Marian McLaughlin
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Marian McLaughlin

Baltimore, Maryland, United States | Established. Jan 01, 2015 | SELF

Baltimore, Maryland, United States | SELF
Established on Jan, 2015
Band Folk Experimental




"Marian McLaughlin Explains 'Spirit House' Track By Track"

I first became enchanted with Marian McLaughlin's music when she was searching for ways to mix her quirky classical guitar picking with her equally unusual voice. McLaughlin follows her muse for a sound that occasionally recalls Joanna Newsom or the psychedelic folk music of The Incredible String Band. And now, five or so years after I first heard McLaughlin play house shows in the D.C. area and open at some of our better clubs, she's made an album that turns her unorthodox meanderings into meaningful journeys that might involve wizards, whimsy and a chamber ensemble. Spirit House, which has just come out, finds McLaughlin working with arranger and double bassist Ethan Foote. It's a partnership that feeds the spirit, with 10 songs that each tell a tale. When she performs, she often spins the stories behind her songs, which has always helped me latch on to her music as she takes me on her adventures. Here, she tells the stories of Spirit House.

Even Magic Falters
1. Even Magic Falters

"A few years ago, I kept getting sick. I tried all kinds of things to help improve my health, like herbal steams and Kundalini yoga classes. Sometimes, I felt like I was imbibing potions or concocting spells. Despite all my efforts, nothing felt like it was working. I ended up having this realization that things happen to the body that are beyond our control. Meditating on mortality reminded me of mystical stories, like the quest for the fountain of youth and encounters with wizards. That led me to read a story about Merlin. I was surprised to learn that his infatuation with Lady of the Lake led to his downfall. Magicians and wizards are often portrayed as invincible beings, but reading about their weaknesses showed a more relatable and human aspect to these supernatural characters."

Your Bower
2. Your Bower

"After watching a David Attenborough special on bowerbirds, I felt compelled to write a song about their whimsical behavior. Male bowerbirds build twig-like caves and decorate them with all kinds of found objects. It's fascinating that they tediously weave these complex designs, all in hopes of attracting a mate. I see correlation between the bowerbird's craft and my own songwriting, as we both use song paired with intricate structure to lure in listeners."

3. Kapunkah

"'Kapunkah' means 'thank you' in Thai. It was one of the first words I learned how to say while traveling in Thailand. Although I couldn't speak Thai, I wanted to be able to express gratitude when interacting with people. While visiting a small island in the Andaman Sea, my friends and I met some locals who took us on a series of memorable adventures. This was such an enriching trip, and it left a positive impact on my spirit. I came up writing this festive song as a way to give thanks to everyone who took part in these vibrant encounters."

4. Ocean

"Water is a recurrent theme throughout this album. It's such a powerful and transformative source of energy. I spent some time contemplating bodies of water and tried to apply their attributes to my own life. For example, ponds create self-contained habitats, so I'd use that imagery when focusing on my own self-development. Glaciers move at their own pace, which I'd keep in mind while practicing patience. These musings helped me find grounding when I would feel unsettled about things. I ended up turning these thoughts into a song about a wandering sailor. The sailor wonders what it would be like to belong elsewhere, but in their heart knows that they're right where they should be."

Calm Canary of the Arctic Sea
5. Calm Canary of the Arctic Sea

"One time, I read this article about a beluga whale that learned how to imitate the human voice. It inspired me to write a spin-off story where the beluga whale develops the ability to communicate to humans but is viewed as a spectacle. From there, the song explores the ideas of consciousness and existence. As fun as it is to marvel about extraterrestrial life throughout the universe, it's heartbreaking to realize how destructive we are with life on Earth. This song channels the helplessness I feel when acknowledging the continuous damage our planet faces from human impact.

"The beluga whale is called the 'canary of the sea' due to its high-pitched chatter. By using this nickname, I'm able to allude to the phrase 'canary in a coal mine,' where canaries where used to detect environmental hazards. I wanted the beluga whale to represent an innocent messenger that could warn humans about their dangerous habits."

