Babehoven is the songwriting vehicle of Maya Bon, who was raised in Topanga, California and started releasing music under the moniker in 2017. Over a series of EPs, Bon has honed in her knack for diaristic, incisive songwriting, which has a tendency to sneak in quotidian details while exploring deep-seated feelings of guilt, grief, and trauma, situating their heaviness against the absurd backdrop of everyday life. For her latest record, Nastavi, Calliope – which takes its name from her beloved family dog and translates to “Keep going, Calliope” in Croatian, the language of her long-absent father – Bon once again worked with her collaborator and co-producer Ryan Albert, using their time spent in isolation to transform the EP’s seven songs into Babehoven’s most refined and evocative compositions yet. Expanding on the project’s bedroom pop origins while maintaining a DIY approach, the pair have managed to elevate Bon’s affecting and intimate lyrics by paying as close attention to sonic detail as she does to seemingly mundane memories, amplifying their resonance. Its stories may be autobiographical, but from its very first lines, Nastavi, Calliope captures a shared atmosphere we can all relate to: “It’s hard to talk about it being a bad week/ When it’s been a bad week/ For a long time now.”
We caught up with Babehoven’s Maya Bon and Ryan Albert for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about the origins of the project, the process of making Nastavi, Calliope, and more.
You started playing in bands when you were in elementary school, and you continued exploring songwriting through high school. What do you think it was that drew you to making music?
Maya Bon: I don’t really know what the draw was because it felt like a part of my life already. From a very early age, I would just sing my life out when I was like a baby learning to talk. To be totally frank, I’ve had a lot of really big losses – I had a pretty hard upbringing, just a lot of grief, a lot of things to process and not a ton of emotional support, so I think I turned to music – like, I have very early memories of as a five-year-old writing about my absent father and people being like, “Okay, this is awkward!” I would write really intense songs. And I remember listening to ‘Such Great Heights’ and writing a song based off of that about my father – like, I copied that song, really. Early memories of me were trying to emulate other artists. I really liked Jack Johnson as a little kid, I wrote a lot of chord progressions that were stealing his chord progressions, and I kind of dabbled in exploring songwriting as a kid that I would pour a lot of heartache and pain into. I felt as a kid that no one was really listening to me, so music was kind of my way to be heard.
Did it always feel very intentional, this process of externalizing what you were going through? How conscious of it were you as a kid, and how did that evolve over time?
MB: It definitely did not feel conscious as a kid. I think the first time that I’ve thought about it being a diaristic experience was really the Pitchfork review that said it was diaristic, and I was like, “That is exactly the word that I’ve been needing in my vocabulary.”
Ryan Albert: I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Maya Bon song that isn’t diaristic. Even the randomness of your songs, I, like, know the day that you did those random things.
MB: I really like collateral stresses. I like when a bunch of really shitty things happen at once and you don’t know how to hold them, because that’s the perfect song. When there’s just all of this bullshit happening and you’re just living your life, you know, like you’re also just tying your shoes and like going for a walk and going to work, but then at the same time your life is melting around you. The only way you can get through that in my opinion is to put it in a song and then make it enjoyable, because it’s crazy – life is so crazy.
But yes, I don’t think it was conscious at the beginning, and I really think the shift to making it – I used to be Maya Bonfire before, that was like my singer-songwriter name [laughs].
RA: That was just your Gmail.
MB: That was just my Gmail. But then when I was like, I’m making a band and I shifted to Babehoven, that was all very conscious for me.
Could you talk more about that transition to Babehoven and what you wanted the project to represent?
At the time I was really heartbroken, which is the first lyric of ‘Sleep’: [sings] “I’m heartbroken ‘cause you broke my heart.” And I felt like no one was going to hear that if I posted it on my SoundCloud, which is where I posted all my other folky songs. And I really wanted the person who broke my heart to hear it. So I thought, like, “How do I get this heard? I want to be signed and I want to be playing a lot of shows and I want to be in a band because no one goes to singer-songwriter shows.” So really it was like a vengeance project. [laughs] I was like, “I want this guy to know how much he hurt me.”
Ryan, what resonated with you when you first heard Maya’s music?
