After Becoming Pen Pals, Musician Mary Fahl and Author Anne Rice Form an Everlasting Bond
Mary Fahl didn’t need to become a vampire to achieve pop culture immortality. Famed author Anne Rice gave it to the enduring singer-songwriter by sinking her teeth into one memorable passage in her latest novel, The Wolves of Midwinter:
The radio was playing an old dreamy melodic song from the nineties. He knew that song, knew that slow hypnotic beat and that deep female voice. “Take Me As I Am” — that was it. Mary Fahl with the October Project. He’d danced to that song with his high school girlfriend, Charlotte. It had been an old song by then. This was too palpable, too real.
— Anne Rice, Chapter 6, page 52, The Wolves of Midwinter
That deep female voice from the 1990s that may have haunted Reuben Golding still belongs to Fahl, and it’s as mesmerizing as ever on Love and Gravity, released February 11.
Finding a fan as formidable as Rice not only was kismet, but also gave a rejuvenated Fahl the opportunity to add on the album’s glorious opening cut, “Exiles (The Wolves of Midwinter).”
“You try to plan things in life and really the most amazing things happen to you,” Fahl said over the phone from her home in Easton, Pennsylvania, on a chilly day in late January while watching the ice over the frozen Delaware River refuse to thaw. “You don’t make those things happen.
“You can work and work, and all that work makes you ready and prepared if something does come to you, but the most amazing things that have ever happened to me have all been out of the blue from something I never did. But it only happened when I was ready for it. So I always feel like you’ve got to show the gods that you’re willing to work hard. So you’re shaking that apple tree, but then a little pear falls down on you. And that’s their way of saying, ‘We know you’re working hard, but it’s still us that gave it to you.’ “
The spectacular set of circumstances that established this mystical connection with one of the world’s most celebrated writers isn’t something that happens in the lives of everyday people. But Fahl is no ordinary woman.
The voice of October Project, a compelling group in the mid-1990s that came and went too soon, should be labeled THE VOICE. It’s undeniably original, a haunting bellow coming from what Variety called a “beautifully proportioned contralto.” Once you hear it, it’s impossible to forget.
Fahl can’t remember the exact date, but she believes it was a rainy Sunday in late 2010 or early 2011 when that first email came “out of the blue” from Rice, who singlehandedly brought the vampire genre back from the dead by writing Interview With the Vampire, which was published in 1976. Shortly after that initial exchange, Fahl said Rice went to her Facebook page to sing the praises of “My new favorite singer.”
Fahl recalled more from the post: “Her voice is the perfect androgynous voice I’ve been looking for. It’s neither male nor female.”
“I’m like, OK, Anne, you can stop right there,” Fahl relayed with a laugh, apparently embarrassed by the adulation. “Thank you, but just stop, OK?”
Not yet. “Mary Fahl has a supernatural voice,” Rice said in a making of “Exiles” video. “Or she has a preternatural voice. To use my favorite word. And what I mean by that is that she sounds like nobody else.”
Getting a name-dropping approval from someone as significantly famous and relevant as the queen of gothic horror gave Fahl the courage to send Rice a letter last July, along with a copy of Love and Gravity, most of which had been recorded in 2012.
Rice, a New Orleans native who now lives in California, gave it an immediate thumb’s up, then asked Fahl to write and record a new song that would appear on The Wolves of Midwinter audiobook.
“There’s a beautiful thing that happened,” Fahl said of that “sweetheart” of a woman. “She sent me a copy of the book. And she signed it over to me and she said, ‘You’re in it.’ “
Even for someone who dreams big, Fahl never imagined that possibility. Twenty years after “Take Me As I Am” appeared on October Project’s debut CD yet got turned down for the Interview With the Vampire film that helped to resurrect the fang-banging craze, the song lives on. Meanwhile, Fahl gets a major career boost, regenerated by a reference almost as meaningfully everlasting as a blood pact.
Good things happen to those who wait and good things happen to good people. But this convergence of events and aphorisms might happen once in a lifetime, if you’re lucky. If you’re Mary Fahl, though, you create your own fate.
The Hunt for October Project
Fahl’s parents weren’t musicians, but they liked listening to music at home in Stony Point, New York. And with one record player upstairs in the boys room, it was the music blaring from the big family console downstairs that seeped into Fahl’s skin and bones.
That meant a lot of show tunes from Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza in South Pacific to My Fair Lady, with an original Broadway cast that included Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison.
“Mary Martin had that big alto voice,” Fahl said. “Even the men that sang on that record, Ezio Pinza … I liked their voices. People in Broadway now don’t even sound like that. I miss those kinds of voices. They sounded like real people back then. Everybody sounds the same to me now. And I used to sing along with those things. And I think it built up my voice.”
Eventually, though, she was turned on to British folk by an older brother, and her tastes shifted from Joni Mitchell and Carole King to Sandy Denny (“There’s something so pure in that voice; it’s so emotional”), Richard and Linda Thompson, and June Tabor.