Fourth Son
6. Fourth Son

"In English heraldry, the first son inherited the family estate, while the second and third son went to work in the church as priests. The fourth son was left to carve out his own line of work. His cadency symbol was the legless martlet, symbolizing restlessness and the inability to settle due to the lack of a designated role.

"While I was working on my first album, I really identified with the concept of the fourth son. I was trying to find my own path as a musician, but felt like I wasn't making enough progress or meeting people's expectations. Instead of pursuing a full-time job, I took on various gigs that offered flexible schedules so that I could focus on music. Sometimes I felt looked down upon because I didn't have a prominent position, but I knew that I had to pursue my musical endeavors. I faced a lot of external and internal challenges along the way, but I ended up covering so much ground and accomplished a lot of ambitious projects."

7. Alexander

"Once I had this vivid dream that I was a young mother that witnessed the accidental drowning of my toddler. I woke up feeling an immense wave of grief. Later on that day, while walking along the Potomac River, I couldn't help but recall the visceral imagery from the dream. I took a break to sit by the water and began piecing together scenes from the dream through song. If I could interpret this dream, it'd probably stem from my uncertainty around the idea of parenthood. I'm old enough to be a mother, but I'm not sure I'm ready to handle that responsibility."

8. Will-o-the-wisp

"Last spring, my boyfriend and I were both planning respective solo hiking trips. Even though we were excited, there was some worry in the back of my head. What if we came across some conflict in the woods? I tried to rationalize that problems can arise anywhere in life, and reminded myself that fear is a present obstacle that can keep you pursuing new experiences. It was right around then that I came across the concept of the will-o-the-wisp. According to folklore, will-o-the-wisps are glowing, supernatural orbs that appear in swamps and forests at night. Known to be mischievous or even malevolent, will-o-the-wisps often lure travelers off their paths with their hypnotizing glow, only to abandon them in the dark. These troublesome spirits felt like the perfect symbol for the anxiety I was having around solo hiking."

Legend of the Neighborhood
9. Legend of the Neighborhood

"Aaron Brown and I met in high-school guitar class, immediately bonding and developing a close friendship through music. When we graduated high school, we both bought our dream guitars. I got a nylon Cordoba and he bought a Dimebag Darrell electric guitar. It was the first and only check he ever wrote, as he died shortly after.

"When I heard the news, I went to a gathering at his parents' house. As people were pouring out memories of Aaron, someone said, 'He was a legend of the neighborhood, always walking that black dog around.' When I got home, I started writing a song about Aaron as a way to process my emotions. That line that I overheard really stuck out and became the introduction to a little a cappella ditty, which in due time morphed into a groovy track celebrating his exuberant spirit."

Paint-chipped Windowsill

10. Paint-chipped Windowsill

"The lyrics for this song were originally intended for something that my friend wrote. He had this melancholic guitar track and asked if I could come up with something to accompany it. It reminded me of waking up and watching a snowstorm unfold. We never got to put that song together, but I carried those lyrics with me for years. I was just about done putting songs together for Spirit House when I came up with my own guitar part for those words. It felt appropriate to wrap up the album with this stripped-down song." - Bob Boilen of NPR Music

"Marian McLaughlin – Spirit House"

Spirit House is the new album from experimental folk guitarist and songwriter Marian McLaughlin who chose the unusual title after noticing the ubiquity of spirit houses while visiting Thailand. These “houses for the spirit of the land” are shrines to the protective spirit of a place, normally in the form of a miniature house or temple and placed in an auspicious spot. While Marian’s previous album (2014’s Dérive) was informed by the French Situationist Guy Debord’s theory of dérive, Spirit House is less influenced by it, although there are still parallels in her writing process. The result is music which grows intuitively from Marian’s own interior monologue to create music and lyrics which are constantly changing, evolving and developing. All this might suggest that the music on Spirit House is going to be challenging to listen to, nothing could be further from the truth. While an awareness of the creative process behind the songs is helpful, it’s not essential and the ten songs here stand in their own right and can easily be appreciated by a casual listener.

