Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the first name of Kathy Cashel, a onetime member of the band Autoclave. This version has been corrected.
The first punk rock show Mary Timony attended is still vivid in her mind. She was 15, and the concert, featuring Beefeater and Rites of Spring, was held at the Chevy Chase Community Center on Connecticut Avenue. It was 1985. The intensity and intimacy of Washington’s burgeoning punk rock subculture immediately drew her in.
“The bands were raw and powerful. The people were freaky. I felt like I belonged there,” she says. “I wanted to do that, too.”
Everything about the show amazed her.
“There were kids with gigantic mohawks there and people dancing like crazy. I remember seeing a kid there that was in my history class at school. He was slam dancing, and he was so overwhelmed by the heat and craziness of the crowd that he ran out the door and threw up.”
Timony soon became a fixture at shows by such bands asGray Matter, Ignition, Scream, the Nation of Ulysses and Fugazi.
“I remember looking up during one [Fugazi] show and realizing that there was actual human sweat condensed on the walls and the ceiling that was dripping on my head,” she says. “I had the feeling that something larger than life was happening. It was almost like being at a religious meeting.”
Timony says these early experiences were the foundation for everything she has done musically.
“It was about having something to get out and expressing it through music. It was the most authentic thing I had ever seen,” she says. “I knew I wanted to make music that was just as real as what I felt then.”
Nearly three decades later, Timony is able to marvel at having made music her life’s work. It has brought her some fame and perhaps less fortune. It has also brought her a slew of admirers. Now 43 and living in the same Northwest Washington home where she spent her early childhood, Timony has become a sort of rock idol for people who hate the very idea of rock idols.
“She’s mesmerizing,” says Ian MacKaye of Fugazi and a forerunner of Washington’s punk scene. “It is almost impossible to watch anyone else when Mary is in your line of sight.”
MacKaye, whose family lived not far from the Timonys, has known Mary since her parents brought her home from the hospital.
“She has such incredible mastery over her guitar that she makes it look effortless. And she’s an amazing songwriter; her lyrics just flow out of her so weird and drifty. She’s a genius in her own right.”
Over a career spanning more than 20 years, Timony has fronted three bands and made four solo albums that have earned her a devoted fan base and a reputation as one of indie rock’s most inventive artists. Rolling Stone says her most recent group, the almost uniformly ecstatically reviewed Wild Flag, “makes other bands sound like sniffly rookies.” Timony spent much of last year on a tour that included such high-profile gigs as “Late Show With David Letterman” and “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.”
And yet, if you went door to door in Timony’s Glover Park neighborhood, few people, if any, would know they were living next to a musicianthe New York Times has called a “mastermind” and the Atlantic has called “as epic a guitar player as ever.”
Rather than making a home in such high-profile music destinations as Los Angeles or New York, Timony chooses to live tucked away on a quiet Washington street.
“There’s no pressure to be an artist here. I like that,” she says over coffee in the kitchen of the home she shares with her boyfriend, Jonah Takagi, an industrial designer and musician. Nothing about Timony, in sturdy brown glasses and a ponytail, even hints at “rock star,” except maybe the tattoo on her bicep that reads “Melody” in pale green scroll.
“Someone asked me recently if I get recognized at Whole Foods, and I had to laugh,” she says. “I’m so off the radar.”
But for Timony, super-stardom was never the point.
Timony was born and raised in Washington, the second child of her mother, Joan, a teacher at Murch Elementary, and her father, James, a Federal Trade Commission judge. Her childhood in Glover Park and, later, a few miles north in Wesley Heights, she says, was “happy and imaginative.” But as she entered adolescence, her days were blighted by a typical teen trifecta of boredom, depression and angst. “Nothing was wrong; everything was wrong,” she explains abstractly.
“Music was the one thing I could count on to make me feel better,” she says. “I could be transported to a different place.” She became a music junkie at an early age. Top 40 radio was a favorite — she boasts an encyclopedic knowledge of Boy George and Whitney Houston — as were guitar heavies such as Rush and Yes, introduced to her by her older brother.
But Timony wouldn’t be playing the guitar if it weren’t for her mother’s persistence. “When I was really little, my mom signed me up for piano and viola lessons, but I was horrible at both,” she says. “My mom really wanted me to play an instrument — any instrument. At 12, I thought I was too old to learn something new. Kind of a pessimistic view on life, right?”
Timony agreed — reluctantly — to a single guitar lesson. “All it took was learning the basics, and I was hooked,” she says. After that, she locked herself in her room and practiced obsessively. She also improvised with her brother, a few years older than she and, at the time, a bass player in a garage band.
