At what point in our collective narrative does history pass into mythology and mythology becomes a tall tale? And, lacking the ability to conduct an empirical study, at what point do our legendary tales of yore become “real” by the attention our psyches give those stories, animating them with the power of our imaginations? There is a school of thought suggesting that if you can think of something, you can do it—you just have to figure out a way to manifest the idea. Take the legend of Atlantis for example: is it a fact whose origins and existence are obscured by time, or does it singularly belong to the realm of allegory? And at the end of the day, does such a distinction matter?
Perception is a slippery, sly devil, and nowhere is that more evident than with the stimulus that we take in every day via electronic media. We see images on a box and receive sound bites through our auditory sensors, but those sights and sounds only become real by what we choose to project upon them. And so it is with how we receive and interpret all artistic statements.
Using the detritus of our existing culture, a master artisan can affect our hearts and minds in significant, vitalizing ways. An exceptional piece of work can uplift and transform, providing the inspiration to move beyond feelings of limitation, compelling us to strike out beyond the cozy ruts of our comfort zones. Great art can also provoke an oceanic current of feeling, spark our intuition, and result in a wave of emotion that produces elation, sorrow. And on extraordinary occasions, a river of bliss.
Great art is the stuff that dreams are made of, and if anyone is living out their musical dreams these days, it is the Scorpionic goddess Marie Elena Haddad, a celestial creature who would have no problem passing as a Middle Eastern mermaid in a parallel universe. As we slide across the Autumnal Equinox, Haddad is busy putting the finishing touches on her latest CD Stories from Atlantis—a bold, impressive work that builds upon a signature sound while offering up a number of dynamic surprises for anyone who has been keeping tabs on her musical journey throughout the past decade.
A true San Diego native (born at Mercy Hospital), Haddad has a rich ancestral background. “My dad is from Lebanon and my mom is from Yugoslavia/Serbia, and she is also half Romanian,” she explains. “My parents came to this country and met here, so I am first generation American. They didn’t teach me their languages—at home my parents spoke broken English to each other. They were bringing their cultures together, so it was through my American friends that I learned about American culture.” Of course, part of that cultural landscape was learning about music.
“Before I was five years old, I saw a pianist on the television who had a mirror above his keyboard, and I was just fascinated by that,” she says. “So my parents bought me a toy piano and I played along with every piece of music that came on the TV. But when I turned five, they bought a real piano, and I started taking lessons until I was 12. When I first started playing I used to have to take breaks during my lessons to do cartwheels,” she says laughing. “I had too much energy to sit still for an entire half-hour lesson.
“Yes, I did do traditional recitals when I was taking lessons. But, later on, I became a little more reclusive about the piano—I wouldn’t play when anyone else was at home. And then by high school I had a keyboard and I was in a band.”
After graduating from Patrick Henry High School, Haddad pursued a liberal arts degree at San Diego State University, with the intent of teaching. “Music was always my goal, but I didn’t have that kind of support from my family, so my second choice was teaching, and I went into that until I became strong enough in my own abilities to decide ‘Well, I want to do music, too.’
“But I’ve always enjoyed teaching and that environment so that was not a hard decision. I’ve worked in the public school system teaching English, as well as recently at the Language School in Little Italy, with students who come from all over the world. And I still teach piano.”
GROWING UP IN PUBLIC
“I sold my piano in college and not having it made me realize how much I loved and actually needed it. For a while I would go downtown to the Marriott hotel when no one was around except the cleaning crew, go into a conference room where they had a baby grand, and just bring all my books and practice at midnight. Most likely they thought I was staying there. Nowadays I use an electric piano because I just don’t have the room for an acoustic.
“I was in a band in junior high and high school; we didn’t perform out, we just did our thing at home. But I started performing out as a singer in the San Diego Beat Organization: the SDBO. It wasn’t my group. We were kind of a psychedelic sixties rock band and I played Hammond organ. You can hear a few of our live performances on myspace. But around 2005, after the SDBO broke up, I decided to perform solo with my own material.”
