We first met Kari last July when Debs’s high school friend, author Leah Bobet, introduced her to us on Twitter! Errol was super excited and immediately invited her to go to a Fringe play with him and then dragged her to a house filk. Kari plays an awesome ukulele and writes hilariously geeky songs. She’s also a visual artist with her very own web comic.
Name: Kari Maaren
Instruments: Ukulele for the geeky stuff, but I also play piano, accordion, mandolin, tenor guitar, flute, and various whistles.
Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Year Formed: : I am not a band, so this question is puzzling…but I started performing geeky music in late 2011.
Genre: Geeky ukulele? Does that count as a genre? My style is mostly folky. There’s been some bluegrass and pseudo-jazz in there from time to time. I do lead a non-geeky band that plays mostly bluegrass and Celtic folk.
Favourite Fandom: Not sure. I’ll claim Tolkien, fairy tales, and Batman with a splash of Doctor Who, just to be random.
What is your geek origin story?
I didn’t have many friends when I was a kid. After a particular incident in which some classmates told a cruel joke about me and my best friend laughed, I didn’t have any. I took refuge in books. I was reading Shakespeare for fun by the age of twelve or so, but I also loved fantasy and science fiction. Now I lean more towards fantasy, but I was on a real Arthur C. Clarke run for a while there. I read as many comics as I could; at that time, it was mostly newspaper comics, as I didn’t really have access to other kinds, but I used to sneak off to the library and read old collections of Superman comics in the stacks. I didn’t realise any of this stuff was geeky because no one told me.
I also have a mania for fairy tales, and not the Disney kind. When I say this, people often go, “Oh, you mean real fairy tales, like ones by the Brothers Grimm!” I am such a terrible pedant that I immediately launch into a diatribe about how the Brothers Grimm actually bowdlerised the fairy tales they collected, taking out the uncomfortable sexy bits and replacing all the psychopathic mothers with stepmothers. They left in most of the violence, though. If you want to encounter some genuinely dark fairy tales, go beyond the Brothers Grimm, though they’re a great place to start.
Ukuleles have become really popular over the last few years, but you began playing one long before that. How did you first get started (and learn so much)?
I’ve played instruments almost since before I could walk. My parents sent me to piano lessons in elementary school, but they didn’t take; I hated to practise. Only once I stopped the lessons did I really start to teach myself how to play the piano, and I now play mostly by ear, though I also have an understanding of theory because I took flute lessons later on. The ukulele was the instrument my parents gave me (for Christmas or my birthday; I forget which) when I was about eight and asked for an instrument of my very own. I’m entirely self-taught. I still have the chord book that came with my first ukulele thirty years ago; it’s almost worn out now. I’ve played the ukulele off and on. Occasionally, other instruments have taken precedence, but I’ve always returned to the uke as a performance instrument. Like many uke players who started as children, I’ve developed my own style and techniques. There are some things I’m still completely incapable of doing, and there are some things I’ve just sort of figured out. My strength is probably finger-picking, while my weakness is the fact that I generally stick to the basic keys.
Tell us about your very first song.
What? Really? I don’t even remember what that was. I was probably about ten. I spent most of my teen years writing stories and songs. I don’t have any idea which song came first. I do remember writing this series of horrible musicals in my late teens and early twenties. They were drenched in sentimentality and probably owed a lot to The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables, since at the time, those were the only musicals I knew (I know better now). The first of the musicals was about pirates. I was quite devastated when I discovered the existences of The Pirates of Penzance, since I hadn’t known about Gilbert and Sullivan before that. I was kind of an ignorant kid. The pirate musical was meant as a vicious satire of some sort, and it was horribly tragic but supposedly funny at the same time. I don’t know. I do still like pirates quite a lot.
I should also say that I eventually moved on to writing musicals of which I was not ashamed. My friend Ben Fortescue and I co-wrote and produced one, Cross Purposes, for the Calgary Fringe Festival in 2009. It was about murder, not pirates.
Two things that struck us when we were first introduced to you was your quirky way of approaching topics and the depth of your lyrics; clever and yet really accessible. We’d love to hear more about your songwriting process and how you find your angles and inspiration.
Well, I’ve always liked working with funny rhyming verse, and I’ve always had a strong ear for scansion. I had a high-school English teacher who used to mutter loudly to herself when she saw my poetry, “I hate it when they insist on rhyming.” She managed to convince me that rhyming verse was shameful, and she put me off it for years, but I guess because I knew that songs rhymed too, I regarded music as a Rhyme-Safe Zone.
