Studio Visit: Marian Runk's New Album Release "A Few Feet From The Ground"
Marian Runk is my best friend. She’s also a super talented musician, artist, and illustrator. She’s released her very first album (which she also illustrated all of the album art to go along with it). And she’s got a big release show with her whole band this coming week in Chicago (March 29th at Hungry Brain!). I wish that I could be there to celebrate in person, but since I can’t, I’m excited to share her work, and a little Q&A with her here.
Marian and I met in Chicago, when I was still in art school, and she was fresh out of college in Ohio. We had a lot of mutual friends, and she moved into the big Humboldt Park apartment I was living in (with it’s tiny bedrooms and a huge attic studio space). We became fast friends, and I’ve loved seeing her art and music evolve over the years. I couldn’t be more excited about her new album “A Few Feet From The Ground”, and hope that you all love it as much as I do! Read on for more about her creative practice and how got started with music.
REBECCA MIR GRADY: Can you tell me how you got started playing music? And what made you pick up the guitar and banjo?
MARIAN RUNK: I grew up learning classical piano, but quit before high school, to focus on ballet (which I then gave up for visual art & college). I didn’t return to playing music until I turned 30-- I signed up for a voice class at the Old Town School of Folk Music here in Chicago. I’m not exactly sure why I did that; it felt a little like a "mid-life" crisis. A coworker said something nice about my voice when I was singing along to the radio at work, and I do remember thinking it would be cool to learn how to control my breathe more, so singing would be easier and more fun. Once I started singing, I needed to accompany myself, so my girlfriend at the time lent me her guitar and taught me a few chords. We were part of a really awesome small choir called Queer Quoir, which was a singing group open to all gender identities & singing abilities. It was led by Jackie Boyd, who sings harmony vocals on my album. The first time I ever played guitar for an audience was at a Queer Quoir show, the night Whitney Houston died. We finished singing and started crying. I think you were there?! Somewhere around that time, I started taking guitar classes at the Old Town School, and writing songs, and then I just kept going.
RMG: Yes, I remember that show! Up in Roger’s Park I think, everyone was crying at the end!
Banjo came a little later. If guitar was a practical choice, banjo was for my heart! I was going to a lot of local bluegrass and old time & country shows, and I was really digging the banjos. When a banjo enters a song, I feel something slow down and relax/regulate in my chest, it’s hard to explain. Most things I know about the banjo, I know from Jonas Friddle (local songwriter, banjo player, teacher, and friend). I also have to pause and give Carol Kagy & Steve Dawson & Chris Walz (all teachers at the Old Town School) a huge shout-out, they’re responsible for my adult music education and are my heroes.
RMG: You also write and illustrate books. How does that process compare with writing music and songs? Do you think there is some overlap?
MR: I’ve been thinking a lot about this, recently. It’s a struggle to maintain focus on one discipline without feeling like I am sacrificing the other. They do relate to each other, but the truth is, for me, they more often compete. The common thread is narrative. I make comics, a narrative form of visual art. And I write (mostly) country songs, which primarily tell a story. But as I’ve been focusing more on songwriting in the past couple years, I think my artwork & books are becoming less narrative. Maybe I’m telling the stories through music, so images are free to be more independent? At first this made me anxious, but now I’m trying to chill out and see what happens. For example, I enjoyed drawing for the album booklet! The songs are telling the stories; I just needed the artwork to be adjacent to, or support the subject matter, not illustrate a specific through-line.
One overlap is that I love the process of editing. The hardest part, for me, is getting the core of the project onto the page. Then there’s that intermediate phase, when the drawing or the word or the melody is inexact, not quite ready. I love re-arranging, finding the better rhyme, shifting a melody note up or down, erasing and moving an eye just a millimeter so that a character looks shocked instead of mad. Once the core of the piece is out, I know that it’s going to happen, and I start to enjoy the work of shaping it.
RMG: One thing that I especially love about this album is how the album art and the music seem to tie together your illustrations, writing and music all in one. With the beautiful printing and binding of the booklet that accompanies the cd, it feels like the perfect melding of your creative practice.
MR: Thank you! I did try very hard to bring all the sides of my artistic practice into this one package. An album seems like the one place where my art & music most naturally cohabit! The booklets & packaging were printed by Perfectly Acceptable Press; I’ve been wanting to work with Matt Davis for a while, and this was a great excuse! He does amazing things with Risograph printing. Thus far, I always bind my own books...although it’s not the most intelligent use of my time, I enjoy using the sewing as an opportunity to slow down & listen to music, and it seems like the least I can do to honor my MFA in “Interdisciplinary Book and Paper Arts?”
RMG: I’m so excited about your new album, I’ve been listening to it a bunch. I love that there are some songs that I’ve seen you play before and some new ones as well. Can you tell me a bit more about what the process of putting together your first album was like? How long did it take you?
