Country Folk musician Marian Runk was kind enough to answer a few of our questions ahead of her show at the Hungry Brain this Friday. She talked about her debut album, balancing her work in comics with music, and the Chicago country scene. Check out her record, A Few Feet from the Ground, and get to know Marian Runk through her own words.
MR: Marian Runk
Your debut record came out last November. Tell us a bit about the process?
MR: It’s been a long process! Some of the tunes go back as far as 2013. I started writing shortly after I began taking guitar classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music. I always suspected I was working slowly toward an album, but I needed to wait until my guitar and banjo skills were passable enough to support the songs! By 2017, I’d gained confidence playing out as a duo and trio with Andrew Wilkins and Jackie Boyd, and I had identified a group of songs that I felt would make a good collection. I decided my only goal for 2018 was to record an album, so I booked time with Steve Dawson at his studio, Kernel Sound Emporium. I’m a big fan of Steve’s music, especially his project Funeral Bonsai Wedding, and I wrote a few of the songs in his songwriting class. Working with him was an obvious and fortuitous first decision! In addition to recording and mixing, he brought some sweet lead guitar, harmonium, and production ideas to the project. To my delight, everyone else I wanted to work with was also able to join in (Jackie Boyd on harmony vocals, Andrew Green on drums, Jess McIntosh on fiddle, and Andrew Wilkins on bass). The bulk of the album was recorded live, with some overdubs. I drew the album artwork and designed the booklet and packaging myself and released it at the Chicago Art Book Fair [last November]. It was pretty much an even nine months from our first recording session. I know it’s a little weird to be celebrating the album now, four months after the initial release, but I wanted to do a proper full band show, and folks have been delightfully busy! Jess McIntosh (Joybird) and Andrew Green (Twin Talk) both released new records in the past couple months, so late March was the sweet spot for this show!
We’re always curious with an artist’s debut of how long they have had some of the songs on the shelf. Can you talk about one of the oldest songs on the record, and then one of the newest?
MR: One of the oldest songs is “Crowell;” it’s about my family, who are pretty much all city folk at this point, burying my grandmother in a tiny West Texas town. I’d actually worked with some of the imagery before, in college, in a series of landscape paintings. I wouldn’t call them a failure, but they didn’t really tell the story-- there were no people in them! Then in 2013 I became obsessed with Lucinda Williams’ album “West.” In particular, the song “Fancy Funeral” really grabbed me. After a few dozen listens, I remember thinking, “Oh! I have a funeral song, too!” I dug through my old sketchbooks, found my notes on my grandmother’s funeral, and set the memories into a blues form.
The newest song is Blue Irene. I had just finished tinkering with it when we were going into our last recording session (which was just supposed to be for some overdubs). We had eleven songs, and I was like, “Twelve is better, right?” It’s just me and my guitar, so it was easy to throw in last-minute. The song came about because I’d been studying fingerstyle blues, and I wanted to write a fingerstyle song based around a name (I hadn’t written in a while, so I gave myself an assignment). I started repeating the phrase “Blue Irene,” and eventually “Blue Irene the beauty queen” came out, and I knew what the song was going to be. It’s based on a friend I had a crush on in elementary school. She was the first runner-up in a kids’ beauty pageant, and her father was the first person in my life to die from AIDS, in the late ‘80s. Like Crowell, this song also had a first life as a visual arts project-- I tried to make it as a comic, but it was never quite right. A friend of mine describes it as a love song, and I wonder if that’s why it didn’t work on the page-- a love song needs to be sung?
What brought you to Chicago from Dallas?
MR: I moved to the Midwest to go to Oberlin College in Ohio (where I studied art and biology). Several of my friends moved to Chicago after school, and I tagged along. They’ve mostly moved away, but here I am! The indie comics and music communities here are so vibrant and supportive, I can’t imagine being anywhere else right now.
A quick Google of your name brought up your work in comics as fast as your music. You have an excellent body of work in the indie comic field. How do you balance the two creative endeavors?
MR: Yes, I’ve been making comics for a little over ten years now. Balance is a challenge! I’ve been focusing more on music for the past several years, but I have tricks to ensure that comics & illustration are built into my routine. I draw posters for my shows, and I exhibit at comic and zine festivals, which give me deadlines to work toward (this year I’m tabling at Chicago Zine Fest and CAKE). Perhaps because I knew I wouldn’t have time to work on anything else in 2018, I committed to making the album a book project as well, so it would be at home debuting at the Chicago Art Book Fair [the CD comes with a hand-bound booklet of drawings and lyrics, available on Bandcamp]. I do feel like a record is the one place where it really makes sense to combine my music and art. They don’t seem to naturally feed into each other, otherwise.
I’ve been thinking recently about why some stories work as a comic and others work better as a song. I’ve noticed that I feel more freedom to create fiction in songwriting than I do in comics. I think this is because most of my comics are autobiographical, and maybe the images keep me honest? But when I write songs, even when I’m drawing from my own life, I feel free to mold the material into a new story or tell it from a different perspective. It probably has something to do with the limitations of rhyme schemes and rhythm and melody, which can lead you to unexpected places lyrically. It’s fun! I’m curious to see if this ends up affecting my comics in the future. I hope so!
Chicago is full of great venues. What’s your favorite to play or catch a show?
MR: That’s so hard-- I’ve experienced magical moments at so many of them! When I was getting serious about songwriting and playing out, I went to Robbie Fulks’ Monday night residencies at The Hideout at least once, sometimes twice a month. It was kinda like my country music church. I also went to a Michael Chapman show at the Hideout about 6 years ago that really influenced how I think about guitar and songwriting. And the “A Day in the Country” festival is such a joy every summer....so I guess the Hideout wins “favorite place to catch a show” for those reasons. In 2015, I played the “I Hear Voices” series at Constellation with Jamila Woods and Danny Cohen. That show was really special to me- an honor to be a part of. I’m really looking forward to playing for the first time at the Hungry Brain this week and Montrose Saloon in April! I’ve enjoyed lots of shows at both.
The folk/country scene has many different sub genres that it can be difficult to navigate for a newcomer. What are some of your favorite acts?
MR: Also a tough question because there are so many, and the “scene” is many scenes. Obviously, Joybird! Jonas Friddle and Emily Nott, who both have new albums coming out this spring. Jodee Lewis, Steve Dawson (Funeral Bonsai Wedding & Dolly Varden), Robbie Fulks, Nora O’Connor, Big Sadie, Glass Mountain, Wooden Rings, Woodrow Hart & the Haymaker, the Wandering Boys, Eric Unger, Lawrence Peters, and the Golden Horse Ranch Band. The Folkways Happy Hour at Cole’s bar is a great way to see a bunch of different folks, local and otherwise. And I’ve been going to the Hoyle Brothers’ honky tonk happy hour at the Empty Bottle for almost ten years now, I think?!