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'To Write a Really Good Song, Your Life Kind of Has to Be F***ed Up': Mary Timony on Her New Album 'Untame the Tiger,' Guitar Heroics, and the Search for the Perfect Tone

'I still feel like a scrappy 22-year-old in a lot of ways.'

Source: Sam Grady

Mary Timony's 'Untame the Tiger' is her first solo album in 15 years.

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It can be hard to know where to start with Mary Timony. Over the past three decades, the guitarist and singer-songwriter has been responsible for a frankly dizzying amount of forward-thinking rock music, from her innovative work as the frontwoman of 1990s alt-rock heroes Helium, to her more riff-forward recent stints with Ex Hex and supergroup Wild Flag, and her ever-adventurous solo albums (of which her first, 2000’s Mountains, remains a sadly under-heralded classic). All the while, she’s quietly built a reputation as the thinking-person’s guitar heroine — not for nothing did Rolling Stone rank her at No. 95 on an updated list of the greatest guitarists of all time just last year, sandwiched between Mark Knopfler and Joe Satriani.

With her new solo album Untame the Tiger, out on Feb. 23 via Matador, Timony has added yet another major piece to her tapestry of work. Written during the pandemic, a period in which Timony was also serving as the primary caregiver for her ailing parents, Tiger ought to be a heavy listen. And at times it is. But Timony’s sly humor and omnivorous command of musical genres and textures also make it a consistently surprising and rewarding one, effortlessly balancing darkness and light.

Timony jumped on a Zoom with Q from her basement studio in Washington D.C. to talk Untame the Tiger, her work as a music teacher, and the never-ending search for the perfect guitar tone.

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What was your reaction to being included on that Rolling Stone greatest guitarists list last fall?

It was really awesome to be on that list. Obviously they’ve shifted things around, and are trying to include more women on these sorts of lists, but, well…that’s good! They should do that! But I would say, taking a really, really far-away viewpoint on it, that there is a sort of gender thing that comes up when you ask what people value about music. Most women musicians that I know don’t value showing off technical skills quite as much — that’s generally sort of a more male characteristic. Although that’s not always true: I definitely know some women who are total shredders, and a lot of men don’t value that, either. But regardless of my gender, I guess I just never really wanted to show off my technical skills on the guitar. I’ve just always valued songs and songwriting. I like melodies. I like the kinds of things George Harrison would play.

Although maybe I should do that more, because it is fun. I actually would really rather just be a guitar player, because I hate singing, but I end up doing it because I write songs. So maybe I’ll make an album where I just play solos next. (Laughs.)

In the write-up on that list, I was surprised to see Lindsey Jordan (of Snail Mail) referred to as your former guitar student. How long have you been teaching, and when did you hook up with her?

I started teaching guitar in my early thirties, so I’ve been doing that for 20 years, on and off. Because it’s hard to make a living full-time as a musician, right? In my twenties I could have done it better: I was an office temp for forever after college, I worked in hospitals, I was a secretary, I did landscaping, dog-walking…all these things. I really should have started earlier. Normally my day-to-day life is that I teach guitar. That’s what I’m doing today after this, actually. I do lessons and I do creative support with music.

As for Lindsey…man, I feel old, because I feel like Lindsey was just here in my basement six months ago. I first met her at a show in D.C. I had taught someone that she knew, so Lindsey had heard of me, and then I did lessons with her for a year or so. She was already really good when she came to me, though.

Source: Merge Records

'Untame the Tiger' is out on Feb. 23.

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Yeah, I was curious about that — what did she still need to learn?

Nothing! We would just hang out and play. I think we did a bunch of Television songs. She would do the Tom Verlaine parts, and I would do the Richard Lloyd parts. We worked on scales a little bit. And then we would talk about her songs, how she wanted to start a band...and then she did, and it really took off fast. I was just trying to be supportive of her.

Moving to Untame the Tiger, do you know from the beginning when you start to write a song that it’s going to be on a solo record?

I’ll kind of write for whatever’s happening. This record developed as a solo record because the songs I was writing didn’t sound like anything else other than solo music. If I had made a plan to make a record with a band I would have directed myself that way. But it was during the pandemic, I was taking care of my parents, and I was really just hanging out on my own a lot. So focusing on solo material made the most sense.

Was there a particular song you wrote during those sessions that set the tone for the rest of the record?

I honestly can’t remember one. I don’t think it was a particular song, so much as it was that I had returned to a particular alternate tuning that didn’t make sense for any other project.

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What was that tuning?

I just tune down the low E to a D, and then the B string is tuned to an A. So it’s like the standard DADGAD tuning, but with one string different. Pretty simple.

