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Heading north on I-95 toward her home in Fort Lauderdale, Mary Karlzen takes a sip from a bottle of Miller Lite and returns it to the cup-holder hanging from her dashboard. It's well after three o'clock on Sunday morning, and Karlzen has just finished headlining a Saturday-night show at Tobacco Road in Miami. "Ma-ry! Ma-ry!" the crowd yelled when she was done. Now lost in thought, she stares at the road.
"I definitely believe in reincarnation," she says. "And I think we get smarter and smarter with each life. I think our souls learn. You know how you meet some people who seem so dumb, so naive? And you just think, 'Man, you must be on your first life.'"
Karlzen has wised up in the past few years. In 1993 she signed a contract with Atlantic Records, one of the biggest labels in the music industry. She felt as if she had finally broken the tape at the end of a grueling marathon of near-misses, mild successes, and total failures. The life ahead seemed like every musician's dream: Write songs, play music, make records, and get paid for it.
Things didn't quite work out that way. As one former label executive notes, "The easy part is getting signed. When you get signed, that's when the real work begins."
While at Atlantic, Karlzen recorded her major-label debut and toured for several months to support it. The album earned widespread critical acclaim and sold respectably. But in the end, corporate politics, economic realities, and the ever-changing music market outweighed Karlzen's talent. After two years she was dropped by Atlantic. Subsequently, she found that no other label wanted to touch her.
"Commitment to long-term artist development" is a common catch phrase among the presidents and CEOs of major labels. In fact, such commitment is very rare. Industry insiders say it takes approximately one million dollars to successfully break a new band these days. As many as 25,000 albums are released each year, and the Recording Industry Association of America estimates that 85 percent of them fail to make a profit.
Given the vicissitudes of public taste, major labels tend to take short-term gambles on new bands that may or may not score a smash hit. The alternative -- investing time and money to develop a few promising but possibly slow-selling artists -- is simply too costly. Karlzen found that out the hard way.
"Man," she says, one hand on her steering wheel. "I am gonna be so smart in my next life."
By 1993, "women in rock" were beginning to capture the imaginations of the public and the music industry. Melissa Etheridge and Mary Chapin Carpenter won Grammys that year, and PJ Harvey and Liz Phair were at the forefront of alternative rock. "Chick rockers" were much in demand by the Artists & Repertoire executives -- known simply as "A&R" -- who are responsible for finding, signing, and developing new artists.
Karlzen seemed to fit the mold. She's a five-foot-four blonde who drives a Jeep Cherokee but sings with the voice of a little girl. With her small features, fair skin, and boyish haircut, she looks not unlike Etheridge. She grew up in Palatine, Illinois, where her parents owned a small grocery store and her grandmother owned a farm, and moved with her family to South Florida as a teenager. To this day her favorite outfit is a pair of overalls. She's generally quiet and sometimes shy around strangers, but never timid. In fact Karlzen carries herself with an edgy confidence, as if she might be packing a weapon.
"Her bad days are really bad, and her good days are really good," says Mark Scandariato, Karlzen's onetime boyfriend and current guitarist. "Her persona is so strong that it just carries over to everyone. I remember that from touring: When Mary's having a bad day, the whole van is quiet. When Mary's happy, the whole van is partying."
Karlzen's mood was good in the early '90s. She persevered as a singer-songwriter even though her first band, an all-female quartet from Broward County called Vesper Sparrow, had broken up after five long years. Her manager was Rich Ulloa, the owner of the Miami label Y&T Records, who had led the country-rock band the Mavericks to a long-standing deal with MCA. And she had caught the eye of Jennifer Stark, a young A&R executive working in Atlantic Records' New York offices.
Late in 1993 Ulloa convinced Stark to fly down to Miami and watch Karlzen perform at the now-defunct Stephen Talkhouse. At the time Karlzen's music mixed equal parts country, folk, and roots-rock. It was a sound that radio programmers would later call "Americana," a category that would eventually include Lyle Lovett, Freedy Johnston, and k.d. lang.
"What drew me to Mary," Stark recalls, "is that I thought she had a really interesting hybrid of American music. There are a lot of other artists who are doing that now, but at the time there wasn't. In a lot of ways, she was ahead of her time."
Stark left Miami promising to speak to the higher-ups at Atlantic about Karlzen. In December a low-budget video that Ulloa had produced for Karlzen's song "I'd Be Lying" was picked up by VH1. He called Stark, and within two days Atlantic offered Karlzen a deal.