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The Search For Geek: Dr. Mary Crowell

Errol first heard of Dr. Mary Crowell when Jane, a filker, asked him if he could play piano and accompany her on one of Mary’s songs. Errol said, “Sure” without really knowing what he was getting himself into. Then he listened to Mary’s songs. Then he freaked out just a little bit because Mary plays piano (and sings!) like no one’s business. He got through that cover…somehow. He’s been lucky enough to see her in concert once. Debs has never met Mary, but really, reeeeeally wants to. Mary also tweets a lot.

Dr. Mary Crowell
Dr. Mary Crowell

Basic Stats

Name: Dr. Mary Crowell
Instruments: piano, vocal, clarinets, sometimes harmonica, beginning cello, hopefully accordion. I have a lovely accordion named Elvis!
Location: Athens, Alabama USA. Married to Wesley with one son, Simon.
Year Formed: Er? I was born in 1968.
Genre: That would be what I used to call ‘adult retelling of fairy tales,’ although it is now sometimes called urban fantasy.
Favourite Fandom:  If we’re talking about where I hang out at conventions, you’ll find me with the filkers most often, but at home I’m a rpg gamer. This year, I’m making more of an effort at conventions to give my twenty siders a work out.

What is your geek origin story?

My Dad introduced me to science fiction when I was in second grade. My Mom introduced me to mythology even earlier. I was a kid who took home stacks of books from the library and traded them out every week, often multiple books on the same topic because I wanted to know everything about King Arthur, or Robin Hood, or Aphrodite, or horses.

And yes, I was the kid sitting by myself in the school cafeteria reading in sixth grade. I remember seeing a copy of the basic set of D&D (red box) and desperately wanting to play. And I was really excited to find out some guys in 7th grade band were playing D&D in the library. But, they wouldn’t let me play with them unless I memorized the rulebook. So I did. And then I got play once before they began to move their gaming location around. No girls allowed.

I didn’t get play D&D again until right after I graduated from high school. I noticed a Dungeon Master’s Guide on my boyfriend’s coffee table. “Is that a D&D book?” I asked my eyes going wide. “Er, yes?” he said trying ineffectually to hide the book under some papers. “That’s so cool!” I breathed. “Really?” he asked looking incredibly relieved. “Um, would you like to play in our group?”

And after that it was easy to find groups to game with. In 1990 I met my Wesley, through a mutual gaming friend.  We’ve been married since 1995, and we have one child, our son Simon. (Also a geek!)

What inspires you when it comes to songwriting? (subjects, musical influence, etc.)

My two main influences are mythology and gaming. That said, I have a song “Time Share Whorehouse” that is a logic puzzle. I try to keep a notebook of some sort—usually my creative journal—nearby me at all times. I also keep a general journal, a live journal, a blog, and a music journal. Ideally, I write in at least one of them regularly, but I get busy and that falls by the wayside at times.

One of the best books for poets and lyricists is Stephen Fry’s Ode Less Travelled. Gwen Knighton Raftery (a fantastic musician and songwriter) recommended it a number of years ago. I have a hard copy and a kindle copy just so I always have some version of it with me. Fry’s writing is humorous and instructive.

My early music works were influenced by George Gershwin and Duke Ellington. (I should specify. I mean the works I wrote because I wanted to—not for a grade or assignment in school.) In the filk community we not only share our songs with each other, but also our current music obessions: songs, bands, instruments, etc. So now I love Zoe Lewis, Joni Mitchell, Red Stick Ramblers, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Pink Martini, and many other bands and writers as well as a whole host of filkers.

Can you tell us a little about filk and how you first became involved with it?

In the late nineties I began writing songs about rpg games I played in. I was involved in IFGS (International Fantasy Gaming Society) and enjoyed playing live action role-playing with that group. I played an NPC chanteuse (Merlot) in several room games and performed jazz throughout the session when not involved in plot intrigue. I began to write songs about IFGS games and tabletop RPG games for my marysidewayskeyschanteuse character’s repertoire. Two of my friends, Karen Murphy and John Brewer were fans of Tom Smith, Leslie Fish, and other filkers. They brought me to my first Filk Convention: GAFilk 3, so I could hear Tom Smith perform live. I met or at least saw several people at that convention: Bill and Brenda Sutton, Teresa Powell, Carly Gibson, and Nate Gibson, Carla Ulbrich, Dave Rood, Sherman Dorn, Jodi Krangle, Tom Smith (of course), Tim and Annie Walker (interfilk guests at GAFilk), Mike and Anne Whitaker, Phil and Lissa Allcock, Randy Walker, Merav Hoffman, Batya Wittenberg, Bill Roper, Gwen Knighton and her son Gavin. So many people that I still see at conventions and write to!

I was a little overwhelmed actually but definitely fascinated. Filk is the music of fandom. It is all the people who love to listen to it, perform it, write it, run sound for it, hang out with people who like it. Filk is like Soylent Green. It’s people. I think that’s why people have so much difficulty defining it. They try to pin it down to music topics, parodies, or musical styles. The reality is that filk music is whatever filkers like it to be at the time.

