Marlee MacLeod – Miles and miles of music, far from the maddening crowd
It’s a warm September evening in Minneapolis. Because of the surprising resurgence of disco music, the famed First Avenue club has started to book their weekend live shows in the early evening, and it’s barely dinnertime when Marlee MacLeod hits the stage opening for Wilco. As a result, less than 10 percent of the sellout crowd has made their way into the club. It’s an all-too-familiar story for Marlee: Between songs, she talks of her experiences on the road, “converting the nation three people at a time.”
A month later, in an interview from a phone booth during an East Coast tour, she’s singing the same tune, claiming, only half-jokingly, “I have a record for doing this the longest amount of time without having a following anywhere.” Oh come on, Marlee. “It really is true. I’m still playing for six to 10 people a night, selling some CDs, hoping to get on a good bill.”
Well, then, it’s time to listen up, folks. Marlee MacLeod’s new album, Favorite Ball & Chain, is one of the best releases of the year. Not one of the best releases from a generally unknown artist. Not one of the best releases on an independent label (Medium Cool). No, Favorite Ball & Chain is one of the best releases of the year, period.
It has consistently fine backing from members of her labelmates the Dashboard Saviors and others. It’s a much more ambitiously produced effort than most records at this level of the indie-label food chain aspire to be — yet the production only enhances the the songs, never distracts from them. Which is good, because the songs deserve to be at center stage. They’re well-crafted, literate, and emotional, and they’re nicely varied between rockers, ballads, and pop tunes alternately catchy and inventive.
At the center of it all is Marlee’s voice, a Southern-torched twang that gives her music both a healthy kick and a distinctive stamp. What sets her apart from the Etheridges and Morrissettes of the world is restraint: She refuses to cross that line into the overwrought histrionics that plague many of her contemporaries.
All that said, it’s somewhat understandable that audiences have been slow to catch on, because Marlee’s 1993 effort Drive Too Fast was, well, an underwhelming debut. It isn’t a bad album by any stretch; just not the kind of record that hinted at the heights she would reach on Favorite Ball & Chain. It received generally favorable reviews but wasn’t exactly gangbusters on the shelves. “I tell everybody that I sold less records than anybody I know,” she says, once again only half-joking, her self-deprecatory streak showing through.
Sometimes that streak has gotten the best of her. “I had kind of a discouraging time after the first record came out,” she admits, revealing that she nearly quit playing music a couple years ago. “I was going to kind of hang it up gradually.”
But fate intervened when she tried to enter the real world again and get a day job. “It was in a bookstore and I was getting ready to go for my first day. They called me up and said, ‘We sold the store over the weekend and you don’t have to come in.’ I took it as a sign and moved.”
To Minneapolis, that is — her second relocation of the ’90s, after a move to Athens, Georgia, in 1991 from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where she had attended the University of Alabama. “In the mid-to-late ’80s, there was a nice little ‘alternative’ scene there, before alternative meant what it does today, and that was really fun to be a part of,” Marlee recalls of her Crimson Tide days. “There were some people booking clubs there that really cared about what was coming through, so I got to see pretty much anybody I ever wanted to see when I was in Tuscaloosa. …. But I think there’s a point that a lot of people hit when they stick around the town where they went to college, and they just go, ‘I gotta get outta here, this probably isn’t very good for me.’ And it was getting to that point for me.”
Given Athens’ reputation as a musical mecca of the Southeast, it seemed a logical place to relocate — though Marlee hedges when asked if she thinks the town’s reputation for jangly guitar-pop bands had any direct influence on her music. “As far as the ‘Athens sound’ or anything, I’m just never aware when a particular sound or something influences my music,” she says. “But I know that the atmosphere there and the receptiveness of Athens was really good for me as a musician.”
Among the Athenians most receptive to Marlee’s music were members of the Dashboard Saviors, who ended up collaborating with her both onstage and in the studio. The Saviors, in fact, were responsible for Marlee first becoming enamored with Minneapolis in 1992, when they brought her there to audition for Medium Cool, a Restless-distributed, Twin/Tone-tied label run by former Replacements manager Peter Jesperson.
She eventually left Athens for Minneapolis on Halloween day 1994, and shortly thereafter she began recording Favorite Ball & Chain. Dashboard Saviors bassist John Crist (who has sinced moved to Minneapolis as well) and drummer Rob Veal were the rhythm section, while Minneapolian John “Strawberry” Fields co-produced. The album supplements basic rock-band instrumentation with touches of violin, viola, dulcimer, organ and piano. “That’s just from what I listen to. I tend to get into really grandly produced stuff sometimes, and that’s probably a ’70s thing,” she explains, admitting a fondness for icons of her youth ranging from David Bowie to Barbra Streisand to reruns of “One Day at a Time.”
If the more textured production is one conspicuous difference between Favorite Ball & Chain and Drive Too Fast, another is a diminished reliance on outright country influences. “I learned a big lesson on the last album: The great majority of people are not able to make the distinction between country-influenced and country music,” she said. “I feel that while this one still has the country influence to it, it doesn’t beat you over the head with it.”
In a live setting, those roots are perhaps a bit more apparent, simply because Marlee chooses to tour as a solo acoustic act. That may seem unusual for an artist who likes to diversify her arrangements in the studio, but Marlee doesn’t see it that way. “Personally, I like to hear songs in different settings than the way they’re done on the record,” she says. “And I take great care to write my songs so that they’ll come across [in a solo acoustic format]. If I can’t translate it that way, I just don’t do it. …. I feel like there are a lot of different things that you can do with a song. The record is one, and whatever I do with it acoustically is two.”
She’s back out on the road now, stripping down the songs from Favorite Ball & Chain to their bare essentials and playing them to crowds in single, sometimes even double, digits across the country. The new record is good enough that, sooner or later, people will start to take notice; in the meantime, Marlee doesn’t seem to mind converting the nation a few people at a time.
“Most of the time, I’m really OK with it,” she says. “Because it just comes down to, ‘Well, OK, if you don’t wanna do this, what would you like to do?’ And when I ask myself that question, it’s like, ‘Oh. OK.’ “