an interview with songmaker mara lee miller
Under the moniker of Bosque Brown, Mara Lee Miller creates unfettered songs about motherhood, mental health, and faith in the good in oneself and in the world, however hidden it may be. Her voice surges and recedes, drawing the listener in to her experience, transferring raw melancholy and rich hope in equal measure. Quiet and private, preferring to create her music off-stage and away from prying eyes, Mara has moved away from the maw of touring to focus on family and has recently turned out what may be her best record yet, Little Sea.
I stumbled upon Mara’s music through a mutual friend who, perhaps after seeing our many similarities, sent me a link to Little Sea and nudged me to give it a listen. Upon first hearing, I felt immediately connected to Mara’s gentle yet commanding voice and her yearning for the good and true. Along with being a young mother myself and knowing first-hand the lonely and restless experience of postpartum depression, I also relate to her search for God in the mediocre, in the dim light of a difficult morning.
It was my absolute pleasure to interview Mara for Distances, our twelfth issue. Thank you, readers and friends, for listening.
Cate Clother: Can you tell us a bit about the name Bosque Brown? Where does it come from?
Mara Lee Miller: The Bosque is the name of a small river that runs through the town I grew up in, Stephenville, Texas. I had always wanted to live in or near a forest and bosque is Spanish for “forest.” At the time I associated much of my life with the color brown in terms of how I felt and where I lived. I wanted a moniker so I just put the two together.
Cate: Your two newer albums, Us and Little Sea, are influenced by your experience of becoming a mother and maturing into womanhood. What aspects of motherhood did you feel compelled to translate into song? How has creating music affected your role as a mother?
Mara: Us was this kind of closure and acceptance of who I was and the choices I had made as a woman up until that point. It was the perfect prequel for what was about to happen in my life and how things would change. I made peace with myself on that record and peace with the things I had no good answers for.
Then my daughter came along and so did a great deal of loneliness and depression which compelled me to write Little Sea. I loved her so much but I was so lost and scared and uncertain. I didn’t realize at the time but I was dealing with severe postpartum depression. Little Sea was a record for her. Her assurance that I was there, I knew her and that I loved her more than anything I had ever loved. I consider that record a love letter to her as well as an audible photograph of that time in motherhood.
Cate: How do you navigate the coexistence of your creative pursuits and your responsibilities as a mother?
Mara: I have put down music these last couple of years in order to stay healthy mentally and physically and to keep relationship in my life. In my daughter’s younger years there were lots of naps and less activities so lots of time for singing and writing which was how I was able to write and record Little Sea. It’s a decision I have often wondered about but ultimately I feel it has been for the best.
My hope is during this break from music my daughter has still been able to experience the creative side of me as a mother, just in a different form than music. The way we look at clouds or flowers or even people together. The way we read books and listen to music. The things I speak to her. I hope she has still seen beauty and darkness and spirit. I hope she has seen the deepness and mystery of life that music so wonderfully tells despite my abilities right now.
Cate: Do you feel integrated into the music culture of Fort Worth, TX? Has motherhood affected your relationship to your creative community?
Mara: I have never integrated into any music culture. I tend to be closest to people who are completely opposite from me. I think a lot of that has to do with where I grew up. It was very difficult to find an artist community in a small country town in Texas. I learned how to make friends on a completely different level other than interests and that has never changed for me. My only close musical friends were my bandmates and they have all moved.
However, Fort Worth is a beautiful community and you could not find better people to work with when I do participate. I have received nothing but intense kindness and it’s the type of place where many other musicians and artists have families too. There is a sincerity and acceptance and loyalty like no other here, regardless if you are actively involved.
Cate: Can you describe the aural progression of your music over the course of your discography? What influences were affecting your music at different stages in your development? How did you come to use electronic music in your album Us?
Mara: When I began I was deeply into people like Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Damien Jurado, Hank Williams Sr. and Cat Power (particularly the Covers Record). I think all those influences can be heard on Plays Mara Lee Miller. I wanted those first songs to showcase my influences and what I loved. There was no expectation on my first record so I truly just enjoyed myself and the idea that I could do whatever I chose. There is such a purity in a first record.
On Baby I dug into artists like Scout Niblett and any raw woman’s vocal I could get my hands on. I didn’t want something pretty and I didn’t want to do what might be expected of me as a woman. While recording Baby I also started experiencing hearing problems in my left ear. It greatly affected the way I sang. I think deep down a part of me wanted to see if I didn’t make something beautiful, if I did what wasn’t expected, would it all go away? Would people still listen? Sonically I wanted Baby to be rebellion. I felt a lot of anger at the time that I think can be heard.
My health failed soon after and I holed up to write Us. I was ready to make a record of healing for my body and my anger. Us is a pretty record sonically. I wanted the opposite of Baby and set out to make peace with myself and music. Jeremy Buller, who has played with me from before there was a beginning, made it beautiful. He smoothed out the rawness and helped me tame my voice. Jeremy had a more electronic background and I let him have full reign of the landscape. It should also be noted that during the recording of Us my ear condition was under control. I also stopped playing with a band and was really able to hear and think about what I was doing. I found my way back.
