Mary Timony: singer-songwriter's a 'Tiger' burning bright

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday March 19, 2024
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Mary Timony (Wikipedia)
Mary Timony (Wikipedia)

It's hard to imagine what the current female-driven music scene would be like without Mary Timony. From Sleater-Kinney to Haim, from Angel Olsen to Mitski, the influence of Mary Timony is in every note being played, every word being sung.

On her new solo album, "Untame The Tiger" (Merge), with its sly nod to Joni Mitchell, Timony has brought her many years of musical experience to the fore, resulting in what is easily her most accessible release.

Beginning with the incredible six-plus minute opener "No Thirds" and continuing through the first single, "Dominoes," and gorgeous numbers including "The Guest," "The Dream," and "Not The Only One," Timony is assured to keep listeners purring along. Timony performs in San Francisco at the Rickshaw Stop March 26.

Mary Timony (photo: Mary Timony Music)  

Gregg Shapiro: I'd like to begin by talking to you about your musical lives in DC and Boston. I went to college in Boston in the early 1980s and was constantly amazed by the bands of the era such as Mission of Burma, Human Sexual Response, and 'Til Tuesday. I moved to DC in the mid-1980s to go to grad school, and at the time, the music scene there was dominated by go-go music, and a smaller indie music featuring BETTY and the late Tommy Keene, among others. What do you remember about the music in DC as someone who grew up there?
Mary Timony: That's interesting. We kind of did a switcheroo. I'm from DC and I moved to Boston. (In DC) I learned, as a teenager, about rock shows and rock music from being involved in the punk scene, the post-hardcore scene of kids here. Those are the shows I went to in high school. Basically, the Dischord (Records) bands and stuff.

I saw every single Fugazi show from when they started in '87. Before that, whatever was happening in 1985, hardcore shows by Swiz and Soulside and Kingface and I loved Ignition.

Other than that, I would go see bluegrass out in Virginia and I loved go-go. I would go to see (go-go bands) Rare Essence and Trouble Funk. I was very into that stuff; that was really exciting. I think I liked Go-Go the most out of all of it, actually [laughs]. I would go to DC Space and 9:30 (Club), mostly for local (acts). I don't think I ever saw Betty, but I was a teenager then.

Was the active music scene in Boston in the early 1990s part of the appeal for you when it came to relocating to Boston to attend Boston University?
The reason why I went there was because I wanted to go to a music program that was in a big university, in case I didn't want to study music the whole time, which is exactly what happened. I studied classical guitar for a year and then I didn't really like the program much, so I transferred to study English.

I found out about the (Boston) music scene from friends. We went to The Middle East (nightclub) and TT's (T.T. The Bear's nightclub). Then after college, I ended up living right down the street from The Middle East and I was there constantly.

Good old Central Square! As a performer playing in bands including Autoclave, Helium, and Ex Hex, and as a solo artist with her own band, it's not unreasonable to say that Mary, you are someone who plays well with others.
[Big laugh.]

What makes you such a good team player?
I didn't know I was [laughs]. I've gone back and forth between doing solo stuff and being in bands. Mostly, I've done projects where I've written a bunch of songs and I'm trying to...I haven't done a ton of collaborative stuff really. Ex Hex was fun because it was more collaborative. Wild Flag, the same thing, totally 100% collaborative in every way. But Helium was really my thing, but I got some great people that totally influenced it.

I've always been doing my own thing but tried to find really good people. Music really is about connection. It's never as good if it's only one person's vision. Usually, if it's good it's good because of the connection between the musicians. Music is a social art form, I think.

"Untame The Tiger" is the title of your new album. In 1999, Joni Mitchell titled her album "Taming The Tiger." Are you, in any way, making a nod to Joni?
A little bit because I am a huge fan. I have been since I was 18. But, it sort of came to me because I have a song called that on the record and I'm sure that probably came from ripping off Joni Mitchell.

Then I just thought that's a cool name for a record. Then I thought, "Oh, shit!" [Laughs] It's already been taken! Then I thought about it and then I forgot about it. Then I thought about it again and finally, I was like, "It's okay. It's a little bit different." And I love her!

I'm currently reading Ann Powers' book "Traveling: On the Path of Joni Mitchell," which comes out in June.
Oh, I'm definitely going to have to read.

"Untame The Tiger" is your first new solo studio album in 15 years. Are there things you write and sing about on your solo records that might be out of place on an album you would record with another one of your musical outfits?
Yes. That's why this ended up being a solo record. I guess it was because of the tuning of my guitar. They were more or less finished songs. I wanted the songs to sound kind of acoustic. I also wanted to play with a bunch of musicians who I really love.

All those things just made it seem like a solo record. If I'm writing for a band, like Ex Hex, which is basically the other band that I do right now, they're not finished. I bring them in (to the band members) with that band in mind.

I love the lush instrumental section on "Thirds" and the psychedelic sounds of "Looking For The Sun" and "The Guest." Were there things you were listening to while writing the songs for "Untame The Tiger" that were inspiring to you?
I was listening to a lot of music, a ton of stuff. I don't ever try to purposely emulate anything very often, but I can't help it. I'd rather be influenced by stuff without really thinking about it too consciously. I always have loved listening to The Left Banke's instrumentation and The Moody Blues' string parts. Most of the string parts come from trying to emulate The Moody Blues [laughs] or The Left Banke. I'm obsessed with The Left Banke.

"Walk Away Renée," right?
Yes. This guy, Michael Brown, was such a genius. He wrote so much stuff as a teenager. His dad was a string arranger. Anyway, I love those string parts. I was listening to this prog-rock band The Strawbs and this early (Ronnie) Dio band Elf; (The Flying) Burrito Brothers and The Byrds, too.

I love Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. Richard Thompson and I was really obsessed with Gerry Rafferty's early solo record called "Can I Have My Money Back?" I love that record. I was listening to it a ton when I was arranging the songs.

Why was the song "Dominoes" selected as the first single from "Untame The Tiger?"
I don't know. I let other people tell me [laughs]. I really hate sequencing records and I hate choosing singles. I'm just too close to it. I can't tell what people are going to like or not. A lot of times, the ones that I like are not the ones that other people like.

I asked (the people at) the label and they suggested that. I think it's more pop-sounding. Dave Fridmann mixed that one and "Don't Disappear" and he's a genius mixer. And these mixers are always very pleasing and accessible sounding. I think that has something to do with it, too.

Earlier, we talked about your long history of playing music with others, which reminded me of your guest spot singing "All Dressed Up In Dreams," written by gay singer/songwriter Stephin Merritt for his band The 6ths' "Wasps' Nest" album.
He's such a genius!

How did that come about?
When I moved to Boston, for a year I lived with Claudia (Gonson of Merritt's band The Magnetic Fields), who is his drummer. I lived in a group house in Cambridge. I was friends with Claudia, and Stephin lived a few blocks away. She told me he was making this record with guest singers they wanted to go over and sing on it. I went over there one day and he taught me the song and I sang on it. I think he's one of the best songwriters of the last 50 years.

I completely agree. As someone who has collaborated with Stephin, are you aware of an LGBTQ following for your own music?
I don't know. I think maybe a little bit. I'd love that. I love everybody who can connect with it, because all I'm trying to do is connect with people.

Mary Timony performs in San Francisco at the Rickshaw Stop on March 26, 8pm, 155 Fell St. $22-$25.

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