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A Conversation With Mary Cutrufello
by
Samuel Barker
January 4, 2001

Mary Cutrufello

Samuel Barker: How relieving has it been to finally get a new album out?

Mary Cutrufello: It's always nice to have something new out. I'm always writing, and after a while, I end up with a bunch of songs that only I have heard, and I'm always anxious to share them with other people.

Samuel: Was there a lot of difficulty in waiting for everything to reach its end at Mercury?

Mary: Not really. I was on the road with the Allman Brothers Band, and the final deals were done between my attorneys and Mercury's. I just rocked out every night, and got a phone update during the day.

Samuel: How did your decision to not pull large advances and spending a great deal of money on luxuries help you adjust back to the indie music lifestyle?

Mary: I live fairly austerely, 'cause I like the simplicity and flexibility it allows, so even if I had gone for the big advance, I don't think I'd've traded my van for a Lexus anyway.

Samuel: How frightening was it to be on board as Mercury crumbled and ultimately ended up in shambles?

Mary: Again, I was out working, so I was busy doing what I do. The folks at Mercury were always good about fulfilling their contractual obligations with regard to tour support and things like that, so my career pretty much went on as it would have anyway, at least at ground level.

Samuel: Was it ever difficult to make the decision to move on rather than try to stay on with someone who didn't really care about your music?

Mary: Not at all. That's the most important thing you need in a label, and when it became apparent that my kind of music wasn't where the label was headed, I think it was a pretty straightforward decision for both sides. The new folks at Mercury liked what I was doing, but it just wasn't what they were about to do with their label.

Samuel: Would you say that's a good indicator of how much your music means to you and how much integrity you have as an artist?

Mary: Well, obviously my music means a lot to me, but I think that's best observed in the songs and on stage.

Samuel: Is it refreshing to have this chance to start over again, or are you looking at it as a difficult step back?

Mary: It's been fun and interesting to work on my own again, because I have a lot more knowledge of the business now, and a lot more perspective. As long as I keep writing, and my writing keeps evolving and growing, there are no steps back.

Samuel: What led to you deciding to self release "Songs From the 6"?

Mary: It seemed like the most efficient way to get the music out, given where I am right now. With a solo-acoustic record, you can do things quickly and on a small scale, and make them work.

Samuel: Are you looking to establish 25 Story Drop as a "real" indie label or is it just a means by which you can release your music?

Mary: 25 Story Drop is just me. I'm not really interested in becoming a record exec, or working in that capacity for anyone but me. That keeps me plenty busy.

Samuel: Are there any bands in the area that you feel get overlooked or that you are personally a fan of?

Mary: There's lots of stuff I've seen and dig here in Houston--Twiggy comes to mind, 'cause I love the energy, faith, and joy I hear in their live show. I think Houston rock music in general is a little overlooked, but then again, the scene isn't as coherent as it is in some other places. It's not clear to me which is the chicken and which is the egg, though.

Samuel: Is it ever nice to look back on all that you've accomplished and know that you've still got the majority of your life ahead of you?

Mary: Sure. I've already gotten to do some things many talented and deserving people will never get a chance to do--The Tonight Show, a major summer shed tour, national media coverage. But it's important not to rest on your laurels. I'm not doing any of those things right this second, and that motivates me to get back there. I know how it all feels, and it's definitely something I want to do again.

Samuel: When you graduated from Yale, how many people asked you 'what the hell are you doing?!?' when you moved to Texas to be a musician?

Mary: None of them. I had a pretty successful band in college, and I think everyone who knew me figured I'd do something like that. Obviously, most people don't go to Yale to become rock musicians, but I think everyone who goes there does go to find out who they are and what they want to do, and with that degree, we're all well prepared for whatever we decide to do

Samuel: How did it make you feel when you reached a successful level in the music business? Did any people stop questioning your decision?

Mary: It's gratifying to have a dream and make it come true, but as I said, I don't think anyone thought what I chose to do was in any way inconsistent with what I'd been doing all along.

Samuel: What led to you putting down the Telecaster and doing a solo acoustic album?

Mary: I write all my songs on acoustic, so that's how they sound to me at first. The acoustic record came out of some acoustic shows I'd done that were fun and let me show a different side of me and of the songs. The covers were things I'd always dug and never got a chance to share. The originals were some of the things I'd been writing for the next band record. A group of them just seemed to work well in the stark acoustic context. The covers and originals just sort of suggested an acoustic record. There's a certain rawness to them as a group lyrically that I thought would work well in an acoustic setting.