The first thing Haddad did after the breakup of SDBO was issue a CD single, titled A Couple of Tracks, in order to land some local gigs. That was swiftly followed by the Sssssh! EP in 2006 (currently out of print), before releasing her first long-player in June of 2007, A Beautiful Road.
A Beautiful Road is an excellent demarcation point, inaugurating the first full flowering of Haddad’s musical vision. Comparisons to Kate Bush and Leonard Cohen began to trickle in, no doubt fueled by the fact that Haddad covers Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (as a hidden bonus track on A Beautiful Road) and Bush’s “Night Scented Stock,” which appears on the Running Up That Hill tribute CD. Having more than a passing resemblance to the emotive aspects of Bush’s best work, it makes sense that Haddad is a passionate appreciator. When the reclusive artist announced in the summer of 2014 that she was going to perform live in London at the Hammersmith Apollo for the first time since 1979, Haddad knew that she had to be in attendance.
“I had made a promise to myself that if Kate Bush ever performed again ever, no matter where, I would be there. Because I completely missed it when she was out the first time—it was just not my era. My boyfriend, Pea [Hicks], said to me, ‘It’s such a bummer that we can’t go.’ And I’m like ‘No, no! This is happening! You don’t understand. I’m still paying off the trip. But it happened and it was amazing.”
That is the kind of single-minded determination that helped to get Haddad’s compositions placed into several television programs. “The exposure I got when the Lifetime channel used one of my songs (“Why? Why Not.”) on their Dance Moms program has been really fantastic,” she says. “And it continues to be, with the episode still airing internationally. I’ve also been placed in a Hallmark channel movie (with the song “Wishing Well”) and ABC’s The Taste (“Boxing”), which is a food kind of show. Fans of Dance Moms have reposted my song on their own YouTube channels, translated my lyrics into other languages, requested sheet music from me, and bought my music. The response has been really positive.”
When A Beautiful Road was released it sounded like a bit of an emotional catharsis, with a number of the songs referencing an acrimonious breakup. (“That was a situation I was going through at the time.”) After nearly a decade in the rearview mirror, Haddad’s feelings about the album have shifted considerably. “I generally don’t care to listen to it because that’s not who I am now. I’m proud of it, I’m so proud of it—Sven-Erik [Seaholm] did a great job producing it and it was such a great experience for me. I’ll never forget recording it at his studio, but it doesn’t represent me right now. And I think that’s the reason why it took me so long to create my new album because I didn’t want to rehash the same themes and the same sound. The new songs are broader and they’re not all about me. Hand in hand with that, I think a lot of my songs are really honest—they’re not contrived to be ‘something.’ They are what they are.”
In 2011, Haddad was asked to provide music for her friends David Newman and Samantha Goldstein at Cane Todd Productions for the 48-Hour Film Project. “It doesn’t happen every year, but I frequently help them score their films and sometimes I appear in them. The length of the music depends on what is needed—they’re generally seven minutes or under.” And how does film scoring differ from traditional songwriting? “I have to listen to what the director wants and present my ideas based on those directives. The immediacy of the 48-Hour Film Project is different than scoring something where you can take your time. But some of those films have been really fun to do.”
In addition to placing songs and scoring films, Haddad also composed the music for the Patio Playhouse production (in Escondido) of Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation earlier this year. “Samantha Goldstein, the director, approached me to do the between-act music and the curtain call ‘showstopper.’ She had a specific vibe she was going for for each act. And I really enjoyed watching the whole play come together.”
It is easy to get lost in the fluid dreamscape of Haddad’s music, particularly by the sound of her seductive pipes that summersault all over the scales with the greatest of ease. Again, it is a sound that drips with emotion, like a deep-sea gypsy skin diver, exploring the underwater crevices of feeling through provocative chord changes and layers of vocals that resonate with something deeply primal: as if the legends of old are expressing themselves through a post-modern miracle. Clearly, people are responding to the velvety smooth charms of Haddad’s musical persona, as evidenced by her successful Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to finance her latest album, to the tune of a $6,000 budget.
