Mary Leay is a south east London-based singer songwriter, now best known for co-writing Piece of Me for MK and Becky Hill, which has now reached over 100 million plays on Spotify.
Mary has also written for for Cher, Union J and recently worked with world renowned film director Gore Verbinksi on the soundtrack for A Cure for Wellness.
Following her appearance on M Magazine partner Louise Golbey’s The Songwriters Podcast, we caught up with Mary to find out more about her career, her approach to songwriting and new initiative Mama’s in Music.
'We are here to ensure that the stigmas mums face will be eradicated and in the meantime enable mums to take charge of their own career, give them ways to be more productive, connected, and go on to have success.'
Hi Mary, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Where are you holed up at the moment and what’s your set up at home like? We understand there’s a toddler running around…
Thanks for having me! And yes, my two year old is at my feet as we speak.
Can you start by introducing yourself and outlining the role you play within the music industry?
Of course, I’m Mary Leay and I’m a songwriter first and foremost. I'm Signed to Reservoir / Big Life and I'm the co-developer of a new platform Mamas In Music.
When you appeared on Louise Golbey’s The Songwriters Podcast, you named Piece of Me by MK and Becky Hill as the song that best defines you. Can you talk us through the writing process?
Yes, so that song got me my publishing deal. It’s the most successful commercial cut I’ve had so far, now at over 100 million streams on Spotify, which is quite nuts really!
In truth I’m still a new pop writer. I only really got into it about five years ago so I hadn’t really formed a process or specific way of working when we co-wrote that song. In a way perhaps that’s why it came out so comfortably, because there was no ‘system’ to it. It was fairly organic.
I wrote the song with Becky Hill and Tim Powell. It was all very stripped back. Becky obviously has an insane voice and also a great writer. I recall us talking a lot about past relationships and this feeling of being happy to leave some parts of oneself behind in old relationships. It felt like a great concept. I’m also sure we started with the verses and even now, still learning my craft, I probably would try to find a chorus first and work backwards but then we wrote it very naturally, and the story in the lyrics unfolded very naturally. It was a great way to write and I genuinely remember thinking it 'felt' like a hit. I hadn’t ever had that certainty before and yet it took at least a year for anything to happen with it. I think by the time it did emerge with MK’s involvement I had kind of forgotten about it!
How did it feel to see that the song had reached over 100 million plays on Spotify?
Really incredible. It never got that high in the UK charts though it did chart for some weeks but seeing those numbers on Spotify obviously was just a game changer. For me it has given me the chance to enter the world of writing with a really clear understanding of how writing a hit should feel. To be able to trust that feeling that we had written something special. It has real longevity as a dance record. Radio 1 still play it lots and it just feels quite timeless. It’s been an amazing thing to be part of.
During the podcast you also discussed your early career performing in bands as the lead singer. How does being behind the scenes compare to being centre stage?
Yes I’ve been in bands since I was a teenager. I have always been a lead singer and in more recent years a writer of my own material. For many years I believed in nothing else, I lived for it. It took me a long time to actually realise my love was more for the job of a songwriter. It excites me so much and while I do love to dip in and out of the world of ‘being the artist’, I think songwriters have a far easier job in the sense that we can step away from the limelight unnoticed, yet we get the share in the joy of the creation of the music. I love watching the artists I’ve written for perform and I never once think, 'I wish that was me.' That being said, I do still write for me and perform (pre-pandemic) and because there’s no longer the pressure to get a deal or ‘make it’ it has become something that I do purely for the joy. It’s not something I think I need to give up at some point. I don’t think you can just turn off being artistic. It’s just in you, thankfully!
'Once you have what you think is your finished song. Go back and edit. Find the best words. Push yourself further than you think you need to. Ask yourself, does it feel hit worthy? You’ll know deep down.'
You recently self-released your EP In This Silence. How does your approach to writing change when you know you will be performing the songs?
My approach to my own songs couldn’t be more different! It’s a much more self-indulgent exercise to be honest. I procrastinate like crazy and I do get caught up in my own head far too much. That EP was with a writing project called Mary The Lost with band mate Matthew J Day. He co-wrote, played bass and produced the songs. He took them to a far more beautiful place than I ever could alone. I guess when you write for someone else you put your head into theirs, you facilitate their feelings and thoughts but when you write for yourself you don’t have that restriction, that limitation, so in a way it’s not always a good thing because you can get a bit stuck in your own story too much! I’m trying to get better though and have been quite strict with myself on some of the new material I’ve been writing for me lately.
You co-wrote Take It Like a Man for Cher's twenty-fifth studio album Closer to the Truth. What was it like writing for such an iconic artist?
It was honestly the first piece of pop writing that I had the chance to put my mark on. The song was part written by Tim Powell and Tebey Ottoh, but Tim got me involved as we were working together at the time. He was like, see if you can nail these lyrics. We didn’t work with Cher, (sorry to disappoint!) but what I didn’t know at the time, was that another set of lyrics had been circulating from another great writer and at the eleventh hour Cher went with my words. That was a very cool moment for me because as I say it was all completely new to me and to have her say 'Yes let’s go with these lyrics' (my lyrics), that was a great feeling. I mean its Cher for God’s sake!
