The Progarchy Interview: Mary Halvorson

In his 2018 book Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century, Nate Chinen devoted his final chapter to guitarist Mary Halvorson, rightly declaring her “an original in every sense.” Her spiky, pick-driven timbre, sparse yet compelling use of effects, daring improvisational command and distinctly off-center compositions add up to a sound like no one else’s, effortlessly catching (then twisting) the ear regardless of context — from the radiant solo album of covers Meltframe to her head-spinning work with avant-garde trio Thumbscrew to the precise, conversational octet writing of 2016’s Away with You (my first, heady exposure to her music).

Also in 2018, Halvorson released Code Girl, her first extended foray into songwriting; the band she put together for the album boasted serious roots in jazz, but fearlessly mashed up genres and straddled extremes of expression, pivoting on a dime from a murmur to a scream and back again. On October 30, the revamped Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl (pictured below) returns with a second album, Artlessly Falling. Reconnecting with vocalist Amirtha Kidambi, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, Halvorson also welcomes new collaborators Adam O’Farrill (trumpet) and Maria Grand (tenor saxophone and voice). For the cherry on top, three of the new tracks are sung with gravity and grace by Soft Machine founder Robert Wyatt, one of Halvorson’s most profound influences.

Code Girl, left to right: Maria Grand, Michael Formanek, Amirtha Kidambi, Adam O’Farrill, Tomas Fujiwara, Mary Halvorson.

It was an utter delight to speak with Mary Halvorson — a thoughtful musician and a serious music fan — about her approach to lyrics, songwriting, composition, collaboration, improvisation and more. The video of our conversation is below; a lightly edited transcript follows the jump!

How did you decide to pursue songwriting – how did you get into the first Code Girl project?

Well, it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time.  And I guess one of the major reasons is that a lot of the music I listen to has singers and lyrics, and a lot of the music I play is instrumental.  So, I was thinking about why the discrepancy, and what it might be like to try to write my own music that had words as a part of it.

So, it was partly due to that, partly due to my interest in poetry over the years.  And just wanting to have a dedicated song project.

And that’s gone on to this new project, where you wrote most of the lyrics in these set poetic forms.  How did you decide to go that way?

Well, for the first Code Girl record my methods for writing the words were pretty haphazard.  Which was really fun, but it was just like pure experimentation – just writing words.   Unlike music, where I tend to write very quickly, with words it just takes me forever – trying all kinds of different methods and revising.  That was really cool, partly because it felt like wide open terrain, and also just really fun to try a different form of creative expression that isn’t just writing music.  So, I really enjoyed working with the words.

But for this next record I wanted to do something different, and one of the co-producers on the record is a man by the name of David Breskin, and he’s also a published poet.  So he basically presented the idea to me of “Hey, why don’t you try this time working in these different poetic forms, ‘cause there’s so many great forms out there?”

And I was really excited about the idea, because it gave me an opportunity to study more, to study poetry.  And so I got a big book of poetic forms and started reading through it and finding ones that looked interesting, and reading different poets who had written in those forms.

And the cool thing about it for me was that a lot of these forms are really inherently musical.  A lot of them have rhyme schemes, or things that kind of repeat and snake back.  And I actually found that I enjoyed writing in the forms more than I enjoyed writing with no form.  And I think part of the reason is – you would think that it’s limiting, but to me it felt the opposite.  Like having to – for example, there’s a ten-beat line; iambic pentameter, a simple idea, and there’s another line.  And you’re trying to express an idea but you know you have to fit it into a certain form.  It forces you into places that you might not have gone if you weren’t thinking about number of beats or a rhyme scheme or a form. 

So, I really enjoyed it; it was challenging, and hopefully allowed for some different stuff to happen.

So, do you feel like the forms dictated the verbal content?  Or did the content suggest the form?   Or was it kind of a mix?

I guess it was kind of a mix.   I had all the forms and then, once I decided “OK, I’m gonna work on the villanelle now,” for example, whatever I was thinking about at that moment became the subject.  And then I’d try to develop something.