The songs mostly just happen. Sometimes I’ll have an idea, and it’ll be connected to a particular recurring line or fragment of verse. “Kids These Days,” my vampire song, happened that way. I just had this image of a traditional vampire baffled by an influx of sulky young vampires who kept announcing they were angsty and wanted to sparkle in the sun. “Kids these days” was the recurring line, and the song slowly built itself around that. I had a fragment of melody that went along with the line as well. Sometimes the melody comes at the same time as the words, and sometimes it comes later. Often, the refrain, especially if it’s only one or two lines long, comes into being because it’s associated with a particular melody in my mind.
As far as the geeky music goes, it’s going to take a bit of explaining. It started, in a roundabout way, with publishing. In 2011, I worked as a slush reader for ChiZine Publications (CZP), a small (now mid-sized) Toronto SF publisher. I started going to the Chiaroscuro Reading Series (or Chiseries for short), which CZP held on a monthly basis. In the spring, there was a special edition of the Chiseries, and one of the scheduled musicians dropped out, so my friend Helen Marshall, who was one of the organisers, asked me to bring my keyboard and sing a song. I had no idea what I was doing at that point. I suggested maybe the ukulele would be more portable, as well as less obnoxious, since nobody there actually knew who I was, and I didn’t want to turn up with this giant instrument in a wheely case and start demanding a place to plug it in. I didn’t sing one of my own songs that time, since I didn’t have one prepared; I did “The Toronto Song” by Three Dead Trolls in a Baggie. People enjoyed it, and I was asked back for the Christmas special. I had more time to prepare, and I decided to write my own Christmas song. It was about zombies, of course. In my mind, zombies and Christmas are closely associated.
After that, I was asked back for Valentine’s Day, and then I just sort of became a regular, playing two original songs in between the acts at every Chiseries. This brings me all the way back to the actual question. I tend to be inspired by the fact that I’m writing for a bunch of lit geeks. Because CZP leans towards dark fantasy and horror, some of my songs do have a tinge of horror that I don’t think is usual in filk. Horror is, in many ways, all about ferreting out anxieties and prodding them with a stick, and that’s something I’m happy to do. Even my non-horror-based songs tend to revolve around poking holes in assumptions. For instance, I kind of hate love songs, so naturally, I’ve written a bunch of them. “I’ll Still Love You When I’m Gone” takes the idea of eternal love and turns it into a macabre meditation on obsession; the narrator claims she (my narrators are often gender neutral, though I myself am inevitably not, but I’ll just stick with “she” for now) will still love the object of her affection when she’s dead…and will reinforce this love with horrible violence if necessary. A less cynical love song, “Sasquatch,” is, in some ways, a reversed Cinderella story about a Sasquatch who falls in love with large footprints in the mud but is so solitary by nature that he prefers never to meet the creature who made them. Poke. Poke. Poke.
One more thing worth noting in this extremely long answer is that a lot of my songs are written from monstrous perspectives. They don’t take a “Monsters are just misunderstood and are really nice underneath” approach, either. It’s more like, “Hi, guys, I’m a monster. Let me be monstrous for a bit here. Isn’t this fun? I think I’ll eat your eyeballs now.” The song that gives its title to my first solo album, “Beowulf Pulled My Arm Off,” is a cheerful ditty in which Grendel, the first monster that turns up in the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, explains how he’s okay with having been killed horribly because after all, he ended up in an epic poem. Dude.
Speaking of albums, you’ve released not one but TWO in the past month. Can you tell us about them?
It makes me look really industrious, doesn’t it? Actually, it was an accident. I recorded the first album, Beowulf Pulled My Arm Off, in October of 2012, but due to a series of unfortunate events, the guy doing the recording didn’t get the mastered version to me until April of 2013. Then the artist who was making the cover art was busy too, so I had to wait some more. It was worth it, though, since the artist was Erik Mohr, and he drew me a sad Grendel sitting in his living room, mourning the loss of his arm. The album collects fourteen of the songs I performed at the Chiseries in 2011 and 2012.
In the meantime, I played at a filk concert at the Toronto Library’s Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy in the spring of 2013. There were a lot of other performers from Toronto’s filk community there. Leslie Hudson and Devin Melanson played two songs about The Princess Bride. I had met Leslie once before at a filk circle, but it was my first time meeting Devin. A few days later, he e-mailed me to suggest a collaboration; he wanted to make a CD showcasing a few of my songs and a few of his and Leslie’s songs. He invited me to Ancaster to record. So I ended up riding the GO Train to get to the house of this guy I’d met once so I could record songs in his sound-proof basement studio. Fun!
