Hailing from East Texas, Mandy Rowden is a singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist who has been a practicing musician since she was six years of age.
Based in Austin, Rowden has won numerous awards and, recognized for her depth of talent, has collaborated with Grammy-winning producer Lloyd Maines, Grammy-winner Redd Volkaert and many other well-known musicians. In 2007, she founded Girl Guitar, created to teach women ages 21+ — ranging from college students to grandmas — how to play guitar.
You’ve got a new single out, ‘Sing Hallelujah,’ which seems to speak to the turmoil of our current times. Is there a story behind the song?
I wrote the first draft of ‘Sing Hallelujah’ for a project I was working on with a wonderful Austin-based nonprofit called Songs for the Soul. It was originally a musical thank you to a front-line medical worker at the Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, NY, which at the time was the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the summer I began to broaden the verses to include more of what was unfolding around us. There’s so much cycloning around us that can bring us down right now, so I’m really hopeful that ‘Sing Hallelujah’ tips the balance, even just a little bit, in the other way. Yes, this sucks but yes, we’re going to overcome a lot more than it feels like right now while we’re in the thick of it.
Since you’ve released a new single does that mean there’s an album also?
There sure is! Due out in early 2021, ‘Sing Hallelujah’ is part of a full-length album that I’m working on even as we speak. A lot of the details are still up in the air, but all info will be available on my website as the project develops. I’m really loving the songs and working with producer Matt Smith at central Austin’s 6 String Ranch Studio, and I’m getting to make a little dream of mine come true by playing the majority of the instruments on the album.
You clearly have a ton of talent. As a singer-songwriter, what comes first for you, the music or the lyrics?
I wish I were organized enough as a songwriter to have a clear answer to this, but my process has been a little different for every song I’ve written. In the case of ‘Sing Hallelujah’ I had a rough draft of the song that needed updated lyrics, so I wrote them, but then in the process of working them in, the melody changed dramatically as well.
My process always includes a healthy dose of throwing things at the wall to see what sticks and my phone is full of pieces of recordings that eventually evolved into what I released as this song.
You started Girl Guitar nearly 14 years ago as a way to teach guitar to women but then 2020 happened. How has Girl Guitar been affected by the pandemic?
Well after a short but very real freak-out period I decided to pivot and make the best of things. I switched all of our acoustic classes to Zoom and we’ve been going strong ever since. There’s a magic that happens when people share music that can’t really be replicated over the Internet, but the perks are really strong too! For example, since going virtual in March I’ve had students from most of the 50 states plus Canada and Spain – something I couldn’t have pulled off in our pre-COVID format.
I’ve always claimed that Girl Guitar is great because the people involved are great, and they proved me right again by how cool and adaptive they’ve been during the last seven months. I’m really lucky to work with all of them!
What is teaching guitar like over Zoom?
Well, it’s true that we’re missing out on the magical togetherness that playing music with other people provides, but we’re in a pretty good groove these days in our acoustic guitar classes and songwriting workshops. It took me a few classes before I stopped trying to reach out and adjust their fingers and other goofy things like that, though.
We make use of the breakout rooms and other features to try and instill a sense of community and get to know each other, and the humor and warmth of the Girl Guitar community hasn’t really suffered. On top of that, it’s largely agreed that not having to fight Austin traffic to get to class is a huge perk!
So, in some ways it sounds like you’ve found a silver lining in what has been a difficult 2020.
While I would never have wished this on the world, I’m constantly finding new little hidden positives with our new way of life. Early in the pandemic I saw Rosanne Cash tweet that Shakespeare wrote King Lear while under quarantine for the plague, and I decided on the spot to throw myself (and as many of my students who wanted to join me) into a full-on artistic frenzy. It’s been paying off big time!
Once the pandemic is in our collective rear-view mirrors, what happens with Girl Guitar? It sounds like you’ll continue offering virtual lessons?
Absolutely! In fact, I can’t believe I wasn’t doing this sooner. Girl Guitar will resume in-person acoustic classes and workshops as well as our full-band classes and Showcases as soon as it’s safe to do so. However, we’ve got quite the far-flung community working together virtually now, and I can’t imagine dumping them, so there will be a balance of the two going forward.
Cover photo courtesy Mark Maryanovich
Haven Lindsey resides in Taos, NM. She is a freelance writer with more than 20 years of experience writing on topics including healthcare, addiction, public policy, education, travel, food and human interest stories. She was recognized by NPR for her solo travel series exclusive to Texas Lifestyle Magazine. Her first book, ‘The Blue Dog and The White Horse’, will be released this year – a children’s book about the friendship between her dog and a horse on a Texas ranch.