You released your second album, Acolytes of the Machine & Other Gaming Stories, last October. Can you tell us a little about it?

My first filk song, “Magnus Retail” was a song about a character type in my husband’s Paladium game. I wrote a few songs about IFGS games. And as my bard character, Jolie, I wrote several songs about my friend John Brewer’s D&D campaign which began in 2001. Another player, Barrett Appleton commented that I seemed to be writing “D&D, the Musical.” I always kept that in my mind—I’d love to write a D&D musical one day. I haven’t yet, but I write so many D&D songs that I finally decided, heck with it. I don’t care if it is a somewhat niche audience–I’m going to make an album of gaming songs. Acolytes of the Machine & Other Gaming Stories is that album.

Whenever possible, I indicate the D&D campaign that inspired the songs in credits of the CD. Three of the songs are meta songs—more about the game itself than the plotlines or characters. But the rest are all stories. mary-albumcoverI wrote all of the songs on the album, but one, “Shifty Screavy,” is a collaboration between me and my son, Simon.

I perform all the songs and play my keyboard to accompany myself when I do them live. But working with Jeff Bohnhoff, an exceptional arranger and musician, meant I had the opportunity to to explore other musical styles. “Balleto for Rupus” has a klezmer folk song when performed live. Under Jeff Bohnhoff’s auspices it became a Queen anthem. “I Put My Low Stat” transformed from a bouncy ragtime piano piece to a funk zydeco with accordion, violin, and clarinet.

The musical styles of this album are diverse. What makes the album cohesive is the subject matter and the stellar performances of all the musicians who graced it. I am so very lucky that Jeff Bohnhoff, Maya Bohnhoff, Michelle ‘vixy’ Dockrey, Chris French, Kristoph Klover, Kevin Kono, Sunny Larsen, Amy McNally, Teresa Powell, Brenda Sutton, and Betsy Tinney all agreed to bless the album with their excellence.

Your first album, Courting My Muse is very much rooted in folk and jazz piano. In Acolytes, you’re genre-hopping quite a bit (klezmer?! gospel!) and there’s a lot more instrumental variety. How did that shift come about?

Hee! I answered that one already. It’s all Jeff Bohnhoff’s fault! Well, also, there are five years separating those albums. I have made an effort to diversify my styles of songwriting, singing, and playing piano (and other instruments) these last few years. It helps me grow as a musician.

Courting My Muse owes so much of its jazz sound to members of Play It With Moxie and the golden ear of Greg Robert (the album’s producer). Courting My Muse is graced by the vocal excellence of Brenda Sutton and Teresa Powell. But they are the only musicians (besides me of course) on both my solo albums. On CMM, George Powell played bass; Dave Rood played trumpet; Brian Richardson played drums. And Greg Robert (who often runs sound for Play It With Moxie) played several instruments as well.

Speaking of Play It With Moxie, tell us about your collaborative projects!

The year 2012 was a really busy year for me! Two of the bands I am in released new albums. Play It With Moxie’s Play It With Moxie Live!  went on sale in January of 2012 at GAFilk in Atlanta, GA. We are the GAFilk house band and perform jazzy filk and sci fi related songs every year there. It is a tremendous amount of fun, and we love to add new repertoire. (In 2013 we performed the theme from the Amok Time episode from the second season of Star Trek.)

twstmbhugThen in August of 2012 Three Weird Sisters released Third Thyme’s the Charm featuring all original songs by Brenda Sutton, Teresa Powell, and I. The first two TWS albums were both recorded before I was a member and have songs by the sublime Gwen Knighton Raftery on them. We are hoping to start a fourth album, a collaboration among all four of us.

I also performed on four other albums released in 2012: Amy McNally’s Hazardous Fiddle (a Madison Area Music Awards nominee for 2013) Cat Faber’s The King’s Lute, Partners in K’Rhyme’s A Fifth of Vocals, and (as part of Three Weird Sisters) Mel Tatum’s Cath (a benefit CD to raise money for the Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.

Earlier collaborations include Bill and Gretchen Roper’s Falling Toward Orion (2007), Jeff and Maya Bohnhoff’s Grated Hits (2010) and Seanan McGuire’s Wicked Girls (2011). Also, I’ve performed on Adam Selzer’s Suburban Post Modernist (2004), Geeks Gone Wild in Chicago (2007), and Songs from and Inspired by I Kissed a Zombie and I Liked It (2010).

You’ve performed at many filk and science fiction conventions over the past eleven years including Duple Time, Consonance and OVFF. Can you tell us about your most memorable gig?

I put this question off until almost the end, because of course the moment I tried to think of the most memorable gig, my mind went absolutely blank! But, I was just at a wonderful house filk at Bill and Brenda Sutton’s up in Indiana! That reminded me of a great road trip that Three Weird Sisters made back in 2008.

