An Interview with marla Fibish

By Annette Siegel

Marlas mandolin front bodyAfter just a day and ½ of fun at the Mandolin Symposium this past June in Santa Cruz, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Marla Fibish, the Irish mandolin wizard. We talked about, among other things, her collaboration with her husband Bruce Victor on new album/CD Noctambule (Nocturnal + Ambulation) . Marla taught as a guest instructor this year and remarked that she had seen a recent surge of people looking for Irish mandolin instruction. Her classes included instruction is “nyah” (getting the Irish sound) as well as jigs and waltzes.

Marla’s mandolin has opened doors for her throughout the world, from the beginning of not quite knowing how to go about it all, to traveling in Ireland, sitting in sessions as well as taking a few lessons from a fiddle player.

What she offers as a teacher is a glimpse of what is possible with Irish music on the mandolin. Ever patiently and gently suggesting a triplet here, a sustain there with not only instruction on how to apply the technique but also offering a glimpse into the intangibles of a music that is best played without sheet music.

AS: What inspired you and Bruce to make this Album/CD (Noctambule) project?

MF: Well the impetus was Bruce, when he and I started playing music together. It was a funny event. I put poetry to music over the years and he was surprised, because he had no idea I did that… he was only familiar with what I do publicly. He said “Well I’d love to hear this stuff”. So I said “Ok come sit in my kitchen.”… and he loved it. He said: “I have this idea and you have to hear me out.” which is always his thing; you hear the idea and then you can throw it away. “We should make a recording.” …I said oh we can’t do that. I had just recently quit my job and didn’t have any discretionary funds; my budget did not include making a CD. He said I’ll fund it, I said: I can’t let you do that. He said: what do you mean you can’t let me do that?! As our relationship and trust grew, so too did the discussion for the CD. On a project like this there is no reason to believe you’ll get your money back, he said I don’t care; we just have to do this. I even had a title in my head Noctambule. It was such a fun word and absolutely describes the songs. So he worked on me and whittled me down, the joke between us was to call it the “prodge” because I couldn’t quite commit to doing this project.

He was bringing this richness to the music with his low tunings, specific, idiosyncratic and very much him. His wonderful sensibilities, chord inversions and placements brought whole new Crayola colors I didn’t have in my music. Suddenly, we had more than enough material than we wanted to record.

AS: It must be a nice luxury to have more songs than you need because when you’re recording you never know how a song is going to turn out.

MF: Absolutely and the surprises work in both directions, so you think ahhh this is a throw away, turns out to be the one that worked! One of the songs we wound up eliminating, was one of our first absolutely solid songs. It’s not whether it worked in the recording; it was just too much material on the album and was the logical thing to go.

AS: How did you and Bruce meet?

NoctambuleMF: Well, we actually met in 2008 at a house concert I played, but there were no sparks. I was married at the time and he was otherwise involved. In intervening years we were in overlapping circles and had many multiple connections. Then in the summer of 2011, he approached me about organizing a youth opener for a house concert series he ran called the Acoustic Vortex. He had Andy Irvine coming up. He said –I know Marla, she can organize a bunch of mandolin student players it would be perfect. There’s only one problem … all of my students are middle aged. And Bruce in his typical way said that’s not a problem... what, that’s a problem?! We went to dinner and we chatted, chatted, chatted about everything but the youth opener. We both left that evening and said to ourselves: was that a date? We kind of left scratching our heads sort of what just happened here?

AS: Did you recently come to a decision to do music full time

MF: It was interesting for many, many years I’ve kept my music pretty close to my chest. I hadn’t made a big effort. I’m a parent and we have lots of things in our lives, but you know things change. I’ve been teaching many years privately, not highly active and teaching at a music camp called Lark in the Morning. I’ve done that for years. Lark is a fantastic camp, a very international music camp.

I was asked to teach at another music camp in 2010, California Coast Music Camp and I realized I was only one of two instructors there that didn’t do music full time. From that moment on, I was like…I need to do this…I want to do this. I put my kid through college, worked my corporate job, I had turned 50 the summer before, it was like get off your butt to make it happen. So I knew from that point on, I’d organized my life so I could quit my job, lay the groundwork, get a small place, low monthly rent. I got all of my teeth taken care of before I lost my insurance. That was 2 years ago. I had no idea that so many doors would open, my teaching just expanded. I put my attention and my intention into playing music.

AS: So you quit your job and changed your life direction

MF: I bumped into Bruce at a concert, he’s oh what’s up and I said oh…I’m getting a divorce, I’m selling a house, I’m quitting my job and I’m going to buy a house in Oakland for under $250,000. And he was like Wow, wow, wow, she’s nuts (giggle).

