As the indie and grunge rockers of the 1980s and ’90s approach late middle age, hatchet-buryings and band reunions are becoming almost an everyday occurrence. But what happens when aging songwriters revisit their younger selves? Does getting into the head of an angry young woman when you’re pushing 50 demand a degree of leather-clad role-playing? Or is that vexed 20-something still there, deep inside the subconscious mind?
Those are questions Helium’s Mary Timony has been wrestling with, to some degree, ever since the Matador label embarked on a program of reissuing the group’s 1990s recordings, which include the albums The Dirt of Luck and The Magic City, the No Guitars EP, and a new collection of singles and rarities, Ends With And. Timony has been quoted as saying that she used to write out of anger, but the person who answers the phone at her Washington, D.C., digs is unfailingly sunny—and ready to laugh at her earlier self.
“It was an interesting process to go back and go over those songs again,” Timony reports. “I was approaching songwriting from a really different place at the time, in my 20s. But I’m not always thinking about the meaning of the words when I’m singing them. I’m more just listening to melodies, and thinking about connecting with the band. Maybe there are a couple of songs that I just don’t really like doing, ’cause I was in kind of a darker place when I wrote them. So maybe we’ve tweaked the set around a little bit so it’s pretty fun to play—and I generally have a fun time, playing live. I guess I don’t really have to do the role-playing thing.”
More on her mind is presenting Helium’s music as well as she can. In this, she’s helped by the fact that her former bandmates are not onboard for her current Mary Timony Plays Helium tour, having been replaced by younger and harder-working musicians.
“The guys that I played with in Helium were amazing, but we were just kind of lazy as a band,” Timony says, laughing. “We had a little bit of a slacker mentality about practising, and I think I’ve gotten a little bit better about that!”
As far as reinvigorating her muscle memory goes, the guitarist notes that between her day job and the treasure box that is YouTube, she was able to piece her old songs together without much trouble.
“It was kind of daunting to think about relearning the parts, but it actually ended up being kind of a fun process,” she explains. “One of the things I do is teach guitar, so it just kind of felt like I was learning someone else’s songs. It really wasn’t that much different.
“There were a couple of songs where I couldn’t remember how the parts went on the neck—like, where on the neck I was playing them—and I just happened to find some very random footage of us playing in 1994 or something, and figured it out from that. It’s not like there’s a ton of stuff on YouTube, but there happened to be one random show at a college somewhere, and that helped me.”
It helps, too, that although Timony has been somewhat out of the spotlight since Helium disbanded in 1998, she’s kept active in music, performing with Portlandia star Carrie Brownstein in Wild Flag and more recently with her own trio, Ex Hex.
“I haven’t really looked back that much in my musical career,” she admits. “This is the first time I’ve really done that, and it feels good!”
Mary Timony Plays Helium is at the Cobalt on February 21.