High Concept Phantasm: Mary Lee Kortes Revitalizes Lost Artist That Never Was 

A conversation with the acclaimed New York singer-songwriter

Mary Lee Kortes (Image: Facebook)

Back before our lives became subsumed in faked status, a book called The Millionaire Next Door, described how studies had shown most millionaires experienced rather quiet and austere lives, having accumulated their wealth by avoiding ostentatious displays and debt-fueled spending.

The idea that there are rich people just beneath your awareness embodies the life and career of Mary Lee Kortes, a musician whose life’s been marked by many extraordinary turns that have enriched her beyond money and notoriety. 

Now she finds herself inhabited by the idea of someone else, producing the extraordinary work that is her new disc, Will Anybody Know That I Was Here: The Songs of Beulah Rowley. It’s Kortes covering the fictional songs of a depression-era singer who died in a house fire at 20, and bringing them back to life today with the rich sepia-soaked instrumentation and jazz/blues/folk Americana of her time. 

Mary Lee Kortes Will Anybody Know That I Was Here?: The Songs of Beulah Rowley, Lakeside Lounge Records 2023

Only the songs never existed before now, they only sound like they did. Kortes teamed with legendary producer Hal Willner (Lou Reed, Lucinda Williams, William Burroughs), one of the last artists he worked with prior to his death in 2020. 

Willner, when not recording or assembling showstopping collections, toiled behind the scenes on Saturday Night Live finding music for the skits. Not only was he a skilled producer but had an ear for how things fit together, helping Kortes weave this illusion, encouraging the interstitial bits (such as “Lost And Found” 1-3) that knit the album together. She first met with Willner in 2010, sharing the bio and some rough demos she’d cut with the help of her husband, musician/producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel (Joan Jett, Steve Earle, the Del-Lords). 

“He said to me, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this.’ I was just amazed and floored by that,” Kortes said. “But there was just no way to do it. Then two years later, enter crowdfunding and we raised some money, and he was willing to do it for very little. We finally got in the studio in 2016. We stayed in touch throughout and I would also run into him up at SNL because I was an off-camera singer at SNL for a while.”

Most remember Kortes as the driving force behind Mary Lee’s Corvette, which released five records mostly of catchy but rough-hewn modern songwriter rock, across a decade beginning with their eponymous 1997 debut. Then she mostly disappeared. There were shows occasionally, especially around her home in Manhattan, and she continued to write, but to the larger music world, she’d left the stage.

It wasn’t so much a plan as a necessity for Kortes. “I came off this tour for [2006’s] Love and Lunacy… that was just ravaging emotionally and financially,” she says. “I came home and thought, ‘I gotta figure something out here to make some money.’”

But she also knew the she always seemed to land on her feet. So she thought, she’d do they type of things one never does in Manhattan because you live there. She took a tour of the United Nations; as a teen growing up in Michigan she half-dreamt of being a French interpreter at the UN.

“There was this old black and white film on a loop of the origins of the UN, with Churchill, Stalin, FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt, and I was watching the people go by with badges,” Kortes recalls. “I was captured by the sensation, I must work for the United Nations. So I started telling people this, and it’s wild, but I actually got a job there… and eventually I got a good job as an editor. I joined the choir became president of the choir, and we toured around a lot. During that period I had gotten a little disillusioned and needed some stability. So while I was working for my own own peace and security, I worked for the world’s peace and security also.”

Like most musicians, having the day job didn’t stop her creative juices from overflowing. Indeed, on her last tour in 2006, she had this thrilling germ of an idea while staying at a friend’s flat in London.

“I went to bed one night wondering, what do I want to do next? I don’t want to just do another batch of songs,” she tells Rock & Roll Globe. “I want to incorporate other kinds of writing because I’m a writer in a more general sense. So I went to bed thinking about this question, and I awoke in the morning with this woman in my head, a depression era singer/songwriter, and I immediately started writing the song ‘Born a Happy Girl.’ I finished my tour and I went home and I finished that song and I wrote her bio, this very skeletal, atmosphere biography of this young singer who was lost to the world early in her life, and then I discovered her.”

“That’s the story right?” she continues. “But it’s so real to me and becomes real to everybody who hears me tell the story or reads it. They get confused like wait a minute, it’s as if she really exists because it feels to everybody like she did.”


