|INTERVIEW OF MARY OTT by: MARC BISCHOFF|
Recently I had the opportunity to interview my old friend Mary Ott at
her mountainside home/studio, with it¡¯s back yard stretching straight
into the lush forest of the San Bernardino Mountains in Southern
California. She likes to laugh a lot. What follows are some questions
with Mary about her music that revealed some new insights, dusted off
some old memories, broke out some laughter and shook loose some tears.
Enjoy. We did.
WHAT STARTED OUT AS 20 QUESTIONS WITH MARY OTT¡
Q: Let¡¯s start
with some questions regarding your approach to songwriting in general. Do you write only when inspired or do you sit down and say,
¡°Today I¡¯m gonna write a song¡±?
both. Sometimes when I need new material, I actually force myself to sit
down and say (laughing), ¡®Today I¡¯m gonna write a song¡¯. And
sometimes it¡¯s pure inspiration.
Q: And how did
the majority of the songs on the last CD (Dream Mountain) come about?
Did you write those just for that CD?
Mary: No. Actually, maybe half of the ones for the
last CD were older tunes that people were requesting be on a CD, that I
had never recorded.
Q: By request?
Mary: Yeah, like ¡®Big Time¡¯ was an older song
that had never been recorded and people kept saying ¡®which CD is this
on?¡¯ And, so, I actually pulled some older ones out.
Q: What comes
first for you usually, the music or the lyrics?
comes first to me is the music and, so, I have to try to suppress that
and work on the lyrics, because the music¡¯s always there. I mean,
several different forms of the music can be there. I have to try to turn
that off and work on the lyrics, so I don¡¯t have a sloppy lyric.
Robinson once told Bob Costas that the words were more important than
the music in a song. Paul Simon said the opposite. What do you feel is
more important in a song, the music or the lyrics?
Mary: I think the words.
Mary: That¡¯s what I struggle with, is to have
something¡I mean, I want to
have something to say. You know, it¡¯s not just about a dance beat
or¡there¡¯s a lot of music art forms out there that have nothing to
do with the lyric. But, for me, I actually want to be telling a story,
or have something to share. Yeah, if a gorgeous melody goes along with
it, I want that too¡ but definitely the lyrics are more important to
Q: Have you ever
dreamt any lyrics or melodies?
Mary: Yes, a lot.
Q: Did you dream
any of the ones from the last CD?
Mary: Maybe, I¡¯d have to look at the lyrics.
Q: You can¡¯t
have to look at the song titles, ¡®cause I do remember where I¡¯ve
written songs. You know, (laughing), the 101, 405, 110¡.
Q: Do you really?
Mary: Oh, yeah, I¡¯m just a hazard on the road!
Q: I know, I¡¯ve
driven with you¡.When you dream, are you dreaming the whole song, or
just the melody?
Mary: The whole shebang¡I mean, I have dreamt
full on orchestral things and I have no idea how to capture that.
Q: When you come
up with the lyric or melody line, what do you do to save it?
get out of bed. I pick up a guitar and I quick try to capture the music.
I find the key that it¡¯s in, write that down, and then whatever lyrics
I can remember.
Q: So, you
actually write out the music?
Mary: No, just the chords, but I can
write out the music. Sometimes, if I¡¯m that awake, I will sketch out
Q: When you come
up with lyric ideas, even if you don¡¯t dream them, what do you do with
Mary: Oh, I write them down.
Mary: Oh, anywhere. Old napkins, scraps of paper.
Preferably I have my notebook on me, but that¡¯s not always the case.
Q: Do you keep
the napkin then?
Mary: No, I transfer it into my notebook.
(Laughing)) Why, you trying to auction it off?
Q: Yeah, auction
it on the web site (www.maryott.com).
Mary: (Laughing) Maybe I should. I have some of
them, ¡®cause they¡¯re tucked in my notebook, but no, generally I
Q: Do you like to
write lyrics that tell a specific story, or do you prefer to leave some
of the interpretation to the imagination of the listener and why?
