Well-grounded in rock and roll Music: Mary Cutrufello sticks to classic forms because they work for her -- and for the characters in her songs.

September 05, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Mary Cutrufello pretty much grew up on rock and roll.

"I can't overestimate how important the radio was for me as kid," says the 27-year-old singer and guitarist. "It wasn't just rock and roll -- it was rock and roll on the radio, and being 13, 14, 15 years old, lying on your back on your bed with the headphones on, just listening to rock radio."

Growing up around New York City, rock and roll radio for Cutrufello meant WNEW, a station whose focus was on tough, heartfelt, traditional rock and roll -- the music of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Bob Seger and their ilk. It was the sort of station that encouraged a belief in the power of rock and roll, and that meant a lot to the young Cutrufello.

"It was like a feeling of being connected to all of the other rock and roll faithful out there in the metro area," she says. "And that was a really big thing for me, as a kid trying to figure out who I was, and how I fit in, and where I belonged.

"Rock radio was important to me as far as giving me a sense that there were other people out there that felt the same way I did and liked the same things that I liked, and we were all members of the big rock and roll community."

Cutrufello is still seeking that sense of community, but these days, it comes not from listening to the radio, but from being onstage. After spending several years in Houston, playing in bars and honing her chops, she was signed to Mercury Records (by the same scout who signed Hanson) and has just released her first album, "When the Night Is Through." Already, she's earned raves from the New York Times and has performed on "The Tonight Show."

It's quite an achievement -- particularly since, as a teen-ager, Cutrufello never imagined that she, too, would be one day making rock and roll records.

Although she started playing guitar at age 7, Cutrufello says she took making music for granted. "It never really dawned on me that I was maybe more invested in it than other kids," she says. "I figured everybody just kind of went home and played along with the radio."

It wasn't until her junior year at Yale, where she was an American Studies major, that Cutrufello realized music was more than just a hobby for her. "I figured I'd be a teacher when I went off to college," she says. "But as my time at Yale progressed, I realized that music was really what I should be spending my life doing."

Unlike a lot of musicians her age, Cutrufello feels no particular urge to keep up with the current fashions in music. There's no alterna-rock angst in her songs, no grunge guitar, hip-hop samples or drum 'n' bass breakbeats. What she plays stays in the same traditionalist vein as the music she grew up on.

Cutrufello sticks with the old-time rock and roll because those forms still work. "I mean, you listen to [Tom Petty's] 'Refugee,' which we've all heard way too many times," she says. "That song was built to last. There's something about that song that works even though you've heard it a million times."

More than that, though, Cutrufello says she goes after a big, dramatic rock and roll sound because that's what the songs themselves demand.

"The characters in the songs are into that sort of thing, too," she says. "When it came time to make the record, we certainly wanted to give the characters in them the best arrangements and the best production that we could. Because I think they deserved it.

"I mean, they're laying their lives on the line in those songs, you know?" she says, laughing. "They deserve a good soundtrack."

Characters are at the heart of Cutrufello's songs, and she takes justifiable pride in how true-to-life the protagonists in such songs as "She Can't Let Go" or "Sad, Sad World" seem.

"I think what's important is that you create a character that people recognize," she says. "You know, so that it's: 'Oh, yeah, I know that girl. She works at my office.' Or, 'I go to happy hour every Thursday at the sports bar, and that guy's always out there, drinking one too many Bud Lights.'

"If you're creating people that folks know when they hear the song, it doesn't really matter if they're actually about somebody. That's not even the point. The point is if we're getting at things that are more universal."

Going for the universal means that Cutrufello herself is seldom the focus of the songs. "I mean, it's not supposed to be the Mary Cutrufello Show, 'What do you think about my life?' " she says. "My life is just not that interesting."

What is interesting to her is what people do when they're placed in situations that test their faith, their judgment or their mettle. "Their 'fulcrum moment,' I like to call it," she says. "They have to make a decision, because things have just become untenable, and then you see what they're going to do. I mean, not everybody in the songs does stuff that I would recommend.

"I think it's really important that [a character] is just not a sketch of somebody. I mean, they're supposed to be real people."

Mary Cutrufello

What: A pre-Ravens game "tailgate" show

When: 11: 30 a.m. tomorrow (doors open at 10: 30 a.m.)

Where: Eight by Ten Club, 10 E. Cross St.

Tickets: Free

Call: 410-625-2000

Sundial: To hear excerpts from Mary Cutrufello's new release, "When the Night Is Through," call Sundial at 410-783-1800 and enter the code 6214. For other local Sundial numbers, see the directory on Page 2B.

Pub Date: 9/05/98

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