In a recent email conversation, Marian explained that she wrote much of the material for Spirit House while visiting Thailand and that she often felt that her songs were like little restless spirits residing within her and that she had to honour their presence somehow. She told me: “I saw an analogy between erecting a spirit house and creating an album…if I made a record containing these songs, it would be like providing them with a little spirit house to reside in”. She continued:

“Though some of these songs may be abstract and beyond my own narratives, they stem from somewhere within my psyche. They reside within me, I am their vessel, yet I view my songs as sacred spaces that I in turn step into, in the company of other musicians. With Spirit House, I invite listeners on a journey through these intimate and ornate songs.”

Musically, Marian continues her collaborative partnership with multi-instrumentalist and composer Ethan Foote, who wrote the arrangements for the album and their work together ensures an artistically successful meeting of experimental folkrock, chamber music and lyrical vision.

This is immediately apparent on the opening song, ‘Even Magic Falters’; the (Phrygian?) modal string arrangements conjure up mental images of East Asia and sit well with Marian’s own electric guitar playing, the classical influence of J.S. Bach – himself partial to the Phrygian mode in his cantatas. This heady potpourri is balanced by the more poppy, Western-flavoured choruses which are driven by Alan Kayanan’s drums, Neil Brown’s trumpet and Ethan’s bass while Brian Falkowski’s flute soars like birds flying home to roost at sunset. The whole is topped with Marian’s warm, honeyed vocals in a lyric which references both Harry Houdini and Arthurian legend. A flying start to the album and one of its many highlights.

Written from the perspective of a listener, the lyric for ‘Your Bower’ draws an interesting parallel between the bowerbirds’ construction of bowers to attract mates and musicians’ use of songs to attract audiences. The couplet “Twigs bent like arcs and vectors / Natural architecture” is wonderfully evocative while the song’s arrangement successfully paints a matching sound picture, largely through the skilful playing of the invoke string quartet of Nick Montopoli and Zach Matteson (violins), Karl Mitze (viola) and Geoff Manyin (cello). The song has a delicately lilting feel mirroring the mating dance of the bowerbird and Marian’s classical guitar is precise yet fluid.

Third song and lead single ‘Kapunkah’ is a tribute of sorts to Thailand; the title is Marian’s phonetic rendering of “thank you” in Thai while the lyric vividly describes some of the scenes she saw during her trip. The song structure is a curious fusion of jazz-rock and Afro-pop with frequent tempo changes which, now I write it down, sounds like it simply shouldn’t work in practice – yet it does and it makes a gloriously sunny noise; it may take a couple of plays to appreciate its nuances but when you do, it’ll be your earworm du jour, guaranteed!

There’s a conceptual link between ‘Ocean’ and ‘Calm Canary of the Arctic Sea’ which is easy enough to spot from the song titles alone, although once one dives in, the lyrical content of the two is diverse. ‘Ocean’ reflects on the nature of water, from which all life ultimately originated billions of years ago while ‘Calm Canary of the Arctic Sea’ makes some cogent observations about the way in which humankind has exploited the oceans in general and marine life in particular with no thought to sustaining one of our most important natural resources. The lyrical juxtaposition of canaries and cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) is visually striking but entirely apposite: for centuries, miners took canaries into their mines to warn of potential disaster and now that we are finally realising that cetaceans can spontaneously mimic the patterns of human speech, one wonders if they, too, might be trying to warn us of dangers ahead.

In ‘Ocean’, Marian’s classical guitar is the rock on which the tides of the arrangement break; flecked with Brian Falkowski’s flute, invoke‘s strings ebb and flow like the tides, sometimes lapping against the shore, sometimes crashing against it with the ferocity of a winter storm driven by the irresistible force of Neil Brown’s trumpet and Ethan’s bass.

