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
to a track by rock singer Lisa
Ellis on the
CD compilation “Music from Ground
a musical memorial to the victims
11th. Her relationship with Ellis
is an important
and abiding one. Throughout the
singing back-up for Ellis on
the New York
club scene, Tholl began to compose
songs. Based in Boston again
after ten years
of gypsying, she workshopped
the songs acoustically
in local and New York coffeehouses.
she and Fried produced an acoustic
the prestigious MacDowell colony,
manifestation of the work in
ultimately became KORE.
Q & A
with Singer-Songwriter Marlene Tholl
With a rich history as a New York-based actress,
performance artist, and playwright,
Tholl now launches into the music
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
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
Q: According to your bio, you did some nude
theater in NYC. Tell us a little bit about
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.