Melissa Kay McCarthy ’11 has traveled two main paths in her life: helping people with mental health issues and making music as a singer-songwriter, both pursuits aided by her Viterbo studies. This year, she completed a three-year project that brought those paths together.
In early July, McCarthy released her first studio album, Hourglass, a collection of 10 very personal country and folk-tinged songs that touch on universal themes like love, loss, and life, particularly its fleeting nature. It was a labor of love that began in 2019, triggered by the accidental drug overdose death of a cousin, Alex.
His tragic death came less than two years after another cousin, Max, met the same fate. Two other cousins also had died young, Easton after being hit by a car while bicycling and Elliot, with whom McCarthy had an especially tight bond, by his own hand.
When Alex died, McCarthy wrote her first song in five years, not yet thinking she would record an album. Writing the song, “How Our Family Grieves,” was her way of processing the loss.
“My guitar is my six-string therapist,” McCarthy said. “Over the years, so much of my music has come when I was going through hard times.”
After she had a few songs written, the idea of recording an album started to germinate. It really blossomed, though, after McCarthy saw acclaimed singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier perform in Chicago. In a way, Gauthier is a musical healer whose music demonstrates an “ability to transform her own trauma into a purposeful and communal narrative,” and that inspired McCarthy to look at her album as a way to help others deal with their personal traumas.
Growing up in a musical family in Wausau, McCarthy was an avid journal writer. When she picked up the guitar at age 18, that writing passion found expression in songs. She was serious about pursuing a music career, but knew she would need a day job, at least for a while, so she became a certified American Sign Language interpreter, specializing in a school setting.
Looking for a job, McCarthy found a listing seeking someone to interpret for two siblings in a school in Craig, Alaska. She jumped at the chance, in part because she thought the “AK” postal abbreviation in the job posting stood for Arkansas, which would bring her closer to Nashville.
Even after realizing the job would take her almost as far as a person can get from Music City without leaving the country, she decided to take a leap and have an adventure, in part because the phone interview was so hilarious.
McCarthy loved her time in the town of 1,200 people and zero traffic lights on the western edge of Prince of Wales Island. “It was the coolest experience. It was the best mistake I ever made,” she said.
After a couple years, the students moved to Arizona, and she was out of a job. She got a job as an ASL interpreter in the West Salem School District, a lot closer to Nashville and, more importantly, close to Viterbo University.
Working in the school setting, McCarthy saw the bullying and the unmet mental health needs of students, and felt a new calling. She turned to Viterbo to learn more, at first taking night classes, and earned a degree in biopsychology, with a minor in writing.
All the while, she was performing music around the region—she even performed on the Viterbo campus one Valentine’s Day in the Frannie’s coffee shop (now Einstein’s).
After graduation, she worked at Gundersen Health System in the behavioral health unit for five years, putting her music career on ice. She then moved back to Wausau, thinking she wanted to give back to the community where she grew up, but she found she had connections with so many of the people who came forward for mental health help that it was too difficult to continue.
Since 2020, McCarthy has worked for La Crosse County’s crisis unit. She started as a case manager in February 2021 while working on earning her social worker certification.
While she was at Gundersen she did crisis work on call, but things have drastically changed since then, both in the volume of calls and their intensity. “A lot of people are struggling,” McCarthy said.
Her time at Viterbo prepared her well for what she’s doing, McCarthy said, and she’s thankful for her experience at the university, especially for getting the chance to know Catherine Wright, then an assistant professor of biology and now lab manager for the College of Engineering, Letters, and Sciences.
McCarthy has become an honorary member of the family, and she thinks so highly of Wright that she wrote a song about her called “Wonder Woman” and included it on the Hourglass album. McCarthy considers “Wonder Woman” as the only “love song” on the album, and she almost didn’t include it.
McCarthy tells the story of “Wonder Woman” and the other songs on the album in a powerful accompanying booklet she wrote and designed, sharing the lyrics and how they came to be.
“I created a lyric book knowing these songs not only needed to be heard, but the stories needed to be told,” she said.
Melissa McCarthy, a behavioral therapist and musician, will speak and perform at the 13th annual Suicide Awareness Event from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Radisson Center at 300 S. Second St. in La Crosse.
