Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Professor and Maryanne

Professor and Maryanne, Fast Folk (1996)
FFotos © Robert Barry Francos

This is the second part of a series of articles or interviews that have been published before in magazines that no longer exist. This one was originally published in
Oculus Magazine, August 1996; an update follows.

Professor and Maryanne

Fairy Tale, 1993
A wet and dreary spring evening, and I’m in the Luna Lounge, on the Lower East Side. The duo of The Professor and Maryanne are sandwiched in time between their soundcheck and an interview with Videowave, a local access cable show.

Y’see, I’m a fan of the group, who have just released their second recording, Lead Us Not Into Penn Station. Their music is generally ballads, in a modern jazzy folk vein, but they mix in a wide swath of rock’n’roll, blues, waltz, and sheer magic. And lyrically, the songs are usually quite intelligent, without being cryptic. Tending to be in story form, the tunes tell of flea circuses, fairy tales, and abundance of humorous (and fruity) deaths (more on this later), and all forms of love. In fact, some of the strangest written love songs I’ve heard in a long time.

Lead Us Not Into Penn Station, 1996
But first, some background. Okay, so obviously the group got their name from that ‘60s television show. The Professor, Ken Rockwood, however, really was a professor – of computer science. He must have been a blast to have in front of the classroom, as his easygoing, funny banter implies. Now he plays the guitar and sings. The Maryanne half is misleading however, as she is really Danielle Brancaccio (isn’t that a great name?), and ex-beautician from Staten Island. She also sings, with an easy, distinctive voice and style that can be both incredibly vulnerable and sexy.

Having met in a bar in Staten Island (when questioned on the validity of this point, they insist it is true), Ken and Danielle quickly formed a friendship and were soon imbedded in a pop band called Pet the Poodle. “We weren’t very good,” admits Ken. Danielle adds, “Yeah, it was pretty bad,” to which Ken chimes in, “But it was a long time ago.”

Professor and Maryanne, 2001
Well, they’re obviously improved, having been signed by Hoboken’s Bar/None Records after their fourth gig (Ken admits, “It was a stroke of luck, maybe”). They released either first collection, Fairy Tale, in 1993. Though rough in spots, there were obviously indications of things to come. Some songs remain in the group’s live show, such as “Thief,” “The Only Cool Place in Town,” and the amazing title cut. Ken explains that, “Fairy Tale took a long time to record. It was a first record and we felt a bit of pressure. It came out the way it did and we like it, but the second one was much more relaxing, so we enjoy it more. We had fun making it, and it came out better in some ways.” Danielle further explained the process that led to the ease of Lead Us: “We were off for that whole year [between recordings] and then performed 20 gigs a month before we made the record, so we were ready to do it, whereas the first record we were new at it.”

Runaway Favorite, 2003
Along with songs of love (my favorite by far is “Willow,” the opening cut of Lead Us), one of the aforementioned consistent themes that run throughout their songs, is death. The imagery varies from the subject (“Luck,” “The Only Cool Place in Town”) to passing comments (“Cadillac”), whether ludicrous, perky or wistful. Ken, who writes most of the songs, said, “I don’t quite know how that happens. I think it’s more of a Mickey Spillane kind of death; you know, dirty detective sort of death, where death isn’t really death. But I have a slew of more death songs for the next record. Literally, many more death songs!” As a sidebar, Danielle responded with a witty query: “What death songs?”

Every Day, 2008
Finally, it’s time for the show. Danielle, dressed in overalls, sings her songs emphatically, making you want to be there for her to sing “Good Morning.” Ken, in his suspenders and guitar, sings his songs with an enjoyable touch of cynicism (especially the death songs), makes humorous comments between songs in a steam of consciousness was, even quoting vintage Bugs Bunny lines (“If my friend Rocky was here…”). Danielle doesn’t say much and enjoys the banter along with the audience, occasionally making sly comments. She declares, “I’m kind of quiet anyway. I don’t have much to say. Sometimes I get a little gumption. If he’s in a certain mood where he talks a lot, I just let him go.” Ken admits, “I usually talk a lot.”

Tin Heart, 2008
I happy to report that The Professor and Maryanne are still performing around town, at places like the Rockwood Music Hall, in Manhattan on Allen Street. They are also still producing recordings, such as their latest, Tin Heart.

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