|Mary Lee’s Corvette
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"Those three words seem to sum up life for just about everyone I know, and they all feed into one another," Mary Lee Kortes says of the title of her new album Love, Loss and Lunacy. "If you don't love something, you can't lose it. When you lose something you love, it makes you crazy. And if you're crazy enough, you can fall back in love."
The lead singer, songwriter and sole charter member of the New York-based combo known as Mary Lee's Corvette, Kortes has built a reputation for combining sublimely melodic songcraft with personally charged, emotionally nuanced lyrics. Her prior releases have already won reams of critical acclaim and a devoted international fan base, and Love, Loss and Lunacy seems likely to expand her audience further.
The new album features twelve new Kortes compositions that maintain the classic pop sensibility and resonant lyrical insight of her prior work, while introducing a raw electric edge that lends added urgency to her compelling vocal performances. That loose, organic approach is well suited to the artist's new songs, which vividly portray love in its infancy ("Falling Again"), love deepened over time ("Thunderstruck"), love gone cold ("Nothing Left To Say") and love thwarted by self-sabotage ("All That Glitters").
Elsewhere on the album, Kortes paints a poignant portrait of an incest victim ("Verla"), explores the universal desire for transcendence ("Learn From What I Dream"), muses on the lure of schadenfreude ("I'm Saving Grace") and delivers a paean to the odd euphoria of feeling completely lost ("Lucky Me"). She also pays homage to music's transportive properties with "Every Song Is Different" and "Where Did I Go Wrong, Elton John?" The latter number pithily invokes the name of the titular pop icon, who gave the song his personal thumbs-up after hearing it in rough demo form. “He said he was quite chuffed and that his entourage, who were all around listening with him, went around singing the song to him for days.”
Love, Loss and Lunacy is particularly impressive in light of its unconventional birth cycle. Where prior Mary Lee's Corvette releases were written and recorded on the singer/songwriter's New York home turf, this one came into being after an informal out-of-town demo session with veteran musician and songwriter Steven Butler—an occasional Kortes collaborator and sometime MLC member—took on a life of its own and blossomed into the basis for the album.
"I've always had a love/hate relationship with recording, so I was trying to record the songs and let go of the process at the same time," Kortes says of the project's no-frills recording approach. "Usually, when you're making a record, you just care so much it hurts, and you can start second guessing everything. I needed to free myself of that. I was making a record, but I didn't feel like I was making a record. The vocals were all recorded in just one or two takes, and there were no computers in the room. Everything was different about it—different studio, different city, different people. When it was finished, it just sounded so good and so free and so energetic to me that I felt like I never needed to record again."
Ten of the album's twelve songs were recorded in Butler's Philadelphia home studio. Two more were cut in New York with various members of Kortes' live band, including such longtime cohorts as Keith Christopher (Yayhoos), Konrad Meissner (Silos), Brad Albetta (Martha Wainwright) and Kortes' longstanding musical and marital collaborator Eric Ambel (Bottle Rockets, Blue Mountain, Nils Lofgren, Yayhoos, Steve Earle and the Dukes).
"Love, Loss and Lunacy isn't the first time I've made a record by accident," Kortes notes. "I've done so many projects that turned out to be something different from what they were intended to be, so I've learned to trust in circumstance and appreciate the beauty of accidents. I feel like I can pretty much handle any situation that comes along."
Indeed, the element of chance has been a recurring force in Kortes' life and career. “I had what my friends considered an exotic childhood: my father owned a drive-inn theatre. I basically grew up there on the playground, eating popcorn, and staying up much later than most kids ever dreamed of. I think being in such an unorthodox environment so much of the time really allowed my imagination to flourish.” Although she'd begun writing songs and poetry very early on, she had no expectation of a musical career when she moved to New York. But her vocal talents soon won her work as a session singer, and her nascent songwriting efforts paid off when her composition "Everywhere I Go"—the fourth song she'd ever completed—became a hit for pop-country star Amy Grant.
Kortes' own recording efforts began with the musically spare 1997 EP Mary Lee's Corvette, on her own Leonora label. Despite minimal promotion and sparse distribution, the homespun disc won substantial national attention. She continued to expand her artistic reach with a pair of well-received full-length efforts, 1999's True Lovers of Adventure and 2003's 700 Miles.
Meanwhile, Kortes has continued to build a loyal audience, initially as a beloved fixture on New York's downtown club scene and subsequently throughout a touring base that's grown to encompass the U.K. and Europe. Along the way, she's won the admiration of numerous press admirers, including Billboard's late editor in chief Timothy White, who devoted an entire column to singing her praises, and Rolling Stone's David Fricke, who wrote that "The bright bite in Mary Lee Kortes' voice (has) the high-mountain sunshine of Dolly Parton, with a sweet-iron undercoat of Chrissie Hynde."
Kortes also achieved a surprise breakthrough with her 2002 release Blood on the Tracks: Recorded Live at Arlene's Grocery, a personalized song-for-song reinterpretation of Bob Dylan's classic LP of the same name. She had initially issued the disc herself, with the intention of selling a few copies at gigs and on her website. But it quickly spread across the internet and in Dylan fan circles, igniting a groundswell of grass-roots demand that led to a wider mainstream release of the album, substantial worldwide sales, and a slot opening for Dylan himself in New York.
As her recording career has continued to gather steam, Kortes has found time to explore other creative outlets. In 2003, she wrote a piece of fiction for Carved In Rock, a short-story collection featuring contributions from such musicians as Pete Townshend, Ray Davies, Joan Jett and Lou Reed. The following year, Mary Lee's Corvette performed onscreen alongside Anthony LaPaglia and Eric Stoltz in the indie feature film Happy Hour.
Additionally, Kortes' talents as a singer have led to her contributing backing vocals to albums by a dizzying array of artists ranging from folk-pop diva Jewel to legendary salsa king Tito Puente to opera star Placido Domingo to alt-garage-rockers Rocket from the Crypt, as well as releases by such friends and peers as the Bottle Rockets, Laura Cantrell, Marshall Crenshaw, Thea Gilmore, and Freedy Johnston.
Kortes maintains a strong belief in the unconscious as a source of creative inspiration. "I once heard Springsteen say that if he knows how he wrote a song, it's probably not that good, and that kind of sums it up for me," she says. "I like that there's some mystery to it. I think I've been writing songs long enough that my unconscious does a lot of the editing, so a lot of the work's already done by the time I'm aware of the song. I think that the seeds are in there gestating all the time, and the songs kind of let me know when they're ready to come into the world.
"Songwriting is in my nervous system, it's just there," she concludes. "I'm in love with the feeling of being possessed by a song, where the song just won't let you go and you can't do anything until you've written it, like it’s begging to get out of your head. When I started writing songs, every time I finished one, I would wonder 'How many more have I got?' The answer to that question is still pending. Fortunately, they keep on coming."