By Ana Alexander
On Friday March 27, the lights in Acoustic Café dimmed as Melissa Kay McCarthy took the stage along with David Schipper and Lynn Konsela, who accompanied her performance with their guitars and, for some pieces, a harmonica.
Audience members drank beer or coffee from white mugs while McCarthy performed covers of country songs along with some original pieces.
The environment was casual and warm. The brick walls of the coffee shop were hung with a variety of artwork, the low lighting lent the room a sense of familiarity. McCarthy addressed the audience very conversationally in between pieces.
Two audience members got very involved with the performance. A little boy energetically played a yellow tambourine, as his sister shook a multicolored maraca from the back of the room. During the songs, the two gradually made their way near the front of the café, where they danced and played their instruments.
After McCarthy finished her song, she commented on the two lively audience members with a smile.
“We could use some new members, I think. Are we recruiting? We’d have a hard time getting them into the bars, but…” McCarthy trailed off as the audience chuckled.
Konsela waved the kids toward the stage, and the children’s father guided them toward the front of the room. Konsela asked the kids if they wanted to come up on stage, but the children suddenly turned shy.
“I promise I don’t bite!” Konsela laughed, but the children could not be persuaded to come on stage, opting to play their instruments from the sidelines instead.
Performances like McCarthy’s offer the community a night of free entertainment in a warm atmosphere, providing delicious food, cold beer and smooth coffee. Acoustic puts on shows every Friday and Saturday night at 8 p.m. free of charge.
One of the audience members, McKenna Schmidt, commented on one of the factors that make the weekly performances at Acoustic so entertaining.
“I enjoy the fact that local artists are coming and performing in a venue close by,” Schmidt said.
The lineup at Acoustic often features artists from the Winona area, giving audience members a taste of the kinds of music that people from the surrounding communities are creating, as well as giving the artists more exposure to performing.
Performances at Acoustic last around two and a half hours, giving audience members a half an hour to finish their drinks and socialize before the café closes at 11 p.m. Acoustic Café posts their new lineups on their website, as well as on their Facebook page, where those interested in performances can keep track of upcoming events.
By Käri Knutson
Melissa Kay McCarthy has always had her music.
It helped her through her parents’ divorce, when she moved from her hometown of Wausau, Wis., to Alaska and when her grandmother died.
“It’s always been therapeutic,” McCarthy said.
She liked writing poems and melodies but didn’t combine the two until she started playing guitar at 18.
McCarthy, 25, will perform a free show Friday at the Trempealeau Hotel in Trempealeau, Wis.
Growing up, McCarthy’s older sister was more in the spotlight. McCarthy would tap dance with her sister but was comfortable in her shadow. She’d occasionally sing karaoke with her sister and gradually got the courage to do it solo.
“It really helped with my confidence,” McCarthy said.
That led to her playing gigs in the Wausau area. Her grandparents came along since she wasn’t yet 21. Country has always been McCarthy’s favorite music to play and listen to.
When she started writing songs, she’d get her two younger sisters to listen. If they would later request certain songs, she knew they liked them. If not, she’d keep fine-tuning them or start over.
“They were always honest in a subtle way,” McCarthy said.
After graduating from high school, McCarthy studied to become an educational interpreter, someone who works with hearing-impaired students. She applied for a job she thought was in Arkansas. While it was far from Wausau, the thought of being so close to Nashville was exciting.
Turns out, the job was in Alaska.
McCarthy decided to follow through and see what happened. She ended up getting the job. Her family didn’t take it too well.
“It was hard, but it was something I needed to do,” McCarthy said.
She wrote “When I’m Gone,” the title song off her new CD, about leaving her family and friends. Two weeks before she left, her Grandma Jane was diagnosed with cancer. McCarthy rushed to a studio to record the song.
“I wanted her to hear it,” McCarthy said.
A few weeks later, she died. McCarthy played the song at her funeral. It was hard but healing.
McCarthy’s two years in Alaska were filled with songwriting.
“I think songwriting followed me,” she said.
Living in a different place opened her up to new people with new ideas. She moved to La Crosse in September 2006 and is an educational interpreter for West Salem Elementary in West Salem, Wis.
As McCarthy keeps having new experiences, she keeps writing about them.
“When you have to evaluate your life, songwriting has a neat effect.”
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Melissa Kay McCarthy
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 11
WHERE: Trempealeau Hotel, 150 Main St., Trempealeau, Wis., (608) 534-6898