Mary Ann Farley

A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Woman

Just holding Mary Ann Farley's latest CD, "My Life of Crime "(Powder Burn Records), in your hands begins to give you a portrait of the artist. The front and back covers are composed of Farley's artwork, vibrantly colored drawings of women, as much cartoon as real, on one hand naked and vulnerable, on the other standing defiant. Their lips are set in a determined frown and their eyes look away into the distance, as if to tease: we know something that you don't; maybe we'll tell you, or maybe we won't. But, open the cover, and a glamour portrait of Farley stares directly at you with her piercing eyes and knowing smile. She definitely knows something you don't know and isn't afraid to reveal it.

Inside, the CD has 12 tracks, eleven originals and a cover of the Lennon/McCartney's "Run For Your Life". For listeners who like to read along to lyrics while listening to the music, they are provided here as if to reveal the thoughts and emotions of the women on the cover, and the singer/songwriter herself.

Mary Ann Farley, musician, artist and writer, released her first album, "Daddy's Little Girl" (Deko Music) in 1997 to critical acclaim, becoming a member of New York's anti-folk scene. Based in Hoboken, NJ, her music serves as just one creative outlet. She has worked for over ten years as a freelance journalist, a complement to her own private journals. Her art, usually female figures rendered in a highly-animated style, have begun to attract notice from galleries and paying customers.

Chorus and Verse spoke to Farley, building our own portrait with further details about her early life and career on the anti-folk scene, her recent recording and the state of her career and the music industry today. She talks about her art, how she creates and her inspirations.

Finally, she discusses her participation in the Jersey Jams Fund "All You Need Is Love Fest", where she will be both a performer, as well as artist, providing one of her works for auction.

Your bio mentions that you banged on the piano from a very young age, switched to guitar, started songwriting, and eventually released your first album in 1997. Can you go into a little more detail about how you began to play guitar, and your early inspirations to write?

I'd always been a keyboard player in bands, but in 1995, or thereabouts, I became insanely jealous of anyone who could spin magic with just an acoustic guitar and a song. So I bought a guitar, and - no joke - I was performing with it in six weeks, playing songs I'd written in that time period. I didn't sleep, I didn't eat and the songs flowed through me like they never had before. After years of struggling to find my "voice," it just happened - seemingly overnight. All of my musician friends were floored, as my transformation was so complete. Looking back, I still marvel at it. It was a true creative frenzy. I blazed and burned into complete mental and physical exhaustion. But what a ride. (Laughs.)

Continue on that track by telling us about your first gigs. When was the first time you performed before an audience, and the first time you were paid for a gig? At what point in your life did you decide to try and make a career out of your music, and become a part of the music business?

I always knew I wanted to be a musician, from the time I performed at talent shows in high school and learned what it felt like to connect in a meaningful way with an audience. There was nothing else that ever interested me as much, except for art, which I started doing in the early 90s out of the blue. Like the guitar, I started drawing one day as if my life depended on it. That's why I tell people you never really know what you're capable of. Never assume you're ungifted, even if you try something and it doesn't click. Try it again in a few years.

As for the music business, I still don't know that I'm in it. Even though there are business concerns you must deal with, financing an album, promotion, booking, etc., the less I treat it like a business, the happier I am. These days, it's trendy for people to tell you the exact opposite, and it is true that you should be highly organized, but I try not to lose sight of why I got into this in the first place, which is easy to do sometimes, especially as the "business" becomes more brutal.

Your first CD, "Daddy's Little Girl", was a critical success, and led to numerous opportunities for you to perform and garner positive press for your music. Looking back, several years later, what are your feelings about those days, and what sort of attitudes did that experience give you towards the life of a musician?

When I released "Daddy's Little Girl", I was one of the few artists at the time who was actually putting out her own CD. I was on Deko, but it was a joint release, and all of the promotion fell on me. Hardly anyone was doing this, as most people were still in the mindset of finding a major label deal. So it was easier, in a sense, to get press attention, and commercial radio in smaller markets was still open to independent music. It meant something to be the underdog.

But since then, everyone and their brother is putting out their own CD, so not only is there a glut of indie product like never before, but a glut of mediocrity. On top of that, commercial radio has been completely monopolized - thanks to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 - so in markets where an indie could once get play, the doors are now completely closed.

As a result, we're asking the public to essentially be their own DJs, and people are just too overwhelmed. While everyone would like to think the 'net democratizes things, it simply overwhelms people even more, music-wise.

The only thing musicians can really rely on now is the live performance to get their music heard, and in London, where I just did a week of shows, people will come out to see an unknown artist, unlike New York. One big club owner told me he's been astounded at the turnouts for his singer/songwriter events. The Los Angeles singer/songwriter scene is extremely vibrant as well, and that's encouraging.

