Although Mary Kate Teske no longer lives on her family’s farm near Terry, celebration of rural life looms large on her debut album, which she released last month.
Teske wrote the album’s 10 songs — a mix of folk, bluegrass and country twang, tied together by her crystalline voice — over the course of a decade and recorded them with a 10-piece band that includes her wife, Ali Ruth Teske, on backing vocals and clarinet.
The album encapsulates Teske’s love of nature, her unfrilled approach to storytelling and her yearning to escape the distractions of modern living. The lead single, “June Rise,” for instance, finds her on a river bank during runoff, antsy for the waters to calm but thrilled simply to be in the moment. The album’s opening track, “Planting Season,” offers a sweet and direct ode to the joys of sowing crops, while the jaunty “Hightailing It to the Hi-Line” highlights her wariness of city life and laments the disappearance of farmland.
While Teske — who moved to Billings nearly two decades ago, at age 12 — makes no bones about her preference for the analog life, she also has a knack for captivating audiences on social media. Earlier this month, for instance, she uploaded a six-minute video to TikTok in which she recounts the origin story behind her beloved 1961 Dodge Lancer; the video has already garnered over a million views. Her striking photos of Montana, often taken during trips in the Lancer, have gained a substantial following of their own.
In this installment of “The Sit-Down,” Teske reflects on her childhood in Terry, Montana’s TikTok ban, the value of a life lived slowly, and more.
MTFP: One of the main themes that I hear in your album is a celebration of slowing down and being able to appreciate the natural world a bit more. Does that ring true to you?
Mary Kate Teske: Completely. Being from a town of 500 people and growing up on a farm, it’s really slow. I drive a ’61 Lancer and my top speed is 60 miles an hour. When I’m driving on the highway, people almost rear-end me.
I think people are rushing through life and looking for things that are outside of themselves. Being too hurried and whatnot, it doesn’t give you that room to look around and enjoy where you’re at and enjoy the people you’re around and get to genuinely experience things.
Good things do take time. I’m almost 30 years old; this [album] has been a 10-year dream for me.
The things on this album that I tried to emphasize were a connection to the land — whether it be through farming or just being out in nature — connection to your community and your presence within yourself.
Those elements are who I am and it has brought me so much joy to experience life in that way. Right now I have zero dollars in my bank account. It’s not about the money for me; it’s about experiences and stories and community.
MTFP: I love your song “Hightailing It to the Hi-Line.” Do bigger cities feel unrelatable to you?
Teske: A little bit. My dad’s side of the family actually come from the Hi-Line. They come from Havre and Chinook. My grandparents met in Roundup. And then my mom’s family is all from Trenton, New Jersey. The pace out there is just crazy. We would actually drive from Terry to Trenton, New Jersey, and visit my mom’s family. I got to experience a very vast dichotomy that showed me what I like and don’t like.
I very much align with the rural community. I love the quiet and the natural sounds, whether it be the cicadas or the grasshoppers or the birds or the river, and not hearing any traffic or any planes or trains, anything like that. I feel just that is a distraction, and I want to focus on nature instead of just stomping her out and running over her.
MTFP: How did your childhood in Terry shape your passion for storytelling?
Teske: Books, home videos and photos have always held a very special place in my life. I became a photographer pretty early on. Living in the country, my parents threw books at me all the time. They didn’t want me watching TV all the time. I have a tattoo of Henry David Thoreau on my forearm, and “Walden” is one of my favorite books. He always talks about, before you sit down to write, you need to go out and live. And so that really influenced me to do just that, go out and live and move around and seek stories and try to answer the questions that I had of my own existence.
With music, I’d sit in the combine with my grandpa or in a semi truck with my dad, just listening to music while you’re farming.
My grandpa’s into fifties music, but he has all of the chart books from 1940 to 1980. And he has every single No. 1 hit on either CD or record. He has this huge archive and he knows all of the stories behind all of the musicians. And while we would sit in the combine, he would not only show me the songs, but he would also tell me their history: how the albums and music influenced society and what was going on in the world.
My mom also loves Prince and Depeche Mode. My dad and uncles love eighties music, ’cause that was around their high school time. My dad raised me on Def Leppard and Guns N’ Roses.
My dad also loves country. When I was five years old, my dad took us down to the Cheyenne Frontier Days and we went to the rodeos. Chris LeDoux played one night in the rodeo arena. And I remember my first memory of a concert was of being at his show. As his finale, he got on a mechanical bull while fireworks were shooting.
MTFP: That sounds particularly mind-blowing to a 5-year-old! Switching gears a bit, I’m keen to ask about your experience embracing social media, especially considering your love of the natural world.
Teske: I think my first experiences going viral on the internet actually started in high school. I was writing poems and I published them on Tumblr and I actually became pretty Tumblr famous. I had people even sending me pictures of my poems tattooed on their bodies and weird stuff like that. It kind of freaked me out so I stepped back for a while.
[Social media] comes into play with everything I do. To be successful, I have to take good photographs for myself, but also if I want to be a musician, taking photographs of myself playing guitar or whatever for a press kit. Everything bleeds into itself. Not one thing stands on its own.
MTFP: What do you think about the TikTok ban in Montana, which Gov. Greg Gianforte signed in to law in May?
Teske: It’s stupid. I think Gianforte needs to withdraw the TikTok ban bill. I’m not very political myself, but I think if he is as strong of a libertarian as he [says he] is, it should be free for all of us. And nobody should ban an app.
There’s a great community on TikTok. It’s a global community, which I think scares a lot of people. But I think it’s beautiful and I think it’s a benefit to all of us. It’s a platform where people are able to tell their stories and tell them honestly, like I just told the story of how I got my car.
Instagram doesn’t have the reach unless you pay for it. Facebook doesn’t have the reach unless you pay for it. I think as a free service for the public, TikTok is the best thing out there yet.
MTFP: Lastly, before we wrap up: Do you consider yourself an optimist?
Sometimes I feel there’s a lot of misfortune and struggle and hardships, and I think it’s really easy to get lost in that. I feel just creating something, putting yourself out there and making something to behold and sharing that, that gives me the greatest hope. And that’s why I continue to push myself and create as much as I can constantly. That is a driving force behind who I am. I choose not to let the sadness and the struggle hold me down. I will not be defeated. I will not succumb to the darkness. I’ll continue to try to focus on what it is that I can create and share with people and bring community around. Bringing your best self out and trying to share it is the best thing on this earth, you know?
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
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