Gun violence is a national public health epidemic that continues to get worse. So much so that since I started writing this there has already been another shooting – this time in Tulsa, Oklahoma at a hospital. Last week, the Uvalde, Texas elementary school shooting that left 19 children and two teachers dead. And a week before that, the Buffalo, New York supermarket shooting, a case of domestic terrorism in which the suspect sought out a Black neighborhood and killed ten people.
The “good guy with a gun” bromide rings more and more hollow with every shooting, which now averages out to be about ten a week.
Writer, actor, and musician Marla Mase started penning an anthem about this uniquely American and terrifying phenomenon way back in 2009 when she first began writing songs. Up to that point, she had been writing plays, solo shows, and monologues (which she still writes prolifically). “And then seemingly out of nowhere during a tough time in my life,” Marla opens up to me, “the songs started coming to me. It was a deluge of sorts and amidst all of it, smack dead center, was the phrase ‘There’s a boy over there he’s holding a gun.’ And I would repeat it over and over to myself. I couldn’t get it out of my head but that’s all I had.”
When songs, phrases, and stories come to Marla, she knows it’s a clarion call to duty she must heed. “A Gun” was one of those cases.
Often, mass shootings are committed by white males. She cites Columbine, Virginia Tech, Binghamton, A McDonald’s in San Diego as examples. Continuing, “a post office in Oklahoma, even the Oklahoma City bombing, to name a few – and I couldn’t help but think that there was something about the American message ‘that you can become anything you want as long as you work hard and believe in yourself’ that bred frustration, isolation, alienation and ultimately violence in certain vulnerable individuals. The violence seemed to me to be an outcry of rage, disappointment, obsessive thinking, grandiosity, self-hatred and a displaced attempt to be seen/to be heard/to prove worthiness. This is not to condone the behavior whatsoever, but it made me question where it may be coming from.”
It was in 2009 when she was also introduced to Tomás Doncker, now her True Groove Record label partner. “When a friend introduced me to Tomás as a potential songwriting partner and producer, we discussed my show A Brief Night Out and I sang my songs/sketches for him. ‘I have this other song but it’s not part of the show” I told him, and I sang him the riff “There’s a boy over there he’s holding a gun.” “That’s it. That’s all I got” I said to him. “Okay, let’s get back to that one at a later date.’ It became a thing over the years, one of those, ‘Oh yeah, here goes Marla again. There’s a boy over there…”
And so, she goes on to write four more albums with Tomás with that line playing on a loop inside her head. “Unbeknownst to him I was riffing/exploring that melodic phrase for years in what he jokingly referred to as ‘Marla’s Acoustic Explorations.’ I didn’t play the guitar at all and yet I discovered many of my songs from those explorations on the guitar I could not play. One night back in 2014, maybe 2015, I riffed on it for about 45 mins. Boys over there with guns (I was thinking at the time of child soldiers in Africa and what was going on in South Sudan, Central African Republic) – Boys over here with guns who want to be in gangs, boys who purchase guns to shoot up their schoolmates. The sexually abused girl who uses a gun to shoot her perpetrator. The kid who finally stands up to the bullies that have been tormenting them, and of course a citizen’s right to bear arms against a dangerous government. It’s not an easy subject, guns. It was during this exploration that I had found the song. Then I had forgotten about it. When Tomás and I started to work on my album Miracles~Lost & Found in 2015 I told him, ‘There’s a boy over there’ is going to be on this album.”
Marla directs attention to a gun culture inculcated in social norms. More importantly, she says the quiet part out loud by pointing out that it starts when we hand our babies toy guns. And lyrically and musically, there is a build-up starting there and ultimately ending with someone using a gun to they’re “invisible no more” if they take others down with them.
“When I first wrote the song I was thinking about child soldiers being given guns, but as I said, The song came to me. It had a mind and heart of its own. So sure, giving kids toy guns as presents, then perhaps later on they are given real guns as presents, then there’s the movies we watch… And yes, I think our obsession with Celebrity Culture is definitely a piece of it for sure. We all want to be seen/recognized. No one is good enough, rich enough, pretty enough, smart enough, tough enough, skinny enough (sha dooby) – because if we were we would be one of them. And if we are not, there’s no one to fault but ourselves. We failed. Social media has heightened this lack exponentially.
“Musically, Tomás slam dunked it. The melody, the build-up, the repetition – his arrangement gives me chills every time I hear it. It sounds exactly as it should sound. He has a gift for hearing the emotion in a song; and on top of that, he hears it as the artist hears it or is trying to express it. I remember when we were sketching out the rough demo in my house, I had this impossible-to-ignore feeling when I was singing the outro, that I was suddenly it from the point of view singing of the shooter. I felt I had been taken over/possessed. I felt their anger, their sadness, their sickness, their desperation: ‘Invisible No More.’ In fact, when we finished, I said to Tomás, ‘I had the weirdest feeling just now. It was like I became the mass shooter.” Then I looked at my phone. Breaking News: ‘The Mass Shooting at the Eagles of Death Metal at Bataclan concert hall in Paris.’ Coincidence? We literally were writing/finishing the song as the shooting was taking place. And again, I had that strange feeling come over me.”
