As seen in
Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 22 – Winter 2022
Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer have achieved a lot in 35 years of making music. Since the beginning of their careers, they have been lauded with innumerable awards — including a few GRAMMYs — and performed for and with some incredible names. They are heavily involved in children’s music camps and mentor young musicians on making a career out of music.
In their interview, Fink reflects on their career, talks about their instruments, and discusses their album ALL NEW, which was recently released in collaboration with Tom Paxton.
The two of you have had an incredible career over the last 35 years. You’ve won two GRAMMYs, over 60 WAMMIEs, and entertained the Queen of Thailand, just to name a few. Does a particular achievement (or a few) stand out as memorable?
The most memorable things in our career are often the least commercial or public things. Yes, we’ll ALWAYS remember winning our first GRAMMY Award. But we’ll ALWAYS remember some of the private but really important times when our music has changed other people’s lives. That includes kids and teens we’ve mentored and people who have asked us to sing a favorite song at a child’s memorial or at their parents’ memorials. It includes building musical communities through ukulele and banjo and harmony singing. We’ve been incredibly rich in experiences throughout the U.S., Canada, Israel, Palestine, South Africa, Japan, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Canada, and more. But what lasts the longest are the moments when our music or work makes someone else’s life better.
You both play a plethora of instruments. Who can play what instruments, and is there an instrument that you want to learn but haven’t yet?
Marcy plays over 50 instruments really well and dabbles at another handful. Her strengths include acoustic and electric guitar, mandolin, ukulele, cello banjo, tenor banjo, cittern, hammered dulcimer, Latin percussion, various flutes and pennywhistles, world music percussion, and on and on. She’s a pretty good steelpan player too.
My specialty is old-time banjo, both clawhammer style and fingerpicking. Add rhythm guitar and ukulele. Socially, I also play fiddle and mandolin in jam sessions.
When it comes to stringed instruments, what’s your go-to for strings and other gear?
For strings, we’ve been endorsing and using GHS strings for over 30 years. For other gear, there’s a wide variety. We really like Fishman products, and the Fishman Loudbox is one of the handiest things we’ve ever used. Marcy’s got a few electric guitar amps she loves including a Fender Twin Reverb.
We both play guitars by Grit (William) Laskin, Martin Guitars (we each have signature Martin models), and a Santa Cruz OM. I play a 1953 Gibson L4 for Swing and Jazz, and Marcy plays a 1960s L50. She also plays a 1990s electric Gibson L4 which was her main touring guitar for a long time.
Marcy has several custom electric guitars made by Steve Dikkers — one a pink sparkle bass and the other a silver sparkle Telecaster style. She’s also got a pink Big Tex that Bill Kirchen recommended for her.
There’s a ukulele for every occasion — Kala made a signature Marcy Marxer model that we love, and Ohana made a signature Baritone Uke that is awesome. We also play ukes by Tyde, Collings, Ken Franklin, and Pat Megowan. And it goes on!!!!!
How and when did you start playing music together?
We met in July of 1980 at the Toronto Folk Festival. Cathy played solo at the time, and Marcy was in an all-female string band called the Bosom Buddies Stringband. We were in a few workshops together and did a lot of late-night jamming. For the next few years, we did a lot of visiting, booked some gigs together, and after a few years realized that we wanted to commit to playing as a duo. About 40 years have gone by with no regrets.
Tell me about your new album with Tom Paxton, ALL NEW, which is a whopping 28 tracks long. Has this been in the works for a long time?
We have worked with Tom Paxton for many years on various projects and on tour. We’ve toured together twice in the U.K. and done lots of U.S. shows together. We’ve produced several of Tom’s albums, including his first GRAMMY nomination for Your Shoes, My Shoes. We are also close friends and only live about 30 minutes from each other. Tom and I had co-written a few songs together in the past, but when the pandemic locked us down, we began a weekly zoom co-writing appointment. Over 40 songs were written during that time, and we chose these 28 for the album. We continue writing weekly and there are some great, even newer songs than ALL NEW.
Tell me about the writing process for ALL NEW.
Tom and I get on Zoom and one or the other of us usually has a starting place for a song. Then we brainstorm lines, rhymes, storylines, etc. For ALL NEW we had several agendas — one was to write a batch of “Community” songs. Good for a community chorus, community sing, or Unitarian congregation! We want people to get together and sing. We also wanted to write some Bluegrass songs. And for a while, I got obsessed with female outlaws of the old west (Eleanor Dumont, Stagecoach Mary, The Pearl of Arizona).
