Photo by Sergio Gutierrez
As a musician living in close quarters with other people, you come by a paradoxical feeling of alienation; reach out your arm and human connection is right there, but plug in your guitar and crank up the gain–you become acutely aware of the fine line between self-expression and ticking off your neighbors.
Maria Bobbitt-Chertock learned that firsthand in the making of Devil’s Rain, their debut EP as Maria BC. As a classically-trained mezzo-sorprano, a poet, and a music writer, they’re equipped with many voices. As a quarantined Brooklynite living with two roommates, they had to learn how to best get along with the softer ones, whispering and humming around brooding guitar chords, continuing to vocalize new melodies out of a quiet compulsion.
“Nothing about it is comforting,” they said in a press release for the project. “Music just seems necessary for whatever reason.” You can hear it best in “Unmaker,” where they find room for one echoing, electric howl. It’s just one place of a couple where the surface of the music breaks, and you can see how deep these deceptively still, reflective waters run in search of a more complete intimacy.
Ahead of the release of Devil’s Rain, out now on Fear of Missing Out Records, Bobbitt-Chertock spoke to The All Scene Eye about the indie vocalists who shaped them and the sometimes-stifling influence of music writing on the creative process.
Ten months into pandemic conditions, how are you doing? How are you holding up given the circumstances?
[laughs] I think, like everyone else, just really looking forward to the vaccine, but also trying to make use of bad circumstances as best as possible. Trying to become more comfortable with solitude, which I think is always a good practice.
This is your first EP, your first under the name Maria BC at least–I don’t know if you’ve done anything before this in the past?
I was in a band in college called Cordless that I did a couple of releases with, and when I was in high school and early college, I also did some releases as Maria BC, but that’s all gone now [laughs] so this feels more like the debut, yeah.
How did you first get started making music?
It’s always been a part of my life, to some degree. I started writing songs when I was a child, just singing to myself around the house. I was raised by a single mom, and I was the only child, so I think I was pretty accustomed to entertaining myself, to some extent. I mean, my mom also really encouraged creativity in me, but I would just dance around the house and sing songs about making toast or whatever, so that impulse has always been there. Also, my father is a pianist, so I think there’s some inherited inclination to music for that reason as well.
Do you remember your first favorite band?
Well, growing up, in my mom’s car, she would play a lot of R.E.M., and Erasure, interestingly enough. Then in my dad’s car, he had a few different cassettes. One of them was this collection of 70s trucker songs by this artist called C.W. McCall, and another was Andy Gibb’s Greatest Hits, and so I think all of those artists might be, together, my first favorite bands. I really believe that whatever stimuli, whatever art you’re exposed to when you’re really young, is what now grabs your attention. It influences that in some way.
So is that stuff that you still revisit?
I still love Andy Gibb. I’m hoping to do, someday, a cover of “Shadow Dancing,” which is still one of my favorite songs. [laughs] But I think, yeah, the moodiness of 70s and 80s music is always something that I’m going to be really attracted to.
Another part of your musical story is that you’re a classically-trained vocalist. At what point did you take up that training, and how did you get into it?
I took voice lessons all the way through middle school and high school. There was a period where I thought maybe I wanted to go to conservatory, but I ended up sort of dramatically dropping off with it, and ultimately, I think that that was really good for me. In the years that I haven’t been studying, I’ve learned a lot more than in the years that I was studying, ironically, because it’s encouraged me to experiment more.
Also, my relationship to my voice during that period was somewhat thingly, in that I was practicing so much and so aggressively that I was repeatedly damaging my voice, and now that I think of it less as a thing to be disciplined, I have a much healthier voice and a more expressive voice. But that said, I’m really grateful for all the training that I have because it allows me more room in my creative practice and in the types of melodies that I can sing.
What was the turning point for you towards the relationship you have with your voice now?
