Overwhelming Loudon Wainwright isn’t easy, but Carolyn Mark managed it recently at Seattle’s Century Ballroom. “I scared him, I think. I was pretty excited and he was in the dressing room by himself and I’m like, ‘Loudon. Hi. I’m Carolyn. I’ll be your opening act. I know your daughter, Martha, from Montreal. Can you play a song for me?’” Wainwright beat a mumbled retreat.
The same exuberance underpins Mark’s first solo album, Party Girl, on Mint Records. Recorded during tours across her native Canada last year, it’s a no-frills mix of bar, concert, basement and studio performances. Mark and her regular band members, Garth Johnson (drums) and Tolan McNeil (guitar), were joined along the way by guest artists including Blue Rodeo’s Greg Keelor, the Rheostatics’ Don Kerr, and vocalists Sarah Harmer (Weeping Tile) and Dottie Cormier (Heartbreak Hill).
Tracks range from blues, jazz and swing-inflected numbers to an a cappella hymn and an unabashed pop groove. Early k.d. lang lurks in the shadows. Jordanaires-style choruses (“It’s my goal to put the backup singers back to work,” Mark says) intersect with chilly, wordless harmonies. Despair and hope, scorn and humor wind their way through the tunes, most of which she wrote.
Mark grew up on a dairy farm in the British Columbia interior. Between chores, she learned to play piano from her father, a violinist who regularly prodded her into entertaining visitors at the Mark homestead with duets of Dvorak and Chopin airs.
Like a lot of farm kids, Carolyn just wanted to make tracks for the lights of town. She had a shot at college, briefly studying acting, but abandoning it when she discovered that actors were depressingly “normal.” She nabbed bit parts on television’s “Outer Limits” and “MacGyver” but then flubbed her big chance when, in a climactic scene of “MacGyver”, “I looked the wrong way so all you could see was my ponytail.”
An on-again, off-again career as a waitress ensued, with predictable results. “I was a really bad waitress and kept getting fired. In my last job, this woman had come in every day and she goes, ‘You were rude to me yesterday and now you’re rude to me today. And I’m like, ‘Yeah, and I’ll be rude to you tomorrow.’”
Mark’s ode to the misfit, “Unlisted”, has the ring of experience: “Fired from work, but I still show up anyway/We broke up, but I call you every day/You broke it off, but I put it back together/I always get it wrong when it’s time to move along.”
The one constant during Mark’s career-hopping was music. In 1990, she formed the Vinaigrettes, a four-member girl group that, over the course of seven years and six albums, dabbled in pop, surf, punk and country. When the Vinaigrettes broke up, Mark worked briefly with Hat Head, the Metronome Cowboys and Neko Case (billed as the Corn Sisters, the duo cut a still-unreleased live album). Closing in on 30 at the end of the millennium, Mark finally struck out her own, her bandmates in tow.
When not touring, Mark gigs Sunday nights at the Old Bailey, a British-style pub in Victoria, British Columbia. Her ambitions are modest: get cracking on her next CD; maybe replace that battle-scarred 1977 Ford Econoline (“Every time I make any money, I hit a car”); and take a home-grown stage version of Nashville, in which she plays the lead role, to Seattle’s Tractor Tavern. Beyond that, her plans are, “like everything else, pure random-fire.”