[Photo courtesy of Laura Koeppel. Used by permission.]
When you listen to Mary Zimmer, it’s easy to get lost in the voice that runs from ethereal croons to relentless gutturals. But Zimmer is more than her voice. Working with bands like Luna Mortis, White Empress, and presently Santa Marta, she knows the ins and outs and ups and downs of the record industry, and she’s walked a long hard road to get where she is today.
Zimmer was born in Illinois’ Great Naval Hospital. The daughter of a military family, Zimmer moved about quite a bit, but finally settled in Wisconsin when her father retired when she was a teenager. Despite her incredible voice and range, she wasn’t a natural-born singer. She performed in local theater and musical productions. She was often asked to sing in those productions, but says of it, “I hated having to sing. My voice was rather large and unwieldy, and I was using it a lot but I didn’t get good at it until later. I think kids get put off singing because they don’t realize it’s something they can actually learn and get better at.”
It wasn’t until Zimmer was around 17 that she started to realize she was able to sing. Since she started school young, she was just entering college at that time and was approached by a group of much older musicians about singing for their metal band.
Being that it was the 90s, metal wasn’t in mainstream rock radio and Zimmer was listening to punk and grunge at the time. She didn’t know anything about metal. “I didn’t know much metal other than Dream Theater and Tool,” she says. But the band told her, ‘If you want to be in this band, you need to know what you’re getting into.’ The band started giving her tapes by a wide range of metal bands including Nightwish, Candiria, and Megadeth. Zimmer fell in love with what she was hearing. “I felt like I opened the door to some secret world that was so amazing,” she says.
But that wasn’t the first revelation Zimmer had in her early introduction to the metal world. When Zimmer heard bands like At The Gates and Carcass, she heard something she found so incredible, she had to stop the music to absorb it. Gutturals. “This is the most intense feelings anyone can emote. There’s no vocals that can give those emotions like these harsh vocals,” thought Zimmer. But how could she reproduce these sounds? “There was no Melissa Cross at the time,” notes Zimmer, so she had to experiment with sounds and rely on what she knew from her classical training to try and figure it out. She even took the recordings to her 72-year-old opera coach, who, while keeping an open mind to the music, could not determine how those sounds were made. Seeing Angela Gossow sing for Arch Enemy was a further inspiration for Zimmer. “I’ve never seen a woman do it [the gutturals], so that confirmed it. I didn’t know screams could be genderless,” she says. Zimmer kept working on her gutturals, and when Melissa Cross started releasing her instructional videos, she was excited that what she assumed had been the proper technique was validated.
[Photo courtesy of Dollface Photography. Used by permission.]
Zimmer’s college band didn’t last very long, but soon she moved on to start playing with another metal band, Ottoman Empire, who later changed their name to Luna Mortis. A DIY band, Luna Mortis worked hard doing aggressive mailings and bookings and soon caught the attention of Monte Conner, who did A&R for Roadrunner records. The band had an ongoing relationship with Roadrunner and did some demos for the label, but never ended up signing a deal with them. Zimmer speculates that this may have had something to do with the label’s buyout by Warner Brothers as well as some skepticism towards a female fronted metal band.
However, by that time there was enough interest in Luna Mortis that they were quickly picked up by Century Media and did a record on that label, although the band was eventually dropped. Zimmer is vague about the details surrounding why the band got dropped. “It had to do with the ins and outs of the record business and I don’t want to talk about that and say things I shouldn’t say,” she says.
Luna Mortis disbanded soon after. Even though they could have returned to being a successful DIY band, Zimmer says, “Things happened that stagnated our ability to continue.” Zimmer then goes on to mention substance abuse problems prevalent in certain band member, which caused main songwriter Brian Keoning to call it a day.
The Luna Mortis experience left all the members feeling jaded, and Zimmer stepped out of the music industry for a couple of years. It was during this time she had her appendix removed. Bored during her recovery period, she started making an artist profile for herself, archiving Luna Mortis media. When she was feeling better, she decided to do a show, performing covers at a local bar with nearby musicians. Although the gig was just a fun way for Zimmer to get back onstage, she was surprised to see she packed the club and got an amazing response.
Her return to the spotlight was enough for her to catch the attention of Paul Allendar. Allendar was working with Cradle of Filth at the time and asked if she would be interested in working with that project. Zimmer was unavailable due to college commitments, but the two kept in touch and when the time was right, they began to work on White Empress together.
White Empress enjoyed some success touring and releasing a well-received CD. However, the metal world was in shock when Zimmer announced she would be leaving the band just a couple of months ago. Out of respect, Zimmer didn’t want to go into too much detail about the split, but did reveal the following. “I couldn’t put up with some stuff that was happening. I worked with it for a long time, but I had to walk away to maintain my dignity. There comes a time when you have to be someone’s bitch or you have to be a bitch.” Zimmer posted a video on YouTube about the split which you can watch here. She explained that the video served to give fans an explanation and “to show people not to put up with this [mistreatment in the music industry]. Just because our hopes and dreams are tied to it, doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice personal standard.”
[Photo courtesy of Matt Mommaerts. Used by permission.]
Disappointed after the White Empress split, Zimmer’s boyfriend, Erik Tyler, began encouraging her to work on music with him to pull her out of her depression. She loved the music and soon formed their current project Santa Marta. So far the band has released four singles with a fifth one ready to be released later this month. Although Zimmer and Tyler are the main songwriters, they have a lineup of touring musicians ready to go and have some big announcements for later on this year.
To keep on top of Santa Marta breaking news, you can visit their social media sites: Facebook Sound Cloud
“Cersei” by Santa Marta Official Lyric Video
Santa Marta is: Mary Zimmer – Vocals | Erik Tyler – Guitar/Instruments
Marissa Bergen is a Los Angeles-based musician and writer. “Spotlight On Local” focuses on independent underground artists in the hard rock, heavy metal, and punk genres.