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Bribe Your Children!

Folkie Mary Bue walks the city streets after coming down from the lake country

Folkie Mary Bue walks the city streets after coming down from the lake country

Mary Bue
Boat with No Oars
Cephalopod Records

When I was ten years old, a friend and I had exhausted our typical conversation of whether Fiddle Faddle was superior to Screaming Yellow Zonkers when he turned to me and asked: "How much do you think is a lot of money?" Stunned by the esoteric depth of his question, I mulled it over for some time, carefully weighing all the contextual and relative arguments. I eventually responded with, "Twenty dollars. That's a lot of money."

The idea of more than three times that amount suddenly landing in my scrawny little hands would have boggled my Strawberry Quik-addled mind. I imagine Mary Bue was equally gobsmacked when in the fourth grade her mom bribed her with a lump sum payment of $75 to take piano lessons, with the promise that the windfall would be repeated annually.

My god, the power a fourth-grader could wield with an annual salary of $75!

I've always been a big fan of the bribe. It recently whisked me across the border from Argentina to Brazil without a visa—and now I find it's given us Mary Bue. The fourth-grader who didn't particularly want to practice the piano has grown into a 25-year-old singer-songwriter whose passion for music has more than paid off any bad karma her conniving mom may have stirred up. The recent Duluth transplant's newest album, Boat with No Oars, is an ambitious and convincing work of moody, melancholy, and sometimes spiteful ballads that evoke the brooding mystery of the big lake she misses so much. Although the maturity and depth of her work suggest a musician who is comfortable with her art, Bue says the album's title reflects the vulnerability that still fuels her songwriting process.

"Ancient Celtic monks used to get on boats with no oars and just go, and just trust that they'd be taken care of, or if they died, that would be God's will. And I was like, 'Wow, that's exactly like what I'm doing.'"

A compact little bundle of energy topped with spiky brown hair, Bue is a woman who speaks with such intensity and urgency about her craft that it is hard to believe there was ever a time when music wasn't deeply rooted in her core. Often compared to Sarah McLachlan's, Bue's songs have more weight, and more grit mixed in with the ethereal wisps. When she sings, "He comes in the night/Just like a ghost tapping outside your door" on the aptly titled "Gorgeous," she lets her voice strain, swelling quickly to an intensity that overwhelms her aggressive piano work. It's intimate yet intimidating, and Bue makes it work.

"This album is a lot more fleshed out," Bue says of her third full release. "There's a lot more instrumentation. It took about a year and a half, and I put a lot of thought into it."

Even though she cobbled together an impressive collection of players to help fill out Boat with No Oars, Bue says she prefers to play solo, and it shows on songs like "My Sweet Warrior." In just over one minute, Bue somehow manages to steal you away for the moment with nothing but her explosive vocals and a muddy acoustic guitar.

"I've thought, What if my mom never bribed me? What would I do to fill that? How would I express myself?" Bue says. "There is something magical about this. When I find a song that clicks, I just want to play it over and over and over."