Mary Fahl first achieved fame as the contralto lead singer, songwriter and co-founder of the 1990s New York City-based chamber-pop group October Project, with two albums on Epic. On Can’t Get It Out of My Head, she delivers stunning and beautifully produced renditions of some of her favorite songs from the 1960s and 1970s.
GOLDMINE: Welcome to Goldmine. First of all, what a beautiful album cover listing the songs, like the look of easy listening vinyl of the past.
MARY FAHL: Thank you. I am glad you brought that up. For my inspiration, I took a particular Françoise Hardy album cover to my graphic designer Julie Miller at HaggisVitae Studios in Pennsylvania to use as a model for this album, including the text, font and bit grainy looking as if it were a vinyl album cover from 1970. When I give her the artistic direction for a look I want, she gets it every time. That is what Julie did and of all the album covers I have done this is my favorite.
GM: It is both a classic look and sound, with the music bringing back memories, yet with a very fresh approach. You and I were born in the same year, 1958.
MF: That means you understand exactly where we were when these songs came out when we were kids.
GM: I knew seven of the ten songs and you taught me three more: Judy Collins’ “Since You’ve Asked,” Richard and Linda Thompson’s “The Great Valerio” and Nick Drake’s “River Man” which are all nice.
MF: If I am the person who brought you “River Man,” then you owe me, ha ha. Nick Drake is a bit of a sacred cow, produced by Joe Boyd. My first boyfriend in high school was a British progressive rock and folk fan. He took me to my first concert which was Renaissance with Annie Haslam singing. He was into Nick Drake. I fell in love with the song “River Man” instantaneously and have for life. Covering this song had to be shimmering and we had to find our own way.
GM: Your version of “River Man” reminds me of early Carly Simon sitting at her piano. You mentioned Renaissance’s Annie Haslam, who I have interviewed for Goldmine. I can hear her influence in your work.
MF: Definitely. Annie and I have these strangely parallel lives. She lives about a half hour from me in Buck County, Pennsylvania. We both had the same manager for a while, Miles Copeland, a really neat guy, who managed me when I was on Sony Classical. Annie and I were both in bands with an outside lyricist. Our voices are different where Annie is a mezzo-soprano and I am a contralto, but both of us have been in bands with a classical vibe. October Project wasn’t as classical in sound as Renaissance, but we referred to our sound as chamber-pop with a soaring quality. Annie has a signature voice. You will know it is Annie within the first three notes. When she drove over here for dinner, we noticed immediately that we drove the same car brand. She is a lovely lady.
GM: When I saw the song list on your album cover, “Got a Feelin’” jumped out at me. This was the beautiful flip side of The Mamas & The Papas’ “Monday, Monday,” making it the oldest song on the collection. Your voice reminds me of Christine McVie, and I love that ticking sound from the original recording was included.
MF: We had to put that in as it pulls it all together. I never had the single, but I remember my sister Joan bringing home that album and I used to stare at the cover. The Mamas & The Papas’ debut album changed my life. I had never heard anything like that before. It was pure beauty, sonic glory.
The Mamas & The Papas
Fabulous Flip Side: Got a Feelin’
A side: Monday, Monday
Billboard Hot 100 debut: April 9, 1966
Peak position: No. 1
I mentioned Carly Simon with “River Man.” I am also reminded of her voice with your version of the title song “Can’t Get It Out of My Head,” from ELO’s Eldorado album, which I bought immediately upon its release as they were my favorite group at that time.
MF: I can imagine Carly Simon doing it exactly the way that I did it and that is where the Carly influence comes out in me. Her sensibilities come through, maybe in the arrangements that I do. She is just ingrained in me along with a lot of other people. You and I were teenagers when we both bought ELO’s Eldorado. I was in a Catholic high school that I despised. It was far from my house. None of my friends were there. That song used to play on the high school jukebox, and it would transport me. That whole album transported me, and I have loved Jeff Lynne ever since. I ended up participating in a George Harrison tribute concert at City Winery with a lot of other people. I heard Jeff Lynne sing George Harrison’s composition “The Inner Light” at The Concert for George in 2002 and I knew that someday I wanted to perform that, and I did that one along with “Beware of Darkness” at the tribute show.
