“A lot of beauty and a lot of pain,” says Mary Bragg. “A lot of discovery and a lot of loss.”
Perhaps Bragg is talking about the last few years of her personal life, a tumultuous stretch in which the acclaimed singer/songwriter saw her decade-long marriage come to an end, faced significant ideological differences with her family after coming out, and moved half-way across the country. Or maybe she’s talking about her extraordinary new album, the lush and achingly gorgeous Mary Bragg. When the work is this raw, this honest, this unguarded, it’s hard to tell where the artist ends and the art begins.
“I’m the kind of writer who’s always writing, for better or worse,” Bragg explains, “so naturally a lot of the songs on this album are an extension of the grief that I was experiencing. But at the same time, they’re much bigger than that. These songs are about all the different ways people love each other, and just how complicated that can be.”
Praised by the World Café for her “refined, sumptuously melancholy take on Southern storytelling,” Bragg’s been exploring love and its complications for much of her career now, wrestling with longing, desire, heartbreak, and insecurity across a string of widely lauded albums. NPR dubbed her breakout 2017 release, Lucky Strike, one of the year’s best, while her 2019 follow-up, Violets as Camouflage, earned similar raves, with the Nashville Scene calling it “magnificent” and Rolling Stone hailing its mix of “classic country twang and “gentle chamber-pop.” Bragg toured the records extensively, playing headline and festival dates to ever-growing audiences across the US and Europe, but back at home, she found herself facing a series of difficult realizations about herself and her future.
“When I recognized that my marriage was over, it was awful,” she reflects. “I came to understand that I was hanging on to something that I needed to be open to the idea of letting go of. It was an incredibly difficult thing to come to terms with, and an even more brutal thing to act on, but I just couldn’t hide from the truth any longer.”
When Bragg began a new relationship with a woman, the news wasn’t particularly well received within parts of her traditional, Southern family at first. Through all the turmoil and uncertainty, though, she worked hard to set better emotional boundaries and to treat herself with the same love, kindness, and respect she showed to others. Day by day, she learned to better trust her instincts, to listen to her gut in an effort to become the fullest, most honest version of herself she could.
“When the pandemic hit, I finally had the time to evaluate what it was that I really wanted, both personally and professionally,” says Bragg. “I’d been producing my own records for a while and producing for friends when they called, but I still didn’t consider myself a real producer. When I learned that only 3% of producers on the Billboard charts right now are women, though, I decided to strip myself of that self- consciousness and go all in.”
Ready for her next chapter, Bragg packed her bags and moved with her partner from Nashville to New York City, where she completed a Master of Arts in Songwriting and Production at BerkleeNYC, the Berklee College of Music’s new program based out of the famed Power Station Studios. Though she’d begun writing her new album in Nashville, it wasn’t until Bragg landed in New York that the recordings truly started taking shape. Operating out of her home studio in Brooklyn and Power Station, she set to work transforming her hushed, spare meditations on intimacy and identity into mesmerizing, cinematic sonic worlds. Where in the past, Bragg’s songs had often focused on empathetic character portraits and external narratives, this time around the music was deeply autobiographical, with open, deliberate arrangements that reflected the unflinching honesty of her lyrics.
“Even though these stories are mine, I was always trying to zoom out with the writing and think about what I might have in common with other people,” she explains. “We’re all so different, but we all have such similar feelings, and I think there’s power in expressing the truth of your experiences so that others can feel less alone in their pain.”
“In The Light,” an airy ballad featuring exquisite harmonies from co-writer Erin Rae, does just that. Tender and contemplative, the track raises more questions than it answers, wrestling with the doubt and uncertainty that comes with letting your guard down and baring the real you to the world. “When you get to know me / Will you see what you desire?” Bragg sings over a gently strummed electric guitar. Like much of the album, the song is an exercise in catharsis, but more than that, it’s a hard look in the mirror, a long overdue reckoning with the fact that learning to love and to be loved starts with loving yourself. The breezy “Please Don’t Be Perfect” reaches for mercy and compassion in the face of the impossibly high standards we tend to hold ourselves to, while the delicately orchestrated “Colorblind” (written and performed with Peter Groenwald) explores the price of self-delusion, and the muscular “Hard Time” (featuring harmonies from co-writer Caroline Spence) finds comfort and strength in making room for darkness.
“Sometimes you have to sit with those feelings to get past them,” Bragg explains. “Sometimes you just need to say, ‘I’m not okay,’ and allow yourself to really feel those emotions.”
Heavy as all that sounds, the album ultimately finds consolation in the bigger picture, in the knowledge that everything—sadness, joy, love, life itself—is transient and fleeting and all the more beautiful because of its impermanence. On “The Lonely Persistence of Time,” Bragg makes peace with the inexorable march of minutes and seconds that bind us all; on the delicate, hopeful “Love Each Other,” she suggests that even in anger, it’s not impossible to love; and on the exultant “Constellation Change,” she surrenders to fate and hands herself over to powers beyond her control.
“There’s something about looking at the vast landscape of your life spelled out in the sky every night and feeling the ground shift beneath your feet,” says Bragg. “All at once, your fate is a result of the choices you make, and simultaneously completely out of your hands.”
And so we laugh and cry and love and lose and stumble and get back up because what else can we do? This life is beautiful and painful and far from perfect, but it’s the only one we’ve got, and as Mary Bragg reminds us, that just makes it all the more precious.