Talking with Mary Sue Twohy of SiriusXM
I’m always open to interviewing DJs, artists, and other industry types. This week, thanks to a suggestion from Compass Records’ Christina Dunkley, we have our first SiriusXM DJ. Please feel free to contact me with any suggestions you may have.
Bill Frater: Where and when did you start in radio, and what music industry related jobs have you had?
Mary Sue Twohy: After more than a decade of broadcasting at SiriusXM and interviewing some of the top artists in American Roots music – including Judy Collins, Joan Baez, David Crosby, Jackson Browne, Billy Bragg, David Rawlings and Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris, Graham Nash, Shawn Colvin, Tracy Chapman and more – I come to radio as a musician. I was a regional touring musician supporting three albums with modest touring and a Harley-Davidson sticker on my car as “security.” I had tons of coffee-stained maps – no cell phone, no GPS. Imagine that! It was amazing that I ever got to any of my shows, but I did by some sort of miracle. How does this inform what I do today as a broadcaster? When an artist comes into the studios after a 12 hour ride – I viscerally know what that feels like and I can attempt to offer hospitality that understands the demands of the road and the headspace that comes with it. I understand emailing from the road can be tricky. How did I go from musician to broadcaster, you ask? I started a small boutique acoustic music PR firm while I was touring – a real money maker! In the process of promoting my roster to Robert Aubry Davis – then-program director of SiriusXM The Village, I became a volunteer. I helped him sort through contemporary folk music CDs and then ended up hosting my first radio show in 2005 as a contractor. The audience reacted well and I was brought on as a full-time host to SiriusXM in 2006. In past lives, I have also worked for Greenpeace and a holistic veterinarian; it’s not exactly a straight line! But here is a connection – the vet I worked for treated Mary Chapin Carpenter’s dog! And I have had the honor of interviewing Mary Chapin for the show multiple times – a great American songwriter.
Where do you work now?
It all started quite innocently with just one folk radio show over 10 years ago on SiriusXM. I currently am the program director of three 24/7 channels, responsible for 72 hours of programming every day. Mindboggling. I program The Bridge, channel 32 (mellow classic rock), The Village (folk), channel 741, and Krishna Das Yoga Radio (chant), channel 751. I also host The Village Folk Show, a weekly four-hour folk show that broadcasts on the Bridge, Sundays 6-10 a.m. ET and 8 p.m.-midnight PT), and The Village, Mondays 6- 10 p.m. ET, Tuesdays noon – 4 p.m. ET, and Thursdays 8- midnight ET). The Village Folk Show won a Gracie Award for Interview Program/Features in 2016 from the Alliance for
Women in Media Foundation based on excerpts from interviews I conducted with Judy Collins, Janis Ian, Rhiannon Giddens, and Buffy Sainte-Marie. I hope other folk DJs have walked the red carpet before me; if not, I am honored to be among the first. Standing before 50 of so photographers with their cameras flashing was an experience, and one that requires lipstick!
How do you describe your show?
The Village Folk Show focuses on the latest folk and acoustic Americana albums with a historical and seasonal flair, highlighting recent accomplishments and landmarks of American roots artists, anchored with a live feature, which could be an interview, a live performance, guest DJ set, etc. My goal is to share a mix of early folk, 1960s folk, and new music on every show. As a host, I am interested in history, cool facts about songs and artists, and understanding the elusive creative process. As an interviewer, I never know exactly how an interview will go when it begins – and I always come away enlightened. I prepare a set of questions, and find myself inevitably setting those questions down – opening up the interview to the creative process that is conversation. These are the moments I treasure. This is where I hear stories: David Crosby described sailing the ocean on a clear night in his boat, anchoring and then turning off every single light on his boat to take in an extraordinary view of the stars, the universe – and then talking about how this made him feel. I love this!
The show strives to be a comfortable place for our artists to shine, to talk freely, and to be fully present.
I am the product of a community of artists, folk DJs, and venues. This community is large, diverse, unwieldy, earnest, and, in essence, the foundation of The Village Folk Show. Robert Aubry Davis, Jeremy Tepper, and Kyle Cantrell from SiriusXM are supporters I have counted on over time, including SiriusXM alumni Marlin Taylor and Bill Wax. Also Gene Shay of WXPN, Wanda Fisher of WAMC, John Platt of WFUV, and Ron Olesko of WFDU are just some of the advocates, among many, throughout the years. I have anchored in the Folk Alliance International and regional communities for almost two decades – and this alone has been a positive impact on my career. I mention the organization(s) and these people because The Village Folk Show would not be the same without them. The Gracie award the show won last year is as much mine as the community that supports the show.
How do you prepare for your shows?
I am always listening – programming three vastly different channels for SiriusXM makes for set of ears that appreciates the arrangements and superb musicianship of the 1970s found on The Bridge, respects the place chant music creates within myself and others when listening to Krishna Das Yoga Radio, and, finally, enjoys the magnitude of story – historical, topical, and poetic song – of American roots music found of The Village.
I very much have listeners in mind when creating each show. When I work on the playlist part of the show, I strive for balance of new and historical, acoustic and folk rock. I also try to make sure all regions of North America and beyond are represented, as it is a national show. I present the very best of the American roots genre – folk, Americana, bluegrass, blues, folk rock and beyond. I look at the calendar and call upon lyrics that may be relevant to this time of year. Yes, you will hear holiday music in December.
