Mary Timony and Rosali Are Trying To Be More Direct

The Merge label mates (and soon-to-be tour mates) catch up.

Rosali is a singer-songwriter based in North Carolina; Mary Timony is an artist based in DC, who’s performed with the bands Ex Hex and Helium and under her own name. Mary just put out her latest record, Untame the Tiger, last month on Merge, and now Rosali’s record Bite Down is coming out this Friday on Merge as well. To celebrate, the labelmates — and imminent tourmates — caught up about it all over Zoom. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Mary Timony: So you just made a record, and it’s really good.

Rosali: Thank you! I’ve been listening to your new one too. 

Mary: Thank you. OK, I’ve got questions. First of all, did you use to be Mary Lattimore’s roommate, and Chris Wilson’s? 

Rosali: I was going to bring that up — your bandmate, Chris Wilson! Yeah, I lived with both of them for about three years, 2014 to 2017-ish. Chris is just the nicest person in the world and such a great drummer.

Mary: I know! 

Rosali: But yeah, I lived in Philly for 12 years, and Mary was one of the first people I met going to shows there. We became fast friends.

Mary: Where did you grow up, by the way?

Rosali: I grew up in Michigan, in a small town called Grant. It’s a farming town just north of Grand Rapids. 

Mary: And now you’re in North Carolina, right? 

Rosali: Yeah, I moved here a couple years ago. I live just outside of Durham — so near all the Merge folks, which makes it easy. 

Mary: Right. I love that area.

Rosali: Are you in DC? 

Mary: Yeah. I grew up here, and then I moved to Boston and lived there for years. But I came back here a long time ago now, in 2003 or something. When did you first pick up the guitar?

Rosali: I started playing around 13 years old. My parents are both musicians, and so there was always guitar. I grew up singing a lot — that was kind of my first instrument. I have a big family, and we’d all sing together. But I really wanted to start playing music, writing my own songs or just be able to accompany myself, and there were always guitars just sitting around…

Mary: Now, how did you realize you could write songs? 

Rosali: My siblings and I, we’re all real jokey, and we’d write silly stuff just to combat boredom. For as long as I can remember, we were always singing and making fun of each other by making up little sing-songy rhymes.

Mary: Little did you know, that was leading you on the path to your whole life. 

Rosali: I know! And then I didn’t really start writing like, OK, this is a song that I feel like I would play in front of a person, until I was in college. I was in a band with some friends — it was kind of like poppy punk. So I started writing songs specifically for that, and then haven’t stopped. 

Mary: Was guitar your first instrument? 

Rosali: Other than voice, yeah. Or, no — I played saxophone in band!

Mary: Oh, I have this theory about people that learn on wind instrument and brass can sing really well, because you learn breath control.

Rosali: For sure.

Mary: I don’t know why this is the first thing that popped into my head, but I think Ronnie James Dio played trumpet as a kid or something. [Laughs.] I really think it’s true because it’s all about breathing. 

Rosali: It really is. And reed instruments, too, there’s something about it. The timbre of it is a little vocal.

Mary: I’m not like a singer singer, but I’m learning about it. I do think that so much of it is just about breathing, and obviously breathing in an aligned way. I think if you’re training yourself as a kid to breathe and be open, then of course your vocal instruments are more open too. 

Rosali: Yeah. I remember also, singing at an early age, I’d really pay attention to the acoustics of a room. I remember one of my childhood best friends, they built their own house and the bathroom had really tall ceilings and it was all kind of tiled — I remember being in there and noticing how it’s like being in a church or something like that, where your voice resonates, and realizing how much more control you can have over the shape of a note in a space. And that’s still kind of something that I think about. I’m sure you’ve experienced that in certain rooms you’ve played in.

Mary: Sure. I’m learning how to be more connected to my body — for whatever reason, I’ve always been in my head. But the weird thing about me is, this arm [Mary holds up her left arm] is very much in my body — and that’s the hand that I play guitar with — but this arm, my right arm, is not. My left arm is totally relaxed. It’s like the only thing in my whole body that’s relaxed. 

Rosali: That’s incredible. 

Mary: I don’t know what it is. My voice is locked down, my right arm is locked down, but my left arm is really relaxed. It’s a really weird combination. [Laughs.] So for an hour a day, I try to let go of all the gripping in this part of my body and my voice… Anyway, what’s the typical way that you write?