This second album ended up coming out before the one I recorded in October. Devin is an extremely efficient guy. The album is called Pirate Elves in Space because it involves songs about Star Wars (Leslie and Devin),The Princess Bride (Leslie and Devin again), and J. R. R. Tolkien (me). We also included my song about Sherlock Holmes, “Being Watson,” but alas, we couldn’t fit that into the title. We debuted the album at FilKONtario, an awesome convention held in Toronto in late April.
My songs on both albums are not, let us say, over-produced. We’ve basically got me in a room with a ukulele. Ta-da. I have been advised to describe these recordings as “raw,” which is probably a good word. Both my first recorder, Arnob Bal, and my second, Devin Melanson, advised me that minor errors would just make the recordings sound more real. Since I am not a fan of Glee–in fact, I may be an anti-fan of Glee–this worked for me.
What is your favourite song?
I have a certain fondness for my first geeky song, “A Lonely Christmas Out Here,” which is from the perspective of a zombie who is sad because no one leaves the house at Christmas, and there are therefore no tasty brains to eat. However, it may be slightly edged out by “Kids These Days.” All my Twilight-related frustration has been poured into that song. It’s also extremely fun to perform, as it involves a lot of anguished mugging.
Errol made you a Facebook page because he’s impatient or insane or something, but we know that you’ve been resisting Facebook for a long time. And now you’re posting links and promoting things! What has that shift been like?
Well, I’m still ashamed of selling my soul to Facebook. I also don’t really need more things to distract me from my actual paying job. But ah well. I’ve been on Twitter for a while, so I’m familiar with the basic concept. I don’t really like self-promotion at all and am very bad at it, but just sticking things on a Facebook page every now and again doesn’t seem too horrible. If Errol hadn’t created the page, I probably would have procrastinated on it forever.
You mentioned filk a bit earlier. Can you share a bit about your experiences there so far?
I actually learned the word “filk” from a book (no surprises there), Diana Wynne Jones’s Deep Secret, which is a great fantasy set at a literary SF convention. At that point, I had no idea what filk was, so I looked it up. Then I sort of forgot about it. After I’d been playing at the Chiseries for a while, people started telling me my music was filk and nudging me towards the Toronto filkers, but I am not a brave person and didn’t do anything about it until Errol popped into my life and took me to a filk circle on the first day we met. It’s a really interesting community. In some ways, filk strikes me as the anti-American Idol, and I mean that in an entirely positive way. Bear with me for a moment here as I launch into a mini-lecture. American Idol, like many reality shows, is built around a wish/shame complex; the contestants are convinced that the show is their only way to the top, and they are humiliated when they don’t conform to the judges’ and/or the audience’s expectations of what a “star” is. Contestants must sing only certain kinds of music, and they must sing it only in certain ways. I know this not because I am a closet American Idol fan but because I forced myself to watch it for a while so I could teach my “Televisual Texts and Contexts” students about reality television and sound at least slightly knowledgeable as I did so. I remember one particular contestant last year, Heejun Han, who was a natural comedian. He wasn’t the world’s greatest technical singer, but he stuck around for a long time because he connected with the audience. Then one week, he did a quite hilarious version of Billy Joel’s “My Life,” and the judges lambasted him for “not taking the contest seriously” and “disrespecting the song.” Apparently, the fact that he was having actual fun with the music was a problem. He didn’t last long after that.
The reason I’m going on and on about American Idol is that filk isn’t like that. Everybody is welcome to sing. Ability doesn’t matter; all that matters is a love of music. The unfortunate stereotype that emerges from that is that no filk is ever good, which isn’t true at all; I’ve heard some fantastic filk from people of all musical backgrounds and abilities. Filk encourages people who would otherwise stay mute to sing, as well as to create original material. It doesn’t shame people into silence because they don’t fit a certain mould. When my father was a child, his choir director told him “just to mouth the words.” I really hate that attitude. No, not everyone is a stage performer, but that doesn’t mean we should lose the sense of music as community that has likely been with us since the first early human discovered that hitting a skull with a femur made a pretty sound.
Tell us about your most memorable gig!
That would probably be the first Chiseries gig at which I sang an original song. At that point, very few people knew who I was, and no one in the room except maybe Helen had heard me play any of my own music. So I started in on what seemed to be this sappy Christmas song about loneliness, and I could see everybody cringing. The room was full of “We’re going to have to pretend to like this, aren’t we?” expressions. Then I hit the line, “Being a zombie is no fun at all when everyone’s staying inside.” Everybody went sort of…boing! Zombies! The song is saved! After that, the whole audience was into it. People even sang along on the last chorus. I had never had that happen before. There were these fifty or sixty people, most of whom had never spoken to me, singing loudly about being a zombie at Christmas. It’s hard to describe the feeling you get from that.