Timony’s brother Patrick, 46, remembers: “One night I taught her a chord progression I’d been working on. By the next day, she’d written a whole song out of it. I knew then the tables were turning.”
Once she began playing guitar, music took on an even greater meaning. “As a kid, music for me was a way to show people what you think about, what you can do, who you are when you’re not that good at connecting in real life,” she says. “It was a very liberating feeling.” She pauses before adding, “I guess that’s still mostly true today.”
By the time Timony was admitted to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Georgetown for high school, she was almost completely self-taught and serious about music. “She came to us a prodigy,” said her guitar teacher, Tom Newman. “You can’t teach what she has.”
After graduating, Timony headed to Boston University to be an English lit major. On a visit home she connected with Christina Billote, a young punk musician, and in 1990, along with Melissa Berkoff and Kathy Cashel (later replaced by Nikki Chapman), they formed Autoclave, Timony’s first group.
“I was really excited,” Timony says. “We practiced in a group house in Mount Pleasant where Christina lived with a bunch of other kids. I was kind of the one in the band that was the music nerd, the kid who studied classical music, while I thought of the other girls as super-cool punk girls who lived on their own already and were into really cool music and were really mature. I looked up to them a lot.”
Autoclave was one of the few all-girl bands to come out of Washington’s punk community and quickly gained a following. The group put out a release on a Dischord/K Records hybrid label, toured with Fugazi for a week, and then broke up. Though it lasted a little more than a year, Autoclave gave Timony experience as a songwriter and performer.
That experience would come in handy. When she finished college, Timony remained in Boston, and in 1993, at just 22, she began her creep into mainstream consciousness as the lead singer of Boston-based Helium, an indie band known for surly, cantankerous rock.
Timony was captivated by the riot grrrl movement that had taken hold in the nation’s capital and Olympia, Wash., and much of Helium’s music — provocative, angry, combative — was a reflection of the politics and feminist drive that fueled riot grrrl bands.
Listeners were captivated by Timony’s off-kilter riffs and the unsuspecting power of her hushed, haunting vocals. So were record executives. After touring in support of such artists as Belly and Liz Phair, Helium was signed by Matador Records. The band released two critically acclaimed albums and toured internationally before disbanding in 1997 — a split Timony attributes largely to the impact of the group’s quick success.
In the early 1990s, it was still a big deal to see a young woman riffing on an electric guitar, let alone fronting an underground band that had signed with an established record label. Music journalists and pop culture critics began to look to Timony, who could now be seen by any kid in America on MTV (Timony became a virtual paramour for Beavis and Butt-Head) as a de facto mouthpiece for a new generation of women in rock. Timony says she really wasn’t prepared for the attention or the questions.
What is it like for a woman making music? Are you a feminist? Isn’t that what your lyrics suggest?
“They seemed to want a poster girl for female rage or something. But I was never like, ‘I’m gonna play my guitar to make some big statement about “girl power,” ’ ” she says, with a slight eye roll. But Timony did have something to say. Many of Helium’s songs, all penned by Timony, addressed gender roles. They also expressed a pent-up anger. Sometimes vehemently so.
For instance, in the video for “XXX,” a single off the band’s “Pirate Prude” EP, Timony took on the role of a streetwalker vigilante. Appearing both forlorn and seething in a hot-pink mini-dress, she deadpanned, “I’ll get in your car/ I wanna make some money/ That was just a joke about the money/ You’re gonna pay me with your life.”
Today the revenge fantasy is closing in on 1,000,000 YouTube views and continues to inspire feverish comments (“We must follow Mary or all is lost”). The persona, Timony says, “has followed me, for better or worse.”
“It seemed natural that a lot of girls my age would be thinking about the things I was singing about, but a lot of interviews portrayed me as this totally aggro, disturbed freak,” she says, sounding genuinely perplexed. It turns out she was more depressed than anything else.
The spells of depression Timony had in adolescence were nothing compared with the ones that gripped her throughout the rise and fall of Helium and into her early years as a solo artist. “I went to a really dark place,” she remembers. “It was mostly chemical, I think, but I had a lot to be depressed about, too.”
Helium’s dynamic had always been strained and was becoming volatile. Her relationship with Helium bassist and longtime boyfriend Ash Bowie had hit the skids. With no friends left in town and her family firmly planted in Washington, she was lonely. And broke. Few indie bands of that era were well paid, and Helium, even in its heyday, was no exception. “I was poor. I was hungry. Every dollar I made went into the band. I ate nothing but string cheese for a month,” she says.
The crisis for Timony became existential.
