Features | Interviews

Carolyn Mark

By Candice Osmond | 4 August 2004

Now residing in Victoria after growing up in Sicamous, British Columbia, country-rock songstress Carolyn Mark is one of the west coast's greatest songwriting talents. Having worked her way through several unfulfilling group ventures (and one perpetually ongoing group with Neko Case, to whom lines of comparisons can easily be drawn), Mark broke off in '98 to persue her solo career, which has since spawned three albums: 2000's Party Girl, 2002's Terrible Hostess and The Pros and Cons of Collaboration, which was just recently released on Mint records. All three are solid excursions into her unique mixture of country, bluegrass, rock, rockabilly, singer/songwriter and folk, to name but a few -- all anchored by her large, powerful vocals (again recalling Neko Case), shameless sense of storytelling and wonderful sense of humour.

I recently had the chance to talk to Carolyn over the phone during her short break from touring, and, true to her lyrical odes to alcohol, I was no less sure of Mark's sobriety at the end of the interview than the opening words. Either way, she was a delight to talk to, happily discussing the past, present and future of her life and music with the energy of a small child on speed. Mark's personality also seemed uncannily similar to the tone of her music -- once again confirming her as a songwriter that sings what she means and isn't about to let that change without one hell of a fight. Though brief, here is nevertheless some insight into the mind of Ms. Carolyn Mark.

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Candice Osmond (CMG): Hey Carolyn, how's it going?

Carolyn Mark (Mark): Hey. Just fine! I've got three days at home, and I'm pretty excited about it [laughs].

CMG: Good, good. First off, you grew up on a dairy farm, right?

Mark:
Yeah.

CMG:
Do you think that affected the way you approach music or helped you get into the kind of music you did?

Mark:
Well, I don't know about the farm, but I was forced to play the piano as a child and there wasn't really lots else to do other than chores [laughs]. I mean, there was lots to do, of course, but not really without involving the distraction of other people. So, there was a lot of long afternoons with nothing else to do. So yeah, I guess it might've contributed to what I do.

CMG:
Oh, ok.

Mark:
Well, that and a mother that read me absurdist plays as bedtime stories.

CMG: You say that Patsy Cline is one of your biggest influences...

Mark:
I love the way she sings.

CMG:
I do too, I adore her. Is there anyone else that really made you want to make music your career?

Mark:
Oh, yeah, lots. There are a lot of bands I would go to see every night here (Victoria, BC)...like Jr. Gone Wild (An Edmonton based country-rock group that, in its decade-plus existence, would see over thirty members come and leave; Mark would even cover their excellent "Slept All Afternoon" for Pros & Cons) was a big influence, and this band from LA called the Screaming Sirens -- they used to wear ruffly dresses and drink bourbon and roll around on stage. That looks like a good time! (laughs). Lots of different people, but the live part mostly, definitely. I love seeing live bands.

CMG: Yeah. Speaking of which, how do you feel about the local music scene in general, like Vancouver for instance...

Mark: Well, I live in Victoria, but...

CMG:
Yeah...

Mark:
Vancouver is...well, there's a big venue to play and some tiny venues to play. But for the size, there's not enough...there's no three-hundred seat place. So it's kind of weird, because it's kind of hard to...

CMG:
Yeah. It just seems like there's so much good music coming from that whole area right now...

Mark:
Oh yeah, there is, definitely. But in terms of playing there, the venues, there just isn't...well, nothing's perfect, you know?

CMG: Just out of curiosity, what is your take on contemporary music -- pop music, specifically...

Mark:
Oh, I...I'm not a part of that, so I...

CMG:
No, of course not, but...come on, you don't listen to it at all?

Mark:
No! [laughs]

CMG:
Really?

Mark:
Yeah. I...I just think of it as something else, you? So...

CMG: OK. How was it working with Neko Case? I heard the Corn Sisters' The Other Woman recently and thought it was excellent.

Mark:
Thanks! Oh, it's hilarious. It's great. Yeah, it's good. And she's famous, so people actually come to the shows [laughs], which is always nice.

CMG:
I love Neko Case.

