It is quite amazing.
Mary Ramsey – Yes, with our technology to electrify instruments, we have been able to bring music to a lot of people to fill up huge rooms with sound. I think sometimes that stuff gets so put in your face that you cannot hear the instruments, the voice underneath, and everything gets so maxed out. Going back to something warm and organic is comforting. I find that as an appeal for sure.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, that natural feeling is quite nice. Your friend, and long-time fellow musician, John Lombardo returned to the fold to work on Twice Told Tales, and is in fact touring with the band. What is it like working with John again in 10,000 Maniacs?
Mary Ramsey – Everyone enjoyed it. He is a very unique and talented man. It is like having a family get back together. People tell stories, jokes, and everyone knows how each other work. I think because it was not so much about writing songs, and it was about something that was right there, it was a very pleasant experience.
CrypticRock.com – When you have that ability to do renditions of songs opposed to writing, it can be very tranquil as a music. Seeing you have a very unique style musically, what are some of your musical influences?
Mary Ramsey – A lot of different music. Certainly, I like Folk music. I like Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, The Beatles, Badfinger, and a lot of music I grew up on. Of course Classic music and the beautiful symphonic pieces. I also like Brazilian music as well as Reggae. Mostly, I like when I can really hear a voice and the resonance in it. Of course, also beautiful and unique lyrics. That is a wild other aspect of it, the way word is put together in poetry.
CrypticRock.com – It seems you have a broad spectrum of music you listen to. A lot of musicians are very open about music and do not box themselves in.
Mary Ramsey – Yes, once you decide you want to do something, you are a magnet. Your ears are already out there taking it in, you have that in your anatomy. Just like someone who is a dancer might feel different. It is just part of the nature of being a musician.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, it is also important for listeners to try and be open-minded about music. More than ever, people are more electric with their musical tastes, especially with so much access on the internet.
Mary Ramsey – Yes, and you can compare them to other things. That is what is kind of cool, it does kind of trick you into another musical form, just because it is there. Something can pop up when you are listening to one thing on YouTube, and then something else will pop up. You have all these varieties, and if you just press on another video, you can hear something you might have never heard before. It can be a bit overwhelming in a way sometimes.
CrypticRock.com – You are right, it can be overwhelming sometimes. My last question for you is pertaining to movies. CrypticRock.com covers music and Horror/Sci-fi films. If you are a fan of Horror films, what are some of your favorite Horror/Sci-fi films?
Mary Ramsey – Yes, I like Blade Runner (1982) a lot. I do like the Dracula movies from the 1960s starring Christopher Lee with the technicolor red; the blood was very red. I love Alfred Hitchcock, I have watched all his films. Rear Window (1954) was great, who could not want to watch Grace Kelly. I have watched a lot of movies, I do not really watch a lot of gory ones; I do not really care for them. The movie with David Bowie called The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) I like too.
CrypticRock.com – That is great to hear you have seen so many movies and appreciate so many styles.
Mary Ramsey – There are a lot of strange films I have seen. I am a fan of watching movies. I had a friend where we would have these movie watching marathons. I think in the ’80s, there were a lot of unusual films that came out in the Sci-fi genre, or something like that. David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) I like a lot as well.
CrypticRock.com – Horror does not necessarily have to be gory. It plays with your mind, that is definitely Horror.
Mary Ramsey – Yes, and I think certainly that was Hitchcock’s style. There are just films that make you feel odd. Even The Three Colors trilogy by Krysztof Kieslowski are strange, and leave you feeling odd. There was one he made called The Double Life of Véronique (1991) which I remember feeling kind of strange watching. Movies are a great inspiration, like books, for songs. The movie with Ava Gardner called On the Beach (1959) inspired a song John and I wrote early on. There are just many great movies.