Stillsane After All These Years
Photo by Irene Young
interview by Tony SclafaniTiming is everything, they say. But the timing couldn't have been worse for Carolyne Mas when she emerged as a guitar-toting female rocker in 1979.
Although the U.S. rock scene in the late 1970s had its share of dance divas and rock singers, females who actually played instruments were in short supply (the U.K. scene was a bit more liberated). Had she come along a generation earlier, Mas might have been able to fit in with the Joni Mitchell-Carly Simon crowd. Had Mas emerged a generation later, she could have strummed alongside the riot grrrls and Sheryl Crow.
But neither her record company (Mercury Records) nor audiences seemed ready for Mas when she emerged with her self-titled debut LP. Although the album spawned a minor hit with the energetic, piano-driven "Stillsane" (which hit #79 in Sept. 1979), that wasn't enough to propel Mas into a commercially successful career.
Listening to that LP now, it's clear that Mercury Records and producer Steve Burgh had little idea about how to utilize Mas' talents. Though Mas was a guitar player, the disc's ten straight-ahead rock songs are saddled with piano-heavy arrangements recalling the early 1960s girl group era. It was as if Mercury's powers that be thought that the only way to arrange music for a female was to revive the sound of a more female-friendly era.
A few years earlier, Bruce Springsteen had used this musical approach, and that led to Mas being labeled as "the female Springsteen." But Mas wrote first-person accounts about romantic entanglements, not narratives on streetwise characters battling working class angst. The (poor) comparison was also fueled by the fact that David Landau, brother of Springsteen Svengali Jon Landau, was Mas' guitarist.
After two more albums and a live EP, Mas' Mercury contract ran out and she disappeared from the pages of Creem and Rolling Stone (where she had garnered a good amount of attention and positive reviews). Mas lay low for a few years and resumed recording independently in the late 1980s.
And then a funny thing happened: Mas began releasing truly great records, filled with ear-catching melodies and arrangements that were complimentary, not desultory. Her singing grew in power and her lyrics became more emotionally resonant. While many aging rockers return to the musical arena with watered-down ideas that are out of step with the mainstream, Mas' music became both stronger and more commercial.
The beguiling batch of songs collected on her Beyond Mercury anthology could have fit on any 1990s radio play list alongside Jann Arden, Sophie B. Hawkins, or Melissa Etheridge. Her most recent release, Brand New World, (recorded in 1999 and re-released in 2005) is her strongest work ever and shows her working in Liz Phair/Avril Lavigne pop-rocker territory with excellent results. The insanely tuneful hooks of "Be Your Girl" and "One Track Mind" prove that had Mas made her debut in almost any other generation, her music would have found an audience.
These days, Mas is married and the mother of a young son. A lifelong animal lover, the New York native has spent the last few years running a kennel in her newly adopted home state of Florida. Late in 2005, Mas' animal shelter was in danger of being shut down by Florida authorities, who said she was violating a zoning ordinance which limits the number of animals that can be housed on a given property. Perfect Sound Forever tracked down this highly-regarded rocker and talked to her about her music, the record industry, and her work with animals.
PSF: What was your musical background?
I grew up on Long Island, but we were regulars in (Greenwich) Village. I was singing and playing when I was tiny. My mother and father both sang, so it was a very musical household. I was playing piano at age six and guitar at age 11. I went to acting school in the Village—to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. I really thought that I would be an actress and do musical comedy. I love Gilbert and Sullivan—I actually was a member of the Light Opera of Manhattan. And I always played guitar and sang gigs and stuff. I had a real diverse upbringing with a lot of different kinds of music around me.
PSF: How did you get your start in rock music?
Mike Porco, the owner of Folk City called me at home at my parent's house. I had sung a hoot night and he wanted me to come in and sing at a "best of the hoot." That day I found an apartment and moved. My mother and father helped me move in. I moved to the Village in October of 1976. I just started playing. I played by myself sometimes. I'd have a band on the weekend because you maybe made $12 a week at Folk City – and you'd have to split that with guys coming in from Massapequa. I played with a lot of guys – sometimes we did Zeppelin tunes. I did Janis Joplin stuff. I used to have a Gibson SG. In 1977, Kenny's Castaways opened and they had more bands. So it was easier to try to play with a band more consistently. Folk City frowned upon you having a band. I was part of the new breed of kind of funky kids. The older folk guys didn't like me too much. I'd been writing since I was… I think I have a copy of a song I wrote when I was like five. It was about the two dogs we had.