GM: I first learned “The Inner Light” as the flip side of The Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” in 1968 and “Beware of Darkness” in late 1970 as part of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass triple album that I received as a wonderful surprise Christmas gift from my aunt. Your version of “Beware of Darkness” certainly has that tribute concert sound.
MF: Yes, I did it the same way. It was a beautiful, live show and I tried to recreate what we did that night. All Things Must Pass lives in my soul. I played the song “All Things Must Pass” over and over again this year-and-a-half because I love it and I lost my sister. George was my favorite Beatle, but I never considered him a singer-songwriter, like John and Paul. He wrote mostly for himself. George’s lyrics in anybody else’s hands might sound kind of preachy, but in his hands, they never did because it resonated with authenticity. George really lived what he wrote. “Beware of Darkness” has sat in my brain and my heart at various times in my life because there are wise words in that song, like “beware of sadness.” George was so light and spiritual, and it wasn’t fake. He lived it, even with him having friends like Mick Jagger and Jimmy Page who could create some dark songs and sounds. It is easy to be drawn into sadness and it is not healthy. It is a great song and one of the more obscure George songs, not being a single. I had a heavy hand in that arrangement with my producer Mark Doyle, who wanted it to be more Beatle-esque. I wanted a crescendo at the end and we had a real chamber ensemble on this whole album, and it comes through on this song.
GM: You mentioned Mick Jagger. Let’s discuss the British Tuesday songs, The Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” followed by The Moody Blues’ “Tuesday Afternoon” on your album back-to-back, with a touch of Nico in your sound.
MF: If Nico and Judy Collins spawned, it would be me. I love the movie Nico Icon. Mark played all the instruments except drums on all the songs, arranged the strings and conducted the chamber ensemble. You can hear Mark come through on these songs.
GM: Let’s talk about Mark’s electric guitar playing on “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” a great cut from Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush album. What a strong version.
MF: One of the things that I said to Mark about the arrangement is to make it different. There are a lot of great covers of this song. Seal and Annie Lennox did great versions, but Annie took the approach of under-singing it. I took a different approach, as I wanted it to hit you right off the bat with power. I wanted to give Mark a chance to really stand out on guitar, let it rip, and have fun. I love Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush album. It moved me and is in my DNA. I learned to play guitar by listening to that album and his next album Harvest.
GM: You mentioned Annie Lennox and that is who I was reminded of with your version of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” from their double album The Wall right at the end of the 1970s, making it the newest song on the collection.
MF: I was trying to keep the songs to a certain time period, and I stretched it with “Comfortably Numb,” but I had to include it because I love Pink Floyd. I had previously recorded the album From the Dark Side of the Moon, covering their whole Dark Side of the Moon album in our own way. I love “Comfortably Numb,” and the content seems timely. I could just sing Pink Floyd songs for the rest of my life and be happy.
GM: Your contralto voice sounds so proper on this song recalling what Alfie Boe brought to the 2015 Deutsche Grammophon release Pete Townshend’s Classic Quadrophenia.
MF: Mark gave me the direction for the lower end, “Hello, hello, hello.” He said, “just be your inner-Marianne Faithfull there.” I said, “That’s a really good direction. Will do.”
GM: In addition to the shows that you have coming up throughout New York and elsewhere, you have a Christmas show at The Kate in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. My cousin David has sent me videos from that venue, and I have seen it on PBS specials.
MF: It will be fun. On my holiday album Winter Songs and Carols, I covered an obscure Sandy Denny song, “No End,” because I like to bring her music to people’s attention. She has been gone so long, so I think it is nice for a newer generation to discover her and I will perform that one at the show. On the album I tried to include wintery songs like “Walking in the Air” from the animated film The Snowman, Joni Mitchell’s “Urge for Going,” and Leonard Cohen’s “Winter Lady.” Thank you so much for reaching out to me. I really appreciate it and being able to share my music with you and the Goldmine readers.
Fabulous Flip Sides now in its eighth year