Singer/Songwriter Mary McGuire has traveled the world, honing her guitar chops along the way, and she’s still “Love Struck” with her Detroit roots.
With the recent release of her new album Love Struck, McGuire fills us in on the inspiration behind the album, the musicians who accompanied her, and how she got to where she is as a musician and artist today.
You knew from an early age that music was in your blood. How old were you when you first picked up the guitar?
I started playing trombone in 5th grade because my neighbor played it and I thought it sounded beautiful. He was in a rock band and I’d see the guys coming over to practice in the basement and they sounded fantastic. So one day on my way home from school, I picked one up out of the garbage, I was about 11 or 12. It didn’t work at all. But my friend Robin had a guitar and played really well and taught me a few chords. Then while at a Sunday mass at LaSallette Church, they introduced the guitar group. I thought, man that would be fun. So, I went up and asked if I could join and they said I should get a guitar. My dad took me to Music, Strings and Things and bought me a guitar and that was the start of my real playing. I was 13, in the 9th grade, and started in the guitar group a week later. It was hard, I had to learn chords really fast and get it together. I split my time after school practicing trombone and guitar.
Growing up in the ‘70s, who were your early musical influences?
Well, there were so many. My first albums were The Beatles, Alice Cooper, and the Rolling Stones — they were all so inspiring. But, the first guitar thing I remember wanting to play badly was Neil Young’s song “Heart of Gold” and “Over the Hills and Far Away” by Led Zeppelin.
In your bio you mentioned that the different places you have lived have influenced your writing. Tell us about your background.
I grew up in Metro Detroit. It seemed like everyone – school, the community, friends and families – encouraged exploring the arts — I was fortunate. So music was everywhere; in our house, in the parks, at school, at church … we’d go to concerts or put on our own. Detroit radio was rich and without it I don’t know how I would have developed as a musician. CKLW, WDRQ, WRIF, WABX, WWWW … they all fed me musically. So, going from Motown to underground rock was the path to enlightenment for me. I even kept a transistor radio under my pillow and tuned in as much as I could. Detroit is the rock city for sure. I was completely influenced by what is called Classic Rock today.
Then, at a friend’s 16th birthday party, they had an acoustic trio come who played CSN&Y, America, Cat Stevens, Seals and Crofts, Beach Boys … softer rock or what is deemed more folk-rock today. I fell in love with the guitar playing and harmonies and was hooked.
Everyone said I should move to California, that my sound was too soft for Detroit, not rock enough, not country enough. Instead, I started playing on Mackinac Island. It’s a beautiful Island in the Upper Midwest with only horses and bikes — no cars. So the lapping of the waves on the rocky coastline, boat horns from the freighters, and the clip clop of horses started to influence me; as well as the song requests from tourists on a nightly basis. I was learning songs in so many genres to play the gigs, it was a great education from a primarily Midwestern audience. I would play anything from hard rock to folk rock, but not too folky — that doesn’t go over in the Midwest so well. They want OOMPH!
From Mackinac, I moved to Martha’s Vineyard. It was beautiful — rolling hills, inlet ponds, the Atlantic Ocean; there was a gentler feeling in the sea air. I started to write softer music, worked harder on my right hand fingerpicking style; after all I was in the land of James Taylor and Carly Simon. The tourists expected to hear their songs and that meant I had to step up my picking style to make it happen. The audience really shaped me in so many ways from their requests. And, the bar owners, too. They’d say, hey learn this, learn that, don’t sing so hard, sing a little harder, all of these suggestions I took to heart when I was practicing, preparing for gigs and when approaching my songwriting. I would test myself, I actually still do it this way.
You’ve been associated with several different bands throughout your career. How have those experiences impacted you as an artist?
So much. My first experiences were in acoustic duos with other women, and they were a blast. I am still drawn to that intimacy of playing, having a musical conversation with just one other person, so I keep that going.
My first band in high school covered Rush and Yes tunes and we wrote our own prog rock stuff. I played 12 string and bass pedals, so I had to really split my brain.
Then I joined a band that we called Ash Can Van Gogh. We loved all of the same music, and we loved to practice and write. I really learned so much from being in that band. I played rhythm guitars and bass. We did well in Detroit, had some radio airplay, label interest, recorded at Pearl Sound and Ambiance and it was fun. So I learned how to write collaboratively, deal with booking, finances, record labels, all of it.
After that I was in Spiral Dance and from that band we formed Cosmic Dali, we were really alternative. I was the front person for the first time, played electric more than acoustic, and it was a trio so there was a whole new approach to playing and writing.