So, I guess it was more the subject that came, and then I’d almost choose the form.  But some of them did have specific topics.  For example, the haiboun, which is a really cool form, which is basically a section of prose ending with a haiku.  And when I was reading about the form it said it’s often used in the context of travel.  So people would write about a place that was important to them or just some experience from their travels.  So that’s what I did; I thought about a place that was important to me, which is this area of Pittsburgh called the Mexican War Streets, and I wrote a poem about that place and my experiences there.  So that would be a case where the form did dictate, more or less, what the poem was about.

Are your lyrics meant to be more evocative?  Or more narrative?  Do they have one meaning?  Multiple meanings?  Is their meaning open in your mind?

Ideally, for me I like it when there’s multiple meanings or an open meaning.  In many cases, I don’t like to dictate exactly what something’s about.  But I like to hint at things and hopefully have something that you could get multiple meanings out of, or you could find different things in them with repeat readings or listens.  So that’s generally what I like.  I tend towards more obscure types of lyric writing.

Although I really enjoy a lot of poems that are very direct.  It’s all just a stylistic choice; for my own thing, I do enjoy these more obscure-leaning poems.

One of the things I also thought, just listening to the album a couple of times is: do you feel like [the lyrics] influenced what you and your collaborators did musically, once you brought the completed compositions in?

I think so.  I mean, I always give the lyrics to the band.  So that if they want to – I mean, they could also choose to ignore it and think about the musical content.  But I do give them the lyrics, especially for Amirtha, who’s singing, so she can get an idea of what the song is about.

And sometimes she’ll ask me, “what is this about to you?”  Because I think that does [influence], for her at least, the mood of the song and how she’s gonna sing it.

For example, the second song on the record, “Last Minute Smears,” is a found poem, which is all words taken from Brett Kavanaugh during his Congressional testimony in 2018.  And at first Amirtha didn’t know that; I didn’t tell her that it was Brett Kavanaugh’s words.  And then we talked about it, and I think that for her that really changed what she thought about the lyrics.  And then, most likely also informed how she sang the piece.

I know that you have a couple more voices on the album.  But one – I know that Robert Wyatt’s work has been a real touchstone for you.  So what did it feel like to have him singing your words and your melodies?  

It sounds like a cliché, but I have no other way to describe it than a dream come true.  It’s one of those things where I still can’t believe that he actually is singing on the record!  I didn’t think that he would agree to do it, but I thought it couldn’t hurt to ask. [Laughs] So I asked, and to my surprise he said yes!  I mean, it’s amazing! 

And I asked him pretty early on in the process, so I wrote those three songs [“The Lemon Trees,” “Walls and Roses,” Bigger Flames”] specifically for him to sing.  So I was able to envision his voice, and it was just an amazing experience.  And he’s such a wonderful person, who was so great to work with.  As I was going along I would send him drafts of the song and the lyrics and just say, “Are you comfortable singing this?”  So, we worked together a little bit, so I could make sure he was in a space where he was comfortable.

And when I was listening to those tracks – I know him mostly from his Soft Machine stuff and some of his solo stuff.  But it definitely sounded like both him and you.  How would you describe his influence on your music and on your career?

He’s one of those musicians for me – and I think we’ve all had this experience – where the first time I heard him, I was completely floored.  I actually remember the experience like it was yesterday, that somebody played it for me, and I was sitting on the floor in my living room listening to Rock Bottom.  And I couldn’t believe it; it was so unique and so beautiful and so powerful.  And I was almost even laughing as I heard it.  It really struck me in that strong of a way.  I’ve since – I get obsessive with things, so I’ve probably listened to that record hundreds of times, and then of course explored everything else from there.

And so, he’s just – everything about his approach, his songwriting, his singing, the fragility of what he does and the emotional content: really unusual, creative, thought provoking, unexpected.  But then also, there’s an element of it where they’re just great songs; it’s just such great songwriting.  And his voice is one of my favorite voices.

