Signal Path Podcast: Mary Spender

Marc Young | June 15, 2020

Hear the stories behind the music with the Signal Path podcast. Tapping a global network of musicians, producers, engineers and other sonic innovators, Shure brings you exclusive interviews with the people shaping the world of audio.

Episode 37 – Mary Spender

For the latest episode of Signal Path, Marc Young spoke with Mary Spender, an English singer-songwriter with a bluesy guitar style and avid online following. In the podcast, Mary explains how she build her massively successful YouTube channel, how musicians can get the most out of social media these days and why she recently did a 24-hour live streaming event. The interview was recorded with two SM7B microphones.

Marc Young: Mary, thanks so much for joining me today. 

Mary Spender: My pleasure. 

You're a singer songwriter and a guitarist. You're known for a bluesy fingerstyle, but you actually started out playing classical music – is that right?

Yeah, I studied it up until university, but I was playing guitar from age 12. So just teaching myself alongside that.

You took classical music up till university. What were you playing? 

My main instruments were singing and viola. 

So also a stringed instrument. If you're saying you were already playing a guitar, how did that fit together? Were they two totally separate worlds? Was it a single music world or was it: This is my viola and classical school world and guitar is something totally different?

They were definitely separate worlds. I had to do certain amount of hours in terms extra music after school, because I had a music scholarship and my secondary school and guitar didn't really fit into that. Although I ended up playing bass in a jazz band because I had a bit of guitar knowledge. But I mean, that was intense, and I struggled. But mainly it was viola and singing. Being in choirs, then doing all my grades. Guitar was my afterschool escapism.

And yeah, it was a way for a teenager to express themselves with a distorted guitar. Every time, you know, you had an argument with your parents and just came up and cranked up the guitar. So yeah, songwriting didn't come until 15. But by then I knew what I wanted to do. It just took a really long time to be able to do it professionally, both being a classical musician professionally and then being a blues singer-songwriter. It's very difficult to actually be able to do that full time for a living.

So, you know, I learned other skillsets and I got the degree that my parents wanted me to get. I enjoyed every second of Bristol University. It was just it was pretty academic and pretty hardcore. And I really just wanted to sit and play guitar all day. So now I probably would have done a more popular music orientated course then. But you know, I can't change anything. And I'm pretty happy with the way things turned out. I've had an interesting musical journey that hasn't just revolved around making music. It's all these other things that kind of come into play.

Right. I definitely want to get into all of that as well. But just one more thing about the origin of your guitar. So that was all self-taught. Were you also taking lessons for the guitar as well while you were learning the classical stuff?

My parents excuse was that I was already not practicing all my other instruments, so there was no way they were going to give me lessons. I think it's because I was already is being a bit lazy and, you know, just getting by. But no, guitar was self-taught. And I learnt things to serve the purpose of songwriting, which maybe I'm having to like backtrack a little bit now and go back to basics.

Every so often, I have a style that suits my needs, but there are some sort of like fundamental things that I'm having to, like, reteach myself. And I'm calling up some friends being like, I have no idea how to even approach learning something like this. Can you talk me through it? Because they're all guitarists in their own right and they've all been in my position. So, that's quite interesting now being part of this, like bigger guitar nerd community.

Let's segue now to the YouTube channel thing, because you said it took a while to perform, but at what point did you realize you can reach more people going online? I think a lot of musicians, especially in this day and age of lockdown and quarantine, are thinking about not being able to tour anymore or perform.

Well, you mentioned busking earlier, and that was definitely a transition. So I did start busking throughout school. I was pretty busy anyway. So I got like a concert every time. Then at university, I tried to do as many open mikes as possible. Then after I graduated, I was working temp jobs, finance admin, assistant jobs just to pay rent. And then I was busking at weekends and then trying to get gigs in pubs and clubs. Then I was trying to pursue the original music, too.

But in England, I don't know what it is, but the touring aspect that I feel kind of jealous of in terms of my American peers is that touring is a very difficult thing to do here and always has been for me. I'm speaking from my experience. So getting out onto the road was only possible when I was like 24, 25, and then even it was easier last year.

It's always been just really difficult to organize. And it's sometimes really, really tough and not that pleasurable. Other than that one hour a night. So I was already having a tough time trying to organize tours and trying to get places to book me because I didn't have a manager, didn't have an agent. I didn't really have any one sort of like, you know, pushing me in that direction. So I didn't really have any other options.

And YouTube to me, I started watching it. And I think that's the thing you have to do first with any of these social media platforms is if you're consuming it, then you have a headstart because you know what people watch. You can look at your own tastes. So I was already looking at filmmakers, artists, writers and podcasters. And then I found musicians on YouTube making content about gear, you know, interviews with other famous people or just like this whole world opened up.

But I was consuming it first and looking at these people and looking at these artists, they're so known for never making any money in their life. Usually they were making an income and they were being able to go full time and really speak to an audience and share things. And then, you know, they could they could do one avenue so they could be interviewing someone else and talk about someone else's life, but then they could be pushing their own music or pushing their own movies or whatever it is. And I was just like, oh, that's really interesting. Like, you can build a community around this and you can do it from your home.

Listen to the full interview with Mary Spender and subscribe to Signal Path with the podcast provider of your choice below. You can check out her YouTube channel here.

Marc Young

With a background in journalism, Marc is an editor for Shure covering anything and everything that has to do with sound. He tries to compensate for his mediocre guitar-playing skills with his writing. He is based in Berlin, one of the best cities in Europe for music.