PSF: How did you wind up getting a contract with Mercury Records?
Just playing at Kenney's Castaways, I started to get a lot of press because what I was doing at that time was considered unusual. I was a woman playing rock and roll. And I had a Telecaster. I was written about in the Daily News even before I had a record deal. I met my manager in the late summer of 1978 and I did three showcases in early 1979. Those were the ones that got me a record deal.
PSF: Can you talk about your first LP (the self-titled Carolyne Mas)?
I recorded it actually before I had a contract. It was great. I wanted to play with (guitarist and sometime co-writer) David Landau because I heard him play on a recording by Warren Zevon. I really liked Warren Zevon. It's really funny because when I first got together with (producer) Steve Burgh months later, the first person he had at the audition for my band was David Landau. The chemistry between us was like fire. He still is the only person I've ever played with that if I'm playing piano and he's playing guitar, we'll go to the same lick a third apart in harmony. And I've never had that happen with anybody.
I wrote "Stillsane" for a girlfriend of mine named Suzy. She used to be the girl that would dance by herself – everybody would think she was crazy. She was actually a very good dancer and was kind of a brave person in general. In front of the jukebox at Kenny's Castaways she would do this wild, exaggerated dancing and I wrote it for her because I hated the way people treated her. I understood her because I was always an outcast or a weirdo. Until I got a record deal most people thought I was a total weirdo because I used to wear Christmas ornaments hanging from my ears. I used to wear garter belts around my neck. I had my nose pierced. My manager was trying to figure out whether he wanted to manage me or not. (But) the audience had no problem with me.
PSF: What were your experiences like after getting a record contract?
I was just this kid that was trying to sing – trying to do the best that I could. And the record company really didn't know what to do with me. If they had been more creative, they actually would have found a niche for me, rather than trying to stick me in one with everybody else. The Springsteen thing was bad. Lumping me in with Pat Benatar, Ellen Foley, and Ellen Shipley was a stupid thing. Treating me as an individual would have allowed me to build and develop as an artist.
Mercury Records was the wrong label to sign with. They must have changed presidents like four or five times when I was there. Bob Sherwood signed me, but then he disappeared – as did (label vice president) Steve Katz. We spent a lot of time playing and that's how I got anything that I have now --not from them, but from playing.
(On) many of my earlier records a producer picked everybody and I barely knew the producer, who was Steve Burgh at the time. I was looking up to all these people that were older than my brothers, so it was a very strange world for me. If you're picking the musicians yourself, you have more of a communication with them and convey what it is you're looking for.
PSF: Did you find radio receptive to your work?
You had the thing where you couldn't play two tracks by women back to back on the radio. It was called "female segueing." The view I heard was that (Mercury Records) over-promoted me to the larger markets and the smaller markets were offended. So everybody went off the (first) record. The bottom fell out. I was over-hyped and the bigger markets resented that, and the smaller ones were angry because they weren't gone to first. My manager had me do a benefit for (New York FM station) WPLJ when WNEW had broken me, so they went off my record, which stopped it from bouncing in the Hard Report. There's something called the Hard Report which is like the radio bible.
I actually had (guys at) radio stations say stuff like "Yeah, she was here this afternoon and she didn't need a bra." I hadn't even been to the station. Because I was playing rock and roll I had to somehow be less of a woman. Or a dyke. I really wanted to go down there and bring in my bra at that point. I don't know if it was a phallic thing, where somehow plugging that guitar in was threatening. I suppose it was like a female golf player or something – where you're going into the forbidden male domain. It was very difficult to really get any respect from any people.
PSF: Your second record, Hold On, received some favorable reviews.
By the time I did the second record, they wanted something harder, and I wanted to do a record that was real. So Hold On is actually live in the studio. I play guitar and sing live. The only thing that's overdubbed is the horn parts and David Landau's leads. It was done in like two or three weeks. When we delivered it to them they said it was too hard! I remember Landau saying "What the fuck do they want?" -- and storming out of the room. He left around then. He went back to play with Warren Zevon. I think he could sense a bad situation coming.
PSF: Your sound changed dramatically with 1981's Modern Dreams.