When I am interviewing, I put together a pretty standard open and close. Then I leave it open to see where the conversation will go, including other creative wellsprings our artists draw from. I attempt to ask questions I think our listeners may want to ask. I try to present a wide variety of roots artists – world-famous to up-and-coming. The preparation is intense – I usually have 10 to 20 pages of research I cull down to 6 to 10 questions. I listen to the album in full at least three times, read the lyrics and liner notes, and then listen to prior interviews. This helps me direct the conversation. The thread tying all the shows together is quality. I hope to present high quality in every show I create. With that said, the show may have a cerebral quality at points, but if it does not evoke some sort of emotion, I have not done my job.
What was the first artist or album that got you into roots music?
My dad, Jim Twohy, is a musician and songwriter. He is the first artist I came to know and is still one of my favorite artists! And he is still writing songs at 77. I remember listening to my dad’s vinyl collection – putting on Simon & Garfunkel and laying down in the red and orange shag rug for some serious primary listening. I was completely transported. Joan Baez. John Denver. Peter Paul & Mary. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Neil Diamond, and that is just from my dad. My mom brought ABBA to the table. My brothers brought Led Zeppelin, Ozzy Osbourne, Yes, and Judas Priest. And we all sang Broadway show tunes in musicals we performed throughout school. Quite a mix! My entry point into roots music, well, it may change day to day. Today it is a mixtape my high school boyfriend gave me of James Taylor songs. It included “You’ve got a Friend” and “Fire and Rain.” The acoustic guitar fell on my ear like a respite – a quiet and true solace. I still remember what the tape looked like, the penciled song titles. I am pretty sure I wore that tape out.
Who are your favorite artists from any genre?
Hard to say who are my favorite artists, as I see each one as a shining gem whose brilliance changes minute to minute. Artists who have created the music, the soundtrack of defining moments in my life, are Nanci Griffith, Shawn Colvin, Bonnie Raitt, Chris Smither, Peter Mayer, Snatam Kaur, Bruce Cockburn, Harry Chapin, Richard Shindell, and so many more.
How do you define what Americana music is?
Americana means different things to different people. I hold that folk is the mothership. I am not a musicologist, but many readings on roots music support this. Folk was around way before country, bluegrass, and blues. Folk was and is the first song of humanity. That said, in my opinion, Americana is an offshoot of the folk mothership, mixing roots music influences together – sometimes acoustic, sometimes rock. Americana is a mix of folk, bluegrass, country, blues, rock, and more. Is it a salad or a puree vegetable soup? Good question!
Where do you see Americana radio, or radio in general, going in the future?
Americana radio maintains a foothold in the larger pie of radio in North America. The Americana Music Chart documents this to some degree, and the success of the artists on the chart as well. As the general consumer population turns to their phone, I see the future of radio moving more toward digital dash and Bluetooth to phone. Personally, I listen to it all in my car and at home – satellite, FM, phone, internet. We are living a media revolution. It is my belief that the authentic sound of folk, of Americana will continue to shine. It will be the job of the American roots communities to stay current with digital technologies and make it easier for consumers to find and enjoy the fresh roots sounds.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
I love when artists truly embody their artistry. There are a good number of albums over the last 12 months that have been exploratory in approach or nature. I appreciate that. A big thank you to Sarah Jarosz, Judy Collins & Ari Hest, Rose Cousins, Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle, Infamous Stringdusters, Richard Shindell, The Nordic Fiddlers Bloc. And there are more! I have been fortunate enough to have spoken with the majority of the artists I just mentioned – and I know the feature will be a good broadcast for my listeners when an hour after the interview has ended I have five more new questions to ask them!
Some highlights – it was great to give Judy Collins flowers after her interview. She loves flowers! I enjoyed talking with Sarah Jarosz about the somewhat mystic connections in her song “Jacqueline” about Jackie Kennedy Onassis. I also got to hear touring adventures from Richard Shindell. Some of these stories are on mic and some are off mic. There is a place for both!
What are your most memorable experiences or memories from working in the music industry?
Meeting Richard Thompson for the first time was pretty incredible. I went to his tour bus with a my colleague Trish, a SiriusXM sound engineer, outside the 9:30 Club in Washington DC (a club way cooler than I am) and sat at the table with him with the tape running in his bus. First of all, he is tall! Or I am short. But to the matter: It was clear when he spoke of his musician friends that he held them in his heart and they mattered a lot to him. He then revealed he was a satellite radio listener and actually wanted more channels. He requested a 1930s music channel! I love that! I look forward to talking with him again one day. I did get to meet Doc Watson once. It was backstage at the Common Ground Festival in Maryland. I was about to go sit down and interview Jean Ritchie when I spied Doc Watson sitting alone on some wooden benches. I asked if I could introduce myself. And, well, he took my hands and said “I know your voice from the radio.” I will never forget that moment.
What inspires you or what keeps you going?
When I receive a note from a listener or hear from an artist that they were inspired to create, to act, or were in some way transformed from their listening experience on SiriusXM – that is when I have done my job. When a stunning album comes across my desk I get so excited. It is also wonderful to see and hear artists travel their creative paths – try new things, explore new musical territory, and just get better at their craft. For most of us, great songwriting does not come overnight; it takes some living to write great songs.
How do you want to be remembered?
Interesting question. To be remembered at all is a great place to begin. I would like to be remembered as #folkstrong. Strength knows when to go forward; strength also knows when to back down. Strength is required to hold others up. And it requires strength to let yourself be held up. Strength allows you to keep going even if in minute and unseen ways. And strength is required to face the unknown, the future.
Do you have any other interesting hobbies or interests?
Many! I like to work with my hands – mosaics, herbal tinctures, sewing, cement sculpture – these are just the tip of the proverbial crafty iceberg I float. I also rescue dogs (one at a time). We currently dote on a Basset hound rescue named Sophie. I volunteer as an Audubon Water Monitor. And I acquire and learn to play somewhat unusual instruments – latest family addition is an English concertina. I also have a very understanding husband!