Mary: Well, there again, both. I mean I¡¯ve done
things that have told a specific story. Sometimes it could be a
stranger, sometimes it could be somebody I know that¡¯s crossed my path
and it inspires a song. It¡¯s been a full fledged story that I¡¯ve
made up, by this person inspiring, just thinking ¡®Wow¡±, that person
deserves a song¡and sometimes I do leave it ambiguous on purpose. I
can think of one song specifically, ¡®I Want To Be Remembered ¡¯.
People think it¡¯s about something else than what it really is.
Q: What is it
Mary: It¡¯s really a love song to music. Just the
place that music has been in my life. And people think it¡¯s about my
Q: But you want
to be remembered by the music that you make?
Mary: Right. It¡¯s a love song to the craft of
music making, but I left it ambiguous.
Q: Which leads to
my next question. Do you write from your personal experience or not?
Mary: Yes, I do, most of the time. I mean, I would
say 85% of the time. Sometimes it¡¯s pure fiction. Like that one was
totally fiction, the song just flashed into my mind. My husband Mark
even said to me ¡®Wow, where did that come from?¡¯
Q: You were
getting ready to write the other day when we hung up on the phone. Did
you finish that song?
did. It was just about a made up couple¡from the sky (laughing)¡.
Q: You play piano
and guitar. Do you write mostly on guitar or piano and why?
Mary: It¡¯s changed over the years.
There¡¯s been literally years, albums worth of material that
I¡¯ve written on the piano. And the for some reason, I¡¯ll get drawn
to the guitar and I¡¯ll write a whole bunch of songs¡ whatever,
eight, ten songs¡ on the guitar. I write differently on each
instrument. I like to switch off.
Q: How do you
Mary: Different chords come out. Because I¡¯m not
that great a guitar player. I¡¯m not really a better
keyboard player, but on the keyboard I can play in different keys, in
different modulations¡Things occur to me on the keyboard. I mean,
I¡¯m not gonna play in A-flat on the guitar, but I do a lot on the
keyboard. So it just lends itself to different things coming forth. I go
back and forth on purpose.
instrument do you prefer when playing live and why?
Mary: Guitar. I like to move around. I don¡¯t
like being behind that wall of keyboards. It¡¯s not a great way for me
to communicate with people. Especially the way I play, alone. It¡¯s not
like being with other band members to interact with or watch. If I had a
full band it would be nice to sit down behind the keyboard, like I did
when I first came to L.A. I did some live shows with an eight-piece
Q: Will you do
Mary: I¡¯d love to do that again. It¡¯s
Q: What would it
Mary: (Laughing) Money! ¡®Cause I like paying
people. I like people to get paid¡
Q: Your latest CD
of new material, ¡®Dream Mountain¡¯, has some songs on it that display
a change in writing or production and arrangement style from your
previous work. Specifically ¡°Rent Free¡±, ¡°Who¡¯s Laughin¡¯
Now¡± and ¡°One More
Night¡±. Does that have anything to do with the fact that those songs
were co-written with your husband Mark and what did he bring to those
Mary: It absolutely has everything to do with the
fact that those were co-written with him because it¡¯s his music. I
create lyrics and a melody to go with musical¡little riffs or chord
ideas, something that he has been playing around with and I tuck around
the corner and go ¡®Oh, can we use that for a song for us?¡¯ So,
that¡¯s why they¡¯re different, because his musical pallet is much
richer than mine.
Mary: Yeah, ¡®cause he¡¯s coming from a jazz
& fusion kind of background. Chords I don¡¯t even imagine!
Q: Can¡¯t be
found on the keyboard?
Mary: (Laughing) Yeah, nowhere!