That's called "Carolyn is supposed to do what they say to do." It's me trying to be cooperative because I thought "OK, I put my own input on Hold On, I better do what they say now." I actually ended up liking (the album's British producers) Jon Astley and Phil Chapman. They were a lot of fun. And they were probably the most respectful of a woman artist than anybody I've ever worked with. They really encouraged me to play a lot of instruments. When I said, "I can't play that, why don't you get someone else to play that?" They said "Oh, you can do it." I played mandolin. Nobody would have let me even touch a mandolin before. It was probably the most fun I had making a record.
PSF: I heard more of a new wave sound on the LP.
That was the English influence. I think Phil Chapman had done a lot of really wild synth-machiney kind of stuff, which was very different. But it was like a lot of stuff I was listening to at the time. It was something interesting for me. You've got to be careful sometimes. That's what I hate about the music business. It stops you from really being able to explore and have fun, because you're at the mercy of public opinion or what the record company expects you to be. Because they want to have this clear image of you. And suppose you're very diverse? Suppose you can do many things?
PSF: It was a surprise to see you re-emerge with the Beyond Mercury CD, which gathered up some Mercury tunes, plus some tunes you had released on indie labels ("Action Pact" and "Reason Street" were released in Germany in 1989 and 1993, respectively). How did this come about?
I went to see Marshall Chapman somewhere and she told me she had just bootlegged her Sony stuff. She said just try it, so we did it. I did it myself with a very good guy that did the mastering named Marty Schrabel in Nashville. And what I did was I took tracks from SPV, the label I was on in Germany, and tracks from "Reason Street, which was an album I did over there. I took tracks from "Action Pact" which was an LP I did in Missouri in 1988 that was released in Germany. I took Mercury tracks. I took demos that I had done with a friend of mine on a four track studio in his home. One guy referred to it as making songs on a cheeseboard. I put them all together, he cued them, and put them together as if it was a set. The only hard song to mix into everything was the "Modern Dreams" song "Love Like Stone." It seemed so flat compared to everything else.
I'm not allowed to use the Mercury cuts. I tried to buy them but no one would talk to me. I tried calling Universal Music Group I can't even tell you how many times. And I was told I have to talk to this person and that person. It was maddening. STV in Germany bought the rights. They actually managed to get the rights through Phonogram UK. They got the rights in Germany and they were supposed to put out a "best of" CD but never did. (To get) the first three albums you have to get them from me. The guy that was running my fan club had a friend who put them on CD.
PSF: After a hiatus, you went back into the studio in the late 1990s to record "Brand New World." What were the circumstances behind that?
I was in Nashville. I was very lonely because it's not my part of the world. I was lonely for New York. Steve Burgh hadn't been listed for a long time and he just began to list his phone number again. I found him and we started talking. This must have been in summer 1998. He asked me if I wanted to make a record, just like that. I didn't even have a car at the time. I made MP3s – this is when nobody knew what they were. I was really into computers. When you're all alone in the middle of nowhere and you have all this time, you learn something. I made MP3 files and sent him demos that way. He said "Great, we've got the record, when do you want to come?"
PSF: Can you speak on some of the songs?
"Be Your Girl" -- Mark Johnson, the guy I wrote it with, we wrote it over the phone. I was in Florida and he was in New York. And I think I still have the cassette tape of us. My husband hooked up one of those old Shure microphones to the cassette player so I could sing into it and put it up against the phone. He was playing the guitar and I was singing. That's in 1995. We put "Be Your Girl" and "Little by Little" on a demo for SPV Records in order for them to dump me. I knew they would not renew my contract and I really wanted to be out of it.
"Stay with Me" is a Dictators song that I always thought that I could do better. I always had it in my mind a different way. Dion also did it – a really slow version of it which is really bizarre. I always had it in my mind to do it and it was wonderful to be able to do it and have Daniel Rey play guitar because he knew Andy Shernoff. I was trying to get Joey Ramone to sing it with me but he was sick already. David Landau and I wrote "One Track Mind" in Germany. We always had this thing where he could come up with a chorus and I would say "I'm gonna go into the next room and come out with the rest of the song." And five minutes later I'd come out with the rest of the song and we'd be jumping up and down like kids. This was always our way of writing. We always had this magic. Even after not being together for so many years he came to Germany in Aug. 1990 and we wrote something like five songs in a week. And that's one of them.