It’s interesting, you go through all your life with this feeling… I’ve got time or I’ve got money and when you have a kid usually you have to choose keeping the money flowing, to keep the security, but when you suddenly have time you hadn’t before, you can do things without money.

AS: Because you’re walking your life each day as a musician, you’re not doing this part time. Every day you’re… Marla musician, teacher…

MF: That’s right, it’s hard, but I’m in a very fortunate position, I may be braver than some, maybe not when I started out, but I have the security of having Bruce in my life, in every possible way.

AS: So getting back to the album, the instrumentation, did that just come naturally.

Marla mandolin peghead backMF: I had ways that I developed the songs and then Bruce comes along and challenges everything. He’s an I’ll try anything once kind of guy. He has a lot of guitars because he loves the different tonalities, personalities that you get from different woods and body shapes, you have all of these different sounds and tried all the combinations of my/his instruments for a particular song. There are times when we can’t find a place to sit on our couch, because they are all out, all the kids you know, so let’s try this and let’s take one thing at a time, no you try this. He’s got me totally expanding my thoughts about stuff, he even got a bouzouki in my hands and I say, I don’t play that…he says why not?! He has this great sort of wild card sense; I’m typically the plodder.

AS: Do you have a hope of what people will take away from Noctambule and how it will be received?

MF: I have no idea of what someone else hears when they hear our album, I know what I hear: it’s like somebody talking to me. But when somebody tells you about his or her experience about the music and it’s very similar to yours, I feel very gratified. Because I feel like we communicated to somebody else. Very, very important. I guess we want someone to feel the same emotions that we feel when we were making it.

AS: Now that you’ve finished this album are you looking forward to the next “prodge”?

MF: Between the two of us you can guess who’s more ready for the next “prodge.” We’ve been continuing to write full time. Mostly new poetry setting to music and we did write actually a couple of songs in the last couple of months, we’ll see where that goes, I’m less confident about my lyrical ability. Bruce is better with lyrics than I am, but we’ll see. We both have very strong opinions.

AS: Must make for some very interesting musical discussions.

MF: Oh yeah, but interesting enough, we fought more about the liner notes than the arrangements /music. We just have different writing styles.

AS: You sang on this album more than I’ve ever heard before. Is this something you wanted to explore further a little bit more?

MF: Yeah very much so actually. I’ve worked with some really great singers over the years and I’ve always been the other singer, who does a little bit of singing, but the intent was not so much that I wanted to come out as a singer as I want to bring my songs out. Having written the songs you just can’t hand them over to anther singer right?! Once there out, then cool… go for it, but in the process of doing that, suddenly I’ve put out a singing album. The goal in the song, you’re telling a story, you’re not just a pretty voice, it’s not just about the tone production, conveying the mood in the song and if there is a wink and a smile that’s what you get …you hear it.

AS: People may or may not know the story about your mandolin, if you wouldn’t mind telling the story once again.

Marla mandolin full back copyMF: I don’t mind… So when I got interested in playing music, I thought about my grandfather’s instruments, he played mandolin, plectrum banjo that sort of thing. I wanted to play music. I know! I’ll play one of grandpa’s mandolins. I didn’t know the first thing about it. It was one of his two mandolins the other one was a bowl back, so my little personal joke about it was I got the ugly one…I mean how lucky was I? So I went to my local music store and said what do I need? They opened the case and asked if I wanted to sell? I replied no, so I got it set up and didn’t do anything to it till after a couple of years of playing. Once I figured out the tuners were completely non-functional... it’s like oh, you mean my life could be better if I put new tuners on it? Oh Ok…that’s a good idea…lately it’s had a bigger once over and I’ve been playing it ever since then…that would’ve been 1970 -80.

AS: It seems to open doors for you.

MF: You know going to Ireland as a clueless new player, I mean I played the first time out. Andy Irvine played a Gibson and because the case was so distinct, everybody knows what’s in it. It was like yeah, you can play in this session. People were very friendly and welcoming.

AS: Starting out playing mandolin compared to now, we have Skype lessons, etc. Did you have a pool of Irish mandolin players to go to, to learn from?

MF: I asked at the local session if somebody could teach me, I had maybe two or three lessons from a guy who was primarily a fiddle player, he just taught me a few things. I really don’t remember learning any technique, I looked in a MelBay book and it had a picture of the hand to show how you hold your pick. I had played the viola when I was a kid, so I knew where to look for the notes on the fretboard and started learning whatever I could learn and whomever I could learn it from, it just wasn’t tunes, there were no mandolin players around to model my technique on, so for me it was completely trial and error. I just started doing my thing and I didn’t realize for years what I was doing.

AS: Do you think that is why when people ask you, how to learn this music, you reply…listen.

MF: Yes, I think so.

AS: People may think you’ve been hard on your instrument? The wear and tear was not entirely inflicted by you.

