Margaret McCarthy, Ben Cruz, and Emerson Hunton first met each other at their small college music program, but it wasn’t until they moved to Chicago that their friendship solidified. McCarthy had been releasing spare, bass-driven songs under the moniker Moontype, and soon the project became a trio with Cruz on guitar and Hunton on drums. A handful of the songs on their remarkable debut, Bodies of Water, are reworkings of 2018’s Bass Tunes, Year 5, which McCarthy released after graduating in June of that year, and much of the album reflects on the changing nature of friendships; how susceptible they are to forces beyond our control, and how the need for them never really goes away. Throughout the album, the group’s diverse musical sensibilities and palpable chemistry elevate McCarthy’s deeply affecting songwriting, finding ways to evoke that yearning for connection through transcendent choruses that wash over you like a tide – they’re equally capable of crafting a sticky hook as they are jumping into jazzy, math-rock territory, but what’s more impressive is how each element flows seamlessly into the next. Whichever direction they move towards, Moontype retain an earnestness that’s echoed in their quietly unassuming yet powerfully evocative music.
We caught up with Moontype for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about the band’s early days, making their debut album, their friendship, and more.
You first met when you were all studying at the same music program at Oberlin College. What was your impression of each other during that time?
Ben: Emerson and I knew each other well at school because we were both in the jazz department, so we played a lot of music together. And Margaret I sort of knew on the acquaintance level, I would say, by the end of my time at school. But it’s a small school, you know, you kind of know who everybody is, but we didn’t really play music together.
Margaret: I did try out for your jazz band, a jazz trio that you played in. I think that was the first time I met you, I was like, “Wow, they sound nice.” And Emerson was friends with some of my frisbee teammates.
Emerson: [laughs] That’s true.
Margaret: But I didn’t really know either of them until we all lived in Chicago.
How did you reconnect after relocating to Chicago?
Margaret: There’s a lot of people who went to our school and then moved to Chicago afterwards. Ben and Emerson were in a friend group of people that had graduated from there and moved around the same time, and when I moved here, which was a couple years later, I kind of merged into that friend group via my roommate, who also went to that school.
Emerson: We were playing a lot of songs on the back porch. One summer when Margaret first moved, we would just hang out and play old country songs, like a couple of times a week. And so she started singing harmonies with us just sort of for fun for a while. I don’t know how that started, but it just happened naturally. And then we played a few country shows just for fun with Margaret on vocals as well, and eventually you asked us to be in your band.
Margaret: Yeah. Because Ben came to one of my solo shows, and that was when we started playing together. And then we were like, “Emerson, do you want to join our band?”
At this point, you had this solo EP that you had put out, these spare, bass/vocal tracks. And Ben and Emerson, you had played together quite a bit before, so I’m curious what the dynamic was like early on with Moontype as a trio. Especially for you, Margaret, what was it like to be sharing those songs with other people?
Margaret: I definitely, to some extent, especially at the beginning, was intimidated by Ben and Emerson’s skill. They were not showing off at all or anything, but they both were performance majors in their instruments and had studied their instruments for a really long time, and I haven’t. But also, I’ve tried to play songs that I’ve written with people in the past, and it’s always really hard to share something that’s so vulnerable with other people. And at least for me, it feels like there has to immediately be a lot of emotional trust in order to have musical trust. And that came really easily with Ben and Emerson, which was a dream come true.
Ben: When me and Margaret were playing together, there was definitely a learning curve, because I had never played any music like Margaret’s before. And especially because the songs were so clear and well-structured and almost felt complete as they were, you know. So I had to occupy sort of a different role than what I was used to. But that also became a lot easier once it became a trio with Emerson playing, having had that common background.
In a way, did you also feel intimidated by Margaret’s songwriting?
Ben: I don’t know if intimi –
Emerson: Sure, I mean… [laughter]
Ben: It was just fun, it was a fun new challenge. It felt new and exciting, more than anything.
Emerson: I remember very vividly feeling very excited. And it was definitely a challenge –you’re presented with all of these voice memos that feel like they existed on their own. It’s like, we could really shape this a million different ways, and so we would just get together and start playing and not talk about it and try to let things develop naturally instead of overly shaping things. That part did come later, but yeah, it was a very fun process to hear the stems on their own first.
Ben and Emerson, can you think of any specific moments or parts that you added that you’re especially proud of? Personally, I love the solos on ‘Alpha’ and ‘Stuck on You’ and the section that you came up with on ‘About You’, but is there anything that stands out to you?
Emerson: I think all of those songs are really great examples, actually. ‘Alpha’ was very fun to work out, that’s one that I think there’s maybe the biggest difference in terms of energy from the original recording. It had this really strong energy that felt much more settled in the original version. And when we started playing it, it was just this frenetic, fun thing that happened kind of out of nowhere, and we just went for it. But for ‘About You’, definitely the part where everything all of a sudden tightens up and we play in full unison. I thought was really cool and just happened on accident when we were playing one day. One textural part that I really love is the last part of ‘Blue Michigan’, because I just think we found a really nice washy zone that I hadn’t known we would get to, I don’t think any of us really knew we were gonna get there.
Ben: I’m particularly proud of the part that I wrote for the chorus of ‘Lush’, which is just like a scale going down [laughter]. It just really works really well. And that felt like a moment for me when I was really starting to speak the language of Margaret’s music where there are many melodies happening all at once.
Something that I love about the album as a whole is how you combine these complex, mathy moments with these power pop hooks that are very direct and resonant. Do you think that’s a result of the wide range of influences that you have coming together?
