By Ashley Zimmerman
By Dana Krangel
By John Hood
By Ashley Zimmerman
By David Von Bader
By Sayre Berman
By Steve Brennan
By Ashley Zimmerman
So by the time Karlzen went on tour early in 1995, she found herself vying for attention in a marketplace glutted with females. She remembers seeing memos circulating around the Atlantic offices prioritizing certain artists and urging publicists to book them on Late Night With Conan O'Brien.
"I'm not Jill, and I'm not Jewel," Karlzen told a reporter from Entertainment Weekly during an Atlantic Records showcase at the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin. "I know we all start to blend together after a while."
Even worse, the offices of WEA -- the conglomerate comprising Warner Bros., Elektra, and Atlantic -- were in turmoil in 1995. CEOs were being fired and hired, and there was talk of tightening belts at all of the labels. Layoffs of both staff and artists seemed imminent. But Karlzen was on the road most of the year, playing with Scandariato and a couple of musician friends from Fort Lauderdale. They were living on what would amount to approximately $90,000 of tour support from Atlantic. The tour was important: Because radio stations weren't playing her songs, it was her best chance to introduce herself to potential listeners.
As it turns out, the tour was the high point of Karlzen's major-label career. She and her band opened for Billy Pilgrim (a folk-rock band on Atlantic) and for Charlie Sexton. In Los Angeles they played the Greek Theater and mingled backstage with Brad Pitt, Ellen DeGeneres, k.d. lang, and Ben Stiller. But at the end of the tour, Karlzen and Scandariato broke up.
"Mark and I had this fight one night that was just... I don't know, it was just tough," Karlzen recalls. "And then we got home and we just had a lot of problems." They did, however, agree to remain friends, and they still perform together in concert.
Despite Yelling at Mary's poor sales, Atlantic picked up the option for a second Karlzen record. More to the point, Ulloa told his client that the higher-ups at Atlantic would allow her to make any record she wanted and that she'd always have a home at the label. Encouraged, Karlzen decided to use producer Don Smith, who had worked with Cracker, Keith Richards, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
But Stark didn't like the idea. Instead, she picked Mark Bryan, the guitarist for Hootie and the Blowfish. He had almost no producing experience, but Hootie's Atlantic debut, Cracked Rear View, was steadily going multiplatinum. "I thought that maybe, politically, that's what they wanted me to do," Karlzen says. "I thought, 'We'll give it a shot. We'll give it three songs and see how it goes.'"
It went well -- at first. Karlzen liked Bryan, and she was a Hootie fan. But when the songs were finished, she felt he hadn't quite captured the band's newly developed pop-rock sound. Ulloa and the band agreed, and Karlzen was given the unpleasant job of letting Bryan go. He took it well, she claims, and they still talk. But Karlzen adds: "After that, it was all downhill with the label. I think they totally lost faith in me."
Tapes of the new songs were sent to Stark and Val Azzoli, the newly appointed co-CEO of Atlantic. Karlzen called Stark and said, "I want to use this other producer, Don Smith. I don't like what we've done with Bryan." When Stark mentioned that Azzoli was unimpressed, Karlzen told her that was why she wanted another producer. After Stark said a few vague words on the matter, then rushed off the phone, it dawned on Karlzen that this might be the beginning of the end. A few days later, she was getting ready to go to the grocery store when the phone rang. It was Ulloa.
"There's a problem," he said gently.
Karlzen didn't need to hear another word. She hung up the phone and went to the store. "It was like I was in shock," she recalls. "I remember walking through my day not feeling anything. Not mad or upset or anything. Just numb."
"What happened in the [mid-]'90s was there was a lot of downsizing," Stark explains. "Atlantic, over the course of the last three years, has laid off 100 employees. In so doing, they also dropped a lot of artists just trying to make the roster smaller. Basically it boiled down to the math, when push came to shove. I don't think that's necessarily a reflection on Mary. The press really caught on to what she was doing, they really got it. And I thought it was only a matter of time before the public would get it. That's the one regret I do have: She never really got another opportunity."
Atlantic bought Karlzen out of her contract so that she would not have to complete the second album. In turn Karlzen used the money to buy back the master recordings of Yelling at Mary and the tapes of a video she'd done with Atlantic -- a slicker version of "I'd Be Lying." The items cost her $12,000. "But it gave me a lot of peace of mind," she says. "I didn't want them to have control over me any more. I just wanted to totally break away and not be under anyone's thumb."