MF: There is a lot of damage to the finish and that was my grandfather. He was sort of a tinkerer and liked to play with pickups. He would go to RadioShack or get some glue and stick it on (electronics) and tape, there are tape marks all over it. I didn’t do that damage. I remember clueless moments when someone said, hey check this out, if you like put your teeth on the headstock and play a note you can hear it in your whole head….isn’t that cool (laugh). So there are some teeth marks on my headstock…(laughing). But most of what I’ve done has to do that I drag my pinkie when I play, there is a definite low spot in the grain below the strings where there would be a pick guard. So that’s really the significant damage other than the little nicks. It’s hit the floor and here’s where I get all “argh.” I don’t let anybody else put my instrument away in the case ‘cause it’s always happened when somebody is putting it away, it would fall out wang! Bruce always thinking about “things.” Got me a new case. You know in 30 years it never occurred to me that I should get a different case, he’s like what’s the matter with you, that’s the most precious “thing” in your existence, what are you carrying it in that for? But I still complain about my new-fangled, modern looking case.

AS: Mandolin maintenance, such as fret wire…do you have a specific type that you like?

MF: I do have guitar frets. I like the wide frets on it. And this last round I tried this new fret wire, it’s not the stainless steel, I was a little worried going to S.S. I thought it was make the tone more brittle, than the softer frets, so I went to an in-between fret, it’s harder, but not as hard as S.S. so you get more wear out of it and it’s just slightly goldish color (Gold Evo fret wire).

AS: Because your mandolin is so much a part of your music are you ever drawn to other oval holed Gibson’s you see and if so what kind of traits draw you to them.

MF: So when I am drawn it’s because they have “the sound” it just probably means they sound a lot like mine. I’m just so used to what I expect it to sound like, so when it’s like feeling lousy, in the desert or in the humid southeast and it just doesn’t sound right, I feel lousy too. If I hear another one “voice” I’ll check it out. I’m very spoiled; I’ve never shopped around or even wanted to have a second mandolin. I’m so specific about how I’m used to having it sound that it’s very hard for me to play another mandolin. But last summer I was teaching at Swannanoa and one of my students was looking at a pumpkin top oval hole and wanted to know my opinion. I played it and I said get it, it’s got the sound, it’s lovely, get it. She didn’t end up getting it for a variety of reasons; among them the Luthier that worked on it had done some pretty odd modifications. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. She put me in touch with the Luthier, asked if he would ship it back to me here in California and check this thing out when it’s not humid, he shipped it to me…I loved it and bought it from him. First time I’d ever bought a 2nd mandolin. But the funny thing about the pumpkin top, I haven’t set it up as a second mandolin, because I’m still completely loyal to my mandolin.

AS: It had to walk into your life

MF: All my instruments have done that, including the mandola I’ve had for about 25 years. I never go shopping for instruments… they find me. But I love that instrument and at the time it was pristine, so that one you can say all the wear on it is from me (laughs) ‘cause I think it had been in somebody’s attic for decades. It was pristine and the sound has opened up hugely since then.

AS: Touching on your teaching schedule, you’re teaching more than you ever did.

MF: I am really enjoy teaching and have so many ideas now of how to communicate to get people over some hurdles, I used to be more tentative as a teacher, because I didn’t have the formal training myself, if somebody felt strongly about doing it this way, I didn’t push it, I didn’t have it organized in my mind the way that I wanted to approach it, but the more I’ve been teaching, the more strongly I feel about how I want communicate what’s important. So I’ve been giving a lot of thought to eventually doing some sort of a method that’s got video and body of stuff to practice too.

AS: Which you’ve already done with your Irish Instruction DVD

MF: I feel like I should do the prequel, even more basic, getting into more right hand exercises, scales and arpeggios, to get you ready make it easier to start to learn those tunes by ear. Just start to organize a little more pre-work.

AS: Your schedule seems pretty full this year.

MF: It’s been a big year, moved out of my house, put out a CD, got married. It’s been a lot …it’s been a little of a lot (laughs) It’s been a busy year.

Marla’s Mandolin Specs

Gibson “A” Model 1922, Sheraton Brown, Nickel truss rod cover

Serial # 68546 F.O.N. # 11603

Fret wire: Gold Evo

Replica Fishman pickup Bridge (plays through mic for tone quality)

Her pick choice is a modified Steve Clayton Acetal 1 mm

*Luthiers who work on Marla’s mandolin –

Over the years I’ve had three luthiers work on it: Alan Pearlman, Lewis Santer (Oakland) and Dave Cory.

Annette is one half of Living Tree Music & The Seagulls with her husband Nowell. She also holds a “Day” job working for the Bob Hope Estate/Family for the last 18 years. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.