When I first became aware of Marlee MacLeod, a couple of years ago, I was struck by the power and wit of her songs. Her songs are really unspectacular. I can think of any number of people that play guitar and sing better than she does, but her songs stick to you. Memorable lyrics are wrapped around straightforward melodies, and a true sense of personality breaks through, making Marlee MacLeod one of the more enjoyable singer/songwriters around. Recently Marlee and I sat down at a little soul food restaurant to talk. She ate meatloaf and while we talked the jukebox was belting out Al Green and Barry White.
Let’s see. Where are you from?
Originally from Alabama. I lived in Athens for three years, and now I live in Minneapolis and I’ve lived there about three years.
Did you go to school in Athens?
With yourself, or with… wait, that’s not what I…
Yes, playing with myself.
I mean, with a band or…
Nope, playing solo in Athens, played with a band some, but mostly by myself.
Now you’re in Minneapolis. Big Prince fan?
Nope. He’s all right.
You get a lot of that?
People ask you if you see him. But he’s pretty low-profile.
What do you do besides shovel snow and scrape windshields?
Fish and go camping. Do outdoorsy type things, Minnesota is a really outdoorsy type place.
Are you a Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan?
Yes I am, actually.
You ever see those guys? I mean everyone in Minneapolis knows each other, right?
Actually a lot of people do know each other, [it] is a lot more small town than you might think it is. But I don’t know any of those people, but I’m sure I know somebody that does. It’s like the Six Degrees of Separation thing.
They have good thrifting in Minnesota?
Pretty good. Depends on what you’re looking for. Now that I know how to sew, whole new vistas have opened up for me. I found zippers for ten cents a piece in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I can’t make pillow covers, I’ll make pillows for people for Christmas, nice little pillows, for dirt cheap, because I have tons of people to give Christmas presents to. Find a lot of great stuff. This is the first thing I learned about thrifting; you should go to thrift stores run by either the Episcopal Church or the Junior League, because that’s where the rich people give their stuff. That’s where I tend to find better stuff.
What’s the first song you ever learned to play?
It would have been one of the ones in Mel Bay’s Fun with the Guitar book. I don’t know, one of those songs like “Down in the Valley,” “My Darling Clementine,” something like that. You know those books, you learn like nine chords and then you can play every song in the book.
Did you take lessons or teach yourself?
I taught myself. I learned everything in that book and then I got books. Then I got books, like compilation books of rock and roll that had chord frames, you know the little squares, and I learned new chords from those. I learned to play a lot of Elton John songs, because I was a huge Elton John fan. I could play them on the piano and play them on the guitar.
That’s not very easy stuff.
Well, sometimes it is; if it wasn’t easy I didn’t learn it. Took awhile. It always takes me a long time to figure new stuff out.
Didn’t you work for awhile as a music writer?
Actually I still write, I write humorous pieces for a magazine in Minneapolis. Not music-related, though. I used to do music, but I don’t do it anymore because I’m too involved in the business and I don’t like having to write about my friends’ work, or people I might meet, or something like that.
Do you approach reviews of your own work differently having been a reviewer?
I’m not as uptight as some people. I get really kind of ticked when people see a review of their stuff in a paper and they write back like a letter of argument to the people, like, “Your reviewer doesn’t know anything about our music,” something like that. I feel like if you submit it to be reviewed than you take your chances with whatever they’re going to say, and I think that’s kind of a sissy thing to do. I don’t know, I’ve had pretty good luck with critics, so that hasn’t been real traumatic. But you have to allow for differences in people’s taste, so I don’t get that wrapped up in it. That’s not why I do it anyway, to have people approve.
Why do you do it?
I don’t know. It’s just what I do. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do. If it was for money or gratification I would have quit a long time ago, because I don’t get any of either of those, really. Applause, praise, there’s not enough of that for anybody.
Do you have groupies?
You mean groupies in the sexual sense, no. If you mean groupies in like people you come to a lot of shows, a few, a very few. I don’t have a huge following anywhere. I’ve met some real nice people. What’s cool about being as little-known as I am is you get to meet all the people who really like your music, in person. That’s nice. I like doing that a lot.