Mary Ramsey is the current lead singer/violinist of 10,000 Maniacs. Having been born in Washington DC, Mary and her family moved to upstate New York when she was in the 2nd grade, after her father took a position as a professor at the college in Fredonia. Her parents exposed Mary to the violin at age five, and she was classically trained through her school years. She would eventually perform with The Erie Philharmonic, The Fresno Philharmonic, The Santa Cruz Symphony and many others. In the mid 1980's, Mary moved to Buffalo, New York and continued her musical endeavors. She hooked up with John Lombardo to form the folk duo John and Mary in 1989. John was an original member of 10,000 Maniacs. The duo would open up for 10,000 Maniacs, and eventually become close friends of the group. In 1993, Mary played violin and sang a beautiful duet with Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs on the classic MTV Unplugged live performance. When Natalie resigned from the group to pursue a solo career, Mary was a natural, seasoned, perfect fit. They recorded a few albums and toured the world to countries such as: Brazil, Bahrain, Panama, Germany and many others. When President Bill Clinton was elected for a second term, Mary and 10,000 Maniacs performed at the Inaugural Ball in The Kennedy Center. In 2015, 10,000 Maniacs will release an album of British Isles folk songs entitled "Twice Told Tales". I recently conversed with Mary.
R.V.B. - Hello Mary, this is Rob von Bernewitz from Long Island, how are you tonight?
M.R. - Good, how are you Rob?
R.V.B. - I'm pretty cold. I feel like in living in Buffalo.
M.R. - Oh boy, be careful (haha) - because we are going to have a cold night tonight. It's going to be zero here or something like that.
R.V.B. - Yeah, but you're used to that, aren't you?
M.R. - It's wearing on everybody. I think there's a collective "We can't wait until this gets done with."
R.V.B. - That goes for us down here also. It's just been really cold.
M.R. - It's like living in your freezer, you know?
R.V.B. - (hahaha) Do you guys still have a lot of snow on the ground?
M.R. - It's not everywhere... the roads have cleared up the last day or so, but the mounds of snow... when you try to go around a corner, you can't really see that well.
R.V.B. - Yeah, it makes for difficult driving.
M.R. - It's crazy here... March is on Sunday and I think everybody is so ready for it.
R.V.B. - Yeah us here too. So I understand you just played a couple of shows in Chicago?
M.R. - Yes we did, we played Valentine's Day weekend. It was two sold out shows at City Winery. On the Friday night the 13th, we did another sold out show just south of Chicago at the Beverly Arts Center.
R.V.B. - That's excellent that you're selling out nice venues. Did you have good nights?
M.R. - All the shows were very nice. Everything went really well and Valentine's Day is always very special. The City Winery opened a couple of years ago in Chicago, and we've been playing Valentine's Day for a few years now. It's become kind of a tradition. It's fun and we'll probably play it next year too.
R.V.B. - Have you ever made it to The City Winery in New York?
M.R. - Oh yeah, we've played there many times. We are going to play there May 22nd and 23rd.
R.V.B. - Awesome, I'll put it on my calendar. So you're coming out with a new album, and it's an album called "Twice Told Tales". I presume there had to be a lot of songs to choose from? How did the process work of choosing the material?
M.R. - Well there were a lot of songs that I had performed that I really loved. The whole project started because during a show, we play old stuff, new stuff, covers and everything kind of mixed together. Near the end of the show, we do this big climactic piece and then I have been coming out and singing an acapella song... which is a William Butler Yeats poem called "Song of Wandering Aengus". The audience would get real quiet... It's a beautiful poem because Yeats is an exquisite poet... and it's set to music. It really kind of drew people in. Dennis Drew and I were talking... he's our keyboard player and one of our writers, we said "Well why don't we think about doing an album of British Isles tunes?" So John Lombardo, who has been in the band, and I have a folk duo called "John and Mary". He and I had performed a number of these songs and we just said "Why don't we just take the one's that work the best?" So the CD is favorites of mine and different people in the group. Things that I have performed before that work in my vocal range, and work with our instrumentation.
