To say she hasn't looked back would be an understatement.
A chance to share her talent with renowned guitarist Bruce Victor soon after resulted in a strong musical bond. New music was co-authored, performed and recorded, and ultimately the two wed.
Now performing and touring as Noctambule, Marla and Bruce are bringing their unique arrangements and original compositions to the acoustic music community.
Their first recording Travel in the Shadows was released in 2013, followed by The Waking in 2015, and a third recording is in the foreseeable future.
Long a mainstay in the San Francisco and Bay area Irish music scene, Marla is increasingly in demand at the best music camps and workshops and busy touring with Bruce in Noctambule, but that's just the start. Her DVD Irish Mandolin Basics: Tunes and Technique is a best seller in the Irish music community and Peghead Nation just announced she will lead a series of courses in Irish music.
It was high time Marla graced the pages of the Mandolin Cafe as a feature interview, and we had a blast getting to know her better. What took us so long?
We have to start this interview with a question about your mandolin. You have the craziest, cool old mandolin ever. Tell us its story.
It's a paddle head, your typical Sheraton brown Gibson made in 1922. It was my grandfather's instrument, although he was not the original owner. He bought it at a house sale in the 1960s. The story my father liked to tell was that my grandfather was very sweet natured, the only person who would pay more than the asking price for anything. There was a mandolin advertised in the local paper for $50. My grandfather was blind in one eye and didn't drive and asked my parents to take him to a house sale where it turned another mandolin was available. He came out with this one for $75. My father teased him about this until the day he died.
The way I play has everything to do with this instrument. It's the instrument I learned to play on and in turn has influenced the way I play. I'll pick up another mandolin and I'm like, "I don't know how to play this!" I don't know how to get its sound.
Photo credit top of page and directly above: Fionn O Lochlainn
It has a newer bridge, newer nut, new frets, new tuners, but nothing else has been an issue. Other than a lot of honest wear, the top is in good shape and the fretboard is original. So, parts that have worn out have been replaced, that's all.
An interesting side story about this mandolin is the truss rod cover is inscribed with the name Terry H. Alciati. I don't know who he was or if he was the original owner. I had the mandolin a long time before discovering his name. After owning if for a number of years it had developed a rattling sound. I noticed the truss rod cover was warped and possibly that was the problem. When we took it off we saw the cover had been reversed at some point, hiding the name. When we reinstalled it I wanted his name visible.
I realized since it came to me around 1980-81 that I've had it in my care longer than my grandfather. A set list was still taped to the back of the instrument when I took possession of it. Its life is really independent of mine. I'm just its caretaker for awhile.
Did you ever hear your grandfather play?
I did but he broke his left wrist at some point in his life and it made it very difficult for him to play for very long. All I really heard him play was a little song and a dance for us when were little kids. So I never heard him perform in his band. Somewhere I have pictures of him playing tenor banjo on stage but they're temporarily lost at the moment. I hope to find them soon!
Marla plays Parnell's March/Miss Walsh for a Peghead Nation video
The big news when we were putting this interview together was Peghead Nation recently announced you as their newest instructor for a series of courses on Irish mandolin. Congratulations!
Thanks. This is a great fit for me because I've known Dan Gabel, Scott Nygaard and Teja Gerken (Peghead Nation founders) for some time. They're great guys, and I'm so glad they're doing this. It's clear they love what they're doing.
Last month I spent an entire day recording the first six lessons of a series and an overview. For me personally it was rewarding to plan out an entire course because I rarely have the opportunity to do that. Usually I'm either doing a one-week intensive camp or a series of classes with a specific start and end duration, or I'm working with a private student. With private students you work from where they are and bring them along and it's interactive.
For these lessons I didn't get to see a face to gauge how my message was working, so the challenge was to take a student from the beginning and develop them as an Irish player. It was an enjoyable experience to sit down and work out, how to teach about the music and the technique on the instrument at the same time and I'm confident this will help my students. I'm excited about the series and can't wait for it to be out there being viewed.
Three Mile Stone
Marla and the band Three Mile Stone in 2009 with Erin Shrader and Richard Mandel.
Photo credit: Barry Fisher
You created a series of recordings made in public parking garages late at night. We love these! How did those come about?
I was with a friend catching a show at the great music venue Freight & Salvage here in Berkeley. The parking garage where we parked that evening is where these were filmed. We were walking back after the concert hearing this incredible echo and acoustics. For some reason I was toting my instrument and my friend said, "get out your mandolin, I want to hear it here." We immediately made a plan to come back and record.
When Bruce and I started playing together I told him we should make a garage video. The trick is going late enough at night so there isn't too much going on. We shot three videos the first time we returned: A Sweetish Tune with Aryeh Frankfurter on Swedish nyckelharp, Eleanor Plunkett and Trip to Skyea.
The first video we shot was with Aryeh because we didn't want to keep him too long. All this commotion is going on during the filming. Car horns are going off as people lock doors, people driving by and staring. It's crazy!
We set up in such a way that we're blocking just one car. But of course the folks that owned the car came back during our take and we thought, "what are the odds?" This one was just so funny because they had a Prius which was quiet so you couldn't hear the car start and we're lit in red from the brake light. Aryeh leans over at me and whispers, "we should stop," and I just shake my head no and grin. It's worth watching for just that moment. As the night gets quieter eventually the magic that comes with the absence of traffic unfolds. The final two takes we just wanted to get done before they close the garage and your car is stuck there.
