Best of Bristol: Mary Spender

by Pete Carpenter, Jan 02, 2018

Now a native of Bristol, her distinctive guitar style and crisp, sultry vocals have been making waves throughout YouTube and the UK live music scene.

Bristol has been known all over the country as a hub for exciting new music for decades. And wherever you look in Bristol there is always a particular ‘scene’ or ‘musical movement’ associated with it; whether that be the Monster Piece Productions bands of the 90s, the trip hop scene that developed from the outskirts of the city or the current noise and mathrock bands that you can go and see in so many venues.
Due to the (deserved) popularity of each and every one of these trends, it is often all too easy to overlook the audacious talent that weaves in and out of the multitude of Bristols musical veins.

If you haven’t yet heard of Mary Spender then you are absolutely missing out. Now a native of Bristol, her distinctive guitar style and crisp, clear sultry vocal have been making waves throughout YouTube as well as on the live music scene around the country.

Headlining sold out gigs at the legendary Louisiana as well as the Lantern, Colston Hall, Mary has introduced the South West to her phenomenal americana-tinged storytelling. Backed up by an incredible rhythm section, the sound is, all at once, a blend of soul, jazz, blues and so much more.

Such is Mary's effortless charm and unrelenting work ethic, her ‘Tuesday Talks’ (known by fans as variations of ‘chewsday tawks’) has seen her interviewing such talents as KT Tunstall, Devin Townsend and Kaki King.

At Native we’ve been lucky enough to catch up with this remarkable lady to find out what drives her, inspires her and what it is about Bristol that she loves so much.

First off, Hi Mary! How are you doing? Can you tell us what you’ve been up to today?

Well! Today has been quite boring really! It’s mostly been getting all the videos I’ve been making over the last couple of months finished and edited, and also lots of phone calls about future projects too. So it’s kind of manic at the moment. I’ve just started working with Shure microphones too so I’ve been in Berlin last weekend, and Edinburgh the week before, although I didn’t get to see much of the city as I was in the studio. The travelling is very very new to me, it’s only really been since September that it’s been a part of my work.

‘No Diggity’ is one of my favourite tracks and your version of it is so good [check it out here] particularly the little bass run from Max Mees at the end! How do you decide which songs to cover when you do?

It’s usually down to me because my first endeavour into being a full time musician in 2013 was playing covers in pubs and private events, for up to 4 hours. Often I’d throw some original songs in there too, but I learnt a large repertoire and that’s why there are a lot of cover videos. They’re songs where I felt I really had something different to add to them or I just really really liked the song. With ‘No Diggity’ though, it was always a really fun song to play with the boys (currently Mary’s band includes Max Mees on bass and Rob Grist on drums) and it was something I wanted to get on film, playing with different camera angles, mixing and recording a band for myself, in my studio. It’s very DIY!

Max looks as if he’s about to burst into laughter any minute in the video...

I think that’s because he was! We were trying so hard to make him laugh from behind the camera. Rob and Max are best friends anyway and working so closely with them we’ve become a little like the ‘Three Musketeers’. They have an incredible sense of humour which is so important when you work closely together.

You studied classical music here in Bristol, which instrument was that?

I studied viola and I sang classically too, but viola was my main focus. I played in string quartets, orchestras and I had to perform solo recitals but thankfully I moved over to the more academic side of essay writing and dissertations.

Do you still play the viola?

I do still play but I wouldn’t consider myself a viola player. I wouldn’t say ‘Oh yes, I’ll take that session work’ for example. I used to, but since guitar has been my main focus there’s not really been an awful lot of time to practice it. It’s very difficult instrument and I never mastered it. It’s a very different way of thinking about music. It’s about finding that thing that is easy to keep doing over and over again because you enjoy it so much, for me that’s the guitar.

Do you miss playing viola?

I miss the camaraderie of playing in an ensemble and being at university, that was really fun. But now I’m definitely making the music that I want to make and guitar and singing comes a lot more naturally to me, and always did, than the viola or classical music.

You moved to Bristol for uni, where are you originally from?

Salisbury! Far enough away that it’s ‘far enough away’ but not too far that I can’t go and visit my family.

Do you manage to get back often?

Not as much as I’d like! Only because I’m so busy at the moment. Also I love Bristol, so when I’m here, I kind of want to just be here. It would also mean more travelling.

When you came back to guitar after uni, how long had you had a break for?

I never stopped. It was my therapy all throughout university while I was doing all the classical music. It was actually a great time [while at university], because I actually had time, and while I should have been practising my other instruments I was practising my guitar and that was where I got introduced to new styles of music. Blues, pop and rock music from my peers. And there were other guitarists around me too, not as many as now, but I still managed to learn a lot.

Going from the classical world where viola and classical singing were your primary instruments to a world where guitar is now your primaryinstrument for what you want to create, did it compel you to think about music in a different way?