There’s a joy in what he does, isn’t there?  Even the darkest sort of topics, or the bleakest sort of musical settings.  Like you say, the fragility of his voice – it’s like a candle in the middle of darkness.

Absolutely!  And to me, it’s one of those records that’s like medicine.  It’s a record I would put on – Rock Bottom, maybe because it’s his first record that I heard.  There are other records of his that I feel this way about.  But if you’re going through a hard time, that’s the record you’d put on to help get through it.  So that’s the power of his music to me.

I did want to talk about some of your other collaborators, too, cause it’s a really powerful band.  And yet the power is very contained and channeled.  It turns on a dime and every one of the people you’re working with seems to have that ability.  I know you’ve worked with the bass player and the drummer, Michael and Tomas, in Thumbscrew.  Does doing a project like this require a different kind of approach from the three of you, as opposed to Thumbscrew or some of the other projects you’re involved in instrumentally?

I think it’s both!  The reason I chose Michael and Tomas for the band was because we had worked together so much before as a trio, and I wanted to have that strong foundation of having a rhythm section that felt familiar.  Because I feel like when you have this strong rapport with people, it then becomes easier to take risks and try things out and still feel like you’re not gonna fall on your face.  And I also really just pictured this rhythm section working with more of a song project, with words.  It is a different approach, for sure, than when we’re in Thumbscrew.

But at the same time, there’s moments on the record where it’s just the three of us getting into a more improvisational space.  And I almost think of those as Thumbscrew moments.  So it feels like we can meld those worlds, and go in and out of it.

And then you worked with Amirtha on the first Code Girl album.  How much freedom does she have interpreting your melodies and the material that you give her?

Tons!  She really – if you heard the melody sung exactly as I wrote it, it would be pretty different.  And that’s part of what I love about her, is that I love the liberties she takes.  And she really brings these melodies to life and does her own thing with them.  And she doesn’t sing them the same way each time, either. 

So, is every performance different when you guys do a tour?

For sure!  I mean, she’s kind of improvising the whole time, even though she is playing written melodies.  And you know, she is singing what I wrote, but she’s just ornamenting it and expanding the lines.  I really like how she does that.  And I can tell her, if there’s something where I want her to sing it exactly as I wrote it, I can tell her that and she would do it.  But for the most part I really like that she has freedom to expand these things as she sees.

So, you also have two fresh players in the band, Adam O’Farrill on trumpet and Maria Grand – she plays tenor and she does some vocal stuff.  That was one of the things I immediately noticed on the first track, the vocal harmonies behind Robert.  What fresh options do those two new players bring to the table for you? 

Tons!  I think first of all, having the two horns, I knew Maria mainly as a saxophone player, and when I found out she sang it was like, “Oh, bonus!  Great!”

[Laughs] But the idea of having two horns – I’ve always been into multiple horns, and just having that freedom when you write to create harmonies.  And they’re both such fantastic improvisers, Adam and Maria.  And I also think they sound really good together; they’ve played together before in different contexts here and there.  Just the way that their sounds fit together on their horns is really great.  And they’re both just such strong individuals, and I love their improvising.

And I love the ability that they can also – they both have this ability where they can play free, they can play over forms, they can kind of weave seamlessly throughout.  So, I think that’s a big reason why I chose those musicians.  And then on top of it, I really did want to have multiple voices on this record.  And when I first heard Maria sing, I just fell in love with her voice right away!  And it’s completely different from Amirtha’s, which was also really appealing to me.  Cause Amirtha has a lower, kind of really strong, powerful voice.  Where Maria’s voice is more ethereal and wispy and higher.  And I thought that they would probably blend really well together.  So being able to have Maria sing both with Amirtha and on her own on a few tracks just gave me so many textural possibilities.  I love that she can switch between horn and singing, cause it’s kind of an unusual double.

