BWW Interview: Singer/Songwriter Mary McBride on her Music, Humanitarianism, and Upcoming Appearance for Arena Stage's 2018 Gala
As many of you know, Arena Stage's Artistic Director Molly Smith has been very active on a number of national social issues, including LGBT rights and gun control in addition to her exemplary artistic work. In this way, perhaps it's only natural that the headliner at this year's Arena Stage Gala on May 10th is not only a great singer/songwriter, but also an accomplished speaker and humanitarian.
Mary McBride and her band have released four albums - Everything Seemed Alright, By Any Other Name, Every Day Is a Holiday, and The Way Home. Mary received significant acclaim for her performance of "No One's Gonna Love You Like Me" on-screen and on the soundtrack of the Academy Award-winning film Brokeback Mountain. She also performed with Elton John for the 35th Anniversary Concert of "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." Since 2011, Mary has served as a Cultural Envoy for the U.S. Department of State, and has performed with her band in more than thirty countries, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Afghanistan, and Russia.
Mary and her band members (John Kengla on guitars, Jon Spurney on keyboards, Greg Beshers on bass, and Mark Stepro on drums ) have also performed thousands of live shows and have collaborated, performed or toured with Blondie, Chubby Checker, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Cyndi Lauper, Delbert McClinton, Jerry Lee Lewis, Joe Cocker, John Prine, Koko Taylor, LL Cool J, Lou Reed, Marcia Ball, Rufus Wainwright, Maria Muldaur, Natalie Merchant, Patti Smith, Mavis Staples, Philip Glass, Ray Davies, Son Volt, Sugarhill Gang, B52s, Indigo Girls, Tony Joe White, and Ziggy Marley.
Her contributions go beyond playing music, however.
Mary is the founder of The Home Tour, which uses live music to enrich lives, inspire and connect people, and engage communities around the world. The Home Tour assembles local and nationally recognized musicians to perform for - and with - residents in communities that do not have access to live music. These include long-term health care centers, homeless shelters, orphanages, prisons, supported housing communities, homes for people living with HIV/AIDS, homes for veterans; and homes for people living with mental and physical disabilities. Since its inception in 2010, the Home Tour has partnered with more than 100 social service organizations worldwide; played for tens of thousands of residents; and hosted on stage hundreds of residents from the communities where they have played. The Home Tour goes where most musicians don't, delivering high-energy, high-impact performances and leaving an infrastructure to accommodate ongoing performances by locals and touring bands alike.
Prior to founding The Home Tour, Mary also worked with the Institute of International Education to produce a series of multi-national programs, which assembled exceptional university students from more than 40 countries with high profile speakers for a dialogue on political and cultural affairs. During this time, she produced programs in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Hong Kong, Europe, India, Indonesia, South Africa, and the United States. Mary was also a Special Programs Producer for The Avon Breast Cancer Crusade, where she conceived and produced The Pink Line Project, a breast cancer awareness program in 30 U.S. markets; as well as the multiple concerts to raise money for the breast cancer cause. Mary was the Co-Executive Producer of The Digital Club Festival, the world's first online music festival featuring more than 200 performers in 40 venues throughout the United States.
Most recently, Mary founded a new not-for-profit organization, The Forum for Cultural Engagement (FCE), which oversees Home Tour programs, and develops international cultural exchange programs in coordination with the U.S. Department of State and private sponsors.
Mary's work as a musician and humanitarian has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, and in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. Mary is a sought after speaker on cultural diplomacy and international exchange. Most recently, she was a featured speaker on a panel at NYU Abu Dhabi on a panel on Arts and Diplomacy in the Emirates, and also represented the United States on the plenary panel at the International Women's Conference in Islamabad, Pakistan. The Home Tour was featured at a panel at Yale University as part of the International Art and Ideas Festival.
Mary McBride is one of those singers that has everything going for her. She has great talent, a great heart, and a desire to make the world a better place - a desire she's put into action. Please consider attending Arena Stage's Gala on May 10th and help support their award-winning artistic productions and community engagement programs. Dancer extraordinaire Maurice Hines is hosting and Mary McBride's music is going to be fierce.
At what age did you know you wanted to become a musician?
My family lived and breathed music, so I feel like I was always a musician. My grandfather on my mother's side played the organ and we spent countless hours hanging around his Hammond B3 singing Gershwin and Cole Porter. My parents regaled me with stories about hanging out at the Golden Slipper, an old honkytonk in Baton Rouge, where they heard everyone from Irma Thomas to Jimmy Reed to Bobby Blue Bland to Little Bob and the Lollipops. From the time I was a kid, I loved playing all types of American music, ranging from standards to straight up southern rock. I still attribute my deep love of country and bluegrass to my father's mother, who grew up in Castor (a small town in northern Louisiana) listening to Mother Maybelle and the Carter Family. In my family, music smoothed over all possible familial and political tension. While my grandfather was frustrated that he couldn't persuade his apostate Washington-raised granddaughter to become a card-carrying Republican, he was at least comforted that I could sing "Someone to Watch Over Me" on key.
