Local Bristol Bluegrass and Americana songwriter, Mary Spender, is due to launch her debut album this October. Before then, she stops in at Bristol’s Louisiana on 31 March. We had a quick chat prior to her gig…
Mary Spender isn’t your ordinary singer songwriter. She’s toured with Gabrielle Aplin and Echo and the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch and has crossed the deep, blue ocean to perform her songs live at Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe. Recently, Mary has been releasing a song per month via her Soundcloud page, and this will culminate in the release of her debut album in October this year.
Mary’s single ‘Willpower’ reached the number 4 slot in iTunes Singer/Songwriter charts when it was released in 2013, she has gone on to do great things – and this is only the beginning. Having toured alongside the likes of Sandi Thom, Ruarri Joseph, Mary has also performed at Glastonbury Festival and the Larmer Tree Festival, and has gained official support via the legend that is Seasick Steve.
Learning the fundamentals of her craft during her university degree at Bristol University where she studied Classical Music, Mary has since branched out into new musical territory where she has found her place in the style of bluegrass and Americana. She is definitely one to watch (or more accurately – listen out for).
Has the songwriting process been a very ongoing thing – and what has informed most of the material on your debut album?
The songs on my debut album are already written and arranged, but recording is an ongoing process. The flexibility of releasing a track a month is the best thing, for example ‘Taking Shape’ was written in early January, recorded the week after and released on the 25th of the same month. The week after it was getting airplay on BBC 6 Music! However most of the songs are a few years old.
Serial releasing of tracks via Soundcloud one at a time, is a method used by many artists at the moment – and seems to work well to keep folks interested… Is this working well for you?
It’s just a great thing for a musician’s work ethic, as well as making sure every song is heard. Throwing out 12 songs in one go, just isn’t an option for me, especially without label backing. It’s best to focus on one, and make sure it’s something people want to listen to! It’s definitely working well for me, but I’ve just got to keep going.
How long have you been writing original material and performing for, and when did you discover your own voice and affinity for crafting a polished performance?
I’ve been performing as a singer/songwriter since I was 15, but only in the past few years have I simplified and refined my sound and performance. It’s taken a lot of gigs around Bristol to realise what kind of performer I am, as well as learn what the audience wants.
Living in Bristol, has this given you a decent foundation from which to write and perform to the local audiences – before branching off into international territory including Nashville and across the USA?
Absolutely. Bristol has a lot of music going on, and opportunities, from open mics to national band support slots. I’ve written a lot about the city and its influence on me. It’s lovely taking those stories abroad and sharing them with a completely different audience.
Long Island City – was this written while visiting Long Island? In what ways do places and experience filter through to your own music and lyrics?
Places have always featured heavily in my lyrics. I enjoy writing about a location as if they were a lover. Long Island City is a small area of New York just a short subway ride away from Manhattan. It’s the best place to see the famous NYC skyline. I think it’s a nice change from songs about heartbreak (which I write a lot of too!)
Who did you grow up listening to, and who has inspired you to pursue your music, and has this shaped your own sound? Conversely, has it been an ongoing process in finding your own authentic voice, independent from these influences?
A lot of BBC Radio 2 was played on journeys to school, and my parents’ record collection was surprisingly eclectic! Singer/Songwriters have always had the largest impact on me. I enjoy storytellers, like Joni Mitchell and Alison Krauss. John Mayer and Andy McKee have massively influenced my guitar playing.
What else fills your time when not pursuing music? And are there certain venues in Bristol you prefer over others, either for performing or for attending a gig yourself?
I enjoy cycling and making short films. Whether they’re cover videos showing off my Vigier electric guitar or filming myself cycling the length of the country. Bristol has such a range of music venues, creating different experiences for the audience and performer. I love the Louisiana, that’s why I set the aim of selling it out. It’s iconic as a venue with The White Stripes and Amy Winehouse having played its stage. It’s independent (like me) and has a great sound.
Which instrument did you first pick up and have you received support from any particular people who have acted as mentors along the way?
I started singing when I was 6, then started the piano. I studied the Viola at university though, as I enjoyed playing in string quartets and orchestras. My parents have been very patient, can’t thank them enough, as neither of them are musicians, and they entered an unknown world!
Looking back on your time touring in the USA, how did this experience impact on you personally as well as creatively?
It was a good experience to see another part of the world. Touring alone around a strange country gave me a lot of confidence.
Your song, Primrose, is an ode to Bristol – do you feel inspired by this city as much today as when you wrote this particular song? And what especially do you appreciate about the city, its views, its people and its vibe?
Bristol is just an extraordinary place to live. It’s so beautiful and easy to survive in as a full-time musician. I work a lot in London, and always feel relieved when I get back. I can’t get enough of the view from the Suspension Bridge and Ashton Court. It has a gateway to the countryside which is rare for a big city.
Mary Spender plays at the Louisiana on Thursday 31 May. The show is sold out.
For more information on Mary Spender: www.maryspender.com
To listen to Mary’s music visit this link.