Originally published on Swizzle-Stick.com (2000)
Mary Lorson — known to most as the lead singer of Madder Rose — recently released her first album under the moniker Saint Low (Thirsty Ear Records). The album marks a new beginning for a woman with a long indie rock past. In the early ’90s, Madder Rose spent a better part of it’s time either on the road (with the likes of The Sundays, Juliana Hatfield, and Hole) or in the studio (cranking out releases for Mammoth, and then later Atlantic). By 1997, the alternative nation had turned it’s attention elsewhere and bands like Madder Rose suddenly found themselves without recording contracts.
Fortunately, Thirsty Ear Records understood the songwriting talents of Madder Rose and released the band’s Hello, June Fool earlier this year. While Madder Rose was led by the vocals of Mary Lorson, it was guitarist Billy Cote who was writing most of the music and lyrics. The idea for Saint Low first emerged in Mary’s mind (and notebook) in 1997, but it wasn’t until the last year or so that she acted upon the idea. The Saint Low record is an outpouring of emotion, thoughts, and ideas for Mary, and while it sounds like Madder Rose at times, this release is much more personal.
We recently had the chance to spend a few minutes on the phone with Mary. Despite the fact that family friends arrived from overseas at the same time we called, Mary was gracious enough to tend to business before pleasure.
Is it difficult for you to keep fighting the good fight?
I think I’ve been trying to adjust my efforts, refocus them better. When I lived in New York and we started Madder Rose, we played a lot of gigs. We played a lot of crap gigs, and good gigs. We were slugging it out and playing as much as we could. I think I’m at the mode where I do want to play gigs but I’m not going to drag myself to someplace on a Monday night just because I’ve done it and I’m tired of it. It’s expensive to play gigs. I’m trying to focus on the music and I’m trying to educate myself on other ways to distribute music. I can’t say I’ve made a lot of progress, I’m Internet naïve.
How did you go from Madder Rose to Saint Low?
Basically I started writing more and realizing that the songs I was writing weren’t really Madder Rose type songs. Billy is the primary songwriter in Madder Rose. Usually we work it out so that 1/3 of the songs are mine. I started setting aside the other ones and they started to pile up. I realized I liked them and I could hear a certain kind of instrumentation for them so I started looking for the right instrumentalists. I mostly did recordings of the songs and wrote all the parts out and then I found the musicians.
Was it easy to separate the two bands?
Yeah. It wasn’t that hard. The thing with Madder Rose is that Billy and I moved to upstate New York five years ago and our drummer moved to Chicago. We’ve been a long distance band for the last five years. I think that’s part of the reason I wanted to do Saint Low. I wanted to play. There are a lot of musicians up here where I live so I just started looking around. I work at a restaurant that’s a nightclub so I’ve heard just about every local band. I saw this one band called Wingnut who are sort of a funk-jazz trio and the keyboard player and drummer just killed me. The bass player is great too, but I already had a bass player. Finding them was a great turning point. I wrote a lot of this stuff on drums and keyboards and I definitely wanted people who weren’t rock like. Up there is a lot of traditional jam bands and I didn’t really want that either. When I heard them I realized they would have the right sensibility. And fortunately enough they agreed to play with me.
Did you have the name before you started the band?
Yeah. I had the name first. It sort of came to me when we were making Tragic Magic. We were in Louisiana. It wasn’t a major fight, but I think there had been some dispute about I wanted something to go a certain way and Billy was the producer so he chose to do it another way. I think I was probably grumbling in my head a little and I had my notebook so I started writing down song titles, some of which I had already written, and some of which I hadn’t. I was like, “Okay, this is my album. This is my solo album.” Saint Low came to me then. I like the sound of the words. Saint goes up and Low goes down. I like the musicality of the words together.
So are the song titles on the Saint Low CD the ones that you had written down in your notebook?
Some of them are. Some of the songs that I wrote that fit the titles were kind of stank, they weren’t very good songs so they got shelved. Then I wrote the others. One of the songs on the album is about 10 years old. One of them is about 6 months old. And one of them I wrote right before I went into the studio.
You do some writing outside of music writing as well?
Yeah, I always kind of wrote short stories and stuff like that. I started writing screenplays when I was in college. I kind of let that go when I was focusing on Madder Rose a lot. Once we moved up here, I had more time and started to really focus on it. I’ve written two full-length screenplays. I wrote a short that I actually shot this spring. I’m out of money, so I’m working to save up the money to try to finish it. Then I’m going to submit it to festivals. If it gets accepted that will really help to get my feature scripts read.
Is that another hat you’re going to wear or is it something that you’re interested in devoting all your time to?
