ELLSWORTH – Trisha Mason is a candidate for most nervous interview subject ever.
She giggles a lot. Her cheeks, glowing with health, blush. Her accessible gaze suddenly averts up and to the left, then instantly returns.
“I’m sorry,” she says – with a giggle. “You should see me onstage. It’s the talking thing that gets me every time.”
She takes a seat at her piano, a vintage Jacobs Brothers. Its wood cabinet is nicked a bit, but the instrument is in good shape and contains a rich sound. A notebook full of song lyrics is on the stand, and more pages of lyrics, along with a cut-glass lamp, is on top. A guitar case leans against one side. The dividing wall, which Mason painted carmine with pattern of circles within quadrangles, is hung with family photos; an image of her grandfather as a young man, accordion in hand, takes center place.
Mason agrees to perform her new song, even though it doesn’t have a title yet and it isn’t finished, because I have asked about her creative process and, safe in her own home, it won’t matter if she makes any flubs.
“I suppose we could call it ‘Underway,’” she says. “I was trying to make it seafaring-sounding.”
Mason’s four-year-old daughter Victoria watches patiently from the background. Dressed in a pink sweatshirt and plaid button-down shirt, with long blonde hair and her mom’s rosy cheeks, Victoria smiles now and then, her face wearing a look of pride for her mother’s accomplishments.
Mason launches into a series of full-bodied chords in the middle range of the keyboard. The chords roll into waves of arpeggios. It’s like a sermon on the sea, the wind and waves crashing on a hapless sailor as the sound cascades down the keys, returning each time to the midway and then crashing down again. She sings of a lover swept away by the sea, and the old woman she has come to be, defeated by the tide. “You took my love many years from me/On your waves I send my soul.” One chord progression surges ever down the keyboard, while another yearns upward. The mood and Mason’s voice are both dark and vibrant, swelling with the turbulence of tragedy. It’s a beautiful, sad song.
Mason ends abruptly, embarrassed but pleased by the attention.
Having recently seen her perform with her band at the Blue Hill eatery Route 66, I am struck, then and now, by the contradictory strands of her personality – a little skittish, but eager to dive in and show her stuff. When performing, she has a tendency to turn her feet in girlishly. That, her open face, her soft wave of abundant, black hair, and her elfin glances off to the side are attractive qualities made all the more appealing by the contrast she plays up with her stage clothes – knee-high, black leather boots with buckles down the calf as though to say how tough she is, tank top with a black vest that sparkles with sequins. Her onstage nerves get passed off as little frissons of energy, strengthening her performance.
That observation makes her giggle.
Mason, who plays guitar in addition to song-writing, singing and tickling the ivories, lives in Ellsworth with her husband, Marc Mason, who is a Coastguardsman and was just made chief at the Southwest Harbor base, and their two children, Victoria and six-year-old Andrew. She is the originator of the Trisha Mason Band, which sometimes gets “silly” names added to the end of it such as Trisha Mason “and the Lobster Trap Trio” or Trisha Mason “and the Dirty Drunken Sailors” or Trisha Mason “and the Whiskey Warlocks.” At Route 66, she and her bandmates – Brian White on drums, percussion and back-up vocals; and Jack Kaspala on bass, lead guitar and back-up vocals – called themselves “Trisha Mason and The Tequila Kings” in honor of Cinco de Mayo. Their fiddle, mandolin and co-back-up vocals bandmate, Doug Empie, didn’t make it to that gig.
The other band she’s in, The Larks, is also based in Ellsworth. The Larks’ leitmotif is to “rips to shreds,” as the band’s MySpace bio says, cover folk-rock/pop-punk tunes in pursuit of reinvention.
Recently, Mason’s Facebook music page had a steady stream of entries that included a link to a blog that said “can i be trisha mason when i grow up?” Other entries offered pre-gig advertisements and post-gig “likes” at venues that took the band on the road two or three times a week. One of those venues is Finn’s Irish Pub in Ellsworth, where the band has played every Thursday for four or five months now. One entry advised the fan base that Mason was drinking lemon water one afternoon before an evening gig, while Empie resoled his bow, White “did his pregame drum stretches,” and Kaspala napped.
Mason has social media pages for both bands, which differ mainly in the ratio of covers-to-originals. The Larks, she says, plays more covers and tends to be more dancey.
“Not that I don’t want to be dancey with my band,” she says. “I love when people dance, especially to our own music. But the big difference is that, with my band, we play a lot of my songs. And that’s probably what I like best about it. I have more control of it. It’s, ‘What do we like? What do we want to play?’”
Her own sound is evolving, she says. As influences, she cites top artists such as Jewel, Pink and Peggy Lee, all mixed in with greats such as The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. Her Facebook bio says her original material has been described as “existential soul candy,” hook-heavy and ear-pleasing.
“I think to a certain extent I’m kind of between a Jewel and a Pink kind of thing, folky rock,” she says. “I’ve had people say it’s more pop, but I don’t really believe that. I’m attempting to make a CD now, and I’m trying to have that characteristic that people are looking for nowadays.” She snaps her fingers to an inner, up-tempo jive. “So I’m maybe making it a little more poppish than I would necessarily like it to be. But I’m loving how it’s turning out and it’s definitely got the rock aspect that I like, and the melodies are kind of folky.”
