• The Rise of Marla Fibish

    Marla Fibish, from the feature interview The Rise of Marla FibishFive years ago, already a seasoned professional with multiple recordings and regular appearances at the very best music camps offering Irish music education, Marla Fibish made the move many a musician dreams of but so few realize: she left the corporate world to be a full-time musician.

    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.

    Marla Fibish and mandolin
    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.

    Marla Fibish 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 Parting

    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.

    Additional information

    Marla with Jimmy Crowley, a central figure in the Irish folk scene. Together they recorded The Morning Star in 2011.

    Photo credit: Dana Dubinsky
    Comments 20 Comments
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Peghead Nation has been very gracious and has allowed us to offer the following:

      Sign up for Irish Mandolin with Marla Fibish today and use promo code MarlaCafe at checkout to get your first month free!
    1. JEStanek's Avatar
      JEStanek -
      I just adore the garage recordings. Somehow, they just feel perfect in there.

    1. atbuckner21's Avatar
      atbuckner21 -
      This is wonderful. Thanks for creating such a lovely profile, and showcasing how special Marla is!
    1. Paul Kotapish's Avatar
      Paul Kotapish -
      Very nice article. I've been pleased to know Marla since about the time she first got that mandolin and started playing it with Out of the Rain and in her duet with Sylvia Herold, and it has been a delight to see her blossom into such a stunning player. She and Bruce are forging new territory with their music while she manages to stay well rooted in the Irish tradition she's mastered.
    1. Clement Barrera-Ng's Avatar
      Clement Barrera-Ng -
      Way to go Marla! And thanks Scott for the well-deserved spotlight and profile on such a great musician.
    1. Jill McAuley's Avatar
      Jill McAuley -
      Great interview with Marla indeed! I feel very lucky to live near enough to her to be able to have seen her perform many times and also take lessons in person with her (finishing up a series of her group lessons tonight as a matter of fact!). Thanks to technology non local folks can avail of Skype lessons or now those Peghead Nation lessons - great stuff!
    1. Randi Gormley's Avatar
      Randi Gormley -
      Lovely interview -- thanks for showcasing a spectacular musician!
    1. Jeff Mando's Avatar
      Jeff Mando -
      The "Fibish" was cut off the Forum main page, so I clicked it anyway hoping to find out about the Rise of Marla Maples and what she might have to do with the mandolin. I know it is a stretch, but she's going to be on the new season of Dancing With The Stars -- I guess that would put her in the "Stars" category..................

      No offense to Marla Fibish -- great article!
    1. Westglou's Avatar
      Westglou -
      Great article; Marla and Bruce have come to perform in my hometown before. Always a great show and they are wonderful people. "The finest kind" as we say here...
    1. Don Grieser's Avatar
      Don Grieser -
      That video of "The Parting" is as good as it gets. A gorgeous melody played as beautifully as possible with that amazing parking garage reverb. WOW!
    1. Capt. E's Avatar
      Capt. E -
      Thank you for the great interview and the videos. My favorite place to play happens to be in my parking garage (at lunch and after work). It is not completely closed in, but above ground and open to the air. I back my car up to an open side and play sitting on my tailgate the covered garage space to my back. Nice acoustics.
    1. Susan A. Spurlock's Avatar
      Susan A. Spurlock -
      Yes! Fibish rocks! And follows her dreams... Thanks for the article.
    1. Amerigo's Avatar
      Amerigo -
      I have a suggestion about the name.
      Alciati is an italian family name and Terry (or Terri) is the short form for an italian female name once well utilized, Teresa.
      So it could be that you mando was Miss Teresa Alciati's one.
      But no clue for the H

      Sorry for my english, end of all i'm italian
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting the anniversary of this interview today.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      This just in from Marla Fibish:

      Thanks for re-posting, Mandolin Cafe! Since that article was published, the son and daughter of the original owner, who's name is stamped into the truss-rod cover have found me. Hello Jill and Kevin Alciati !
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Information about Marla and Bruce on tour in Texas soon:

      Attachment 166480
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting the anniversary of this interview today.
    1. Bob Buckingham's Avatar
      Bob Buckingham -
      She is an outstanding mandolinist.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting the anniversary of this interview from 2016.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Published this date 2016.