Mary Halvorson Talks "Artlessly Falling," Robert Wyatt & Her Genius Grant

Mary Halvorson. Photo by James Wang. Used with permission from the artist.

In 2018, guitarist and composer Mary Halvorson crafted a record of vocal-centric songs and took a step in a new direction with the release of Code Girl, the debut release by her new band. Halvorson has always confidently pushed her artistic boundaries and has spent much of her discography developing and refining her personal sound. While some of those signature moves and sonic hallmarks are very much present on Code Girl—from her angular melodies and knotty arrangements to her crisp guitar tone and delay pedal bends—the album marked a departure of concept and process.

With lyrics penned by Halvorson and sung by vocalist Amirtha Kidambi, Code Girl was the first record Halvorson had released under her own name to feature vocals and the first to feature the guitarist as primary lyricist. While she’s no stranger to singing—in both her duo with violist Jessica Pavone and her former avant rock band, People, she took on vocal duties herself—Code Girl is a single-minded vision that centers itself around Halvorson’s lyrics, which she composed as an exploration of her love of poetry.

Mary Halvorson's Code Girl - Artlessly Falling

Artlessly Falling is the newest record with the Code Girl band, and marks a significant creative progression as her approach to this project evolves. She explains, “I wanted to do something different, I didn’t want it to just be totally freeform.” Poet and co-producer David Breskin challenged Halvorson to write within poetic forms and Halvorson rose to the challenge.

“I thought it was a really cool idea, so I got this book of poetic forms and started reading about them and studying them. What was really cool about it to me was that so many of these forms are inherently musical. A lot of them have rhyme schemes built into them, some of them are kind of irregular and circle back or repeat lines," Halvorson says. "It was creatively interesting because I learned a lot and it forced me to make choices I might not have made if I hadn’t had those restrictions. In a way, writing in those forms was freeing.”

This focus is evident on Artlessly Falling, where the Code Girl band once again features Kidambi and the rhythm section of bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara—who also make up the rhythm section of the collective trio Thumbscrew along with Halvorson—and new members, saxophonist/vocalist María Grand and trumpeter Adam O’Farrill. The group turns in a set of tight, dramatic performances that weave and stretch through the twists and turns with flexibility and aplomb.

Code Girl is joined by Halvorson’s longtime influence, prog rock legend and member of the British rock royalty Robert Wyatt on three songs, “The Lemon Trees,” “Walls and Roses,” and Bigger Flames.” While this guest spot may come as a surprise, the result is so natural and self-evident that fanatics will agree it’s truly a dream collaboration to hear Wyatt as a part of Halvorson’s musical universe.

We caught up with Halvorson and discussed Code Girl, Robert Wyatt, and the MacArthur Fellowship—aka the “Genius Grant”—which she was awarded in 2019.

Artlessly Falling arrives October 30. To buy the album or learn more about it, click here.

When did you become interested in poetry and when did you start writing it?

I’ve always been into it peripherally, experimenting with it and reading it occasionally. I’ve never studied it formally. In college I would occasionally write poems and in my 20s I would occasionally write song lyrics. In my duo with Jessica Pavone, we have a few songs with vocals and we’ve both written lyrics. I’ve always enjoyed titling songs and I keep a really big database of song titles. For me, getting into poetry is an extension of that.

For the first record, it was pretty haphazard. I was completely experimenting, which was fun because I think the thing about writing poetry and not being a poet is that I don’t have any hangups. You know how when you study something, you get into having certain hangups about stylistic things and “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts”? I didn’t really have any of that, it was just pure experimentation, which was really nice but also very difficult.

How do you feel that your use of poetic forms affected the process of composing the music? And how did that differ from the composition process of the first Code Girl record?

It was definitely different because there were more structures in place with the words, so I think it pushed me into different spaces musically. Also, the nice thing about doing a second record with a band is that you kind of know how it works, so I was able to have a better sense of what it might sound like, so I could experiment more and try things I haven’t tried because I knew what the band’s sound was.

To me, writing the music was the easier part. Once I write the lyrics, I generally write the song quickly—I know what the song’s about and I know what the meter of the words is, and writing a song around that gives you something to go on.

For example, the sestina, which is the most complicated form, probably took me months to write, constantly revising and chipping away—that was the quickest song to write once I had the words.

You’ve sung in projects in the past. How is it different writing lyrics for other people to sing?

It’s very different. I’m not a good singer and in People I was going for a specific thing, like completely unpolished singing on purpose. I really enjoyed singing, but at a certain point, I didn’t want to do it anymore.