RA: Honestly, the power of her voice and her lyrics. I’m not a lyric person – lyrics can really fuck up a good song to me, be it how the singer sings or someone’s trying too hard with their lyrics, but Maya’s lyrics kind of blew my mind at first, and still do, but that was my initial reaction. But then secondary from that, it was how her lyrics play with simple chord structures. You know, it’s like three chords, four chords, sometimes just two, and the way that she has this amazing counterpoint that always keeps my melodic textural ear interested.
MB: And we didn’t start playing together initially. I moved from Portland where I had a band with my friends Elias [Williams] and Skyler [Pia], and then Ryan and I started dating in LA and I moved to LA. And then probably it was because I was getting shows in LA and I was like, “I don’t want to play this solo anymore.” So I was like, “Okay, Ryan, we should play guitar and drums together.” And we got a practice space, and then we were performing just us two. Ryan is just a very committed bandmate and I’ve never had that, ever. I feel like there’s a lot of serendipity in our connection because it’s very rare to find a romantic partner who’s also just like exactly your creative partner, too.
You’ve pointed out that the name Calliope means “beautiful voice” in Greek, and I found it interesting how the voice comes up in these songs: There’s the line “She’d wonder why my voice was there at all” in ‘Annie Shoes’, and there’s often this implication that talking about something can be meaningless, but also that not saying anything can be painful. Is the way you use your voice, both as a singer and in your personal life, something you were especially conscious of while you were writing this record?
MB: Thank you for that really beautiful question. In my perspective, I know that I sing the unsayable. A lot of my music falls into wanting to say something to someone and not being able to, and that’s what my life, in large part, has been; the challenge of my life from a very early age is that I have a lot of absent people in my family and life who are intentionally absent – people who leave but are still alive, so you’re grieving their disappearance and you have no way to speak to them. That’s what’s so challenging about that kind of loss, is that you’re left with so much to say but no one to listen to you and no one really cares, you know? It’s like, when someone dies, people remember the date, people remember their birthday and they check in. But when someone disappears, it feels like people often just move on with that kind of grief. In their surrounding people’s lives, it’s just like, “Okay, they’re gone.” And I feel like a lot of my music is things that I can’t say to people, and things that I can’t really even say to myself. Like people’s names, for example, that are too painful for me to say often come up in my music – or I guess that’s only happened once.
RA: Starting to happen potentially more.
MB: Yeah. That’s been really important for me, because the name Dorian, for example, I couldn’t really say before. It was just too painful for me, and now I can say it. And that lyric, “She’d wonder why my voice were there at all,” I was talking about calling my dog Ella, who would have no way of knowing who I am, why I’m calling – she’s a dog, you know. But I loved her so deeply, and it’s very painful to be away from her, but there’s no way to communicate. So there’s a lot of this theme in my music of like, the lack of communication, the inability to communicate, the generational trauma of people not communicating.
I feel like I didn’t consciously think about “beautiful voice” as something to do with me. For me, that felt like it was so ironic, because Calliope had the most ridiculous bark and she would just make some really crazy sound, so it was kind of funny that her name meant “beautiful voice”. [laughs] But this did feel very much like an homage to home, an homage to family. Calliope felt so rooted as a family dog; she was so funny, so it kind of brought people together in these very strange moments.
Was there a specific way that this EP felt different to you in the way that you approached theses themes?
MB: I don’t know if there is something different necessarily, because a lot of the songs are older songs, like ‘Orange Tree’ I wrote in 2018, same with ‘Crossword’, same with ‘Lena’. And then the other ones, like ‘A Star’, ‘Bad Week, ‘Artists making offerings’, are new.
RA: I would say the thing that’s maybe different is we knew what we were doing more recording-wise. Like, Demonstrating Visible Difference of Height, I knew what I was doing, kind of, but I’d never recorded this type of music before; it was always experimental weird stuff. And then Yellow has a pretty good reputation, that was kind of its own world. But Nastavi, Calliope was the first time I, at least, felt fully functional and able to try and capture the emotional essences of the song through the recording medium. So I feel like that’s the main difference, is that we got a better magnifying glass for translating the emotion of the song.
I think ‘Alt. Lena’, which originally appeared on a previous EP, is a great example of this. Beyond just the added layers of instrumentation, the alternate version really leans into the dreamy melancholy of the song in a very specific way. Why did you decide to rework that song in particular?
