Suffragette City: Folk Songwriter & Activist Meghan Cary Discusses New Women’s Empowerment Initiative ‘The River Rock Project’ Celebrating 100 Years Of Women’s Voting

A passion is never truer than when things seem to just fall into place. For singer-songwriter Meghan Cary, love, pain, injustice, and destined passion gave her everything she needed. 

After feeling like a big fish in a small pond in Hershey, Pennsylvania, she had only just begun to expand her sphere of influence to the great big world– physically by experiencing the highs of moving to the city, and emotionally by being so unfairly acquainted with tragedy. For some, these things are registered as distractions and deterrents; for Cary, they became stepping stones to finding what she knows now is her artistic purpose. 

Since the release of her 2017 album Sing Louder, her music has become bigger than just herself. Especially following the release of her song, “River Rock,” Cary has amplified the need for a change from the inequalities faced by women in both past and current societies. Crying out, “I am not silver, I am not gold/ No precious metal for you to mold/ I am a river rock tumbled smooth/ By the rush of life, this life I choose” she pulls from her own life experience to point out something that many women know to be true: a woman’s destiny is not to be controlled or molded into whatever it is someone had decided they would be. Between the release of “River Rock” and current day, the power behind the sentiment has only grown stronger- hence the inception of The River Rock Project.

Throughout the three years between then and now, a lot in our world has changed– and not all of it was for the better. With legislation seeing no shortage of alterations and unrest steadily ramping up, minority rights continue to be threatened. On top of that, for Americans, the 2020 election looms large. Recognizing the importance of this coming election, she knew that emphasizing the importance of voting– especially as a woman– was a no-brainer. 

Alongside filmmaker Will Drinker, Cary wanted nothing more than to take “River Rock” to the next level. She wanted to create not only a symbolism-heavy music video but a documentary covering the modern-day struggles women still face. With an entirely female crew, Cary intended on igniting action towards economic, political, and social equality, bringing awareness to the importance of voting, and honoring the hard work women of past generations had to do to get us where we are today. On top of all of that, the initiative would do everything in its power to reinforce the importance of the use of the suffrage that once seemed unattainable.

On August 26th, the “River Rock Anthem” video will be premiering live online with the Toast to Tenacity. With the help of Drinker, a large cast of women from a variety of backgrounds, and even a full choir, Meghan Cary’s calling has become as loud as ever.

We got to ask her some questions about her journey to learn more.

So I see you grew up in Pennsylvania. Who or what got you into playing and writing music? 

Honestly, the girl who left Hershey, PA, wasn’t even dreaming of being a musician. I headed to college to study pre-med and made an about face to graduate with a drama degree (with a second in chemistry) and still I wasn’t a musician. I went on to conservatory (for acting not music) and then moved to NYC armed with an MFA and my equity card. That’s when life started propelling me toward where I am today.

I met musician Matthew Black at a regional theater in the mountains of Western Maryland, and he brought…well, a lot to my life actually…and music was part of it. He was a great flat-picker (he’d say “just a G slapper”) with a sweet voice and he played all the cover songs you want to hear when you’re hanging at your local bar. I started singing with him – backup, just the harmony to the chorus. And I fell in love…with him and with making music. We were engaged and living back in NYC when he died unexpectedly. It was devastating. I picked up his guitar and started trying to play it because I wanted something to hold onto, something to keep. That was music. I didn’t know any songs all the way through (just the harmonies to the choruses) so I wrote my own. I wrote my grief into music and I sang my way out of the abyss. At that point I didn’t imagine myself a musician, or a songwriter. I was just making music because it eased the pain. I actually wrote a whole play about my unintentional journey to becoming a musician. It took me a long time to own that I am.

Did you have some local music mentors who maybe carried you under their wing and helped guide your career?

So many people nurtured me through especially the beginning of my career. I don’t imagine I’d have kept making music if not for the myriad artists who so generously and patiently taught me the craft. I kind of learned to play guitar by committee, and I had a lot of singer friends who taught me tips and tricks to stay vocally, mentally, and emotionally healthy in the biz and on the road.

Looking back, I got a lot of great breaks that I didn’t even recognize as that. When I was a baby artist, the late Kenny Gorka of the Bitter End gave me my first show at the famous Bleecker Street venue as a favor to a friend who’d heard me playing one of my songs on a borrowed guitar on the showroom floor of the Toy Fair in NYC. Really random. And playwright (later, self-claimed consigliere to my music), Mitch Ganem, introduced me to Scott McClatchy who produced my first record, “New Shoes”. I had no intention of making a record, I just wanted to record the handful of songs I’d written for Matti, but Scott heard something in the music and kept pushing through even when I ran out of money. He insisted I press CDs to distribute to more than just family and friends, and one of them got into the hands of the Billboard critic who gave me the Best Newcomer award. I didn’t mean to be a musician, so I wasn’t really looking for mentors, but still they showed up for me every step along the way. I’m so grateful for that. 

Do you have a specific atmosphere or pastime that aides in your songwriting process, or does it often just happen sporadically?

Something about a steady physical rhythm seems to churn thoughts and feelings into phrases and lyrics for me. So a lot of songs start when I’m walking, biking, hiking, even doing the dishes. The trick is capturing them when they show up , and then taking the time to go back to them, get focused and present, and tease them into a complete song. 

So your empowering anthem “River Rock” has now spurned your upcoming documentary, “The River Rock Project.” Can you talk about how that came to fruition and the educational mission behind it?

