From Warped Reality, #3 (Summer 1995), pp. 9-11:
Helium singer/songwriter Mary Timony dedicated 1994’s Pirate Prude EP to “all the honorable hags, prisses, bitches, and whores.”
“I’m really interested in using those words that have been used against women and reclaiming them. Pirate Prude is reclaiming the word ‘prude’ and saying it’s an honorable thing. She’s a pirate because she steals back her voice that’s been stolen from her.”[pullquote]”There are weird meanings for me because I’ve always thought of myself as dying early, and death has always been really hanging over my head for my whole life for some reason.”[/pullquote]
Pirate Prude is a mythical Robin Hood figure, “an imaginary super-hero involved in the destruction of evil by spying and by speaking.” “it’s just about my own awareness; being mad about how I was being treated,” says Mary. Pirate Prude is a mythological story rich in symbolism, its landmarks Mary’s discontent and epiphanies, charting a progression towards a personal apocalypse. Starting in the present and moving backwards, each song makes a point along her transformation from confused innocence to indignation to a resolution towards change. “These songs were written at a stage when I was just coming to terms with my anger and realizing it was there,” Mary explains.
The concept behind the EP was based in part on the writings of Mary Daly, a feminist philosopher/spiritualist, and her notion of the Apocalypse. “She sees the world moving towards the Apocalypse and she sees that as a positive thing because patriarchy can’t survive; it’s unbalanced. By the end, Pirate Prude reaches the point of having so much anger that the apocalypse comes, but it’s not a bad thing. It’s a constructive thing — a chance to start over.”
Helium’s new full-length, The Dirt of Luck, opens with Mary singing, “Creepy and sullen and running out of room in my little tomb, my little tomb.” Both Pirate Prude and The Dirt of Luck deal with claustrophobia: feeling stuck, insecure, and somehow insignificant. Both try to come to terms with this and overcome it.
With the new album, Mary is getting closer to that elusive goal. Her songs still deal with the same conflicting emotions, but they reach out more. Where Pirate Prude was a “Downward Spiral” of anger and frustration, one woman’s descent into a private despair, Dirt comes across as darkly playful. Less directly personal and more fantastical, “circus music,” Mary calls it. The new songs represent a more light-hearted take on Pirate Prude‘s themes. When asked to describe them, Mary falters for a moment. “There’s a lot of ways I could talk about them. . . The new songs are more developed because I’ve been using my four-track more and writing other instrument parts. So there are a lot of little tiny keyboards and weird noises.”
Dirt is populated by other characters who inhabit “constructed fantasy lands, places to escape from reality. I’ve been writing about devils and angels and the symbols that surround those. I like writing about angels that have gone bad. ‘Silver Angel’ is about the devil talking, or this person who has turned into the devil. . . ‘Superball’ is the same kind of thing. These are two empowerment songs, actually. In a way, you could see all of these songs as trying to be empowered and failing at it.”
Mary’s moved away from the first person perspective of Pirate Prude to examine other characters undergoing the same transformation and caught in various stages of their own burgeoning awareness. Where Pirate Prude sought solace in anger, lashing out at her oppressors, Dirt‘s characters seek escapes in dressing up, trying to be someone or something else. The protagonist of “Trixie’s Star” spends her time dreaming of stars or watching tv and imagining herself “cruising and shooting and fucking like some kind of movie.” Pirate Prude described herself as feeling like TV, passively being watched or used for others’ entertainment. Trixie watches TV, using it as a means to take herself somewhere else, but yet she longs to be on TV, being watched. Dirt‘s characters are trying to get outside themselves, and end up watching their won passivity, unable to do anything about it.
Mary’s fascination with the icons of femininity — high heels, lipstick, dresses — is clear on “Skeleton,” which inverts the image of the housewife, traditionally one of wholesome American goodness: “Your lips are as red as Lucifer’s, your hair is up in curlers.” The lyric “I like pretty baby candy, it goes right to my head. It makes my lips as red as rubies, I’ll eat it ’til I’m dead,” reminds me of that famous poster for Lolita where Shelly Winters is wearing red cat’s eye glasses and seductively licking a red lollipop. Like Lolita, these characters are trying on different personae for size, play-acting like children who have happened upon a trunk full of feather boas and satin mules. Child-like, precocious, naive, seductive, violent — they’re chameleonlike because they don’t yet know who they are.
“You’re not a model, you’re not an angel. You’re just a person, a little out of it.” — Love $$$
“I carry my heart around my neck like a locket, so I can take it off.” — XXX
“Well, you can’t get to heaven in high heeled shoes, You’re such a loose little belle, a fallen angel.” — Skeleton
On “Baby Vampire Made Me,” a song from Pirate Prude, Mary sang, “You can’t live life if you’re living death.” On Dirt, death is talked about, whereas on Pirate Prude it loomed over every song. Death is tied in to this self-destructive force: “I got a baby vampire in me, it just might eat me before it eats you.” As Mary explains it, “I felt like I was dead or a walking zombie, but after I came to terms with it, it became sort of a joke.
“There are weird meanings for me because I’ve always thought of myself as dying early, and death has always been really hanging over my head for my whole life for some reason. But I’ve recently realized that’s not true. I just sort of expected it would happen. I felt unempowered and controlled by people, and I’m trying to work towards being more in control of myself. I don’t want to control anyone else. I just want my own shit together. So I’m just trying to take more control now. I sort of reached it, actually.
“Yeah, it can be hard to demand things or it’s hard for you to assert your needs and not feel too guilty afterwards. But it builds on itself once you start.”
A lot of people feel that way, I say, jokingly adding, “Don’t mind me. I’ll just cower in the corner. . .”, to which Mary adds, half-jokingly and half-ruefully, “Yeah, I’ll just stand on the edge of this cliff here, that’s enough space for me.”
As our interview starts to wind down, we talk about how women in music are treated by their male peers. Unlike men, women don’t necessarily become empowered the moment they pick up a guitar. “Everyone in a band has the same problem to different degrees,” agrees Mary. “The men in the band are always telling them what to do or telling them that they can’t do things.” I mention an interview I read with the Voodoo Queens, who said that whenever they went into guitar stores to buy equipment the guys would always tell them what to buy. “Have you ever been in a music store buying equipment?” asks Mary. “I swear I have taken so much shit from those people in music stores. They would always assume I didn’t know what I was talking about. Lately it’s been OK, but sometimes I still feel uncomfortable. I just took my four-track in to get fixed. It’s my brother’s but we share it, and I said, ‘I want to fix it. The rewind button’s broken. But it’s just my brother’s. . . and you know.’ And the guy was like, ‘Oh, all right. It’s your brother’s.’ Because before he’d been like, ‘You’re fixing this? Why?’ He just assumed that I didn’t play.”