When asked what Atlantis represents to her musical vision, Haddad says “I’m using that as a metaphor. The myth I’ve grown up with was that this once-thriving civilization somehow was somehow destroyed after it fell out of favor with the gods, and that the continent now lies under the ocean. There is a line in my song about reaching up from Atlantis—then finding yourself again on the shore. To me, the song is about personal strength—and lifting yourself up out of the rubble and breaking away from whatever has been holding you back.
“There’s a lot that can be done with music to empower people so that they feel they can stand up for what they believe in. I don’t have any political songs on this record, but hopefully a song like “Atlantis” will resonate with someone to feel stronger about whatever situation they’re in.”
Regarding the myth of the San Diego music scene, Haddad feels that there is a beautiful community here, with “people who love music and art, and provide support to those who are trying to achieve their goals, whether you are relatively new and unknown, or an established artist. I also love the fact that local artists support each other as much as they do, and that they love to collaborate.”
A major indication of how much San Diego artists support one another can be found throughout Haddad’s career so far, and none more so than on her newest LP. Featuring the engineering and production talents of musician Ben Moore (Pocket, the Styletones), Stories from Atlantis also features the stellar contributions of bassist Dave Carpenter (Roger Hodgson, John Doe) and Matt Lynott (Truckee Brothers, Atom Orr, the White Buffalo).
“I couldn’t have asked for better players. Roger Morrison (Listening to Rocks, Squirrels from Hell) helped so much with rehearsals. He had a lot of ideas and is such an important part of my support system. And I’m just so elated that I got to work with Matt and Dave and Ben. Matt and I met while recording at Christopher Hoffee’s studio (CHAOS Recorders in Escondido). We recorded a Hoodoo Gurus song called “I Want You Back” for an Australian covers compilation, and Christopher brought Matt in. Christopher produced, engineered, and played slide guitar on it. And Matt and I just connected right away and began playing together. I’m so happy for him, the things that are happening right now.” (Lynott and Hoffee are the drummer and bassist respectively with guitarist/vocalist Jake Smith in the barn-burning power trio the White Buffalo, currently performing to ecstatic houses all over the U.S. and Europe.)
CHANGING IT UP
If you’ve had the chance to hear Haddad in person without any backing musicians, you have been treated to a consummate pianist who can keep a solid rhythm going in a fluid, arpeggiated style. But she is also appreciative of playing with a rhythm section and learning how to layout and swing against the beat when given the chance.
“It definitely is different playing with other musicians rather than being strictly solo,” says Haddad. “I really have missed playing in this situation: with a band and making a composition that is layered.”
There are several songs on the new album that break new ground beyond anything that Haddad has composed thus far. “Outskirts of Cool” has a funky syncopation musically mirroring the jaded detachment of being “cool.” As author Terry Southern once famously quipped: You’re Too Hip, Baby. And so it is on the outskirts of cool. Nice melodica and a fabulous melody, complete with counter-point harmonies to die for.
The track “Jdita” sounds like classic Peter Gabriel—after a five-course curry takeaway—suggesting a sitar and tabla, but instead the slinky bass lines that Carpenter lays down against Lynott’s rock-steady groove have all the hallmarks of a classic, and begs the question: is Marie Haddad a myth in the making? Haddad: “The song ‘Jdita’ is about a town near where my father grew up in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. He actually is from Kab-Elias, but I had a hard time making the words ‘Kab-Elias’ work in the song!”
“Jdita” sounds like a twirling dervish Sufi dance. There is an old-world quality to this tale of modernity, mixing in elements of traditional gypsy café jazz with a post-modern technological bent that seems like the shotgun marriage between analogue grit and digital sheen. “Jdita” is a place where the spirit of yesterday merges with the technology of tomorrow to create a unique piece of art in the cosmic wow of 2016.
Stories from Atlantis contains a stylized version of June Carter Cash’s “Ring of Fire” that is high drama in a David Lynch kind of way. Actually, “Owls” is truly the David Lynch track of the album, as in “the Owls are not what they seem.” “Owls” has a fantastic baroque arrangement with a beautiful cello, which is always welcome to the party.
“Boxing” could have been produced by Quincy Jones in between sessions for Thriller. The three rock-solid hooks that disappear and reappear like a magic trick (not to mention the elongated bridge) are so f*cking captivating as to be impossible to ignore. Angst and longing never sounded so good.
“Waiting on the Sun” is an atmospheric homage to the Serbian innovator Nikola Tesla. “The song is about observing him,” says Haddad. “It was supposed to be in the point of view of his housekeeper, and then it became too long. But his message was free energy for the world.”
CONSCIOUSNESS CARRIES ON
Haddad says that the entire Stories from Atlantis project was in part inspired and motivated by the death of a close friend. But one song in particular, “Blink,” was written about the 2010 passing of San Diego artist Amy Cole, who had many ties throughout the San Diego musical community. “‘Blink’ was inspired by a dream I had soon after Amy’s passing. Everyone was struggling with her unexpected death. In my dream, I saw Amy waiting in a long, single-file line of moving people, everyone facing forward. She was an iridescent, opalescent tone—glowing and beautiful. For some reason, she turned her head and saw me there. She smiled her beautiful smile and stepped out of line to come greet me with a big hug. She assured me that she was okay but that she had to go. Then she got back in line and it continued to
Perhaps the most novel track on Stories from Atlantis is the duet Haddad performs with her Serbian grandmother, Zora. “Spinning Yarn” is a remarkable synthesis of styles and appropriations, sounding at first like a cross between a music box and a ballet, until it crosses the dateline into ancient, joyful gypsy caravan music that weaves the past with the present. It is a post-modern mosaic that crosses generations and defies linear notions of space and time.
“My grandmother is singing in Serbian. The lyrics are part of a Yugoslavian folk song called ‘Širok Dunav, Ravan Srem’ that she seemed to love and have stuck in her head a lot. The lines she’s singing translate roughly into: ‘Don’t tell me goodbye, lead me along to believe otherwise.’ Mark Danisovsky and Jeff Pekarek are playing a traditional folk dance at the end of the song called ‘Banjski Čačak.’ I wanted the song to end joyously and I think what they came up with together was absolutely perfect.
“She passed about a year and a half ago. She came here in the late ’40s. She’s actually the one who supported me in the arts from the get-go. Encouraging me to sing and dance and just be who I am, because I’m very much as she was at my age: artsy. She was an aspiring opera singer before she had children, and then the war hit so she wasn’t able to follow those dreams, but she always encouraged me and others. She was very, very important to me in my creative life and just in making me feel strong as a person.
As a parting shot, Haddad volunteers as few more details about her personal life. “I’m a total Star Trek geek and sandwich aficionado. I’m also a guinea pig lover, a diorama maker, a flower smeller, and a night owl.
“But right now I’m really excited about where I am. We’re just finishing up the songs, so as soon as that’s done I’ll focus on what’s next. But I do have ideas for videos, and I just want to get the songs out to listeners who might like this type of music. I’m just so proud of these songs and how they’re turning out. It’s definitely growth for me. Each year gets better and better. I’m really proud of this collection and I want people to hear it.
“I hope that people will connect with it and find something in it they enjoy and relate to. But I do the music for myself—I would be doing it even if no one was listening. I’m just so glad that people are listening and that some people like it, because it gives me momentum to keep performing live, and recording and just to continue doing it publicly.”
As we go to press Stories from Atlantis should be available by the end of October (in both compact disc and digital download formats) through Marie Haddad’s website at www.mariehaddad.com