MB: We were trying to play this song live, and ‘Lena’, in my opinion, needs to be fun. So we were trying new things, and I was really obsessed with this keyboard that we got, an 80s Yamaha keyboard that’s really small and has really fun beats on it. We were playing around and then Ryan started doing the [sings guitar melody]. And I was just like, “Oh my god.”
RA: It becomes a whole other world.
MB: Yeah. I remember thinking if I heard that song on Spotify I would listen to it on repeat, like, “This is so good, we have to record it.” That song is so dreamy and kind of sexy and fun, and it is about my friend Lena. I asked her to write down 10 things she likes, and that was one of the only times of my songwriting that I was like, “I’m writing a song about Lena, I’m going to collect information about her.” [laughs] Because she’s just the most amazing person, I met her traveling and we just loved each other immediately. We only spent three days together. So I went back to London where I was living at the time for the summer and I wrote that song. And once I heard the new version, it just felt like its own thing.
RA: To me it feels more nostalgic. Especially given that we re-sculpted in January 2021, I think that maybe subconsciously there was some nostalgia for that time. And I think that it kind of pierces through within the recording of, like, the funness is still there but there is some almost Cure-esque goth nostalgia going on, which I think is an exact derivative of being in our apartment and wanting these times and thinking about them. To me, when I listen to that version compared to the earlier version, this new version is more longing, whereas back then it was more of a documentation.
I wanted to ask you about the song ‘Artists making offerings’, which addresses your relationship with being and calling yourself an artist. What does it mean for you when you sing, “I can be an artist if I say so?”
MB: I’ve been told I’m not an artist before – I always felt like growing up I wasn’t creative enough, I wasn’t interesting enough, and that’s kind of my, like, “Actually, I am an artist and I am creative and I am interesting.” [laughs] It’s kind of like my stamp on myself.
RA: When Maya wrote this song, it was yet another like, “Wow, I’ve never heard someone talk about this subject in this way in this genre.” And for me, when I listen to that, I think about people that play music, like, “Oh, I’m not a musician, I don’t really know how to do this.” For me – I studied music in college and high school and stuff – I can barely read sheet music. Growing up and learning within that mentality, I was like, “I’m not this person.” But then I’m like, “Wait a minute, fuck that.” Like, I am, it’s just this isn’t the way that I express being a musician. So I think there’s a lot of different ways the listener can take that song. To me, it’s a very punk rock song, mentality-wise. It’s like, “No, fuck off, I can play the keyboard. I am a keyboardist.”
There’s one thing that I wanted to give you the inside scoop on with ‘Artists making offerings’ that I just remembered: that noise part that happens in the bridge, it’s just a recording of a dinner party, but in that noise, there is Morse code.
RA: And the Morse code translates to “Fuck 2020.”
[laughs] Is that true?
RA: No, I’m serious. And then it sounded great, we liked the pattern and randomness, but I think we added Morse code because we were obsessed with Kraftwerk at the time and we wanted to pull in something like that. So we were like, “Fuck 2020.”
That is some great inside information, thank you for sharing that. I wanted to go back for a moment and ask you about the first part of the title. Do you remember the moment you came across the word “Nastavi”, and what has it come to mean for you?
MB: The reason that word even came up is that I’m currently in the process of learning Croatian. My father’s from Croatia – I didn’t grow up with my father, but I’m just now trying to tap into that side of myself that I want to learn more about. I’m very interested in the Croatian language and I’m studying Balkan singing, and I’m just trying to reincorporate myself into that world that I never really had access to, in my own way. So part of what I wanted with this EP title was to reference Croatian – I did some research on words and “keep going” came up for me a lot, because I had done a lot of processing over the seven months before recording, like there were seven months during COVID where I didn’t play music at all. I was actually questioning whether or not I even wanted to be a musician anymore. And then I kind of landed on like, “Music is part of what makes me want to be me.” And that’s so valuable.
This project has definitely made me feel like I’ve solidified my sense of self as an artist and as a writer. Even just receiving positive feedback – I really try not to get too obsessed with the positive feedback – but it is part of what keeps me going, hearing that people like it or that people are listening or people are interested.
RA: It’s a sense of community.
MB: Yeah, it is a sense of community. And those are the things that make me feel like, “No, I actually am able to do this,” like, “I am good at what I do.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Babehoven’s Nastavi, Calliope is out now.