And what I hear — in many ways, some of my favorite moments are the tuttis, because there’s this nimble way of creating a real lush sort of harmonic scheme with not that many players.  It’s like, I don’t know if I’m hearing the overtones or what it is.  Especially a solo when they come back into a tutti and you can hear both of the horns kind of falling back into place, but also working it, taking it somewhere else.  The whole album really has a lot of thrilling moments, but those are some of my favorites.

Thank you!  That’s so cool!

You’re welcome!  And it seemed to me there’s a real variety of approaches to the improvisations on this album.  Sometimes they feel very consonant with the song; it’s like they’re really tracking with the lyrical sentiment and the melody.  Sometimes they’re coming from a slightly different angle; sometimes they really just go for it!  They really burst the song’s boundaries!  We already talked about the fact that you give the lyrics to the band.  And so it may well influence their band’s approach.  But are you directing where you want the improvs to go?  Or is it pretty much let it rip and see what happens?

I think usually, I try to have different types of improvisations throughout the songs.  So it’s not always that they’re just playing over form; it’s not always completely free. 

So, usually that kind of thing would be dictated.  Like for example, in the first track [“The Lemon Trees”] it starts with a solo from Adam O’Farrill over a set form, with some changes.  And the idea is that eventually we get away from that.  It turns into a duo with drums, and then we bring the song back in.  So that was as much as I said on that song – and beyond it they can do whatever they want!  And if another musician feels like comping or adding something or whatever, then that’s probably fine.  But I wanted to leave a little bit of space for something to happen that wasn’t just in the form.

But then there’s other moments where it is just over a set form, a little bit more in the song.  And then there’s some moments that’ll be kind of an open intro or outro.  There’s some they kind of weave in and out of forms.  So, it’s all different, and I did that on purpose, just so it doesn’t become predictable, the way that improvisation is used in the songs.

 Now not to single anybody out, but were there any particular improvisations on the album that you thought just really stood out?  Like when it was done, you said “Wow”?

You know, on the first track [“The Lemon Trees”], I really loved that Adam solo into Adam and Tomas’ duo into Tomas’ solo moment.  And I believe, if I’m not mistaken, it was the first take that we did in the studio!  I remember hearing it and just being like, “Yeah, it’s perfect!”  And then, as you sometimes do in the studio, you say, “well, let’s do another one, just to have two.”  And then it’s like, “no, the first one was perfect!”  But I love it; the way it starts and the way it builds, it had almost an unusual arc of energy to it that I really liked.  And it felt really spontaneous. So, yeah, that might be one of my favorite improvisational moments.

I want to hone in a bit on you, and where you come fromYour overall sound and style; the first time I heard it, it just felt completely unique to me.  It seemed to me to have taken in a lot of different tones and references and genres in the mix, but what comes out is very much your own thing; it’s instantly recognizable.  

Now I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a rock guitarist named Adrian Belew, but he’s like the closest equivalent.

I don’t think so; I need to check him out!

Yeah!  He played in King Crimson in the 80s …

Oh, OK!

And he did his own solo stuff; so it was in that kind of gamelan period, where [Crimson were] doing the Steve Reich-ish stuff.  And he would do rhinoceros sounds and very effects-laden, very extended techniques.  He reminds me of you to that extent.  But you’ve got a completely — you’re unique; you’re not him.  Just so you know that.

[Laughs]

But without dissecting what you do into component parts, I was curious as to what music really made you want to play and improvise and compose for yourself?  What got you started?

I guess there’s been a lot of influences, but the one that’s the most obvious to me is [saxophonist] Anthony Braxton.   And meeting him and studying with him while I was in college was really impactful.  Because before that, music was kind of a hobby to me or something I just did for fun.  But I didn’t really realize the scope of what music could be until I heard his music.  He’s also such an inspiring person – I don’t know if you’ve ever met Anthony Braxton.

I’ve not; I’ve heard some of his music, but I’ve never met him in person.

It’s almost this infectious energy.  When you meet him, he just kind of lifts you up and gets your so excited about things.  It kind of blew my world open at that time.  Because I’d been playing some jazz and writing a little, composing a little of my own.  But learning his music and seeing what he did was just like, “Oh!  It could be anything!”