Rosali: Usually to start, it’s all improvisational, experimenting a lot. So I often write melodies first. I’ll do it sometimes when I’m just walking, and it is connecting to my breath and body. Then I’ll try to play that on guitar, and from there it’ll kind of take shape. The music comes first for me, before any words do, but I’ll also be writing ideas out as well. Then at some point I try to combine lines with the melody to find a cadence of something. Then I feel like the meaning of a song will come out from there and be shaped around a particular melodic line. So it kind of comes from an intuitive place first. But it’s always hard for me — sometimes I’m like, “I have no idea where a song comes from.”

Mary: Oh, yeah, none of us do. None of us do if it’s a good song. I really fully believe we’re just radios translating stuff that’s floating around.

Rosali: Absolutely. 

Mary: The best songs, everybody will say that they just happen, but that’s so rare. I mean that’s happened — I’ll have, like, one song a record like that usually. Then there’s other things that you work really hard on. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. Mostly it doesn’t, I think. 

Rosali: Yeah, mostly it doesn’t. I have like a couple that, that just came to me in a moment of divine inspiration or whatever. But a lot of times it’s like, “I don’t know, I’ve been working on this song for years…”

Mary: I’ve definitely been through a lot of different phases with that. I was in a phase for a while where I’d have a little bit of something, and then for years have it kicking around, and just keep trying and trying and trying and trying to come up with another part. And sometimes it worked, but it’s usually not my favorite stuff. So now I’m in this phase where I’m just like, No, I’m not doing that. I’m not thinking, I’m just gonna free form everything. And it’s so much more fun. 

Rosali: It is. And maybe if you stop analyzing as you’re writing, something will come out that you’d have maybe stopped yourself from doing if you were trying to overthink it. 

Mary: I mean for me, I feel like that’s the main thing, trying not to analyze. Maybe it’s because I’m more in my head all the time, but trying to let go of the judgment is such a core part of writing. 

Rosali: Absolutely. Especially because you’ll have your own feelings about it, and then it gets out there in the world and people will think something completely different of it anyway. 

Mary: I have a theory that that’s when you know it’s good, when people are interpreting it their own way. Because they’re bothering to interpret it. I feel like if songs connect, then the person’s going to make their own story about what it means. I think that’s what we all do, right? Make up our own translation of what a piece of art means? 

Rosali: Yeah, you have a personal connection with it.

Mary: One thing I noticed about your songs that is really cool is you always have really good opening lines. 

Rosali: Oh, thank you!

Mary: Like on your new record, the first thing you say is, “You freak me out.” That’s awesome. What a great thing to say. How does that come about? 

Rosali: [Laughs.] I don’t know. Maybe it’s a storyteller kind of impulse in me, something to draw you in. I feel like if the first line kind of hits you, you’re going to want to stay for the rest. 

Mary: It draws someone in immediately. 

Rosali: Yeah. And that song almost wasn’t the first song on the record, but I’m glad it is. I think it’s a great opening line and sets the stage for it. But as a whole, it’s not necessarily something I think about when I’m doing it.

Mary: That’s probably better, actually. I have a question: What part of music, or recording or anything, is thought about for you, and how much of it is intuitive? 

Rosali: The writing is mostly intuitive until I get to the recording phase. I do think about the lyrics — the intuitive part will be like, OK, this is the melody, this is how I feel like the changes should go, this is the cadence of the words. And sometimes it’ll be real mumbly for a while, and I might have those opening lines or a chorus part. Then I’ll go into the studio and… I mean, I’m not saying they’re all unfinished at that point, but the arrangements I won’t have ready, because I like to work collaboratively with the people who play. That kind of ties in more with the intuitiveness of the other people in the room. The people who I like to play with, I want their their genius to come out, too, and their impulses. Then we talk a lot in those stages too, so that starts to get to the thinking part — you talk more about how it should feel and the sounds and the vibes. And that gets discussed a lot in the mixing part.

Mary: Yeah, in my experience, that is definitely true.

Rosali: Yeah, that’s the part where you’re like, “Oh, man, this is terrible. I have to redo the whole thing.” But, luckily I haven’t actually had to do that. 

Mary: [Laughs.] I have. So, you get more and more conscious of what’s happening as you’re trying to make the thing?

Rosali: Yeah. 

Mary: And then at some point, you have to let it go. And that’s hard to do sometimes too. Tell me about that. 

Rosali: Well, especially on this record, I went in with the songs the least formed as I’ve ever had in the past. So as we were making them, I was excited. But also, not having that time of actually sitting with things to feel like, OK, this is right. This is what it’s about… I really noticed myself having a period of, Is this the song? 

