Mary Bragg at 30A Fest: “We’re All Just Trying to Write Our Next Best Song”

Mary Bragg has performed at 30A Songwriters Festival each year since 2015. The Americana singer/songwriter says every year the four-day event, held along the 30A resort corridor on the Gulf of Mexico in Northwest Florida, is “its own organism.”

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“I’m always trying to catch as many shows as I can,” she tells American Songwriter hours before her performance at Hotel Effie in Miramar Beach, Florida. “But also, this year, I’m trying to do my morning pages and have some time and space with my own creative mind so that I don’t burn out.”

The Georgia native broke new ground on her latest record. The self-titled 2022 project was also self-produced. As Bragg embarks on a new chapter as an in-demand songwriter and producer, she talked with American Songwriter about her songwriting journey and the stories behind some of the songs on Mary Bragg.

“We’re all just trying to write our next best song,” she says. “That’s definitely a goal of mine: to connect and to have someone reach for the Kleenex again. There’s healing in that connection and giving that to a person is one of my biggest priorities.”

Read our discussion with Bragg below.

American Songwriter: What does it mean to be invited to perform at 30A Songwriters Festival? Does being here inspire you?

Mary Bragg: I think 30A is a great example of why it does inspire me because you come here and you see all these people from Nashville, friends that you’ve seen over the years and [are] reminded of that like-minded spirit that we all have, which is looking for the little silver linings in life. Working through that creatively and having that in common with a bunch of people is like being in an unofficial club, without having to join. … It’s really freeing and comforting to just be in a community of like-minded writers.

AS: Tell us about your journey as a songwriter. Do you remember the first song you wrote?

MB: Oh my gosh, it’s so cliche. I wrote my first song in high school, and this is before the Taylor Swift era when everybody started writing songs in high school. I grew up in the church, and in small towns church is everything. You end up going to church camp and learning how to play Indigo Girls songs, which is how I came to play guitar. It was also at a church event that I got recruited to go to this songwriter’s workshop in Texas.

[At the songwriter’s workshop] we started the excavation process of, “What do you want to write about?” I just lost a first cousin of mine who died when he was 17 and I was 15 at the time. So, I started trying to write through that. It was probably more morose than your average first song from a teenager, but I think it was called “See the Rainfall.” It was an example of working through a moment in life when you would like to express something and try to feel better about yourself or the world or death in that case. In college, I started writing with my friend [Lady A’s] Dave Haywood, and [with] his encouragement we made a record. Then, I moved to New York and started stalking songwriters at The Living Room and started playing there.

AS: And then you moved to Nashville.

MB: The ticket for me was moving to Nashville and really throwing yourself to the hero wolves. You can get schooled real fast in Nashville, and I needed to be schooled both metaphorically and literally, I wanted to learn more. … I wanted to continue to learn and devote myself to learning, forcing myself to understand the difference between what was growth for me versus just remaining stagnant as a writer. That’s something that I continue to always try to excavate in myself because I’ve definitely many times given myself permission to just call the day on a song when I know that it could be better in some ways. I think that’s permission that we all have the ability to give ourselves, but we also have the ability to give ourselves permission to work harder.

What’s the harm and making something better? Nashville is and continues to be the space that gently nudges me in that direction, both because I’m surrounded by incredibly talented writers and because every time you play, there’s the call to be great and to connect with people. If you’re not connecting with people, for me, what’s the point? The whole point is to reach a person and meet them where they are in some life experience or some life memory. I think it’s my job to connect those dots.

AS: How do you find song ideas?

MB: Having your antenna up is one of the biggest tricks and receiving an idea from the stratosphere of life experience and then writing it down. I have a page [on] my phone that is probably about 50 pages long that’s just ideas after ideas after ideas. Sometimes I only visit that list to add something or when I’m entering a co-write, I’ll reference that list to see what I might be interested in writing with someone on a particular day. But really, in terms of ideas, like actual ideas, it’s language that is so compelling. A turn of phrase or particular delivery of a feeling that might be slightly different than you might have heard of before and sometimes those ideas just occur in natural conversations because people are fascinating.

I actually like to do a lot of eavesdropping and also pay close attention to conversations that I have with people. Even if it’s at the merch table, people will say the darndest things and you just have to be like, “Tell me more.” I think there is certainly a temptation to live at a shallow level because sometimes it’s too much or not as pleasant, but existing in that plane of being willing to hear things that are maybe a little bit trickier, but compelling is my jam.

AS: Has any recent eavesdropping made its way into your songs?

MB: Sometimes it’s as simple as a phrase that is cliche or overused. On my new record, there’s a song called “Hard Time.” The setup is simply having a hard time and as it turns out, it’s something people say a lot. … Sometimes, it doesn’t have to be genius, but it’s just human. Putting that into an honest song with a feeling behind it is a good idea.

AS: Is there a song on in your catalog that holds more meaning now than when you first wrote it?

MB: “Love Each Other” for sure. That song is on the new record and was written during a time when I was still going through a really hard time with my family. The song was sort of a plea to people, in general, to be kinder to each other, to be more loving and accepting and forgiving and understanding. Imagine that.

Now, it’s a lot easier to play since I came out four years ago. My parents have come around in a lot of ways and they’ve met my partner and they’ve spent the holidays with us. One of my brothers is incredibly loving and supportive and it’s a lot easier to play that song now than it was in the beginning. [I’m able] to play it with the knowledge that people do, in fact, have the ability to move through hard things and get to the other side with love. It’s not impossible.

AS: What do you love most about songwriting?

MB: I think the actual moment when you’re writing – whether you’re writing alone or with someone else – the moment that you find the setup to the idea, the hook and you realize that it’s good enough to be a song. That’s incredibly fun. It’s addicting. It’s intellectually stimulating. It’s a puzzle that you always want to solve. When you do begin to see the way the puzzle is going to come together, it’s like getting all the questions right on Jeopardy [laughs]. Which is most of the time impossible, but when you start to see each piece fitting together with just the right sentiment or emotion it’s so rewarding.

Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez / Missing Piece Group

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