A Sweetish Tune
Bruce Victor and Marla Fibish are joined by Swedish nyckelharpa player Aryeh Frankfurter for their composition A Sweetish Tune.
Will there be more videos there in the future?
We're definitely planning to go back. Right now we're waiting for the weather to get warmer before picking a time to return.
The work of poets is a common thread in your songs. What sparked that interest?
It started about 30 years ago. I used to go on walks with my daughter and poke around in bookstores with her. I picked up a couple of books once and thought, these sound like songs! Why not put a melody to them? The authors that caught my attention at that time were Robert William Service and Don West. Don West was a poet and activist that founded the Appalachian Folklife Society in West Virginia in the early part of the century.
I haven't formally studied poetry and I'm not particularly a voracious reader of it but when I find something that strikes me a certain way I want to use it. I got away from poetry for quite a long time but started again about 5-6 years ago while working on some new songs, and then I met Bruce and played him a few of these songs. He was like, "I want to play on these songs with you!" No one had ever been particularly interested in working with me on these but he has been very enthusiastic about bringing in his beautiful guitar textures and since that time I've been much more active writing collaboratively with him.
In songwriting we complement each other well and have different approaches. Bruce is very much about chord progressions and voicings. That's what he hears first. I'm more about hearing melodies first. It's not that I'm not sensitive to chordal or harmonic structure but it's not what I hear first. I tease him sometimes and he'll be like, "Once we agree upon chord progression we're done." And I'm like, "What about melody?" We've sort of fallen into a place where we now co-develop well but it hasn't always been like that (laughs). I'll go back and forth between new and old ways. It's a really fun collaboration.
The first video of the "Garage Series," with Marla playing The Parting.
Bruce has a big chordal palate on guitar. His chords and arrangements are rich and lush. Has your playing changed his, and has his playing changed yours?
Both. I hadn't played with someone like him before. I've typically played with people that come from traditional Irish music which has a certain palate. And that's a word Bruce will use, palate. People coming out of a certain tradition have a vocabulary from that tradition and I've played with those folks. They're great musicians.
Bruce has broader musical sensibilities and very eclectic tastes. He brings a lot of influences with him. It has led to a great expansion for me in terms of my sensibilities and where I wouldn't have necessarily gone. People who have known his music for longer than I have and hear him now are struck by the changes in his playing. It has to do with space. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that I'm the designated melody player in the duo so as a finger-style guitarist he doesn't have to now play rhythm and melody. He can let me take the melody and he can be the color palate.
We couldn't but help notice the big white pick you have stored in your mandolin strings. What kind of pick is it?
This pick started life as a Clayton 1mm triangle and I've had it for at least 20 years. All of the wear is natural. It's beveled and rounded but it didn't start out that way. My own use has shaped it. I use BlueChip Picks on all my other instruments but on my mandolin I'm so used to this pick that I can't use anything else. If I had to change I suppose I could, but I don't have to!
Bruce Victor and Marla Fibish
Photo credit: Alli Novak
Where can people hear your live music in the near future?
We're doing a Pacific Northwest tour for two weeks in April. About two years ago we did some gigs with Tim Connell and our step-dancing friend Kieran Jordan. She and Tim knew each other from their Boston College days. She's still based in Boston but has been hired to come to the Northwest to do a series of workshops in Olympia. She got in touch with us about the four of us joining forces again and we thought it was a great idea. We were in Portland last October. Tim sat in with us on a few songs and he's brilliant. Some gigs will be with just Tim and some will be the four of us as her teaching responsibilities allow.
Noctambule on Tour
Dates were still being added at publication time. See the Noctambule events page for the latest information.
- April 1 - Ukiah, CA
- April 5 - Ashland, OR
- April 8 - Whidbey Island, WA
- April 9 - Port Townsend, WA
- April 10 - Vashon Island, WA
- April 12 - Newberg, OR
- April 13 - Portland, OR
- April 14 - Manzanita, OR
- April 15 - Tualatin, OR
- April 16 - Olympia, WA
- April 17 - Bellevue, WA
- April 24 - Felton, CA
- May 13 - Colorado Springs, CO
Marla's 2016 Camps and Workshops in her own words
Colorado Roots Music Camp - June 5-11, 2016
Delighted to be returning to this wonderful Roots Music camp held at 9,600 feet on the shoulder of beautiful Pike’s Peak in the Rocky Mountains. Intimate and lovely.
The Swannanoa Gathering Celtic Week - July 10-16, 2016
I am delighted to be returning to the Celtic Week teaching staff at the 25th Anniversary year of the Swannanoa Gathering, held at Warren Wilson College, near Asheville, North Carolina in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. Check out their amazing teaching staff.
Lark Camp - July 29 - August 6, 2016
I will be returning to the teaching staff of Lark Camp in the California redwoods this year. Lark is an international music and dance camp that has been running for more than 30 years. Check out the fabulous staff and setting.
Portal Irish Music Week - October 6-10, 2016
This incredible week of Irish Music instruction is held in the stunning Chiricahua mountains of south-eastern Arizona. Small classes, focused instruction and a private lesson with their teacher for every participant.
- Marla Fibish
- Purchase The Waking on CDBaby
- Purchase The Waking on amazon
- Purchase Travel in the Shadows on amazon
- Purchase Travel in the Shadows on CDBaby
- Marla Fibish lessons on Peghead Nation
Marla with Jimmy Crowley, a central figure in the Irish folk scene. Together they recorded The Morning Star in 2011.
Photo credit: Dana Dubinsky