Q: You can¡¯t
sing it if you can¡¯t play it¡
Mary: (Laughing) His progressions and stuff are
totally different. My stuff is just more basic¡
Q: So, on those
three songs, he wrote the chord progressions and the riffs and you wrote
the melodies and the lyrics?
Mary: Right. And I help with structure, because
he, there again, is much more free form. I¡¯m just going, ¡®There
needs to be a chorus here¡we¡¯re already seven minutes into the
song¡You know, so I stop him. I put structure to the song. I let him
create whatever music is happening from him. I just cut it short, so
there actually ends up being a verse and a chorus and a bridge.
Otherwise it would just be much freer
than I¡¯m comfortable with if I was doing it. You know, a lyric.
That¡¯s fine if it¡¯s all instrumental.
Q: Do you find
that¡¯s what makes them good songs. The difference in how you each
approach your music?
Mary: Yeah, I love it. He¡¯s written a couple of
things of his own that have lyrics, but he¡¯s not confident or
comfortable writing lyrics.
Q: The song
¡®Rio¡¯ has a definite tempo change within its arrangement. How did
you go about creating that tempo change smoothly?
not something that I consciously do. Um, I am a trained musician, but
(laughing), I have no idea¡I would like to say, ¡®Oh, yes, I
envisioned this¡¯, but I don¡¯t write that way. It¡¯s just much more
instinctual. So as far as getting it on the CD, that was Mark¡¯s job.
We used drum loops for this CD, so I picked out three or four different
ones for the verse and three or four for the chorus, and then he helped
to mesh them together as far as making a transition in the tempo
changes. There¡¯s only one track on that album that has a live drum,
Q: ¡®Rio¡¯ is
also unusual in that it has a classical guitar solo in the middle and an
electric guitar solo that takes the song out. It works great. Whose idea
Mary: (Laughing). Well, I¡¯m always trying to get
Mark to play an acoustic instrument. I mean, anything with a classical
guitar, I¡¯ve been bugging him for that for five or six years. But,
honestly, the electric thing, I¡¯m sure, was his idea. He truly came up
with all those parts, which I just absolutely love.
Q: It works
did want the outtro to be wilder. You know, that¡¯s the whole point.
It¡¯s supposed to be a song about,¡¯take the vacation, take the
time¡¯¡the electric guitar just seems like it¡¯s more of a potent
kind of thing¡You know, ¡®Let¡¯s go!¡¯¡.
Q: Many of the
songs or lyrics on this CD seem to reflect an attitude of ¡®Life is
short and I¡¯ve decided to live it on my own terms from now on¡¯. Is
that an accurate description and what is the theme of this CD if any?
Q: And why are
Mary: (Laughing)¡Was that question on your list?
Actually, yes, ¡®Dream Mountain¡¯ happened after our major car
accident. So, some of those songs¡ specifically ¡®The Softer Side¡¯,
maybe ¡®Matter of Time¡¯¡ just kind of came out of the experience of
the car accident. Just realizing, ¡®God, life is really short¡.¡¯
Q: And for people
who don¡¯t know, what did the car accident involve?
was driving and my husband and I were coming home from our mountain
house and were hit head on by some kids on drugs coming home from a rave
party. My husband¡¯s fine and I¡¯m fine, but he was very seriously
injured for a time. It just really does slap you upside the head,
figuratively and physically. It just makes you realize you can lose
people every day. And you do. You know, ¡®Rio¡¯¡.Take some time to
have some fun, take time to do whatever you think you want to be doing.
Take time for it. Even though ¡®Rio¡¯ was written before the
Q: Where is Dream
just in my head. I thought it would work out as a neat title ¡®cause we
had just bought a mountain house. It was a dream come true. It all kind
of worked as far as what was going on in my personal life, but as far as
that story, it¡¯s just a metaphor.
Q: You once said
that you thought ¡°Big Time¡± was a song that worked well live, but
you didn¡¯t initially want to record it because you thought a studio
version of it would come out sounding ¡°cheesy¡±, for lack of a better
description. What made you decide to go ahead and record it and how did
you come up with a studio version that you were happy with?