How ironic in the technological, information age, it's all coming back to the live show.

Talk about your time as the "Queen of Anti-folk". How did you become involved with the anti-folk movement, and how did that experience affect your attitudes towards creating and performing? How you feel about the recent resurgence of the movement, with the success of the Moldy Peaches and renewed interested in a more stripped-down sound?

Back when "Daddy's Little Girl" came out, I was a regular at Sidewalk Café, so much so that I was indeed crowned "Queen of Antifolk," a label Lach used to give out bi-monthly or so, along with "King of Antifolk," of course. It was great fun, and the scene was just wonderful then. I wrote so many songs during that time, and it was great to go every Monday and test them out at the antihoots.

Eventually, I moved on, of course, and it's great that the scene is getting such attention with the Moldy Peaches. To be honest, it's great when any scene anywhere gets attention for any reason, because it means talent will surface that might not have ordinarily. In the case of the Moldy Peaches, their songs are simply great, so it may be that people are responding to the songwriting, and the stripped-down sound is just their style.

But that said, I do believe that something that sounds homemade has real appeal for people's ears these days. For the same reasons they'll go out to a live show, they'll enjoy the homemade demo. The human feeling is more there, and that makes them feel more connected. Of course, the homemade demo isn't my aesthetic, I really set out to make a professional-sounding album, but I can understand why the demo sound has its appeal.

At the end of the day, though, it's not about sound as much as it's about songs. When the song is there, the connection is made, and that's what people want.

Your second album, "My Life of Crime", came five years after your first. Describe the evolution of your sound during that period; how has your style of songwriting changed and do you find yourself exploring different themes in your songs? Do you feel that fans of your first album will follow you to this one, or are you reaching a new audience this time out?

Ya know, my songs just come out of me, and the song dictates the production values. Sometimes they flow through in an unstoppable way, sometimes I won't write one for a year or more. I suppose this album has more of a rock urgency than "Daddy's Little Girl", but that probably came from playing with a band on a more regular basis. There was no conscious decision to reach a new audience, and people who bought the first album are finding this one a nice segue. There are two songs on this new disc, "Might" and "I'm Your Girl," that have a real Mediterranean or Middle Eastern sound, and I'd love to go more in that direction next time out.

In the five years since your two releases, the music industry has undergone a major transformation in the way music is marketed and distributed. How do you view the rise of digital music, and the declining sales of "units" by the majors? What steps are you taking to promote this CD, and have there been outlets to get the word out about your music that weren't available five years ago?

Like I said [before], it's actually more difficult than it was five years ago, and it's because big business has become a Goliath who I'm not sure David can slay anymore. I don't mean that to sound pessimistic, just realistic. Things go in cycles, and in a free society, I want to believe the tide will turn, that injustices will be righted. But it will take a long time. Once radio monopolies are broken up, new and regional music will have a chance to break through again, and people will become excited once more. Ingenuity never comes from the top, or corporations; it comes from the bottom, the people, and once we give that a chance to surface again, the industry will ignite once more.

I honestly don't think digital downloading has a lot to do right now with declining unit sales. It may in the sense that most albums have only one good song on them, so people aren't going to buy a whole disc just for that one tune; they'll simply seek it out on the web and download it. But if the public would fall in love with artists again, you can bet that they'd buy more discs, just to have more of a connection.

It's hard to gauge, though, where the music business is headed overall. The old model is definitely out the window, that's for sure.

You recently spent a week touring and performing in England. Was this your first tour overseas, and how did this series of shows come about? How was your music received in the Old World?

Yes, London was my first overseas music tour, and I booked it entirely via email! (Laughs.) A lot of my antifolk pals have been touring over there, thanks to the Peaches, so they gave me leads on what were the good places to play.

I must say, the audiences in London are wonderful, for the most part. Like I said, they simply come out more to hear new stuff, even in the dead of winter. I think they're trained from an early age to socialize in the pubs, so going out is simply a cultural thing for them. It's understandable how one could more easily develop a following there.

Let's switch to talking about your art, another creative outlet that you have. What is the genesis of your artwork, and how did it progress from a personal hobby, to selling and displaying your work?

As I mentioned before, I simply started drawing one day, mainly because I was so inspired by a few Hoboken artists like Robert Burczy and Jim Kendall. Their work was absolutely infectious to the point of where you just wanted to do it yourself; so, during a time when I wasn't writing music, I simply started drawing. I would actually show my work to them, and they couldn't have been more encouraging.

