Maria BC treats music as both an unguarded space of intimacy and a tool for emotional discovery. Growing up, the Ohio-born, California-based artist, who was classically trained as a mezzo-soprano while their father played music in the church, came to associate singing with strong religious feeling – euphoria, adoration, forgiveness. Though this kind of faithful reverence is now absent from the hushed, contemplative atmosphere of the music they compose, it retains a quiet intensity as they explore, conjure, and transmute emotions and memories that are deeply rooted in the self and its interaction with the environment. Following their first release, last year’s Devil’s Rain EP, Maria BC has today issued their debut full-length, Hyaline, which presents these interconnected snapshots through sparse, mesmerizing arrangements and lyrics whose poetic resonance can be both evocative and abstract, untangling itself from personal experience. The result is at once haunting and inviting, a remarkable work of patience, trust, and care that revels in the magic of the moment but travels far beyond it.
We caught up with Maria BC for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about music as a source of comfort and darkness, their earliest musical memories, the ideas behind Hyaline, and more.
Talking about the making of your first EP, Devil’s Rain, you said that nothing about it was comforting, and that “music just seems necessary for whatever reason.” Has it always been that way for you? And does it feel different with Hyaline?
I still don’t think that my songwriting is comforting to me. I do hope that it brings comfort of some kind to other people. I think that writing songs offers me the opportunity to explore emotional spaces, modes of feeling that I kind of forbid myself otherwise. It allows me to say things that I feel like I can’t say in real life. And a lot of the songs on this record, I went to kind of a sinister place for them. [laughs] I don’t think I’m like evil in my real life, but I allowed myself to go to an evil place lyrically and in terms of the arrangements, the mood of the music. And that was there on Devil’s Rain for sure, but here it feels more intentional. On Devil’s Rain, on tracks like ‘The Deal’, for example, I wrote the song and afterward I was like, “Wow, that sounds so dark and sinister. I wonder if I’ll do that again.” And for this one, it felt more like I was consciously giving myself permission to go to that place. And so, with that in mind, it’s actually uncomfortable in some ways. It’s therapeutic in the sense that I can get some catharsis out of it or say something that I needed to say on an unconscious level, but it’s not soothing.
When you started making music or even just listening to music at an early age, was it something that brought you comfort? And was that feeling what led to you pursuing it later in life?
I think it was comforting. I remember starting to write songs as a way of keeping myself company. As a kid spending a lot of time alone, I would sing to myself, make up little stories in song. And in my adult life as well, I do have plenty of music that feels comfortable, that feels like being wrapped in a warm blanket or something. But it also tends to be music that at other times is uncomfortable, that is very dark or sad. I think I’ve always been attracted to that kind of music to some extent.
Could you share any fond memories that you have of connecting with music early on?
One that I share a lot is fond memories of my dad’s cassettes that he kept in his car. He had this collection of ‘70s trucker songs by this artist who actually died recently called C.W. McCall, and he had Andy Gibb. I just remember listening to that music in the car over and over and over again and getting to the point where I knew it so deeply that it felt like a natural extension of the paths that we would take driving. That was very important.
Also, I started singing in a focused way at a really early age. Singing at church in a spotlit kind of way – my church used a high school space and they used the theatre, like a big stage, and I would sing on it really often. And that was a way that I felt really… included, at the time? I don’t know, I guess a lot of people’s relationships with music start in church, and it just puts you in that place of associating ecstasy and really extreme emotions with music because you’re singing in a space where there are all these other people going through so much emotionally, cycling through grief and guilt, and then feelings of redemption and forgiveness all while you’re up there singing your song, and they’re often singing with you. I think that’s left its mark on my relationship to music in an indelible way, as it has for so many people.
You said that you would also spend a lot of time singing alone, making up stories. How did that feel different?
Yeah, it was more comforting in that context because there was no pressure on it. Whereas I would get really nervous before performances at church and elsewhere – I still get a lot of stage fright. But there was less reward, also. At the end of the performance, you get the relief from all of the nerves and your adrenaline is still pumping and you feel kind of high afterwards. But just singing to myself alone – it’s more just romantic and calming. It’s a very different place.
On the new album, ‘Betelgeuse’ is a song about a specific kind of loss, but it goes back to an experience you had in middle school when an astronomer said it was our only hope of seeing a star explode within our lifetimes. I was curious if learning that at the time had a strong effect on you, or if that was something that came later. Did it take time for you to think about the cosmic nature of that kind of destruction and compare it to something more human, like the desire for a certain kind of grief to be noticeable in a similar way?
