Tucson Portraits: Mariah McCammond

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Photo by Nicci Radhe

by Bob Hanshaw
Contributing Writer

 

Mariah is more than first meets the eye.

Yes, she’s a harpist who plays at the street fair, at Café Passe, at the Temple of Music and Art. She’s a violinist who plays with Michael Huerta and Jessa Cordova’s band Ex-Cowboy. She’s jammed with Cadillac Mountain, performed at the Red Room. And she is, perhaps foremost, a luthier – one of only two women currently practicing the craft in Tucson. She’s spent time as an apprentice of Marco Rosano, among many others, and now runs the massive instrument-repair operation at Bookmans.

But it’s the story of how she got here that is the real marvel. McCammond worked her way up from the very bottom in every one of these pursuits, after having abandoned music almost entirely for ten years of her life: “It’s always been this incredibly slow, slow climb back. Not a single step of it has been easy.” We can all be grateful for her persistence, because she’s now one of the most interesting (and bullheaded) musicians in Tucson today – and one of the most prolific, and versatile, instrument repairpersons we’ve got.

 

 

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Photo courtesy of Mariah McCammond

STARTING OVER

 

McCammond had a highly musical childhood. She started the violin in the 4th grade, “like everybody else,” and gradually added upright bass, viola, and guitar to her arsenal (the latter just a “passing fancy”) by the time she was in high school. But things took a sudden turn. “I dropped out of high school [and] I stopped playing at all,” she says. “I got into a long-term relationship that turned into a marriage, and I just stopped doing anything that was artistic. All I really did was sing in the shower, and in the car, and whenever I was alone. But I think continuing to sing like that was… kind of the only thing that kept me sane.”

That marriage fell apart – ten years after McCammond had quit music. It happened, in part, because she finally recognized that a crucial part of her was missing, “and I wasn’t OK with that.” That’s when she turned to luthiery as a way back.

“I started working at Southwest Strings… just as a normal sales employee, and I didn’t think I would ever play again… I had lost too much time and too much confidence. [But] I was looking for ways to make music a part of my life again, without thinking that I was ever going to perform it.”

From sales, McCammond fell into luthiery almost by accident. “So I started getting interested in the fine instruments and the fine bows there, and asking lots of questions… I just kind of randomly, offhand, mentioned to a violinmaker that used to come in a lot, that I was kind of interested in that, and what does it actually take to learn to do that? And he essentially ended up stealing me as his apprentice.” That would be Cy Amesquita, of the old Tucson violinmaking firm Blum & Amesquita. She apprenticed with Amesquita for a year, before the economy tanked and her teacher “had to close [the shop] entirely and [move] to Oklahoma or something to work in a bigger shop for somebody else.”

(Amesquita is now doing well in Omaha, NB, and once again runs his own violinmaking company.)

“So that was my initial training. And at that time, I was not really playing.” It took quite a while for McCammond to regain comfort with the violin, the instrument that she “knew that I once knew how to play.” She had taken intermittent lessons, but the anxiety was too much. “I had basically been told that if I couldn’t stop being afraid, that that was never going to happen.”

“I somehow developed incredible stage fright,” McCammond admits. “I think understandably so, but more so than I’ve heard [from] other people who’ve put it down for that long [and started again]… I was fearless when I was a kid, but somehow something got tweaked.”

McCammond had to keep turning to repair work as her musical outlet. And her stubbornness began to show: “I spent like 9 months on unemployment, essentially waiting to be able to get another music store job” after Blum & Amesquita went down. She found one at Beaver’s Band Box – back at square one. “I was originally hired there as just another 2-bit salesperson.”

But Mariah soon started helping out in the repair shop there, eventually taking on most of the violin work from head luthier Chris Giambelluca (whose training was in guitar luthiery). She also apprenticed with Marco Rosano, a mainstay of Tucson music, working on band instruments: woodwinds and brass. “I was fascinated with how mechanized everything was,” she says, which drove her to learn how to fix them. And also, “there’s more work to be had.”

