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
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
"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
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
"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."