Margaret: Yeah, I think it is. I don’t think those things are intentional in a way that we’re like, “This one is going to have a power-pop chorus and a mathy verse,” you know, but everything that we listen to just kind of comes through subconsciously. And I think the fact that we all are interested in some of the same music and some different music from each other finds its way into the songs as well.
In what ways do your influences differ?
Ben: I don’t think there’s anything that any of us like that the others don’t, like, we all are down with basically everything. But I think we maybe have different things that we gravitate towards.
Margaret: Yeah, I definitely gravitate towards – like, if I’m by myself, folky or country-ish female singers is kind of what I listen to the most out of anything else.
Ben: I also listen to a lot of country music [laughter]. But I also listened to a lot of heavier, washier stuff – like, they’re not really shoegaze bands and they are at their core pop bands, but there’s a lot of slushy, distorted stuff happening.
What is it that you think makes you all gravitate to those pop elements? Because Margaret, you mentioned singer-songwriter music, but I saw you’ve also cited hyperpop as an influence.
Margaret: That’s the other thing, I love hyperpop [laughs].
Emerson: I feel like I always gravitate, regardless of genre, to music that feels like it has a strong melody that sticks with me, but where people take risks or make choices that I find surprising with overall orchestration. And I’ve always loved music like all of Björk’s releases and I was really into Palm for a long time and they’re all, like, melodies that sit on top and whatever is happening underneath sometimes takes a turn in a really nice way. Yeah, I mean we’re all listening to, you know, Charlie XCX and Dirty Projectors and whoever else in ways that probably don’t actually sound like the music we make at all, but it’s always in those moments that are a little surprising underneath the melody that feels special to me.
I do think it comes through in its own way – you mentioned Dirty Projectors, and something that I love about the record as well is the vocal harmonies. Because obviously, Margaret, your vocals are very quietly affecting on their own, but they also take on a new kind of resonance when layered on top of Ben and Emerson’s harmonies and also these walls of instrumentation. This question goes for all of you, but could you describe the feeling that you get when you all sing together?
Margaret: I feel like harmonizing with people and harmonizing with Ben and Emerson particularly, it’s like, there’s something about singing that is very personal and vulnerable, so it feels like a really intimate thing to sing with other people.
Ben: I will say, I’ve never been the most confident singer, but singing with Margaret and Emerson always feels good, they’re always very supportive. And I think that makes it a really special experience and it’s also helped me be a better and more confident singer. Just last week we played for this guy who jumps in Lake Michigan every day and he’s been doing it for the past 300 days and we were standing there, singing next to the lake. And it was just another reminder of how nice it feels to sing together.
Okay, hold on, you have to tell me more about that experience.
Emerson: [laughter] That was crazy. That was so funny. But yeah, I was just gonna say, I think obviously we’re navigating through a live set together no matter what, we’re finding our way to the music as a group, but it really feels like that when we are all singing in three-part harmony. Thinking back to all the times we closed shows with ‘Me and My Body’ and that last harmonized part where we all sing together, it just felt like “Oh, we’re really finishing this out together” in a way that you sometimes don’t notice when you’re playing the songs on your instruments and not singing.
Moving on to the themes of the album, Margaret, I read that you were inspired a lot by studying geology and landscape and how that shifted your perception of the world. Could you talk about how your relationship to landscape informed the making of the songs – whether it’s physical landscape or kind of “unreal landscape,” as you put it in ‘When Will I Learn’.
Yeah, it’s kind of hard to put into words, but it’s like, I think I studied geology and it made me feel like the Earth is alive and that it’s constantly changing, but it’s just on a timescale that we can’t really fathom. Anything you look at in the landscape is like a product of, you know, millions of years of change, and you’re just existing in a moment in time, but you can kind of see what has brought the landscape to where it is today by, like letting it tell its story, you know. So I’m thinking about the world as being alive, like, geologically, but I’m also thinking about people and relationships and emotional change. And I think that those two things kind of melded inside me somewhere – a lot of the way that I conceptualize emotional change and interpersonal change is about, you know, erosion or water flowing in a different direction. So I think that’s part of it. I also think one of the threads that goes through a lot of the songs is about connecting to my place, like where I’m at. And I think that also has to do with how I feel connected to the earth around me. I don’t know, it’s kind of a very nebulous thing – it doesn’t feel very concrete to be able to talk about it.
No, that’s totally fine. And that’s what drew me to the writing as well, the way it connects elements of nature with emotional experiences. And a lot of that revolves around friendship in a way that really resonated with me, too. How much did you find these themes that you had written about in a different context reflected in your bond as a group?
Margaret: Yeah, the songs are about friendship, mostly, and friendship and friend love is really important to me and I think it’s also really important to Ben and Emerson. And I feel like we share that and we’ve just become really good friends through the process of being a band and I… yeah, I really love both of them and I’m happy we have that relationship now.
Emerson: Yeah, agree. And yeah, the songs about friendship, mostly, and having worked on them and being able to remember that has definitely carried me through the past year of not being able to see a lot of people. Even just waiting for the project to come out but like, listening back to mixes before they were mastered and just knowing that that existed and that we went through this whole process and that we shared what are frankly pretty intimate things that Margaret had talked about and worked on them together sort of instills a feeling of closeness that was really nice to reflect on for a whole year when I was stuck in my apartment.
What’s your headspace like or your plans now that the album has come out?
Margaret: Honestly, I just really want to play shows, whenever we can, I really just want to play music with them and play for people. But we’ve also started to talk about our next album, and we don’t have really concrete plans yet, but we’ve been just talking about what new songs we can include. I think we’re all really excited to practice new music and work on new songs.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Moontype’s Bodies of Water is out now via Born Yesterday.