Mary Steenburgen's Brain 'Became Musical' After a 'Strange' Complication from a Routine Surgery

"All of my thoughts became musical," said the actress, who discovered a new passion for songwriting

When Mary Steenburgen woke up from minor arm surgery in 2007, her brain was “only music,” an odd result that lead her to a new songwriting career — and one that may earn her another Oscar.

The actress, 66, said that her brain felt out of control immediately after surgery.

“I felt strange as soon as the anesthesia started to wear off,” she told IndieWire. “The best way I can describe it is that it just felt like my brain was only music, and that everything anybody said to me became musical. All of my thoughts became musical. Every street sign became musical. I couldn’t get my mind into any other mode.”

Steenburgen said that her new musical abilities were a bizarre — and at first, annoying and scary — side effect of her surgery.

“I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t have acted. I couldn’t have learned any lines,” she said of the first two months post-surgery. “My husband [Ted Danson] and I were kind of frightened about it.”

Steenburgen struggled with the constant music playing in her head for several months before she decided to accept it as her new normal and tap into her surprise obsession.

“I called a very talented friend of mine on Martha’s Vineyard and I said: ‘Look, if I come over every day and sing what I hear in my head, could you help me make them into songs?’” she said.

Mary Steenburgen
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

Although Steenburgen didn’t know how to play an instrument at the time, she learned — and then wrote 12 songs and sent them to a music lawyer. She used a pseudonym, and the songs eventually earned her a songwriting contract with Universal Music.

“It was terrifying” she said. “The first session I did was a total disaster, and I literally went back to my hotel room in tears, cried my eyes out, and thought ‘Why would anyone be so stupid at age 54 to think they could do something so new?’”

But Steenburgen continued to develop her new talent for the next decade, and now, her song “Glasgow (“No Place Like Home”)” closes out the film Wild Rose, about a Scottish woman pursing her country music dreams. She worked on the song with lyricists Caitlyn Smith and Kate York, and critical buzz says it will likely be nominated — and could win — for Best Original Song at the 2020 Academy Awards.

It’s an exciting turn for Steenburgen, who won her first and only other Oscar in 1980 for her supporting actress role in Melvin and Howard.

“Music is in my genes thanks to the women in my family, and I just think I was somehow granted access to it,” she said. “… I didn’t fall out of love with acting when this happened and I still haven’t. But there’s so much more capability in our brains than we probably realize, and agreeing to diminishment and shutting down doors is a choice that we all make for ourselves. It turns out you don’t really have to do that.”

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