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Back from New Mexico, Mary Bue talks about residencies and crowdfunding

Mary Bue in Taos, via
Mary Bue in Taos, via

by Hanna Bubser

May 23, 2017

Singer-songwriter Mary Bue recently finished up a three-month residency in Taos, New Mexico as an artist-in-residence at the Wurlitzer Foundation. The longtime Duluthian, now based in Minneapolis, talked with Duluth Local Show host Mike Novitzki about her experience with residencies, and the challenges and triumphs they provide.

Having just released an acoustic version of her acclaimed album Holy Bones, as well as the EP The Majesty of Beasts, Bue has several upcoming shows — including a July residency at the Aster Cafe and a July 28 show at Minnehaha Regional Park, plus of course a couple of gigs in Duluth. You can also be in Bue's next music video: submit a photo by May 31.

Mike Novitzki: You’ve run several Kickstarter campaigns. You’ve received several art grants, several artist residencies. You’re like the poster child for success when it comes to independently funding your artwork, which seems like the dream for any artist. What’s that process like, and is that as easy as you make it look?

Mary Bue: Oh my god, no. It’s grueling. Kickstarters [make me feel] very vulnerable. Even though it appears not, I’m sort of shy. Asking people to support things is not my favorite thing to do, even when I really believe in it and want to put [songs] out and think other people might like them. It’s kind of like canvasing, in a way — but for your own music. Kickstarters are pretty hard, but validating if they get funded. I feel crazy grateful for that. It’s kind of like a full time job, and I’ve heard other artists talk about that with Kickstarters.

With the grants, I had three or four from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council up in Northern Minnesota. Fantastic. The people on the committees for grants are extremely helpful. If I ever had questions, I was able to reach out and ask and get the paperwork created in such a way that was appealing. It’s like looking for opportunities, and trying and getting rejected sometimes and getting accepted sometimes. I have applied for a lot of artist residencies and gotten rejected from a number of them, and some I land and it’s fantastic. It’s like throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks.

I always hear people saying that these grants are out there for anybody that wants to go get them, but I knew it couldn’t possibly be as easy as people make it seem.

No, and it shouldn’t be. Because [grantors] have a standard to adhere to. The paper today was talking about all these grants for schools that were rejected because people didn’t use the double spaced line or have the correct punctuation. Sometimes, depending on who is collecting them, it’s really nit-picky.

How strict is the criteria for who is eligible for something like that?

I think a really strong piece is having your budget totally organized so that they can legitimately see where their funds are going to go. It’s not just like, “Give me $5,000 so I can pay rent.” The budget has to be really linearly laid out. That’s really important, and then having a pertinent project idea that seems to fit what they’re looking for. Know your audience, study up.

When it comes to these artist residencies where you’re getting sent to maybe some far-flung location and you’re going to spend a certain amount of time there — I’ve never done one of these, but from my standpoint it seems like this residency is a stark contrast to the environment in which most artists are forced to create. Once you’re awarded this residency and you process the excitement and you arrive in New Mexico, does that environment ever seem contrived or unnatural? Is the creative process different or hard to get started when you’re in this artificial environment?

For this residency, totally not — because the purpose of this one. It was the Wurlitzer Foundation. The mission of Helene Wurlitzer was really to give an artist a place to rest. I think a lot of the goals are to have the artist come out of the pressures of the real world so that they can focus. A lot of real-world work is done in this stolen time to finish your song or sneak in a band practice, because we’re all super busy. It seems to go in a specific cycle. For me and for some of the artists, it was the first month acclimating, the second month really getting down to work, and then the third month work shopping and fleshing out some of the things that we initially were creating. It took a while to wash off our real normal day-to-day stuff. It was such a gift. This one really didn’t seem contrived.

I’ve done one that was in park ranger housing, so you’re living in these sterile barracks. That wasn’t super-creative, but there’s a lot of residencies in national forests and state parks where you’re going to get a place to live like that. That’s not going to be so great, but the natural environment will be inspiring. It’s just what you’re looking for, I guess.

Is the goal to come away with a tangible, finished product?

I think it’s different for everyone. For me, I just came out of such a crazy year that I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do. I think a lot of residencies want you to propose a specific project, like applying for a grant or a Kickstarter. But this one was like, come and do some work and you could finish a project, or you could just see what happens.

I brought down a drum machine and a looper and I was going to try and teach myself to learn those things. It ended up being that there was a grand piano in my casita, so I ended up playing the piano most of the time, and guitar. I barely even touched those electronics. It felt more natural to be bare-bones again. I didn't walk away with a finished thing, but I think a lot of artists would. There were some writers there and they were really hoping to finish their books. There was a painter there and she cranked out a few paintings. I think it really depends on the person.

It would almost seem contrary to what you said about that residency earlier where it’s meant to be more of a relaxing environment, whereas focusing on having “x” amount of time to finish things sounds like a semester of college.

Yes, a lot of pressure. This one was no pressure. It was amazing.

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.