Mary Bragg photo by Shervin Lainez
Mary Bragg Levels Up as Songwriter and Producer for Her Self-Titled Album
Mary Bragg recently released her self-titled album which builds on multiple previous albums as a songwriter, recording artist, and a producer. The journey towards this new collection has been longer than usual for Bragg, and it’s also encompassed her movement further into production. She recently completed a graduate program with Berklee College of Music in songwriting and production, and allowed herself to bring those experiences to completing her new album.
There are other aspects of Bragg’s self-titled album that show a lot of intention on her part, including branching into more autobiographical territory while honing ideas down to universal subjects. The combination brings the album uniquely into focus, with each song carrying powerful messages alongside careful orchestration that explores the emotions at hand. I spoke with Mary Bragg about this very personal and focused new collection and about her experiences adding to her professional profile as a producer.
Americana Highways: Working on this new album, did you have any thoughts about how you wanted to record the songs versus how they could be played live?
Mary Bragg: I really try to let the songs be the boss, if that makes sense. I also love to make records in a way that is in the service of the song. For this Americana Fest, I was playing a lot of these songs solo. For last Americana Fest, I was playing with a full band, and I was also playing a lot of these songs. That was early in the process of this record. It’s been kind of sweet to see how the record came together after having tried out a lot of the new songs. But when I’m in the studio, I don’t particularly think about how to take the songs on the road, since I really just want to focus on making the best record that I can.
AH: On top of finishing this record, you just recently finished your songwriting and production degree, so congratulations! Did any of the experience of working on the degree impact this album?
MB: Yes, it did. It’s still so new to me to be done with graduate school. The record did have a lot of time spent in my heart, brain, and hands. It was there in the studio, at The Power Station, and here at home, in Brooklyn, where I’m primarily based. I used a few of the songs as testing mechanisms, if you will, during school. Most of the songs were already written and completed before I started the one-year, intense program.
Once I came to New York and got in the beautiful rhythm of learning, and tried to take what I knew and expand upon that in the studio. In some cases, I gave myself permission to rewrite entirely. In some cases, I gave myself permission to scrap songs entirely that I had actually fully produced. And, I also gave myself permission to start over with production in one case. I just wanted to give the record its best possible due. Also, being in grad school was super-intense so I wanted to focus on that and also make sure the record got enough of time.
AH: I can’t imagine what it would be like to do both those things at the same time.
MB: [Laughs] It was a little bit nuts! But in the end, I’m really happy with how it came out. It was certainly the longest amount of time that I’ve ever spent on one album. It was also incredibly rewarding and joyful to learn about things in the studio that I could then apply to the record.
AH: I know that this time period also involved a huge amount of change for you, personally, but also for the whole world. Sometimes allowing that change to impact the project itself is important.
MB: That’s a great point. It makes me feel better about myself! If you do work through those difficulties, then ideally you are the better for it in the long wrong. There’s definitely a pandemic stamp on this record. “The Lonely Persistence of Time” on this record, for example, was born out of the initial stages of the pandemic. Really, for the first time in our lives, we got to have our sense of time fully jostled. Everything came to a screeching halt and the concept of time was a new iteration of itself.
AH: When did you start thinking that you wanted to do this graduate program?
MB: Believe it or not, I was served a very well-targeted Instagram ad in late summer of 2020. I applied by the fall and moved by the summer of 2021. I clicked on the ad out of curiosity to see what Berklee was up to. I didn’t plan to go to grad school and I didn’t think I needed it, necessarily, to continue working and living the life I’d been living. But everything was up in the air at that time.
I realized that the kind of person they were looking for was basically a description of me, like a songwriter who’s obsessed with songs, community, and collaboration, and also Producers who wanted to enhance their skills. But I wasn’t interested in doing a program on the internet, so I was really thankful that Berklee were adamant about being back to campus. That was great.
AH: You had done a lot of recording and production for yourself and others before you did this program, right?
MB: I did two and a half records before Lucky Strike and Violets as Camouflage. The first was called Sugar, and the second one was called Tattoos and Bruises. Both are my example of early time in the studio learning about how to make a record. Those were both made when I was living in New York. I was sort of a late bloomer in the sense that I grew up in the deep South in a very conservative, traditional environment, so it took me a while to be figure out how to express myself as a writer and even as a singer that wasn’t classically trained.
I learned a lot through those early experiences about how there were things I didn’t yet know, but also that there are a number of ways to make a record. There are many factors at play that can be adjusted to your liking. Early on, I didn’t really have much interest in producing, but around 2015, I co-produced my EP, Edge of this Town. It was the first time that I’d been in that role and felt like I had some moments where I had a voice that was being heard and where I was asking questions that I definitely didn’t know the answer to. That was the beginning of my real quest towards being a producer. I co-produced Lucky Strike and moved even more into that position. On Violets as Camouflage, I needed to make a record without spending a ton, so I learned the bare minimum about how to record at home with the help of a lot of friends. I recorded and produced it myself, so that was throwing myself in at the deep end.
