Mara Connor photo credit: Schuyler Howie
Mara Connor’s latest EP, Decades, is out now from Side Hustle Records, and takes in an ambitious sweep of music history, crafting a cover for one song from each decade from 1950 to 1990. It follows on from her 2020 EP of original music, No Fun, and has an interesting musical genesis and production history, starting as a series of singles she managed to record with close friends and collaborators in a wide variety of locations. All the songs on Decades benefit from Connor’s remarkable, versatile vocals, but they also reflect a lot of smart and interesting artistic choices by Connor and her collaborators in handling well-loved songs, like with Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame,” brought into a modern “Twin Peaksy” context while introducing even more 50s-homage elements, like spoken-word. Staying close to the DNA of the original songs also took inventive forms, like using the same methods to record their version of “Ballad of Big Nothing” as Elliott Smith even as they introduced new sonic elements.
Mara Connor kindly spoke with us about the nuances of the Decades EP, which surprised even her when it took shape and emerged from her collection of recordings during the down-time of the pandemic.
Americana Highways: Was this EP useful as a more flexible approach after a more structured process on releasing No Fun last year? I know that the way in which this EP was made embraced different locations and approaches.
Mara Connor: Yes, I think so. I think recording covers is a whole other thing and it did feel very liberating to be able to take off the songwriter hat and just focus on reinterpreting someone else’s songs. In terms of production, I felt like I had a wider palette to work with because I was playing with other peoples’ songs. Especially in terms of being able to completely reimagine some of the songs, I think that was part of the fun of it. Like in terms of my Fats Domino cover, “Ain’t That a Shame”, we really wanted to give the song an entirely different sound to the original, so we went for a dark, eerie, David Lynchian vibe. I think that’s the challenge and the fun of covers, making them your own while still paying tribute to the original.
AH: Covers are such a broad and interesting artform and there are so many possible approaches you can take in terms of concept. You can deconstruct and reconstruct songs, you can even transfer something from one genre to another. Would you say that each song was handled differently in terms of your approach, or did you have an overarching idea for how to interpret them?
MC: I think it was pretty specific to each song and what each collaboration created in the moment. On this EP, each song was a collaboration with a different friend or someone who I’ve loved working with over the years. It just depended on what we decided felt right at time for each song. For “Ain’t That a Shame,” I recorded it with my friend Griffin Emerson in New York, and we went in with that specific Twin Peaks vibe in mind. My grandfather loved Fats Domino, so it was also a tribute to him.
With “Blues Run The Game,” that was recorded in Nashville with Andrija Tokic at The Bomb Shelter. For that one, we started with one of my favorite lesser-known songs from the 60s, and we really wanted to give it our own spin since lots of great people have covered it over the years. So far, everyone had pretty much covered it in a similar vein to Jackson C. Frank’s original, as a sad Folk ballad. It’s a great rendition but we thought it would be cool to bring in some drums and organs, and kind of let the song grow as it went on to give it a little more energy. It was almost a Byrds-y vibe, while still keeping it in the 60s.
For “Old Man,” I recorded with Jon Estes, and we kept it pretty close to the original. We made it a little more ethereal, or something like that. In terms of playing, Jon is an amazing session player as well as being a Producer, so he played everything on that track in a matter of hours. It was like a marathon with him running from instrument to instrument.
For “Come Here,” which I produced with my friend Sean O’Brien, we really wanted to highlight the emotion of the song, since I think there’s something so wistful and pretty about Kath Bloom’s lyrics and melody.
Elliott Smith’s “Ballad of Big Nothing,” which is one of my favorite songs, was co-produced with my friend Kenny Becker from the grunge band Goon, and we did it on a little 4-track recorder in our apartments very much like Elliott Smith did with his recordings. We just wanted to do it as an homage to Elliott, but to give it our own spin. So we used his recording method, which felt appropriate, but then we also brought in violin. Our friend, Jen Simone, plays on it, and she actually played with Elliott’s backing band, Quasi, back in the day.
So these songs all kind of have their own vibe, but I think the thing that makes them all fit together is this “Decades” concept where each of them occupies the space of a different decade, as well as my own stylistic influences in there.
AH: I might be reading this into the collection from my perspective, but I do feel like there’s a similar mood that connects these songs as well. How did you pick these songs, though, because these are such vast swaths of music history?
MC: The way I chose the individual songs was that, for most of them, I recorded them pre-pandemic as one-offs with different friends as opportunities presented themselves. For instance, I was in Nashville for the day, so I said, “Let’s get in the studio and record this Neil Young cover.” It wasn’t until the pandemic, when I was on the way to SXSW, and was just releasing my No Fun EP of original songs, that I realized it was going to be a long time before I could safely tour or get back into the studio to record more original songs. I was combing through all these recordings that I had done, and I realized that I had a cover for almost every decade, except for the 80s. That’s why I ended up doing the “Come Here” cover during the pandemic.
If it weren’t for the pandemic, I don’t think these songs would have found themselves on one EP, but I kind of love that about it. I think this time, for all of us, has included a lot of tragedy, loss, and collective grief, but one of the silver-linings has been looking back at what we might have overlooked in our lives, creatively. I think being able to pull these songs together into one collective work was less overwhelming than having to choose one song from each era.