‘Calm Canary of the Arctic Sea’, meanwhile, opens with an almost festive air with Brian’s clarinet and Neil’s trumpet dancing around Alan’s marchtime drums. Matt Hotez’ trombone introduces the clarion call of a foghorn through invoke‘s string driven haar and a darkening of the mood. Ethan’s underwater bass glides quietly past, felt more than seen but still an easy target for the horn section’s harpoons. The celebratory mood returns for the coda, mocking the self-congratulatory tone of those self-styled mighty hunters who, through greed more than necessity, are driving some of the planet’s most intelligent creatures to the edge of extinction and I can only echo Marian’s words:

Well it breaks my heart into a thousand pieces
the way we treat countless species
on this planet that we call Earth
our home, our Earth.

The natural world in which we live – of which we are part, if we could only see past our own alienation – is the inspiration for ‘Fourth Son’, the lyric of which draws a neat analogy between flocks of birds and the proverbial huddled masses of humanity to point out that none of us has any less worth than any other. The arrangement has an understated power in its unadorned chamber-folk style and its measured simplicity adds its own emotive weight, highlighting Marian’s subtle examination of some of the negative impacts of social class and how inequality is enforced.

Although ‘Alexander’ is ostensibly about the tragic drowning of a child as recounted by his grieving mother, I suspect there may be a subtext which I’ve been unable to apprehend, although the lyric’s reference to a cormorant and the quote “True life shall not be regained” make me think that John Milton’s Paradise Lost may be of some relevance. Regardless of my failed attempt to second-guess a deeper meaning, the musical arrangement is flowing and spacious with Ethan’s restless double bass underpinning Marian’s finely-judged, introspective performance.

The phenomenon of the will-o’-the-wisp occurs in many places around the world, especially over bogs, swamps or marshes. According to Wikipedia, “it resembles a flickering lamp and is said to recede if approached, drawing travellers from the safe paths”, an idea which is reflected in many folk tales where it is often associated with fairies or evil spirits. In literature it’s often used as a metaphorical device to describe unattainable hopes and it’s this latter concept which seems to be the inspiration behind Marian’s take on it in ‘Will-o-the-wisp’. A dramatic full band arrangement which is firmly in the folk-rock tradition, it’s a grippingly atmospheric song and a highlight of the album.

‘Legend of the Neighborhood’ is the second single from Spirit House. It was written in memory of Aaron Brown, a young musician who lived locally to Sarah and who was tragically killed in a shooting incident and all proceeds from downloads go to Music For Life, a music education program for young people. The lyric is a touching and affectionate portrait of Aaron, full of beautifully observed details, while the arrangement is an uptempo celebration of a life ended too soon, with a horn section which would give Tower Of Power a run for its money, while special mention must go to Brian Falkowski’s blistering sax solo.

Closing track ‘Paint-chipped Windowsill’ finds Marian in a downbeat, introspective mood brought about by the onset of winter and as such is something with which I completely empathise, even more so at the time of my writing (it’s early September but feels more like November). Marian’s guitar swirls slowly like fallen leaves caught in an icy wind, her vocals capturing the moment perfectly; it’s a song which would make an ideal soundtrack for those interminable moments which the late Douglas Adams called “the long, dark teatime of the soul”.

Spirit House is a record which repays repeated, in-depth listening; it’s not something disposable to play twice and then forget about. Marian’s artistic vision is painstakingly conceived and realised through a wealth of details which add up to much more than the sum of their parts and the outcome is a record full of hidden depths which reveal themselves gradually. The reward for the listener who spends a little time exploring Spirit House is to discover ten intricately glowing miniature worlds, each of which will surely generate an emotional resonance in anyone who’s ever mused on the nature of the human condition. - Helen Gregory from Folk Radio UK

"Graded on a Curve: Marian McLaughlin, Spirit House"

Based in Washington, DC, Marian McLaughlin is a guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter specializing in progressively inclined indie/chamber folk; well-versed in string technique and keen on boundary-pushing collaboration, her music is a multifaceted pleasure. Possessing a slim discography detailing a growing relationship with double bassist-arranger Ethan Foote, McLaughlin’s second full-length Spirit House arrives on CD September 23rd. Due to the frustrations of mobility certain to occur during this week’s papal visit to the Nation’s Capital, her record release show at the Logan Fringe Arts Space has been moved to November 21st.

