With her unique fingerpicking guitar style and arresting vocal, Aussie singer-songwriter Mary Webb has made a name for herself around the globe.
Note: A version of this piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #128. Subscribe to our print edition here!
How would you describe your style of guitar playing?
It’s folky, jazzy, mostly finger-picking, often sparse. It feels to me like a friend and companion to my singing, rather than a wing-man. It has its own character and moods, it can be vulnerable or fierce. It can be minimal or centre stage.
The guitar I play is a three-quarter size parlour guitar and is very responsive. The subtlest change in plucking velocity or touch affects the whole tone and attitude of that moment. I have to treat it with respect, or it speaks up! It is one of the things I love about playing it though, using that responsiveness to emphasise different beats or notes, or suggest different emotions.
How did it come to develop over time? Who were your key influences when you were learning to play?
I first picked up the guitar when I had just finished high school. I grew up surrounded by classical music (both my parents were classical musicians and teachers, and my dad was also a composer and conductor) and I cut my musical teeth in choirs, and my three siblings and I all learned stringed instruments growing up. Learning the violin was great practice for teaching myself the guitar. Choral training was key as well for understanding how notes are put together to create a sound greater than the sum of its parts. I think it led me to a more melodic approach, like trying to create melodies or harmonies through finger picking rather than strumming chords. I would hear the specific notes I wanted to play, then work out where they were on the instrument.
What I could hear was often more complicated than I was capable of playing, so I had to keep pushing myself. I was by that stage also rather obsessed with jazz, and friends were sending me mix tapes full of their favourite alternative/folk songs. So, I had influences like Ani DiFranco, Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell and Simon & Garfunkel on top of the masses of classical and jazz.
What’s your writing process like – do you write with guitar and vocal part as one or separately?
It varies. I often write lyrics first, which pile up in books, and sometimes they lend themselves to a melody which I work a guitar part around. It’s important to me that all the different elements in a song are as strong as they can be, so I like to think of lyrics as poems in their own right. I spend a fair amount of time working on lyrics, making sure they say what I want them to say, that they’re interesting or meaningful, that they flow well but don’t fall into clichés, rhymes of convenience or monotonous meter.
I read them aloud and edit until I feel they have become themselves. They might evolve into a song then, or they might be put away for a while. Other times I am writing something on guitar and come up with a melody and rhythm that sits well with it, and the lyrics flow from there or I look through words I’ve written before to see what might fit.
“Gin” was written all at once in a fit of needing to express a strong feeling in that moment, and by contrast, “Fly on the Table” took years to brew, beginning with the guitar part and going through several complete changes of lyrics and melody before reaching its current form. Ultimately though, I think pace and mood are the first things to establish themselves and the rest flows from there.
Can you give us some highlights from your experience of recording Love Like Planets at Snowghost Studios in Montana, USA with engineer Brett Allen and producer Mike Kirkham?
The process of making the album began well before the trip to America and we had spent so much time dreaming, thinking, planning and yes, worrying, so when we were finally there and things were going to plan, it was an amazing feeling.
It was the first time I’d seen snow, and there was a lot of it! That was pretty special. The total change of scene from the Australian landscape mid-summer really helped in getting immersed in the creative process. It was completely different. The snow, the mountains, the air... and you don’t have the distractions of normal life.
The only thing on your mind is making music. Glorious! There was an energy and focus in that studio, and I also really enjoyed getting to know the boys. The band were only with us for a week but it was sad to see them go. Brett was very generous with his time and energy, always the last to leave and first to arrive each day.
We had some impromptu meals with his parents, who invited us up to eat with them when we’d been too focused to think about food until it was too late. And it was a joy to hear the songs come to life each day, just as Mike and I had imagined them for so long. I must also mention Lola the studio dog, who was great company and reminded us of what was important in life.
You amassed what we’d have to call almost an all-star line-up for the recording, how did that come about and what did each player bring to the end recording?
When it was pretty certain we’d be going to Montana, Mike and Brett were in daily conversation about how it would all be done, from recording techniques to production. After a lot of discussion, Brett said he had the perfect band in mind. He had worked with these players before and they had worked with each other, including as part of Pure Bathing Culture.
He sent them some demos and asked them if they were interested in working on this project, and they were - they even rescheduled a tour in order to make it happen. Once the dates were booked in we started to share playlists and production ideas online, and they got familiar with the songs from the demos.
At this stage and also once we were in the studio, they all had lots of ideas but were also very happy to take direction. They were fantastic players and I really felt like they treated my songs with care and respect.
Dan Hindman played all the electric guitars, and worked closely with the keys player, Cory Gray, on the melodic parts and much of the atmospheric synth sound. Both beautiful players but quite different characters, they negotiated the aural space so they weren’t detracting from each other’s parts or competing. The bass player Zac Tillman came up with some quirky bass and synth lines and had a firm eye on the big picture.
He and Dan were seated side by side and in constant, subtle communication. Brian Wright could play whatever you asked for on the drums, but he was very intuitive and wasn’t afraid to simplify his part or even not play, if he thought that’s what the song needed. I learned so much from working with these players, I feel incredibly lucky to have had them on board.
What were the biggest challenges?
