With Mary Fahl, it all begins with the voice, a distinctively dark-hued contralto that somehow feels both intimate and expansive. Think Fairport Convention's Sandy Denny singing "Who Knows Where The Time Goes." Or Hannah Reid on London Grammar's recent "Wasting My Young Years." It's a voice that, once heard, could haunt you forever.
In fact, the former October Project frontwoman's voice can be so plaintive and evocative that gothic fiction writer Anne Rice has it drifting eerily from a dead woman's room in her 2013 novel The Wolves of Midwinter.
Fahl vividly recalls reading Rice's Interview With the Vampire as a teenager and getting caught up in "the sensual and vivid imagery" that would later be channeled into October Project signature songs like "Bury My Lovely" and "Take Me As I Am." The flattered singer quickly returned the favor by writing and recording the song "Exiles" for Rice to use as the audiobook's theme song.
"She told me, 'Oh, you're the voice I've been looking for, I just love it, it's eternal.' And then she says, 'It's neither male nor female, it's completely androgynous!'"
Fahl laughs. "I'm like, um, thank you? I'll take that as a compliment, I guess..."
But the singer is not at all hesitant to embrace the Sandy Denny comparison.
"When I first heard her voice, it was just like instantaneous love," she says. "Talk about poignancy! She's just beautiful, and to this day, I listen to her. But when I mention her name, most people don't even know who she is, which is heartbreaking."
And while London Grammar may be virtually unknown in America, Fahl lights up at the mention of the British band's name. "They are fucking — excuse me, they are really great. To me, they're sort of like the modern-day October Project. I think she's one of the best singers I've heard in a long time."
Fahl traces her continuing passion for all things musical to her childhood in upstate New York, where she grew up in an Irish/German household and made her earliest recordings in the echo-laden privacy of the family bathroom. She got heavily into British folk in high school, earned a degree in medieval literature from McGill University in Montreal and then moved to New York to co-found October Project.
It was the early '90s and major labels were becoming enthralled with the wordless vocals and airbrushed atmospherics of artists like Enya. October Project were soon being courted by Epic Records, which released the group's self-titled debut album in 1993. And while Fahl's vocals were octaves lower and less novelty-driven than Enya's — R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe might have been a better touchstone — comparisons nevertheless followed.
So how did the singer feel about constantly hearing the En-word?
"That four-letter one?" laughs Fahl. "Well, after we were signed, we were told that Epic was basically looking for their own version of Enya, and that was one of the reasons they signed October Project. And that made me so mad. I mean, Enya's fine, but that's so not me. I'm a real human, I'm right in front of you, and I think I have power in my voice, where her music is so airy and electronic."
After one more album, Epic quietly dropped October Project, and bandmembers went their separate ways. Fahl began doing TV commercials to make ends meet, but never got "the smiley Procter & Gamble commercials."
"I wanted those, because they were really lucrative and I needed to pay the rent. But I'd go for auditions for some detergent, and they'd always say something like, 'Um, could you try that again, but a little less liturgical this time?'"
While Fahl wasn't involved in October Project's songwriting, she quickly began making up for lost time as a solo artist. Much of her material on The Other Side of Time, her 2003 debut album for the Sony Odyssey label, fits perfectly alongside the semi-gothic pop that was her old band's stock-in-trade. You can also hear the Celtic influence in tracks like "Going Home," which features Mark O'Connor on violin and The Chieftains' Paddy Moloney on uilleann pipes.
Fahl's seven subsequent releases have proven to be a no-less eclectic mix, including an album-length take on Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon with infinitely layered synthesizers and vocal arrangements that are, at times, downright harrowing. The project is about as far from the gimmicky reggae, bluegrass and Flaming Lips versions as you can get, reflecting Fahl's respect for the original material.
"For me, it's almost like this Gnostic allegory for modern life, how you're born into this world as a pure soul — 'breathe, breathe the air' — and then there's this mournful realization, and this catharsis, and then it goes back to that essential connection with the divine.
"I just had so much emotion invested in it, in terms of my belief system and what I felt the record said, so I took it really seriously. I wouldn't waste nine months of my life working on something gimmicky. That's not what I do."
Fahl has also, out of necessity, learned to make such material work onstage with just herself and an acoustic guitar. "I never, ever, ever wanted to be a girl with a guitar. I just didn't. When I started doing it all by myself after October Project, it was like I might as well have been naked up there. That's how I felt. But now I'm used to it and almost prefer it."
Meanwhile, Fahl continues to diversify her musical palette. Her recent "Everything's Gonna Be Alright" opens with the line "Blind Willie Johnson in a capsule, singing about the soul of man," which was inspired by the bluesman's 1927 song "Dark Was the Night" being sent into space 50 years later.
"It was an oddly cool thing for NASA to do," says Fahl. "It's a record, literally made of gold, with a record player and instructions on how to play it. So I just thought that was so beautiful, him tumbling through space, asking these eternal questions."
The song is also Fahl's conscious attempt to do something more, well, cheerful.
"It's very easy to make people mournful or cry, but it's very difficult to write an intelligent upbeat song."
That's especially true for an artist who's the first to admit her affinity for what Germans call weltschmerz, a kind of sentimental, almost pleasurable sadness.
"I know, I know, I can't help it," says Fahl. "That's who I am. I mean, I'm a happy person, but I've always been — I wouldn't say depressed, because I'm not. But I'd say I can very easily be slightly blue."