The dreamy Mary Timony is the stuff of a lazy journalist’s nightmare. She offers no easy explanations for her work, no biographical tidbits that map neatly to her songs, no epiphanic meetings with Satan or Dylan at the crossroads, no influence-based recipes (one part Phair, one part Chopin, one part Aphrodite?).
“I never have anything that I’m consciously influenced by,” she says patiently, as if this is the most common question she gets-and maybe it is. “I feel really different from other musicians in that way, ’cause some people are just really avid fans of something. And I’m a fan of a lot of stuff, but I just don’t really have a major influence. It’s just that I like to be creative...It’s really unconscious, I think. I’m not the kind of person who has this really conscious influence.”
Some possibly useless facts about Timony: Dionne Warwick spoke at her graduation from Duke Ellington School for the Arts. She’s shared a stage with Carrie Brownstein and William Shatner for Priceline.com commercials. Her band Helium once opened for Arlo Guthrie. She has two cats, one of whom jumped onto her belly during our phone interview, sending her into a cascade of surprised giggles.
Pressed, she admits to a few influences: “I’m kind of inspired by people in Boston who are doing things, performers that aren’t musical.” They include Miss Dominica K, “this girl who’s a baton-twirling performance artist”; MC Cathy Cathodic (“she’s really rad”), and Jake the Puppet Master, who puts on “these really existential crazy puppet shows.”
She’ll tell you readily what she doesn’t like and can’t imagine ever doing: “Pretty much anything you hear on commercial radio.” In 1994 she told Magnet that “Helium is folk.” (Perhaps this explains the bill with Guthrie?) By 1997 she was saying, “I like some indie rock bands but to tell you the boring truth, I think the time may come very very soon when Helium records sound like Joni Mitchell (or try to) albums.” Five years later, she says, “I’m starting to feel like so much of rock music is derivative and boring to me.”
The muse she follows seems to keep her on her toes: Although she occasionally dabbles in landscaping work, music is now her “day job.” Her latest solo album, The Golden Dove (Matador), reveals her consorting with mysterious animals (her cats?) in strange landscapes (her part-time work?) on a sonic ground of harpsichord and sharp-tongued guitar (Ellington?) and always with an ironic humor (Shatner?).
Quite possibly, the key to Timony is that she takes what she experiences and synthesizes it into forms she can share with an audience. Purely creative, she creates music that can be as hard to grasp as a shape-shifter-but can adhere as tenaciously to the listener’s psychic dashboard as a plastic Virgin.
Timony grew up in Washington, D.C., where she attended Duke Ellington School for two years: “It was an incredible experience. I learned about life. I didn’t really learn a lot about writing and arithmetic and whatever,” she laughs, “but I learned about music and about people.” Her fellow students were largely into go-go, and the curriculum was mostly jazz and classical. “We just learned what you learn when you take jazz classes, which is scales and chords and jazz standards and stuff like that. I did a little bit of classical, but it was mostly jazz.
“I played guitar. Every afternoon we’d go into the guitar room and hang out. I don’t know how much about music I really learned in there, but I definitely practiced a lot-and just being around other kids that were musical, it was fun...It made me take music seriously. It was a creative environment. Not that anyone was doing anything like what I wanted to do, but just being in that environment was good.”
Outside her classroom, punk and indie rock were taking hold of the D.C. area. “There were bands like Kingface and Ignition and Soulside, and Fugazi was just starting.” After graduation from Ellington, Timony went to Boston for college but formed Autoclave around 1990 with D.C. friend Christina Billotte: “We played during the summer and when I was on vacation and stuff.” Although Autoclave, the first of many Timony projects, is long gone, it’s hard to pin down beginnings or endings to her other collaborations, including the duo Led Byrd with her longtime musical partner Ash Bowie (of Polvo), Shudder to Think bassist Nathan Larson’s Mind Science of the Mind, and the Spells with Sleater-Kinney’s Brownstein. But she’s best known for her work with Helium, which blends a punk ethos with a prog-rock vocabulary in a way that’s totally Timony. (She has said in previous interviews that the name “Helium” came from the joke that a woman is just a man who’s inhaled helium.)
The Golden Dove, her second solo album, was the quickest she’s ever recorded: four days in Boston and then two weeks at Sound of Music Studios in Richmond, Virginia, home to co-producer Al Weatherhead. Although she may once have created “concept” recordings, often based on dark fantasies about vampires, prostitutes, and other creatures doomed to walk at night, she says she doesn’t do that anymore. “I think sometimes when I’m making lyrics for songs, I definitely have a concept for a place that the song takes place in-I see it sort of visually, and then I just write them. Not that I spend that much time honing my lyrics-it’s all kind of fast. But I just kind of write descriptions of a situation or a place that I’ve imagined.”
Timony is exploring other ways of making her visions more visible. She’s worked on a couple of film soundtracks-and is even working on a film of her own: “I’m taking a super-8 class and making a super-8 movie, hopefully to show behind us while we perform. I want to start incorporating more visual stuff into the show.
“I think I tend to do stuff that’s visual. I never really thought of myself as a performer performer.”
Harp, Summer 2002