Marlene Tholl

When a singer-songwriter releases a debut album, the result can often be tentative and unsure. This is not the case for Marlene Tholl, whose debut release KORE (KOR-ay) leaves an indelible mark on the ears of the listener. There is nothing tentative about this album. Tholl is an intense singer with a solid rock/pop identity. For a first album KORE shows surprising sophistication and maturity. One reason for this is that Tholl is not a twenty-something fresh out of college. For more than ten years, she had a successful career in theatre and other musical ventures.

Born in the Boston area, Tholl spent her formative years travelling the world before heading to New York for an impressive stint as an actress, performance artist, and playwright. Tholl produced her own multimedia shows in residence at The Knitting Factory. “I was really steeped in the downtown theatre and jazz/rock community,” says Tholl. “The Knitting Factory was a planting ground for me as a performer who writes and produces. I had the chance to collaborate with some amazing people.” She wrote plays, “better termed as choreographies,” for a close-knit ensemble of actors and non-actors, performance artists, visual artists and musicians. Producing such works of her own as “The Sitter” and “Clothed/Unclothed: A Twenty Act Play” she staged works by others as well, most notably Sam Shepard’s rock one act “Cowboy Mouth,” playing opposite Mike Doughty of Soul Coughing. Her productions formed a progression that, Tholl observes, “is pretty transparent now in terms of the direction I was going as an artist!”

Tholl also performed as a vocalist in a series of electronic dance operas by composer and They Might Be Giants collaborator Joshua Fried, an important alliance that spanned almost a decade. She appeared at the Ohio Theater in his “Travelogue,” at La Mama in “Headset Sextet,” and in “Spell for Opening the Mouth of N” at the Kitchen and Lincoln Center Out of Doors. The avant-garde wasn’t the only forum for Tholl however. She did commercials, industrials and traditional theatre as well, which included extensive touring throughout the eastern US with commedia dell’arte and Shakespeare companies.

In 2002 Tholl contributed backing vocals to a track by rock singer Lisa Ellis on the CD compilation “Music from Ground Zero,” a musical memorial to the victims of September 11th. Her relationship with Ellis is an important and abiding one. Throughout the ‘90’s, while singing back-up for Ellis on the New York club scene, Tholl began to compose her own songs. Based in Boston again after ten years of gypsying, she workshopped the songs acoustically in local and New York coffeehouses. In ’99 she and Fried produced an acoustic ep at the prestigious MacDowell colony, an early manifestation of the work in progress which ultimately became KORE.

Q & A
with Singer-Songwriter Marlene Tholl
March 2007
With a rich history as a New York-based actress, performance artist, and playwright, Marlene Tholl now launches into the music world with the release of KORE (KOR-ay), her debut CD.

Q: Creating the music on your new CD KORE took you out of the New York theater scene and into the world of singer-songwriters. What led you down this path?

A: My desire to make music had been growing, fed by so many things, my immersion in the downtown club scene, all the music-related performance work I’d been doing, but overwhelmingly by my then lover and mentor, singer and writer Joe Marques, who was a profound influence on me. That’s why KORE is dedicated to his memory.

Q: How long were you involved in theater in New York, and what was your favorite project during that time?

A: I worked in theater for ten years. It’s hard to decide on a favorite project, because I relished everything I did, but my own show “Clothed/Unclothed” was a powerful experience because I felt that I succeeded in manifesting my vision of it so entirely. My favorite roles were Cavale in Sam Shephard’s “Cowboy Mouth” and the White Witch in a touring adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It was such a blast running around for three months in a Cher wig and a sweeping silver dress, zapping people with an icicle for a wand!

Q: According to your bio, you did some nude theater in NYC. Tell us a little bit about that.

A: I’ve worked as an artist’s model off and on since college. It has made me a better performer because it’s, well, the ultimate in exposure, don’t you think? Over the years I developed a deep comfort with my body and with stillness. The downtown scene at that time was a place where that kind of lack of self-consciousness went a long way! I appeared in a play written and directed by a good friend who knew this about me and who essentially wrote the part for me, of this silver woman who recites “The Owl and the Pussycat” while writhing around the stage. It was pretty fun. I remember Lydia Lunch was playing the club that night and we got acquainted as I was being slathered head to toe with silver greasepaint. We had to leave my palms and the soles of my feet undone though, so I wouldn’t suffocate. It took days to get that stuff entirely off of me.

I was interested in the themes of emotional and physical vulnerability in my own work. “Clothed/Unclothed”was about that. It only made sense to utilize the landscape of the body in that piece. The scenes move back and forth between a fully clothed couple and an unclothed couple. The clothed actors are performing the provocative acts; the unclothed couple are two souls simply trying to communicate!