My husband laughs and says I’ll end up on a therapist’s couch saying “But, I just wanted to make a music video…”  The River Rock Project started as the simple desire to make a music video of my anthem, “River Rock”, to celebrate the year of the woman and the centennial of our right to vote. But when I got feminist filmmaker and visionary, Will Drinker, involved, it started to grow like a Chia Pet. It grew way beyond what I could manage myself, but as it grew, it drew together this  team of incredible women who made it what it is. It became a project not only celebrating voting rights and all we’ve achieved since earning those rights, but also inspiring and galvanizing women+ to raise their voices and be heard right now…especially now…in this important election year. 

I came across the story of the Justice Bell – you can hear the whole inspiring story at riverrockproject.com – and knew it had to be a part of the project. The anthem video takes the story of the Justice Bell, forged over a century ago as a symbol of women’s equality and justice for all, and brings it meaningfully into the present, calling for women to raise their voices and move purposefully into the future. 

We’re kicking things off on August 26th with the National Debut of the Anthem video during the nation’s largest Centennial Celebration, the Toast to Tenacity, being broadcast from Independence Mall here in Philly. Then we’re donating the River Rock Anthem video and tool kit to as many voter engagement programs as possible between now and November to amplify their messages. Music is so necessary to any movement because it reaches people on a gut level and ignites passion that can fuel real change. 

What different locations did you film at/in?

Everywhere, really. We shot a lot of my part along (and in) the Wissahickon Creek here in Philly, and around the Valley Forge National Park because that’s where the Justice Bell lives right now. But because of Covid (that really should be a song title…or a band name: “Because of Covid”) we couldn’t carry through with our original vision of gathering 100+ people to join me on my journey to the Justice Bell, so we put out a call to women+ to submit videos of themselves sharing their messages and singing along with the Anthem. Our visionary, Will Drinker, took all this content, and wove it into the Anthem video telling the story of a huge choir of people from across the country and around the world marching together to, and ultimately unchaining the Justice Bell, allowing women’s voices to ring out. So, we have footage from everywhere.

What kinds of people were you able to talk to?

We’ve gathered messages from people across the country and around the world, and have people joining the choir in English, Spanish, and even ASL. We’ve been connecting with voter engagement groups, women’s equality movements, and people of all ages, races, and abilities. It’s been humbling and inspiring.

Can you talk about your overall activism and what efforts are important to you?

I’m passionate about justice for all and acknowledging our shared humanness. That passion has led me to initiatives around homelessness, mental health and empowering young mothers to connect with their children via music. My one woman play “On the Way to the Waterfall” about mental illness, moving through grief and rewriting your story, was born from this passion to connect and “see” each other, as well.  My strong desire to see political, economic and social equality for women was instilled in me by my mother. My mom fought tirelessly for the ERA, was president of the League of Women Voters, and taught me that women should be seen AND heard. When I started making music, I discovered just how powerful it is to share our stories and what an effect that authentic connection can have on others and the community in general. I realize that as a musician and storyteller I have the gift of people’s listening, and I need to be responsible with it. I try to speak for those who society doesn’t want to see or hear. 

Do you have new music in the works as well?

Yep. Despite the creative derailing of Covid, I have a couple singles that I hope to wrap and release soon. And, after the kick off of the River Rock Anthem video on August 26th, I’m taking a three day writing retreat in the mountains. There will be hiking, biking, and all sorts of music making…I’ve got a few songs brewing that I expect will show up there in the woods!

What are some of your pinnacle moments as an artist so far?

Actually , the River Rock Project has been hands down the highlights of this crazy year. We’ve had to rejigger, re-imagine and redo over and over, but somehow we found a way to make each twist unlock something even better. Also, I’ve never led a team like this before. It’s different than leading a band, but just as inspiring and empowering. Other highlights have been writing and performing my one woman play, playing some great fests like Philly Folk Fest and Falcon Ridge. I really can’t wait to be playing for live audiences again – because, honestly, every time I step on stage no matter what the venue or how big or small the audience, it feels like a pinnacle moment. I miss that. 

What would you say are the benefits of wearing more than one hat, i.e. being an actor, playwright, musician, activist etc. as opposed to honing in on one thing?

I guess they’re all different, but all those hats belong on the same rack. I put each one on for the same reason – to connect with others by sharing my story. When we share our stories, we invite people to view our humanness. And when we do that, really SEE each other, some healing can happen. So I guess each of these roles offers a different avenue to honing, sharing, and hopefully making a difference with my skill as a storyteller.

Do you feel the pandemic has helped or hurt your creative process? (or perhaps neither)

Oh boy. This question. I was floored by (and a little jealous of) all the people who were painting their houses, clearing their attics, and writing their opuses during quarantine. I did not find myself inspired to do any of that. I fluctuated between overwhelm and goldfish brain, actually. My days were spent supervising the unexpected home schooling of my two school age kids (so I added “teacher” to my hat rack) and just trying to navigate life without toilet paper. Connection is so much a part of why I create, and I was feeling pretty disconnected. It helped to start the Hunkered Down House Concert series and get back to somewhat regular shows – even if they were in the either. And having the River Rock Project to focus my energy on was also a lifesaver. It’s interesting, now that I think of it, as we’ve started expanding our bubble and connecting with more people (even if 6 feet apart with masks) I’ve been writing again. It feels really good to say that. 

What can fans expect from Meghan Cary to close out the year?

I want so badly to say they can expect to find me back on the road playing some great music halls and clubs, but I just don’t know that that’s going to happen for any of us in 2020. There will definitely be some great online and hybrid River Rock programming happening around women’s equality, raising our voices and getting out the vote. There are also a few singles that will be dropping in conjunction with the River Rock Project, so stayed tuned for that!

Leave a Reply