Mark:
Oh, me too. She's great.

CMG:
Are you planning on doing another project or set of live shows with her?

Mark:
Yeah, but we'll probably involve Ms. Kelly Hogan, who also sang backup on Neko's studio records, so we'll have a three-part harmony group. That's the plan, at least. But I'm waiting...I mean, with Neko it really has to come from her, you know? So, I'm waiting...well, I'm not waiting, I'm busy, but...Kelly and I sang backups on her new record, the live one with the Sadies [the upcoming The Tigers Have Spoken, recorded from her recent tour with the Toronto spaghetti western/psych-rock rock quartet as her backing group]. That was really fun.

CMG: Great. Do you think your time with the Vinagrettes [her first group with Victoria scene mainstay Scott Hendersen, as well as Ed Dobek and Brigette Wilkins; they'd spend seven years as a group, but release only one record, '96's Gross Negligee (1996)] helped to give you a clear idea of what you were going for musically?

Mark:
Yeah, I do. I think it made me learn that I wanted to play with people that want to play (laughs). The whole convincing part, I didn't need to do that... but, I had -- well I still have a lot of energy, but then I had even more, so I could convince more people that didn't want to be in a band to be in a band [laughs]. So it's good now, because every time now it's like a holiday compared to that. And I've learned a lot since then.

CMG: A lot of your songs center around men and drinking...

Mark:
[laughs] Yeah...

CMG:
So, do you think those are good staples for country songs, or...

Mark:
Yeah, I guess so. It's pretty much what I think about all the time. Well, that and how to have sex for free [laughs].

CMG: Which leads right in to my next question. You also use a lot of vulgar language in your songs, which I think is great...

Mark:
Yeah!

CMG:
Do you find it easy to write so naturally?

Mark:
Oh, yeah. I guess some people might think it's lazy, but I'm just trying to capture the vernacular of our time!

CMG:
It's refreshing, honestly...

Mark:
Yeah. And you know people, when they write songs, and they make the rhyme and it's going to be "ass," but then they change the word at the last moment like it's risque. I hate that!

People...ugh...yeah, and I mean I don't play those songs for children, so if the press doesn't make a big deal, then nobody will, you know?

CMG: Sure. If you could pick one person to cover one of your songs, who would it be?

Mark:
My Dad was just talking about this, actually. He was like "Well maybe someone famous could sing your songs and you could make money!" [laughs]. That's a great idea! "You know what you should do..." But anyway...well, I just got to see Lucinda Williams play. She's pretty awesome, she's my mentor for songwriting. That'd be pretty cool, but she writes her own songs, she doesn't need me! I don't know. You know in Nashville if you're in a publishing company you get these memos... "Martina McBride is looking for something that goes up an octave in the chorus that truly expresses her personality..." That's weird. It's a weird world [laughs].

CMG: There's a lot of elements to your music, which I love. Did you ever think about sticking to a single style for a project, like singling out country or bluegrass?

Mark:
No. I think to pick one, you'd have to rule out everything else. I love rockabilly music, but some of those rockabilly people just don't listen to anything else or they don't dress in anything different...I don't know, I just like the cross of styles.

CMG:
You also use quite a bit of humour in your music. Do you think that's an important part of your music, too?

Mark:
Well, I do, but some people hate it. It's funny...I just, I never figured someone would hate it before. It's just funny, you know?

CMG: You also book your own tours, right?

Mark:
Yeah.

CMG:
Great. Do you prefer to do it that way?

Mark:
Well, I don't really have a choice [laughs]. In Canada, at this point I don't think anyone could book me any better than me, but the States...that's still pretty much unforged territory, and I'm still in the dark of it.

CMG: Lastly, what kind of stuff are you listening to these days?

Mark:
Hmm...I just did a tour with Scott McCoy and Jon Langford [founding member of the great alt-country act the Mekons], so their songs are running through my head all the time. Who else, let's see...Calexico, I just saw them, they're amazing. Lots of different stuff.

CMG: Great. Well that's pretty much it. Thanks for your time, Carolyn.

Mark:
No problem. Thanks!