Mary: How did you do the last record

Rosali: The last one was the same group of musicians, more or less. I’ve been working with the Omaha band, David Nance. I went to them with [with songs] I had a little more demoed out — the lyrics were done completely, I knew the vibes I wanted. We still played around a lot and experimented with the arrangements, but I felt very clear about my direction I could give. But we also didn’t know each other that well for that record. We’d just met on a tour with a different band I’m in, Long Hots, which is like a Philly garage rock trio. So we weren’t as comfortable with each other. Whereas this record, we had toured a bunch for the last record, so going in, we had this whole new level of trust and experience and personal language. I wanted it to really be a band record in that way. We played mostly everything live. We played things over and over again to kind of settle in, to find that lived in space as a band in the room. It was a struggle for me as a new experience, because I couldn’t quite give as much direction. 

Mary: Have you done that before with other bands?

Rosali: Yeah. Like Long Hots, for example, we are a band. We just jam in the basement like, “Oh, that’s the riff. Let’s focus on that.” And I don’t sing in that band — I do harmonies, but I don’t write any lyrics, which is so fun. I just play guitar. And then other projects I have are experimental and they’re just instrumental music made in the moment with other people, so there’s not as much pressure, in a way. This project is under my name with my face, and they’re my words, so it feels extra vulnerable. It’s not confessional music, but it’s personal. So I’m putting things out there in a way…

Mary: I get that. I think it’d be pretty right to say that everybody feels really vulnerable all the time, especially when you’re making art and you’re putting it out there. I think that’s universal. But people do different things to protect themselves. 

Rosali: Yeah. So for this record, I had to let go of that feeling, that personal protection or control over everything, to some degree. Because I do fully trust my band — we’re so close — in the end, I knew they’d catch me. But it’s hard to fully surrender to it.

Mary: Yeah. I mean, this has sort of been the overarching theme of my entire life that we’re talking about. [Laughs.] About how to make records, but also just as a woman in the world, how to navigate communication with people, knowing how much space you’re allowed to take up.

It’s all this stuff that I’m really unlearning now in my 50s. I’m constantly trying to feel that out, and music is a really interesting thing because it’s social and you’re part of a group and you’re a leader — you’re a bandleader — so there’s some different dynamics to get through. I’ve gone through a lot of different phases with that, and it changes with who you’re working with too. 

Rosali: Yeah, absolutely. 

Mary: Speaking of the whole vulnerability thing, one thing that I did in the past — which is probably why I was curious to hear what you had to say about it — is a lot of times I found myself not even really knowing it, but just not wanting to be vulnerable in my lyrics. I would say what I meant, but I would do it in a really coded way so that only I understood. I still do it, but the weird thing is that it comes really naturally to me to do that. I normally just come up with a lot of metaphors, because it makes sense to me. Lyrics are like dreaming, you know? They’re not direct and they don’t translate. I found that out the hard way. I made this record probably 20 years ago now called Mountains, and the lyrics are all about me having severe mental illness, basically. I was so depressed that I couldn’t function for a whole year. But if you’re not me or you don’t know me well, it sounds like I’m talking about some other stuff and not that. But it’s all metaphors. To me, it makes a lot of sense.

Then I got in this phase where I was like, OK, no more metaphors. Every time I want to use a metaphor, I have to sit there and ask myself, How do I make myself more vulnerable in this moment? What am I actually trying to say? Usually it’s like, “I’m sad,” or “you hurt me,” or “I feel hurt.” But that’s such a hard thing to know — how vulnerable can you be in lyrics without seeming dumb? Is it ever dumb? Sometimes I guess it is, but…

Rosali: Totally. I feel like my first two records, I used a lot more metaphors or veiled poetry, which I knew what it was about, and maybe the person that it’s about might know what it was about. Now I feel like I have reached a point where I am much more direct. But in that, it is like, what words do you choose? A slight change in something could make it seem like, OK, this is really kind of dumb

Mary: [Laughs.] OK, so we’re going on tour soon.

Rosali: Yes! I’m really excited to see you guys play. I’ve been listening to your record and it’s awesome. Everyone I’ve told, “Yeah, I’m going on tour with Mary Timony,” they’re just like, “Legend.”

Mary: Aw, jeez.

Rosali: You’ve impacted a lot of people. I was into Helium when I was younger too. You were the woman guitarist that really inspired a lot of us. So I’m really excited and honored to be on tour with you.

Mary: Well, thank you. It’s going to be cool!

Mary Timony is the lead singer and guitarist for Helium and Ex Hex and previously played in Wild Flag. Ends With And collects Helium’s singles and compilation tracks and is available now from Matador. Catch Mary on tour playing Helium this summer and follow her on Twitter. (Photo by James Smolka.)