Lisa Marr: Learning How to Fail

Lisa Marr has been a recurring focus of praise from moi in this space, e.g. here and here and here. (Perhaps one of these days I will write a long-threatened post analyzing and explaining why she is one of the great musical voices of the age. But for now, take my word for it.)

The most recent major work we had from her, however, was not a collection of gem-like pop songs — my not so secret wish — but a neat little movie called Learning How to Fail. Miss Marr has begun devoting a lot of time and energy to film-making lately. She explains here how this film came about. She was finding that scaling the musical mountain was working less and less well for her. Things took a particularly ugly turn in 2003. She was finally going to get her band The Lisa Marr Experiment, on the road for a national tour, but the guy who was supposed to be booking the shows had botched it and lied about it, and the tour couldn’t happen.

But, rather than mope, the plucky Canadian songbird decided to make the most of it. As she tells it:

I had time off, I had recently acquired a beat-up ’63 Gibson acoustic and a mini-DV camera; I had a box of records, a bag of t-shirts, a trusty ’88 Toyota Corolla hatchback and a ferocious case of wanderlust. Why not just hit the road by myself, play music in random public places and interview the folks I encountered along the way about their notions of success and failure while I tried to sort out my own feelings on the topic. I’d call it the Learning How To Fail Tour. And that’s exactly what I did.

I had friends willing to put me up in Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Brooklyn, Detroit, Chicago and Denver so my route was a giant game of connect the dots. In between, I slept in my car. Every day I’d set out and stop whenever a place caught my fancy. I’d find a suitable location (a park, a shopping center, a laundromat, a street corner, a truck stop, a bowling alley, a tavern, a tourist trap….), set up the camera and start playing. I had a little sign on my guitar case explaining what I was doing. Folks would amble up… sometimes they’d throw me a little bit of money but mostly we’d get to talking… The question “What is the definition of success?” was a window into all kinds of really amazing discussions about happiness, money, work, divorce, ambition, love and heartache, cancer, suicide, politics, music, family, travel… you name it. People responded with a kindness and generosity I couldn’t have imagined. Everyone wished me well and helped me in whatever way they could. Not once did I feel threatened or afraid. The whole experience restored my faith in making art and reminded me of why I’d been driven to make music in the first place: not money, not fame, but simply to connect with people. Process not product. Hokey, but true.

The film is a document of this tour. We see but donít hear Miss Marr playing. Instead we hear the voices of lots of people holding forth with some surprisingly touching responses to the question: What is the definition of success? Full disclosure: Some voices near and dear to me can be heard in the film. But, that aside, it is a nicely done piece of work. It is handsomely packaged, with a bonus cd of a live acoustic appearance on a radio station, which has pleasant if rough-hewn versions of several of her songs. You can go here for a short version of the film (scroll to the bottom). Go here to buy it directly from her.

I will confess that I pine for a brand new, full-blown, fully produced, fully instrumented album from Miss Marr. She updates the news page on her website pretty much every month, and these posts are amusing and informative. The sense you get is that she is enjoying herself with a lot of one-shot projects (like a Buck reunion show) and film-related stuff, and playing out mainly as “The Here and Now”, which has the minimalist format of her on accoustic guitar and a rather dashingly piratical looking bearded gentleman on drums. Which is all fine. The stars may all come ’round right and we may one day get an album from her in the same league as, say, “Pet Sounds” or “Mr. Tambourine Man” – which I actually think is possible. But if these Olympian heights are never reached, all is still well. We will nonetheless, I am sure, be blessed with a continual outpouring of worthy new musical projects from the irrepressible Miss Marr.

In the meantime, I can also strongly recommend The Spring Demo Collection, which you can buy here. It is Miss Marr and a guitar, no overdubs, no nothin’, just the songs, unvarnished. But her singing is very sincere and beautiful and all the songs are good and a few are brilliant. Also, check out the group of free songs here, to get some idea what I am going on and on about.

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