Of course, over time, the drawings turned into paintings, which soon took over my kitchen. About two years ago, I decided I wanted my kitchen back, so I rented an art studio, and now the whole thing is just out of control, in the best possible way. Once I started selling my work on eBay, people started asking for commissions, which I'm actually backed up on. And, a gallery wants to have me on their roster. I'm still not at a place where I can charge much for my work, so the day work must come first to pay the bills. I try to devote at least a few hours to it each day, though.

What is your favorite medium to work in, and where do you spend most of your time creating?

I work in acrylics and oil pastels for paintings, and chalk pastels for drawings. I write in my journal just about every day, which can happen anywhere, and usually do some kind of sketch to accompany the day's events, which may or may not be turned into a painting.

The best place to work is in my studio, though, even for journal-writing, because it feels like such a sacred space.

How does the creative process of writing a lyric differ from an artistic effort? Do you consider both forms of expression to be similar, or are you able to express different things in different ways? Do you find yourself coming back to the same themes regardless of if you're composing music, or stretching canvas?

Songwriting and painting are two entirely different processes, and I'm amazed at what each reveals. They're completely different, with each having its own set of challenges and struggles.

In music, my songs tend to just "happen." They're truly like births, where I can feel something bubbling up and then it simply must be expressed. There's a certain cocktail of elements in my head that must be there for a song to happen, usually an event, an insight and a creative urge, and the timing of those elements can never be predicted. In other words, I can never just sit down and decide to write a tune, I can't summon my creativity in that way. I just have to be around and ready for them, for when the muse decides to speak.

When she does speak, you really do get the sense that the song is flowing through you, that there's some other force at work in creating this piece, as you can have the sense that it's actually already written. You just have to clear the path for it to come through. I know I have a good song when I feel like I somehow didn't have a lot to do with it.

In that sense, music really is like a birth, because I've often heard my mother say that she had little to do with the creation of me and my sister. She just guided us once we were here, and that's pretty much how I feel about my songs. I suppose that's why I can express such pride in them, because I do have this sense that they're my babies, and every mother feels that her babies are the best babies.

In my visual art, however, the subconscious seems to be at work all the time with this low, steady hum happening in my head, and I'll just doodle on anything. Sometimes I'll be shocked at what occurs on scratch paper, as if the pen or pencil had a mind of its own, and I'll be amazed at what these little pictures are telling me about what I'm really feeling at that precise moment. It's really the tiny tiny moments of life that have such tremendous power, and it's the subtle look in the eye or the slightly twisted body that can reveal so much, sometimes to an unnerving degree.

While my music happens after a culmination of events, the art seems to be the daily subconscious dialog that keeps me in touch with my inner core the way journal-writing does. And each process often reveals different aspects of myself, there's not necessarily a lot of overlap. I say things in painting that I could never say in music, and vice versa.

Speaking of combining music with art, you're going to be participating in the Jersey Jams Fund "All You Need Is Love Fest" on March 22nd, both by performing at Uncle Roy's in Clifton, and by donating a piece of artwork for auction. How did you become involved with the Jersey Jams Fund, and what is your opinion about the cause they are championing?

As I recently said to Bob Makin, the Jersey Jams Fund is a perfect example of thinking globally, but acting locally. Bob believes in the power of the local event, this one being state-wide, and that's extremely inspiring. And in the wake of the governor threatening to cut all arts funding, it couldn't be better-timed.

For some reason, culture is never valued as much as it should be. People think it will happen anyway without support, and to a degree, that's true. But, it will happen less, and that's a threat to us all. Without art, literature and music, then how do we define ourselves? And, in a dangerous world, it's almost a defense issue. Why fight if there's nothing worth defending? I recall recently an architect talking about the uglification of America, with the proliferation of our billboards and strip malls, and how this affects our consciousness and how we feel about ourselves as a nation. We begin to numb out and feel a low-grade depression about things. That's why kids need to be introduced to all of the arts at a young age, because nothing is more exciting than self-expression. Kudos to Bob and the Jersey Jams Fund for not losing sight of this.

What is the "Beatles inspired" artwork which will be donated, and are you pleased with the results?

Very funny, Matt! You know I think my Eleanor Rigby interpretation came out kind of cock-eyed. But we won't reveal just what is cock-eyed, right? (Laughs.)

If people think something about the picture doesn't look quite right, I'll just use my "it's abstract" catch-all explanation.

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Matt Mrowicki

Matt Mrowicki founded Chorus and Verse in 2001. He is a rock star designer and technologist, Internet professional, content creator, and entrepreneur specializing in web development, IT consulting, branding, social media and online marketing.