“I felt like I had nothing to show for any of it,” she says. “I don’t mean money or things, even though I didn’t have those either. I just mean, like, ‘What’s the point?’ ”
When Helium split in 1997 after its second album, Timony was forced to ask herself whether the struggle was sustainable or even worth it. Her parents “didn’t get it at all” and thought she should go to law school or get a “normal” job.
“Obviously I chose music,” she says. “Not that it was a choice. It was more of a giving in and giving up the comforts of a normal life. I really struggled to accept that and probably always will.”
MacKaye says he’s not surprised that music won out. “There are two types of musicians: people who make music because they want to and people like Mary who make music because they have to,” he explains. “There is music in her that must be realized.”
Timony says she finds it “especially difficult” to talk about the music she wrote during her depression, particularly “The Golden Dove,” a heart-rending album released in 2002 about her split with Bowie.
“Anyone who listens to my solo albums can see I was very troubled,” Timony admits. She used her music, she says, to “deal with my brain.” “It’s like when someone has an idea to paint a picture that will make them feel better,” she explains. “That is what my songs were: maps of my depression.”
The result? Instead of the tried-and-true grit that fans and critics had come to expect from Helium, many of the songs on her solo albums marked a departure, taking a wistfully delicate, medieval-like approach to guitar and language that seemed ripped from a dog-eared anthology of Grimms’ fairy tales. Although her style is unique — Timony herself prefers the term “quirky rock” — it’s not exactly easy listening. Her voice is a dry, borderline-bored-sounding monotone that calls to mind Lou Reed and Debbie Harry. Her lyrics, just as likely to reference dragons as space aliens, are incomprehensible to anyone not familiar or comfortable with the use of metaphor.
“Mary really created a world with her albums,” says Timony’s friend and fellow Wild Flag lead, Carrie Brownstein, formerly of Sleater-Kinney and now the creator and star of the TV series “Portlandia.” “She sung about the disappointments and sadness of everyday life but couched them in terms of the magical, placing them in worlds wherein they could truly feel, like, epic, where daily battles didn’t feel small but instead dire.”
Although appreciated by Brownstein as “ahead of her time” and the New York Times as “daring,” Timony says “most people didn’t get it.” More to the point: “They thought I was a weirdo.”
In a Pitchfork review of “The Golden Dove,” music critic Alison Fields wrote, “she’s certainly crossed the line into self-indulgent Dungeons and Dragons eccentricity.” And that was one of the good reviews; Fields gave her 7.1 on a 10-point scale.
“The way I was portrayed is totally stupid, but whatever,” Timony says. Not that she’s immune to criticism. Every snip “stings,” she says. But not as much as facing the fact that she got so personal in the first place. “It’s a combination of being embarrassed and shocked,” she says. “Did I really sing about that stuff in a public place? Did I really do that?”
In 2004 Timony moved back to Washington, and as she climbed her way out of depression, she resolved to stay away from anything resembling autobiography in her songs. But her music remains undeniably personal.
“I just write what’s in my head. How I’m feeling is how lyrics get written. How the lyrics get written is how the music sounds,” she explains.
When in 2009, her old friend Brownstein called looking to jam, the timing felt right. “I wasn’t expecting to be in a band again. I really have to pinch myself sometimes,” Timony says of her experience as one of Wild Flag’s two front women. The other is Brownstein, with whom Timony trades vocal hooks and riffs on virtually every song. Rounding out the four-piece is drummer Janet Weiss, also from Sleater-Kinney and Quasi, and keyboardist Rebecca Cole.
If the sound of Wild Flag’s self-titled debut album — a raucous love letter to rock-and-roll — is any indication, Timony is in a good place. “For once the music is happy and not depressing,” she says, laughing. “It’s a lot of fun.”
But now the band is on hiatus and Timony is back in Washington trying to figure out what comes next. She has been writing songs and gigging with local musicians Alex Minoff and Amy Domingues, and other friends as they come through town.
“There’s such a pressure now keep yourself relevant. All the self-promotion kind of makes me feel sick,” Timony says. “I just want to make music and not have to think about the rest.”
She has managed to fashion a life in music that combines creating, performing and educating. When she’s not making music herself, she teaches guitar in her basement studio. She enjoys teaching so much that she even considered a career change during the fallow period that preceded Wild Flag.
The life of a working musician can be a constant struggle for artists who don’t land a huge hit song or two to help pay the bills in leaner times. But rock stardom was never Timony’s plan.
“I’ve never once thought, ‘Hey, I’m going to make a product like some really fun party album that everyone will rush out and buy,’ ” she says. “If selling records was why I did this, I obviously wouldn’t be doing this.”
Aimee Swartz is a writer living in Maryland. To comment
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