In a cartoon, Carolyn Mark would be the sassy diva who makes everyone laugh and then saves the day through her cunning and celebrity connections.
In fact, she and a friend wanted to write a sitcom based in Tucson starring themselves--one would live in a frat house, the other in a nursing home. Hilarity would, of course, ensue. But in real life, she's just Carolyn Mark, singer/songwriter from Canada, equipped with smart lyrics and a country twang to her voice that smacks of Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline.
"I like (country), because it's mostly about the singing and the lyrics, which is what I'm pretty interested in," said Mark from the phone in the bar where she was playing last Sunday night. Mark's songs are traditional country in the structure and sound of the music, but her songs can range from jazzy swing to jug band and pop. Her lyrics can be spiteful and tart--on "Two Days Smug and Sober," from 2004's The Pros and Cons of Collaboration, Mark sings, "I'm more in love with this cigarette than I'll ever be with you." Her album titles suggest Mark's musical tendencies--Party Girl (Mint, 2000) and Terrible Hostess (Mint, 2002) conjure up the character mentioned before. Mark's particular brand of sassy is always seriously fun.
"I'm really into conversational snippets these days--when you're walking by someone, and you hear a phrase," said Mark. "The last one I heard was, 'That's the last time I eat spaghetti by the river.' I'm obsessed with what could have possibly happened."
Mark's most recent record, 2005's Just Married: An Album of Duets (Mint), has her singing with a different person or band on each song, and only a couple of the songs are by Mark herself. But her choice of her collaborators is right in keeping with Mark's own style. "Fireworks," written by J. McLaughlin and sung with NQ Arbuckle, begins with the line, "You're dumb when you're drunk. Yeah, you heard me right" as the piano sadly plinks and the slide guitar gently weeps. "It's All Just a Matter (of Where You Draw the Line)" has Mark singing sweetly with songwriter Geoff Berner about cheating, and Mark's duet with Ford Pier, "Done Something Wrong" (also about cheating), was written by Pier and sounds like Motown, with its trumpets and Pier's soulful wails.
Surrounding herself with a variety of musicians makes each song sound different so that Mark is never pinned down to the same tired lineup or instrument setup. (Mark was once half of The Corn Sisters, a collaborative side project whose other half was Neko Case.) It's also clear that everyone is having a good time, even on the sadder songs, and Mark decided to do a duet album for this reason. "I thought it'd be a great way to get to hang out with your friends," said Mark. "I like that old-timey sort of convention. ... And one time we were playing, and Ford, who I play with--he plays the piano--said, 'Carolyn made this duets record, because it's something women of her vintage think they should do.' Implying that that's what you do when you don't have any more songs. But I don't agree."
Just Married gave Mark the ability to add her own touches to other people's songs, so that she could enjoy them more herself. Her version of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," sung with Luke Doucet, doesn't stray too far from Williams' version, but seems somehow more drunk. Just Married shows that Mark is not just a solo singer/songwriter who can handle her own stuff well; she can collaborate and render other people's songs with the same respect and dedication that she puts into her own material. That's an important thing in country and folk: being able to work well with others.
"Lately, it's been getting doubly weird in that I'm getting put with people I've never met to play, which is kind of cool. It feels like a mission. It feels like James Bond: Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to play with these nine people. Right! OK! I kind of like it. But then you get to come home and play with your people, your family, and it's like, oh, yeah."
What keeps Mark's music genuine is the fact that she doesn't spend too much time overthinking things. "I don't really have a process," Mark said about songwriting. "The only thing I've noticed is that if you want to write a song, you have to actually sit down and write a song. You have to do it; that's it." The emphasis is on the fun of creating the music, and as long as that remains, everything else flows from there. "The safest place to be in is busy," said Mark.