For New York cabaret artist Marissa Mulder, it’s Beatles night at Roger Rocka’s
I can’t get Marissa Mulder’s version of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” out of my head.
I had never heard of this New York-based cabaret singer before an email from Roger Rocka popped into my inbox offering a phone interview with her. I said sure. Mulder is performing Wednesday, Nov. 20, at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater in a cabaret performance titled “I’ll Follow The Sun: The John Lennon and Paul McCartney Songbooks.” I thought it would be fun to talk with her.
I only had time to listen to a couple of her songs on YouTube before the interview. It wasn’t until after my thoroughly charming interaction with her that I listened to Mulder’s latest album, titled “Two Tickets Left: Songs of Hope.” And I couldn’t stop listening. I must have hit the replay button on Apple Music four or five times.
Are you a member of The Munro Review? You can win a pair of tickets to Marissa Mulder’s one-night cabaret performance (Wednesday, Nov. 20) at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, including dinner. Entry deadline is 9 a.m. Tuesday. Click here for entry post.
In particular, I kept coming back to “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” I don’t know quite know how to explain why. Like all great cabaret artists, Mulder can take a familiar song and put an entirely new spin on it. Part of it is her voice, which has the slightest-sandpaper roughness to it, giving her tone a hint of weathered honesty. Yet there’s brightness to her voice as well. When she sings, it sounds fresh and immediate, and even a little unsettled, as if she took the subway-station steps two at a time and hasn’t quite gotten back to equilibrium.
Perhaps the most important part is her connection to the lyrics. I’ve heard “Yellow Brick” many times before, of course, thanks to Elton John and others, but I’ve never really listened to the words the way I did with Mulder’s version.
Her Beatles show is the latest in a series of innovative programs (including one devoted to the music of Tom Waits). With the Beatles, she has a definite storyline in mind.
“We start with the day that Paul McCartney met John Lennon,” she tells me on the phone. “Paul was 15. John was 16. I set the scene that way — Paul showed up with his bicycle with his guitar on his back.”
The overarching theme is how McCartney and Lennon’s music evolved. “It seemed to take on a whole new thing as their artistry grew.”
The show includes spoken interludes about the pair between numbers — “personal things that happened to them that informed some of these songs,” she says. (Fun cabaret fact: Those brief bits are what form the “patter” of the show, as cabaret artists call it. Patter pays an integral part of making a show feel comfy and cohesive to an audience.)
“Mostly, though, I’m putting my own spin of a woman singing these songs. I use different arrangements, try new things.”
Her favorite Beatles songs include “Across the Universe,” “Dear Prudence” and “Strawberry Fields.”
Her musical director and pianist, Jon Weber, will travel with her to Fresno, and is also an integral part of giving Mulder’s act a certain style.
She performs in Los Angeles before coming to Roger Rocka’s. Mulder has performed as far west as Colorado, but this is her first performance tour to California.
Rocka discovered Mulder on YouTube. I asked him what the attraction was.
He told me: “What convinced me to book Marissa was seeing her version of the Tom Waits song, ‘Martha.’ I had such an emotional reaction I knew she was something special. She’s not well known on the West Coast so we’ll hope folks will trust us enough to give her a try.”
A graduate of the State University of New York at Geneseo, Mulder initially came to New York with the idea of pursuing a career in musical theater.
But she knew cabaret was also a viable option. “I love being able to choose my own material and getting up in front of people and sing,” she says. “I had a really wonderful voice coach in college who told me early on that he thought I would be great at cabaret.”
In 2011, she beat out 60 other singers to win the MetroStar Challenge at the Metropolitan Room, an “American Idol”-type contest for up-and-coming cabaret artists, according to her bio. She has performed at such renowned cabaret venues as The Carlyle, Lincoln Center, Town Hall, Carnegie Hall, The Algonquin Hotel, 54 Below, Joe’s Pub and Birdland.
Writing in 2016 about a show of Mulder’s that focused on Marilyn Monroe, New York Times writer Stephen Holden called her “a rising star” and that she offered a “compelling portrait of the star in a confessional mood.”
Our interview is upbeat and friendly, and I feel instantly comfortable with her — much as I imagine it would be like in one of her shows. I ask what it’s like to have to carry an entire show by herself, to be that “on,” with all eyes on her alone. It must be a lot of pressure. Does it get easier?
“I try to think of it as you’re with a group of your closest friends in your living room,” she says. “Every time I get up there on stage, I feel stronger, I feel more confident. I feel like I’m really standing in my talent. Over the years, my biggest goal has been dissecting the lyrics and thinking, what am I giving to this audience? I want them to understand every word i’m speaking and singing. Each time I get up there, I feel more and more free, and comfortable in my skin.”