Art Talk with Guitarist Mary Halvorson

By Rebecca Sutton
Woman in glasses holding a guitar
Mary Halvorson. Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff
Mary Halvorson isn’t much one for labels. Jazz, experimental, avant-garde—whatever you want to call her music is fine with her. It’s the sort of categorical freedom that has allowed her to become one of the most innovative guitarists across any genre, leading one recent New York Times reviewer to proclaim her “an unflinching original.” She has performed with musicians such as Taylor Ho Bynum, Jason Moran, Trevor Dunn, Ingrid Laubrock, and her former teachers Joe Morris and NEA Jazz Master Anthony Braxton. As her own band has shifted from three to eight artists through the years, her compositional range has expanded accordingly, gaining new voices to carry out her unconventional ideas. Before she left on a European tour, we caught up with Halvorson to talk about composition, creativity, and Jimi Hendrix. NEA: I was reading that you were first drawn to the guitar through rock, not jazz. Can you tell me more about what initially drew you in? MARY HALVORSON: I discovered Jimi Hendrix at some point—I wish I remembered how or why but I don't. I was maybe 11 or 12. If I ask guitarists of any age, about half of them say they started guitar because of Jimi Hendrix. He has such a wide influence, spanning so many generations. I think that's really interesting. But somehow I heard him, and I was really drawn to his way of playing and the excitement of the music. I went out and got a black and white Stratocaster, which is what he had. I'm also left-handed like he is, though I don't play guitar lefty. I had already had some background with music because I played violin for a few years prior to that, but it never really stuck and I was never that good at it. So when I discovered Jimi Hendrix, switching from violin to guitar seemed like the thing to do. NEA: So how did you eventually make your way to jazz? HALVORSON: My dad is interested in jazz, and he has a lot of jazz records, although I was never that interested in them. When it seemed like I was going to stick with the guitar, my parents asked around for recommendations for a teacher, and the teacher that was recommended to them just happened to be a jazz player. So I started taking lessons with him. He was teaching me all kinds of stuff, but the more advanced I got, the more he started getting into jazz. Then I started digging back into those records that my dad had. It definitely wasn't love at first listen, and I definitely didn't really understand it at first. But I think it's one of those things where the more you hear it, it draws you in. Then the more you start to understand it, it only becomes more interesting. So it was a gradual thing with jazz. NEA: But you don't necessarily classify yourself as a jazz guitarist. One of the most consistent categorizations of your sound actually is that it’s difficult to categorize. How would you describe it? HALVORSON: I did a concert last night with the band at Smith College in Massachusetts. Somebody in the audience asked Tomas Fujiwara, the drummer, that same question: how would you describe what you just did? I was listening to his answer, because I'm never really sure how to answer [that question]. He said, "I think the best way to describe it is how YOU would describe it." I thought that was cool. It makes the point that there is no neat category for it. Some people would call it jazz; some people wouldn't. People get really touchy about whether or not things are jazz. I don't really care. If people want to call it jazz that's fine with me; if people want to call it something else, that's fine with me too. I don't have a quick descriptor of what type of music I think I play. NEA: One thing at least that seems pretty established is that you push boundaries, you experiment, you improvise—your music always sounds fresh and new and different. How do you find the energy and inspiration for what seems like a constant cycle of innovation? HALVORSON: I'm glad you hear it that way. <laughs> It is my goal to come up with something that I feel is new or different, even to myself. I want to keep challenging myself and keep growing as an artist. It's a quality I admire in other artists and musicians as well—that they're not just making the same record over and over or painting the same painting over and over, but they have that desire to grow and take risks and experiment. So that's always a standard I set for myself. I try to do that; I try to keep growing as a musician and try out different ideas even if they're not all necessarily successful. I want to try to keep life interesting for myself. Part of that is technical—there's always things for me to get better at on the guitar, so I practice a lot. And part of it is just being inspired by different things and trying to come up with ideas and things I may not have tried before. My most recent group has a singer, and I wrote lyrics. That was a very new creative process for me. It was really enjoyable working on it because it felt like an unknown territory. NEA: What was it like writing lyrics? HALVORSON: It was really cool. I'm not a poet and I'm not really a lyricist, although it is something I've experimented with from time to time over the years. But because it's not something I normally do, I didn't feel inhibited by any set of rules. Because I didn't study poetry, I wasn't having voices in my head saying, "No, that's incorrect" or "That's too much like this person." I felt wide open and because I didn't really have a process—it was just complete experimentation. There'd be some idea or concept I'd want to get across, and it'd just be totally haphazard, which was was really interesting. It was really fun for me. NEA: You mentioned that it's important to push yourself even if all your ideas aren't necessarily successful. What kind of role does the idea of failure play in your own artistic practice? HALVORSON: I studied with Anthony Braxton, who is an NEA Jazz Master. From the time I was 19 years old, he said, "If you're not making mistakes, something's wrong." So he hammered in this idea that it's okay to make mistakes. I'm very thankful for having that lesson early, because I think a lot of music students don't. So he was always encouraging his students to try things and not worry too much if you fall on your head. I guess that's what I try and do, whether it's a small mistake or a big mistake. If I play a wrong note when I'm trying to execute some written material, I'll acknowledge that I did it and I'll think about how I can make it better so I don't make that same mistake next time. But I'm not going to beat myself up about it. If it's a larger failure, like I'm trying out a new concept and it just doesn't work that well, or I'm writing a composition and I finish it and I feel that it's uninspired or it's just not good, those things can be frustrating but I don't really let them get me down. Because I feel like that's part of the process. If you're trying things out, you're not going to have a 100 percent success rate. So even though it might feel like a waste of time, it's not. NEA: You mentioned Anthony Braxton. Can you talk more about his impact on who you feel you are as an artist today? HALVORSON: It's pretty enormous. I really feel that I would not be a musician today if it weren't for him. I went to Wesleyan University, where he used to teach, thinking that I would study science and do music on the side. I was so taken with him and everything he was teaching and how inspiring he and his music was that I ended up switching to a music major and dropping all my science classes. If he hadn't been the teacher there, I really don't think that would have happened. So I feel like I owe a lot to him. I think part of it was that he was so encouraging and so inspiring, but also his music—talk about not being able to categorize something. It really gives you this idea that, “Wow I could do anything. I don't have to fit my music in this box.” He really expanded my idea of what music could be, which is probably a large part of what made me want to be a musician. NEA: Who or what have been some of your other major influences or inspiration? HALVORSON: I had another really important teacher around the same time, Joe Morris. For me, that was a really similar thing. He had conceptually really similar ideas to Anthony, where he was really pushing me to explore, and to find my own voice and to not try and imitate other guitar players that I like, including himself. So when we had lessons, he would never play guitar, because he didn't want me to copy what he was playing. He would play bass. To me, that was also a really strong lesson. Here's this guitar player I admire and I show up to take lessons and his whole point is, “No, I'm not going to show you what I'm doing. I'm going to help you figure out what you're doing.” So he was a really big influence, and still is. NEA: Your band has shifted from trio to a quintet to a septet to an octet, and you also perform as a soloist. How has your compositional style evolved with each iteration? HALVORSON: If you look at the evolution of my band going from trio to quintet to septet to octet, I feel like I've been gradually adding to it and gradually learning how to orchestrate and add more colors and write for larger and larger groups. That was a real trial and error process. I think I've gradually been starting to think more orchestrally with how I write, and to feel more comfortable writing for different voices and hearing things with more layers and a wider scope of instruments. Even the solo project, I felt like I was in that orchestral state of mind. I wasn't composing, because they were covers, but I was arranging, and I was trying to get as wide a range of colors and concepts and ideas as I could. NEA: Can you walk me through your creative process? HALVORSON: Normally what works for me is to improvise on guitar until I play something I feel could be a seed for a composition, whether it's a phrase or rhythmic idea or chord progression. Or maybe it's just a line, and I'll hear that as a trumpet line. From there, I'll expand and add other parts. I usually compose very quickly. It's hard for me to get an idea, but once I have the idea I'll write as quickly as I can and then go back and hone it later and gradually chip away at it. I almost think about it like a sculpture. You have a block and you're chipping away until you feel like you're finished. That's normally what I do, but at times I've tried other things. Sometimes I'll try and do it by ear, or write into the computer program. Occasionally I'll try to write on a piano although I'm a horrible piano player. But even that can be interesting. NEA: Why does art matter? HALVORSON: I think it keeps people going. It keeps people inspired, myself included. On a day-to-day basis, for me to think creatively and enjoy other people's creativity is really what keeps me going.