Little Sea was a record for me. It was back to what I know and love best. Just simple songs with the right amount of landscaping to bring out what’s there in the song, instruments or not. I had no expectations with Little Sea as far as performing or finding a label. I was as free as on my first record. I did what pleased me and that was the only agenda. It was written out of love. I was also more vocal about how I wanted it to sound sonically, less electronic than Us but still allowing Jeremy to express himself.
Cate: You have a strong and distinctive voice that carries the listener through your compositions. Have you always been a singer? When did you begin singing for others, and how is the experience of performing for you?
Mara: I grew up singing in the church, nursing homes, in front of family or visitors, and school talent shows with my mother and sister. My mother was a public school music teacher and is still the church pianist. I grew up with a piano in the house and music was often played.
I’m not sure that I would consider myself a singer as much as an artist. Music has simply been the main way I have expressed myself over the past twenty years. I loathe performing. It’s not as terrible when I play with another person but it has always been a major source of anxiety for me. My lack of wanting to perform has hindered my career somewhat, but it is something I have not overcome and that I accept.
Cate: Your songs seem to consciously connect with your present experience of life, but they also reach back to rich traditions of early country and folk music. How has it been for you to write music that is rooted in tradition but brings something new to the table?
Mara: I grew up with older parents who had little interest in anything involving pop culture. I was always decades behind my peers in what I enjoyed and it didn’t help that I grew up in a small, isolated town in Texas which, for the most part, had no interest in anything progressive either.
Because of my fundamental Christian upbringing I was taught to think extremely deep at a very young age. As I discovered Indie Rock in the mid 90’s, I experienced a collision of decades-old thinking with progressive ideas. It still overwhelms me today.
I am, however, thankful for being oblivious to pop culture when I was younger and for the deep ways I was taught to think and see the world at such a young age. Makes a rich well for writing and contemplation.
Cate: How do you relate to collaboration? Do you prefer making your music on your own, or do you find collaborators important in the process?
Mara: I like to write alone but I do not like to perform or record alone. Relationship is extremely important to me. Making music with someone I love is one of my greatest fulfillments in life. There is nothing like showing a bandmate a song for the first time and hearing what they do with it. The connection you experience from that is so sacred and incredibly precious. To hear someone give that song a body and know that they too own it now and it has its own meaning to that person is an incredible gift.
Cate: In connecting with creative mothers in different fields, I’ve found that mothers often suffer from guilty or shameful feelings about pursuing their art while raising their children. Have you struggled with these kinds of feelings? If so, how have you worked with them?
Mara: I have felt guilt for the opposite reasons. I have felt guilty for putting music aside for the time being. Wondering if I am being true to myself and my abilities. It has been a difficult decision and I know I won’t be happy if I put my pursuits down much longer.
However, during this time I have read a lot. I have thought and wrote a lot. I have been preparing myself for what’s to come again creatively. I took a break to live in life a bit more and examine things and how I feel. I have dug deep into friendships.
This is the healthiest way for me right now. This decision has nothing to do with mom guilt.
I have found today’s mothering to be quite judgmental. I want to make sure my daughter sees me for who I really am. Yes, my life has changed as a mother. Yes, my priorities and time have changed. But I am still who I was before she was born. Simply me under a set of different circumstances. I think the greatest gift I can give my daughter is for her to see who I am in order for her to learn how to be who she is. It’s very important to me that she sees I am a person outside of being her mother.
Cate: In some songs, your lyrics express a relatable vulnerability/darkness along with hope for change. You sing about mental and physical health challenges and have been open about your struggle with eating disorders. How has this kind of open expression affected your relationship to these challenges?
Mara: Music is always healing for me. I believe it helps me to make sense of struggles or at least close them up a bit so they don’t hurt so badly. Anytime I speak openly about all the mess I stuff inside it has less power over me. To name it and feel the struggle and pain is so powerful and healing. Art is such good medicine for working through the darkness and bringing it to the light. There is a love in giving these difficulties songs. That love truly casts out the fear.
Cate: You have sung old Christian spirituals so beautifully! Does spirituality play into your creative experience?
Mara: Spirituality is my creative experience. While I don’t embrace the things I was taught as a child I am still deeply involved in the church. The ways in which I do so have changed drastically over the years but I will always be in pursuit of those unexplainable deep questions I struggle with and the search for God in a constantly changing and evolving world. I will always be chasing after the mystery and love. This search is what I’m singing about. What I’m wrestling with every day. It’s ever expanding.
Cate: What’s coming up for Bosque Brown?
Mara: I will start writing again in the fall. It’s time and I can feel the need. I am uncertain of the details but I know if I make, create and persist, something will begin again. No expectations of how or what. Just ready to see what’s deep inside. Ready to start the never-ending process of healing and growing again on the other side of a new set of worries and struggles and pain for this next phase in life.
Mara created a warm, heart-searching mix for our readers, of songs that are very dear to her. Click below to listen.