Marcia Ball is a blues singer and pianist, born in Orange, Texas who was raised in Vinton, Louisiana. She was described in USA Today as "a sensation, saucy singer and superb pianist... where Texas stomp-rock and Louisiana blues-swamp meet." The Boston Globe described her music as "an irresistible celebratory blend of rollicking, two-fisted New Orleans piano, Louisiana swamp rock and smoldering Texas blues from a contemporary storyteller."
Marcia was born into a musical family. Her grandmother and aunt both played piano music of their time and Ball started piano lessons when she started school, and showed an early interest in New Orleans style piano playing, as exemplified by Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, and James Booker. She has named Irma Thomas, the New Orleans vocalist, as her chief vocal inspiration. Ball studied English at Louisiana State University in the 1960s while playing in a band called Gum. In 1970, at age 21, she started a progressive country band called Freda and the Firedogs in Austin, Texas, and began her solo career in 1974.
Marcia Ball's piano style includes elements of zydeco, swamp blues, Louisiana blues and boogie woogie. She began her recording career as a solo artist with Rounder Records in the 1980s and early 1990s. In 2001, she joined Chicago-based Alligator Records.
Her Rounder album, ‘Sing It!,’ which featured vocalists Irma Thomas and Tracy Nelson, released in January 1998 was nominated for a Grammy Award and a Blues Music Award for "Best Contemporary Blues Album." Marcia received the 1998 Blues Music Award for "Contemporary Female Vocalist of the Year" and "Best Blues Instrumentalist-Keyboards." She was awarded "Contemporary Blues Album of the Year" for her albums ‘Presumed Innocent’ in 2002 and ‘So Many Rivers.’ The same year she also won "Contemporary Blues Artist of the Year-Female." She won the "Best Blues Instrumentalist-Keyboards" again in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2009. Her 2003 Alligator release, ‘So Many Rivers,’ was nominated for a Grammy as were ‘Live! Down The Road’ in 2005 and ‘Peace, Love & BBQ’ in 2008. She was inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame in 1990.
Marcia has continued to work with Irma Thomas. In 2006, the two contributed a duet ("Look Up") on the New Orleans Social Club release, ‘Sing Me Back Home.’ In 2007, the two contributed another duet ("I Can't Get New Orleans Off My Mind") to ‘Goin' Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino.’
Marcia Ball continues to play at nightclubs, particularly in Austin and New Orleans, and performs at music festivals in North America and overseas. Her newest album is titled 'The Tatooed Lady and the Alligator Man.'
AM: Marcia, Can you talk a little about growing up in Louisiana?
MB: I’m from a little town on the Texas/Louisiana state line. My entire family heritage is in Louisiana. I come from a deeply rooted Cajun family.
AM: Was music a natural part of your life from day one?
MB: My grandmother’s father was a musician and composer. My grandmother played piano and her daughter, my aunt, played piano and her daughter, my cousin, played piano. I remember one day a piano appeared in my house and I started piano lessons.
AM: When was this?
MB: At the same time I started going to school.
AM: So playing piano seemed natural for you?
MB: It was natural and it was what we did. I come from a generation that still gathered after Sunday dinner around the piano. We’d all take turns playing the piano.
AM: Did you sing as a child?
MB: No I didn’t sing.
AM: When did you start singing?
MB: When I got to college. That’s the other part in the incredible timing of my life. When I got to college in 1966 the whole world was changing. I met a girl who sang. She had been doing folk music duos with another girl who went back home. So I was recruited to sing harmony and it turns out I could sing them. I think I never thought of singing because growing up on Tin Pan Alley sheet music, all those girl parts were high. I couldn’t reach those notes so I thought I couldn’t sing. When I first heard Odetta, I was thunderstruck.
AM: What classes were you taking in college?
MB: Mostly English.
AM: What did you think you were going to do?
MB: Well, mostly I like to read and write so I took some journalism classes. I didn’t know what I was going to do. If I had kept on going I would probably have been a librarian. But I dropped out of school to follow music.
AM: When was it apparent that music would be your career?
MB: I got in a band not long after I dropped out and enjoyed it, but I also had a day job at a radio station. Also I got married and moved to Austin. I met some people in Austin who were a lot more established with a following and some connections. So I got in a band with them and from that time on, which was 1972, I never looked back.
AM: Were you surprised to know you could actually sing lead?
MB: Yes and at that time I was singing Top 40 which was Janis Joplin and Grace Slick, so singing was not exactly what I was doing. It was more like shouting.
AM: So you must have learned how to refine your vocals.
MB: Along the way I did. The first band I was a part of in Austin was a Country Music band. In Texas, Country Music had a lot of currency. We all had long hair but we really loved the old, traditional music. So we were singing traditional Country Music with frizzy hair sticking out of our cowboy hats and Austin went for it completely. This is when Austin became the drawing place for anyone who wanted to perform like that. This is right before Willie Nelson moved there.
AM: Are you happy living in Austin?
MB: I am! I loved it from the moment I got there. My husband and I had been living in Baton Rouge and we were moving to San Francisco but we went through Austin and stopped to see some friends and we never left.
AM: Where did you record ‘Circuit Queen’ album?
MB: I actually recorded that one in Nashville for Capitol Records. They signed a bunch of young talent at the time but for most of us, nothing happened.
AM: It’s a really good album. Were you happy with it?
MB: I was happy with it but I was scared to death at that time. It was a great opportunity.
AM: You have been able to keep a long term recording career going.
MB: Yes, it’s been remarkable. I haven’t been on a lot of labels either.
AM: What is one of your favorite albums that you recorded?
MB: One that I am most proud of is the one I did with Angela Strehli and Lou Ann Barton called ‘Dreams Come True’ and it took us five years to complete it. That’s why we titled it ‘Dreams Come True.’
AM: You name Irma Thomas as a major influence.
MB: Yes I do.
AM: I have photographed Irma and I love her as an artist and person.
MB: She is a lovely person. I saw her in New Orleans for the first time when I was thirteen.
AM: You are actually more associated with New Orleans than Austin.
MB: My music certainly is. I always say about Austin, that I’m a piano player in a guitar town. I’ve always played that Louisiana music.
AM: Do you play New Orleans a lot?
MB: As much as I can. We do real well there. I’m pretty highly recognized there.
AM: You have a new album out and it’s so much fun!
MB: It was just time to record a new album because we get tired of playing the same songs.
AM: I like how all your music is so much fun.
MB: I like my music to be fun. I don’t write or play from a place of angst.
To learn more about Marcia Ball visit her web site http://www.marciaball.com/