Mary: (Laughing). Cheesy is
the right word. I had several songs like that. People like them, so I
guess I shouldn¡¯t use the word cheesy. I just think they¡¯re more
simple, so simple that I¡¯m kind of embarrassed to record them, even
though I¡¯ve written them. ¡®Summer
Lovin¡¯ is another one, just a bluesy little thing that people just
love, but I¡¯ve never recorded it. Same with ¡®Big Time¡¯.
Mark just came up with just such a neat kind of forties vibe that
I just loved the recording on that. I¡¯m really happy with it. It
doesn¡¯t feel cheesy at all. I felt kind of obligated to do it because
people just kept asking for it.
Q: How did the
technical recording of this CD differ from your last one? Were they
recorded in the same studio?
were radically different. ¡®From my Room¡¯ was recorded in a studio in
Culver City over a course of six months, which to me is a tedious amount
of time. I don¡¯t do well (with that)¡There were live musicians,
which I love. That is my favorite. ¡®Cause then you get that kind of
energy that you can¡¯t fake. The energy from live people playing
transfers, even if it¡¯s digital. So that was very nice, but the rest
of the process was very long. ¡®Dream Mountain¡¯ was all done by Mark
and I, except for the one live drummer, over the course of three weeks.
Right here in our home studio. It would be nice to have the best of both
worlds, to have our own studio big enough to use live musicians where
the clock is not ticking.¡±
Q: Is that a
Mary: Oh, definitely¡.overlooking the ocean
(laughing)¡Oh we have big dreams¡
Q: Is it Mark¡¯s
job to get this?
my job, too! I¡¯m just not moving along with it too fast¡
Q: Which CD is
¡°Just Around the Corner from Lonely¡± on and where did a great title
like that come from?
Mary: Originally it was on the ¡®Somebody¡¯ CD
back in 1992. It¡¯s now part of the compilation CD. (¡®Early
Works¡¯, which can be purchased through Mary¡¯s web site). The
title came from part of a conversation that I had with my Mom right
after my Dad died in ¡¯91. She told me about this poem she had written
and she had ¡®around the corner¡¯ and ¡®blue¡¯¡she read me the
poem over the phone. I actually sobbed¡So, I quick jotted down some of
the lines from the poem and re-wrote it.
So, I gave my mother co-writing credit ¡®cause I stole her poem
idea and re-wrote it to make it a song.
Q: Did you give
your dad co-writing credit? He was the inspiration¡.
Mary (Laughing) That¡¯s right! He died
for it! Talk about dying for your art¡
Q: Excuse the
Mary: Oh he knows¡he¡¯s got a great sense of
Q: Where did a
great title like ¡°Three Shades of Mimosa¡± come from?
Mary: Well, there again, most of my songs come
from real life experiences and I was sitting around the table with a
group of great friends one Sunday (including
the interviewer and his wife) for eight hours over about six or
eight bottles of champagne (laughing)¡.
Q: New Year¡¯s
Mary: New Year¡¯s day, that¡¯s right! New
Year¡¯s day. And that title came from Marc Bischoff, from you.
Q: It just popped
Mary: Popped out.
Q: He¡¯s kind of
a wise guy then?
Mary: Yeah he is¡I was refilling glasses with
champagne for Mimosas and everyone had different shades of liquid
because of the different amounts of orange juice left in their glass and
you said ¡®Oh, three shades of Mimosa¡write that down¡¯¡.So,
I wrote that song on a lazy Sunday afternoon. I love that song. I
How about the lyric ¡°I got my imagination and my MasterCard¡±?
Where¡¯d that come from?
this was back when I was single and us girls used to hang out a lot. The
¡®Sisterhood¡¯. We used to go dancing and stuff. That line came out of
a Friday night, cruising with the top down on the boulevard. I mean,
¡®She¡¯s goin¡¯ out¡¯!