Marian McLaughlin’s acumen on guitar is considerable. One need only listen to understand, but her background of master classes with Larry Snitzler, a pupil and friend to cornerstone of the classical axe Andrés Segovia, is worthy of note. Additionally, McLaughlin was one of six chosen by the Bethesda, MD arts center Strathmore for their 2014-15 Artist in Residence program.

Live performance figures prominently in her approach; running the gamut from house shows to events in larger venues, she’s warmed up the room for Ryley Walker, Daniel Bachman, Marissa Nadler, Arborea, Six Organs of Admittance, and others, but her largest audience surely came via NPR’s online shindig Tiny Desk Concert in June of 2014.

In his introduction to the 3-song set, Tiny Desk producer/host Bob Boilen praises her as a unique musician, though he does provide context by citing similarities to Joanna Newsom and Diane Cluck. These are apt comparisons; as said, McLaughlin impacts the ear as a direct descendant/exponent of last decade’s blossoming of indie folk, and with special emphasis on the side of the scene promoted by periodicals such as Arthur and Galactic Zoo Dossier.

To elaborate, fans of the ‘60s-‘70s artists awarded the distinction of “Astral Folk Goddesses” (by Galactic Zoo Dossier) and’04’s The Golden Apples of the Sun compilation (issued through Arthur Mag’s Bastet imprint) are quite likely to find McLaughlin to their liking. She debuted last year with Dérive, an 8-song effort (still available on LP) that combined solo pieces with tandem excursions utilizing a tight-knit handful of collaborators.

The album’s title is inspired by Situationist Guy Debord’s concept of “dérive,” whereupon a person undertakes an unplanned course that’s subconsciously shaped by the environment of the journey, “with the ultimate goal of encountering an entirely new and authentic experience.” Dérives also play a part in McLaughlin’s working method; she writes intuitively, relying on stream of consciousness and the guidance of instrument and idea.

It’s a system extending to her follow-up Spirit House, though she enlarges the number of contributors to eleven including violinists Nicholas Montopoli and Zachariah Matteson, violist Karl Mitze and cellist Geoff Manyin, collectively known as the Invoke String Quartet. In the process Ethan Foote’s role as instrumentalist, producer, and arranger is enriched considerably.

While this broadening of the aural landscape is a major component in opener “Even Magic Falters,” the initial moments feature just McLaughlin’s guitar and a light accent of cymbal. Her voice soon enters, intoning confidently with a dark undercurrent and getting highlighted by percussion and mood-enhancing strings, though the most striking aspect of the seven minute piece is the brief upticks in tempo augmented by the regality of horns and the added heft of electric guitar.

Individuals plying their trade in the indie folk field can easily fall victim to employing smallness of scale as a crutch, but it’s quickly apparent this isn’t McLaughlin’s bugaboo. In fact, some might assess the scenery as a tad too ornate. Ultimately Spirit House isn’t highfalutin but rather mystical as referenced in the song’s title; the lyrics mention both Merlin (“from Arthurian legend”) and Gandalf (from the many, many chapters of Tolkien), so those allergic to fantasy lit-themed psych-folk have been given fair warning.

Having purchased and shelved a platter by the ‘60s band Gandalf, this writer is frankly in no position to complain. Helping matters greatly is diversity; there’s the pleasing triangle of voice, nylon guitar, and string section constituting “Your Bower,” the atmosphere assuredly uniting the chamber and the meadow, but radiating a markedly different temperament is “Kapunkah,” a jaunty (indeed, downright danceable) number drawing upon McLaughlin’s trip to Thailand.

With about a minute left, “Kapunkah” slyly incorporates a sorta ‘50s pop vibe that’s mighty appealing, while the trad-Brit-folk trappings of “Ocean” are widened substantially by Foote’s arrangement of strings and brass. And as the milieu crescendos it takes on a medieval air, McLaughlin’s picking and vocalizing shining throughout.

