An Interview with Marcia Ball
by Casey Pukl
Her voice is unmistakeable, and her songs are irresistible. Marcia Ball writes swampy New Orleans blues tunes that pull at your heart-strings and can leave you crying like a child or clapping like a kid in music class.
This five-time Grammy nominee is not only an incredible singer, pianist, and songwriter, but she’s also an activist for women’s reproductive health issues. Her campaign called, “Seeing Red” has garnered significant media attention and gained traction in Texas. I had the chance to catch up with her about her latest accolades, projects, and adventures!
CP: Thank you for taking the time out to talk this morning. First of all I want to congratulate you because I woke up this morning and saw on Facebook that you were awarded the Pine Top Perkins Piano Award last night. Congratulations!
MB: Yes thank you!
CP: Did you get to go to the awards last night?
MB: No I did not. I was with my mother celebrating her 90th birthday. My whole family is here and we’re having an all-weekend event together, and I couldn’t get away.
CP: Well, at least you won! I would love to just get right into it— your voice is just so unique and amazing to me. How did you develop it? Did that come naturally to you?
MB: For better or for worse, this is my very most natural voice. I would not recommend to people what I did which is begin to sing as a teenager, as a college student in a rock n’ roll band. I just proceeded to be in bands, which is a lucky catch of my life. But the part I did wrong was that I didn’t really get enough vocal or musical education, I feel. So when I’m asked, I encourage other and younger singers to get all the training that they can. It will protect their voices, it will forward their careers, and it will allow them to increase their ability to do what they do. So this is my natural voice. My speaking voice is very much like my mother’s speaking voice – people confuse us all the time on the phone. My singing voice is my natural voice, as it is.
CP: Well it’s incredible to listen to. You sound like no one else. It’s so amazing to have such a unique sound. Tell me about your latest record. I know you were nominated for a blues award for it, all sorts of great feedback, and I personally love listening to it.
MB: Well thank you! It was nominated for a Grammy, it would be my fifth Grammy nomination. Four of the five records that I’ve made for Alligator Records have been nominated for Grammys, which is something exciting. It’s as much a tribute to their wonderful work as anything. I worked with Gary Nickelson, the producer on this record.
It was my first time to do that and he’s been a friend for a long time and he’s a songwriter. He’s someone who I’ve always admired and who’s been very successful. I had a little batch of songs when we got together for the first time to talk about the project; he encouraged me and Alligator encouraged me to keep writing, and to continue to write until I had enough songs to make a whole record of original material. And that’s what I did; that’s what happened.
CP: Can you tell me a little bit about your writing process? Some people wait for the inspiration to come, and other people make sure that they give themselves assignments and try to write every day. Do you fall on either side of that spectrum?
MB: Yeah I fall all over that [laughs]. I do not write everyday. I listen everyday. I pay attention to things going on around me, and take notes of events and phrases, and keep notebooks. And eventually I slow down enough to sit at my piano. But it’s not always necessary to be at my piano or my instrument to make a song because I’ve written quite a bit in the front seat of a moving van. Not a moving van – the band van hurdling down the highway [laughs]. Sometimes I think that the wheels rolling sets up a vibration that contributes to the whole writing process.
CP: I know you just said sometimes sitting down at a piano isn’t necessary, but do you often hear everything in your head all at once and just jot it down and put it together?
MB: Sometimes I do that; sometimes I write down a batch of lyrics and go find a song that it goes with; sometimes I find a beat and hum to it until things go together. I don’t know if anybody has just one way to write a song.
CP: Definitely. Are there any particular songs on this album that strike a chord as being one of your favorites or the most deeply personal?
MB: I’m pretty fond of this record and I’ve gotten to say things that I have wanted long to say. The first song on the record, which is called “That’s How It Goes”, is that gospel sounding thing. The first line it starts, “When I woke up this morning the sun was shining in my door.” I wanted to write a song like that to start my day, to start my shows, to come out and just say to people, “This is it. It’s not the destination it’s the trip.” That’s the key line in that song: “It’s the moss you gather while you roll.” Appreciate it. So that’s the message that I exactly wanted to express.
CP: Awesome. I know you said that you also listen to a lot. So is there anybody you’re listening to lately that you’ve really been diggin’?