I always want to make music. I don’t really know what kind of possibilities will present themselves to me with film. When I was growing up I always wanted to play music and I always wanted to make movies. I kind of thought, give it a try and see what happens. I’ve had pretty good luck with music. I know that I’ll always make music but I don’t know for sure that the system will provide me with the option to do it, so I can see myself making films. It’s something you can do as you get older. Writing is something I think you get better at as you get older. Billy and I have been writing film music too. I would love it if ten years from now we were writing film music for films that we liked and I got to make a film or two. I’d like to make a documentary too.
Do you have a different writer’s voice when you write music as opposed to when you write your screenplays?
That’s interesting. It’s not intentional, but I guess naturally it’s different just from the forms being so different. Basically everything starts from my journal. I don’t even call it a journal, it’s not like a diary, it’s a notebook that I write in all the time. That’s where I get the lyrics from. I’ll go back and read them and find a couple of words that go together in a way I like. That’s how I piece together the song lyrics.
When an idea comes to me I just sort of run with it on paper and then go back and expand on it. I always work from the same notebooks, which I have a lot of from over the years.
When you’re writing a song do you ever envision who you want to hear them and what type of setting you’d like to play them in?
Actually I don’t. It’s a real lengthy process for me. I think I would have been diagnosed with ADD if they had known that when I was kid. I’m all over the place. As long as you go back to the same thing, whether you spend 10 minutes or 30 minutes, pick up where you left off and you won’t be floundering. I go from the drums to the piano to the guitar back to the piano then I’m working on a little film idea. I’m just bouncing around all the time. I think that since I’ve figured that out I’ve been much healthier mentally. Before, I didn’t have the discipline to refocus back on anything that was in progress and I felt like I didn’t get anything done. And I didn’t get a whole lot done. It took me a long time to figure out what my process is and it’s really different from Billy’s. He starts with a melody. Sometime I do, but mostly I start with the rhythm.
So you basically play every instrument?
I fool around on the drums. I like to know the kick and snare pattern because it has everything to do with the melody and the bass line obviously. What I like to do is come up with a drum part I like and write a bass line. After I get the bass line, I write the melody. Then the guitar just sort of fills in. Or I’ll write the drums, then the piano, then the bass line. I’m a pretty lousy drummer, but I like the little beats I come up with. I have a good time with them. It’s fun.
What are the future Madder Rose plans and, for that matter, your plans for the next year with Saint Low?
I’m always writing. I think I’m in a real Saint Low writing mode. Billy and I have been doing a lot of instrumental writing together. We’re using that as the woodshed for the next Madder Rose album. We scored a short film that a student did locally. We’re going to continue writing instrumental stuff together and figure out which of the pieces we feel like turning into songs and that will be our next Madder Rose record. That will probably be part instrumental, so we’ll have to see how that goes. The business will dictate a little of it. If Saint Low does well, they may prefer me to do another Saint Low record before Madder Rose. Billy and I are going to start the next Madder Rose anyway because if Saint Low doesn’t do well, we may not have a record deal in a year. We’re going to keep making music and let the business fall where it may. We’re both writing tons right now. That’s a lot of fun because every other day one of us is like “What do you think of this?”
Are you selling as well on Thirsty Ear as you were at Atlantic?
No, partly because I don’t think they aim as high. Atlantic would like to sell 100,000 records. Selling 50,000 records was easy for them, it would have taken an extra effort for them to sell 100,000. With Thirsty Ear, I don’t know the exact numbers, but they probably only shoot for 20,000. It’s a whole different attitude. I’d like it if they would shoot for more. Since we spent so little on the record, the potential for them to profit, if they were to really devote themselves to promotion, is there. They are a wonderful company and they have a great idea about artists and a great attitude. They just don’t have a ton of resources. They are very easily forgivable.
Has Saint Low been playing a lot of shows?
We’ve been playing in New York every month for like the last eight months. We played a few weeks ago at the Bowery Ballroom opening for Juliana Hatfield. That was very interesting because Madder Rose did that a lot. It was interesting to face her crowd with a very different kind of un-rock music. They took it pretty well. I don’t know how many of them remembered me. It occurred to me before the show that some of these people would have seen me open for Juliana in the past. That was a fun night.
Would you ever consider doing what Juliana did and put out two albums at the same time?
If I were in her position, I might consider that. I tell you this, with a lot of respect for her, they don’t sound that different to me. That’s my only problem with the concept. As a concept, it’s great. You could also release a double album with different sounding songs. That’s how she chose to do it. Listening to them, I didn’t find them to be boldly different from each other. A lot of it was the sounds they used in the recordings were very much the same. She uses a certain kind of guitar sound that you know she likes and works well for her and has forever. I’d love, and this mind sound pretentious and I don’t mean it that way at all, to produce her. I think it would be a lot of fun. I’m fresh from my first experience of producing. When I hear her record I think “Oh why didn’t they use an acoustic here?” or “Why didn’t they use a violin here?” They may just be I’m just thinking about what I like doing these days. I think her songs could evoke a lot more sonically than I’ve heard her go for.