I had to clean up my electric playing as I was no longer playing as a support instrumentalist, I was the only guitarist. My playing developed more – bass runs, licks with chords, all of that kind of playing. My right hand feel had to change or I was going to beat those guitars apart and my left hand had to lighten up due to the playing on 11s instead of 12s or 13s as I did on acoustic. We were what you’d call an indie band today … did all our own marketing, recording, radio promo, shows, etc.
We moved out East and I stayed on Martha’s Vineyard but the guys went to Alaska. I decided to go back to college and eventually moved to Boston. That was a lonely town as a musician. It was hard to find bandmates, Cambridge was full of solo singer/songwriters, purist folksingers, hard metal and blues bands … so I played solo in the pubs and met some amazingly cool people.
At Harvard, my songwriting changed again, the writing classes made me really start to dissect my lyrics and the courses challenged me to think about different things to write about – not just my life and the things I saw in my immediate surroundings. It was refreshing and necessary. I had a professor who said, “Why spend your life looking in the mirror? Get out, learn, teach, share, it’s more fulfilling.” He was right. Being a musician can be isolating and the focus on oneself can be unhealthy unless you have someone to answer to, like an instructor.
After graduating, I moved back to Mackinac, and that opened up a lot of time. The winters are so quiet and I had time to write, rewrite, practice my guitar, scales, chords, all the old books and new ones. I was able to reconnect with old bandmates and find some new ones. That was when both the Blood Sisters and Calamity Jane formed and both were a blast. Three part harmonies, powerful songwriting and playing; whether it was acoustic with just the three of us or a full band with the guys from Calamity Jane. Another Island musician, Donny Sorenson asked if I wanted to play some shows in the pubs on the Island and if yes, who would I want to play with? I said Erik Gustafson and Gary Rasmussen. He called them and they said yes and, bam, we had Calamity Jane. We played my songs plus loads of covers that we liked. I’d say we were a psychedelic/prog rock/alt rock band.
How do you feel you have progressed as a songwriter and guitarist since you began your musical journey?
Hmm, well, I think that I am writing better and becoming more of the artist I’d like to be. For my guitar playing, I want to get better and study more. I don’t think there is enough lifetime to accomplish what I want, but if I keep taking things in steps by setting goals for myself then that is measurable and I am okay with that.
Let’s talk about your new album Love Struck. How did you pull together the musicians for this album?
Erik Gustafson (Blue Dog, Larval, Howling Diablos), Gary Rasmussen (The Up, Sonic’s Rendevous, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop) and I had been playing and writing so I asked them first and they said yes. Then, Chuck Alkazian started adding to the tracks by playing drums and piano. “Song Without Words” was written by Johnny Bee Badanjek (Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, Alice Cooper, Edgar Winter Group, The Rockets, Howling Diablos) and I asked him if he would be interested in playing drums. I was so thrilled when he said yes. Then he added the melody line in the chorus and he and I layered all the background vocals once we were in the studio so the song became a duet. I am still pinching myself over that one. Erik and I were thinking it would be good to add mandolin, so I asked him if his partner/musician girlfriend Beth Wilusz (Larval) would want to play on it and thankfully she said yes. For “Love Struck,” I kept hearing soprano sax and the only person I could even think to ask was Johnny Evans (Urbations, Larval, Howling Diablos) who I have known and admired for decades. He said yes, too. I was really fortunate and am so grateful to everyone that helped make this album. It was a true collaboration, everyone brought their A game, came in, added their parts, and that was it. With Chuck at the helm, we just did it. It wasn’t complicated; it was fun.
What was the inspiration behind the music with songs like “Welfare State,” “Tell Me Robert,” and “Song Without Words”?
I wrote “Welfare State” back in the ‘90s. I had played three gigs in one day to three distinctly different audiences while the economy was tanking and the state government was cutting all sorts of things to get by. There were mental facilities being shut down and people were just let out on the streets in Pontiac. On this particular day, I tuned into the audiences I was playing for and was hearing how they were all affected in different ways, the wealthy worried about the homeless people being too close to their homes and cars, the blue collar guys being pessimistic about their job security and future, and the low income people signing up for welfare as their already low paying jobs were cut and the humiliation they shared that came with signing up for welfare, hence the title “Welfare State.”
