Thoroughly modern Mary

March 21, 2003




Dark, mysterious, sexy and thoroughly idiosyncratic, Mary Timony is something of a cipher even to dedicated fans, which leads to a certain amount of speculation about her on the web: she's a pagan, she's a witch, she's a progressive-rocker, she's a fantasy/tolkien/renaissance fair devotee in indie-rocker's clothing.

I've read all of these theories and more about the Boston-based singer and songwriter. But she just chuckles and says that none of them are true.

"I think that people make those assumptions a lot--that I'm a person who must be into fantasy," she says. "I think it's because when I'm writing lyrics, I use a lot of metaphors, and they're just images to represent something that's very real. But I'm never writing about an unreal situation. Like, I may write something about a peacock, but usually that peacock represents a boyfriend or something to me. It's all very real, though maybe it's coded."

In fact, Timony's last album, 2002's "The Golden Dove," is her most straightforward to date in terms of lyrical content. At times, her postfeminist confessions even bring to mind indie-rock's queen of sexual frankness, former Matador Records labelmate Liz Phair. "You showed me pictures of your ex-girlfriend/On the beach without her shirt on/And it made me sick/And I didn't tell you it did," she sings in the jaunty title track.

"Yeah, I can see that," Timony says of the Phair comparison. "But it's funny, because I focus so little on the lyrics. Really my main interest is the music and coming up with the melodies and playing the instruments and stuff. The lyrics, they're not an afterthought, but they're just something separate to me. It's a very personal thing, but to be honest, it's not quite as important to me. I do think that wherever I was at the time when I was writing those lyrics, they definitely reflect that, even if they are coded."

Which begs the question: Was Timony going through relationship woes when writing "The Golden Dove"?

"You want the dirt, eh?" she says, laughing. "Yeah, I was." End of statement, no further probing welcome or required.

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Timony was classically trained--she studied viola at that city's Duke Ellington School of the Arts--so it's only natural that a fondness for symphonic instruments and arrangements permeates her work. "The Golden Dove" is rife with horns, strings, archaic organ sounds and stately harpsichords, evoking comparisons to the work of Nick Drake or the late-'60s psychedelic folk-rock of the Incredible String Band.

There's also no denying that a certain fantastical vibe runs through her career, first as the leader of the Boston band Helium (which released several strong albums through the mid-'90s, including "The Dirt of Luck" and "The Magic City") and more recently as a solo artist (she's made two discs under her own name, starting with 2000's "Mountains"). Combine that with lyrics about peacocks and unicorns and a fondness for droning, otherworldly melodies and you can see where the speculation comes from.

"I've definitely always been interested in where music can take me," Timony says. "I think that's why I started playing music--I do feel that when I get really into the music that I'm in a different reality. That's what the song 'Musik and Charming Melodee' [from 'The Golden Dove'] is sort of about--and it's not totally serious, there's some sort of playfulness to it--but it's about being taken to some place else where there's just magical animals and stuff."

A prolific songwriter, Timony sees no real difference between fronting Helium and performing as a solo artist; in both cases, she has simply concentrated on writing strong tunes, and she's drawn on a diverse collection of collaborators to flesh them out.

"Probably the happiest I am is if I've written a melody that I feel is really cool and it's catchy but it's also a little bit different or new-sounding to me--like, it doesn't sound cliche," she says. "To me, a good song is anything that really affects me."

The last time I saw her perform in town, Timony was joined for a set at Ladyfest by Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha ("He's a friend and fan, and it all came together really last-minute," she says). For her current tour, she'll be performing solo on guitar, Fender Rhodes piano and synthesizer.

"The reason why I'm doing this tour is because I wrote some new songs and I'm just testing them out," she says. "It's not a full-on rock tour to support the record or anything. I'll definitely play some songs off the records, but it's just kind of a little experiment to see if I can go out on my own."

This sort of positions Timony as Generation X's answer to Nico, another comparison that makes her smile. Of course, the late Velvet Underground chanteuse was another artist whose mysterious sounds often invited largely fictional theorizing.

"I don't think as an artist or musician you're ever really aware of how your music is going to be heard," Timony says. "You just focus a lot on the process of making the music, whether it's thinking of ideas or thinking of cool sounds you like. I don't take much time to consider how other people are going to hear it. I just aim to please myself, and if I like it, then I figure it will resonate with other people."