Samuel: When you write songs, are they mostly written on an acoustic or are they written with an electric?

Mary: They're all done on acoustic, with just a pen, a notebook, a dictionary (a regular one, not a rhyming one), and an atlas. Gotta have the atlas.

Samuel: How hard has it been to devote yourself to music after everything that happened over the past few years?

Mary: Well, I thought about lots of things after the Allman Brothers tour ended. I was pretty tired, mentally, physically, and psychically. But music is what I do, and when I came out of a period of rest and reflection, it was clear that music was what I needed to continue doing.

Samuel: Are you still striving to break out and once again find a major label to get your music out?

Mary: Yes. I believe that the kind of music I make--straight-ahead, straightforward rock and roll--can be well served by a company that has the power to get it out to everyday people. Music fans who comb the internet for cool things are great, and I'm glad to have many who like what I'm doing, but I also enjoy reaching people who don't necessarily see music as that much of a priority. Everyone can be touched and moved by a great song or a compelling show, and I'd like to reach everyone who might be moved by what I do.

Samuel: Is there any chance of you assembling a band in the future?

Mary: Absolutely. I'm a band musician by trade, and as much as I'm enjoying playing solo, I'm looking forward to strapping on the Telecaster again, too.

Samuel: Was it nice to be able to pay tribute to a lot of the musicians you looked up to on this album?

Mary: The covers are all songs I feel strongly about. I'm a fan of great writing, no matter who holds the pen. Certainly, most folks know how I feel about Springsteen and Mellencamp, but there are tons of great songs out there. The Mick Sterling/Kevin Bowe song ("Someone's Waiting for Me at Home") is not something you'd probably know unless you've been in Minneapolis lately, but it's one of the best things I've heard in a long time.

Samuel: Do you feel it's important to have a sense of history when dealing with the music you play?

Mary: I feel it's important to have a sense of history in everything. There's a certain depth to be obtained by knowing the larger picture. I know a fair amount about rock history, country music history, jazz--as well as American cultural history more generally--and I feel that enables me to give another layer of context to the things I do.

Samuel: How much has albums like Nebraska (Springsteen), and Infidels (Dylan) played a part in your song writing?

Mary: I listen to all kinds of things, and there's probably a little bit of everything from Stephen Sondheim to Metallica in what I do. As far as those two records specifically, the Bruce record has an honesty to it that I found very brave. The Dylan record was the door through which I first entered Dylanland, a world whose challenges and rewards are well-documented.

Samuel: I see you recorded "Songs From the 6" in a hotel room in TN, was it a spur of the moment decision to lay down these tracks, or was it a calculated move to capture the sound of Nebraska?

Mary: Neither. I've been staying in Motel 6's for years, and will often go there for a couple days to get away and write. There's actually a lot going on production-wise on Nebraska, and while I certainly thought about it and the parallels to Songs From the 6, I think my record has an immediacy to it that's all its own.

Samuel: How have sales for the new album been? Any surprising markets ordering copies?

Mary: The record is doing well. I've gotten some orders off my website (www.marycutrufello.com) from places I haven't been in a while, which is gratifying.

Samuel: Are you going to do any touring outside of TX for this release?

Mary: I'm actually writing this from Minneapolis, where I'm stopped today on a tour of the upper midwest. I hope to cover more of the country soon as well.

Samuel: Are you working on getting some more record store to pick it up or on finding someone to distribute the album?

Mary: There are some things in the works, but nothing has been decided yet.

Samuel: Was it difficult playing the in-store at Cactus Music without a PA or any sort of voice amplification?

Mary: No. You lose some of the subtlety and nuance when you have to project that much, but there are lots of ways to make a performance work. I've been known to gather a small late-night last-set crowd to the front of the room and sit on the edge of the stage and play, so it was something I'm familiar with.

Samuel: Do you feel you have a lot left to accomplish in the future?

Mary: Absolutely. Not to take away from what I've already been able to do, but there's still a lot of rock and roll left to play.

Samuel: Anything you'd like to add?

Mary: It's great to be out playing new songs and seeing old friends, and there's plenty more to come. Thanks!

Samuel Barker is Senior Editor. Contact him at suma@rockzone.com.

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