I’d been writing and performing a lot while at uni anyway, not as much in my third year, I had to really concentrate on getting a degree, but in my first and second years I really took advantage of the students’ union, open mics and getting around Bristol. Then in the holidays I’d be in London trying to do open mics there so it was always something I wanted to do.

It wasn’t as if I’d aspired to be a classical musician and then had a sudden shift after uni. From the age of 6 I wanted to do what I am now. In fact, I think there's a very embarrassing video of a very young me saying ‘I’m not going to stop until I’m a pop star!’. You know, I might even put it up to show that it’s been a long road! I’m 27 now and I’ve put the years in, and managed to do a lot in this industry that has gone unnoticed, which is sometimes good as well.

The other aspect of your work is YouTube. Personally I became aware of your work through Leo Moracchioli and then Andertons* which is how a few people may know you. How did your association with them come about?

Leo and I met very briefly in Milan in June at a Yamaha event where we were sent there for the launch of their new bass guitars. I introduced myself to him and he has such a large following you might expect him to be a rockstar, with his 2 million subscribers; where he doesn’t need to worry about anyone else and yet he’s the exact opposite. He’s the kindest guy. He asked me to be in the GuitCon video which he didn’t need to do, he’s just so accommodating. It’s the same deal with Andertons, they are doing just fine without me being involved but Lee [Anderton] saw my videos and liked the way I talked about guitar.

*Mary recorded a cover of Fleetwood Macs Dreams with Danish Pete (Peter Honore) which is sublime. Check it out 

What inspires your music? Do you have recurring themes? I’m sure I’ve heard references to Bristol but I may be wrong!?

Yeah, often it’s quite literal and specific. There are scenarios that I create, in that they didn’t happen exactly that way, but there would have been something that inspired me to think about it, it’s not just stories pulled from thin air. I have nothing against those kinds of writers who put together lyrics where you can’t even fathom what it’s all about, it’s more what I like listening to so I hold storytelling songwriting close to my heart.

Following on from that, which bands or artists do you listen to?

When I was younger I was listening to rock bands; Green Day, Nirvana, The Offspring, that sort of thing. Oh, and Muse. Muse had a huge impact on me! But, I drifted more to country music for a little bit and started listening to artists like Alison Krauss and Nickel Creek, REAL story tellers. Now I listen to anything and everything. In terms of songwriters who influence me in my songwriting and guitar playing it’d be Joni Mitchell, John Mayer and KT Tunstall. The video I made with KT Tunstall legitimised the whole ‘YouTube’ thing for me, it blew my mind to be able to do that (For one of Mary's ‘Tuesday Talks’ videos she sat down and chatted with KT Tunstall) because her first album came out when I was about 14 or 15, so a very impressionable time. To be then interviewing her for my own channel it became a very real thing.

As a guitar player, I sometimes find that I plateau in terms of technique and style. Does that happen to you and how do you deal with it?

Of course, it happens to everybody. I try not to get overwhelmed by it! The whole point of the guitar is that you’ll never fully master it. It’s unlikely that you’ll ever play in every single style of every single genre so it’s a case of accepting that and focusing on what you do best. So, my trick is often to just play, if I’m trying to write a song or whatever I’m meant to be doing I need a guitar in my hands. Sometimes I can go days without practising or playing; I’m just like everyone else.

Does YouTube impact on your music or is it another facet of the creative process?

Do you know what, I think it actually gives me the confidence to keep writing music. Now I have an audience and as long as I keep up that Tuesday deadline, it’s allowed me to get back into the studio and feel a bit more comfortable about ‘if I release some music, people will hear it’. It doesn’t even have to do particularly well, but people will hear it, which is perhaps a vain thing to say but I need encouragement from outside sources, I need to be held accountable. That’s why it’s ‘Tuesday’ Talks, so it’ll always be out every week.

As much as I and the rest of your fans enjoy watching your videos, we’d all love to see you perform live. Do you have anything planned?

I do! Tickets are on sale now for my UK tour in March. It’ll be Bristol, London, Nottingham, Glasgow and Manchester. Not in that order, but those 5 cities. The Bristol show is going to be at Thekla, depending on how the current issue develops of course. Thekla for me is amazing, I’ve played there before, having supported some touring artists and previously I’ve headlined slightly smaller venues such as The Lantern and Louisiana, so it’s a big jump!

What is next for Mary Spender? What can we look forward to?

More music! More videos and, of course, the live tour. All the things I’ve been quietly wanting to do. I’ve been slowly chipping away at all these things. It’s not so easy to just announce ‘I’m doing a 40 date tour’ as I am my own booking agent. I do work with a promoter but aside from that I organise everything myself. I’ve been thinking about the format of the shows and it won’t just be the traditional live show hopefully, if I can get the things I have in mind done! I think it will be an experience!

Well that pretty much rounds up the questions from me, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you.

No problem at all, thank you so much for having me!

You can keep up with Mary Spender via the following:


And buy SIGNED copies of her latest EP and her Louisiana performance on CD from here

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