Mara Connor Talks COVID and Covers

"I’ve always had an appreciation for older music and really enjoyed breathing new life into a few of my favorite songs of the twentieth century."

Last week Southern California singer/songwriter Mara Connor released the Decades EP, a celebration of some of the greatest songs of the second half of the twentieth century and also some of Connor’s best musical friends, with whom she collaborated on the five-song EP.  Connor covers songs by Fats Domino, Jackson C. Frank, Neil Young, Kath Bloom, and Elliott Smith, with the help of Goon’s Kenny Becker, producer Andrija Tokic (Alabama Shakes, Margo Price), Jon Estes (Kacey Musgraves, Kesha), Sean O’Brien (The National), and Sharon Van Etten drummer Jorge Balbi.

Mara Connor has been kicking around the Americana music scene for about three years.  Her first single, 2018’s “No Fun,” a twangy take on the sour sentiments once expressed by some Detroit punks in a song of the same name (of which this is, coincidentally, not a cover), was touted as “A Song You Need to Know” by Rollin Stone.  That was followed-up with “Someone New,” a 2019 duet with Langhorne Slim, and 2020’s “Wildfire,” an infectious amalgam of the garishness of 1960s girl-groups and sunshine pop.

I recently got a chance to chat with Mara Connor about her first recordings (and those to come), the pandemic, and a few of her favorite things.

Izzy Cihak: Since we’re hopefully nearing the end of it, I have to ask about the pandemic.  Obviously, it was pretty miserable in most ways, but I feel like a lot of us also discovered new interests or, at the very least, new ways of doing things.  Did anything noteworthy come out of that time for you?

Mara Connor: This past year has been filled with so much collective tragedy and loss but there were silver linings. It helped me find peace in stillness, which did not come naturally to me. I’m used to being on the move, traveling, performing and being surrounded by people. It was a forced shift inward and I’m grateful for that. I’ve been slowing down, enjoying time in nature, hiking almost daily and exploring new trails, cooking, reading… This time of uncertainty also got me into reading tarot. I wrote an album’s worth of songs too.

Izzy: You just released your Decades EP, which boasts your take on some of your favorite classics.  How did this idea for a covers EP first come about?

Mara: Last year I was heading to play SXSW when COVID-19 hit. I realized it might be a while before I could safely tour or record new songs again. So, I listened back to unreleased recordings I had made pre-pandemic and realized I had a cover song from almost every decade from the 1950s – 1990s. The one decade I was missing was the ‘80s, so my friend Sean and I recorded Kath Bloom’s “Come Here” (mostly remotely from our separate quarantines). I’ve always had an appreciation for older music and really enjoyed breathing new life into a few of my favorite songs of the twentieth century. I recorded Decades with some of my favorite collaborators and friends in New York, Nashville, and LA using a wide range of recording styles (vintage 16 track tape machine, four track cassette recorder, digital) and venues (analog studio, homes studios, apartment floors).

Izzy: For that matter, do you have any favorite covers albums of music history?

Mara: The covers on Johnny Cash’s American Recordings series are incredible… especially his rendition of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.” I also love the John Prine tribute album, Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows Volume 1. Prine is one of my all-time favorite songwriters. His songs are just so undeniable and I love hearing different interpretations of them. I’m looking forward to Volume 2, which comes out later this year. A few of my other favorite covers are Joan Jett’s “Crimson and Clover,” Gram and Emmylou’s “Love Hurts,” and Francoise Hardy’s “Suzanne.”

Izzy: Have you had any favorite reactions to the album so far, or even the individual songs?

Mara: I sent my cover of “Come Here” to Kath Bloom and was really touched to hear that she loved my rendition of her song. We ended up talking on the phone and becoming friends.

Izzy: For that matter, and I realize this is a big question, what have been some of the highlights of your musical career so far?  Are there any experiences or reactions that really stand out?

Mara: Recording my first songs to tape at the Bomb Shelter in Nashville was a really rewarding experience… I arrived knowing no one, not even my producer, and I learned a lot very quickly working with such talented people. My band’s New York debut at Baby’s All Right was one of my favorite shows – it was our first out-of-town show, the venue was packed with strangers and my best friends from my New York days. I used to live down the street from Baby’s – I’d walk by it every day and dream of playing there. The Decades EP was also my first time producing (I co-produced the covers of “Come Here” and Elliott Smith’s “Ballad of Big Nothing.”), which I really enjoyed. In terms of reactions, my first single “No Fun” being featured in Rolling Stone was awesome. Playing SXSW and being named one of the best up-and-coming artists by Greg Kot at the Chicago Tribune was a highlight, too… My Chicago grandparents were very excited to see my name in their paper.

Izzy: And since your musical influences are fairly clear, I’m curious about your non-musical influences.  Are there any artists of other mediums or just aspects of life that you feel like help to inspire your work?

Mara: I love Toulouse-Lautrec. His paintings are so sad but also so expressive and vibrant. I’d like to make songs like that. And I think in some ways I approach songwriting like painting, very image heavy, focused on a particular scene or snapshot of life, the more specific the better. I’m also very inspired by my environment. There’s a lot of Southern California in my songs, specifically LA where I grew up, as well as New York and East Nashville where I’ve spent a lot of time.

Izzy: Considering that, as a musician, you’re still kind of in the “buzzy” and fresh portion of your career, are there any things that you would like fans and potential fans to know about your aim as an artist or your process of creating art?  Or is it all in the music?

Mara: It’s in the music, but most of my favorite songs are unrecorded and unreleased. I’m really looking forward to sharing them.

Izzy: Finally, how are you planning and hoping to spend 2021?  Is there anything you’re especially excited about, even if it may still be up in the air at this point?

Mara: I can’t wait to get back in the studio and record these new songs. I’m also excited to reunite with my music community and friends around the country as touring returns.

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During the day Izzy Cihak teaches transgression, subversion, and revolution at Temple University. At night he haunts Philthy's best venues to cover worthwhile acts for Philthy Mag. Morrissey is everything to him and, in their own heads, all of his friends see themselves as Zooey Deschanel.