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.