I think part of it was just–for a long period, until I was about 15 or 16, I was listening almost exclusively to musical theater and classical music, and then there started a time where I started listening to rock music and indie music. I became exposed to artists like Liz Fraser of the Cocteau Twins, Bjork–these female singers who were doing unbelievable things with their voice, and yet also still making pop music. Music that hits you in the pleasure center.
I just remember being 16 or 17 in my basement, hearing the song “Birthday” by The Sugarcubes for the first time–Bjork was the lead singer of The Sugarcubes, and she was doing, like, the howling that she would do in her early career–and I felt like I was gonna cry. I was so overwhelmed that someone could do that with their voice. After that, I just wanted to do more like that. Like, combine the flexibility that I had gained from my classical training with pop sensibilities and a kind of weirdness. Since then, I’ve become even more excited about other vocalists like Tanya Tagaq and Klaus Nomi.
On this EP, you do a lot of–I don’t exactly have the technical vocabulary, but you do a lot of vocalizing without necessarily singing. A lot of, like, voice as an instrument.
Yeah, growing up, I started writing music just from voice, from singing around the house. So I think that melody, for me, is always going to be rooted in the chest and throat rather than something that exists on a keyboard or on a fretboard. For that reason, vocal improvisation is really important to my songwriting process, and I think it’s always going to be that way.
When did you start writing the songs that ended up becoming this EP, Devil’s Rain?
I had a few songs that I had been working on earlier in the year that I thought were gonna be on the EP, and I ended up scrapping those and just going with these songs that I had written over the course of three or four weeks. For a couple of the songs, the recording process was part of the writing process, so that came together rather quickly, and then it was all released a few weeks after it had been written. [laughs] So it was a pretty quick process. I had originally released it independently, and now since it’s been picked up by a label it’s being rereleased, but when I originally put it on the internet, it was just a few weeks after it had all been written.
All self-recorded, self-produced, and whatnot?
Yeah, my dear friend Noah Sauer, he helped with mixing and he mastered the album, but otherwise, I did all the recording and production.
There’s a quote from you in the press for this EP where you say that it was the first time in a long time you felt like you were writing for yourself. Can you tell me more about that?
I would say that before the pandemic, I had been playing in bands and working collaboratively, which was amazing, and I’m so indebted to all those people, but it was a new experience to be recording alone in my apartment this music that I was writing alone, that I had shown to very few other people. In a way, that had to be totally self-motivated. I had to listen to the demos and early drafts of these songs and know that I was the one deciding the fate of them, and I had to be the one who decided whether I believed in them and whether I thought they were good. Which is extremely daunting, but I think also an important lesson and an important practice.
What is your workspace like?
[laughs] It’s constantly shifting. I live in an apartment in Brooklyn with two other people, and I share my bedroom with my partner, so I sort of have to be pulling mic stands around based on where people are. I wake up early sometimes, before anyone else is awake, or if one of my roommates is out of the apartment for whatever reason for the day, then I have to quickly set up and work. And then otherwise, my equipment is kind of scattered in random corners [laughs] throughout the apartment. Which is great because it teaches me–again, to be self-motivated and also to try to work as quickly and efficiently as possible. It puts an emphasis on improvisation, and it’s also a wonderful constraint to live with other people, in that there’s a certain volume that I can record vocals at. That’s limited. And I can’t do everything in one take, and I think that informs the process in a really beautiful way.
Everything in one take as in, guitar and vocals at the same time?
Yeah, and I mean, some records that I absolutely adore are recorded live, all the parts at once. As much as I would like to do that, I’m one person, and with the background noise in the space, I often have to redo things a bunch of times. But that’s also cool that I get to do that, you know?
Are there any ways that you hear that in the finished EP, where those limitations are present?
Totally. I had to do vocals in a softer and more whispery way than I might have otherwise, which ultimately really served the songs well. Also, because I was singing in this kind of whispery way, a lot of times the vocals are layered on top of one another, which produces that kind of ethereal effect, which is something that I might have avoided otherwise.
