The story of ‘Mean’ Mary James (who is perhaps best known as the intrepid, banjo-wielding songstress behind the inspired storytelling of 2013’s Year of the Sparrow, and the genre-bending follow-up Sweet) reads like a page from some lost rock ‘n roll memoir. She learned to read music before words; she wrote her first song at the age of six (the stage name inspiring “Mean Mary from Alabam’); she spent her childhood traveling the country, playing her music for anyone who would listen…the list goes on and on. And over the past decade, Mary’s indie-rock take on folk and bluegrass has earned her an eclectic audience that expands far beyond the traditional Americana community.
While her profile these days is buoyed with an increasingly impressive social-media presence (her YouTube page now boasts nearly ten million views and counting), Mean Mary’s music is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg—you can add award-winning author, playwright, producer, and even television star to her ever-growing resume: the woman is an artistic force of nature.
I recently sat down with Mary to discuss her latest release, Blazing, as well as her upcoming plans for 2018.
Generation Mixtape (GM): So Blazing is the new album. There’s the record itself, but it’s more of like a soundtrack or an accompaniment to this other thing you do which I don’t think most people are going to be aware of. Talk to us about this project which entailed a novel as well.
Mean Mary (MM): Well, I co-write with my Mom, and we co-write songs [as well], but we co-write books and we have a few novels out. One of our books won the Reader’s Favorite International Book Award for Best Mystery Novel, and this new one is an Award finalist for Best Action Novel there. But anyway, we write these books and I’m like, ‘Okay, it needs a [soundtrack]’, because usually we do a theme-song, and I’ll make a Youtube video.
I have a band project: Mean Mary and the Contrary’s, and it’s a little more rock ‘n roll, and I’ve been putting it aside because I had [this] last album, and so I was gonna spend all of my time concentrating on the new album, and I’m like, ‘You know what? A new book is coming out; I need to do another Mean Mary solo album; let’s do a soundtrack to the book!’.
Because you always need new stimulation for the next project, and I got really excited about it [and thought], ‘Ok, I’ll put the band project aside and finish this’. So it was kind of a whirlwind of recording and writing songs, but it was a lot of fun because we kind of took parts of the book…so it was like composing, not just doing the singing and that kind of stuff, but thinking more about composing it. And so there’s quite a few instrumentals on the album, and then we matched it up to parts of the book. So yeah, it was fun [laughs].
GM: So the book, I’m assuming, came first, and this was a musical reaction to it?
MM: Yeah, exactly. So all the songs were brand-new written after the book, and we actually had the book in hand, and I would look back over it and read parts…’this part is going to be this song right here’, and I’d work out the stuff for it.
GM: “I Face Somewhere”; that song…it almost feels like a completely different kind of song than I’ve heard before on your records, and what I really like about the record as a whole is that it definitely works as a soundtrack, but as a standalone collection it works as well. To that end, what got you into being an author?
MM: Oh goodness, I think [I have] always been kind of drawn to the writing, and things like movies and stuff. In fact, you know I was in California for three years in the movie industry; it all goes hand in hand. And when I write songs, I kind of write story songs a lot of the time. And my mom has always been very creative that way; she never pursued writing, but she’d always [been interested] from a child herself.
So, I kinda got her encouraged to write, and so, working as a duo has been really good because I’m really busy with the music and she really needed the encouragement. And so, working together, she kind of does all the hard work and then I can just come in and say ‘Change that; we need to do this’, [laughs].
GM: Do you hand her a fleshed-out ‘verse-chorus’ instrumental and she puts lyrics to it, or are you writing to her lyrics?
MM: Sometimes; it just depends. Lots of times I’ll have a concept, or I’ll have a chorus, like the lyrics for it, and I’ll have a tune and then I’m like, ‘okay, now the hard part. Now make it all work out…write the verse’, or sometimes she’ll write lyrics and I’ll put a song on it, and I might put in a few words here and there, or workout a verse. Or sometimes we work completely together, and she does write words too.