James (Jim) Zapetis wanted to surprise his wife Christine with a big celebration for their 25th wedding anniversary. They had heard us and become fans at an outdoor festival in Decatur, GA. Since then they had moved to Rochester, New York. Would we be willing to travel all the way from Georgia and Alabama to New York to perform two sets at their party? Why yes, we would!

Teresa and George Powell drove from Lawrenceville, GA to pick me up in north Alabama, and then we all rode up together in their band van to pick up Brenda Sutton in Danville, IN. We talked about prog rock, Three Weird Sisters arrangements, music composition, and diet and exercise. (We were on a very restrictive diet together back then. I’m back to eating pizza now though, I missed it too much.)

We practiced and made set lists at Brenda and Bill’s and walked around their gorgeous town square. (We saw Wall-E for the second time in their local theatre.) That practice was only the first or second time I got to hear Brenda’s “C-PAP Love song.” The next day we drove 10 hours to Rochester, NY singing harmony much of the way.

The next day we arrived at the park and began to meet all the family and friends of the Zapetis’s. We had a great sound man—Wayne. He and his wife Marilyn performed a rocking set before us as Merry Meet (or Merry Mischief). Three Weird Sisters performed two sets. My favorite was the second—most of the guests had left, and it was just down to the immediate family including a very surprised and delighted Christine. Christine requested Brenda’s “In a Gown Too Blue” which is very challenging to perform and incredibly moving as well.

After our set, we stayed to help take down 25th wedding anniversary decorations (my piano bench doubles as a step ladder!) and got to chat with the whole family. Jim told us about a beautiful winery/castle nearby called Bellhurst Castle. Wesley and I are going there one day for Valentine’s Day. We learned that Christine is an herbalist, a math tutor, and a librarian. Jim is a nuclear physicist and currently learning glass-blowing. Their children are all very into music. Also, I learned from Christine that in upstate New York a milk shake is called a cabinet.

They were and are such nice people, a delight to visit with. Three Weird Sisters has some pretty awesome fans!

Do you have a favourite song to perform live?

For a long time “Magnus Retail” was my favorite song to perform live. Then it was “Legolas.” (Editor’s Note: !!!) Hee! I still haven’t gotten to hear the two of you perform “Legolas” and I really really want to! (We recorded it at FKO! It’s coming!) Right now I don’t have a favorite. But I will. Maybe it will be “I Put My Low Stat” or perhaps the new one “Sing Along Chorus.”
Dr. Mary Crowell

Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians in filk/geek culture?

The filk circles are fun, but try to find the smaller ones initially. There will be more opportunities to get to know other filkers and more opportunities to perform. If you like improvising and collaborating with other folks, it tends to be easier in the smaller circles.

If you don’t know anyone at the convention, volunteer to help at the registration desk or be a gofer. Not only are you going to meet people who actually make the convention happen but you immediately establish yourself as someone who wants to give to the community. (That tends to give a better impression of you.) There are always going to be smaller social circles within a larger group. This gives you a way to be a part of one or two from the beginning.

Be especially polite. You are trying to make a good first impression. It’s a small community, and people confer with each other.

I keep mentioning social aspects, because above all this is more a community than a performance venue. It is a performance venue too, however. And performance opportunities include but are not limited to the following: one shots and two by tens (two songs or ten minutes whichever comes first), juried one shots, songwriting and performance workshops, and of course the night time filk circles I mentioned earlier.

Tell us about your upcoming projects.

Ugggh! I’m languishing! Not exactly, but I really do miss working on Acolytes of the Machine. I mentioned earlier that I am in a band called Three Weird Sisters. There are actually four of us—and we want to make a fourth album that features all four of us. That will require some work: one of our members Gwen Knighton Raftery lives in London. But, with the wonder of the internet and some airline tickets we are very optimistic!

I’m also in an Atlanta-based geeky jazz band called Play It With Moxie. We would like to do a studio album to follow our 2012 live album. Since we have one member in Toronto (Jodi Krangle!) and one member in Madison, Wisconsin (Amy McNally!) that will also require some internet and airline tickets.

Jeff Bohnhoff and I have talked about starting another solo album soon. I am hopeful for next year and plan to start scratch tracks soon. Also I have a couple of piano tracks and/or vocals I am recording for others. Scott Snyder has an upcoming album and Seanan McGuire has two—one with Jeff Bohnhoff as producer, the other with Kristoph Klover as producer.

There will no doubt be more!

Dr. Mary Crowell is a singer/songwriter and piano teacher who loves playing Dungeons & Dragons on both sides of the GM’s screen. She may be seen at science fiction and filk conventions performing and accompanying concerts on piano and occasionally clarinet.

You can find her on  Facebook, and Twitter, and on her website. Both her solo albums are available on Bandcamp. You can also check out the Three Weird Sisters and Play It With Moxie!

One Response to The Search For Geek: Dr. Mary Crowell

  1. I assume in the first sentence it should be “when Jane, a filker” not “when a Jane, a filker”…

    Also this has reminded me that I need to try and get more D&D sessions in somehow, my own dice of many sides are woefully unexercised.