After going through eight (count ’em, eight) drummers in one year, starting up the Colorado Women In Music association, and getting as much time away from her part-time/full-time job, Colorado rocker and songwriter Mary Beth Abella finally gets to celebrate her musical accomplishments with friends and family this Saturday at her CD release party for What Happened To The Girls?, at the Lion’s Lair. “I’ll tell you what, this business is definitely an emotional roller coaster. I’m starting to understand that it’s all about making money. It’s a business and you have to treat it like that. In my other career, my other life, I never experienced something like this where you have to eat so much shit.”
Described by some as the female Jeff Buckley, Mary Beth’s strength lies in her ability to create a soundtrack to modern day life, with the vibrancy of Cheryl Crow and the introspective and heart wrenching songwriting skills of Tori Amos. Her edgy musical persona takes the fluff out of your typical female acts, preferring to be brutal and honest, with a flair for sarcasm, captivating guitar riffs, keyboards, and styles that range from acoustic to all out rock.
To sustain her musical career and make her new album a reality, she had to put a hold on her other life/career in social work. Her last job was at Project Self Discovery, a program for at-risk-kids that teaches them the arts. But as Mary Beth explains, the job took over more of her life than she was prepared to give, “Like all non-profits, it was a big, black whole in terms of need. I kept jumping around from job to job thinking that if I worked less, I would have more time for music. But in non-profit work, you can never do that. A part-time job would turn into a full-time job but with part-time pay. Non-profit just takes everything out of you, ’cause it’s so important, you know?”
Having been in social work since 1989, these labors of love caused also her a lot of stress, anxiety, and sleepless nights. But after years of never being able to say no to anything that was asked of her, Mary Beth had to stand firm in her priorities, which were her own sanity and ability to have time for her craft, “I thought I would be selfish for the first time in my life and pursue what I wanted to do, ’cause I’m always taking care of other people.” This last experience made her also question her career decision, because of her inability to draw the line in what she’s able to give, and not give.
When she was able to get time for music, Mary Beth wrote her heart out, and What Happened To the Girls?, is 12 tracks of inspiring indie and emo rock, with a shot of Y chromosome strength, capsulated into a diary of her life. Taking the title track, the slow rhythms, wha, wha guitars, and lyrical Camels and whiskey doused poetry portrays the essence of girlhood; the remembrance of a time when those boundaries were more easily drawn, and that youthful air of indifference was empowering.
Her vocoder like singing on “Miss Snitty Bitty”, sounds like she is leaving a message on someone’s answering machine, knowing they’re not at home, giving her the freedom to completely speak her mind. “Leave You Behind” struck a personal chord for me through Mary Beth’s reflection, “I wish so many times, that I didn’t survive. But everything I do and have done has somehow, kept me alive…It’s not the state so much, it’s the state of mind, which I find, myself in,” along with the sleepy, slide guitar that had the song stuck in my head long after the CD stopped. Mary Beth explains, “It’s about that desperation you have where you get caught up in the same shit, over and over, and you just can’t get out of it…and it’s so frustrating…and you can’t do anything about it, and you feel powerless.”
This and other songs on What Happened To The Girls? were very much inspired by her personal and family trials and tribulations, including growing up in an inter-racial marriage, “My dad’s from the Philippines and totally old country. My was white, now she’s a lesbian,” she says, laughing. “We just grew up in this really chaotic, crazy, fractured household. It was difficult to get a sense of identity…actual identity, racial identity, you name it.”
“Your Skin” is an acoustic tribute to finding that identity, the reality of not being able to escape yourself no matter where you turn, and her ability to connect to the kids she worked with, and their pain. Mary Beth thinks back, “These kids that I worked with were expressing themselves through the arts, and it was so important to them. And I could totally relate to them, because for me, music has saved my soul,” she says. During outings to Breckenridge with her youth group, they would have an exchange of where they expressed their life’s experiences. It caused her to look back at what musical art did for her, and further inspired how and what she was doing to support her kids. “It’s powerful…the transformation that happens when THEY are able to express themselves through art. For all the shit I went through, I was one of the most privileged people in the world.”
Using the whole tortured artist reference, personal pain is often times, the fuel that inspires great works of art in any medium. Mary Beth doesn’t necessarily see herself in that category, at least today, “I feel really grateful. I feel like I have the most awesome life right now, compared to what it was. I was depressed until I was 23, and I never knew it because I thought [how I felt] was normal.”
On the flip side of her childhood, music was the positive reactor for both her and her brother John. Their mother played the major part, forcing each of them to play instruments, and encouraged her to participate in the school choir, and other programs. “Now these kids, they have no exposure to that. They have nothing other than what they hear on the radio or watch on MTV. That’s all they related to, but we got them to express themselves in ways that they had never done before.”
God knows there’s a lot of “fun music” with trite messages, from topics that range from meeting a girl at the Warped Tour to having it so hot in here that we gotta take off all our clothes. These “songs” serve the purpose of low level escapism, much like watching a televised car chase or Jenny Jones. But it’s those ballads or blasting tracks that were created out of pain and frustration that tend to capture true human emotion. That’s when a listener can connect most with the songwriter in any genre, from rock, punk, country (who hasn’t lost their dog?), or the king of sadness, the blues. “No matter how helpless, or powerless I felt in my life – where you feel like you have no power over your family situation, or the crazy, fucked up things that happen in the world – you have all the power, and all the joy when you write a song. Anything you create is totally yours. You can express anything you want…any of that anger, frustration, or pain.”
You can get a listen to a kind of the country-esque ditty on the 13th, hidden track, which Mary Beth wrote when she was a mere lassie in grade school. This is a snippet of evidence that even then, she was already looking at the world in a different way, and had sarcastic opinions of those around her. When she really got her musical skills churning was at the height of her depression, at the age of 17. This was when she experienced her epiphany, “It was like, wow, I do have something to contribute, and it feels so fucking good. And it feels so fucking good to sing. That is the most awesome feeling in the world. Even when it hurts, it hurt so good.” I could totally relate. When I’m belting out songs in my car and no one else is getting tortured to where it hurts so bad, I’m right there with ya sista.
It seems like her awesome feeling has spread outside her bedroom and the studio, and she’s now getting major label attention, including a interest from Warner/Reprise. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, why are they contacting me?’ I’m SO NOT what I would think they would want. Today, you just don’t hear strong, female artists that have something to say. Now it’s all about the esthetic. It’s all about sex, because that’s what sells…it’s all about showing your body.”
So for now, Mary Beth is focusing on her music and just letting whatever happens, happen, “because there’s nothing I can do. It just seems so big and fucked up. Now Colorado Women in Music – we can do some stuff locally and try to create cool community here. But as far as the music industry goes, forget it.”
You can pick up What Happened To The Girls? at most record stores, and check out her very cool web site at www.marybethabella.com. She and her brother John will rock the Lion’s Lair Saturday, November 9, where she’ll also have fabulous prizes, including a dream date with her bro.