MR: Thanks so much! I love that you’ve been there from the start & have seen some of these songs in their first lives! As you know, some of them go back as far as 2013; so it’s been a long process! Because I’m newer to my instruments, I think my songwriting has been ahead of my playing-- I waited until I felt more sure of myself musically before recording. At the end of 2017 I decided my only goal for 2018 was to record an album. So I got in touch with Steve Dawson, and booked studio sessions with him at Kernel Sound Emporium. It was time! We started work in February, recording in short sessions here and there through May, I think? By fall all the mixing and mastering magic was done, so I started on the artwork and packaging design, and released the album at the Chicago Art Book Fair in November. The whole experience has been wonderful and exhausting. It feels like every day I’m doing something brand new, that I’ve never done before. Next time I’ll know what I’m getting into, but at each step I've been texting my musician friends & mentors for advice, and spending hours researching things related to mastering and digital distribution and copyright and publicity, etc., etc. I’m so privileged to have these folks in my life to turn to! The first thing I did when I decided to record an album was start making a list of all the people I wanted to thank in my liner notes (we should pause now so everyone who has the album can read through them). I love reading other people’s “thank you” sections. I just found an old Indigo Girls C.D, and they included 2 full pages of “thank you’s!” That’s a magnificent thing.
RMG: When is your release show? Do you have any other shows coming up?
MR: I’m FINALLY having my full-band album celebration in Chicago this Friday, March 29, at the Hungry Brain! I’m so excited to perform all the tunes live with Jackie Boyd, Steve Dawson, Andrew Green, Jess McIntosh, and Andrew Wilkins. Jess’s band Joybird is splitting the bill; it’s going to be a really special night. After that, I’m doing a duo set at Montrose Saloon on April 27 (with Andrew Wilkins on bass), and we'll be on the Thursday Night Live radio show, 88.3 FM (WZRD, Chicago), on May 23. I'll also be tabling at the Chicago Zine Fest and CAKE (Chicago Alternative Comics Expo) this spring/summer.
RMG: Where can people find your music? And your books?
MR: The album CD + booklet is available on Bandcamp. It’s also on most of the other digital platforms (Spotify, iTunes, Google Play, Amazon....). You can find my comics & zines at Radiator Comics online, and Quimby’s Bookstore in Chicago. My website is a good hub for connecting to all of those places!
RMG: What’s next? I know you’re still releasing the album and you’ve got some shows lined up, but do you have anything else in the works? More illustration projects? Will there be another album? Are you going to go on tour and come to Santa Fe? (fingers crossed)
MR: As excited as I am for the release show, and to get to play the tunes live with the band, I also can’t wait to focus on new things! I have some ideas for comics, and I’m really looking forward to writing new tunes and just spending time noodling around on guitar and banjo. I also have about ten million places I want to visit/tour-- Santa Fe is in the top 3! The spring and summer are filling up really quickly, but stay tuned for tour news, eventually it’ll happen, I promise.
RMG: When you’re not drawing or playing music what else do you like to do?
I’m a “birder,” so on weekend mornings you’ll often find me out by the lake or river or in a forest preserve (wherever it’s almost wilderness in Chicago), watching birds. On Fridays, I’m often at the Honky Tonk Happy Hour at the Empty Bottle, dancing to the Hoyle Brothers’ classic country sounds. I also like to dance to Prince albums, play Scrabble, read comics & poetry & novels by my friends, drink Margaritas year-round (in winter, they bring summer indoors!), and hang out with my cat, Rosie. Rosie is named after the Emmylou Harris album “The Ballad of Sally Rose,” and one of the times I feel the deepest joy is when I’m in the waiting room at the vet’s office, and I hear the staff call out her full name, “Sally Rose.” My partner and I spend a lot of time staring at the cat lovingly; he's almost as obsessed with her as I am.
RMG: What are you listening to?
MR: That’s the question I always want to yammer on about! This past week, I’ve been listening to Joybird’s new album, Landing, on repeat. I wake up singing the songs! I’ve also been listening to Michael Chapman’s new album, True North (seeing him live at the Hideout about 6 years ago, and listening a lot in particular to his album Time Past, Time Passing, made a huge impression on me as I was starting to write songs). Also-- Amythyst Kiah, The Secret Sister’s new album “You Don’t Own Me Anymore,” Robbie Fulks, Leyla McCalla, Croy & the Boys, Chris Stapleton, Sarah Shook & the Disarmers. Chris Stapleton is funny in this situation because one of his older songs is called “What are you listening to?”.
Also if Marian Runk looks familiar on my website, it’s because she has occasionally done some modeling for me! I found a few of my favorite shots of her from past lookbook shoots to share below.