Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

Marian McLaughlin wants to refer to herself as a folk artist. The Baltimore-based singer/songwriter cites her love of acoustic instrumentation and tendency toward storytelling through songwriting as her primary reasons for this desire; however, her music refuses to be confined to any single genre.

“I call it experimental folk music,” she says, “At the root of [my sound] is folk music because of the storytelling, but I would say experimental because it’s not really conventional songwriting.”

Pushing McLaughlin’s music even further away from a traditional folk sound are the string and woodwind arrangements from her collaborator Ethan Foote. “Through our collaboration we just had these visions for where the sound could go and we didn’t really want to stay in one genre or place,” McLaughlin says. “Instead, we wanted to explore all kinds of idioms and ideas.”

The resultant album, Spirit House, embodies this idea from start to finish. “I feel like each song is its own little spirit, each with its own different story,” she adds, “but that they were all kind of residing in the same place as my imagination.”

This isn’t to say, however, that the ten tracks on Spirit House have nothing to do with one another. For one, the omnipresence of McLaughlin’s voice and guitar provide an instrumental foundation to the album, and themes of nature and mysticism permeate her lyrics. Perhaps the best example of this can be seen throughout tracks “Even Magic Falters,” “Calm Canary of the Arctic Sea,” and “Will-o-the-Wisp.”

“Even Magic Falters” and “Will-o-the-Wisp” both deal with magic—either through an examination of the failures of various magicians or a discussion of a mysterious creature that leads travelers to their demise—and make use of quiet, contemplative guitar supplemented by Foote’s swelling arrangements. On the other hand, “Calm Canary of the Arctic Sea” starts off with a bouncy introduction reminiscent of circus music and centers around the ability of a whale which has learned to mimic the sounds of human speech. It’s a major stylistic jump,and it absolutely works.

Perhaps the only real problem with Spirit House is the fact that McLaughlin and Foote rarely get to perform the songs as they were written and recorded. “We went on a tour and it was just Ethan and me and a cellist,” McLaughlin recalls, “and Ethan was able to scale the arrangements back and still make them interesting for just the three of us.”

While McLaughlin is quick to point out that the songs are strong enough to stand on their own and to function in such a pared-down manner, her mentality is very much “the more the merrier.” To that effect, her performance at Capital Fringe tomorrow will feature a full chamber ensemble.

For McLaughlin, being able to perform her songs in such a grand manner is both exciting and exhausting. “Those shows where we’re working with a huge group are really rare and special occasions because they require so many logistics,” she says, “and it’s something that we put a lot of love and labor into.”

Because of the very labor-intensive nature of a show involving a full chamber ensemble, shows like this don’t come along very often for McLaughlin. So when the Pope’s visit back in September threatened to derail her performance, she adapted. “I’ve been looking forward to this show so much and then the Pope came to town, so I moved it,” she says. “I just didn’t want people to miss the opportunity to have a special exchange with us.”

Marian McLaughlin performs with a full chamber ensemble tomorrow at Capital Fringe, 1358-1360 Florida Ave. N.E. at 8 p.m. $15. 

Photo by Lang Kanai