Cabaret

Interview with
Karen Mack

by Jonathan Frank

If one has attended cabaret in New York with any regularity, one has most certainly come across Karen Mack in one of her many capacities. Whether as a backup singer, guest artist, music director or solo artist, Karen's talents enhance any project to which she is attached. She is also an accomplished songwriter, whose songs were featured this summer at the Duplex's New Mondays series, as well as on her CD, Take That. Karen, with frequent collaborator, Michael Holland, is about to open Ice Gasholes (say it to get the joke), a follow-up to Gasehole, last year's highly successful salute to the songs of the '70s.

Jonathan:  Welcome to Talkin' Broadway, Karen. This is going to be fun, since although we've met quite a number of times, there's a lot I don't know about you. For instance, where are you from, originally?

Karen:  I'm from little town in northeastern Pennsylvania called Wilkes-Barre. Historically, it was a coal town, but it was mined-out before I was born and it is now a college town.

JF:  When did you move to New York?

KM:  I've been here ... well, it seems like forever! I've been here since '89 or '90.

JF:  You haven't been part of the cabaret scene for all that time, though.

KM:  No. I spent almost eight years in a professional vocal group, Doowazoo, and we mainly performed at the pop/folk music rooms in town, like The Bitter End and The Bottom Line. We were nominated twice for a MAC Award for Best Vocal Group and we would try to do a show in a cabaret venue at least once a year to take advantage of that audience base, but musically we weren't geared to the typical cabaret audience at the time.

JF:  What kind of music did you do?

KM:  We were a five-part acapella group that did contemporary pop/ R & B original material; all of us wrote and arranged songs for the group. It was a great project. One of the last things we did was a special for VH-1 called Taking it to the Streets, which was about street performers, busking, and the independent music scene: it was really cool to be a part of it.

JF:  Your group performed on the streets of New York?

KM:  We busked. There's an organization called Music Under New York that basically auditions and coordinates the people that you see perform in subway stations: you can't just throw your hat down and just perform. If you don't have a permit, the cops can ask you to leave ... or at least that was how it was when we were performing. Music Under New York organizes the performers, provides the necessary permits and a list of participating spaces.

JF:  I didn't realize that the subway musicians were organized in such a manner!

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KM:  Absolutely. If you look at the people you see performing at subway stations, you'll notice that most of them have a black and orange banner that says "Music Under New York." When we auditioned for them, we competed against almost 500 people for 15 spots; it kind of draws everybody that is looking for a new way to make some change. But we were selected and we worked pretty steadily for them for about three years.

JF:  How lucrative is this?

KM:  For us, it mainly provided us with a chance to perform. It gave us the chance to develop an audience base and get addresses for our mailing list. It also was a great way to work on new material, since instead of sitting in a rehearsal space, we were able to utilize the same amount of time and make a few dollars to boot. Because we were vocal based, it presented a number of challenges; we weren't able to take just any spot, as we needed acoustics that allowed us to hear one another, and we had to be careful about the level of noise we were trying to sing over. Some people play all over the city but we largely stuck with the main rotunda of Grand Central Station.

JF:  Did your group tour as well?

KM:  We performed at a lot of colleges and clubs up and down the East Coast. We performed out West a few times and we participated in a competition called The Harmony Sweepstakes, which we did well at. At the time we disbanded, we were in discussions with the New York, New York casino in Las Vegas to be part of a show there. They were doing a main-stage show called Madhattan, which featured buskers and street performers from New York.

JF:  Why did you disband?

KM:  It's tough to keep a band together; people get older and their goals change. The band had been running and had gone through a series of personnel changes before I even got involved. What was a shame is that we were really close to achieving so much that we'd worked really hard for.

When Doowazoo broke up, it was a hard time for me as I had invested an incredible amount of time and money in the group. For a while I had a hard time thinking what else I was going to do; for eight years my creative identity was focused within the group and I was used to being part of an ensemble. Fortunately, I had been working at Don't Tell Mama's as a staff member for years as well, so I wasn't completely unknown in the cabaret community when it came time to reestablish myself as a solo performer and writer.

JF:  Did Doowazoo ever win a MAC Award?

KM:  We did not, but we won several awards from the contemporary a cappella community.

JF:  What about you? Have you won any awards?

KM:  I have four MAC Awards. I won the award for Best Female Debut in 2000. In 2001 I won for Best Female Pop and R&B Performer and for Song of the Year for my song, "I Am Home." Last year, Michael Holland and I won for Best Vocal Duo.

JF:  You do quite a bit of studio work, don't you?

KM:  Yes. I'm not on full-time staff with any of the big studios, though; most of my stuff is freelance so it's whenever people have projects.

JF:  What's the most exciting project you've worked on in as a studio singer?

KM:  Well, I'm not going to lie to you; as far as album projects, making my own CD, Take That, was the best thing I have done. And the albums I have done with Michael Holland have all been great; he's a wonderful producer. Last week I went in to do a session to do some demo stuff for Stephen Schwartz's Wicked. I was in the first full reading of Wicked when they did it here last December and it was an amazing experience; I love the music!