I can’t imagine playing with a different band in that tuning, because there’s a different way I play when I'm tuned that way, where I feel like the songs have to work on guitar without a band. Whereas if I’m writing a song for Ex Hex, those guitar parts have to work in a band setting. But I feel like the songs I do for solo projects have to work on their own.

What was the day-to-day songwriting process like on his record?

Writing songs is really hard, you know, because to write a really good song, your life kind of has to be f***ed up. So that’s what I do. And on this record I had to go through a lot of emotional turmoil. I went through one of those things where both of my parents got sick. I was the primary caregiver for both my dad and my mom, plus I had a long-term relationship end, and there was a lot of difficult stuff happening. So working on the record actually became really fun, because it was my time. It was a very different experience than the other records I’ve done. It involved a lot of walks and bike rides. I would demo stuff, listen to it on a bike ride, then come back and change it around.

How hard was it to find the space to be creative when you had those sorts of daily obligations?

It was pretty extreme for a couple years, but as soon as I got help for them it got a lot better. My dad passed away, and after that my mom moved to a retirement community, which was actually really great because she was having fun there, even though she was really sick. After that I had more free time. It was really over about five years, and I wouldn’t say I had a ton of leisure time to hang out and write songs, but when I did have the time I would see what happens. And I also had ideas that were floating around from way before. When I had time, it was more of a way to escape a lot of that stuff. But being able to hire a caregiver really helped.

Source: Sam Grady

'Writing songs is really hard, you know, because to write a really good song, your life kind of has to be f***ed up,' says Timony.

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You mention having to have your life a little f***ed up to write a great song: how do you then put a distance between yourself and the circumstances of the song when you’re recording it and performing it?

Oh, it’s really hard, especially when you’re singing. Some people are really good at it, but that’s part of why I always wish I could do shows where I just play guitar. It’s a really vulnerable experience; you’re really putting yourself out there. It’s kind of great to just play fun music sometimes, where you don’t have to leave yourself so open and vulnerable to perform it. That’s why I love the Ex Hex band, those songs are so much fun to perform. After a while it does become more of a rote thing, where you don’t have to fully “go there” every time you sing a song. But I definitely have songs where part of me dreads having to do them.

Is that something you’re intentional about, making time to play in bands like Ex Hex or Wild Flag to let off that sort of steam?

No, it just kind of happens that way. I don’t think it was ever intentional, but it’s good to do both.

Speaking of which, do you have any plans to work with (Wild Flag bandmate) Carrie Brownstein again?

I don’t know, honestly. She’s quite busy with other stuff these days. I really did want to do more Wild Flag stuff at the time, but everyone ended up being too busy.

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Coming back to Tiger, there’s an impressive diversity of guitar sounds on this record: how obsessive did you have to be about finding so many perfect tones on each track?

My friend Dennis (Kane) and I took a lot of time on that for this record, we got really obsessive about sound. It got crazy to the point where we would work on something for a week, then throw it away, then try it ten more times. We were super obsessive about it. Dennis is a really good friend, and we did all the guitars together. I think that was the first time where someone actually wanted to go down the rabbit hole with me of taking way too much time with every guitar track. I didn’t really know what I was doing with the record at first, so I felt like I had unlimited time to do whatever I wanted to do here in my basement, and we just tried every guitar, every amp, every microphone. And then I would get to the point where I was like, “eh, I’m just gonna do this really fast,” after doing 20 different things.

But the cool thing was that even though we did get a bunch of different guitar sounds, we only used one microphone. I have three pre-amps, and literally almost all of the channels are broken except for one, so we ended up using just one channel on one microphone. So it was good to have some limitations.

Good to keep one thing simple, while you’re making everything else complicated.

Exactly! Everything else was so open-ended, so at least we had one limitation. And I played way more acoustic guitar on this record than I usually do, so that kept things sounding different.

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What do the next six months look like for you?

I’m touring in March in the U.S., and then in July we’re going to go back out for a southern leg of the tour. I might make it over to Europe, but I’m not sure yet — those tours can be really expensive to put together. I’m really just planning on playing as much as I can, getting out there as much as I can. I mean, I’m not doing much else with my life, so I might as well. (Laughs.) I’m 54 at this point, I don’t have a family, I don’t have kids. I’ve got music and teaching. I’m not just doing this casually, you know?

I feel like I’ve been seeing more bands than ever cite Helium as a key inspiration lately. How much do you think about that element of your legacy?

It’s super nice, but then there’s a part of me that’s like, “what?” I still feel like a scrappy 22-year-old in a lot of ways, and of course I’m not. And when I realize that, I’m like, “oh s**t, I’m kind of like an old person, aren’t I?” I feel like I’m always trying really hard to make my s**t, and it doesn’t always go well, but I really do appreciate it when people acknowledge it. Even if I don’t always believe it.


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