M.R. - Yes, my name's Mary Ramsey, and a number of years ago I was googling my name. All sorts of things come up when one google's one's name. I'm a violin player and violist. I found that and I thought "Gosh, they were from the early 1700's maybe?" They are Celtic fiddle songs that are public domain, and I'm not totally sure who wrote it, but there's many, many melodies. So I found those two, and I thought it would be really cool to put it on the CD. The first version and the last, is me and my older sister playing together on it. My older sister is a violinist, and we performed them together. It was kind of fun to have a chance to play together, because we haven't in years.
R.V.B. - I noticed that there is a lot of feeling that moves through the CD, which brings your emotions up and down. I circled a couple of songs that really hit me and one of them was a sad song... "The Death of Queen Jane".
M.R. - It's a beautiful song, and the subject matter, as a woman singing it really hits home. It's from way back when.
R.V.B. - They say it's about King Henry's third wife?
M.R. - Yeah (hahaha) one of them. He kept her around for as long as he felt like.
R.V.B. - What a nice guy he was. (Hahaha)
M.R. - Yeah, he really was... stellar.
R.V.B. - Another one that I really enjoyed was Carrickfergus.
M.R. - A lot of Irish and Celtic music is about nostalgia... it's about longing for home... it's about, almost like going back to youth. There are a lot of songs that are like that. There's a sentimentality to the music. I think that people feel safe and comfortable when they're back home. After being on a trip they feel that sense of calm peace. I think it's a song about reflections of life. People who are here and people who are gone. It' a very emotional song.
R.V.B. - Yeah, it tells a nice story also. There's one song where your holding basically two notes through the whole song with the violin.
M.R. - Yes, it's called a drone and it's actually the viola that I did that on.
M.R. - No, am I going to have to give you all the secrets of my fiddle playing? (Haha)
R.V.B. - (Hahaha) That one just caught my ear because I thought the vocals were beautiful on top of it.
M.R. - I'm just teasing you on that one. When you play a string instrument, you play violin, viola, cello, or upright bass,and you play two of the open strings of two notes... it creates a drone sound. It almost has the sound of a bagpipe in the backround. I took my viola out and I played the two open strings and I laid down the vocal over that one. That was Greenwood Sidey.
R.V.B. - How long did the whole process take to complete the album?
M.R. - I think it probably took it probably took about nine months from when we started recording on it. We did most of the recording in the mid spring and summer of last year.
R.V.B. - I'm a musician and I appreciate all the work that goes into a project like this. One thing that I did notice was at the very end of Lady Mary Ramsey 2, you hit some beautiful overtones.
M.R. - There are two violin parts on it and I did add a viola on it near the end. What instrument do you play?
R.V.B. - I'm a guitar player.
M.R. - Where are you on Long Island?
R.V.B. - I'm by the Port Jefferson area.
M.R. - We are playing in Amagansett at Stephen Talkhouse.
R.V.B. - That's a nice little venue.
M.R. - We're playing the two shows at the City Winery and then on the Sunday we're at Stephen Talkhouse.
M.R. - No, I was born there, and then we moved to Fredonia New York when I was going into second grade. I lived there, and went to high school and then I moved to Buffalo in 1985.
R.V.B. - Was your whole family musical?
M.R. - Well nobody studied music. My mom sang in choir, and studied music in church. My dad became an English professor, and I think that when you're a writer, you're sensitive to a lot of things, and I think that language is music in its way too.
R.V.B. - True, somebody who is well spoken is an art. So you obviously studied the violin through school.
M.R. - I did.
R.V.B. - I see that you were involved with some symphonies and Philharmonics in California. Did you go to school there?
M.R. - No, I moved to California in the beginning of 2000 and I did a lot of playing... it's called the "Philharmonic Freeway". I moved around California... I lived in Santa Monica and then I move to the central coast, San Luis Obispo, and then up to the Oakland. One of the ways I made a living was to play in a lot of different orchestras. They call it the Philharmonic Freeway because... there are orchestras in LA, and the Bay Area... and people have those jobs. Then there are all these little orchestras where all the other people who don't have those jobs, are doing. "You go around freelancing." I played in Fresno, I played in Santa Cruz and all different places. It was a really great experience. I really wanted to explore that part of my musical life.
R.V.B. - That sounds like fun, to do the classical thing for a while.
R.V.B. - Right, the 10,000 Maniacs gig came from when you had a group with John, who was in the original band. How did you meet John.
