I love singers who love repertoire, and who turn a song inside out, upside down, and sideways to plumb every last drop of meaning from the lyrics. I also love smart, funny dames whose elegance and ruby-red lipstick belie the fact that they can curse like a sailor. And I love real New Yorkers, who adore but never sentimentalize this dirty old town. It’s no surprise, then, that Mary Foster Conklin is one of my favorite singers on the scene.
I first heard Mary at the Metropolitan Room, where she was holding the audience in thrall during her Fran Landesman tribute, “Life’s a Bitch.” She artfully spun stories of Fran’s Greenwich Village and London heydays and performed swinging, fiercely intelligent interpretations of songs like “Small Day Tomorrow” and “Ballad of the Sad Young Men.” I became an instant fan of Mary’s, whom the New York Times described as “a poetic rebel full of salt and vinegar.” Mary is every bit as witty and warm in person as she is onstage, and I am very glad she took the time to answer a few questions for the “Spotlight On…” series.
Thank you, Mary!
Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
1. A great choirmaster in high school who had Big Ears and eclectic taste in music;
2. A pushy director who shamed me into putting together my first club act in my 20s; and
3. A 1984 sub gig with a punk band in the bombed out East Village after their lead singer (a friend who sadly suffered from schizophrenia) walked off an outdoor concert in New Haven and was MIA. That was my first NYC performance in a club.
In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
Words are easy, music is hard. [Music] requires more attention and practice.
If you were to choose another profession, what would it be, and why?
Something on the business side of the arts—producing, fund raising or grantwriting, to create more work for artists.
Imagine that you can hire any musicians (from the past or present) for the gig of a lifetime. Who is in your “dream band?”
Bill Evans or Count Basie on piano, John Kirby or Paul Chambers on bass, Art Blakey on drums, Ben Webster or Lester Young on sax.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
Be ruthless about perfecting your musicianship and never reveal your budget when recording.
What are your current musical obsessions? Who/what is in steady rotation when you listen to music lately?
Cecile McLorin Salvant, René Marie, Kurt Elling, and Snarky Puppy have been recent downloads. I loved the show After Midnight and I think Taylor Mac is a genius. His show about the 20s blew me away.
I once spent an evening playing bridge with Tennessee Williams. He cheated.
Mary will be singing in “Renegade Cabaret in Exile Up a Tree,” a free show in the East Village’s El Jardin del Paraiso on Thursday, August 21 at 8:00 pm. She’ll also pay tribute to composer Matt Dennis (she’ll be joined by Bob Dorough, Roz Corral, and others) at St. Peters as part of their Midtown Jazz at Midday series on Wednesday, September 24 at 1:00 pm. Go!