When I started writing these words, mainly for Amirtha [Kidambi], and seeing what she could do with it, it was just so much more than I could do as a singer. As I’m writing the songs, I’m singing them myself to get an idea if they’re singable and if they sound natural with the voice. Having her take it, she transforms it into something way crazier than I can do on my own and that’s really exciting. I really enjoy writing for her and now a couple other singers too on this record.

"Pretty Mountain" from Mary Halvorson's Code Girl

Thumbscrew—the collective trio of Michael Formanek, Tomas Fujiwara, and yourself—is embedded within Code Girl. Other than lyrics and vocal writing, how else is the writing process different for these groups?

I guess the thing that’s similar is that I’m always writing for the specific group, so I’m envisioning the specific musicians and trying to imagine what it will sound like with them playing it. With Code Girl, the thing that makes it different is that I think of it more as a song project. Usually, I’ll start playing guitar and singing and then flesh out the parts—I might add a horn part or a bass part, it’s sort of this layered approach. With Thumbscrew, we all write music for it. I might start with a bassline or a couple chords or even a drum part.

How did it come about to have Robert Wyatt sing on Artlessly Falling?

He’s one of my favorite musicians on the planet. People who like him tend to be fanatical about him. I had some acquaintances who knew him and mail him a package every year—he loves jazz records. So I gave these guys my CD and wrote him a little note somewhere between 10 and 15 years ago. He actually listened to it and mailed me this postcard. He’s just the nicest person in the world, it meant so much to me and we just started this correspondence, so if I have some music come out, I’ll often mail it to him. We’ve emailed a bunch over the years.

I knew I wanted to have a male singer on this record, and he was my first choice. I had read an interview where he said he’d stopped making music several years ago, but I thought, “I’m in touch with him, it can’t hurt to just send him an email and see if he would do it.” He wrote back right away and said, “I’d love to do it.” I was totally shocked. He was so great to work with and so cool about the whole thing. It was a dream come true to me.

I love putting together unusual combinations of musicians or people who haven’t met. Just thinking about him with the Code Girl band was really cool. But also, because he’s such an influence on my music, I think it felt really natural. And because I asked him to do it before I wrote the songs, I was able to write these songs specifically for him. While I was writing the melodies, I was picturing him singing on them and we’d have some back and forth, so he was involved in the process in a really cool way.

In 2019 you received the MacArthur Fellowship. How has that affected what you’ve been working on?

I don’t think it changed, musically, what I want to do, but it does allow me much more opportunity if I’m thinking about a large scale project—I don’t have to worry about how to pay for it. In that respect it really frees me up. The timing of it is crazy with Covid, when no musicians have any work, to not have to worry about money this year on top of everything else there is to worry about, has been amazing and I’m so thankful for that.

One of the things I really want to do is to practice guitar and get better at guitar and compose a lot and have the space and the quiet to do that without having to run around and work all the time. That’s the main thing for me so far. That part has been amazingly helpful.

It’s something you have for five years, so I imagine there will be larger projects that I’ll want to do further on down the road that will be much easier to accomplish. I guess another way of saying it is that I don’t have to put any limitations on what I want to do.

A short video made about Halvorson by the MacArthur Foundation.

When it was announced that you’d received the MacArthur, there was a NYTimes article where you said, “When I started playing this kind of music, I never thought there would be that big of an audience for it. If anything, I hope I can shine a light on this whole scene.” Who are the musicians and projects that you’d like to shine a light on?

Maybe this sounds like a copout answer, but I really mean it, everybody that I work with and everybody that I’m friends with, this whole scene of music. It really is very obscure and very specialized. Anything I can do to draw attention to all kinds of left-of-center and more experimental kinds of music, and I don’t know that there is, that would be great.

I think the stereotype that I’d love to break down is that you need to know a lot about this music in order to appreciate it—and I just don’t think it’s true. You’ll see that at shows, sometimes you’ll get someone coming up to you after a show and they’ll qualify their comment, “I don’t know anything about this, but I thought this…” You don’t have to have some special knowledge, it’s not some hyper-intellectual secret club kind of thing. I’d love to try and get rid of some of those stigmas.

It’s something that seems specific to music. People will read a challenging novel without having an English degree and people will go to art museums without having art degrees, but that’s a very specific qualification that a lot of people seem to share after a concert.

Yeah, and it’s sometimes those people who have the most interesting comments! They might not know what time signature it’s in or whatever, but it doesn’t matter.

So much about it is context. I played a solo show at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis a few years ago and I was just set up in the corner gallery. People who were checking out the museum would stop and listen for a while. Some of them were there to see me but most of them were just going around the museum. I felt like those people, because they were in the mindset of checking out art they maybe didn’t know much about, they were more open to listen to me than if I had been in a dive bar in the back of the room.

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