That line came up while I was writing the song.
Is that a good feeling when you get a good lyric that fits the
song perfectly like that?
yeah, it¡¯s a great feeling! But a lot of times it doesn¡¯t even
strike me until the second time that I read the lyrics. Things come to
me and I just try to write them down fast so I don¡¯t lose them.
¡®Cause they just kind of happen and then I just shut the door. Like
the other day I was going through my notebook, ¡®cause I really need to
write, thinking I really have some good lyrics in there.
What do you mean when you say you ¡®really need to write¡¯?
Mary: Oh, well, sometimes it¡¯s just I¡¯ve got
shows coming up and I really want new material, ¡®cause that¡¯s fun
for me. I need new stuff just to keep it interesting for me. And also
for people coming back to see me, I like to have at least ten or twelve
new songs every season. Sometimes it¡¯s emotional, too, that I need
to write. That I¡¯ve got stuff that I¡¯d like to work out mentally,
emotionally, whatever, by putting it on the page.
What do you mean when you say ¡®every season¡¯?
I consider my playing season, usually from March to October. Lots of
festivals in the fall, around harvest time in California. Wine
Spouses and friends aside, what artists have influenced you and
going back from childhood, groups like Heart, Fleetwood Mac, James
Taylor. I grew up in a tiny little town, so there weren¡¯t any concert
venues. I was really a product of radio. Whatever I could get on the
Q: Who else?
I love people like Sheryl Crow. Annie De Franco really inspires me.
Inspires you as a musician and songwriter or as an artist who has
done what she¡¯s done independently?
I mean, I think she¡¯s brilliant, lyrically, musically, what she
does¡but yeah, she does inspire me, too, with her whole attitude after
the record labels came calling and she¡¯s like, ¡®No thanks, I¡¯ve
got it goin¡¯ on by myself¡¯. I love that!
What about an artist influences you. For example, you said Heart.
Was it the whole package, the fact that they were women singers, you
liked the melodies¡?
that was the whole package. ¡®Cause I really envisioned myself being a
female rock artist. I was drawn more to pop-rock. There was a time, ten
or twenty years ago when people called me a folk artist and I was
offended. I finally just embraced it and said ¡®Alright, alright,
whatever you want to call me is fine.¡¯ But I expected to be a
rocker¡I don¡¯t mean heavy metal, but¡Heart, the lyrics were
fabulous, musically, just the whole look was gorgeous. Fleetwood Mac,
again, there were girls in the band that were doing the songwriting.
Mary: Good songwriting¡.I just saw Annie Lennox on an old Saturday Night
Live¡There again, someone that¡¯s powerful, really gives a
So, when you write, do you consider the fact that you¡¯re gonna
have to be performing that song live? Does that influence any of your
does, ¡®cause, like when I write with Mark, I¡¯m know I¡¯m not going
to be able to perform them. Because it¡¯s his music, which I just
can¡¯t seem to deliver...That¡¯s one of the reasons that I¡¯m
hesitant to write more with him, ¡®cause I know I¡¯ll end up with ten
songs that I¡¯m frustrated that I can¡¯t perform.
How would you describe your self and your music now? You wanted
to be a rock artist. You just got a fan letter that described you as
their favorite folk artist.
Mary: I think I¡¯m a little more like a folk
version of Melissa Etheridge, actually¡Folk rock, with that kind of
power vocally. Some people say musically, but I don¡¯t know if I really
can say that about my own stuff. A guy up north that books me a lot
calls me pop folk. I don¡¯t have any problems with that. ¡®Cause it
is. Among true folk artists, I don¡¯t get booked at those festivals. I
¡®m too electronic. So, I consider myself folk/pop/rock/country. But
there again, if I take my stuff to Nashville, I¡¯m not country. To
those people I am not country, to the folk people I¡¯m not
folk¡(Laughing)¡That¡¯s the difficulty!¡±
Well, so much has changed from the time of the groups that
influenced you. If the Eagles started out today, they¡¯d be on country
radio and then they might never be able to develop into the great rock
band that they became, ¡®cause they¡¯d get pigeon holed.