I think a lot about how memory always surprises you. So often the things that you remember are things that in the moment didn’t seem that impactful; so much of life is just being surprised by things. And nevertheless, I do think that what filters up to the top of your memory, especially childhood memory, is of some significance. That’s all to say, no, I don’t think I was thinking about it all that deeply in seventh grade when that astronomer was speaking. But still, it was a memory that kept coming to the top of my mind for some reason. Especially when I would look at the stars at night, I wonder whether anything is going to explode. And that’s really one of the few things that I know about the stars, is from that one talk that this one astronomer gave so, so many years ago.
Both that song and ‘Keepsaker’ deal with that theme of being haunted by memories, while another track, ‘The Big Train, adopts the perspective of the father figure who abandons his family on ‘Betelgeuse’. What appeals to you about approaching this theme through different characters and perspectives?
I love music that is written in kind of a confessional mode or is highly autobiographical. I’ve listened to a lot of music like that. But for my own work, I am not really interested in drawing from actual life. Of course, I always want my lyrics to be describing some sort of truth, like an emotional truth, but I’m not interested in having a song that’s about something that happened to me. So what ends up happening is I write songs from the perspective of these characters that embody some set of emotions that I need to process. And sometimes it’s highly accidental – I write a verse and I’m like, where’s this going? And the story, the heart of the song, comes after; I interpret it after the fact.
In relation to that, you’ve mentioned that the album was inspired by the idea of the dreamer and the watcher archetypes, and that one way of embodying the latter, for you, is through music. Do you have any other ways of practicing that sort of presence?
Totally, yeah. It’s funny, I think interpreting dreams is one way of doing that. That’s taking the term dreamer literally, which is not what Louise Gluck was really intending. But in the same way I think sometimes my music or my lyrics speak to me after the fact of them being written, dreams, I believe, have something to tell you about what’s going on in your inner world and the outer world that you are recognising at a level that is pre-verbal. So yeah, I’m trying to do more dream journaling. I love talking to other people about their dreams. I like writing, I like reading. I’m trying to learn more about birds and plants, learning more how to be in the place that I live in.
What do you like about hearing other people’s dreams? I feel like that’s quite different from dream journaling, where you’re connecting more with your own self.
Well, it’s a way of getting intimate with people really quickly. [laughs] Sometimes to feel intimate with people you need it to be mediated by something else, and talking about dreams is one way of doing that. And it really interests me how people shared dreams in an eerie and accidental way. Before I knew that it was a common dream, for example, I had the recurring dream of all my teeth falling out. And I told that to someone and they were like, “No, I think everyone has that dream.” And it’s like, where does that come from? It’s not really rooted in language. I was reading this essay where someone was saying that since the onset of the pandemic, there’s been, like, endemic dreaming in the US, of people having nightmares about bugs, like locust infestation and stuff like that, because another way of saying plague or illness is “bug”, it’s like a pun. But that doesn’t extend, really, to like your teeth falling out. That’s not rooted in language. So where is it coming from?
And my friend did this – sorry, I could talk about this forever – but my friend was part of this group in Vermont where she lives. She was going to meetings with this group of, like, social dreamers, and they would all gather in a circle and share their dreams and interpret them in a group context. And very quickly, they found over the course of these meetings that they were all starting to dream about the same things. And it’s a very common phenomenon that people within each other’s orbits will have the same imagery in their dreams. And not something that they’ve all seen together or something, but very random things will appear in patterns. It’s so interesting. That kind of stuff just interests me – I don’t know why, but it does.
You’ve said that, when you were making the song ‘April’, you were listening to artists like FKA Twigs and Bonnie Prince Billy at the time. I don’t know how much you think about genre in those terms, but how do you feel like alternative pop and folk music intersect, whether in your listening habits or during the music-making process? What do you think these artists have in common?
I don’t think what attracts me or what inspires me in music has to do with genre so much as mood. Generally, I’m not that interested in music that doesn’t have some sort of darkness to it. And what, to my mind, FKA twigs and Bonnie share, if they share anything, is intense darkness, and, at times, just abject nihilism. [laughs] But also, their music respectively is rife with sexual energy. You know, like Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy has that one song where’s he like, “Death to everyone is gonna come/ It makes hosing much more fun.” And then, FKA twigs has this song about wanting to be fucked while she’s staring at the sun. A lot of her songs are like that. There’s like a death drive, I guess is really what I’m getting at, in both their music. And that’s what interests me, really, more than I’m inspired by the instrumentation or something like that’s genre-defining.
I wanted to bring up a line from ‘Betelgeuse’ that I’ve been fixating on quite a bit: “I can’t tell you/ If loving alone will be/ Anything that becomes.” I hear the phrase “loving alone” a few different ways: only loving, loving aloneness, and loving in your aloneness. Is there any meaning to it that resonates with you the most?
I’m so happy that you picked out that line because when I play ‘Betelgeuse’ live, I’ve been slightly changing that line almost every time. Singing it sometimes as it appears on the album; sometimes I say “love on its own” instead. Because the meaning, for me, I think does change all the time. There’s the verse that comes before it that’s, “All the good people so nice in their loving.” So when it moves to the line, “I can’t tell you if loving alone will be anything that becomes,” I think actually what I was thinking about when I was writing it was how love means different things for different people. And what to some people is a satisfactory level of care, or kind of care, isn’t what I would call love. So, I guess I’m kind of interrogating, is just love enough to actually care for people if it’s defined in such an ambiguous way? And for some people, it’s bound up in so much inherited knowledge that I think is worth exploding, if that makes sense.
I understand there may not be a response to this, but has something helped you find your own definition of love that works for you in a meaningful way?
I think it changes all the time and it changes with different people, but… Oh my god, this is such a good question. What is love? Baby don’t hurt me! [laughter] Um, I just think it’s being sensitive to people and attentive to people and their needs, and being available to others teaching you how to care for them. For so many people, that’s not intuitive. But for that reason, I think if there is some sort of encompassing definition of love, it would be just being open to constantly reinterpreting it.
You were talking before about music and solitude and those two being bound for you. Is there a recent moment that you can talk about where music brought you joy in a social context?
Oh, totally. I love live music and going to concerts, standing there with all these sweaty people, your knees are kinda hurting and everyone’s uncomfortable, people are crying. I love that. [laughs] And I love dance music, too. Dancing with my friends is such a joyful activity. And over the past year or so, I’ve been playing music and working on music with other people more often I think than I ever have. And I felt so much less precious about exposing myself, exposing my creative process, and exposing my lack of – I’ve been playing with a band and practicing with them, and the first few times we practiced, I could barely sing properly because I was just so nervous to show it all happening in real time. But I think I’ve broken down a lot of those barriers and I’m so grateful for that, because it is a very different thing, to make music with people, but it’s also a really wonderful feeling.
Does breaking those barriers reshape your experience of writing and playing music alone? Does it make you more comfortable exposing certain parts of yourself to yourself?
Yeah, it’s rebuilt my confidence in some ways. I think I had to risk exposing myself as a fraud in order to realize, actually, my process is legitimate. So, then – following a bad practice or sending my friend a melody that I had written for their song or something, hearing their feedback – then I can go back to my private space with my guitar and feel like, actually, yeah, I kind of know what I’m doing. Because otherwise, if you spend too much time alone with your own work, you can get really paranoid about it and start to not hear it right, just not know whether it’s good. But taking breaks from that is healthy.
Do you feel like that realization started to happen while you were recording this album, or is it more now that you’re practicing these songs with a band? And how do you think you might channel that confidence going into the future?
Hyaline was kind of the beginning of my inviting other people into my little music world. Because whereas on Devil’s Train I did everything myself, on Hyaline I did 99% of things, but I invited a friend to record some drum samples for me. And my friend, Nell Sather, who has the best voice, she sings on the songs ‘Hyaline’ and ‘April’. My dad recorded some organ samples for me at his church. So there were other people involved in the recording process, and that felt very new to me. And then at the end of making Hyaline, I started practicing songs with a band of two other people in preparation for SXSW. And that was good because at that point, I had felt so sick of my own arrangements and heard so many sounds with myself that it was cool to bring it to these two other people and be like, “Don’t listen to the recordings, just do the arrangement that you want to do and then we’ll work from there.” And it just made the song sound so fresh to my ears. That was awesome.
But moving forward, I don’t anticipate songwriting with a band in mind. I think I’m going to continue to do most of the things on my own. I like having that kind of control, I guess. [laughs] But I’m going to also write knowing that there is always the possibility of me bringing other people into it for a live performance or something.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.