The funny thing about being the class cutup is that folks sometimes don’t know when to take you seriously.
Take, for example, Carolyn Mark, who, on her standout new record, The Queen of Vancouver Island, sounds like she’s having a grand old time, the songs swinging brightly from jazz-splattered saloon-boogie (“You’re Not a Whore [If No One’s Paying]”) to choir-practice pop (“Not Talk”) to classic country (“Baby Goats”). Pay attention to the lyrics, though, and one might conclude Mark isn’t always a one-woman party, even though her public persona suggests otherwise.
There are moments of genuine self-reflection on the album, and not just during “Nobody(’s Perfect)”, where the veteran, Victoria-based drunk-country queen serves up lyrics like “Nobody brings me flowers/Nobody will be here soon/And after nobody cooks me dinner/In my room I’ll find nobody under the covers.”
Do such sentiments sound like they are coming from someone whose sole goal is making folks snicker? Well, to some, it evidently does.
“It’s really funny that you noticed that there’s a serious side,” a hungover Mark says with a laugh, reached at home on Vancouver Island. “The other interviews that I’ve had, people have been like ‘Why do you feel the need to be funny?’ It’s so insulting. So thank you for saying it the other way.”
Asked if she was aware that she wrote a record that’s not all good times, the singer responds with: “I guess so. I mean there are worries, but hopefully they aren’t permanent.”
Mark’s demeanour on this day suggests there are no dark clouds hanging over her head. She’s feeling great, even though she’s recovering from whooping it up at a Thanksgiving hootenanny the previous night. The partying didn’t start there. She’s just come off an eastern swing that finished with her taking part in a VIA Rail program where musicians get train tickets in exchange for performing for passengers.
“We played at Oktoberfest near Ottawa and that was just amazing—it was huge and everyone was wearing lederhosen,” Mark says, cackling. “Then we did the VIA Rail thing where you get free passage for playing three times a day. A lot of people who didn’t know who I was came from Toronto to Vancouver, so now, because it was five days, we have some new friends now. This morning I’m sitting around looking at empties.”
Flash back a bit, and Mark wasn’t in nearly as good a place. When pushed on the question of where The Queen of Vancouver Island’s more less-upbeat moments come from, Mark—who is as charmingly self-deprecating as she is seemingly bemused by life—eventually comes clean.
“I was feeling dreary,” Mark says, laughing, which she spends almost as much time doing as she does talking.
And why was that?
“Well, you know—I was harshly dumped. Lots of factors.”
Some others being?
“Well, I couldn’t go across the border—I got turned back,” Mark reveals. “Did I mention I got harshly dumped? Also I scraped my head on the bottom of Lake Ontario, and then I had to go for stitches. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the hospital for a sort of boozy-related injury, but they don’t treat you really great.”
Run-ins with American border guards and surly Canadian health-care providers aside, it was the end of a relationship, as well as the reflection that comes with growing older, that would set part of the mood for The Queen of Vancouver Island. Mark should have been feeling great about life after the release of her excellent 2009 outing, Let’s Just Stay Here. Instead, things would eventually be a major downer for a year and a half, this eventually seeping into the writing process for the new album.
“You couldn’t really tell at the time, because I just sort of carried on,” she says. “But, in retrospect, when I listen to these songs, it’s like ‘Yeah—I think I was really bummed out.’ ”
Ironically, Mark had a great time recording The Queen of Vancouver Island. The album came together in three different towns, recording taking place in Vancouver and Victoria after an initial road-trip session with fellow West Coast musician Terri Upton in Hollister, California.
“Terri had a mike in her bag, and our monitoring system was an Old Milwaukee ghetto blaster,” the singer says of the record’s beginning in central California.
From that lo-fi start, Mark would go on to create something often-ornate and grand for her eighth full-length release, songs dressed up with mournful strings, break-of-dawn trumpet, and hot-jazz brass. Augmented by a hugely talented supporting cast of friends and collaborators, she again proves herself one of the West Coast’s most consistently underrated treasures, alt-country or otherwise.
“I play with really great people,” Mark says simply. “They aren’t just into one kind of music—they are more up for whatever a song calls for, which is pretty great.”
There are moments of knockout beauty, including the moonlight serenade “Old Whores”. Rather than play the song’s title for giggles, Mark delivers one of the record’s most wistful performances with lines like “We started out with dreams of perfection, and no compromising/We weren’t always old whores.”
With the last track, “You’re Not a Whore (If No One’s Paying)”, The Queen of Vancouver Island leaves fans laughing, which probably explains why some interviewers feel the need to ask Mark if she fancies herself a professional clown.
It’s perhaps better to think along these lines: the singer obviously gets the grand joke that is life. Why else would she open herself up on good chunks of The Queen of Vancouver Island, and then finish things off with a song that includes an extended water-gargle solo and a kids choir? Laughing, Mark contends that she actually had the kids sing “You’re not a horse if no one’s neighing” on the “You’re Not a Whore (If No One’s Paying)” chorus, and that everyone was paid handsomely for their time. It’s hard to know how seriously to take both those claims.
“I paid them in ice cream at that place on Venables,” Mark argues. “The kids loved it. And I’m not joking.”
Carolyn Mark plays the WISE Hall on Friday (October 12).