Was songwriting always part of your planned musical career?
I wish I could say that anything in my life was planned. I have always written essays (and the periodic musical), and I am excited to be working on my new book called "Closer Than Three" about cultural diplomacy and our experience playing in more than 35 countries. But songwriting came to me late. I had always been a singer, and for a period in the 1990s when I was acting in Richard Foreman plays, I started a band for the sole reason that my friend Laurena wanted to put on a show at this little bar under a Guinness sign on 11th Street in the East Village. I thought it would be fun to make a record and came up with a list of random, up-with-people covers I was set to record. But then 9/11 happened and everything changed. I scrapped those covers and wrote most of my first record in ten days following 9/11. I didn't intend to write songs, and in some ways it felt like they wrote themselves. Those songs were, and are, a testament to the incredible solace community can be, and the connections that were made in the days when the towers were still smoldering.
Please give us a small hint as to what we might hear at your upcoming appearance in Arena Stage's Gala.
We play a whole range of music rooted in American traditions - folk, country, blues, gospel, rock - and we're thrilled to be putting together a new show to play at Arena, which exclusively produces the work of American artists. We'll also be playing standards which we first played at Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow. Our shows constantly explore where one style ends and another begins. A southern ballad can ricochet into a Mel Torme song, and a quiet folk song can explode into a gospel frenzy. Our set list sort of reads like one giant mood disorder; get ready.
When singers are starting out, they tend to play in some pretty interesting venues. What is the most bizarre venue story you have from your early singing career?
My first live performance was at National Arbor Day in Washington, DC. I sang a song from Annie and Mayor Marion Barry planted a tree. I also played Judy Garland songs at Charles the First's Salon in Northwest Washington, DC and then sang at Charles' wedding to his partner Gary. That certainly wouldn't be a unique occasion today, but this was 1981, and I was twelve, so it was groundbreaking. Last year, I was asked to sing the national anthem at Nationals Stadium right after the Charlottesville attack. The crowd of 36,000 stood in silence to honor those killed before I started. Not long after that I sang "God Bless America" at the wounded warrior starting line for the New York City Marathon. Both events were so profoundly moving.
You've had the pleasure of working with some pretty big names in your musical career. Who would you say is the most awe inspiring musical artist you have collaborated with thus far?
I loved working with Gustavo Santoalalla and his team on "No One's Gonna Love You Like Me" for the Brokeback Mountain soundtrack. And meeting Ang Lee when I performed it on set was a total thrill too. I almost had a heart attack when I met Elton John when I sang "All the Girls Love Alice" for the 35th Anniversary concert of "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." But the biggest highlight was playing with the band in Islamabad in 2012 when Hillary Clinton was there. She was so gracious to the band, and we were so proud to be touring as U.S. State Department Cultural Envoys under her leadership.
You have traveled around the world as a humanitarian promoting and speaking on many topics. You bring live music to places where people might not otherwise have the opportunity to experience it. What is the most satisfying thing about being able to do this kind of work?
No matter how fractured a human or political situation is, music allows us to connect with each other in simpler, more compassionate ways. Whether we are playing for orphans in Sadr City, Iraq; for seniors on the Russian-Estonian border, or for amputees in Quang Tri Province in Vietnam, I try to connect with them through the music. A woman living with her baby in a prison in Albania thanked me for "playing for our littlest prisoners." It was heartbreaking, but I hope our show and the opportunity to dance with her daughter provided her with a moment of joy.
In this time of political uncertainty, how can singer/songwriters use their talents to promote calm amidst the chaos?
At some point, the current instability will be contextualized and I guess we have to all think about where we were - and what we did - during this moment in time. I started The Home Tour to play for people who need music the most. And after eight years of playing for the most vulnerable populations, I believe we are making a difference. I also try to align myself with people like my friend Molly Smith, who is leading the cultural charge for social justice within and beyond the Arena Stage community. My wife Maggie and I have been awed by Molly and her deep belief in art as a means for social activism, and the importance of truth in our national conversation. We are so proud to support her work in whatever way we can.
Here is MaryMcBride performing "No One's Gonna Love You Like Me" from the soundtrack of the 2005 film Brokeback Mountain.
Special thanks to Arena Stage publicist Lauren Alexander for her assistance in coordinating this interview.