By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jul 06, 2006 at 5:23 AM
Transplanted Milwaukeean Mary Karlzen has had a long, winding career, but her roosty rock and roll music has never waned.

After issuing a self-titled debut disc in 1992, she signed to Atlantic Records, released an acclaimed disc, “Yelling at Mary,” in 1995 and was dropped not long after. She then moved to Milwaukee for personal rather than professional reasons, where she began working with local musicians and playing gigs with Kevin Brandt, among others.

Her last record, “Dim the Watershed,” released in 2000, was produced by Hootie guitarist Mark Bryan and she toured in its wake with Hootie and the Blowfish and others, sharing stages with Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Indigo Girls and others.

Since then, Karlzen has spent a lot of time in Nashville working on her imminent new record “The Wanderlust Diaries,” which features musicians like the E Street Band’s Garry Tallent, Wilco drummer Ken Coomer, Dixie Chicks keyboardist John Deaderick, Garrison Starr (who released a disc on Milwaukee’s Back Porch Records a few years back) and Matthew Ryan.

Reflective and introspective, the record’s 12 tunes read like a travelog and memoir of Karlzen’s recent life. We asked her about “The Wanderlust Diaries,” due out in August. It includes covers of Tom Waits’ “Heart of Saturday Night” and “Skyway” by The Replacements.

OMC: At 43 minutes long, “The Wanderlust Diaries” is refreshingly succinct and to the point, unlike so many albums in the CD era. Did you make a conscious effort to do that or did the material you were pleased with happen to be 43 minutes long?

MK:  I don’t make any effort at all going into recording. I think the best way to approach the studio is to go in with your best songs, then just let it unfold.  It’s a strange chemistry that unfolds between musicians, producer, engineer and artist. I think it’s best not to mess with forcing certain ideas that aren’t working and just let it happen.  One of my favorite songs didn’t make the CD because the magic just didn’t happen for that one.  Another song was recorded at the last minute and it’s maybe my favorite. I think you can hear when something is forced, prefabricated. Best to go with the flow.

OMC: Don't shudder, but did you approach the record as something of a themed or concept project? All of the songs seem really personal, really linked to your life.

MK:  No, I didn’t see the songs as a whole until after it was recorded.   I keep a journal and most songs are from the entries.  Most of the entries had to do with travel and being on the road and when we started to talk about artwork, it just seemed natural.  Thinking back on the songs, they are all non-fiction, autobiographical, except the two covers that I didn’t write, but wish I did.

OMC: I notice a large Milwaukee presence in the packaging... Do you find a lot of inspiration for your songs in Milwaukee?

MK: At first, I hated it here. When you live anywhere else, Milwaukee seems to be the geographical joke in every story. It’s so small-town, even Downtown.  But after I had a good look around and started to meet people, I realized this place is a hidden gem. It’s beautiful, from the lakeside to the great restaurants, historic places and the pastoral country fields.  And the people, for the most part are terrific.  I now feel lucky to have landed here and I guess I just wanted to show my Midwest pride in the packaging.

OMC: In the notes you talk about how painful it was getting dropped, presumably by Atlantic. Is that still a sore point even though you appear to have found a good place for yourself in the indie world?

MK: I was very young and the music was my whole world.  I became friends to a lot of the people that worked at Atlantic and for a huge corporation it was just business, but I couldn’t help but take it personally at the time.  Now that I’m older, it’s easier to put things in perspective.  It’s hard to shake the hurt, though.  It’s kind of like that feeling the first time you get dumped, or the heartbreak of puppy love.

OMC: You've got some great guests and musicians on the record. How did you go about assembling the team with Coomer, Tallent, Starr, Ryan, etc.?

MK:  Just asked ‘em.  Honestly, we had a very small budget, so these musicians really did me a huge favor in playing.  A while back, I had met Garry (Tallent) on the road when he played a show with Steve Forbert, and we got to talking.  Then when (producer) Jansen Press started to assemble the musicians, he said he knew it was a long shot, but he was going to call Garry.   Everyone just fell in line much the same way.  Jansen just made some calls.  Knock on every door they say.

OMC: What's happening now ... touring? Back home in Milwaukee?

MK:  Well, the CD was supposed to be released in June, but Dualtone thought it would be better to release “The Diaries” in the fall.  So I’ll be out in August and July visiting Triple A radio stations, World Café, etc. and then do a little touring for the rest of the year. I’m also working on a CD of children’s music, which I hope to get out next spring.

Mary Karlzen's Web site is .
Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.