Mari Wilson has enjoyed a career than has spanned over thirty years and now she is back with her new album Cover Stories - her first album made up entirely of cover records.
I caught up with her talk about the record, the songs that were chosen for it and how the industry has changed during the years she has been involved in it.
- You have just released your new album Cover Stories so what can Mari Wilson fans expect from the record?
Well it’s something very unlike anything I had done really (laughs). It’s very acoustic, it’s very still and all one mood, it’s not one of those albums were it’s like here are a couple of fast ones.
It came about really because all the gigs that I do and have been doing over the past few years people are always coming up to me after a gig and saying ’oh what album is the Beach Boys track on?’ And I always have to say ’I haven’t recorded that’ and I just thought it was about time that I did.
I have never done a whole album of covers, I have always had a couple on there, but it has been usually originals. My last album was very retro/sixties and quite produced where as the shows that I have been doing have been quite bare, it’s usually me my pianist and my guitarist.
They were buying my last album and I thought well they are leaving that is no representative of what they have just seen so I thought it was about time that I had an album where people could walk away with an album that was as memorable as the concert that they had just been to.
- As you say the album is very acoustic and the production is very stripped back and it’s pretty much all about the vocals - so how nerve wracking is it making an album where everything hinges on your voice?
I suppose I have had the practice of doing that over the last three of four years by performing with just two musicians, that is even scarier because you have an audience in front of you and you can’t say ‘can we do that again?’ There is no rhythm section to hide behind, if you have bass and drums there is a lot more that you can get away with as there is a lot more going on.
So I had had the rehearsal for it by doing the actual gigs. Funnily enough I was remarkably relaxed in the studio this time, people have often said that I am much better live than I am on record and I think that up until the last two albums that is possibly true; I still think that live is my forte.
But this time I was very relaxed and Simon Hale is someone who I have worked with on and off for the last twenty five years. And so I tried not to think about that to be honest because if you do you are really putting yourself in it - you have got to try not to be too self conscious and let it all out.
- So how did you go about choosing which songs to cover for the album?
Well a couple of them like Disney Girls and Be My Baby I have been performing live for quite a while. But songs like Don’t Get Me Wrong, which now since the album I am performing live, the original is one of my favourite records of all time as I think everything about it is just perfect.
But when you strip it back and listen to the lyrics you realise that it is poetry and the lyrics really are very beautiful. I knew that I didn’t want to do any of the songs anything like the originals they had to be completely different, because I think what’s the point? It’s karaoke to me if you just copy the original not to mention it’s boring and I would be bored.
So I found that by stripping it right back and showing off the lyrics that is what made it a different song really. The Catlin Rose song Own Side she is just twenty four years old and I saw her support Ron Sexmith a year ago and I just thought she was fantastic, after the show I brought all of her albums. I just thought ‘I don’t want to do an album of only old artists, Mari does the sixties yawn’ I wanted to make sure that there were young and unexpected artists and songs that I would cover.
She is fantastic and she is going to be massive I think. I have covered one of Ron Sexmith’s songs before as I am a big fan, I have got to know him through doing the other song, and that song I have always wanted to do as it is a really broken heart song.
He is really good at melancholy and I love melancholy anyway, it is a bit of a contradiction with my personality as I am very extrovert and happy, but I like to sing melancholy song.
The big Audio Dynamite song came along because we were hanging out with them in LA last summer, check me out cool Ms Wilson (laughs), and we went to their show and they did this song Everyone Needs A Holiday, there version is like rootsy rock reggae and it’s nothing like the version that I have done, but there was just something in the song when they performed it and I just thought ’I want to do it’.
There are lots of other songs that I have performed live so there might be a Cover Stories 2, I better see how this one goes first (laughs)
- You have mentioned Simon Hale who is a long time collaborator of yours so how do you find working with him? And what does his experience bring to the record especially when it came to putting a new spin on these well known songs?
He is a very very sensitive and emotional musician, he is actually a string arranger and if you look on his website you will be astounded at how many records that you know that have strings on them and he has done the arrangements; the one that stand out are all the Jamiroquai records with the seventies strings.
We didn’t put strings on this album, we did think about it, but we decided not to in the end. I think he is a fantastic piano player, he was my piano player about twenty years ago but he wanted to be a string arranger so he left playing piano in bands; he still plays piano and keyboards sometimes for people but he doesn’t gig.
We have a chemistry musically as he understands me and vice versa - and I just love his piano playing as he is just so moving. His piano playing on I Only Want To Be With You is just absolutely beautiful and I was just miming for him to keep playing because I finish singing and the piano goes on for ages, I just think that it’s exquisite playing. It’s a good partnership.