VIDEO: Mary Lee Kortes “Born A Happy Girl”

The key is Kortes’ skilled songwriting which segues easily from the austere old-timey jazz-blues, “Born A Happy Girl,” with its refrain, “I was born a happy girl into an unhappy world,” to gentle, lilting American Songbook pop mixed with innocent childhood nostalgia on “The Old Piano Bench,” the sultry late summer night twang and martial strut of the swampy blues “A Rain’s Gonna Fall,” and the arresting torch ballad, “Through a Cloudy Window With Clear Eyes.”

But even when they had finished the recording, they struggled to find a label willing to release it. Never one to sit still for very long (“Eric always called me intrepid,” she says), Kortes had several dreams featuring Bob Dylan. No biggie, who doesn’t dream of Bob Dylan? Apparently, nobody. When Kortes posted her story to the Dylan fan site ExpectingRain.com, she was flooded with responses. This led to her putting together the book Dreaming of Dylan: 115 Dreams About Bob Dylan, soliciting stories from an array of sources including Patti Smith, Jimbo Mathus and “Tangled Up In Blue” guitarist Kevin Odegard, as well as a multitude of regular folk. After the book’s release she was able to find support for the new album. Things just seem to happen like that for her.

Kortes already had a Bob Dylan connection – having covered Blood on the Tracks in its entirety during a live performance at New York’s Living Room in the late ’90s, which would often invite musicians to come in and cover famous albums. They’d initially entreated Ambel, who suggested she do it. Just before the set she handed the soundman a cassette tape – she didn’t have a clean DAT. The performance came off so well that someone stepped in to release it and it earned Kortes some buzz very quickly. She’d already unloaded a dozen or so cassette copies of it –basically just a board tape – when she realized she’d made a due process error.

“It hits me. Oh my god, I’m selling Bob Dylan songs, they probably need permission,” says Kortes. “I called his office and said, ‘I performed the whole album with my band, and it got recorded and I’d like to be able to sell it’ and they said to me, ‘Oh is this Mary Lee?’ I kid you not, they knew about it, because it was making a little bit of noise already, and they gave me a great deal.”

Honestly, Kortes has always enjoyed good fortune. She got a big break when Freedy Johnston saw her performing while supporting her first album and invited her to sing on 1997’s Never Home album, contributing to four songs. Before that she penned the song. “Everywhere I Go,” which Amy Grant recorded on her 1985 album Unguarded. She also penned tunes for the Pointer Sisters.

It started with a weekend psychology retreat after her freshman year in college. Singing during a nighttime weekend dude-ranch variety show awakened something in her, she didn’t know she had. Suddenly she started to perform every weekend. 

“So I moved to New York City and started answering ads in the Village Voice, joined a band, and got offered a management contract,” Kortes recalls. “I found a lawyer and the lawyer said to me, ‘You know, you really should write songs that’s where that’s where the money in music is.’ So I started writing songs and the fourth one was ‘Everywhere I Go.’”

The arguable centerpiece of her new album is the rousing title track, “Will Anybody Know I Was Here,” reprising a question with which nearly every creative artist struggles with, at least in the beginning. It’s something Kortes once struggled to answer for herself, penning the pretty pop mea culpa, “Where Did I Go Wrong, Elton John” for the last Mary Lee’s Corvette album, 2006’s Love and Lunacy

“That song was born of a lot of pain because people would come up to me after shows and say, ‘That first song you did sounds like a hit, and then that second one, Oh, my God, you have so many hits. Why aren’t you more famous?’ And it was meant as a compliment but it was painful,” she says. “So people thought it was a novelty song, but it was so sincere and completely heartfelt: I loved him growing up. I had very mainstream tastes when I was growing up. I wasn’t edgy. I wasn’t deep cuts, I was like: Give me the pop hits.”

Her character, young Beulah Ramsey, feels that ache wondering if anyone will hear and appreciate her gift, but the album already sort of exists as proof of her success. Like Kortes, Beulah wound up living out a dream, even if she didn’t realize it, a dream within a dream so vivid, it couldn’t help but come to life.

For Kortes those old concerns about notoriety seem besides the point now, living the odd and woolly life she has. “My desire has always been to have a lot of experiences, that’s been my main driving force, which is part of why I’ve done different things and just hadn’t been on one path my whole life,” she says. “I always think if I hadn’t wanted to have so many experiences, maybe I’d be more successful because I would have just been single-minded and modest in vision. But I want to experience this and I want to experience that, and what’s it like to do this?”


VIDEO: Mary Lee Kortes “Green Sand”



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