The first day was spent entirely on setting up and getting levels right, then on day two, after getting one complete song recorded, the software crashed and couldn’t be revived! It was a stressful few hours, especially for Mike and Brett, but it was really a blessing in disguise because we then switched entirely to analogue and started recording live to two-inch tape machine. That transformed the process I think. We had to decide after each take whether that was “the one” and we were making these decisions with our ears and by feel, rather than by staring at a screen. It can be difficult to balance competing priorities - does the feel of this take make up for the imperfections?
Recording to tape helped with that, but it was a very ambitious goal to maintain all the energy and feel without losing sound quality. We realized pretty quickly that some compromises were unavoidable. I really wanted to perform the songs live all together in the one room. That caused some difficulties for Mike and Brett who had to find ways of isolating the vocals from guitar and drums so that it wouldn’t make mixing impossible.
Trying to do things differently is always a challenge, personally as well as practically. It was especially stressful with a strict time limit and so much at stake. But even while you’re struggling with that, there’s this concurrent buzz of possibility that keeps driving you forward, and when you do overcome the challenges you can feel even more proud of what you’ve achieved.
What do you think were the biggest changes to your sound between albums?
My last album Forest Floor was recorded in two and a half days and the song arrangements were exactly what we were performing live. My eldest brother had been playing the cello with me for about a year and hearing his playing does bring back good memories. He now lives in Vienna. I was really proud of the album when I made it, knowing full well that it represented a moment in time, and that I would grow and develop in ways I couldn’t predict.
My voice has matured a lot in the interim from performing regularly, and I’ve grown more confident in my abilities and my own judgement. Forest Floor was much simpler than Love Like Planets in production, and I was still finding my stride on the guitar. When I listen to it now I notice how deliberate everything is. I never really let go. In preparing to make Love Like Planets I really wanted to capture a sense of risk and of being in the moment, rather than aiming for perfect notes.
Communicating the emotions behind the songs felt really important, and that informed the recording approach and my performances in the studio. Alongside that, having Mike on my team was a major game-changer. We would record demos then listen to them over and over and discuss what we could hear and what would bring them alive. His broad and eclectic knowledge of music meant he was able to bridge the gap between ideas and reality, because he could pull up reference songs to demonstrate a feel, tempo or sound he had in mind.
As a result, Love Like Planets has layers upon layers that can be unpacked little by little, giving you something new each time you listen to it. And, of course, the sound quality of the new record is a huge leap forward.
The album was made partnership with local South Australian hifi company Halcro - how did that come about and what was the goal of the partnership?
Mike and I had been working on demos for these songs and discussing production for about three years before the chance to record in Montana came up. We had tried recording the album in Adelaide but kept encountering road blocks.
One day Mike called me, really excited, and said he’d been talking to Brett Allen at Snowghost about the potential of working on a project together. Brett uses Halcro gear in his studio which he swears by, and was relieved to hear that Halcro had been bought and revived after a long hibernation. They discussed at length what form a collaboration might take, and discovered a shared desire to make audiophile-quality recordings of alternative music without losing the feel or the underlying emotions.
Mike suggested working on an album together with me and sent over some of the demos we had recorded. Brett was really keen so the wheels were set in motion. This was to be a pilot project, with the view to starting a Halcro record label - to really bring the focus back to the roots of hifi: music. I would not have been able to record such a quality record without this partnership.
Mike and Halcro contributed significant resources to the project and have been hugely supportive throughout the whole process. It has been an amazing experience for me. It’s an exciting venture to be part of and I hope to put some of my newfound knowledge to good use when Halcro records their next artist.
Crowdfunding can be tough but also rewarding – what was your experience like with that and would you do it again?
I would absolutely do it again. I had considered crowdfunding before, but it was very daunting and I wasn’t ready. It is a huge undertaking, so you need as much support around you as possible to keep you focused and energized. I was very fortunate to have that. It helped that I was so excited about the project and really believed in the value in it. I was determined to give it my best shot, so I planned out the campaign and stuck pretty well to that.
It was intensive, but I was humbled by the extent of people’s support, and lifted by their enthusiasm throughout the campaign. I also felt a great sense of responsibility to those who had pledged, to really deliver them something special. I realized crowdfunding was so much more than fundraising.
It was reaching out and asking for support, not just money, and when people pledge based on a promise, they are putting their faith in your potential. When we were in the studio, I felt like I had a community of people back home who valued our creative work and wanted to see it come to fruition. I also realized it is a two-way street and can be a really positive experience on both sides.
What kind of equipment do you travel with these days and what are the strengths of your current set up?
I play and travel solo, and my set up is very minimal. I have a small Timberidge guitar and my own voice. I have toyed with the idea of loop stations, electric guitars and FX pedals, but there is something wonderful about keeping it so simple. There’s nothing to hide behind, so it’s all about the music and making people feel.
After a big tour for Love Like Planets which has recently come to an end, I’m starting to write new material again and pursue some potential cross-genre collaborations. Winter is a good time for me to slow down, regroup, and make space for creativity to flow. I’m really looking forward to playing at the Australian Hifi & AV Show in Melbourne this October, where Mike will also be presenting a session on the making of Love Like Planets. I hope I can keep making music that moves people for many years to come!
You can see Mary perform at this year’s Australian Hifi & AV Show in Melbourne.
Stream her latest album Love Like Planets on Spotify.