- As you said you were very keen to put a new spin on these tracks, My Baby for example is just so different, so how did you go about putting that new spin on them? Did you go in with specific ideas of what path you wanted to take these songs down?
I had been performing Be My Baby with a similar arrangement, it wasn’t the same but it was slowed down, and the audience always joined in because they always want to do the backing vocals. It is quite a complex song actually chord wise and in it’s structure.
John Parricelli is another extraordinary musician who use to play with me and my band years ago, there is only one John Parricelli and he is a very clever musician and a very emotional musician as well.
I didn’t want to have an album where I said ‘I want you to play this’ I have never been like that and I have always chosen musicians to play the way they play, that’s why I chose them.
I can’t remember whether it was me or Simon or both who thought ‘well let’s just do it with guitar’ and someone said to me the other day ‘oh it’s like Eva Cassidy’ - and I had never even thought about that.
I knew that Be My Baby was a heartfelt and emotional song and with the guitar and leaving it very stripped would be the way to do it. I have never done an album as bare as this it has been very interesting (laughs).
- You have recorded many albums over the years so how do you find the recording process, is it an enjoyable one for you?
I love it; I just wish that I could do it more. I am not signed to a major record label to allow that to happen as much as I like really. But I love it because of the creativity and the ideas that come, I do like to be prepared and we did rehearse and sorted out the keys and things like that, but you go in the studio and things just happen - and I love that.
Usually I love doing backing vocals but there aren’t any on this as that was another decision that I made - sometimes when you put too much on it can be too sweet and it can take away the emotion.
- You broke into the music world over thirty years ago so how have you seen the industry change in that time? And has it changed for the better?
Yes and no. It has changed for the better in so much as there is a lot that you can do yourself now. You don’t really need a record company as you can make a record yourself quite cheaply if you want to and you can put them out yourself on your own label.
However it is a bit of a challenge because you don’t have the budget - if you are trying to get your record on the label with virtually no budget or a very small budget and Beyonce has a record out the people at radio are thinking ‘shall I play Beyonce’s new record or Mari Wilson hmm’.
The major record label artists will usually win because they have a massive promotion budget behind them; you are up against that a lot. Back in the eighties there were lots and lots of record labels and you were allowed to develop over a period of two or three albums and now you have to have a hit immediately and if you don’t then you are out - you are no nurtured in the same way as we were back then.
Because of the nature of the way that records are made there are a lot of engineers who don’t know how to mic up a drum kit or a double bass because they haven’t had to as everything is electronic.
That is also fantastic because you can do things and you can save money but that also means that you aren’t using a real drummer or a real bass player - and I think real players and real instruments carry a certain emotion that machines don’t. But I have recorded electronic stuff myself and I do like it but I just think that there needs to be a balance.
The other thing is people want fame more than anything these days but not for anything, they just want to be famous as opposed to being a great singer or a great dancer or a great song-writer. It’s like they just want to be famous and I think that is dangerous and sad and god knows where that is going to lead to.
There is a lot of really great music out there but you don’t always hear it on the radio and a lot of the commercial stuff that’s being made just lacks song-writing skills. A lot of the modern pop music they are like a chant it’s not a song, it’s almost as if they have got a few words that they chant over and over again very loud - it’s music for little children.
There have been a lot of changes but I think that music use to be a lot more about culture and art and literature lyrically and it is not so much now. But we are living through a different time we are living through this celebrity time and I am not really a big fan.
- As I have said you have enjoyed a long career so what has kept you in the business for so long and what else would you like to achieve?
Well I wrote a one woman musical about eighteen months ago at the Leicester Square Theatre and I would like to get that up and running again properly. But that is like a different beast it’s not like doing gigs as I need a producer to put some money into it so that is a tough one. I need to spend a lot of time on it to make that happen but I would like to make that happen.
I would like to write a book, which I have been writing on and off, it’s a biography but it is also a book that is a lot to do with having Type 1 Diabetes and being able to keep going with that condition.
I would also love to produce another artist as I really love producing and I would love to have another hit record, I would love to some success with this album. I have done ok I am not complaining but you are interested in improving and achieving success.
So I suppose I am thinking about the next album and writing some songs for it rather than doing covers. So yeah just keeping going.
- Are we going to be seeing you perform live any time soon?
We are putting together a tour for the autumn but I do have a few gigs peppered around, if you go on my website that is probably the best thing to do, but they are all pretty local like Newbury, Berkshire, Hartford, Kent and there is a new venue at Canada Water and I am there next month. There’s plenty going on.
Cover Stories is out now
FemaleFirst Helen Earnshaw