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Singer-songwriter finds an Alaska self to celebrate

Sarah Henning

Tok greeted Marian Call five years ago with a Thanksgiving blizzard, a harbinger of her long, sometimes bitter journey to become an Alaskan.

Take last year, when she and her husband rented a yurt at Chena Hot Springs -- in October.

"It was 10 degrees that night. I'm lying there shivering and the wolves are howling, and the sled dogs are howling back, and I was like 'I do not belong here. Get me back to Kaladi Brothers.'"

On the road home to Anchorage, the Washington transplant burrowed into her element -- paper and pen. She wrote a blithe ode to the women who "eat Rudolph for breakfast and Bullwinkle for lunch."

The boogie "I Wish I Were a Real Alaskan Girl" admires while it lampoons, with jaunty lyrics such as "I would wear hip waders in summer/ and heels at 10 below" and "I'd drive a huge domestic truck, and actually haul stuff in it."

Finally, she resigns herself: "Oh, I wish I were a real Alaskan girl, but when it comes down to it/ for most of us Los Anchorage is gonna have to do it."

Though Call may not be poised to win the Wilderness Woman Contest anytime soon, in Alaska she's unearthed something much more precious to her: She's found her voice as an independent musician.

Call said the state's frontier spirit prodded her to venture into the songwriting wilds. Since she moved here, she has recorded her first CD, started performing and begun an online project where she posts one new song a month, an act that restored her faith in herself.

"In college I really allowed my confidence to be torn down, became mistrustful of my own tastes and enthusiasm," she said.

"It's taken a number of years here in Alaska to get some of that back, and this project has really done it for me.

"I think I'm worth listening to. I think I'm worth it enough to step out on the stage, and that is something I didn't believe before."

She performs today at Snow Goose Restaurant, Saturday in Talkeetna and Thursday at Terra Bella Coffee.

Of composition and coffee

Call isn't the typical pick-up-a-guitar-and-go sort. The daughter of two classically trained musicians, she buried her nose in the classical music world, earning a bachelor's degree from Stanford University in music, with an emphasis on composition and vocal performance.

Onstage, she delivers a smart, jazzy folk-pop, existing somewhere on a plane between Regina Spektor, Feist and Aimee Mann. Though her music is approachable, a music nerd could deconstruct her songs to reveal classical underpinnings, as well as early music devices. She also likes to toy with unconventional sounds. Instrumentation on her 2007 album, "Vanilla," includes a typewriter, sandpaper and her cat, Zippy.

When Call went to college to study music, she intended to be an orchestral composer, possibly for films. But when she followed her husband to Alaska, she gave up that idea.

"You can imagine the number of people lining up to pay you to be a composer in Alaska," she said.

She floated, trying to figure out her next move and how to fit in here. As she waited tables and worked as a barista (under her nonstage name, Emily Butler), she perked up to the music scene in the local coffee shops.

"This music was much more compassionate to the listener, much more focused on connecting with people, sharing common experiences, common feelings," she said.

Soon, she became a closet songwriter. Until last spring.

A sci-fi fanatic, Call was watching "Firefly" for the billionth time when something clicked. "There was like this wall that fell down in my head between me and 'people who do cool stuff.'?"

Nice can be nice too

A couple Fridays ago in the teeny tiny Tap Root Cafe, the flushed-face audience was packed in like cigarettes.

On the dollhouse stage, Call sneaked a swig of beer and flicked back her ginger bob to reveal an elfish grin. Then she caressed the mike: "I'm not sexy/ but I really want to be."

Her smoky, quiet opening crescendoed toward a plucky jazz groove: "A nicely balanced budget's not so thrilling/ and courtesy's outdated/ and sobriety is lame/ reliability is not appealing/ but I don't know any other way to be."

Her sweet purr grew to a yowl: "My virtues are vanilla at best/ but you can always count on me."

This song, "Vanilla," popped into Call's head one day when she got fed up with the misconception that good girls and smart girls can't also be sexy girls.

"Even nice guys like my husband get a little bored of someone like me, who always pays the taxes and budgets carefully and says 'No honey, lets not get that motorcycle.' ... I kinda wanted to apologize for myself, but at the same time I didn't want to apologize at all.

"I was like 'No, dammit!' I am reliable and I work really, really hard and I'm nice and that's worth something."

Find Play reporter Sarah Henning at adn.com/contact/shenning or call 257-4323.

•Marian Call

When: 9 p.m. until midnight today

Where: Snow Goose Restaurant (717 W. Third Ave.)

How much: Free

Web: www.mariancall.com, www.myspace.com/marian call

Other upcoming shows

• 7 p.m. Saturday, Whole Wheat Radio Cabin Concert, Talkeetna (directions at www. wholewheatradio.org). $10 suggested donation.

• 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Terra Bella Coffee (601 W. Dimond Blvd.) Tickets are $10, and are available at Terra Bella or by e-mailing mariancall@mac.com.

Streaming concert

Listen to Marian Call's concert on Talkeetna's Whole Wheat Radio at 7 p.m. Saturday by streaming it at www.wholewheatradio.org •

Once a month, Marian Call writes and records a new song, then posts it on her Web site and sells it for 99 cents. Actually, some cost $1. Check it out at www.mariancall.com.


By Sarah Henning
shenning@adn.com