Not enough to keep Beaver’s Band Box alive. That beloved Tucson music store “met with a rather anticipated end” in 2011. “I got a call on a Sunday afternoon that was like ‘You have 2 hours to come down and get your stuff. You’re not getting paid.’ Yeah, it was a disaster.”

She had, by that time, gained a very broad skill set in instrument repair. Bookmans, the very successful local used-book chain, had just begun selling used instruments as well – which meant that they needed someone to repair all the broken and unloved instruments that started coming in. And Mariah turned out to be a perfect fit. But that’s getting ahead of the story, because by this time, she’d also come back around to the violin.

 

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Photo by Nicci Radhe

MOURNFUL, JOYFUL VIOLIN

“I had come from this really heavily classical background, and working in the violin shop, Blum & Amesquita, most of our clientele were classical musicians. And I was not one of them anymore, and it was obvious. At the time, it just reinforced my concept that I wasn’t going to perform again.” But when McCammond moved to Beaver’s, she was “surrounded by all these people in bands,” who made her reexamine the way she related to music. They played “rock music and folk music and dance band stuff,” genres she had never given any consideration to, and they ultimately convinced her to pick her instrument back up. “My very first show since I was a kid was in the Red Room, in front of probably the most intimidating group of musicians I could possibly have played in front of. I shook the whole way through, it was completely terrifying, and I guess I never looked back after that.”

She started going to barbeques and campfires with a community of musicians and ended up in the bluegrass open-mic scene for a while, particularly with the local bluegrass powerhouse Cadillac Mountain. “I love those boys, and they taught me a lot about how to just be on stage, and how to not know what’s coming and be OK with it.” Still, she’s never been a bluegrass player as such: “Bluegrass is all about… all this frilly, technical stuff, and I am an emotive, smooth, mournful kind of player.”

That must have caught the ear of Michael Huerta. McCammond met Huerta “at a backyard barbeque, I don’t remember which one.” He started asking her to sit in with him, and eventually asked her to play on his band Ex-Cowboy’s debut album. “We just kind of clicked… I have a lot of respect for Michael, I like Jessa [Cordova] immensely.” The band’s lineup had been fluid up through the album’s release – familiar Tucson faces like Jimmy Borquez, Petie Ronstadt, Logan Greene, and RayBear Borboa all played in Ex-Cowboy at one time or another – but after the release show, it solidified, with Huerta, Cordova and McCammond joining Ian Williams on upright bass, Chris Halvorsen on drums, and Nick Hoenig on guitar.

Mariah has found her voice in the ensemble, a violinist again after all those years.

 

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Photo courtesy of Mariah McCammond

A DOGGEDLY ORIGINAL HARPIST

She has another musical outlet now, too – something that had lain dormant, even when she was so instrumentally prolific as a kid. “I’ve always, always had a fascination with harp, but it’s always been this thing like ‘that’s got to be really hard’… You have to be crazy to play that instrument.” She laughs. “Which I’m actually sure is verifiably true.”

McCammond finally came around to acting on that fascination while she was working at Bookmans. “I was sorting a lot of instruments [that came in]… and we got this little, teeny, teeny-tiny harp, it was like an octave and a half maybe, and I’m playing with it, and I’m like ‘this is so cool.’” She got the itch then. And a friend of hers mentioned, while they were talking about this new-blossomed love, that she happened to have a Celtic lap harp that she wasn’t using. She offered it to McCammond.

“So I brought it home and I wrote a song.” McCammond’s approach to the harp is completely unorthodox: “I didn’t want to know anything about how you’re supposed to play harp… What happens if it’s just me and the instrument?” Maybe this was a reaction against the heartache that followed her recovery from classical violin training, or maybe it was just her fierce creative spirit fighting its way to the surface. In any case, “I just [sat] down with the instrument and we [started] to get to know each other.”