Tell us a bit about Mamas in Music and why you decided to launch the project...
Mamas In Music came about when myself and Tiff Randol (who is an amazing artist and composer based in L.A.) came together. We connected when we both had brand new babies. Being a new mum was a very lonely time. You can have all the friends and family around you in the world but it can still feel very isolating. I had been working so hard as a new writer with a new publishing deal and then all of a sudden I was at home with a new baby, feeling honestly, really disconnected from the music world. My publisher, despite all their well wishes and support, probably didn’t realise my insecurities either and I felt sad I hadn’t been able to really share my real anxieties. The truth is it got me thinking and realising that I had spent all my life as a female in music dreading having a baby (and putting it off for many years) because I absolutely believed it would be the end of my career. The industry like many industries needs a complete re-wiring in how it treats not only women, but those women that do the most natural thing in the world, have babies. The stigmas and belief systems that have been ingrained in both men (and sadly most women’s) minds just leave no place for allowing women to progress, flourish and develop in music.
In the last few months, we have launched Mamas In Music. A global platform and network for mothers across the globe who are based in music. That could be the artist, writer, producer, manager, music lawyer etc. We are open to all. We want it to be a safe and inspiring community where we can find ways to be more productive and proactive. So use each other’s skill sets and actually find each other work. So use a mama session bass player on your next release. Find a great mama producer or music lawyer or publisher. We have some amazing projects unfolding and while it’s still very early days we are so excited by the community that’s building.
'We are talented songwriters, composers, artists, producers, engineers, session players, publishers, music managers and we are mothers.'
Why is it so important to you to bring the voices of mothers to the forefront of the music industry?
We feel passionately that mothers are stood there with all this talent and yet often forgotten, or ignored, because they’ve had a baby. This idea that they made a choice to have a child so they can’t do the job they used to do quite as well is just absolutely crazy. We believe mamas are the grafters and the early risers. We have less time but I bet you a mama will get the job done twice as fast because somehow once you’ve got the wisdom of being a mama it very often spurs you on to be twice as productive!
We are here to ensure that the stigmas mums face will be eradicated and in the meantime enable mums to take charge of their own career, give them ways to be more productive, connected and go on to have a successful career. There’s a lot of change and strides forward for the voice of women in music but the conversation about women having children is a conversation that is still uncomfortable. Often silenced for fear of it jeopardising our career. It’s another thing to deal with when trying to bring equality, it’s another set of struggles I think sometimes just doesn’t get dealt with. So we’re following in the footsteps of the efforts being made by some amazing women in music but shouting loudly to get this vital conversation on the table too. We are talented songwriters, composers, artists, producers, engineers, session players, publishers, music managers and we are mothers.
How has the pandemic increased the pressure when it comes to juggling motherhood and career? Do you think that your male counterparts have felt the same weight?
The pressures have been huge. We know women are often trying to juggle not only being a full time parent but also trying to keep their creative career on track. PIPA (Parents and Carers in Performing Arts) recently shared that 'One in Four women in the arts are doing 90 percent or more of the childcare and are struggling to work, or look for employment.'
My own personal experience is that because my husband has what I call the sensible job (he knows what and when he is getting paid) and that has kept us afloat, so the natural default in me is therefore to take on pretty much everything else. Full time mother by day with snippets of time to do my music but in truth certainly at the start of the pandemic, music took a back seat. It became almost like a hobby again. We often talk openly that because music isn’t something that 'pays the bills' every month (royalties are often fairly unknown as a new writer) it can quite quickly become something that happens last on my list, below childcare, keeping on top of house work and so on. It can be exhausting to then try and be creative in the evening, which is often the only time I had at the start of the pandemic.
Does this have the same weight on my male peers in music? I’m not sure. I would say from the ones I know it, they get to put music (their job) first and the mother of their child is doing the rest. However I would say if you have reached a certain level of financial success it is very different again. For me as a new writer, the point is, in order to reach those big wins, those opportunities and any financial gain that comes with it, there has to be a level of creative input, and that takes a huge amount of grafting, energy and commitment. How are women meant to reach those creative potentials, earn the money, pay the bills, particularly if it’s just them as a single mum, if the choice is already taken away from them for having had a child?
Can you give us your golden rules for writing a topline?
Well I’m still learning my craft so I might say differently in another few years. But right now, I’d say have a concept early on (know what the song is about) and try to find an interesting way to say it. Simplify things. Take out too many notes and take out too many words. Don’t let the truth get in the way of a great lyric. The wonderful Ralph Murphy (ASCAP) taught me that. Edit, and edit again. Once you have what you think is your finished song. Go back and edit. Find the best words. Push yourself further than you think you need to. Ask yourself, does it feel hit worthy? You’ll know deep down.
What do you have coming up in 2021 that we should be looking out for?
Mamas In Music will obviously be a big focus this year with lots of exciting projects taking shape. You can follow us @mamasinmusic on Instagram and Facebook or find our private group on Facebook (Mamas In Music) and we’ll keep you posted on all of that.
I also have new music coming out this year in the form of various singles. The first happening on 7 May! I haven’t actually released any music under my name for a while. I’ve done features, but nothing purely under my name, so it will be nice to release material just for me this year.
Stay up to date with Mary Leay on Twitter.