Marian Call curled into a soft chair near the window of an apartment above the busiest section of Franklin Street in downtown Juneau. She enjoys watching people try to parallel park, observing sidewalk scenes and honing her skills at picking out tourists from residents.
A man wearing a baseball cap strode past the Alaskan bar with his arms bowing out around his waistline. “That guy? He’s Alaskan, but not from Juneau,” Call concluded.
Call has a feline-nymph quality; she is sly, statuesque, delicate and bold, with pale skin, merlot hair and a beautiful, sharp profile. Being next to her you feel like she is a natural soul-reader; she knows what you are thinking, she knows how you fit and don’t fit into your world. You also get the sense that she won’t hold anything against you, she does not judge.
Perhaps this attitude arose from her exhausting execution of finding her own self, watching her own struggles and acknowledging the support she receives to pursue what she loves and what she’s good at: singing and songwriting.
Call graduated from Stanford University in 2004 with a degree in composition and vocal performance. In school she sang in the gospel choir, the chamber chorale and with a group specializing in music from the Renaissance and pre-Renaissance ages.
“I found I couldn’t play an instrument and sing at the same time,” Call said. “I got proficient enough on piano to know that I could do both at once, but my singing would be mediocre.”
Between her junior and senior year, Call, who grew up in Gig Harbor, Wash., married her high school sweetheart. Her husband was an aviation mechanic, and the economic recession was beginning to sprout. He found himself in a sea of thousands of unemployed people in the aviation business in California. He presented Call with two possible cities hiring people in his field: Wichita, Kan., and Anchorage.
They boarded a ferry to Haines in 2003, and drove to Anchorage in a blizzard.
“It was 40 degrees below zero in Tok,” Call said. “I was like ‘What the hell am I doing? This is insane.’ I thought it was the end of my career in the arts.”
Call returned to California to complete her degree after the move north. She found herself writing the musical framework for instruments to accompany her singing -- that is, a template, not the fine details.
The musicians, “know their instruments better than I would,” Call said. “My teachers wouldn’t let me take that short cut, which is good - it was a short cut - but now I like to give them the framework.”
While Call occasionally picks up a typewriter to add musical elements to her songs, she mainly sings, composing all her music, often in a manner that her accompanist can make his or her own.
“That makes it collaborative,” Call said. “I bring the thing I do best and that I’m skilled at, then giving someone else some space to do what they want. All my guitarists play the music differently.”
But it took her a while to utter those words, “my guitarists.” After graduation she drove up to Anchorage. She knew Swahili and held a degree from an Ivy League school.
“But nobody cared,” she said.
She took a job at an artsy coffee shop in downtown.
“I didn’t know a lot of basic things about being an employee,” Call said. “My whole life was being a student and homework.”
She learned that she should ask permission to take time off - versus explaining to a professor she would simply be gone for a week.
“It was like remedial life skills 101 for someone who spent their life in nerd school,” Call said. “I learned how to smile, how to talk, how to relate to humans.”
It was at the café that Call became exposed to music like that of Bob Dylan, Ani DiFranco, the Indigo Girls and Alaskan musicians. In college, she had different musical experiences.
“I had my nose in classical music,” she said. “I had no idea what was going on in real world music.”
The music at the café struck a chord.
“I thought ‘I can write this. I would love to write this kind of stuff,’” she said. “That’s probably when I got into songwriting.”
It was also when she began falling for Alaska.
“I met amazing people,” Call said. “I wanted to stay. I didn’t want to move away, it felt like home. I was proud of being here, the people who were here, and the opportunity that’s here and how different it was.”
After the café, Call worked as a freelance graphic designer, and began writing song lyrics. But, she admitted she wasn’t thinking very hard about it. Then came MySpace. She started viewing musician’s pages.
“For the first time ever,” Call said, “I made friends with strangers online.”
She credits MySpace for making it clear she could record an album without a record label.
“I realized that if I made a record of the kind of music I wanted to make, all I’d need to do would [be to] sell 1,000 or 2,000 copies and recover my costs,” Call said. “I could just do it myself.”
Call knew she had a lot to learn, but was ready to dive in, and figure out the logistics along the way.