Soul and R&B weren’t played either upstairs or downstairs so, for better or worse, those voices didn’t influence Fahl.
“So many modern voices are so gospel-inflected,” Fahl said with a touch of disapproval. “There’s a lot of white girls out there that, they sound like they’re singing in church because those gospel-inflected singers are so great. And the black singers are fantastic.”
But one hip and powerful American white chick named Grace Slick did get Fahl’s attention.
“Everybody had ‘White Rabbit,’ ” she said. “Everybody had Jefferson Airplane. So I loved her, I loved those powerful alto voices. It’s funny, ’cause I really, I have to admit I don’t recognize a lot of people that are on Top 40 radio right now. To me, I can’t pick one out from the other. I just can’t. And then there’s sort of another branch that has gone off. It’s sort of Feist made a left turn and everybody followed her. … And I like her. I think she’s great. But I didn’t grow up with that. That ain’t my voice.”
Raised in a Catholic family with more siblings than expendable outcome, Fahl was fortunate to be a natural-born singer. While never taking a voice lesson, she watched her cousins develop into “great instrumentalists. … Like prodigies. I was not that. I just sang all the time.”
If she wanted to pursue a musical career, Fahl was on her own.
Laughing at the memory, she remembered her mother saying, “Well, if you were really good, you would be like your cousin Alice. You wouldn’t need lessons. You could just pick it up and play it.”
Instead, Fahl performed at holiday shows and plays in the Catholic schools she attended, entered an acting program at NYU for a year with the hope of going into musical theater, then left because “I felt like I was wasting my parents’ money. It was a big stretch for them.” Transferring to McGill University (with $800 a year tuition) in Montreal, she occasionally sang in little coffee houses or rock groups that weren’t much bigger.
Upon graduation, “I didn’t know what I was going to do, really,” she said. “I sort of floundered around and went to Europe and sang a little bit there.”
Eventually returning to New York, destiny introduced her to Julie Flanders.
“She was not happy and not working and not doing anything creative,” Fahl remembered. And she said, ‘You know, I really want to be a songwriter,’ and I said, ‘That’s funny, I want to be a singer.’ And then she introduced me to her boyfriend, who was working as a clerk at HBO or something like that.”
Flanders’ boyfriend (and future husband) was Emil Adler. And the three of them witnessed the birth of October Project.
“We were all sort of that stage where we wanted to do something and we were old enough and serious enough that we just said, ‘Well, this it. We’re gonna make this happen no matter what,’ ” Fahl recalled. “We really worked so hard and just left no stone unturned. You know, took it very, very seriously.”
Within two years, they had a deal with Epic Records, then toured with the likes of Sarah McLachlan and Crash Test Dummies.
In 1995, the Los Angeles Times proclaimed, “Mary Fahl is the voice that launched a single promising rock band, October Project.”
Taking an artsy, classical approach to the rock genre, the band that also included Marina Belica and David Sabatino seemed like a perfect fit for Fahl’s golden pipes. But perhaps they were too serious for AM or FM radio, especially during the growing grunge era.
After two records, the band was dropped by Epic. “I thought, you know, I do not wish to continue on this road. If I’m gonna stay in this business, I’ve gotta learn to write,” Fahl said.
As hard feelings intensified, October Project fell apart.
“They’ve had various incarnations, but nothing … they haven’t … I don’t know, whatever,” Fahl said, finally recovering from a rare tongue-tied moment.
“It was a tenuous situation because it’s very hard to keep a band together under any circumstance,” she continued. “But in this situation it was an odd lineup because you had someone (Flanders) who was a lyricist who was not a performing member of the band. And then you had her husband who was the composer of the band and only they could write. And no one else was allowed to. First of all, just in terms of economics, you can’t keep a band together like that. You just can’t. And in the October Project years, I could barely pay my rent. … So I just said, ‘You guys do what you’re gonna do, I’m going to go here and do what I do.’ “
Asked if it was an amicable split, Fahl initially just laughed sardonically, following up with a “no comment.”
After a pause, she added, “No, it wasn’t amicable. I was told I would never write for that band, it would just never happen. And, you know, they collaborated with other people since, and we could have collaborated. But it wasn’t in the cards. And I love writing with people.”
While Fahl credits Adler for being “a really, really fine melodist,” she said it was never worth the fight to pursue songwriting within the group. She was left with limited options: “I’ll go off on my own and I’ll either make it or I won’t.”
October Project today is a shadow of its former self, while Fahl seems content as a solo artist who takes her time making records independently when there’s enough money in the bank.
Meanwhile, she can accompany herself at live shows with only a guitar, write songs with collaborators such as Ollabelle’s Byron Isaacs (the perky “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” and romantic ballad “Like Johnny Loved June”) and producer John Lissauer (“Exiles”) or appear at larger venues with a “wonderful” hand-picked band of Syracuse musicians led by Mark Doyle.