AH: That would have been really hard! I agree.
MC: I do think you’re right in terms of there being some kind of feeling that comes out strongly throughout all the songs. I think that’s partially that I’m attracted to one type of song, even though they are from different genres and eras. I think there’s a sadness to all of them. There’s a wistfulness, and maybe a romanticism to all of them, that’s in keeping with the songs that I write and listen to.
AH: It’s been recently pointed out to me that this is also my taste in music. It’s not far from the focus of Honky Tonk music, with a very specific perspective, but just in multiple genres.
MC: What do you think attracts you to that those types of songs?
AH: This may be too easy an answer, but I’m really interested in storytelling in music. And I love it when the audience has to help put the narrative together.
MC: Me too. Those are my favorite songs. I grew up on storyteller songs like John Prine, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen.
AH: I think the different sound approaches on the EP bring out that commonality among the songs even more. Sometimes things come out more when you put them in a slightly different context.
MC: That’s so true. I didn’t even realize how sad “Ain’t That a Shame” was, since Fats Domino always sang it with a huge smile on his face. Taking it out of context and amplifying the somber tones of it was really interesting.
AH: I have to know, how did that conversation happen that made you decide on a Twin Peaks approach for the song? When I think of music and Twin Peaks, I think of the score for the show, and I also think of the songs that were performed at the Roadhouse during the series, which is often very synthy.
MC: Yes! Originally, someone had asked me to specifically record a 1950s song, but giving it a more modern interpretation to pitch for something. We had a short list and were choosing among a few great song for that era, and both Griffin and I had circled “Ain’t That a Shame.” We wanted to give it a really different vibe, so we landed on Twin Peaks because it’s so evocative and specific. I love the show, and was probably rewatching it at the time.
When I think of Twin Peaks, the score and the theme song come to mind, but also that scene in the first season where they are singing that 50s style song they have written on the electric guitar. I think we wanted the vibe of the show in general. It has that dark, sexy, synthy vibe. I have to hand it to Griffin, who brought a lot of that into instrumentation. I specifically love his solo. It was very in that vibe.
AH: It was really brave to slow it down so much.
MC: It made it so much longer, and the verses can get repetitive when it’s slower, so that’s why we turned one of the verses into spoken word. That’s the only time I’ve done that. It felt like it worked, especially in the context of that production style and the song itself. It felt a little overly dramatic, but almost intentionally so.
AH: I didn’t feel it was jarring at all, and that may be because I associate the 50s with Beat poetry and I felt it melted into the rest of the song.
MC: I love when it happened back then in the pre-doo-wop groups, when one verse would be spoken. Then there’s Elvis Presley on “Are You Lonesome Tonight.” There’s such a tradition of that from that era.
AH: Was there discussion about what elements of each song to keep intact in order to make sure each one was still recognizable, or was it more of an intuitive approach to find your way with each piece?
MC: It was more unspoken and instinctual than something we discussed in depth. I know that with the Neil Young song, we consciously decided to keep that iconic guitar part because it feels so important to the song. Throughout, I didn’t stray too much, if at all, in terms of vocal melody, and I kept all the lyrics true to the originals. For me, that’s about respecting the songwriters’ intentions. I also think the songs that I chose are great, so you don’t need to mess with them.
AH: Do you think you were influenced, vocally, by the originals, or do you think you started with a clean slate?
MC: I think I was definitely inspired by the originals in terms of performance. I have my own singing style, for better or worse, that I think will always come out when I sing. But maybe that’s why I enjoyed doing these covers, because it felt so freeing to work with songs that are entirely different from my own. I think it definitely stretched me in certain ways, like doing the spoken word verse, and in branching out from my go-to style of performing.
AH: Are these covers songs that you’d like to perform live when that’s possible?
MC: I definitely want to perform these live at some point. The song “Blues Run The Game” is really close to my heart, and is something I’ve been performing since my first shows, back when I lived in New York. I was working at a record label while I was still in school, Ba Da Bing Records in Brooklyn. They were releasing a box set of Jackson C. Frank’s music, along with a biography on him that I ended up editing. I became haunted by his music and his tragic life story so that became one of the songs that I first started covering. I think it would be difficult to perform “Ain’t That a Shame” because our version is so production-heavy, but never say never!
AH: Do you think it was a good thing for you that you had the experience of working at a label early-on?
MC: Absolutely. I loved working at Ba Da Bing. It was my first job. I started there as an intern while I was still in college, and they hired me when I graduated. It was like a little family. I really learned from the label’s owner, and my friend, Ben Goldberg, the importance of doing things for the right reasons. I think he chooses artists and bands based on what he loves. It was a very pure and joyful introduction into the music industry. I think people and companies like that are pretty rare nowadays, so I consider myself very lucky that my introduction to the “music industry” was something so different from a major label. It really made me appreciate everything that goes into a release, especially behind the scenes, and all the people who work so hard but who aren’t in the spotlight but are so instrumental to making things happen.
Find Mara Connor here: http://maraconnor.com