When Mary Ramsey recently typed her name into Google’s search engine just for kicks, she discovered she had her work cut out for her. Along with what she describes as, “the good, the band, and the ugly,” her search yielded a pair of instrumental pieces called “Lady Mary Ramsey,” parts one and two, thus providing the bookends for the new 10,000 Maniacs disc, Twice Told Tales, a collection of traditional Celtic tunes overseen by founding member John Lombardo. A classically trained fiddler since the age of five, Ramsey, 51, has never sounded more at home in front of the band she stepped out of the shadows to front some 20 years ago in the wake of Natalie Merchant’s departure.
On Thursday, May 8 at Buffalo Iron Works, the band celebrated the release of Twice Told Tales,but not before longtime Buffalo resident, Ramsey, took time out to chat about making a CD of traditional music so intrinsically suited to the Maniacs’ core sound.
What was the catalyst for making a traditional disc at this particular time?
I’ve played this kind of music here and there. John Lombardo and I played a number of these tunes in our duo John & Mary. With 10,000 Maniacs, a lot of times at our shows, maybe two-thirds through the set, I’d do “The Song of Wandering Aengus” or “Greenwood Sidey” a capella, and the crowds really responded to it. We’d do it after a string of older, familiar tunes, and I think it provided a nice respite. Two years ago we did Music from the Motion Picture,which was all original songs and this just seemed like a fun project and an appropriate way to follow it up.
How did the band go about finding its own stylistic take on these songs?
We had listened to some of the existing versions and discussed how to put our own spin on it, but in the end we really just used the instruments as inspiration—we played what we felt and that’s how it came together. This music just lends itself to that sort of natural treatment, it brings you to a space without ego where you have a respect for it because you’re continuing a tradition. When it came time to decide on the song order, we sort of set it up like you’re time traveling—moving from one world to another—between different chapters of the Celtic story.
How was it working with John again in this capacity?
John and I are also in a band called the Valkyries, so we’ve continued working together all along, but we brought him in as artistic director for Twice Told Talesbecause of his expertise. He brought much of that British folk sound to the band back at the very beginning. Being the eldest, he has a huge record collection and used to play a lot of that kind of music on his radio show from his college years at Geneseo. Instead of being bittersweet, this turned out to just be pure fun.
Is it a struggle for 10,000 Maniacs to establish a clear identity now as opposed to 25 years ago?
Enough time has gone by that we’ve naturally found another identity. I first became lead singer 20 years ago, so now it’s almost like having a second wife. We understand who we are and our identity as a band—something old, something new—it’s like the ghosts of past, present, and future. Our audience has been extremely supportive—the last two discs have been crowd-sourced through PledgeMusic. I’m very respectful of Natalie Merchant, her artistry and creativity, and I enjoy performing the music we still do that she was a part of. We do it because we love it and, to some extent, because we have to. And we’re blessed to have the opportunity.