From her Academy Award®-winning performance in Melvin and Howard to her role as an adulteress in the critically acclaimed What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Mary Steenburgen is best known for her brilliant acting talent. She has appeared in over 50 films including Parenthood, Miss Firecracker, Back to the Future III, The Butcher’s Wife, and The Help. Her impressive TV roles include such notables as Joan of Arcadia and Curb Your Enthusiasm. But in recent years, this Arkansas native has embarked on a new creative journey and spoke exclusively with MusicRow to discuss her deep plunge into the world of songwriting.
“I’m going to be really honest with you,” says Steenburgen. “It’s still a bit of a mystery [how I got into songwriting]. Before October 17, 2007, I had never written music nor had I even contemplated writing music. I don’t know exactly what happened and I never will, but on that day, I wrote my first song and saying I became ‘obsessed’ would be putting it mildly. Some people suggest that what I’ve done my whole life, telling stories on a daily basis, is perhaps part of it. My entire life I’ve worked with words. I’ve listened to the best way to make them sound and the truest way to say them.” She is also inspired by stepdaughter and singer Katrina Danson, and is driven to help the younger woman’s career.
After writing between 60 and 90 songs, she made a demo of her best 12 on Martha’s Vineyard with musician Mike Benjamin. He sent out the demo under an assumed name, which eventually resulted in Steenburgen being signed by Monti Olson at Universal Music Publishing Group—Los Angeles.
While writing in LA, someone mentioned the idea of co-writing. She admits she didn’t initially understand the process, “I thought they were saying this because they felt my music wasn’t good enough, and I needed to write with other people to make it better.” Being open to everything and always saying “yes,” Steenburgen agreed to co-write but the appointments always fell through. “It was very frustrating for me because I have a really strong work ethic. I’ve never missed a performance in my life, so I’m sure not going to miss a co-writing session. People said to me, ‘you know, that won’t happen to you in Nashville.’”
She then met Nashville songwriter Darrell Brown. “Darrell spoke about Nashville is such a loving way,” she recalls. “He got to know me and he said, ‘if anybody is going to love Nashville, it’s you. You love the South. You love Southern culture. You love writing as much as anyone.’ So I went to Nashville.” Upon arrival, Universal Music Publishing Group’s Pat Higdon and Whitney Williams were wonderful advisers, introducing her to songwriters on Music Row and helping her navigate the business.
She fell for Music City as quickly as songwriting. “I fell in love with Nashville because it’s a city of poets,” says Steenburgen. “It’s a city that actually truly cares about writing and about music. I’ve described it before as the most effortlessly hip city in America and I really think that’s true. The restaurants, the people…I think it’s the coolest city in America. When I come and go from Nashville, people actually care. When I come and go from LA, nobody notices. And that’s the God’s honest truth. It’s not that you are seen and not spoken to [in Nashville], it’s that you’re seen and understood a little bit. That’s what matters in Nashville.”
Her first two local writing sessions were with Brown. She confesses, “I was so blown away by the talent of these people that I got intimidated and didn’t open my mouth.” The third session was with Danny Orton and Barry Dean, and they collaborated on a song about Steenburgen’s mom, who had passed away two weeks earlier. That day proved to be a very emotional journey. Steenburgen says, “to have two people be so open and brave, brilliant and creative, and to dive in and be willing to experience something so powerful with me—a total stranger. They put aside any part of the fact that I’m an actor. They embraced it, but it wasn’t what was important. What was important, about me to them, was the experience of writing this song together. Literally, this is one of the most important experiences of my life and it just exploded from there.”
Listing the other songwriters she’s worked with reads like the credits of a chart-topping hit: Matraca Berg, Troy Verges, Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna and many others. She is quick to point out her enormous admiration for these talented songwriters, “If people call me a songwriter, I am honored to be called that. I’m keenly aware that I’m lucky to get to work with these writers.”
Steenburgen’s collaborations are already starting to bear fruit. She co-wrote a song called “Fall Again” with Berg, which is on the latter’s new album, Dreaming Fields. She also penned a song with Melissa Manchester called “Rainbird,” that will be featured in a new movie from the Weinstein Company called Dirty Girl. Steenburgen has a couple of songs written for a TV pilot she shot in Nashville recently that includes collaborations with Shooter Jennings, Verges, and Lindsey. She notes that Tim McGraw is recording a song she wrote with Dean and McKenna.
Steenburgen’s passion for writing runs deep. “It isn’t a dabbling or vanity thing,” she explains. “I actually don’t care about performing the music at all. I want the best people to sing the songs I write. If my name were taken off every single song I ever did for the rest of my life, I would still do it. It’s that important for me as a form of expression.”
She loves the fact that every songwriter is completely different; which relates strongly to her acting life. She has worked with everyone from Lasse Hallström to Woody Allen, from Ron Howard to Oliver Stone, and like co-writing, each experience is unique and rewarding. “That sense of walking in a room and opening yourself up to this unique individual and this person’s style and this person’s life and this person’s way of writing and this person’s relationship to music. I love that!” says Steenburgen.
She also finds similarities between her improvisational work and writing, and finds being open to others’ ideas thrilling. She says, “In improvisation, the first rule is that you never say ‘no.’ You never halt an idea within an improvisational. If you do, you kill the improv. I find the same thing in songwriting. I would never say ‘oh that’s a bad idea’ or ‘no,’ you just don’t say that. You don’t even say it inwardly. You just dive in. It’s like jumping in a river that you’ve never been in before. You’re going to stay afloat and see where it takes you.”
Fortunately for us, it took her to Nashville.
• • • •
You can catch Mary Steenburgen this Fri., Oct. 14, at The Hermitage Hotel when she joins her Nashville songwriter friends for a special in-the-round performance. The upcoming show includes accomplished tunesmiths Shawn Camp, Kim Carnes, Trent Dabbs, Kat Danson, Barry Dean, Natalie Hemby, Audrey Dean Kelley, Luke Laird, Lori McKenna, and Troy Verges.
The event corresponds with the Southern Festival of Books & Americana Music Festival and proceeds benefit The Oxford American, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Tickets are $250 per person. Click here to purchase, or call (501) 320-5730.
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