Your first single from this EP was “Adelaide,” about this idea of getting lost in your interiority. Can you tell me about how that song took shape?
My friend was telling me about how she would journal using this method called memory palaces. I can’t remember which artist came up with it, but it’s a way of slowly total autobiographical recall, and you sort of put a memory from each day in an imagined room. She was talking to me about how she was building this memory palace, and for her, it was extremely useful, but to me, when I’m particularly low or feel particularly detached from life, I feel lost, I guess, in the architecture of my own mind. I was thinking about that when I was writing the song–about how there are times where I wish others, or some other part of myself, could pull me out of that architecture back into a place where I feel attached to life again.
Is there a risk for you, in making art, of getting lost in yourself that way?
Definitely. I think making art, most of the time, is quite narcissistic, and [laughs] when I am in the middle of a project, I get very, very obsessed and hyperfocused on it. Like, I need to get it out of me so that I can go back to being present in the world, which is something that I think a lot of artists struggle to admit, or maybe they just experience it differently. I do personally think it’s kind of selfish and weird and irrational to make art, but we do it to get out of bed.
What are those things that help you come back to a larger perspective? Is it just completing the art, or are there other things you can do?
Reading helps, honestly. When I make myself read, I feel more present, generally. I mean, I think it’s cliché to talk about, but yeah, there’s something meditative about getting through a book as opposed to looking at screens as I do most of the day. That really helps. Being politically involved, of course, helps–being in organizing communities whenever possible helps. Writing letters. There are different practices that I try to do so that I’m just not constantly thinking about music.
What have you been reading lately?
Just last night, I started this book called Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, which I’ve been really enjoying. A couple of friends recommended it to me, and it’s wonderful because I would like to learn more about botany and there’s also a wonderful–how would I describe it? There’s a social justice bent to it, I would say, a sort of a communist bent to it as well that is super poetic and is preaching a gratitude for Earth that I could use.
You alluded to being involved with organizing communities. What has that looked like for you?
I would say of late, I’ve been more of a volunteer or a member. [laughs] I just started trying to get involved with UMAW, which I think does wonderful work–the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers. They’re incredibly well-organized and put together, and I’m just so impressed with the work that they do. I’m excited to hopefully get more involved with them. I’ve done some volunteering with Critical Resistance, a little bit. I think my resolution for the new year is definitely to get more involved where I can.
I do also want to ask a little bit more about music on this EP, now that we’ve gotten so far away from it. There’s a middle point that kind of divides it, which is this interlude, “Unmaker.” Very evocative title, very wild sounds. How did you make that piece?
I was experimenting with layering vocals in this sort of choral way, and then adding textures beneath it or on top of it. I would layer the vocals by sort of improvising really short–I’m tempted to say drones, but just long, sustained notes, and then creating chords by improvising in that way. And then, yeah, putting other sounds and textures around it. That’s sort of where “Unmaker” came from. There are a bunch of different drafts of it, and this is what came out in the end. I called it “Unmaker” because I think it fits thematically with the album, and also, it’s the point where language and traditional melody falls away. I think it’s a good transitional point and a good complement to the other pieces.
What is the overarching–I don’t want to say idea because that feels too limiting, but what draws all these songs together?
I think really what it is is this feeling of reaching for another world, in which people are less alienated and where there’s more of a sense of general belonging and intimacy. There are five different ways, at least on this EP, that that feeling manifests. I really believe that so many emotions can be described as manifestations of longing for a better world.
The way that this EP ends is really striking to me, in that you have this song “The Deal,” and there’s this burst of distortion that the EP goes out on. What made you want to end it that way?
I didn’t want the album to just be dreamy and pretty, because if we’re working along the lines of, this album is generally about longing for intimacy, I didn’t want that just to be a pretty, melancholic feeling. There’s something also really dirty and angry and terrible about that, and you know, sometimes longing feels creepy or wrong.
