To those not familiar with Nashville’s eclectic neighborhoods, East Nashville has a reputation for being a culture-rich, charming sector of the city.
Folk duo and married couple Mare Wakefield & Nomad Ovunc are just the kind of people you would expect — and hope — to find residing there: well-traveled music lovers with kind hearts and hidden talents.
The pair have been making music together since their 2014 album, Poet on the Moon, and are now readying for their third joint album, No Remedy, due May 21st. The album is preceded by singles “Almost Mine” and “Give Myself to Love,” with the latter song having an accompanying new music video.
The two songs preview the rest of the album in an accurate duality. Just as Wakefield highlights differences in “Almost Mine” as she sings, “I always had hope, and you always had doubts,” there are two distinct sides to No Remedy: sorrowful mellowness exemplified by that first single, and the cheerful vitality represented in “Give Myself to Love,” which is quickly becoming a fan favorite. Story-driven “Outfield” and “School Teacher” channel this second energy, contradicting the more dramatic and alluring “Her Name was Mary” and “Home to Me.”
From emotionally-gripping lullabies such as “Safe Heart” to groovy rock-leaning “Your Dad,” musical magic happens when these two team up. With Wakefield writing and singing on most of the tracks, Ovunc plays a handful of instruments (including piano, accordion, and synths) and assists in the production. The record was mastered by Alex McCollough at True East Mastering.
Wakefield is the child of a Salvationist minister and a gypsy, a combination that was sure to produce as free-spirited and spritely an artist as they did. How fitting, then, that she finds a Turkish man with the given name Nomad, and ends up settling with him in the magnetic city of Nashville, drawn in like wanderlust moths to its bright light. Together, the two have graced the stages of historic venues across the nation, from Nashville’s own Bluebird Café to The Mint in Los Angeles.
We spoke with Mare to learn more about their musical endeavors, the upcoming album, the civil service they’ve done behind the scenes, and more.
After moving around so much in your youth, how does it feel to be settled in Nashville? What drew you to the city as a permanent residence?
We’ve lived here now for 14 years — which is more than three times longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere else! But I honestly think it’s really been just this past year of staying put that’s made me really bond with Nashville. Of course I’m not talking about the venue scene — like everyone, we haven’t been able to perform or go to shows at all — but we’ve really gotten in touch with a lot of the natural beauty that’s here. As I’m typing these words, I’m sitting out on our back deck where we put food and water out for the birds. There are a gang of bluejays who always come to bathe around sunset, and a wren who serenades us daily — we’ve named him Luciano Pava-wren-ti! Some of the flowers and herbs we planted last year are already starting to come back and we check their progress daily.
All of this subtle, natural beauty went largely unnoticed by us in previous years. Often we’d be gone more than half the year on the road. So it’s been really grounding and good for my soul to finally feel truly connected to this place.
Initially we came here seeking publishing deals. I thought I’d wind up a staff writer somewhere and went on lots of meetings in those early years. I remember one guy telling me, “Oh, your songs are a lot like that Emmylou Harris, folky-country stuff. If that ever comes back you’ll have a couple hits on your hands.” Of course, not the response I was hoping for, but I appreciated his candor. It made me realize that my music wasn’t what the commercial side of Nashville was looking for, and it freed me up to stop chasing that misguided fantasy and just lean in to the music that was already in my heart.
We could have left Nashville then, but we chose to stay because of the rich diversity of the music community. Once you walk just a few blocks beyond Music Row, you can hear all kinds of amazing music — indie rock, jazz, soul, bluegrass, gospel, classic country. And you’ll hear songs that’ll touch your heart and blow your mind. I’m constantly humbled and thankful for how much great music we’ve heard here, and how many fantastic musicians we’ve been able to work with.
How did the two of you meet, and when did you decide to start making music together?
We met in ear training class, at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. It was the first day of school and the teacher was calling roll. The teacher started to struggle over an unpronounceable Turkish name, and this voice from behind me says, “Oh, that’s me. But I’m going by a nick-name here. Call me ‘Nomad.’”
I was hooked! 🙂
The music and the relationship were utterly entwined from day one. I can’t even recall if we worked on our first music project together because we were interested in each other, or if we became interested while working on music projects together. I think we were pretty much both immediately “all in.”
What does your writing process usually look like?
I try to start every day with what I call the “hour of music.” Before breakfast, long before turning on the news or checking email, I’ll actually set a timer and pretend that I have a song due in an hour. That early morning freshness combined with the idea of an immediate deadline works well for me and pushes me to just get something down on paper. Often times it’s the worst song in the world and it never sees the light of day. But sometimes there’s something there that feels like it could be developed, so I’ll continue working — after stopping for oatmeal and a strong cup of Turkish tea.
Once something feels “worthy,” I’ll bring it to Nomad. He’s the nuts and bolts guy. He’ll give me great feedback on melody and rhythm, chord voicings and strumming patterns. Sometimes he’ll offer an opinion on lyrics — mostly along the lines of “you lost me” — which is actually super helpful as well.
