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“You know sometimes how you say, ‘I wish something would happen that would change things?’” Mary Battiata asks, looking up from what the Common Grounds Coffee and Tea House menu calls a “frozen coffee thingie” and not quite smiling. It’s a wicked-hot, stupor-inducing day in Arlington, but Battiata isn’t given to parading her emotions across her face or through her body, anyway. It’s her soft voice that carries the slight irony, the seesawing of wonder and resignation, the ghost of pain through these simple words spoken across a table.
Or at least that’s what fans of Battiata’s Arlington-based country/ folk/rock band, Little Pink, might think. The group’s 2001 debut, Cul-de-Sac Cowgirl, has drawn praise from everyone from alt-country mag No Depression to crime novelist George Pelecanos, much of it landing squarely on singer/guitarist/songwriter Battiata’s understated vocals and imagistic lyrics. Harp magazine’s Jon Jolles, for example, has called Little Pink’s music “heartfelt, immensely passionate” and described Battiata as “transforming the fluttering vulnerability of her voice into an undeniable strength.”
But though Battiata has been writing for many years, she has been singing for just a few. In 1987, she left a job at the Washington Post to follow her then-boyfriend overseas and work as a stringer for her former employer, first working in Sudan and Ethiopia and in Eastern Europe. In her six years as a foreign correspondent, Battiata filed stories on the Vaclav Havel election, Serbian atrocities in Croatia, and children in a Romanian orphanage, among many others.
All that hard work took its physical toll, however: By the time Battiata came home, in 1993, she was unable to use her arms for two years. “I was working in Croatia and Bosnia under pretty rough conditions and doing a lot of work with my hands,” she says. “I was carrying stuff and typing and driving like that [fists forward, she pantomimes grasping the wheel while driving on a gutted road]—old cars that were shaking—and it was really stressful. And I think that the combination of stress and bad diet is what did it. And then, like, this one day I just couldn’t—”
Couldn’t drive; couldn’t type; couldn’t play the guitar she’d bought, for fun, in Ireland on her way to Africa. “I had a spinal tap done, and a bunch of tests, to determine whether I had MS,” she says. “I was scared. They just called it moderate to severe neuropathy, nerve damage.”
Battiata went on disability insurance and moved back in with her parents in Bethesda. “My mom would be struggling out of the grocery store with the bags,” she recalls, laughing, “and I was walking behind, her able-bodied daughter.” Battiata also began a regimen of physical therapy.
“I had six months where I was just seeing doctors and taking the bus and the subway everywhere and just kind of isolated out there,” she says. Then Battiata began reconnecting with friends and going out to concerts. “It was amazing,” she recalls, “’cause when I came back, the scene was so rich.” Attending shows by folk- and roots-based locals such as Kevin Johnson, Alice Despard, and the Graverobbers was, says Battiata, “a road back to writing for me.”
“I felt very upset when I got back from Bosnia,” she continues. “I felt like words had sort of died for me. It’s ridiculous and grandiose…but I was doing all that writing over there, and I felt so helpless. So when I got back and heard all these local writers, people who were saying something, I grabbed it like a life preserver.”
Battiata had also started walking a lot—”it was kinda like the only thing I could do,” she notes—and soon began singing to herself as she went along. “I started singing and getting ideas for songs,” she recalls. “And I’d always written poetry, so I thought, Maybe I’ll write that down. So that was probably a good thing. I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t gotten sick.”
By 1999, Battiata had recovered enough to take on part-time work as a feature writer for the Washington Post Magazine; to join a short-lived band, Star Nash; and to take guitar lessons from the Graverobbers’ Karl Straub. She showed Straub some of her songs; he contributed some ideas and soon helped her put together a group of players named in homage to the Band.
Although Battiata is wary of making it sound as if creating an album with her new band was “a big mess,” Cul-de-Sac Cowgirl did involve some logistical difficulties: The first eight tracks were produced and arranged by Battiata and Straub at Inner Ear Studios in Arlington, whereas the last four were produced and arranged by Battiata and Philip Stevenson at Stevenson’s Scary Clown Studios in Bethesda. In addition, the latter set of songs was made with a separate group of musicians. “They’re pretty different,” says Battiata of the two sessions, “and I think it was lucky that it held together as much as it did.”
Still, Battiata knows better than to aim for perfection with the next album—a lesson she says she learned from Stevenson. “He’s listened to a lot of old-time records,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be in perfect time…. It’s human to be a little out of tune; it’s human to have the time vary. I guess it’s like analog vs. digital, and he’s definitely on the analog side. And I think that’s really important in music. Because it seems like now there’s all these things like Pro Tools and all this equipment in the recording studio. They can isolate notes and they can move them.
“Somebody was telling me last night that on some record he recently played on, the bass player was so far ahead that it was driving everybody insane. So they just finished the session and they took each note and they moved it back. Each note the guy played! They can do that. And I don’t want to do that. And you have to really fight that.” She points at my $30 Sony tape recorder: “That’s like a thing of beauty, because it’s relatively simple.”
Simplicity is more than just a philosophy for Battiata. Although her physical condition is now stable, her activities are still limited. The nerve damage especially constrains her guitar playing, which in Little Pink involves strumming out a rhythm on her Danelectro. “I’m never gonna be a virtuoso,” she says. “I can’t practice guitar. Practicing a half-hour, an hour a day for me is out. I feel bad about that, ’cause I would like to get better.”
Still, she’s found that she doesn’t need to have an instrument in her hands all the time to compose: “I’m at the point where I can hear chords in my head, so I don’t even sometimes really have to play them; I can just hear and say, I know what that’ll do—which [Straub] actually told me would happen, and I didn’t believe him. But it happens—you can sort of hear.”
With a stable band lineup—Tom Kane on bass, Andy Rutherford on lead guitar, Brian McGuire on fiddle and backing vocals, and Evan Pollack on drums—and some 30 songs written, Battiata the musician looks forward to Little Pink’s next trip to the studio, even as her journalist side fears it. “The devil voice in my head keeps writing the reviews for the second one,” she says. “‘Sadly, the second record….’” Nonetheless, she’s confident about remaining true to her image of the next album: “I can hear exactly what I want it to sound like, and I’m excited about it, ’cause I really like a lot of the songs. It’s going to be a matter of focus.”
Focus, Battiata says, is one of the positive byproducts of her illness: “It simplifies my life in a lot of ways by eliminating a lot of things I can’t do. I tend to be kind of distracted, I want to do everything, and I’m sort of scattered. And it was kind of like a bit of a straitjacket or a fence, ’cause it really restricted what I could do. And that was a discipline in a way, a forced discipline.”
Of course, even discipline hasn’t gotten Battiata where she hoped to be right now. “I had thought I would record this summer and have everything done,” she says. “And that didn’t happen. I think, realistically, sometime this fall or winter I will make a record. But I think it’s gonna go fast this time. Because I want to be really well-prepared before we go in. I’m gonna do it in a different way. I’m gonna demo the things beforehand and know exactly what we’re gonna do.
“I mean, what everybody’s told me is, ‘Forget it, it’s always incredibly stressful to make a record, and you won’t make the mistakes you made last time’”—she laughs wryly—”‘you’ll just make a whole new bunch!’” —Pamela Murray Winters
Little Pink performs at 7:40 p.m. Sunday, June 23, at Carter Barron Amphitheatre, 4850 Colorado Ave. NW. For more information, call (202) 426-0486. The band also plays at 8 p.m. Thursday, June 27, at Jammin’ Java, 231 Maple Avenue East, Vienna. For more information, call (703) 255-1566.