In the Franklin Street apartment she paused to let a brigade of motorcycles rumble below the window. She explained that up until first stepping into a recording studio, she always felt like she was partially attempting things other professionals had mastered.
“But when I did this,” she said, reminiscing about recording her first album, “I thought, ‘This is something I can do well. This is my area of expertise.’ I didn’t have all the knowledge, but I had the skills, and the instincts, and the knowledge could come in time. And it did.”
Two months after she released her first record, “Vanilla,” Call said goodbye to graphic design and resolved to be a full-time musician.
“I started learning how to sell music online,” she said. “There was a lot to learn about economics. Things always cost more than you think they do, and musicians always make less than you think they do.”
She started a Song of the Month project on her My Space page. She was well received, and began collecting Internet fans.
“I started meeting other geeks,” Call said. “I didn’t realize I was a geek until (I) got into social media. It was exciting, and empowering.”
Call said her first official tour was “accidental.” Her husband had jet training scheduled in Los Angeles, and she used some Internet connections to find a couple of venues. But her husband’s training was cancelled, and she went to Los Angeles alone.
“I stayed in a horrible hotel on Sunset Boulevard with a one-and-a-half inch gap under the door,” she said. “I realized I could do it on my own. It was awesome.”
She began booking gigs in locations where she had friends and family, like the San Francisco Bay Area.
“I was very bad at it at first,” Call said. “I cringe thinking back to my first couple of tours.”
She started playing at a café in south Anchorage on a regular basis, and made an extensive group of friends who were also in the arts: photographers, painters and other musicians.
Just when she was beginning to feel like an established musician, Call and her husband divorced. The separation catalyzed her first continuous tour.
“I had credit cards and ran around the country doing a tour, trying to keep moving.”
When she returned to Anchorage, Call couch crashed and house sat for 18 months.
“It was very strange and psychologically hard,” she said. “It was good for me. It taught me that I can do things and be thankful. I thought I would have to take a job, but it turned out I could make music work full time. I figured out how to make concerts work economically.”
Call had developed a faithful following on the Internet, and used social media to book a 50 state tour in 2010. She found two guitarists via the online site Craigslist that were her main accompanists throughout the tour.
“I met tons of fans,” she said. “I met people every day I had only known on the Internet.”
These people hosted her on their couches and in their spare bedrooms, and helped her book venues in cafés, clubs, living rooms and backyards. Some venues were huge, some were tiny, she said. She returned to Anchorage in the black, but blew it going to Hawaii, her last state.
The next year Call put her energy into her third and latest album, “Something Fierce,” which came out in October 2011. (Her second album, “Got to Fly” was a commissioned album recorded in 2008.) By then Call had toured to Juneau a couple of times; her first concert in the state capital was at The Rookery Café in August 2011.
She liked Juneau, and made the permanent move from Anchorage the second week of May.
“There’s a positive draw here,” Call said. “The Arts Council has it together. The businesses and venues here are more organized. I feel less like I have to create the scene.”
Call is preparing for a tour around Canada and the Lower 48 starting in mid-June. Come October, she hopes to have fundraised and networked enough to complete a tour in Europe.
But before she hits the road again, Call will be performing in her new hometown. Her first concert as a Juneau resident is the last installment of this season’s KRNN concert series at the Gold Town Nickelodeon Theater. The seasonal monthly performance series serves to connect the audience with a performer more than a traditional concert does.
“It’s part personal interview, part concert,” Call said.
Her father, who was musically influential during Call’s upbringing, is coming up to participate.
Call is very content, especially given her social media networking skills, to stay put in Alaska while pursuing her musical career.
“I find it’s easier to be from Alaska and go to Portland twice a year, than move there,” she said. “I’d rather be part of a community of musicians where everyone does something different, so I can be enthusiastically supporting everyone else and not fighting over the same venue or musicians.”
Call’s KRNN performance runs from 7-9 p.m. Wednesday, June 13. Tickets are $10 in advance -- visit www.ktoo.org or stop by the KTOO studio at 360 Egan Drive -- and may be available the evening of the concert for $12 at the door. The show is all ages.
For more information on Marian Call, visit her website at www.mariancall.com.