“Tell Me Robert” is about my dear friend, musician, poet, astrologer, author and well-known philosopher Robert Thibodeau. He has a great bookstore called the Mayflower, which houses volumes of texts on Theosophy, Buddhism, Christianity, Paganism, Steiner, you name it. I’ve learned so much from him. I was giving him guitar lessons for a time and was sharing how to move around inside of chords. I came up with the main theme and just decided to write a song about Robert and the things we talked about during our lessons or over coffee. We would talk about love and hate through the ages and well, love and hate are such strong themes. With that in mind and with love and hate being a driving force behind so much in our contemporary world, I thought I would expand on it a bit in a song and write the music to match what I was trying to share with him — moving melody lines within a chord structure along with complex rhythms and giving it a droney, Eastern feel. Erik laid down the sitar on the track which really brings that feel to life.
“Song Without Words” was written by Johnny Bee Badanjek. After he heard Blood Sisters at the Mackinac Island Music Festival (we shared the bill with the Howling Diablos) he said next time I was in Detroit to come by, that he had some songs we might want to do. So, I called him up that winter and went to his place. He played me five or six songs, and I loved them all, but there was something about “Song Without Words” that struck a chord with me. It is the lyrics, the chord progression, the rhythm, and then the reality and sadness of that moment you realize you are with the wrong person. Bee is such a visual lyricist and so musical, I just knew I had to ask him if I could record it. Luckily, he said yes. Chuck kept hearing it stripped down, so he created that beautiful piano part and added in Beth and Erik’s mandolin tracks, it was so beautifully raw.
Is there any one song in particular on the album that stands out the most to you?
I really like them all, and my favorite keeps changing. Lately, its “Love Struck.”
You’ve had the fortune of touring and supporting so many great artists to include B.B. King, Patty Griffin, Anni DiFranco, Gllian Welch, Pat Benatar, and so many others. What’s one of your most memorable moments from that experiences?
Opening for Richie Havens at the Whaling Church on Martha’s Vineyard was amazing. He was so kind and encouraging and shared some killer right-hand strumming techniques with me. B.B King was a gentleman, he was so kind. It was his spirit that was really memorable even if we only spoke for a few minutes. But my most memorable experience is recent, I was part of The Dick Wagner Remember the Child Benefit Concert at the Fillmore Detroit. My good friend Ray Goodman originally asked me to be his guitar tech and later he asked me to play acoustic guitar with Mark Farner and the band on “I’m Your Captain.” It is one of my all-time favorite songs and Mark Farner is still one of the best rock vocalists and songwriters on the planet. Add to it that we were honoring the Maestro of Rock, Dick Wagner, one of my guitar/songwriting heroes in a sold out house at the Fillmore in my hometown and it was a slam dunk for me.
What decisions that you have made in your life have led to your success?
Being in school band and choir gave me a solid foundation to build on. My band directors set great examples and taught me what it was to be a professional musician rather than a rock star. They also instilled being a lifelong learner, so what I do today isn’t good enough tomorrow and I keep striving to become better. Also, I chose not to be trendy and by that I mean not to play the style of the moment. I am not sure whether that is successful in terms of what some people deem success in this business. But, to me, I’ve done all I can to stay true to myself and to keep learning to better my musicianship. I just want to get more accomplished, write good songs, record more and surround myself with musicians that are like-minded and strive to be the best they can be, too.
Also a guitar instructor, what’s the best piece of advice you would give to an aspiring young musician?
Learn the language; learn to read, learn theory, and open yourself to music from all cultures in order to have a wide musical vocabulary. Set goals for yourself and remember that there is no one “best” style, there isn’t one best guitar player. There are many and there is much to be learned from everyone and everything. Invest in good gear, but don’t go so crazy that it takes you away from playing your instrument. Oh, and definitely, practice, practice, practice.
Mary McGuire’s Gear:
Takamine Santa Fe PSF-45C Acoustic Electric
Takamine EN-20 Jumbo Acoustic Electric
Ovation 1986 Collectors Series 6 & 12 String Guitars
1976 Takamine F-395S Jumbo 12 String (reset as a Baritone Guitar tuned from C#)
Ignacio Rozas Classical
Vox Virage, single cutaway electric
Clay Strat: Custom Made
Other Stringed Instruments
Warren May Dulcimer
19th c. Hungarian Kobosz
For more on Mary McGuire and her music, visit: Mary’s website at www.marymcguire.com
Cover photo credit: Photo courtesy of Kate Levy Photography
Contributing to the article is Mary McGuire’s Publicist, Stacey Sherman at RSP Entertainment Marketing. For media inquiries, contact Stacey Sherman at www.rspentertainmentmarketing.com.