She had a small crisis of faith about 6 months into the experiment. “I found out… that I actually had it on the wrong shoulder. As a violinist, it felt right to put it on my left shoulder, it felt right for me to be able to see my right hand in front of my face, to see the fingers of my left hand… that’s how I wanted it, that’s how I liked it to be. Turns out that was wrong.” She laughs. “I still play it on my left shoulder.”

It’s a thumb in the eye of convention. Mariah’s increasing confidence is playing out in many ways like that. “[I want] to get people to see the harp in a different way,” she says. Not as elevator music, not as the instrument that sits silently in the orchestra “for 62 bars, and then goes ‘vrrrrrum’! And then sits there for another 62 bars.” McCammond wants to play in bars, the way harp music is viewed in traditional Ireland, for example. “It’s much more of a barroom kind of instrument.”

McCammond’s style is utterly homegrown. “A lot of what I do is rhythmic and more aggressive.” She avoided listening to any harp music for the first year that she played, until she was “confident enough in this vision and this style” to withstand it. So she listened to shoegaze, she listened to Mirah, to just about everything else. And crafted hours of original music to play, learning new techniques as she went along. “[I thought], I’m going to teach myself this instrument by writing songs.”

 

RESURRECTING INSTRUMENTS; SALVATION AT THE BENCH

For all that she’s doing plenty of interesting work in music, McCammond’s first love is luthiery. “Even if I had the opportunity to just play music and make a living from it, I could never walk away from repairing. It brings me a sense of calm that nothing else does.”

But it’s not an easy lifestyle. “I was warned from the very beginning that trying to balance playing and repairing was a challenge.”

The instruments she plays require a lot of practice to maintain the necessary strength and conditioning. The harp, in particular, is a brutally physical instrument. “If I don’t practice regularly, I won’t be able to get through a 2-hour gig. I’d be collapsing, because of the tension of pulling on the strings.”

And then there’s the instruments she works on. “Repairing band instruments means I have to maintain a rudimentary, base-level embouchure for at least five instruments… I have to be able to play them well enough to detect problems.” Add to that the high risk of injury incumbent on repair techs, and you have a recipe for disaster – or, at least, great discomfort. Sharp springs, grinding stones, various blades, stuck pipes, all waiting patiently to carve up your fingers, and if you want to play, you play through the pain. But it’s all worth it for McCammond. As she has found her voice on the violin and harp, so too she has found her place amid Tucson’s luthiers.

“When I got to Bookmans, they had nothing. I started on a folding table with my own traveling toolkit… but now it’s an actual shop in an actual room. I knew nothing about… how to build a shop from scratch, and they obviously didn’t know either, because they sell books. They were just like, ‘Well, build us a shop!’ And so, slowly and precariously, that’s what I did.” She now has James Tanguey, previously of the Folk Shop, to help with fretted-instrument repairs. “And I repair instruments for 6 stores. I’ve never seen so much work in my entire life.”

“Working in a ‘real’ repair shop, I never, ever saw the stuff that I see at Bookmans,” she continues. “I mean, I’m resurrecting stuff from the dead on a pretty regular basis. [It’s] an entirely different skill set.”

But she wouldn’t trade it for the world. Fine violins or foul, neglected band instruments – it all clicks.

“I love fixing things… When I’m sitting at my bench, it doesn’t matter what else is going on in my life, or in the world. I get to escape to a place where things make sense to me. There have been a lot of days where that’s really saved me.”

 

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Photo by Nicci Radhe

UP FROM NOTHING

McCammond heads an instrument repair shop now, 7 years after she first came to Southwest Strings looking for a way to put music back in her life. She’s dealt with multiple shops closing down around her and come back fighting. As a musician, she’s battled the demons of classical convention and forged her own style on two demanding instruments. Clearly, she’s found a way to make it all work.

So the next time you pick up that odd instrument from Bookmans, remember that Mariah probably worked on it. And give a little thanks to the ones who won’t give up.

~

Bob Hanshaw 01Bob Hanshaw is a writer and musician based in Tucson. He plays bass for Sun Bones. You can follow #TucsonPortraits on Facebook here.

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