After recording ALL NEW live in the studio, we got together the following week as usual. I said, “Tom, are there any more songs left in us?” We then proceeded to write a wonderful “Simple Little Ukulele Song” full of fun and rhymes.
Did working with Tom feel different than when it’s just the two of you making music together? Were there any challenges?
We all work together really well. Marcy and I are together 24/7, especially during the pandemic. But our friendship with Tom is long and strong, and we make music together quite naturally. I generally sing a harmony lower than Tom and Marcy sings a higher harmony. I’ll play banjo or Baritone Guitar and Marcy will play lead mandolin or guitar or cittern or whatever is needed! Tom’s a true joy to work with. The real challenge for ALL NEW was the large number of songs. We agreed that we’d use lyric sheets and notes to take the pressure off of there being so much material. And we added a fabulous band; Kimber Ludiker on fiddle and mandolin (from Della Mae) and Alex Lacquement on bass and harmonica. Tom hasn’t worked with full bands that often, and we all loved it.
You’ve toured all over the world. Do you have a favorite tour destination?
We had amazing experiences in China, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, and Vanuatu while touring as cultural ambassadors for the U.S. Department of State. We collaborated with musicians in each location, got to meet locals, and saw parts of the world that we may have never seen. We’ve toured Japan four times and hope we get to return. We made friends there that are like family. The experiences in these travels are all colored by the people we meet and the relationships we build. In Vanuatu, we did the first big children’s and family concert they had ever had. It was at a wonderful community children’s library that also serves as a preschool and community center, all housed in one small shipping container. The concert was outdoors, and 300 people came and sang along. When we came home, we collected over 500 children’s books for that library system and convinced the State Department to ship them to the library.
You recently had the screening of your musical film All Wigged Out about Marcy’s breast cancer journey. Can you share with us more about that film and the screening which was held in October for Breast Cancer Awareness Month?
Marcy was diagnosed with breast cancer in the late summer of 2015. We learned a lot during Marcy’s five years of treatment. We also laughed a lot and found ways to cope, advocate, and insist that we get what we needed from the doctors. All along, Marcy was creating hilarious iPad art that not only told her story but gained a huge following on social media from friends and other cancer patients. I knew there was an important story here that was unique enough from other cancer stories to create a theater piece. We collaborated with our friend Andy Offutt Irwin, a marvelous storyteller and comedian, and worked on the script on several multi-day sessions. Then we did staged readings, got feedback, and went back and worked on it some more. The show got into the D.C. Capital Fringe Festival, but that event was canceled due to COVID. As COVID went on and on, I realized that we might do this storytelling in a different way that could reach more people — film it. That led to a conversation with Scott Silberstein at the Emmy Award-winning production company HMS Media in Chicago, which led us to director Tracy Walsh. We worked with Tracy to edit and tighten the show, added a band, rehearsed for a month, raised $85K through GoFundMe, and just kept working on it. I entered the film into film festivals, and it won quite a few awards.
We’ve been screening the film at film festivals as well as music festivals, museums, and healthcare organizations. Several screenings have had post-film discussions with us and a member of a Cancer Support Community such as Gilda’s Club. The American Nurses Association made the film available to their entire membership nationwide for Breast Cancer Awareness Month and did two Zoom discussion/Q&As with us.
We now have a distributor, and the film will become available EVERYWHERE in the spring of 2023. Meantime, folks can get on our email list via our website, www.cathymarcy.com to get the latest on the film and our other activities. And there’s a tab on the website for ALL WIGGED OUT with the trailer and more information. Plus, we’ll be releasing a cast album. And if anyone reading this works with an organization that wants to screen the film and have us come do some live music and Q&A, give us a holler at firstname.lastname@example.org. It’s been quite the adventure!
You two are constantly busy. What’s up next?
We’ve just recently gotten back to touring some and presenting live concerts. We did a fabulous show with our alter ego band, The Swing Sisters, a six-piece all-female swing band. The next week we performed Cathy & Marcy’s Family Music Party at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage. We’re producing a few albums in 2023 for other artists. I have a grant to do an album of original songs that have never been a fit in our duo shows, but of course, Marcy will be involved. PegheadNation.com just released my course on the guitar playing of Mother Maybelle Carter, and in 2023, Marcy will finally get around to an instructional video series on playing the cello banjo.
We’re also really excited to be touring a new show, “From China To Appalachia,” with our friend Chao Tian. Chao is a master classical Chinese Hammered Dulcimer (Yangqin) player. We’ve been invited onto the roster for Mid-Atlantic Arts for the 2023-2024 season. We have a blast together, and it’s another opportunity for cultural diplomacy.