A 2013 performance at the Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, to be released as a DVD/CD package in late 2014 or early 2015, will show off Fahl’s considerable skills in front of a group of talented musicians.
Fahl said she learned one thing from her experience in the doomed October Project. “If you’re the writer, then hire people and just pay them outright and pay them decently. Just hire a band, if that’s what it’s about. And that’s what I did.”
If a supreme being who equally represents man and woman truly does exist, that voice of God must sound like Mary Fahl. Full, deep, dark, mysterious, but one rich, resilient, resounding and capable enough to handle classical rock, folk, pop and Luciano Pavarotti. On a lark, she even showed her adventurous side by recording and releasing a cover of Pink Floyd’s entire Dark Side of the Moon in 2011, and did a bang-up job (her sexy, bluesy take on “Money” is priceless).
Admittedly not a classical singer, and possessing a voice that’s better suited for singing tenor instead of soprano, the opera-loving Fahl decided to take on arias interpreted by one of Italy’s most renowned performers of that realm during some of the most traumatic times in her life. It paid off.
Working as “the worst waitress ever” just out of college and living in a tiny Brooklyn apartment where the bathtub and a broken air conditioner shared space with the living room, she had to find a way to cool off and forget her troubles during one long, hot summer.
After filling the tub with lukewarm water, she would climb in and “sing at the top of my lungs all those Pavarotti arias. Looking back, it’s sort of a very poignant time of my life.”
Flash forward to February 25, 1998, when a shell-shocked ex-member of October Project was feeling very depressed. “For a couple of months, I couldn’t listen to music. I couldn’t watch anything,” she said. Finally turning on the TV, “I’m flipping around and what’s on but the Grammys. And I’m like, ‘Oh great, just what I need.’ And it was Aretha Franklin.”
Only the queen of Motown soul wasn’t performing “Respect” or any of her many other R&B hits. She was a last-minute replacement for Pavarotti, out with a sore throat.
“And she sang ‘Nessun Dorma,’ ” Fahl marveled. “She didn’t do it in Italian, mind you, but she did it in English. But it was so … you know, she sang it like Aretha. She didn’t sing it like a classical singer. It blew my mind. It was so good. And something about that just healed … you know, it was like, ‘Wow!’ “
That moving experience came in handy three years later, right after 9/11. Representatives of Sony Classical Records had seen Fahl’s eclectic live show in which she incorporated classical and medieval music into her act. They wanted her to audition to become an artist on their label.
With Sony Classical head (and future General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera) Peter Gelb in attendance, the four-song tryout on September 20 required Fahl to perform one classical number. She clinched the deal by singing — you guessed it — “Nessun Dorma.”
In the aftermath of 9/11, Fahl said by putting things in perspective, there was no reason to be nervous.
“All I thought about was, I wasn’t singing for a bunch of suits at Sony,” she offered. “That I was singing about something that was bigger and greater than that. And I was thinking about my ancestors, I was thinking about all the people that came to New York on boats, that went through Ellis Island.”
Fahl sang with an orchestra while making her first full-length solo record, The Other Side of Time, released in 2003. “Next to getting married, probably the pinnacle of an experience for me in my life,” she said.
Finding Love and Gravity
Fahl’s voice might not be for everyone, and she certainly realizes that. Currently touring in the East, she stated, “My audience is typically a weekend audience. They just are. They’re not kids. They’re all sort of over 40. October Project was popular in the ’90s, so it’s 20 years later. Everybody that comes to my show, they don’t like to go out on a school night, I guess.”
Yet it took some convincing by her husband, deep-sea oceanographer Richard Lutz, to get Fahl to write and perform more intimate songs by using only her voice and guitar.
“For years, I would not play by myself,” Fahl said. “I thought that my audience was used to a wall of sound. October Project had a wall of sound. A lot of harmony. Very dense sounding. So I thought it would be too much of a departure to be just me and a guitar. But my husband dragged me out really kicking and screaming. …
“I said, ‘I’ll book a gig in the middle of nowhere Connecticut and I’m going to show you why it’s not gonna work.’ But then it did work.”
Fahl was surprised that audiences reacted so positively to her pared down act, which she eventually hopes to enhance, but “Honestly, I miss the other instruments.”
Yet her personal touch is felt throughout Love and Gravity songs like “Gravity (Move Mountains, Turn Rivers Around),” which she wrote for her husband, whom she married in July 2011, three years after they met. Her heartfelt message concludes with the lyrics:
In my arms you’ll find your harbor / In my arms you’ll be home
By now it’s obvious that Fahl, like her pen pal Rice, is a masterful and entertaining storyteller, and she can enthrall her audience with tales almost as beguiling as her captivating contralto.
Just imagine what will happen when she finally does meet Rice, who invited Fahl to perform at the Vampire Lestat Ball during Halloween week next October in New Orleans.
They just might live happily ever hereafter.
Publicity photos courtesy of the artist.