Mary Townsend (Photo by: Hayden Brockett)
Who: Mary Townsend
What: Singer and writer
Artist’s Chosen Location for Interview: Il Posto—outside on a bench with The Hedgehog Review next to her
Q: What’s the key to not being caught?
A: Keeping your eyes down so you don’t make eye contact. If you make eye contact with someone it causes them to acknowledge your presence, but if you can move past them without that acknowledgment, then they most likely won’t know you were there.
Like, hypothetically speaking, if you were trying to steal a book, you would just put it under your arm and walk away with your head down.
Q: What’s a narrative story you’d like to see a female singer be the protagonist in?
A: Once I had a secret idea for trying to explain how the Oracle of Delphi was always right. She’s always right, and it’s creepy. If she’s not divinely inspired—although, maybe she is—it’s possible that she has a secret network of female spies. They’d be all over the Grecian territory and even beyond.
Put the sybils in charge of it and figure out how that would all work. Decide on how the female slaves, all the women would gain and share information. And the prostitutes—all the different kinds of prostitutes—because there are many kinds of words for prostitutes. There’s a word megalomisthoi. It means ‘the big spenders,’ who have their own houses. There’s another word that translates to “bridge girl,” which means that she hangs out under the bridge, so you’d have sex with her under the bridge. It certainly shows how specifically they were thinking about different professions and sex located in different areas in the city.
So, the lady seer, the Pythia—in this book—would gain all this information, and the only way to communicate it to the men would be through the prophecies. It would be great to write that, but I don’t think I can. I’ve been writing non-fiction for so long that I feel like I would be terrible at dialogue. I’ve locked into a playful, somewhat joking-style of prose, but it’s completely one-sided. It’s me, just me—I’m always the narrator!
Q: What part of your life most represents your voice?
A: Not thinking, but it’s sort of like thinking. Telling the truth. In speaking, we’re half telling the truth and half leaving out the information that might hurt someone’s feelings or would just flow past them.
With singing, you’re being honest in a way that’s not possible when just talking. It’s not like you’re expressing your emotions when you’re singing. It’s not artificial. It’s more like you’re trying to say the truth about a certain moment or character.
When I think about Tucker Fuller’s music, when we started singing Murder Ballads and Love Songs, each one comes from a different place and character. You become more ethereal or sad or scared. The voice changes. It becomes clearer and lighter. There’s one song about a woman that’s a porn star, and the song is from the perspective of the person falling in love with her, so the voice there is raspy with shade on it.
You think about the size of your throat and where the tone is—is it in front or in the back of your throat? When I was a kid, a lot of my teachers were trained in the Hungarian method—the Kodály method—so they’d constantly be saying, ‘Lift the soft palate.’ That yawning is a more classical tone. I have that voice, but I noticed that if I don’t sing for a while, or if I’ve been drinking, that the soft palate has fallen—no one in America talks with a lifted soft palate.
It’s like color. It’s like changing a color, except inside your voice, to sing someone different.
Q: What’s a collection you have that other people wouldn’t expect you to have?
A: My box of four-leaf clovers. I have a lot. Probably between twenty and thirty. I have a couple of different theories of why I find the four-leaf clovers. My friend Jenny just says I’m lucky, and there’s a friend of mine that says you have to be good at looking.
I found that if you look for the three-leaf clovers instead of looking for the four-leaf clovers that you train yourself to spot the one that’s different. While you’re looking and thinking trio, trio, trio, you’ll more easily spot the one that doesn’t fit in that category.
It helps me because when you look for the four-leaf, you imagine that you see the four. You think you see the extra leaf poking out, and it’s frustrating when it turns out to be a three. But if you look for the form of the three, you can spot the difference when it comes.
Q: What would you do at 3 AM if you were forced to be awake for an hour?
A: How honest do I want to be? Last year I was teaching existentialism, and I would get up really early to work. It messed up my sleep schedule. I started waking up at 2, 3, or 4 in the morning and I would start thinking about Kierkergaard or Nietzsche, and I couldn’t stop.
I wanted to think, and I wanted to allow myself to feel the crisis of existentialism, but then I would just lie in bed awake. Reading doesn’t help. I can’t watch television. Someone suggested pacing, but that doesn’t work. Sometimes I’ll just get up, have a drink, I’ll let my mind think all the things it wants, and in about 45 minutes I can go back to sleep.
That happens less this year, and I only came up with the ‘get up’ solution recently. In the past I would sew or knit, which would help me stop, but I’ve somehow lost that right now. It’s frustrating when the quiet that used to occur naturally stops working. You can get stuck in these weird abstractions, and that causes so many types of falsities, red herrings, paper-thin schematics.
Mary Townsend and Meryl Zimmerman will be performing Tucker Fuller’s Murder Ballads on Sunday, july 29 at The Tigermen Den (3113 Royal Street). Doors open at 7:00 P.M., with singing beginning at 8:00 PM. Tickets will be sold at the door, and make sure to get there early and take in some bar drinks and the dark atmosphere before the ballads begin.