PSF: You then decided to re-release Brand New World in 2005. Why?
Steve Burgh died. It was very sudden. I couldn't believe it when I heard it. He was working all night the way he likes to and his daughter went to wake him up to drive her to school and he was dead. He had a massive heart attack. When I went to his funeral, everybody was saying how much he liked my music. His mother talked to me – as did a lot of his friends – and they were saying "He loved your music. He talked about your music all the time (and) working with you. It meant so much to him." I never really knew. He never told me. I just thought it was another gig for him. I liked him as a person, but we never talked about the music much. We talked about other stuff.
I don't know what the legal issues with this CD are, but I think it needs to be out. Because it should be heard. It shouldn't be in the garbage. And who knows if anybody can even find the master, because he left everything in such a state of disarray. It's probably lost. It could be that I have the only copy that was a CD-R. The same guy that did Beyond Mercury -- I took it to him and he made a master and made a CD.
PSF: What got you interested in taking care of animals?
I've always loved animals. I was the person who was running around New York when I was 13 with a pigeon looking for a vet. When we lived in Nashville – Tennessee is a terrible state for animals – we found there are very few "no-kill" shelters. There's very little money invested in animal welfare, compared to a lot of states. And there are literally animals roaming the streets -- in fact the shiatsu that you see at my Web site was this itsy bitsy mangled ball of fur roaming with a boxer. We managed to get him rescued. We started to take in animals because we just couldn't believe they were roaming around. Then they started to either gravitate toward us or they were being dropped off. So it began with building one kennel, then two kennels then three kennels... then eventually the whole downstairs of our house in Nashville was filled with animals.
But when my father died, there was no family in Florida to look after my aunt -- and my mother was all alone. So I just packed up some of the cats and all of the birds and moved down here. I lived here two years with my husband still staying in Nashville with all the dogs. So it was a very important thing to find this property because it meant that we could all be together.
PSF: You were recently told you were in violation of zoning laws. So are you trying to get your property rezoned?
Yes. It is a kennel and was built as one. It has operated as a kennel but in violation of zoning, but no one ever complained. But that's because the guy next door didn't live there then. There was nobody living there. Then when I moved in he got word I was going to be moving all these animals in. And he came and complained to me before the animals had even arrived.
PSF: Did the real estate agent sell it under false pretenses?
Well they got their information from the owner. And the owner was a man who was just turning the property around. He had bought it in foreclosure from the (previous) owner after it was a kennel. He's one of these guys who buys places and makes money by turning them around. He actually knew that it wasn't zoned for a kennel because the next door neighbor who was complaining about me told me that the man had thought of maybe making a quick buck by having a boarding facility – since all the buildings are in place. And he had that same problem with the neighbor, then turned around and told me it was a kennel and sold it that way. Even though he knew it wasn't zoned right. So the realtor actually got his information from the owner without checking it. Then he put it on (sale). I saw them asking for a property for 25 dogs and 33 cats, they signed this listing and it's a done deal.
PSF: Your Web site said they threatened you with jail time if you didn't get rid of the animals.
When you called I was on the phone with a lawyer. He is very realistic about the possibility of me going to jail if I don't comply with this zoning thing before the first of January. He says the court will look at it as if I've had plenty of time to comply. But I can't believe people can be so flippant about getting rid of animals, especially since the whole thing was a fraud, the way this place was sold to me. I am suing the people who sold me the house, but I refuse to have to get rid of animals. Most of them are old. They have their own house, which is almost like a cat Club Med. The complaint was not originally about them. But since they knew I had them – because I volunteered all the rabies records to the sheriff – they used that against me too. Because you're only allowed to have nine domestic animals per property. So that means I'm so way over. It's almost ridiculous to think of doing anything within a month. And I have no place to stash them. I'm not going to give these dogs away because they've already had a hard enough life to be shuffled around again to dubious owners. And I won't do it. If I have to go to jail I will, but I don't see myself having to do that. I think if I just contact enough people there is going to be a third way that just hasn't presented itself yet. I've always been pretty lucky. I've survived a lot of bad things. I think I can take it.
Addendum: As of Jan. 12, 2006, Carolyne Mas' animal sanctuary was saved by being moved to a new location 45 minutes away. For more details on Mas' shelter or music, visit: www.carolynemas.com.
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