“Calm Canary of the Arctic Sea” delivers another turn, clarinet and trombone emerging at the outset. The effect is carnival-like but restrained, and its art-pop tendencies proceed into a baroque zone that fleetingly tangles with the celestial before taking a bold culminating plunge into the symphonic. That’s a lot of traveling; “Fourth Son” is positively scaled back by association, but Spirit House loses nothing in the transition, instead gaining an exemplary specimen of pure chamber-folk.

Impressively, the more structurally ambitious cuts attain their stature naturally, lacking in any superficial dolling-up. Clearly comfortable in these situations, McLaughlin continues to excel in trimmer scenarios a la standout “Alexander,” which pairs her with the warmth of Foote’s double bass. Spirit House’s progression is a bit less psych-tinged than its predecessor, though said quality does creep into “Will-o-the-wisp,” the track gravitating nearer the vicinity of Dérive’s tougher entries.

However, where the prior outing’s “Heavier-than-air” brought Cat Power to mind, “Will-o-the-wisp” seems descended from ‘70s folk-rock, again of a decidedly Brit hue. And the uptempo slice of local biography, “Legend of the Neighborhood” detours yet again, exploring an angle somewhat reminiscent of mainstream pop-rock, the aura significantly accentuated by a smoldering sax break straight from the heart of the ‘80s.

It’s a risky but successful proposition, offering contrast to the general indie folk climes anchoring the disc; the wonderful solo showcase “Paint-chipped Windowsill” lends the CD its finale. Whether she’s singing about wizards or letting Foote integrate a smidge of Yacht Rock into the equation, Marian McLaughlin is plainly disinclined toward calculated moderation. Fortified by superb vocals and playing, Spirit House dabbles in extremes and basks on the fringes while being consistently accessible.

A- - Joseph Neff

"First Watch: Marian McLaughlin, 'Before You Leave'"

I've never seen anyone play guitar quite the way Marian McLaughlin does, or sing the patterns she sings. After catching her live a few years ago, I thought this could either be someone naively noodling or deliberately taking an adventure. I've come to the conclusion it's a bit of both. You can see and hear how McLaughlin pulls this off in a new video for her song "Before You Leave."

For the past three years, Marian McLaughlin has been using a technique called Dérive, a French term created by Situationist Guy Debord that means "to drift." Instead of doing something deliberate, Marian subconsciously allows her surroundings to direct her musical journey. In other words, she goes with the flow and takes chances.

"Each song I make is a dérive in its own way," she says. "They are composed and cohesive, yet full of unexpected arrangements and shifting movement. There's a vast amount of direction and space when it comes to playing the guitar, and exploration always leads to discovery. Sometimes I'll even dive into alternate tunings just to rearrange my familiarity with the fretboard."

McLaughlin's technique carries over to her lyrics as well. The words to her songs aren't about breakups and heartaches. McLaughlin instead creates her own stories and expands on existing narratives, such as the Greek myth of Persephone, or German aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal's attempts at heavier-than-air flight.

Marian met the filmmaker for her new video, Zambia, by chance at a performance. Despite a number of ideas they tossed around, the film turned out to be a simple shoot in a Washington, D.C. garden. "'Before You Leave' is a song for both the wanderer and the hesitant," says McLaughlin. "The vagabond and the homebody. We're all unsettled in one way or another, yearning for adventure, but also for the comfort of home."

"Before You Leave" is from Marian McLaughlin's debut album, appropriately called Dérive, due out Jan. 16, 2014. The song features Alexia Kauffman on cello and David Klinger on trumpet. You can learn more about Dérive on Marian McLaughlin's Bandcamp page. - Bob Boilen of NPR Music

"Day and Night: Steve Gunn and Marian McLaughlin at DC9"

Traversing the Blue Ridge at any time—in any season, Spring especially—is a breathtaking experience. The daylight illuminates tremendous foliage and ancient rock, punctuated at random by lookouts over a shimmering green valley; whereas the nighttime shrouds all but the moon, forcing travelers to rely on all senses to feel the environment, which heightens the mystery and tension inherent to adventuring. Familiar objects that were once crystal clear become obscured, unintelligible yet undeniably natural.

