Marissa Mulder: Girl Talk

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Marissa Mulder

Girl Talk

Don’t Tell Mama, NYC, January 25, 2024

Reviewed by Alix Cohen

Marissa Mulder
Photo: Conor Weiss

Marissa Mulder has always been an iconoclastic performer. While others of her generation cleave to the American Songbook, this artist instead features contemporary, often rock, songwriters who speak to her. The material is frequently unknown to her engaged audiences, especially those members of a certain age. Mulder’s focus on lyrics is a signature. She’s authentic, and her commentary is smart, well researched, and apt.

The avowed theme of Girl Talk was an appreciation of women songwriters. Mulder said, “Music gives me space to laugh, to cry, to rage, to feel. These are beautiful, brave, resilient women. These women are me.” The song selections reflect Mulder’s recovery from a bad breakup and her sustaining sobriety.

“I recommend getting your heart trampled on to anyone/I recommend walking around naked in your living room” (“You Learn” by Alanis Morissette) she began, with her chin up and her vocal fanning out. We hear determination, positivity, and edge. Jon Weber’s piano rolled, and John Miller’s bass reverberated. The show was full of message songs, and the lyrics were often prose-like. Mulder sang across pauses and phrased for comprehension and emotional hook. Her parlando approach to the material was organic.

“I’ve never been a natural/All I do is try, try, try/I’m still on that trapeze/I’m still trying everything/To keep you looking at me” (Taylor Swift/Jack Antonoff). These are personal stories. Swift’s very specific “The Last Great American Dynasty” about Rebekah Harkness’ flamboyant appetite for life and her purchase of Harkness’ elaborate Rhode Island home, is accompanied by Swift’s quote, “It can be a real pearl clutchin’ moment for society when a woman owns her desires.” Mulder reveled in it.

We were told about Joan Baez’s deep relationship with Bob Dylan when she was “the queen of folk” and he was a newcomer. He broke her heart. Years later she wrote “Diamonds and Rust” and told an interviewer it was the song for which she most wanted to be remembered. Grave as Greek drama, Mulder wrenched up the memory: “You who are so good with words, at keeping things vague.” The song arrived like a galloping horse; it was seared wit exorcism and it was one of the evening’s highlights. Rage was evident, yet the performance never went over the top.

Joni Mitchell’s beautiful, trenchant “Little Green” was meant for the baby she was forced to give up. Mulder’s raw lament, delivered with her hands at her sides,  held a world of wishes. Pink’s six-year-old daughter told her she thought she was ugly and looked like a boy. “We don’t change,” her mom replied. “We help other people to change.” “Pretty, pretty please/Don’t you ever feel /You’re less than perfect.” With interjected spoken encouragement, Mulder defiantly declared that she is who she is.

“Good Thing He Can’t Read My Mind” (Christine Lavin) provided as a respite. The performer adorably delivered a scene-in-one. She has a flair for this kind of material. Alas, it was the only light note in an otherwise fraught compilation. A few more like this would have been welcome, and the program also needs to be shortened.

Amy Winehouse, who died young of alcohol poisoning, gave in to who she thought she was. A 1950s jazz sound carried “Love Is a Losing Game.” The bass weaved through with smoky finesse. Most of the friends I drink with/Have had to stop.” In the same vein, Florence Welch’s “Free” declares, “I’m always running from something/I push it back, but it keeps on coming.” Her outcome was different: “I hear the music, I feel the beat/And for a moment, when I’m dancing/I am free, I am free.” Hand on heart, Mulder celebrated the lifeline of music. Were there a video, we’d see nascent wings (bird, not angel).

Girl Talk was a wonderful show. The arrangements were gutsy without running roughshod over her vocals, and the musicianship of Weber and Miller was just right. Marissa Mulder was in fine voice. She expressively climbed to soprano and returned to earth, feet on the ground. She met the songs head on, and her vocal embellishment was never gratuitous. She shared where she is in her life with originality, intelligence, and heart.