Electric Review

Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms

Playing For the Sake of the Song

Mary Ramsey sits on the shore of Cape Cod earlier this year. Photo by E. Clauss. All rights reserved.

An Interview With Musician Mary Ramsey

Singer-songwriter Mary Ramsey is known throughout the world for her work with the 10,000 Maniacs. But that’s only half of the story. Ramsey, who was born in Washington D.C. and presently lives in Buffalo, has been playing the violin since she was five years old. That early introduction to music obviously inspired her to explore myriad genres and styles – an eclectic approach that’s become a natural extension of her stage presence.

Ramsey’s early career was marked by a series of classical endeavors: she worked initially with the Erie Philharmonic and this led her to create her own Lexington String Trio. Subsequently, she played with the Fresno Philharmonic, the Santa Cruz Symphony and the Monterey Symphony (all in California). Finally in 1989, Ramsey switched creative gears and formed the duo John & Mary (“John” being none other than John Lombardo, one of the founding members of the 10,000 Maniacs).

The Lombardo-Ramsey union was based in folk-rock and glazed with Celtic overtones – the perfect transition point from which to take over the microphone for the Maniacs when the ever-popular Natalie Merchant left the band to pursue solo work. Ramsey’s work with the Maniacs put her range as vocalist on full display night after night in city after city. Songs like “Rainy Day” and “More Than This” can’t be forgotten because of the sheen Ramsey’s voice puts on the words. Every song she sings plays like rock, yet her classical foundation provides the true underpinnings: Driving the words against the breath of the music with an invisible force and an undeniable grace.

Aside from her work with the 10,000 Maniac, Ramsey has performed independently with Mary Ramsey and The Healers – this group of musician-friends assembled much like Bob Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue: The band playing for the sake of the song on a singular mission to bring the music back to the people in an intimate and personal setting.

I sat down with Ramsey for this interview on September 21, 2020. She plays on paper much the same way she performs on stage: Candid, genuine and insightful, at once true to her own distinct vision.

Tell me about your upbringing and your introduction to music.

I grew up in Maryland and attended the State University of New York. I started playing violin when I was five years old. At the time, my sister was already learning the play violin and my mother started taking lessons with me. So all three of us were taking lessons at the same time. My Mom and Dad believed in the philosophy of the Suzuki Method that emphasized parental involvement [as a means to deepen the child’s learning experience].

What did your parents do for a living and are there any other musicians in your family?

My dad was an English professor and my mother was in the arts. My mom also sang in church, and my older sister Susan plays the violin. Other siblings dabble.

I understand you are from the East Coast but that you spent a significant amount of time in California playing the classical circuit…

I moved to California in 1999. I moved to Santa Monica and began working various odd jobs. Eventually, a friend of mine named Richard Chon hooked me up with the Fresno Symphony and I played violin with them. Over time I found myself as part of the ‘circuit’ as you say – playing with various orchestras from Fresno to the Bay Area.

How did classical music prepare you for a rock and roll band?

Classical music brought a certain discipline to me as a musician and allowed me to develop a relationship with the instrument. As I said, I started playing when I was five, but I was never great at practicing. I eventually switched from violin to viola in 11th grade. Viola requires a different technique. Once while at summer camp in Saratoga Springs [New York], I heard this beautiful viola music. It changed me, immediately pushing my music in that direction. [Over the course of my professional career], my work with the viola has been very important in helping to develop my vocal style.

You joined the 10,000 Maniacs in 1995, taking the microphone from Natalie Merchant who was endeared by fans. How did you end up with the Maniacs? And what was the pressure like taking over for a creative giant like Merchant?

Well, I had met John Lombardo [one of the founding members of the Maniacs] in the late 1980s, and we started to write together and eventually formed a folk duo called John & Mary. At the time I started working with John I really wanted to explore all facets of singing and writing. And John kept encouraging me. Looking back, I guess it had to do with timing and the place we both were at artistically. John and Natalie had collaborated on a record called “Hope Chest,” and in 1990 it was released. When the Maniacs went on the road for the “Hope Chest” tour, John & Mary opened for them. I was asked to be a back-up singer and play viola on the tour. That tour worked well, and we all eventually became like a family. So when Natalie left, it was a natural transition for me to take the lead vocals. But as I said, it was the right time for this in our lives. Looking back, I would say there was some pressure. But I didn’t run from that. I was where I wanted to be doing what I wanted to do.

Your stage presence is notable, as is your range as a singer. How did you develop this uncanny ability to master so many different genres?

My range came from listening to lots of different singers and lots of different music – Odetta, The Beatles, Joan Baez.

Why did you create Mary Ramsey & Friends?

 I don’t know if I actually created this group. Marc Rosen – who is also a chiropractor and expert on alternative medicine – and Stu Weissman, along with Ed Croft and myself, came together as friends to make music. We wanted it to just be fun. Playing a lot of jazz standards and stuff like that. It was an off-shoot of what I was doing with the Maniacs, but it was different as well. Over the years, John Lombardo has been one of my most important musical collaborators. My history is intertwined with John. And the work I’ve done with Mary Ramsey & Friends [has] allowed me to get back to my roots in an informal setting.