Such a duality is also present in experimental acoustic music—including the blanket term American Primitivism, a style that has significant roots in the culture of the Appalachian Mountains. This Sunday at DC9, the music of lively finger-style veteran Steve Gunn and avant newcomer Marian McLaughlin will showcase the yin and yang of American acoustic compositions.

On the light side is Steve Gunn. Time Off—Gunn’s 2013 rock LP, out on Paradise of Bachelors—is an ideal companion to a campfire breakfast, satisfying hike and pollen-saturated sinuses. The mark of an assured veteran is undeniable, and Gunn has the resume to support his distinct slacked style, making his national debut in NYC’s GHQ, before releasing a series of obscure solo LPs and eventually joining The Violators, of Kurt Vile fame. That’s the first sign that this dude knows sunshine. The Time Off record—one of at least three he released last year, and where we recommend you begin—is clear and natural, nothing mysterious but always impressive.

In a recent interview with NPR, Steve Gunn admitted his Dead Head status; not exactly a huge reveal. There’s a certain earnest noodling throughout Gunn’s catalog that can only come from years of following The Dead, if even only through recordings. I’ve recently begun on a Dead live quest of my own, and I find their live tapes to be helpful when trying to focus, especially when working in the daytime. Counter-intuitive, yes. But the carefree disposition, driving rhythms and continued excitement of what’s coming next from Jerry and the boys is enough to keep me powered and moving forward. Like The Dead, Gunn’s impressionistic take on American roots rock is familiar enough to be recognized, and distinct enough to be engaging. If you’re used to the trees of the street, it’s time to see the trees of the forest.

On the dark is Marian McLaughlin. The nocturnes of this DC/Baltimore artist are less familiar, at least immediately. Dreamlike doesn’t quite capture her style, it’s more akin sleepwalking, a physical manifestation of the unconscious mind. Dérive—her 2014 independently-released LP—is a progressively composed suite that often veers into baroque and avant territory without losing its natural edge. Songs run for as long as 7+ minutes, playing off a confusing yet bracing narrative built on deceit and imagination. Her instrumentation—acoustic guitars, chamber strings and theatrical horns—holds both an earthy and alien quality in the moonlight.

On the surface, this pairing works because both artists are acoustic guitar masters. And yet, after further analysis, both performers function like two perspectives of the same valley. One is clearly defined and tangible, whereas the other is mystical and abstract. While operating on seemingly opposite sides of the acoustic spectrum, together these artists make one hell of a bill.

Steve Gunn and Marian McLaughlin play DC9 on Sunday 4/27.

Peter Lillis is East Coast Editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. He fears he’s living in a material world. - Peter Lillis of Frontier Psychiatrist

"Marian McLaughlin, Dérive"

Marian McLaughlin’s Dérive is a jewel-like set of chamber folk songs, each one as ripe and pristine as dewdrops standing on grass blades. McLaughlin’s plain, clear voice sits atop her own nylon-stringed classical acoustic, the sound subtly fattened by elegant stand-up bass, trombone, some cello, and light percussion. Her lyrics root themselves deep in loamy, literary soils, retelling the story of Persephone at one moment, contemplating Circadian rhythms at another, and landing on the phrase “our equine friends” to describe a stable of horses.