Some may not know this about you, but you are also a visual artist with her own web comic! Can you tell us a little about West of Bathurst and how you’ve kept it going strong for seven years?
West of Bathurst started as my own strange contribution to the Massey College Alumni Association website, which I created. The website is still around, and it still looks as if it was made in 1995, but I don’t care. Massey is a U of T graduate residence housing sixty Junior Fellows (i.e., students in graduate and professional programmes) and accommodating maybe another eighty non-resident Junior Fellows, as well as Senior Fellows (generally U of T professors), Senior Residents (senior scholars of all sorts), and Journalism Fellows. I lived there for three years and was a Fellow for two more. It’s a strange and wonderful place, full of very bright, very odd people who form intense friendships with each other. Massey is probably the reason that many of my friends are physicists. The comic is set at a very lightly disguised version of Massey that I call Davies College after the real-life first Master of Massey College, Robertson Davies.
The comic revolves around the life of a Junior Fellow, Marie Dumont, and her friends: in particular, Barbara Mikkel, an English scholar with no social skills and an obsession with Sherlock Holmes; Rahim Khan, a cynical, introverted nurse; and Casey Mulligan, an improbably gorgeous English student who may actually be Satan. Marie herself is a librarian with PTSD resulting from a past tragedy; she has an obvious mental illness, but it’s treated simply as a part of her life, not as something shameful or worthy of ridicule. There have always been hints that the impossible is possible in the comic, but I strive to make it ambiguous; there’s usually a logical explanation for what happens. The comic is, however, heading towards the end of its run (it’s a very plot-oriented comic, and as I keep telling people, stories do end), and it’s becoming harder and harder for the characters to explain away the strange things happening. The comic has moved gradually away from Davies as Marie has become less attached to it and has concentrated more specifically on the mysteries surrounding both Casey and Marie herself. I’ve slow-played a lot of the elements in the comic; it took readers several years to notice that I had been weaving in a particular fairy tale right from the beginning.
The title is probably worth mentioning, as it puzzles a lot of people; Massey is situated east, not west, of Bathurst. In the world of the comic, “west of Bathurst” is symbolic of adulthood; going “west of Bathurst” is embracing the responsibilities of the adult world, which have been deferred by grad school. The title originates with the fact that U of T students who actually live at U of T only rarely go west of Bathurst, east of Yonge, south of College, or north of Bloor.
West of Bathurst has just been nominated for a Prix Aurora Award, so I guess the fantasy elements are sticking with people. Oh…and regarding “how I’ve kept it going strong for seven years”: pure stubbornness, I guess. It’s not the world’s most popular webcomic, but I don’t care; I just like to draw it.
West of Bathurst featured Debs & Errol in seven comics starting from November 26 – December 8, 2012. You can read them here! Kari has also appeared in several D&E comics.
Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to talk about?
A couple of months ago, David Nickle, who writes horror novels and short stories, asked me to compose a song based on his latest book, The ‘Geisters. I’ve since done so, and we’re preparing to record it, as well as film the recording. We’re aiming to get it out by early June, a few weeks before the release of the book. It’s a really creepy book, so it’s a really creepy song.
I’m also eventually going to put together another album; I’ve already recorded a few songs for it with Devin. I have no idea when that will be out. I seem to be developing a new musical too, though only as a thought experiment at the moment; I’m currently calling it Horror!: the Musical, though Just a Little Bit Wrong is an alternate title. It may eventually grow a plot of some sort. As well, once West of Bathurst ends in the fall, I’m going to compile it into an enormous, unwieldy book. Then I’ll start a new webcomic. I’m not entirely sure what it will be about, but there may be time travel in there somewhere. I like time travel. In fact, I’ve been shopping out a YA time-travel novel for a while now. It doesn’t have a love story in it. I shall claim this is why nobody wants it, though I’m perfectly aware that there are many other excellent reasons. Seriously, though: why do there have to be love stories in everything? When I was fourteen, I found love stories really, really boring. I still do, but I think the fact that I was turned off by them even when I was awash in hormones says something about not every teenager being exactly the same, maybe. And on that completely irrelevant note, I shall bid you adieu.
Kari Maaren writes geeky songs and draws geeky comics. She has sworn to use her ukulele only for good.