Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl Looks for Logic in the Midst of Madness

Talking music and politics with the no. 1 guitarist in modern jazz

Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl (Art: Ron Hart)

“I have always found music to come from both a personal and an emotional place, and along those lines, I am usually inspired to write based on moods, feelings and events that are relevant both to my personal world and to the outside world,” Mary Halvorson says when asked to describe her muse.

“With most of my music, probably no one really knows who or what inspired it except me. Hence the name Code Girl, where a lot of the words and meanings are fairly cryptic and open to interpretation. I do like it when multiple meanings can be extracted from a piece of music based on the unique lens of each listener, and when new realizations may be gleaned through repeat listens. So in general, pontificating and soapboxing don’t interest me. In my mind, the goal of music making is to try to create something beautiful, rewarding, different, challenging, inspiring or healing, as does the music of my heroes. How one gets there is up for debate.”

Indeed, Halvorson and her longtime colleagues, which includes Amirtha Kidambi (vocals), Michael Formanek (bass) and Tomas Fujiwara (drums), along with current collaborators, trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, María Grand on tenor saxophone and vocals, and special guest vocalist, Robert Wyatt – hold true to that premise, especially given the unpredictable nature of the eight tracks that form the basis of this self-described Code Girl’s tellingly titled opus, Artlessly Falling.

Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl Artlessly Falling, Firehouse 12 (2020)

“Amazing,” she replies when asked what it was like to work with the legendary Robert Wyatt in particular. “It was a literal dream come true, as cliched as that may sound. Anyone who knows me knows how deeply his work has moved me over the years, and how I’ve listened to his albums hundreds upon hundreds of times. His music has helped me get through difficult times in my life, and I find his records timeless in that respect. He also happens to be an incredibly genuine and down-to-earth person, so positive and kind and creative, and I was blown away by the way he sang these songs.”

A series of seemingly spontaneous instrumental interludes that find Halvorson’s original poetry interspersed into each offering, the album offers a series of eclectic and expressive variations on the free-form improvisation that has reaped her a score of critical kudos in jazz circles along with an ever-growing series of honors and accolades in the process. The music ranges from a robust and rapid-fire delivery, underscored by the determined drive of her rhythm section, to intimate introspective verse as expressed in an ever-shifting series of vocal variations. It is, by any definition, a strikingly diverse series of experimental offerings, which, as her press material points out, bond “form and fragmentation, through new music and diverse thematic material.”

It also reflects Halvorson’s wide-ranging influences, which she describes as being all over the map. For this particular project, she cites the aforementioned Mr. Wyatt, Fiona Apple, Elliott Smith, Sam Cooke, Billie Holiday and Deerhoof as seminal sources. “I also found a lot of inspiration from many instrumental jazz and experimental music artists, from Duke Ellington to Thelonious Monk,” she adds. 

While much of the messaging is deliberately obtuse and seemingly out of sync, one track in particular was borne from a real life scenario. “Last-Minute Smears” draws its content from Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s 2018 responses to questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee prior to his confirmation.

“Kavanaugh’s testimony was just one small part of this increasingly horrific period of American politics,” Halvorson opines. “In my mind, the testimony — a small snapshot of Kavanaugh’s extracted words and phrases which turned into the lyrics to ‘Last-Minute Smears’offer a glimpse into a myriad of issues and emotions we as a country were facing then, and which we continue to face today. The Supreme Court is back in the spotlight as we speak, with crucial decisions being made. It’s almost like an echo of that day in 2018.”

Code Girl sketch (Art: Ron Hart)

Halvorson says that she was shocked and saddened by what she saw, but she kept watching anyway. “It was indeed overwhelmingly depressing, but I felt it was important to watch so I watched it,” she recalls. “I wanted to hear what he had to say. It really pissed me off, and just so the day wasn’t a complete waste, I tried to channel that mood and ended up writing two pieces of music as a result: ‘Last-Minute Smears’ for Code Girl, and ‘Smears,’ an instrumental piece for my duo project with pianist Sylvie Courvoisier.”

The lyric she wrote is short and terse: “Your words/have meaning/Blow me up/Take me down/Reap the whirlwind/Last-minute smears.”

What struck me the most, and what I used as fuel for the song, was the absolute lack of remorse or self-reflection in his testimony,” Halvorson says in retrospect. “It was indignant, angry, and inflammatory. What I wanted to do was to take his words, put them to music, and instill them with a mournful quality which I felt was entirely absent from the testimony. I also thought it would be funny to have Amirtha Kidambi interpret Brett Kavanaugh’s words, kind of like Melissa McCarthy doing Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live.”

Still, Halvorson insists that her intent wasn’t to preach or pontificate as far as the effort overall. Given its combination of articulation and abstraction, it is, as she said before, an effort that’s open to interpretation, one that leaves it to the listener to make up his or her own mind.

“It’s definitely not a political album, and it’s not a concept album of any sort,” she insists. “The lyrics are about many different topics ranging from relationships to travel to climate change to books to politics to abstraction and art. It’s essentially a snapshot of various things I was thinking about at the time when I wrote these words in 2018- 2019.”

Asked if she hopes to change some minds through her music, Halvorson says that she’s not sure.

“It’s a very good question,” she replies. “In many ways, I think most people’s minds are already made one way or another and it’s certainly not easy to change opinions. Sadly, as we all know, this country is becoming more and more polarized. I often do feel like I’m preaching to a like-minded audience, amongst friends, family and the larger music scene here in New York. But I figure, it certainly can’t hurt to point out injustices and hypocrisies through song. Not to mention now, more than ever, being proactive really matters if we want any semblance of a democracy to remain in our country. Most importantly for me has been direct outreach — getting out the word to vote, writing letters to undecided voters in swing states, and donating to organizations that are doing good work.”

Code Girl 3 (Art: Ron Hart)

“When will we recover?,” she asks via the lyrics to the song titled “A Nearing.” “How long will the burning stick? And wash those sharpened knots between surrenders.”

That’s a good question, and one well worth waiting for. Like everyone else, Halvorson is anxious for the answers. In the meantime, as Artlessly Falling continues its descent, it tries to make sense of the malaise found along the way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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