Perfect Sound Forever


Photo by Chris Grady

How to untame a tiger and deal with break-up, death
Interview by Robin Cook

Mary Timony's prolific career includes the bands Autoclave, Helium, Ex Hex, and the supergroup Wild Flag, along with solo projects. Her fourth solo album, Untame the Tiger, comes after a years of turmoil: the deaths of her parents, the breakup of a relationship, and, of course, the pandemic. With the resulting album, Timony's stunning fretwork is at the forefront. She shared the origins of Untame the Tiger as well as her favorite guitar players.

PSF: I wanted to ask you some questions about the new album, Untame the Tiger. First of all, this is a solo project. Do you ever consciously decide, "I'm gonna make this a band album or a solo album"? Or is it just something that happens?

MT: Mostly, it sort of just happens, but it all depends. It's usually, like, if it is a band album, it's usually like something that I've decided with other people and it's a project I'm working towards. These songs came about during the pandemic and also while I was taking care of my parents, so everything was sort of on hold.

So I didn't have any plans for any band records, and I just was writing songs, and I started thinking, "What kind of songs, what am I gonna do with these songs?" And they just sounded like a solo record to me. And so it was sort of organic in that way.

PSF: How many of the songs were directly influenced by this period of caring for your parents and dealing with other real life issues?

MT: Most of the songs are not about that, really. I mean, some of 'em are, but mostly like, you know, broken-hearted songs, like love songs. But I wrote all of 'em during that time when I was taking care of my parents, and it was really an intense time for me because we all go through loss in life. And it was just one of those times where I was in it with both of 'em, and I was the primary person who was doing everything basically. And it was a lot.

The other horrible, shitty thing is that my partner of twelve years took off, like, right before that, just gone. And so I was like dealing with that crisis... And the pandemic happened.

So anyway, the record was my way of taking care of myself during that whole time, you know. Working on songs was what I did for fun.

PSF: Once those songs were written, were you originally apprehensive, thinking maybe this is a little too personal, or did you just wanna jump into it?

MT: I know from my time as a songwriter that the more vulnerable you are, the better, because I have an issue with not wanting to be vulnerable in lyrics, and I've done it enough that I know it doesn't work. So this record, I was like pushing myself to be more vulnerable, which is still really hard for me.

PSF: I have a question about your guitar playing, especially on "Untame the Tiger," [the album's title track] which has that beautiful guitar section. I noticed that you really brought your guitar playing to the forefront on this album.

MT: I really tried to and care about it a lot, so that was my intention. Yeah. Thank you.

PSF: I'm curious if there are any guitar players who have influenced you as a, as a musician?

MT: Oh, yeah. I mean, so many. my gosh, it's hard to even name, but I mean, I mean, I can give you the list. Do you want, should I list them off?

PSF: Maybe just a few examples.

MT: Well, right now, I, I have different lists to draw from (laughs), but I would say for this record, I was really thinking, especially for the, the part of the song that you just mentioned, the beginning of "Untame the Tiger," I really wanted to emulate this opening of "The Calvary Cross," a Richard and Linda Thompson song, and there's just this gorgeous intro. Anyway, it's a Richard Thompson song. He's one of my favorite guitar players.

And also, Thurston Moore, and Ash Bowie from Polvo is probably my very favorite guitar player. I've always loved Hendrix, you know, I love Joni Mitchell, I love George Harrison and Joe Walsh and Rory Gallagher, and that's about all I can think of right this second. So that's a long list, but it goes on (laughs).

Photo by Chris Grady

PSF: I know you might have been asked this before, but as a female guitar player, did you ever encounter any sort of sexism or any of that "you're good for a girl" routine or "you can't do that because you're a girl"?

MT: Yeah, definitely. Like, my whole teenage time and early twenties, I encountered that a lot. And times have changed, you know, for sure, like in the last twenty years mostly. But in the '90s, I still felt that vibe from people if I didn't know them well. One of my favorite activities to do, I would say [age] eighteen through twenty-one, to walk into a music store. (laughs).

And it was so different then. It was all dudes, these old older guys that were like frustrated blues musicians or whatever (laughs). And I would just walk in there and do some solos. I don't know, in an angry way, it was just like a fun thing for me to do. But yeah, I definitely remember getting the vibe of, "it's a boys club and you're not part of this." But I think, you know, as soon as I started playing in bands, I found that that less. It was different times for sure.

PSF: You mentioned once that you went to music school too. Could you tell me a bit about that?

MT: Yeah, I went to a high school that is an arts magnet public school in DC and did guitar there. It was a really incredible school. It's called Duke Ellington School of the Arts. it was mostly jazz chords and, you know, a little bit of classical stuff. And we had like, music theory and one of the amazing things is that I guess they get a bunch of grants, but we would have visiting artists come in and talk.

So like, we had a masterclass with Earth, Wind and Fire, and like Tito Jackson came. All these people would come and visit and, and then that was very inspiring, and I'm so grateful for that. And then I did do classical guitar for a year after that in college.

PSF: I also wanted to ask you a bit about Wild Flag. How did that come about?

MT: I just basically got a call from Carrie [Brownstein] who wanted to start a band and invited me to come out to Portland to play with Janet [Weiss] and her and Rebecca [Cole]. And we tried it and it was super fun and we were like, "Let's make a record." And that's how we did it. It happened really fast and it was really fun for me 'cause I had taken a break from playing music for a couple years and suddenly I found myself in that band, which was really fun because it was collaborative, which I hadn't really done in a long time.

And we wrote everything in the same room together and everything was really live. And when we recorded, it was all real live. Not a lot of overdubs or anything. And we were playing shows and it was a really fun band to be in. I liked it.

PSF: What about future projects? Could you see yourself doing another solo album or a band project or you just do, you just take it as it comes?

MT: I take it as it comes. I would like to do another Ex Hex record. So we'll see what happens, I guess.

PSF: What would be your advice for young musicians?

MT: Follow your gut instinct... that's what I would say. Always listen to your gut instinct about songs and about life...

Also see Mary Timony's Merge website

And our 2007 interview with Mary Timony

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER