Maia Friedman was already an experienced songwriter, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist before embarking on a solo career. Growing up in the Sierra National Forest region of central California with a film editor father and Jungian psychoanalyst mother, Friedman started playing music at an early age and went on to perform in groups like Bobby, Toebow, and Uni Ika Ai. She began working on her debut solo album, Under the New Light (out tomorrow), over four years ago, while teaching music in New York City and being a part of several projects. In 2018, she was asked to join Dirty Projectors, singing and co-writing the lyrics for the first of their 5EPs released last year and heavily touring with the band. She also formed Coco with Oliver Hill and Dan Molad, releasing music anonymously until they announced their striking self-titled debut, which came out in October 2021.
As its title suggests, Under the New Light represents a kind of creative renewal for Friedman, who made the album with Tom Deis and Peter Lalish across the US, in Omaha, New York, and Los Angeles, while Dan Molad handled the production. But on a personal level, these soothing and intricate songs also bear witness to the constant search for a place of comfort and healing, a sense of groundedness within one’s self. Friedman’s vision remains intact as she reflects on moments of light and darkness, intimacy and growth, inspiring empathy in the listener as much as herself: “Peel away/ Keeping me up through the night,” she sings on ‘First to Love’, “Escape/ Be whatever you like.”
We caught up with Maia Friedman for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her earliest musical memories, collaborating with Dirty Projectors and Coco, the journey to her debut album, and more.
I read that you grew up in a creative household and that your father gifted you a jazz album on every birthday. Do you mind sharing some early musical memories that have stayed with you?
My dad is an amazing singer. He’s not a professional musician, but we used to sing a lot together. When I was little, probably in elementary school, there was like a schtick that we would do. We would have class camping trips and class get-togethers with the students and the parents, and on the camping trips, we would have – not talent shows, but like sharing art. He used to sing and play the Elvis Presley song called ‘Hound Dog’. And my thing – this is like fourth grade – I would lip-sync and act out like I was performing the song. So that was a part of our home experience.
My dad really loves Creedence Clearwater Revival and Blind Faith, Rolling Stones. We had a huge CD collection, so all of these albums that my dad collected over the years, I then kind of stole and took into my room and started listening to. And then I really gravitated toward jazz vocalists, so he started giving me CDs as gifts, like Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter, Dinah Washington, of course Billie Holiday. I just loved them so much. I lived in this sort of jazz world for a little while – I studied music in college and I did a lot of jazz music stuff in college. But I think that that had a huge influence on the way that I think about the voice. They’re all masters of singing.
Was there a moment early on that made you realize you wanted to try that as well?
Yeah, I don’t think specifically jazz or jazz singing, but I think I always wanted to be a musician. I don’t really know what that meant concretely, but it was just something that I always gravitated towards. I sang in a children’s choir when I was a kid and would perform in their summer opera programs. I was always playing piano, and in junior high, I always took all of the music class electives. And then I think in high school was when I first started writing my own songs, which I would never want to share because they’re cringeworthy, very emo. And I tried to have some bands when I was younger, which never actually turned into anything. It was sort of going to band practice and everyone’s playing their instrument at the same time, but not together. It wasn’t until I got to college that I was around other people that I connected musically with. I don’t think that there was a conscious moment where I decided that I wanted to try it, it was just natural gravitation.
It’s almost been a decade since you went on your first tour with the band Bobby, which was formed by friends from college. How do you look back on that time? Are you nostalgic about it?
Oh, yeah. I was two years out of college and I was so excited. It was so fun to be playing music with people that I really liked and respected and admired. Tom Greenberg, who was sort of the founding member of Bobby, is such an incredible musician. He’s so creative and I love his musical mind. And Martin Zimmerman, who played the drums and Bobby – after Bobby broke up, him and I actually went on to play in another band together called Toebow, which there are some records but that I was a part of, but Toebow is a band that’s very active in New York. And Paolo Menuez played keys in Bobby. We all just got along so well, it was very goofy and silly, and we were all like, extremely poor. I remember I had to do laundry and I didn’t have any money to do laundry, it was like a slot laundry machine, and I actually went searching on the ground for quarters. But I think being so young, it didn’t matter. It was just so fun and exciting. The early days of touring, there’s something really magical about them. You’re kind of naive to the way the industry works, and it’s all just for fun.
Is that something you try to tap into more now?
Yes, definitely. It’s funny when you get older and you have bills to pay and other kinds of responsibilities, it does shift a little bit in your mind, at least for me. But I definitely try to constantly remind myself that music should be should be fun. I definitely felt that way touring with Dirty Projectors, also – it was sort of this similar free suspension a little bit.
During the four years that you were making this new record, Under the New Light, you’ve been a member of bands like Dirty Projectors and Coco. How did being in those collaborative spaces feed into the process of this album? Especially since there was a collaborative element to it as well, although it was more your project.
Well, this record was started before I joined Dirty Projectors. I love collaborating – I think I much prefer writing music with other people than on my own. It’s so fun to bounce off of other people. This is true with Coco – when Oliver, Danny, and I are in the room together, it feels like we have these different offerings, and when it’s all blended together it feels really natural and easy to finish songs. And it’s so democratic, we’re all pitching in ideas, there’s not much struggle or push and pull there. And with my record, it was written very collaboratively with Tom Deis and Peter Lalishm, who are two musicians I had a band with called Uni Ika Ai. It started around 2013, 2014, we put a record out in 2016. So it was a little ambiguous if the record would come out as Uni Ika Ai or as me. A lot of the songs were brought to the table from me and many were full collaborations.
Part of the reason why it’s taken so long to get this record out is because Dave asked me if I’d be interested in joining the band, and that sort of took took over completely and the record was put on the shelf while I was focusing on Dirty Projectors. It takes so much time and energy – you’re learning these parts and it’s like learning another language, and the touring was quite intensive. And then, on a break from Dirty Projectors, I was in LA actually, I was supposed to be recording with Dave for the 5EPs record. I had some days free and Danny and I got together at a studio. We’ve been friends for a very, very long time. Danny and I met when I first moved to New York, I worked in a cafe and he lived down the street so he would come in every single day to the cafe, and that’s how we met. He’s been sort of a fundamental person over the years. In LA, having some days off during the recording of the 5EPs, Danny asked if I wanted to come over and maybe try and work on some song ideas that he had, and that’s when we ended up recording ‘Empty Beach’ and ‘One Time Villain’, which were the first Coco songs. We were having a hard time finishing them, and so we called Oliver to see if he would want to help.
With Dirty Projectors, the songs are Dave’s. They’re really his songs, he lines out all of the parts, it’s all very organised. And with 5EPs, for Windows Open, which is the first EP to come out and was the one that I was featured on, that was really the first time that we collaborated, because we worked on the lyrics together. And yeah, I just love it. I love writing with people. And it’s terrifying, especially if it’s someone that you’ve never been with before. It’s scary, it’s very vulnerable. You’re sort of baring your soul, but I think that’s part of what draws me, is that vulnerability. You have to just set your ego aside, kind of make a fool of yourself in the process of coming up with ideas. I feel lucky that that is something that I enjoy.
How do you make distinctions between what song belongs to which project? And what made you decide you were going to release these songs under you own name?
I think for a long time, I didn’t have the confidence to stand on my own. I think that I gravitated towards being in bands because I felt more comfortable being surrounded by other people. And I think that being a part of Dirty Projectors and working so hard on the music, it was sort of like a master class a little bit. I felt like I went to grad school, kind of, when I joined Dirty Projectors. And it gave me the confidence to finally be able to stand on my own a little bit and feel like I was capable to do something on my own. And that’s something I’ve always wanted, I’ve always wanted to put out music under my own name. I just think it’s taken me a little bit longer to believe that that was something that I was capable of. And I know that I am now. I mean, I definitely have moments, still – self-doubt is always in my mind and I have very strong voices that try and talk me out of doing anything. It’s definitely a daily process of reassuring myself that this is something that I can do.
I have a bunch of new songs that I’ve written for the next record, which these ones are fully me, written by myself. And it’s sort of the first body of music that I challenged myself to do on my own. I know that we’re focusing on this record, but I’m excited for what’s coming next because I think it’s like a self-actualized experience to have songs that are just by myself.
As far as choosing – I mean, Dirty Projectors is Dave’s music, so that’s pretty easy to separate. I think for Coco, it’s pretty clear what are Coco songs and what are my songs. But there are some times when I have a song and I don’t know if I should put it in the Coco box or in mine. And that’s actually the case with ‘Elevate Us’, which is on Under the New Light. That’s a song that I’ve had floating around for a long time. That was one of my songs that I brought to Coco and I have recorded it many times and it just has never felt right. The sound just never came together. And so, I decided that that should be a Coco song and we recorded it in May in Richmond at Montrose Recording, which is my friend Adrian [Olsen]’s studio. [laughs] I feel bad – no, it’s okay, me and Danny and Oliver have agreed that it’s fine, they’re okay that I took the song. But we recorded it as Coco and then I was like, “I feel like this has to be on this record.” And I talked to them about it and they signed off. That was sort of the hiccup in one of my songs being brought into Coco world and then peering back into my world.
Did you feel like you had to sort of make a case for it? What did you have in mind musically or thematically for this record that ultimately led you in that direction?
I think that I had nine songs on the record, and all of them were recorded mostly in 2017. So they’ve been around for a while, and I think in order to breathe some new life into the record for me personally – I know that it’s new for the world, but for me, I felt like it was really meaningful to have something newer on the record. It’s an older song, but reimagined, and that was sort of a little bit of a grounding for me to have something more contemporary in my musical catalogue.
What you said about gaining confidence, I feel like it relates to the content of the record in terms of this almost calming voice that it has. One of my favourite tracks is ‘Happiness’, and I think the line “I’ll take everything in stride” encapsulates a lot of what the album is about. It’s almost as if happiness is less of a state that you find yourself in and more something that you cultivate with kindness and patience. It seems like you have a similar approach to building a song as well.
Yeah, I think that’s probably true. I guess a lot of the record, it’s from the point of view of myself – there’s a lot of, “I will take everything in stride,” “I will find my place.” But I think that a lot of the voice in the music is sort of like the higher voice that’s comforting me. I think a lot of it is the voice that I aspire to have in my mind. I’m someone who has struggled with depression for as long as I can remember. There are peaks and valleys and waves, and I think a lot of the record is sort of me talking to myself, to reassure myself that it’ll all come out the other end and that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s me searching for that. My hope is that it will be comforting and grounding and calming and that it will provide a space of respite and almost – not escape, but sort of like a suspension from everything going around, so that maybe people can connect with themselves and see themselves a little bit more clearly.
When you sing of a certain place on songs like ‘Happiness’ and ‘Sunny Room’, is it purely metaphorical or do you sort of envision a specific place?
I think it’s primarily metaphorical. But when I do imagine what that means… I’ve been really bad at meditating recently, for like the past two years it’s been not a regular thing that I do, but there are places that I go or visualise when I’m in meditation. Places that I’ve been in my life where I feel really comfortable. One of them is: I love having a seat by a window. I have my desk and it’s right by the window and the seat – there’s something, I don’t know what it is, but I always want to have a chair by the window to just sit in. There’s something about a light coming through a window with a curtain kind of moving with the wind and being able to look out at the world. It’s very comforting to me, and I think it represents calmness and centeredness.
I used to live in New Mexico, and the sky is so big there. There are lots of mountains, and the elevation in New Mexico can actually be quite high, but it’s a desert landscape. And the sky is so big. And it’s quite arid. I don’t know why this particular day has been imprinted on my mind, but there was a day – I was driving somewhere to pick something up, I was driving down this road. It was just a long, straight road. It was a beautiful sunny day, the sky was really blue. And there was this expansive feeling of being in this place that I think really has stayed with me forever. That’s a place that I go again and again: I’m on this road looking up at this big open sky. It’s very free.
And then another place is the ranch. I used to live up near Yosemite in central California. It’s a place I’ve gone my whole life. My mom and I moved up there together when I was six and I lived there for a couple of years. And I think being there at that age – I was so lucky to be there. I was a really creative kid and I’m an only child, so I played a lot by myself, completely surrounded by wilderness. I would out with, I had two dogs that were like my protectors, they were Border Collies which are very protective animals, and just play in the woods. There were streams and I would make little fairy houses in the dirt, you know, very wild child vibes. And it’s my favourite place on Earth.
Do you remember feeling connected to nature growing up, or do you think it’s something that you realize now, that you had that connection?
I don’t think as a kid I was aware – I don’t think I knew what connection was. I think I knew what it felt like, but I definitely know that I much preferred to be outside than inside. I was always climbing trees, my friends and I would play would just find a bush anywhere and play on the bush and pretend that we were bunny rabbits. I grew up in California so there’s nature all around you even in cities, and I would go through the nature to get where I was going. I think that was always present, but I think my connection with this place near Yosemite really cemented that for me. That definitely inspired my comfort in nature.
Is it easier to describe what connection looks or feels like now? Connection to nature, but also connection with people – is that something that you try to grasp at, be it through music or in other ways, something that’s on your mind?
Yeah, I think about it all the time. I think for me, being in nature puts a lot of our problems into context. I think that there’s something humbling in being surrounded by nature, with the knowledge that I’m not going to be here forever. None of us are. And what – I mean, hopefully… will continue to be here is the nature that we’re surrounded by. And I think the history of the places that I visit extends beyond my existence on the planet. I feel very privileged in the life that I’ve been able to live, and despite that, I have my own issues and problems, and being in nature just reminds me of the impermanence of our existence. And I think there are times when that can feel a little bit scary, but there are also times when that feels like the ultimate truth.
I had a period recently where I was, like, obsessed with death. I was thinking about dying. Not suicidal ideation – I mean, the reality of my inevitable death was weighing very heavily on me, and I think I was focusing a lot on the… Let’s say reincarnation is not a thing, I’m taking that off the table. And I think about the – I don’t know what nothingness means. I don’t really know what nothingness means. And when I think about dying, what I imagine is nothingness. I was, like, panicking about it. It was like a month when that’s all I could think about. It was really intense. And I watched the documentary Fantastic Fungi. Have you seen it?
I haven’t. Is it worth watching?
I mean, there are moments that are a little bit silly. There are funny animations of mushrooms talking. But, and this is something that I’ve known about, the mycelium network, the network of mushrooms underneath the earth connecting trees to one another. It’s this expansive network, it’s all very connected and very intelligent. And something really clicked for me after watching this movie, which was very comforting with this imminent, future death fear. Which was: If I can die and just be placed in the earth and decomposed by mushrooms and fungi, be turned into food for the mushroom and fungi, then I will become a part of this interconnected network. That was like the ultimate comforting thought, that if I can someday join nature, then I’ll be even more connected than I am now, you know, in an energetic sense.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.