Mary Fahl no longer reluctant solo artist
THREE OAKS, Mich. — Mary Fahl didn’t think she could do it.
The singer-songwriter, who got her start as the lead vocalist for the chamber-pop group October Project in the mid-1990s, had always been part of a band. But as an indie solo artist, traveling with a full-backing band was becoming cost prohibitive.
That’s when her husband, deep-sea oceanographer and marine biologist Richard A. Lutz, began stressing the obvious.
“It was my husband who convinced me,” Fahl says by phone from her home in New York City. “He said, ‘I don’t understand why you just don’t go out and play by yourself.’ I said, ‘Well, it’s because I had always had a band with me.’ I didn’t want to just be a girl with a guitar. I thought it would take something away from it. But he travels a lot and said, ‘You can start going with me and you can perform.’ He started dragging me to the middle of nowhere and had me perform at open mic nights to prove I could do this by myself. And he was right.”
Fahl, who now says playing solo has made her a better performer, will prove just that on Saturday when she performs at The Acorn Theater in a show she describes as a retrospective of her eclectic career.
In addition to October Project’s 1993 self-titled album, which featured the songs “Bury My Lovely” and “Return To Me,” and its 1995 follow-up “Falling Farther In,” Fahl has recorded original tunes, which vary stylistically from rock to classical, a reimagining of the Pink Floyd landmark album “The Dark Side of the Moon,” as well as cinematic songs and operatic arias.
October Project formed shortly after Fahl, who is known for her contralto voice, met songwriter Julie Flanders in New York, who then introduced her to Emil Adler in the summer of 1989.
“I met Julie, and she invited me to her birthday party, and we got to know each other, and she asked me what I really wanted to do, and I told her I was a singer,” Fahl says. “Julie wanted to be a songwriter. She invited me to meet Emil. They had been a couple since high school, and they had written some songs together. Emil played me a few songs, and I knew the minute I heard those songs that my voice fit perfectly. They were very good and that feeling never left me.”
Marina Belica, Flanders roommate at Yale, joined as a harmony singer and Urbano Sanchez was recruited as percussionist. Although he was invited to join the band, he declined in favor of retaining sideman status.
They soon took up residence at Café Sin-é on St. Mark’s Place, where they played alongside other developing artists of the time, most notably Jeff Buckley.
“It was a little hole in the wall coffeehouse, but it became a scene and a scene record companies were coming down to,” Fahl says. “A lot of people got signed out of Café Sin-é, and we were one of those bands.”
After being signed by Epic Records, October Project recorded the eponymous debut in Nashville with producer Glenn Rosenstein and found success with the single “Bury My Lovely.” The band returned to Nashville in early 1995 to record their second album, “Falling Farther In,” with producer Peter Collins, but the lack of a hit led Epic to drop the band from the label.
“At the same time, I had begun to write songs, and I was told point blank that I would never write for this band,” Fahl says. “I felt the songs were good but we had begun to repeat ourselves musically and I was growing. I didn’t see a future for myself, and after we were dropped it didn’t seem worth it to me and we parted ways.”
After leaving October Project, Fahl spent time earning a living by working in the commercial world. She voiced spots for Audi, Crystal Light, Russell Athletic and Fisher-Price as she honed her own songwriting chops.
“In one of those commercials I ran into Jeffery Lesser and he wanted to hear my stuff,” Fahl says. “So I played it for him and he said, ‘These demos could be so much better,’ and he was right. He said ‘Why don’t you let me do a demo for you?’ So I did and that became my EP.”
Under Lesser, who has previously worked with Joni Mitchell and Lou Reed among others, Fahl released “Lenses of Contact” in 2000, which contains elements of folk, rock and pop. Then she got the unlikely call from label executives at Sony Classical.
“They were looking for something different,” Fahl says. “They wanted someone cinematic. I got called up to audition and I sang a couple of songs, and they had me sing an aria. I explained I wasn’t an opera singer at all but I know all of the tenor arias, so I sang ‘Nessun Dorma’ (from Giacomo Puccini’s ‘Turandot’) for them. (Then-president) Peter Gelb asked me to come sit next to him and he said, ‘We like you for this label, what do you think about that?’”
Fahl recorded the 2003 solo LP, “The Other Side of Time” for Sony. The album featured everything from the operatic “Una furtiva lagrima” and the traditional kharja “Ben Aindi Habibi” to originals “Going Home,” which appears in the Civil War film “Gods and Generals,” and “The Dawning of the Day,” featured in the film version of the Broadway play “The Guys.”
“It holds up, but I think it confused people a lot,” Fahl says. “Sony wanted something more classical and songs that I wrote for movies, and they wanted me to sing with an orchestra. I think radio thought I was making the third October Project record that never was, but instead they got something else.”
Fahl’s next unexpected turn came with 2011’s “From the Dark Side of the Moon,” a reworking of Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon.”
“I spend a lot of time ruminating on where humanity is going as a species,” Fahl says. “So I started to think of ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ because I grew up with that record. My brother was a big Pink Floyd fan and out of all the sort of boy music he listened to, I liked Pink Floyd the best. I thought it was melodic and dramatic, and I could sing it. It’s a work of art and to me one of the hallmarks of a timeless work of art is that it can be reinterpreted and bent and stretched all different ways. It can hold up under that kind of reimagining. And for me, it has a deeply spiritual message. Even though it was written in the ’70s, I think Dark Side is prophetic. I think it speaks more to the world now than when it came out. It gave me a vehicle to express all of what I was feeling.”
Fahl then teamed up with producer John Lissauer, who also produced Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” for her fifth full-length album, “Love & Gravity, which contains a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” in 2014. That same year, she released “Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera House.”
Since then, she has silently released an EP of arias, which she sells at shows, and is working on a full collection by composers such as Puccini and Alfredo Catalani, which she hopes to release later this year.
“I’m putting my toe in the water to see if people are interested,” Fahl says. “I really love classical music.”
In the meantime, she continues to play live, even if that means playing solo.
“To this day, I can’t believe that I do this,” she says. “But it’s helped me immensely. I tell a lot of stories now, which I was never allowed to do with October Project, and I think I’m a better guitar player because I have to be when it’s just me. It was the most challenging thing I have ever done. It was the most frightening thing I have ever done, but it has paid off for me in a lot of ways.”
If you go
Who: Mary Fahl
When: 8 p.m. EST Saturday
Where: The Acorn Theater, 107 Generations Drive, Three Oaks, Mich.
How much: $30
Contact: 269-756-3879 or www.acorntheater.com
Artist info: maryfahl.com