Joni, Cat Stevens, and Faux Americana: My Interview with Mary Spender

By: Harrison Giza
Mary Spender is a name you’ll here a lot in the next year. With a soothingly ill warmth of Americana and acoustic folk, Spender creates something that every music fan can get behind – talent. Her lyrics are inverse to the normal, “Better Than Me” proves more than that.

Mary is influenced by all the songwriting greats of the 70’s, 60’s, and then some more. The way she plays is refreshing, striking the strikes vicious and harsh. She’s soft when she needs to be and often times is. But, amidst the Joni Mitchell idealism, she finds a voice of her own that brushes the dust off your mom’s favorite records.
Her music has already been played on BBC, a substantially friendly following in Germany, and songs that light up your lazy days. To me, her music is something that could end a Mad Men episode or Scrubs episode. It’s closer music. The kind of sounds that silence enjoys.
I got to talk to Mary over the past few weeks about her music, influences, and what her touring schedule is like. She is someone with warm wit, kindness, and lots of good insight into the music side of herself.

HG: Where did “Better Than Me” come from?
MS: I wrote that song in my first year of university. Instead of talking to a boy who I was madly in love with, I put my thoughts in a song, and yes, he has heard it, but I’m not sure whether he ever realized it was about him. I find unrequited love to be a good catalyst for songwriting!

HG: Who are your favorite songwriters?

MS: Nerina Pallot, Joni Mitchell, Kacey Musgraves, Alison Krauss, Aoife O’Donovan, John Mayer – the list goes on! Hugely influenced by mainly female singer/songwriters and their storytelling capabilities.

HG: Describe your perfect breakfast.

MS: Well my perfect setting for breakfast is any American Diner – you know how to do it right! French toast (in England we called it Eggy bread!) and strawberries with a little dribble of maple syrup!

HG: How long have you been playing guitar for?

MS: Just passed 10 years now!

HG: What was the  first song you learned to play?

MS: Teenage Dirtbag by Wheatus. I wish I could say it was something cooler! However it was closely followed by Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana.

HG: What was the first song you wrote?

MS: A song called ‘She’ which I still play as the final song in my live set. I enjoy ending with the beginning. It has changed slightly over the years, as I wrote it when I was 15 and couldn’t really play guitar at all.

HG: What can folks expect when seeing you live?

MS: Well although I have a group of wonderful sessions musicians who I play with in England, (Jacob Bright – Double Bass and Jack Revy – Drums) I usually play solo shows. So I have to create a band myself, with percussive guitar playing, a little bit of looping, whilst singing. Every song has something new to entertain the audience and then maybe the odd bizarre cover as well. Recently I’ve been performing ‘Nicki Minaj – Superbass’ with me rapping – it took me a while to learn all the lyrics!

HG: Where will Mary Spender be a year from now? Tell me what is next.

MS: Well, I’ll be touring, where or with whom, I wouldn’t know. I’ll also be working on my album – 2015 is the year of my debut!

HG: How do you know when you’ve got a song finished? What makes you stop?

MS: I think you just know. You have to have faith in your own ability! However, I’m constantly working on my material during live sets and shaping the songs before I record them.

HG: Your voice is stupendous. Did you train yourself or did someone teach you?

MS: Why thank you! I actually had classical singing lessons since the age of 7. The bluesy singing I do now, has been influenced by my training, but I was taught to sing in a far more angelic way. I really believe in a musical education and was very lucky to have one myself. Singing untrained can put strains on your vocal chords and lead to injury, so it’s important to learn how to breathe and look after it.

HG: Who are your favorite artists to listen to when you’re alone?

MS: Future Islands, St Vincent, Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry and Dead Empires. I love everything from chart pop music to metal!

HG: For some reason I feel like you like Cat Stevens. Is my hunch true?

MS: Oh yes, brought up on his records, my parents have his records on vinyl! His voice is like treacle!

HG: How did you come with “‘Spire?” In your own words, what is that song about?

MS: Spire, is about my hometown of Salisbury in the south of England. We have a cathedral in the centre of town, surrounded by a large close. It’s just stunning, and I used to see it everyday. Now I live in Bristol, I don’t get to visit as often as I’d like, so it is a bit of an ode to my family and home.
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