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HomeHealth and LifestyleMary Timony Is an Indie-Rock Hero. Her Other Gig? Mentor.

Mary Timony Is an Indie-Rock Hero. Her Other Gig? Mentor.

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In the dining room of her cozy home in Washington, D.C., Mary Timony retrieved her lute from an instrument case that, she joked, “looks like a cat coffin.” Timony, 53, has been on a learning kick recently. “Literally all I’m working on is this,” she said, demonstrating how the so-called thumb-under fingerpicking method strays from traditional guitar technique.

Timony is well known as a guitarist and frontwoman: In the 1990s she headed up the bands Autoclave and Helium, then released solo records before joining Wild Flag, an indie-rock supergroup. Ex Hex, her classic rock and power-pop trio known for catchy songs and rafter-reaching guitar solos, has released two albums since 2014; her latest solo LP, “Untame the Tiger,” written and recorded in the midst of a breakup as she cared for her dying parents, arrived earlier this year.

But to many young people of D.C., Timony is highly regarded as something else: a mentor to the next generations of women pursuing their passion for indie rock.

For more than two decades, Timony has instructed students how to play licks from classic rock songs (among other things) in the guitar- and amp-filled basement of her 1920s home on a tree-lined street, where a framed portrait of a young Joe Walsh watches on. Early pupils remember the experience fondly.

“She was super supportive and made me feel excited about playing guitar,” Anna Wilson, 24, said. “She put me in my first band when I was 10.” She now plays guitar and pedal steel in Timony’s touring band.

Timony’s latest project has involved guiding Birthday Girl DC, a trio featuring Mabel Canty (daughter of the Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty) on guitar and vocals, Isabella MacKaye (daughter of the D.C. hardcore scene veteran Alec MacKaye) on bass, and the drummer Tess Kontarinis.

Canty, 17, was supposed to be among Timony’s formal guitar students, but during their first lesson, she mentioned that she’d been working on a song called “Ibuprofen.” Timony switched gears and helped record it, tracking vocals in a closet beneath the basement steps.

“I learned that recording is not scary,” Canty said, describing a low-stakes environment where Timony’s cats, Hildegard and Hieronymus, roamed. “She took away a lot of fright for me. I was actively getting over a bunch of fears and a lot of indecisiveness.” (With a laugh, Timony said Canty was probably at ease “because I’m not as good at recording as her dad.”)

After several years of teaching, Timony realized that her gifts didn’t lie exclusively in her guitar heroics. “The thing that I find the most healing in my life has been writing songs,” she said. “It took me a while to go, ‘Oh, wait, what do I actually have to pass on?’ It took coming into my own power, something that’s happened in the past five or six years through a lot of personal growth, to actually really value my own art and what I have to give.”

Chatting about songwriting with students began as something she was doing on the side during lessons. In 2023, she solidified her mentorship practice by taking an online course on creativity coaching with Eric Maisel, a therapist and author, that helped her overcome some of her obstacles. “Halfway through, I was just coaching myself,” she said over a cup of green tea with almond milk. She put an ad on Instagram offering songwriting coaching with lessons, which was flooded with replies, and now works with three adult students.

“I’ve always known this about me and teaching when it’s going well: I’m doing something that it’s my duty as a human to do,” said Timony, a warm and introspective conversationalist. “It’s not like a business that I’m trying to make money off.” She said she would still do it even if it wasn’t bringing in much income. “It’s like a spiritual practice,” she said.

One of her most prominent pupils is Lindsey Jordan, the 25-year-old singer-songwriter behind the indie-rock band Snail Mail. Jordan, who grew up in Baltimore, began working with Timony just as Snail Mail was beginning to blow up, and sought her advice when she was meeting with managers and labels.

“I met up with every single person who wanted to be involved in Snail Mail and carefully evaluated everybody,” Jordan said in a phone interview. “Mary was extremely helpful in all of that. And there are all these little things to figure out, like the social weirdness of dipping out of the D.I.Y. scene and heading into something else — even if you didn’t even mean to. She lived that.”

Timony didn’t have this kind of guidance when she was coming up in D.C. in the early ’90s, though she did have Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye and his brother, Alec, as childhood neighbors, and recalled them lobbing magnolia tree cones at each other in her front yard. Seeing Alec with dyed leopard-print hair and a performance from the band Rites of Spring lit a fire under her to go to countless shows and start making music.

“It was like an island of kids doing their own thing,” she said of the local scene at the time. “We were all doing this thing and learning about it from each other rather than learning about it from an older generation.”

Timony’s mentees say she has imparted all kinds of wisdom about writing, performing and the music business. When Birthday Girl DC opened for her, the group learned how to be kind while remaining assertive during a soundcheck, and noted that it’s important to take a moment to rehearse before a set. The band also observed how to talk to people who run venues.

“We’ve been played,” MacKaye, 17, said. “We’ve been taken advantage of a little because of our age.” Timony has long been an inspiration for her — even before she knew it. “My sister and I were obsessed with Ex Hex,” she said. “I always loved her band without really making the connection between that music and the Mary that lives down the street.”

Jordan added that at a time “when people are trying to become TikTok-ified,” the lessons Timony has taught about sustaining success are crucial. “Like damn, dude, she’s just keeping the legend alive in cool ways,” she said. “It’s artistry, and that’s the only cool thing there is in music.”

The members of Birthday Girl DC refer to Timony as their collective “music mama” (Canty sent her a “Happy Mother’s Day” text this year), and Timony said being a strong role model as a woman in rock music was important to her. She has taught boys guitar in the past, but she currently teaches and mentors only women.

“When I was their age, there weren’t as many women in bands,” she said. “It was like going to get your car fixed and having a woman be the mechanic. It was like, ‘Oh, there’s a woman in this band!’ It’s hard to even imagine because it’s so very different now.”

Though the landscape has changed, she still wants to ensure that her mentees feel confident making and sharing their art. “The underlying thing now in working with these women is it’s my little bit in untangling patriarchy,” she continued. “My favorite thing about it is getting someone to find their own power and heal themselves, because that’s what music did for me. I’m trying to help other people find that.”



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