Mary Lee’s Corvette – Princess of the city, maybe but no relation to Little Red
Mary Lee Kortes didn’t come to New York City to be a singer. The Whitefish, Montana, native wanted to be a book editor. But jobs in New York’s publishing business are notoriously hard to get. “Look what Jackie O had to go through to get her job at Doubleday,” Kortes cracks.
Although she never quite made it to editor, Kortes did hold various jobs in the publishing business. But she admits she didn’t work very hard. “I was always writing songs at my desk,” she says. “I don’t know how I didn’t get fired.” Now she has a new plan: “Maybe if I become a rock star, I can finally get that job as an editor.”
Her career ambitions should get a boost from her new album, True Lovers Of Adventure (Wild Pitch Records), recorded with her band, Mary Lee’s Corvette. The album features Kortes’ tender, emotional vocals and 13 of her very personal compositions delivered in a diverse range of styles, from quiet country-folk to full-on rock ‘n’ roll.
True Lovers, the follow-up to a self-titled EP released by Mary Lee’s Corvette in 1996, was recorded at 33 1/3, a studio in a converted turn-of the-century bank in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg. It was produced by Kortes’s husband, Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, well-known for his production credits on albums by such acts as the Bottle Rockets, Mojo Nixon and Nils Lofgren. “We recorded in the middle of the summer,” she recalls, “and the studio had no air-conditioning. So some of the guys stripped down to their boxer shorts, which was pretty cool for me.”
The album’s lush production features cello, accordion and church organ, along with a band of seasoned players including guitarist Andy York, known for his work with John Mellencamp and others. Also putting in an appearance is Freedy Johnston, who provides background vocals on the album’s most moving ballad, “1,000 Promises Later”.
Kortes says her musical tastes have always been pretty mainstream. “There weren’t too many women around then, back in the ’70s,” she says of her childhood years. “Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt.” One big influence was Gram Parsons’ Grievous Angel: “I wanted to be Emmylou for a while,” Kortes confesses. “Now I guess it’s enough that my name has the same amount of syllables.”
Although she names Bob Dylan as her favorite songwriter, she says, “I don’t feel very clearly influenced. My taste is very broad. Old stuff, new stuff. One minute I’ll listen to Nino Rota, the next to Erykah Badu.”
Her biggest surprise on arriving in New York City from what she calls the “repressed Midwest” was that “it’s OK to be different. Which I embrace.” She remembers how “cab drivers would get out of their cars and just start screaming at people. And I thought it was great that they were expressing themselves, letting out all their emotions.”
Years later, she sounds like a typically street-smart New Yorker. “After a while I realized that everyone here is just filled with hatred,” she says with a laugh.
As a songwriter, Kortes certainly doesn’t shy away from expressing her own deepest emotions. “That’s the whole point,” she says. “To write about what’s really personal, really devastating, ecstasy-making, or really burdensome. There’s no other reason to write songs….If I can’t do that, I might as well sell real estate.”
Or get that job as a book editor.