Her immediate reaction to the recent Texas tragedy was a combination of anger and sadness. “No more. I don’t want to read/hear any more about how people kill people, not guns, and that AR-15s (AK-15s) are not Assault Rifles. And that there is no such thing as an assault rifle or any of that bullshit. I wasn’t even angry at the killer this time. He is a victim, too. Not that I support or forgive what he did in any way whatsoever – but enough is enough. These shooters exist; what are we going to do about it? We are all complicit.
“I’ve been seeing signs saying just that all over the place in Brooklyn where I live. Little altars popping up with candles with those words on placards or chalked on to the sidewalks at the entrances to parks, restaurants, graffitied on to the sides of buildings. I saw one hanging from the traffic light on the corner from where I live and quite honestly that was my first feeling, too.
“We are all responsible for the deaths of those children. For not somehow making the changes necessary to prevent this from happening or to even have a chance at preventing it from happening. I lost my adult child (24 years old) to suicide a few years ago and I know the devastation that happens to a family when you lose a child – and to lose a young innocent elementary school age child to murder, to be gunned down while at school… is incomprehensible, unfathomable. The despair is irreparable. I also feel enormous grief for the parents of the shooters – what must be like? It’s a 360 degree tragedy.
“I wish I could say I was optimism, that I believe there will be changes in our gun laws, in making it more difficult to purchase a gun, something anything, (background checks, licenses, minimum age requirements, no criminal record of violence or abuse, character references, etc etc etc ) but honestly, I am not. Right now, it feels to me like this country is in a Cold Civil War. So much of life sits in the gray, but clearly we need to make significant changes. And that clarity is crystal. It is not gray at all.”
In addition to Marla’s punk-infused, rock and roll-style alto, the personnel on the track add emotional depth, not least of which is a melodic string arrangement toward the end. “Each member of The True Groove All-Stars is a beast. Under the musical direction of Tomás and the engineering wizardry of James Dellatacoma (they produced the song), ‘A Gun’ became one of the band’s favorite songs to perform. James played the hypnotic guitar solo. Marika Hughes, an incredible Cellist who was in the original cast band of Hadestowndid the string arrangement which is the emotional heartbeat of the track and turns it from a song into an anthem.”
Of the strong creative chemistry between her and Tomás, Marla expresses, “He respects what I bring to him and if he’s not sure about a lyric or the tone of a piece, he’ll let me know. I listen to what he says and make adjustments. Conversely, if I’m adamant about something and can prove to him musically/thematically why he needs to be there, he will hear me out. -When it came to ‘A Gun’ the key that opened the song up to us was when we listened to those acoustic explorations of mine – the ones that I had done six months prior and we found it. The moment when I said, ‘1 down, 2 down, 3 down, 4. Invisible no more.’ When we heard that, we both looked at each other and knew exactly how the song went. Then he picked up his guitar and the magic began. I love how the song turned out. To this day it’s one of my favorites. We performed at SXSW in 2017 and ‘A Gun’ was touted in some list as being one of the best songs in the festival.”
The video was shot at Glass Bottle Beach in Brooklyn. “It’s a beach off of Jamaica Bay that is literally strewn with thousands of pieces of broken glass brought there from the early 1900s and on. There is not one single spot on the sand that is not covered with 2-4 inches of glass. There are a couple of abandoned boats, too. I thought it was a great metaphor for the brokenness – of the country, the shooters, the lost lives, the children — dangerous, fragile and beautiful. It’s a fascinating place, and I just read it is now closed to the public due to high levels of radium/radioactive garbage.”
Horror movie cult icon Dylan Mars Greenberg directed the video. “She was 19 or 20 at the time when she shot it, and she already had at least four feature films under her belt and in distribution. It’s a very different style than her usual work which has been influenced by her work with Lloyd Kaufman of Troma Films and her love of B-Kitschy Horror Films. Tomás and I are the executive producers on her upcoming film Spirit Riser. Dylan is a genius, no doubt.”
By her estimation, much of her work is eerily timely. “I don’t want it to be. I don’t even know what I’m writing sometimes, especially when something is “given” to me (or comes to me). When I know why I’m writing something it’s different, but so much of my work from the past 20 or so years has a backdrop of impending fascism. My main character (Is it me? No, not really, perhaps, I don’t know) is neurotic, paranoid, her fears seem ridiculous, and so the audience laughs. I have a dark sense of humor – and then suddenly what I have written to pass and suddenly no one is laughing anymore. Instead, I have friends texting me, especially lately, ‘Holy shit Marla you predicted all this years ago.’ Even the death of my daughter. When Covid hit I said I am not writing anything about any of this anymore, absolutely no free flow, because it’s the free flow where what wants to come out, to be heard, finds the opening. I said, ‘Nope, not this time, this time I’m not letting you speak.’
“As far as ‘A Gun’ is concerned it wasn’t really prescience, because these shootings have been happening for a long time now. I am aware of the problem, but it’s the emotion behind the song that doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to the circumstance, to the underbelly. It belongs to all of us.”