28 Nov Mary Prankster on Creating ‘Thickly Settled’ & What Lured Her Back into the Studio
by Marisa Torrieri
In 1999, when I was an intern at a Maryland boating magazine, I’d crank WHFS as I cruised East on I-50, from College Park to Annapolis, singing along to whatever was playing. It was on one of those treks that I heard Mary Prankster for the first time, singing the chorus of “Mercyf*ck.” I was immediately gripped by the compulsion to pull over, so I could hear each and every lyric.
Later that day, I snatched up her CD, Blue Skies Over Dundalk, listened 50 times, and realized that Mary Prankster was my girl. My True North. My kind of songwriter. To this day, Blue Skies Over Dundalk, in its 20-minute brilliance, goes down as one of the best rock n’ roll albums ever created. (Roulette Girl and Tell Your Friends are also in my top 10, in no particular order.)
In 2005, when Mary announced she would retire after years of playing sold-out shows across the mid-Atlantic, Charm City fans were shocked, sad and baffled. But the timing was right. Mary Prankster (whose real name is different) believed the MP moniker would ride into the sunset, but the woman behind the persona would move onto other, more grown-up ventures — most notably, voiceover work.
“I’m retiring the character,” she told me over coffee in the Village Voice offices in New York, where I worked after relocating to Brooklyn that fall. “I’m not retiring from creative life.”
Later that day, Mary Prankster emailed me a photo of herself dressed like the Virgin Mary cradling a melting guitar. It was sad, but fitting.
Fast forward to 2019. Fourteen years is a lot of time — to contemplate life, make mistakes, settle down and look back and wonder if you left a crucial part of yourself behind when you turned 30. Around three or four years ago, Mary started hearing songs in her head that needed to get out into the open, as she told The Washington Post.
The result: Thickly Settled, Mary Prankster’s first album in more than a decade, is as beautiful, rich and complex as a bottle of good Cabernet.
The 10-track record blends multiple genres — often in the same song — like vintage rockabilly or bluegrass, frequently filled out by horns. “Local Honey” is bathed in smooth, trippy guitars and my favorite, “Sugar in the Raw,” is chock full of sex-bombshell-worthy, distortion-guitar riffs. While there are no pithy punk tracks in the vein of “Mac & Cheese” or “Tits and Whiskey,” there are cheeky moments throughout — little reminders that while you can take the girl out of rock n’ roll, you can’t take the rock n’ roll out of the girl.
Rockmommy recently caught up with Mary Prankster, who is playing her annual Pranksgiving Shows at The Ottobar on Friday, Nov. 29, and The Birchmere on Saturday, November 30.
Rockmommy: Thickly Settled is brilliant — and surprising. When you originally “retired” MP in 2005, did you think you had another record in you?
Mary Prankster: Thank you! And no, I didn’t. By the time I “retired” I hadn’t heard any new songs in my head for a few years. I was exhausted, and I figured, “Well, this is it — I’ve had a good run.” I’m delighted and grateful the songs came back and overjoyed with how the new album came out.
Rockmommy: Was there a moment when you decided you needed to get the songs onto an album?
Mary Prankster: I was living in Central Pennsylvania for a bit — one of my favorite regions of the country — and had an unexpected amount of unscheduled time crop up. I took the opportunity to make some audio sketches in GarageBand of what I was hearing in my head. Just doing that helped equalize the pressure a little bit — being able to hear the songs from the outside in — and then it became a matter of figuring out if it’d be possible to record them properly.
Rockmommy: I know you wanted a diverse group of musicians who were flexible with this record. How did you find your current roster?
Mary Prankster: Enter Steve Wright, genius producer/engineer and my bestie from way back. For the past 20 years he’s been honing his skills at Wright Way Studios in Baltimore, recording every genre of music with some seriously talented folks.We did an EXTENSIVE amount of preproduction together — demos, reference tracks, written descriptions of how I heard the tunes — strategizing what we’d need to pull it off.
From that, he had an idea of the depth of skill and versatility the musicians needed to have. Steve also has a really good sense of the psychology that goes into a session — how different personalities/approaches will interact.
Making an album is a terrifyingly intimate thing. You’ve got these songs that come out of intense feelings and you’re focused on making them the fullest expression of themselves so you’re just submerged in emotion for hours on end.
Added to that was how incredibly vulnerable I felt recording my first studio album in over a decade and a half. Whoever was going to make this record with me also had to be — just as a person — kind.
So Steve went through his roster of twenty years worth of crackerjack musicians and personally selected the most skilled, most versatile, and most kind. And here we are.
Rockmommy: What’s it like making music now, as opposed to your 20s, when you were recording and touring nonstop?
Mary Prankster: The technology available now is miraculous. Being able to do multi-track demos with a laptop and a midi-controller and emailing them with song notes — that right there is amazing. So is pulling reference tracks for different sound approaches from the infinite music library that’s available online. After the initial sessions I had another guitar idea and Bryan and I were able to work out a solo over FaceTime. Remote mixing in real time with an ethernet cable and SourceConnect. We took advantage of all these different digital tools and it was invaluable in terms of time and cost.
Interestingly enough, the SPIRIT of the album — just the sheer joy in making it — reminded me of making Blue Skies Over Dundalk. When Steve and I made that one together, there were no preconceptions or expectations, we were just totally focused on the songs and getting them right and it was so much FUN. I felt very strongly then that if it was the only album I ever made — and there was no reason at the time to believe it wouldn’t be – that I wanted to make the absolute best album I could – hold nothing back and just go for it.
With Thickly Settled — again, there was no REASON to make it, aside from the overpowering desire to hear these songs out in the world, so we had the same kind of giddy joy of discovery and creation. There was a lightness and playfulness to the sessions — 16 hours would pass and the only way we knew it was time to call it a day was that we’d be physically trembling from exhaustion. It was glorious.
Rockmommy: OK, Thickly Settled. How’d you come up with that album title (which, from the perspective of a 40-ish rocker mom, feels so relevant).
Mary Prankster: In New England you’ll see road signs that read “THICKLY SETTLED” in residential neighborhoods — translated, it means “High Population Density — Drive With Caution.” Metaphorically, as a 44-year-old woman smack dab in the middle of midlife, I’m also “Thickly Settled.” By this age, you’re living your life (as opposed to preparing for it) and starting to see how some of your earlier plot lines have turned out.
Rockmommy: Any plans to tour again, besides the Baltimore-DC-NOVA shows every Thanksgiving?
Mary Prankster: None at the moment, though certainly open to it if there’s demand/it makes sense.
Rockmommy: Would you consider playing my 5-year-old’s birthday party? 😉
Mary Prankster: We can park the horn section by the bouncy house.
Marisa Torrieri is the editor and founder of Rockmommy.