Or sometimes it leaves the realm of understanding. It feels like it’s beyond the way that melody makes meaning, or chords, or language. To me, sometimes it feels like noise, and if I could go back and change anything about the album, I would probably put more noise on it. But for now, I think it makes a good ellipsis.
As it is, it kind of–to draw on another point we were circling, it grabs your hand and pulls you out of this dreaminess. It kind of shakes you awake at the end. It’s longing, but longing isn’t necessarily passivity, and it isn’t always an interior thing–talking about longing for a better world.
Totally. Yeah, you said it way better and more concisely than I did. [laughs]
What was your biggest takeaway in making this EP, in terms of yourself as an artist, and what this project means to you?
It felt like the first time where I felt that this was what I sounded like–that I wasn’t trying to sound like something else. This was simultaneously the natural thing and the thing that felt right, and so from that, I think I’ve just gained a little bit more confidence in my artistry to do more.
As I was delving into your music and your social media, I realized we have something in common, which is that we’ve both contributed to Post-Trash in the past year.
Oh, crazy! Cool–I can’t wait to read your articles. [laughs]
Oh, thank you! But yeah, how did you get started writing about music?
I wrote about music for my college radio station a bit, and I’ve just always enjoyed writing, but music has been what I’ve felt like I have at least a little bit of expertise in, and that I have the confidence to write about. I saw that Post-Trash, which I had read before, was looking for contributors, so I reached out.
How does that version of thinking about music play into the way that you think about creating music?
Sometimes it’s really torturous, to be honest. [laughs] Because doing any sort of music writing, unfortunately, can put you in the mode of wanting to categorize things into different genres. You just read so much about genre that it can be a little bit stifling sometimes. You write a song and you produce it in a certain way, and you’re like, “Oh, because I’ve read so much music journalism or I’ve written a little bit, this is the genre that this is,” and then it immediately loses a little bit of magic. But with that said, there’s definitely plenty of music writing that doesn’t do that, that isn’t quite so categorical, and reading that is more helpful to my practice.
Do you have any particular writers or outlets where you feel like you can get that more productive sort of thought?
Definitely. My favorite music writers, I would say, are Jes Skolnik and Joshua Minsoo Kim. Tone Glow is Joshua Minsoo Kim’s blog, I’m sure you’re familiar. Just amazing work, and their interviews are so incredible and generous.
What’s next for you after this EP is out in the world?
I’ve been working on an LP for a while, which has been a lot more difficult. [laughs] It has not come together nearly as fast as the EP, but I’m hoping the end of this year, possibly, the world might see it. I’m excited about what’s to come with that. I’ve been working on combining digital and analog forms of recording, which has been really fun.
How so? What kinds of techniques?
I got a four-track for the first time, which has been fun and also super frustrating because as my friend once said, learning how to record to tape is kind of like learning a new instrument in and of itself. But it’s so wonderful to make music without looking at a screen. I’ve been combining samples from that with recordings that I do into my DAW, and I think it creates new and strange textures that I’m excited about.
You mentioned the way a lot of your process is improvisational. How does that change the way that you improvise?
Oh, [laughs] immensely. I feel less distracted when I’m doing it, and, you know, recording to tape also forces you into a hyperfocused state anyway because overdubs are limited, and you kind of have to get the whole take right. You can’t splice on the fly either. I think I’ve gotten some really cool improvisations out of that, and also, I’m more likely to leave in mistakes when I’m recording to tape, which is good for me, as a perfectionist.
Having already kind of recorded songs in this living space with other people, do you feel like you’re in the rhythm of that now, or is it still something you have to work around?
Yeah, every week is a little bit different. There was a period of about two months where my roommate went back home, and so I sort of had this extra room that I could work in, which was–I mean, I missed her immensely, but it was really cool to be able to have that extra space, and now I’m getting readjusted to working in different parts of the apartment.