MB: I listen all over the map. I listen to <inaudible, 8:00>, I listen to The Civil Wars, I listen to Los Lobos, and my grandson likes a song called “Paradise” by Coldplay, so we play that together. He’s four and he knows the song [laughs]. He sings it and I play.
CP: That’s fun! You listen to a little bit of everything it sounds like.
MB: Yeah there’s The River Brothers, Levon Helm, and we’re sad that Levon’s passing.
CP: Me too. Not to completely change gears, I know that you are also involved in the Seeing Red campaign, which I think you started, correct?
CP: Tell me a little bit about that because I’ve read a couple news stories about some of the walks you’ve done and all that sort of stuff and I would love to know more about it.
MB: Well my friend Sharon Mays and I were sitting one night driving about what was going on in this country, particularly in Texas. We had two recent rulings starting last spring in 2011 where the incredibly right-wing, going more towards Tea Party, republican dominated legislature here had cut funding for women’s health care services in an effort to get at Planned Parenthood. These are really anti-abortion forces and they would ignore the fact that 95% of what Planned Parenthood does is really, really important reproductive counseling and cancer screening. It’s a pander to their right-wing, anti-abortion base. Let me make this clear I do not use the term “pro-life”, because they’re not. These people are pro-death penalty. I called the governor of Texas a raging hypocrite and I have to stand by that. We just got so fed up! They cut 80 million dollars out of the budget last year and by doing that, they defunded not just Planned Parenthood, but 40 year-old health clinics who were operating on this state money. It was just a scatter shot; it was an attack on women. And once that door is open, it invited all this debate about birth control, and things that were settled issues in the ‘50s and ‘60s and in the 19th century about what’s right or wrong. But they took the money away that allowed all these people to receive health care that they were previously receiving. And then right before we started Seeing Red, they did it again.
They eliminated another $30,000 from the rolls of people who could receive basic reproductive care. So we said, “This is ridiculous. We’re so mad we’re seeing red.” And we decided that we would have a vigil based on the women in black, who I actually first saw in Marin County standing on the corner on Friday holding anti-war signs. And I thought that what we need to do is stand in front of the Capital. We don’t have to do, say, or march necessarily. We’re gonna stand, wear red, and hold signs. And I set it up for three weeks in March because basically that’s what I could do. And that’s what people can do. Two hours, once a week, for three weeks. And now we’re gonna carry on. It was very successful by the way. I put one post on Facebook and sent one email to friends who have a really good email list. We had a couple hundred people the first time, more the next, and it was great. Now we’re going to continue monthly with a vigil. We’re still talking the final Tuesday of the month through the summer, gathering, holding our signs in front of the Capital. And we have a website now that we’re just putting into play called, “Seeing Red Voting Blue,” to encourage people and especially women to vote because Texas women don’t vote. We’re among the highest teen pregnancy and the lowest women’s voter turnout. Anyway, that’s one of my political stands right now. The other would be other environmental things in the Wetlands, stuff like that. And as Rodney Crowell would say, “Don’t get me started!”
CP: [Laughs] Fair enough. Where can people get more information? Do you want them to follow that website or on your Facebook page for updates?
MB: Yeah I think that website is up. We’re supposed to have some instruction in actually administering our own website as its being set up. So I would say that it’s coming soon. And we have a Facebook page called Seeing Red – Save Women’s Health Program in Texas, and we post a lot of information there. And soon we’ll have the website: Seeing Red Voting Blue.
CP: We’ll put the link up so people can find it.
MB: Because as observed in Arizona, Indiana, Kentucky, and Virginia, women are under seize for basic personal rights.
CP: Well we appreciate all that you’re doing to bring awareness to it. Heading back to your music for a second, what are you guys most looking forward to about coming to Anthology?
MB: Well I haven’t played there yet but I’ve seen the pictures and it’s beautiful! Everyone I know who has played there, Tommy Castro has played there, and they say it’s first class, just lovely! So I’m very much looking forward to it and playing in San Diego. It’s going to be fun.
Special thanks to Marcia for her time! Be sure to check out her Grammy nominated record on Spotify, and don’t miss her this Saturday with the Blackwater Blues Band!