And he was also really open minded about music.  He encouraged all his students to check out everything.  And not to be beholden to musical traditions, but to check them out and study them and learn from them.  And that was kind of the general energy at Wesleyan [University], which was the school I went to where he taught.  Where they had a really strong world music program, and I studied a little bit of gamelan and south Indian vocal music and all kinds of different stuff there. 

So, it was just a really creative time, and I was lucky to have teachers just encouraging me to try to take risks and try stuff out.  Anthony always used to say, “if you’re not making mistakes, something’s wrong!”  So, he really encouraged that.  And I think I really needed that at that time in my life.   

And also, he gave me a boost of confidence.  ‘Cause I had no confidence and having someone being like “Yeah!  You can do it!  Go for it!”  Because I think I really wanted to and just wasn’t sure that I could.  And I think he gave that confidence to take risks and experiment, and I keep that with me today.  That was very important to me.

And the other teacher was Joe Morris, who I was studying guitar with at the time.  Who’s the same thing; it was funny, because they didn’t talk!  But they were both hammering this message home to me of, “Yeah, just find your thing; try different stuff out; experiment, explore.”  So, I was lucky to have teachers that were telling me that.

Yeah, teachers like that are gifts when they come along, I know.

Really!  I don’t think I would be a musician today if it weren’t for those two!

As you’ve evolved your style, become the player you are, become the composer you are, what have you tried to stay away from?

I’ve tried to stay away from getting boxed into a corner.  And what I mean by that is, I don’t want to only do one thing.  I don’t want to be known as, “oh, this is the experimental guitar player that does this very specific thing.”  I’ve always tried to collaborate with different types of musicians, and be open to doing different types of projects.  Because that’s important to me.  To be able to just keep trying stuff out and not get stuck in that way.  So I think that’s something I’ve consciously tried to do.  

You use technology with your guitar sound in, again, very unique ways.  I can’t tell if it’s high-tech or low-tech, or something in between! 

[Laughs]

But how have you tried to use effects pedals, digital delays, things like that?  What part do they play in you getting the sound that you want us to hear?

I think I’ve always been interested in creating almost a duality between the pure acoustic sound of the instrument and then the amplified sound, which is then often gonna have effects and things like that.  I think both of those elements of the guitar are really important to me.

But with the effects, I don’t think about them as the main thing; I think about them as a way to ornament the notes.  So, I have a pretty simple effects set-up; I’ve basically had the same set up for twenty years.  Which is a Line 6 delay pedal with a foot pedal.  And that’s really important to me, that I can be hands free.  I’m not often turning knobs while I’m playing.  And I have two foot pedals, a volume pedal and this expression pedal for the Line 6.  So, I’m using both feet to manipulate the sound while I play, and then you can be hands free.  So that’s kind of fun; I feel like a drummer sometimes!  I used to be able to stand up when I play and now I can’t, cause I’d fall down!

And then it’s just really simple: I have a distortion pedal which I like to use sometimes; I have an octave pedal, which I’ve been using a little bit more recently with the higher octaves; a tremolo, which I also really like.  So, it’s just a way to augment a line or an improvisation.  But I don’t like to get too bogged down in pedals.

So you use it as seasoning.

Yes!  Perfect! [Laughs]

Obviously, the pandemic has effected all of us.  How has that effected your life?

It’s drastically changed my day-to-day life.  It’s interesting; I actually had a doctor’s appointment today, like a routine thing; I had to take the subway into Manhattan.  And I hadn’t gone to Manhattan since March!  And it’s just funny, living in New York City, and I’ve just been home so much.  I’ve never been home this much in my life in one go!  So I used to travel all the time and now I’ve basically been hanging out in my area of Brooklyn.

And there’s really nice things about that.  I’m really getting to have some focused practice time on the guitar, which I’ve been wanting to for a long time.  But I do miss performing a lot.  And even basic things. I used to swim laps for exercise; you can’t swim laps now.  I used to eat out the time; now I’m cooking all the time. [Laughs]  So there’s a lot that’s very different for me in the daily routine.