Q: Growing up, did you always know you wanted to do music and theatre? Did you get the lead in the high school play?

A: Yes. The first time I recall someone asking what I wanted to be when I grew up I answered “a writer, a singer and an actress.” I was always acting, creating my own theatricals when there were none to audition for. I was cast in Godspell in my junior year of high school and it changed my life.

Writing was always the common denominator. I started with comic book novels when I was seven, moved on to children’s books at nine and by ten I was writing novels! The longest was seventy pages! It was the improbable story of Mexicans fighting pirates in the jungles of the Baja. This was long before I learned that Baja California was desert!

The writing of a lot of these books was a collaboration/competition with a little friend of mine. We would write our own books and then read them to each other and, of course, we were very influenced by each other. She’s a musicologist now, I think! Our crowning collaboration was a rock opera that we produced at age ten, in which we sang our own lyrics to the tunes of pop songs. I remember that I really ripped off the Beatles song “Rain,” hardly changing the lyrics at all. Someone pointed that out to me and I learned my lesson about plagiarism! But then there was a song that I both wrote and composed, about my green eyes, which I was so proud of. Sort of a vanity piece along the lines of “I’m Really Rosie.” That was my first song!

Q: Have you done any film or tv?

A: Oh yes, I’ve done commercials and industrials, interstitial shorts on Showtime, festival films. When I was tending bar in New York a girl came up to me and asked “Aren’t you someone famous?” I made the snappy reply, “In some circles.” It turned out that she’d seen me in an obscure festival short about the war in Lebanon. It was funny. Actually, I was really pleased with my accent in that film.

Before moving to New York, I did extra work in a miniseries “The Kennedys of Massachusetts” and because I was so skinny and could fit into all these gorgeous period costumes, they kept putting me in scene after scene. If you saw it you would think, whose that girl dogging Annette O’Toole everywhere? She is such a lovely actress. I was otraged for her when they put a fright wig on her as the middle aged Rose Kennedy. A good wig is a wonderful thing and a bad one…, well , it’s just not fair.

Q: Will you ever go back to theater?

A: Absolutely. I’ve still got a play in its second draft that I want to finish and produce at some point. Developing the music had become very immediate for me at that time and so the play got shelved, but it’s there, waiting for me! Acting full time again though? I don’t think so. It’s a curious thing. At some point in the past ten years I discovered that I liked being myself so much that I no longer felt such a pressing need to play other people!

Q: KORE is a name from Greek mythology. Why did you choose it as your title?

A: “Kore” was the epithet that was used for the goddess Persephone in Greek myth and ritual, because originally her name was not meant to be spoken. It literally meant “girl” or “virgin” in ancient Greek. The young girls dedicated to the temples of the Goddess were called kores. When I wrote this collection of songs I was interested in chronicling my own transformation from initiate to priestess, if you will. But I was also inspired by the so very ancient story of the ritual descent into the underworld, and the return, a story that is probably as old as human ritual itself. I saw the parallels in my own life. So “Kore” seemed a natural choice for an album of songs about that journey.

Q: You have a very distinctive and consistent sound, which is often rare in a first album. Why do you think that is?

A: I do believe that an artist develops a strong voice simply from doing the work for many years, and that that voice can travel with her from medium to medium. It also may be that I’ve gained, at this point in my life, a really strong sense of myself, not just as a performer and writer, but as a human being.

Q: How did you end up using medieval and Middle Eastern instruments, like the mizmar and the Renaissance harp, on KORE?

A: I’m fascinated by modal sounds, gravitate towards them. As my husband says, “They have bottom!” I lived in Turkey as an exchange student in my teens and I’ve continued to go back since. I’ve been deeply affected by my experiences there. The last time I was in Turkey, in central Anatolia in 2001, I heard the zurna played everywhere. Warren Jones’ mizmar recreated that kind of sound for me.

My father is a folk singer and guitarist and he exposed me to nonwestern forms at a very early age. He whetted my interest in Celtic music too. As well as singing a lot of traditionals with him, I sang chorally very early on – in the Kodaly Method as a child and then in a madrigal group as a teen. When I was developing myself musically again as an adult I went to a lot of Celtic sessiuns around town and performed later with early/world music ensembles where I worked with BabZ, the harpist on my album. When I began to arrange the songs in the studio, their modalities just begged for these instruments.

Q: You grew up in Needham. After so many years in New York, how do you like being back in Boston?

A: I love it. Now I have the best of both worlds. I live in the place of my roots. I have a strong bond with my family and with the land. But I have the friendships and connections that I made in New York. It’ll be my second home as an artist always.

Q: Any touring plans?

A: Definitely! Stay tuned!

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