JF:  What part did you play in the reading?

KM:  If you've read the book, you know that Glinda has two sidekicks in school; Pfannee and Shen-Shen. In the reading I played Shen-Shen and Sutton Foster played Pfannee. As a songwriter, it was absolutely fascinating to watch the process. I've done readings in the past where the writers just want to sit back and observe where the piece is and how it works, but Winnie Holzman, [who is writing the book] and Stephen worked so incredibly hard during the weeks of the reading. It's a very exciting piece that is unlike anything on Broadway right now in terms of scope and I hope it becomes a huge success.

JF:  You and me both! I love the book and I have enjoyed the songs that I have heard throughout the summer.

Last year, your big show was Gashole. How did it come to be?

KM:  We do a lot of work with Phil Bond through The Storefront, and he does a theater festival in Columbus, Indiana, which is geared towards bringing in art to the community and fostering AIDS awareness. He asked if any of us in the Storefront family had a show that could travel to Indiana. Michael Holland and I decided to put together a revue of '70s songs, which went over so well that we decided to put it up here. It turned out to be really successful and ran for seven months.

JF:  I imagine that, given the fact that the title of the show was Gashole, it wasn't a serious look at the songs of the '70s ...

KM:  We ran the gamut. I like to think that we put together a well rounded show that makes the audience think while they are having a good time. We did an arrangement of "Millwork" with "Moon Shadow" which was incredibly poignant and beautiful, for instance. But there was a lot of silliness and tongue-in-cheek going on as well.

JF:  Did you perform the songs as originally written or was there some reinterpreting going on?

KM:  We did some of the songs as they were done originally and did a lot of combining of songs in ways that we thought would be fun or would put a new spin on a lyric. We were really proud of the response we got from the show. So many people thing that '70s music is strictly disco or bubble-gum songs, but there were some really great songwriters and songs to come out.

JF:  For your follow-up show, Ice Gasholes, you've set your sights on the '80s.

KM:  It was the logical step, especially since we love the music of that period. When you do a piece that comes out of something that you've done before, there's always a fear that it will be formulaic, but I'm very proud to say that it didn't turn out that way at all. It's crazy; we figured out that we have 41 artists covered in a 55-minute period ... the medley machine has been unleashed on Manhattan again!

JF:  My God! Since you are talking about my era of music, I can't wait to see who and what you do!

KM:  The hardest thing is that a lot of the music people loved in the '80s was more techno and New Wave, so there are a lot of songs that just couldn't be done with piano and acoustic guitar. Or if you do, you have to do same major reinventing! (laughs)

The funny thing is, Michael and I had completely different musical backgrounds in the '80s. He was into the New Wave stuff like Gary Numan and I ... this is so embarrassing to admit ... was into the rock and 'hair' bands. I loved Bon Jovi and Cinderella and Guns and Roses ... Winger was my favorite band; I even went to see them a few months ago.

JF:  What are the dates for Ice Gasholes?

KM:  We open October 5th at Don't Tell Mama, and play Saturdays at 7:30pm through at least the end of November. If the interest is there, we'll continue. We premiered it in Indiana again this year and it was really well received, so hopefully ...

Michael and I are also going to be at The Living Room, which is a wonderful little acoustic room on the corner of Stanton and Allen Downtown, on October 22nd at 8pm. In the midst of doing all these cover shows and guest artist spots, it will be nice to have a gig where we get to do our own music.

JF:  Have you thought about doing a show of your own music ala Michael's recent show, Mikey Writes It?

KM:  I would love to, but before I do Mikey Writes It I have to do 'Karen Finishes It!' (Laughs) Michael is a prolific songwriter and my songwriting is not as evolved as that yet. It's nice to hear that question get asked, as it's great to hear that people like my songs.

JF:  Are you an actress as well as a singer?

KM:  I was a musical theater major in college and I have done a lot of theater. Early on I thought that I would end up in musical theater ... and, God-willing, I still might. But when I got to college I discovered pop music and jazz. Also, so much of theater is about consistency and I found myself drawn more towards improvisation and having room to play within a piece, versus recreating it night after night.

JF:  As you are one of the queens of the guest spot here in New York, do you have any that are upcoming?

KM:  Michael and I will be at the Cabaret Convention on October 23rd with David Gurland and I think Charles Cermele. We're in David Gurland's The Gurley Show, which reopens in November and next year we'll also be working with John DePalma. We're also doing Teddycares, which moved to the Laurie Beechman Theater this year, on Sunday, November 10th.

JF:  Well, I can't wait to hear how many of my favorite '80s tunes appear in Ice Gasholes. Have fun, and best of fates with it!

KM:  Thanks!

For more information on Karen, including upcoming performance dates, visit her website, www.karenmack.com. For more information on Ice Gasholes, including reservation information, visit www.gashole.net. If you missed seeing the original Gasholes, Karen and Michael will be performing it on November 1st to kick off a cabaret series at the Hackensack Arts Center (details at www.boulevardeastproductions.com).


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