I mean, not to mention just the stress of the whole thing, politically and everything happening in the world, and the sadness.  I mean it’s just insane and never ending.  So, it’s been a lot to process.

I don’t know; we’re gonna look back on this period and think something, but I hope that some kind of positive change will come out of it for the world.  And I’m doing my best to get people out to vote; that’s been a big focus.  And in the big picture I know I’m extremely lucky; so it’s not an easy year, but I’m hoping we’ll get through it.  And again, hopefully with some kind of positive change for the world and the environment and politics and this pandemic.  [Laughs] I just went on and on, but it’s a lot!

Well, my wife and I already voted so – job done!  Your work here is done.

Good!  [Laughs].  Yeah, I’ve been focusing on Florida mainly, because I think it’s so important.  But specifically thinking about how they make former felons pay poll tax in order to be able to vote.  [See this article.Which is crazy.  I’m also trying to focus on campaigns that are trying to help pay these taxes for former felons and trying to write letters to voters that are either undecided or don’t traditionally vote.  So we’ll see.  But I’m going crazy if I don’t do something!  [Laughs]

I think that’s true of all of us.  But it’s great that you’ve been to get Artlessly Falling ready for release.  Are there any other projects you’re involved in that you’d like folks to be aware of?

Well, the collective trio Thumbscrew, with Tomas Fujiwara and Michael Formanek, we have a record coming out in, I think it’s gonna be early February 2021.  It’s a new record of original music; it’ll be our sixth record with that band.  So we’ve been preparing that; we got it mastered, and dealing with the artwork and stuff now.  That’s been nice.  I think one thing about this time is because there’s no performances or very few, and people miss performing so much, it’s a really great time to focus on records.  And that’s the one thing we still have that we can still put out into the world.

And for me also, just checking out records, and hearing new records that are coming out has been something that’s helped me through it.  So it’s nice for me to listen to records and also have Artlessly Falling and the Thumbscrew record to focus on.

Now I did see on your website that you do have a livestream coming up.  Is that still on?

Yes!  That’s on my 40th birthday.  And it was originally supposed to be at the Village Vanguard.  But they had to temporarily cancel their livestreams because they were having a lot of technical difficulties. And fortunately, my friends at Roulette said, “Oh, you can do it here!  We don’t have anything that night.” 

So, I was really happy because I was looking forward to that Thumbscrew performance.  And we were able to save it and still do it.  So, it’s gonna be one set on Friday, October 16.  And we’re gonna be playing music from a bunch of our records, one of which is an Anthony Braxton record that we released of his music earlier this year.  We’ll play a couple of those pieces, and some original music, and a couple standards.  So that’ll be nice!  I mean, I’ve had that feeling the few times of actually playing with people this year, it just feels so incredible!

And I think that’s one thing that’ll come out of this: I feel like nobody’s ever gonna take anything for granted ever again, whether it’s being able to go to a concert or playing music with people.  I think people really miss that, audiences and musicians alike, so – yeah, these days it feels so great to be able to play!

Well, yeah, yeah!  I’m with you there!  It’s been about a year since I’ve been to my last show.  I’ll tell you, when that comes back, it’ll be a happy day!

Oh my God!  It’s gonna be amazing.  And you’re in Michigan, is that what I saw?

Yeah, I’m in Grand Rapids in West Michigan.  Is there anything else you want to share with us?

I don’t think so!

Well, thanks for your time!  It’s been great talking with you.  I wish you the success you could possibly have with the new album; I’ve already got my copy ordered, so I’m looking forward to my CD!  And it was great talking to you today, and getting to know you a little bit.

Yeah, likewise!  Thanks for the thoughtful questions, and thanks for writing about it.

Artlessly Falling by Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl is now available for pre-order at Bandcamp. Mary’s 40th birthday show with Thumbscrew will be livestreamed from Roulette in Brooklyn, New York on Friday, October 16 at 8 pm.

— Rick Krueger

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