That was the beginning of discovering the beauty of being the producer, because the reality of it is that when you’re in charge of creative decisions, you can do so much more as the songwriter. The kind of producer I am is a songwriter’s producer, since that’s my initial love in this world. This means that I’m a producer that thinks a lot about singing and songwriting, and a lot about melodies. I think a lot about what other instruments can do in relation to melodies. I hadn’t really given myself permission to do that until then.
AH: The song “Hard Time” on the album really stands out to me because sometimes when you’re having a hard time, it’s so intense that all you can manage to say is, “I’m having a hard time.” Maybe that’s because I’m Southern, too, and there’s a culture of not really elaborating on these things.
MB: I wrote that with Caroline Spence, who’s an exceptional human being and an exceptional artist and writer. I came in with the idea and she instantly loved the idea of writing to it. It’s such a feeling that we do all have in common. It might even be the quickest song that was written on the whole record. The song really supports the description of that feeling, and it’s written not to get in the way of this dichotomy—the simplicity of the depth of the phrase. You can’t describe it in great detail, so our choice as writers was to describe that there isn’t a way to explain it or make it better. It just is.
AH: I love that this song is not geared toward suggesting a universal solution but accepts as truth the reality of that experience.
MB: I’m so glad to hear that. That makes me happy.
AH: I realize that a lot of the songs on the album do have some interrelationships. Conceptually “Please Don’t Be Perfect” and “In the Light” have a relationship to accepting where people are in their experiences. “In the Light” is a song could encompass a lot of things, but it made me think about times where you’re deciding how much you can be yourself in the outside world.
MB: That’s deep! [Laughs] There are things we keep from the outside world, and there are things that we keep from ourselves. My own obsession with perfection is part of “Please Don’t Be Perfect” because that’s literally something that my partner said to me. I think there’s something I’ve had to work on, which is acknowledging the imperfect parts of myself. With “In the Light,” the question is, if you get to know me, will you see what you desire behind the veil? Can we even get to know ourselves enough to be honest with ourselves?
There are a lot of difficulties I went through and continue to go through in my life, but it all boils down to: Can we be honest with ourselves, and can we be honest with others? I definitely think it starts, not just with being kind to yourself and loving yourself, but with acknowledging the things in yourself that maybe you don’t like. It’s saying, “I don’t like this thing but it exists. Maybe I want to do something about it. Maybe I want to quit hiding from the outside world. Maybe I want to quit saying I’m fine when I’m really having a hard time.”
AH: Sometimes even asking that question of yourself can be a radical moment. There’s a first time for everything.
MB: Are you willing to hear the question? It’s hard to answer those questions, too, sometimes.
AH: Your other music, traditionally, is more on the storytelling side, and this one seems more autobiographical. But actually, these songs feel stripped down to universal things even though this is autobiographical.
MB: It’s definitely important to me to get out of the way as best I can of what I’d like to exist between the song and the listener. What I see as one of my biggest jobs as a writer is to write through my own pain and experiences, but to allow the listener to put themselves in the song as much as possible through their own life’s lens.
For me, if the song is too much about myself, I do sometimes see that as getting in the way. I’m not allowing it to be a universal truth. There’s a fair amount of literal truth on this record, but there’s also a fair amount of songwriter’s license on the record, and that is for the sake of the song and the relationship to the listener that I would like to see exist.
AH: One song that does have a lot of detail, but probably for very specific reasons, is “Love Each Other.” All of those things in the song have happened to me! I don’t know if that means I’m too biased to judge the song.
MB: [Laughs] There is a lot of actual personal experience in that song, but there is a lot of license that my co-writer and I took because of the feeling of wanting to simply push through a difficult family moment with love. The craving for kindness is so widely felt, as it turns out, that we did want to use very specific examples, like somebody gets upset at the Thanksgiving table. Has that happened to me? Yes. Did it happen to me in the same way that it happened in the song? No.
That is a song that was written during a time before a lot of change in some parts of my family, but I’m happy to have the love and kindness of those who offer it, including my very loving parents. They have come a long way in their journey of how to meet the reality that their daughter is bi. They did have a hard time with that and didn’t even know what that meant when I told them. But they have chosen to meet my partner, which is a big deal, and a gift to me and to her.
It’s not like the song changed their mind, but they also want people to love each other. That’s how I was raised! I was raised to love and be kind to people. It may sound cliché, but I was raised to prioritize love over everything else, and to prioritize goodness and kindness. I have been the stubborn one in my life, but I have to choose to love the people I disagree with. I sure hope that the people who disagree with me will eventually choose to love me and offer me kindness in return, but man is that hard.
Thanks Mary Bragg for talking with us! Find her music and more information here: http://marybragg.com