Mary: Yeah, which has always been a sadness for
me. People feel the big need to put a label. There was less of that in
the seventies, the sixties¡for people just to be free, to be creating
whatever kind of art was coming out of them and leave the labels for the
next generation to decide what they were¡
In the seventies, I remember hearing the Eagles and the
soundtrack to ¡®Saturday Night Fever¡¯ on the same radio station¡
Mary: Right! That would never
Has anyone ever compared your vocal style inflections to Trisha
one or two. I get more Joan Baez, Joanie Mitchell, I get Linda
If you could pick one of your songs that would be guaranteed
massive, mainstream radio airplay worldwide, which one would you choose?
And you can¡¯t give us the ¡°They¡¯re all my children and I love them
equally¡± answer, either¡
Never Said Goodbye¡¯. I don¡¯t have to think about it. I think
that¡¯s a huge hit, but the world doesn¡¯t know it yet. I think
that¡¯s a huge hit song. I
don¡¯t even have to think about that. I love that song. It was written
a very long time ago. I wrote that back in 1988. I think it¡¯s
That was written from personal experience?
was. Some of my stuff I love, but I know it¡¯s not powerful enough as
far as the writing, as far as the critics or Nashville people would
say¡.They¡¯re so into the whole song writing machine, rather than
just having things be sweet little tunes once in a while. Whereas, I
think ¡®You Never Said Goodbye¡¯ is one of those tunes. It¡¯s perfect.
Q: And that song
can be found on?
compilation CD. That song was actually on a different CD originally.
When I first wrote that song, it was a dance tune. It was a fast tune in
a different key. It was one
of those years that I was writing on keyboard. I got it back on guitar.
I started playing the chord structure slower and realized it was better.
So it was a whole transformation. It kind of rediscovered itself as a
slow tune. It¡¯s so much better as a ballad.
Have you ever co-written with anyone other than Mark?
one other person. Another personal friend in my life, but I felt¡ I
haven¡¯t been able to do that. I¡¯ve had invitations to do that, to
co-write with strangers, I just¡I hate to say shy, ¡®cause I¡¯m
really not shy¡it¡¯s just, songwriting¡¯s a very personal thing¡I
just¡I guess I don¡¯t feel that comfortable getting that naked in
front of strangers (laughing)¡That is the truth! It¡¯s a very
vulnerable kind of place¡ It¡¯s a very personal place for me. I just
can¡¯t share with Joe Shmoe going to coffee to write songs. Maybe I¡¯d
be a better songwriter if I could. More prolific.
What role would you say creativity plays in your life?
From cooking meals to decorating houses to music, creativity is what
it¡¯s all about for me. To be free to create every day. Have a life
that you want in every detail.
Do you think that having an audience is a vital part of the
me, yes. I know there¡¯s a lot of people that aren¡¯t built that way.
That can create and record in their room and put it out to the world or
not, and it¡¯s fine¡but for me, communicating with an audience is
heaven. Getting on stage is actually where I¡¯m the most at home. Every
single time it¡¯s magic.
Did you ever go through a period of stage fright?
Mary: I did not.
Some of the audience members were frightened, maybe¡
Mary: (Laughing) Exactly! I picked up a guitar and
did my first paid gig two weeks later at age seven.
Q: What was it?
a wedding or a funeral or something. I don¡¯t remember. It was
something in church. I just remember gettin¡¯ paid! It was great. I
Anything else you¡¯d like to say to people checking out your web
that when I¡¯m gone¡maybe my husband will write a song for me or
something¡that people will just go, ¡®You know, she put some nice
music into the mix¡¯ ¡.
By Marc Bischoff