Local singer-songwriter Mary Bue has been awarded a residency from the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation to live and work in Taos, N.M. for three months. Before she goes, she’ll play a jubilant sendoff show with Alan Sparhawk (Low, Retribution Gospel Choir) and Molly Maher (of Disbelievers fame) at Icehouse on Saturday, Jan. 14. I caught up with her by phone on Friday to talk about her latest album Holy Bones, her evolving musical inspirations, and her upcoming adventure out west.
Holy Bones has attracted attention for being a departure from what Chris Riemenschneider at the Star Tribune called your previous “tender coffeehouse balladeer” style. It’s a bit louder and more rollicking. Did you start Holy Bones with a conscious decision to go in a different direction? How did you end up with such a new sound?
I’d been doing the same thing for 15 years – piano, ballads, that type of thing – and I just bored myself. I felt compelled to go back to electric guitar, which I’d first picked up in eighth grade and then put away. And my taste in music was getting more aggressive, too. So I naturally went into that, but it was also intentional. I also felt like I was physically locked behind my keyboard, and I couldn’t move around the stage. Having a guitar is so much more active in some ways, as far as moving around and physically interacting with bandmates. That’s a lot of fun.
You mention your tastes getting more aggressive – what was inspiring you recently? What were you listening to?
I started re-listening to all of the stuff I was listening to in the ‘90s, when my music tastes were first being formed. So I was listening to Belly, Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, and going back into grunge. I felt a lot more interested listening to that than I had been with the quiet, really sad female thing, which I still love. I still really like melancholy music, but just a little louder.
You’ve gained renown for your lyrics. What is your writing process like, and where do you draw inspiration from?
Oh, I could ramble about that for a long time! Every song is a little different. Typically, I would write tons and tons of poetry, and then when I’d sit down to write a song, I’d roll through my poetry stacks and intuitively set things to music. That’s how I work with a piano. But with a guitar, so much of it comes simultaneously. Sometimes I’d get words or a phrase when I’m running or doing other things I’ll hear something. I get inspiration from everything. I try to observe and be curious about the world and relationships. I’m becoming more and more of an environmentalist, and I’m vegan. A lot of that comes into play when making art about the degradation of the planet and the inhumane ways that humans treat other beings, themselves, and other people. So I’m becoming more activist in my songwriting with regards to the environment and animal protection.
I also pull from dreams. I just dreamed of a great white shark brushing against my skin with its teeth. I was a psychology major in college, and we studied a lot of Carl Jung, dream analysis, and altered states of consciousness. So I try to dig in to those depths.
Obviously, this album was motivated by a lot of deeply personal circumstances. Did you think working on this was therapeutic?
Absolutely. Sometimes I don’t even know what the song means at the time I write it. I’ve had a few times where I’ve written words, and then ten years later it’ll come true. It’s definitely a process of integrating and reflecting on things that have happened. Every human has the capacity to be clairvoyant or intuitive, and if artists are open to certain channels, they can pick up on different things across the world. A song coming out in May, for example, is called “The Shit I Left in Duluth.” I was sitting with Ellen Stanley of Mother Banjo and her husband Ben Cook-Feltz, and someone said that line in a conversation, and we thought we just should write a song with that lyric in it. So I wrote that song about moving away and leaving things behind. And this was before I decided to move – to leave and get a divorce – but it totally came true. So it’s therapy, in a really weird way.
You recently made a move from Duluth to Minneapolis. Why did you make that decision? Has it changed your artistic output at all?
Well, I’m also a yoga teacher, and I thought that since I was starting to come down here more regularly, I thought that I should maybe teach yoga once a month in Minneapolis. So I started renting once a month at this studio, but after my first class teaching there, the owner decided they didn’t want the place anymore. I knew I wanted it, so I decided to buy this yoga studio, took it over in April, and opened it in June. It was very unexpected and kind of impulsive, but it felt exactly like what I wanted to do. I love Duluth, but I went to college there and moved back and forth from there five times, so I felt like I needed to get out.
I’ve only been officially down since the end of May. Between April and June, I moved, got a divorce, opened the yoga studio, recorded in Nashville, and my band broke up. All of that within two months has meant that I haven’t had much time to write. Since I’ve been so busy, I’ve been writing a lot of small, easy songs on the ukulele. But when I get to Taos I’ll have a lot of uninterrupted time.
Tell me about that upcoming residency in Taos. How did that come about? What makes it distinct from what you’ve done so far in your career? What kind of work do you anticipate creating there?
I moved back to Duluth from Seattle, had lived in Duluth for about five years, started to feel this wanderlust, and started looking into artists’ residencies. My best friend, Sara Softich, had done this one in New Mexico, so I applied. I didn’t hear anything for many months and was already in the process of moving and had signed the lease for the studio. Then I was told that I was one of the finalists. I was going through a lot at the time, but I had to say yes – how often do you get awarded something like that? It couldn’t be more perfect timing. It’s three months long, and in a very mystical place, in a high desert artists’ town right by the Rio Grande. The patron, Helene Wurlitzer of Wurlitzer organs and pianos, donated to visual artists for many years, and eventually expanded this program to writers, musicians and composers.
We each get our own house – a little adobe casita. Mine has a grand piano in it! It’s fully furnished. I get a bicycle and a small stipend for food. And they don’t require anything; it’s just a gift of time. There’s no pressure to do anything. They think it’s really good for artists to get away and focus without having any pressure. I put a lot of pressure on myself and am kind of a workaholic, so I feel like it will be very good to slow down, and I’m going to get off of social media for a little bit too.
Before you leave for New Mexico, you’re doing a sendoff show with Alan Sparhawk and Molly Maher. How long have you been working on this show? Was there any particular reason you chose to do it with these artists?
I’ve been working on the show for almost two months. I knew I wanted to do something, and the Kickstarter for my EP that was recorded in April was funded in mid-December, so I really wanted to have this be the album release party. I booked it, and Al was on board early. He was the first person to review my first album, so we go way back. In fact, I had a dream I had done a solo show with him, and so I asked if we could make that happen, and he said yes. And Molly and I have become close because she teaches yoga at my studio. Erik Koskinen is going to join her – he just went on a tour with Low – so this is going to feel like a big reunion.
Is there any direction you see your music going in in Taos and beyond?
I’m trying to stay really open. The EP is rock, and in the same line as Holy Bones. But in Taos, I might eventually seek a producer to flesh things out a little more. I know I’m going to write a lot of songs on piano and ukulele, and I’m just going to experiment. I want something new to emerge, but I’m not exactly sure what I want that to look like.
Ibad Jafri studies International Relations and Cinema & Media Studies at Carleton College. He prefers colder climates.