Your version of “Sea of Heartbreak” with The Healers – made famous by Johnny Cash in the 90s – is stunning. How did you transform it?

I found it on a Rosanne Cash album – “The List.” She duet-ed on the cut with Bruce Springsteen. Rosanne is a tremendous singer and I loved what they did with the song. After I heard it, I wanted to bring my voice to it in my own way. Even though I have been influenced by John Lombardo’s history, I learn by listening. I am a sponge absorbing it all. 

Your work with the viola and violin is remarkable and lends a uniqueness to the band. Was it hard to integrate this instrument into a pop/rock sound?

I think I am able to do this with the Maniacs because of the folk-rock focus of the music. Because of the way the band is structured, there is room for the viola along-side the other instruments. The challenge has always been – how is it going to be heard over the other electric instruments? How is it going to be heard and not buried? I solved this by having Zeta customize a 5-string electric viola for me. This has allowed us to play together while not trying to play over each other. I think it creates a distinct sound, without one player dominating. When I am playing, I try to play the viola just as a human speaks…

Who are your primary influences as a songwriter?

There are many. Joni Mitchell was a big influence. Also Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein – those songs they did are amazing. Of course Bob Dylan and The Beatles. And Fairport Convention as well…

And your influences as a vocalist?

Mia Doi Todd is someone I stumbled on who I really like and she’s a recent influence. It’s really a matter of listening for me. I find the quality of a voice and gravitate to that. It’s easy to be drawn to people who speak and present themselves in a certain way. Judy Garland, Joni Mitchell, Natalie Merchant, Ella Fitzgerald, Mary Dillion [from Deanta], Niamh Parsons, Mary Black, Dido, Patti Smith and Renee Fleming – they’re all huge influences. I try to sing with the same energy they do, incorporating their styles into mine…

Over the course of your career, you’ve played with many people – Billy Bragg, Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon are a few who come immediately to mind. What did you do with Zevon and what was he like one-on-one?

I played with Zevon when I was with John & Mary. We opened for Warren on two small tours. At first, he seemed stand-offish to me. But that was probably because he didn’t know who the hell we were. (laughing) I found him to be a dedicated musician – very meticulous with his sound checks. He was dedicated to giving the fans a great concert. The other thing I remember is once Warren was having trouble with his ears and he asked me to put some drops in one of his ears.(laughing)

Tell me about the work you are doing with the Irish Classical Theater, bringing Yates’ poetry to the stage…

I am friends with one of the founders of the Theater – Vincent O’Neill. I have known him for awhile. And he asked me to collaborate, to sing and play on a production of some of William Butler Yates’ poems. We both love Yates, so it’s a natural fit. We have a CD done and ready to release, but it’s been postponed due to the pandemic. It’s been a lot of work, but it’s very gratifying trying to find which of Yates’ poems work best with the texture of the viola.

I understand you also teach music lessons privately. I find this remarkable – that such an accomplished rock performer would make herself accessible on that level. How do students find you? Is there some screening process that takes place?

It’s a matter of word of mouth. I don’t think people see me so much as a celebrity, really. I have been teaching for ten years. I love the human experience of teaching; it helps me learn more about my instruments and about music in general. I remember having trouble with certain things when I was young, and as a teacher I try and develop ways to help younger players with these common trouble spots. It’s rewarding to see that happen – to see somebody learn.

Are you writing any new material right now for the Maniacs?

Yes we have been. We have about 20 new songs, or ideas for songs we are hashing out. We are going to record soon, and plan a virtual concert, though the specifics have yet to be determined.

What was it like living in New York state during the first wave of the COVID pandemic?

At the beginning of this New York was a very scary place – there were so many unknowns. And New York City was frightening. But I think the way Governor Cuomo handled it was helpful, he gave us the information we needed in real time. But everything shut down in Buffalo where I live. No one went out. I stayed in as much a possible and wore gloves and a mask when I did go out. Getting groceries turned into a stressful situation. Washing cans of food to make sure they were not contaminated. All the unknowns caused all the extra stress. Also, my parents are still alive and I can’t risk seeing them – I don’t want to expose them to anything. That’s been so hard…

To close, tell me how this public health crisis has impacted your music? And how has it affected you on a day-to-day personal level?

As far as the Maniacs are concerned – we haven’t played live together as a band since February, and our shows have been postponed/rescheduled until 2021. Our future gigs depend on the state of the pandemic. We were supposed to go on tour this past spring, but the lock-down ended that. It was like a wildfire it shut down so fast. Personally, it’s slowed me down. It’s given me more time and I am kind of enjoying things more. I am more in touch with playing my instruments. And there is a nice part to not having to travel so much. There are less demands and I am more centered, more grounded, just slowing down more…

by John Aiello

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This entry was posted on September 28, 2020 by in 2020, Artist Profiles, Features & Profiles, October 2020 and tagged , , .

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