On the novels; we travel a lot together, ‘cause if you’ve seen my Youtube videos, that’s me and my mom. She does all the videography and I do the video editing; so it’s just kind of a two-woman project.
And so we travel together, [on long trips like] two thousand miles from Nashville to here we will flush out ideas, and she’ll take notes and that kind of thing.
GM: I want to talk about your banjo playing. What sets you apart from these contemporary folk, throwback country artists is that you have chops; you’re a serious banjo player. So, what drew you to banjo?
MM: Well, it’s kind of strange, [laughs] how it all fell. I started [on] the guitar and fiddle, and then banjo. I was at a pawn shop with my parents and I saw a banjo. I had never really listened to banjo music…I guess I was seven, and I was like ‘oh, I want to play that instrument’.
So, you know, the banjo just kinda happened, and my mom thought ‘oh, that will be good novelty instrument to play’. So I started playing it, and it really wasn’t my main instrument…[I’m a] fiddle player; everybody wanted me to play fiddle in a group when I wasn’t touring myself and playing my own stuff. So I was…known more as a fiddle player growing up as far as ‘lead’ [playing] goes.
But I played a lot of banjo, you know? I did historic music, and the banjo is a good instrument for that kind of thing. And I think the banjo just kind of caught on from Youtube…the popularity of it. And then I started writing more instrumentals on it. And I enjoy all kinds of instruments: I enjoy playing guitar; I enjoy playing fiddle, but the banjo…it’s fun. I don’t really play it in your classical sense, but I like the fact that people are kinda surprised sometimes. I get a lot of email from people that are like, ‘I never liked the banjo, I never thought the banjo could sound like [that]…what you play is different’.
I just like doing something different with it and I feel like even though I’m not that far from the tradition banjo stuff – I still do the bluegrassy kind of thing – I like finding different ways to kind of make it more of a sweeter, or a more pretty sound.
GM: That is a really good point. So, what you do, it sits so well in the mix; it’s definitely a fresh take on it.
MM: Yeah, I’m really big on ‘the tune’…
GM: Serving the song and the vocal.
MM: Yeah, I really want people to sit and enjoy what they’re hearing as opposed to [does an awesome shred-banjo impression!]
GM: Which can be cool…
MM: Yeah, it can be for parts and stuff, but I always want to give the song itself the best, and then just do variations off of that and try to make it enjoyable to ‘my’ ears.
So, it’s fun. And obviously not just the pretty, sweet stuff, but I like doing that kind of bluesier sound, like “The Iron Horse” and stuff, where I kind of tune it lower and [get] that more soulful sound to it.
GM: So you did a T.V. show (Nashville TV show, “Never-Ending Street). Any thoughts or recollections on that? Do you want to go back to television at some point?
MM: Ummm. No, not really at this point. You know, I had my own little T.V. show and then, of course, when I was a kid…and, it’s a lot of work either way. Right now, I love doing, my mom and I both, love doing the music videos for the songs, and the youtube channel has been growing a lot; my biggest success is from my Youtube subscribers and views.
I like being on the road, but it’s nice to be home doing new projects, and working on new songs, and so the videos kind of give me that opportunity, and it’s very creative and…I enjoy taking the songs and making fun music videos that people can watch. As far as visual [arts], this year I really want to sit down and do more videos.
GM: That bring me to my next question: plans for 2018?
MM: Yes, definitely! So, I have the Deering crossfire, which is the electric banjo, so I’ll be playing that and electric guitar [in] Mean Mary and the Contrarys…it’s a three piece (with bass and drums), and I might have my brother Frank, who guests on some of the stuff; he’s on all my albums, so he’ll be a part of that too.
So yeah, that’s the new project and I’m finishing that album up, and it’s gonna be a little more ‘rock ‘n roll’; I get to use the wah pedal and all that stuff. [laughs] Wah wah and the banjo’s fun.
And Europe this summer. [it will be] the longest tour I’ve done, it’ll be almost three months. And just gettin’ the Blazing album [out], all the videos done for it, and new videos for the band album…all the usual fun stuff!
Editor’s Note: This interview was originally published in 2018 on Soundblab.