M.R. - I met him in Buffalo in 1989. John was in the band in the beginning. He left in 86, and I met him in 89, and we formed a duo. We had some CD's out on Rykodisc. They were the first label to convert records and tapes to CD. They had a catalog of Bowie, Frank Zappa and others, when they first came out. We had two CD's out... the first one was "Victory Gardens" and the second was "The Weed Killers Daughter". John and I wrote music together and toured. Then in 1990, I met Natalie and the band, and I became part of the family, so to speak.
R.V.B. - Was it a lot of fun to play the MTV Unplugged show?
M.R. - Really fun... performing is wonderful, because when you're on stage, you have what's going on in the present, but then there's the ghost and wonderful music of the past, and there's music of the future. I have been around for a long time. I've been part of this band... I've been the lead singer and songwriter since 1997, or even before. Then I had the experience of doing the Unplugged and being on recordings, so it's been a long time evolving with each other.
R.V.B. - It seemed like a natural progression and you fit in so seamlessly.
R.V.B. - When you did join the band as the lead singer, you toured the world and played a lot of exotic places. Was that very exciting?
M.R. - When I look back I go "Oh my God". I was in Kuwait and Bahrain... Brazil. It was quite an adventure. I had been to Europe, but I had never been to Brazil. To go to a country where it's so different and so far away... and the Middle East... and to be treated very nicely as an artist and a performer, it was phenominal. We all really treasure the memories and I'm very happy we got home ok.
R.V.B. - Were you traveling as a headliner or were you doing festivals, or both?
M.R. - It was mostly our shows that we played. We were doing USO shows in Kuwait and Bahrain. We were in the Virgin Islands and Panama. In 1999, they turned the Panama Canal back over to the Panamanian's, and the American's were overseeing it. We performed at the celebration.
R.V.B. - So speaking of playing shows on U.S. land, I understand that you performed at the Clinton Inauguration.
M.R. - Yes we did. Boy you're making me remember all this stuff... thank you.
R.V.B. - I did a little research. (Hahaha)
M.R. - That's being a good reporter. We played the second Inaugural Ball, and it was such a thrill. I got to shake hands with Bill Clinton and meet Hillary Clinton. We played at the Kennedy Center, and I got to meet Aretha Franklin... she was also performing. They had acts that would perform at different ends of The Kennedy Center, and people would just walk around and mingle. Taylor Dayne was on that show. At the end of the night, they had all the musicians stand up and wait for Mr. and Mrs. Clinton to come in. I got to sit next to Aretha Franklin, which was really cool. there are pictures and I look like I was smiling ear to ear.
M.R. - Yep, last year we did a lot of dates, and I'm sure we'll be doing the same this year. We have shows every month and there's more coming in, so that's the plan.
R.V.B. - I had to laugh at the name of another one of your projects, "The Girls Gone Mild".
M.R. - Those are friends of mine, yes.
R.V.B. - That's a great name. I obviously know where that name came from (Hahaha)
M.R. - That was a long time ago the "Girls Gone Wild" thing. They're all friends of mine from Buffalo. We all do a lot of different musical projects. Every now and then we get together and play a show. It's mostly for us and chat, eat, drink and have fun.
R.V.B. - That sounds like fun. Do you have students that you teach?
M.R. - Yes I do. I'm quite busy writing music and doing projects that involve the theater around here also, but I just got back from teaching violin, viola, beginning piano and voice, so it keeps me busy. It's been challenging with the weather.
R.V.B. - So I gather you took piano lessons also.
M.R. - I did, but I wouldn't want to perform in public. I'm much more comfortable playing violin, viola and singing, but it's a really good way to get started in music.
R.V.B. - Yeah, you can visually see the notes with the keys.
M.R. - You can supplement what you're doing with another instrument by having a piano there.
R.V.B. - What goes on at Irish Classical Theater in Buffalo?
M.R. - They do a lot of productions, and I'm going to be working with the founder of the theater. I'm going to a rehearsal tonight... we're working on a CD of poems. I'm gonna be singing and playing in the backround, while he recites Irish poems... Vincent O'Neill. They do about six shows a year and they're very good. They do classics and some premiers. We have a great theater community in Buffalo.
R.V.B. - That sounds like fun. Well I won't hold you up any longer because I know you're busy and have to go to rehearsal later. Thank you very much for taking this time with me. Have a good time on your tour.
M.R. - Thanks. Bye
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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