Mason got her start with music, not surprisingly, as a kid taking piano lessons in her Massachusetts hometown. She dropped that in her teens to pick up guitar, mainly because it was easier to carry around, “just pull out and randomly strum and start singing with my girlfriends and stuff,” she says.
She and a good friend started harmonizing, and eventually they started playing out a bit. The whole thing made her nervous, but she still loved doing it.
“I use to waitress and bring in my guitar with me to play when it was slow,” she recalls.
Admiration from friends and family, and the need to have a creative outlet for her emotions, led her to write her first song.
“It was kind of a love poem to my high school boyfriend who was leaving for college,” she says. “We decided to break up because we were both extremely young.”
She still kind of remembers the song, even though that was a decade ago. She plucks her guitar from its case and sits down at the dining room table. But first she provides an inside-out forewarning.
“Initially, my good friends told me all my earlier songs sounded the same, which I found so insulting, until I realized it was kind of just helping me grow a little bit,” she says, then starts strumming a wistful but lively tune and singing about love’s loss. Her voice soars with the second stanza: “Don’t wake me today, because I want to stay, wrapped up so cloooose, I can feel you allllmost.”
She stops with a tap on the soundboard and laughs.
“That’s probably all I can remember,” she says.
But the ability to express her experience got her hooked.
“I just kept going,” she says. “I think, for me, it’s my expression of how I’m feeling and kind of being done with it and putting it in a nice little box. And there it is and now I’m moving on.”
Mason went on to study early childhood education at Bristol (Mass.) Community College, but after teaching at a couple of day care centers, she decided it wasn’t her cup of tea.
However, the college put her in a course on public speaking course, which contributed to her musical future by helping her to deal with her nerves.
“My biggest issues have always been my voice,” she says. In the class, “I just could not read a story in front of a big group of people. I had the hardest time because my voice would start shaking. I knew it was horrid and I knew everybody else was uncomfortable for me – which just made me even more uncomfortable.”
The teacher offered the option of either speaking or singing.
“I said, ‘I can play a song?’ And that was the only way I got through it, because I’d bring my guitar on test day.”
Although her voice was still “a little rough” while she played, the class offered her a safe environment to begin to find her “comfort zone,” to “just relax, and don’t think too much about it.”
She met her husband through her brother, when both were stationed in Rockland. After moving around a couple of times, the young family ended up four years ago buying their current home, where they hope to settle after Marc has completed his service.
By then, she had written a bunch of her own songs and was also learning a lot of cover tunes. Her sister “hounded” her to put some music on MySpace.
“Shortly after I did that, a guy named Arend Trent found me and wanted me to come down to audition for a band,” Mason says. She met up with Trent and Steve Peer, at Chummies Bar in Ellsworth. Peer is a well-known drummer and percussionist who plays with a number of local bands. Trent is a bass guitarist and singer/songwriter. Peer, Trent and Mason, along with violinist/singer Kate Dirks and bass guitarist/singer Kyle Duckworth became core members of The Larks, which also brought in special appearances by lead guitarist Gary Vochon and other local musicians.
Chummies, where Mason regularly attended the bar’s open mic night, is also where she got to know Empie, the emcee. Connections followed with White and Kaspala, long-time musicians who have played a lot in various band configurations. A year ago, the three men agreed that Mason was a good bet to back.
“One of my favorite things about playing with experienced musicians is, I know kind of what I’m doing, but I can tell them what the key is and they can go from there,” says Mason. “I don’t have to really study it with them. They just know where to go.”
Working with other musicians forced her to evolve technically.
“Initially when I started writing music, I had no idea what I was playing,” she says, meaning that she would strum notes on her guitar that sounded “right,” but she didn’t know what chords they were – an important consideration when trying to share her tunes with others.
“And I couldn’t figure out how to transfer what I was playing on the guitar to the piano,” she says. “But I can now. For the most part. There are still some chords that I’m like, ‘Oh, that sounds good. I’m not exactly sure what it was but, you know….’ So I’ve progressed in that way.”
Her lyrics have evolved as well. It’s not just about lost love and yearning for happiness. These days, as a mother especially, she has a depth of experience that allows her to empathize with and channel the sorrows and joys of the world. Her lyrics tend to start in a dark place and then to soar, over the course of a song, in search of life’s momentary joy.
She picks up her guitar and plays another tune, “Wasted AKA (Angry Bi&%H).” It’s got a catchy beat and a memorable hook, carried by an insistent half-step motif.
“Wasted all my time/Think I’m about to lose my mind/I feel fine/Even though I know its just a matter of time,” she sings in a purring growl that takes on edge as she recounts the infidelity of a lover. She belts out a chorus that takes her imagined revenge: “I wrecked your boat, wrecked you car, wrecked you house, wrecked your lawn, I even shaved your dog…well if you’ve ever hated me before I bet right now you hate me even more.”
Lately, Mason has been recording her first CD in the recording studios of the New England School of Communications in Bangor, where students get “hands-on study they practiced on me,” she says. She expects the disk to be out this summer.
And her first foray on the local music scene four years ago is building steadily toward a straight-out career. Right now, she’s got events listed through the summer, from Ellsworth to MDI to Bangor and beyond.
“It went kind of from not really knowing what I was doing, but just loving it, to doing it all the time at home and attempting to get better and write more songs,” she says. “It’s writing how you feel. It’s just fun.”