McLaughlin might remind you of Joanna Newsom, and there is a similar looping arc to her thoughts and her perfumed language. But there is plenty to savor here off in McLaughlin’s corner of the world, which she peoples with odd, vivid images and gorgeously recorded gestures from her intimate little band. - Jayson Greene of Wondering Sound

"Marian McLaughlin - DeenaOH - Lies About -- DC9 - Jan16 2014"

This was a special show as Marian McLaughlin's self released album is out--click on the link here for a preview. I have always enjoyed her highly individual approach to folk music, as she has her creative spark drawing the ether from such vast time periods from the ancient psyche folk days of Vashti Bunyan and Mary-Anne (Patterson) to the modern renaissance. There was a great large crowd filled with a lot of friends to celebrate the event, but also with newer fans that have picked on the high quality songs in her repertoire. Tonight was extra special, as not only did she have her double bassist with her, but also a second guitarist on a couple of songs, violin and cello for half the set, and even some brass. The arrangements were excellent, especially in the way the strings alternated atmospheric support to high impact bursts of emphasis (especially on 'Horse'). Everything worked splendidly tonight and hopefully this will be one further step in expanding her audience. Marian McLaughlin may be not completely of our time, but there is a place and a lot of music lovers that should be taking the journey here. - David Hintz of DC ROCK LIVE


Still working on that hot first release.



Marian McLaughlin is a songwriter, singer, and guitarist pushing the boundaries of folk music. Weaving together imaginative lyrics, intricate classical guitar work, and rhapsodic delivery she creates songs of exquisite detail that are delicate, yet full of depth.

McLaughlin’s adventurous approach to music was inspired in part by Situationist Guy Debord’s theory of “dérive,” where one sets off on an unplanned route, letting their surroundings subconsciously direct the journey, “with the ultimate goal of encountering an entirely new and authentic experience.”  She applies this practice to her songwriting, letting instrument or idea guide her.  During an interview with NPR Music, McLaughlin explained how she sees parallels in her songwriting to dérives.  She primarily writes in an intuitive manner and taps into her stream-of-consciousness when constructing lyrics.  Noting that there’s a vast amount of direction and space when it comes to playing the guitar, McLaughlin takes delight in exploring and discovering ideas.  The results are often composed and cohesive, yet full of unexpected arrangements and shifting movement.

McLaughlin familiarized herself with guitar after enrolling in a guitar class at her high school.  Her instructor as well as fellow students provided a warm, welcoming environment that encouraged musical exploration and experimentation.  While studying art and music at George Mason University, McLaughlin attended guitar master classes led by Larry Snitzler, a pupil and friend of legendary classical guitarist Andrés Segovia. Here, she picked up more technique while developing her own approach to the guitar.

Since then, McLaughlin has played live all around the DC area in prominent venues as well as intimate house shows.  She has opened up artists such as Marissa Nadler, Cate Le Bon, San Fermin, Ryley Walker, Daniel Bachman, Arborea, Hundred Waters and Six Organs of Admittance.  McLaughlin is an active figure in DC and Baltimore’s growing music community, hosting, curating, as well as performing in unique events.  She is also an almuni of Strathmore's Artist in Residence program, which is based in Bethesda, Maryland.  In 2013, she recorded her first studio album Dérive and collaborated that summer with filmmaker Zambia to create a video for her song “Before You Leave”, which was featured on NPR Music’s blog All Songs Considered.  She frequently collaborates with multi-instrumentalist and composer Ethan Foote.  Together, they performed songs featuring Foote's string arrangements for an NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert.

This past September, McLaughlin self-released her second studio album, Spirit House, which is a continuation of her musical partnership with double bassist and arranger Ethan Foote. The album’s daring combination of McLaughlin’s unabashedly idiosyncratic musical poetry and Foote’s soaring arrangements have garnered it widespread respect and acclaim, attested to by coverage from NPR’s All Songs Considered, Folk Radio UK, and Vinyl District, among other sources. Enabled by producer/engineer Michael Okusami’s brilliance in the studio, on Spirit House McLaughlin and Foote go beyond the basic chamber-folk orientation of their live performances and employ a huge stylistic range of acoustic and electric elements, incorporating everything from orchestral thunder to psychedelia to bits of Afro-pop and Motown. Their work together represents an adventurous and original endeavor in the meeting of unconventional folk-rock, chamber music, and lyrical vision.

Band Members