Your most recent blog post told a story about trying to clean the “trash tunnel” on Granada and Gallatin Ave. Have you continued that crusade, or started any new ones? And what led you to pursue this specific endeavor?
Yes!! We still go out almost every day on our “neighborhood clean-up walks.” We got a grabber — named “Grab-riella” — and we even made a video which folks can watch on our Instagram page.
I don’t know if I’d call it a “crusade.” But I can tell you it’s been really empowering. We were just walking by the trash every day and getting super bummed out. Now we’re actually doing something to help out and it feels great. Even tho there’s always more, we’ve moved from emergency attack mode into route maintenance. Not too tough, and really satisfying.
Today on our walk a little girl on a bicycle stopped to watch us for a while. “Are y’all cleaning up?” she asked. We said we were. “Cool,” she said.
It’s all the thanks we need.
Your new album, No Remedy, will be released next month. Is there anything tying this particular set of songs together, such as an overarching message or underlying meaning?
This might be the most musically coherent record we’ve ever made. We had all the musicians in the studio together, tracking at the same time (Covid safe). We could all hear each other and respond to each other, and make musical decisions in real time. With all the capabilities of multi-tracking and over-dubbing, many modern records get made one piece at a time. And there’s certainly a lot of liberty in doing things that way. But when the players are all together, there’s a chemistry that’s virtually impossible to create any other way. You can really hear it in the track “Give Myself to Love,” the way the accordion and the banjo wind around each other and leave space for each other. Or on “Her Name Was Mary,” the way the electric guitar interacts with the tribal percussion. Makes for a lot of what Nomad calls “yummy audio goodness.”
What is your favorite part of piecing together an album, and what memory sticks out the most from the creation of this one?
The beginning and the end! Choosing songs and choosing track order.
Nomad and I have a Free Song-of-the-Month Club, we write and record an original song every month and send it out in demo form to our fanbase [folks can sign up on marewakefield.com]. Every song on No Remedy was a previous SOTM, and we asked people to vote on which songs they really wanted to hear on the new record. I’ll admit, there was a bit of “executive” decision-making, but for the most part, these songs were the fan favorites as well. And it was really fun to get everyone’s feedback on the material.
It’s weird, but I also really enjoy coming up with the track order. I know I may be one of the last people on Earth who still listens to an album all the way through. But for me, that stuff still matters. And in the creative process, this is the point when most of the hard work is done and now you get to play with the pieces and see how they’ll best fit together.
On No Remedy, everything came together like butter. We were pretty sure of how we wanted to start, and how we wanted to end. I was surprised that a song as delicate as “Safe Heart” wound up in the number three spot, but we both agree that it works really well there. If there’s anyone else out there who listens to full records, I’d love for them to get in touch and let us know what they think of the order.
What was the most challenging part of recording this album?
Letting go! We have our own studio, so there’s no budget restriction as far as studio-time. If we wanted to spend a hundred hours on a song, no one’s stopping us. Which is good in some ways — we can work till we get it right! But with this kind of freedom, you risk getting tempted to overshoot the sweet spot and mess with a song too much. I feel like this may have happened to us a few times on past projects. So this time, we really tried to be aware of letting the music flow authentically, and staying with an organic, natural feel and not tweaking a song to death.
What are you hoping listeners take away from No Remedy?
If we’re talking ultimate wishes, of course I hope people get caught up in the music or story or emotion of each and every song and feel that sparkling, magical, transcendental spiritual connection that a really good work of art or piece of music can inspire.
But in case that’s too much to ask, I just hope they like the record. 🙂
Of all the historic venues you have played, which one has been your favorite and why? Which one are you most excited to return to as the live music scene revives?
So many faves! We love the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley; the Red Clay Music Foundry in Duluth, GA; Two Way Street in Chicago; Anderson Fair in Houston; the Tin Angel in Philly; Club Passim in Cambridge; Isis Music Hall in Asheville NC; Alice’s Champagne Palace in Homer, Alaska; and of course the Bluebird Cafe here in Nashville.
All high on the list for various reasons. But if forced to pick just one venue, I might have to go with the Shrine of the Ages at Grand Canyon National Park. We performed there as artists in residence three times in the past decade. The shrine itself is a beautiful building with great acoustics. But really, just being at the Grand Canyon puts a spell on everyone, performers and audience members alike. You really feel that shift of perspective as you gaze across the rim and down into millions of years of geological history. The vastness of that kind of time really illustrates the transitory, fleeting nature of our own lives — in a good way! It always puts me in a semi-meditative state, perfect for performance. 🙂
Do you have the wheels in motion for the months following the album release?
We do have a few outdoor shows scheduled. We’ll be playing the Arts in the Middle Festival in Urbanna, Virginia in early June, and just this week we’ve been talking to house concert hosts in Philly and also up in Minnesota and Wisconsin about outdoor events there later this summer. We’re definitely eager to get back in front of live audiences! And we’re excited to do so in ways where everyone can feel safe and comfortable.
[Folks can stay updated on all live shows and livestreams at marewakefield.com]