Hi pals! Zoe reporting in to tell you a little bit (a lot) about how special Maria Taylor is (to me - and will be, to you). In order to do that, I must begin with a little story, originally taking place about a month ago after I first saw Maria perform:
I don’t remember exactly what I said, but when I was standing in the green room after an Azure Ray show in Brooklyn, Maria within arm’s reach in front of me and Conor Oberst a few feet to my left, I leaned over to our Underwater Sunshine Executive Producer, Adam Duritz, and whispered something like: “three people in this room have made me bawl.”
It was a true and ridiculous statement, juxtaposed as it was between memories of angst-ridden teenage nights with Counting Crows, Bright Eyes, and Maria Taylor, and the celebratory atmosphere backstage at The Bell House. Especially because more than Conor (who I had just met only briefly) and Adam (who I know very well), Maria Taylor’s offstage presence contrasts strikingly with the ethereal austerity that she accesses when performing. This is not to say that, in-person, Adam and Conor are exact replicas of their deeply moving, emotive performer-selves, but just to say that Maria is distinctively like human sunshine when she’s in front of you.
Maybe onstage she’s tapping into her moonlight instead. Either way, when she’s singing, we can see her remembering a song’s heartbreak and processing those memories, appearing as if she’s depressurizing something volatile and releasing it in a steady stream for us. This was true even when singing decade-old Azure Ray songs. At the performance I saw, to my great delight, she and Orenda Fink performed with a kind of ghostly quality, effortlessly reincarnating the spirits they’d captured earlier in their careers. With every band member timelessly fashionable and completely swathed in black, it felt to me like we were participating in a spooky, musical seance together, welcoming with open arms their familiar melancholic and melodic ghosts.
Notwithstanding Maria’s haunting and sorrowful onstage demeanor, she is so very lively offstage, attentive with spellbinding eye contact that transforms you into the most charming, likable version of yourself by being the warmest, most personable human imaginable herself - all with absolutely no trace of artificiality. I’m gushing, but I promise it relates to the music because this warmth of hers also radiates from each of her records in special ways.
For instance, the effect she gives to In the Next Life songs like “Home,” 11:11 songs like “Two of Those Two,” “Nature Song,” “Lighthouse,” and LadyLuck songs like “Orchid” is the feeling of luxuriating in the hazy, late and final hours of a merry party. Start this track right now (“Clean Getaway,” from Lynn Teeter Flower), close your eyes and imagine: It’s late, almost time to go home, and you sink into a couch to rest for just a moment. You hear the soft heartbeat of a guitar rising in the background, and you realize that you’re privy to a spontaneous, intimate living room serenade. Only you don’t need to brace yourself for some hobbyist’s drunken guitar rendition of “Wonderwall” because it’s our angelic host Maria, gliding down the crest of this metaphorical social high to articulate the poetry of the experience for us. As soon as you hear her downcast, tender alto, you hardly breathe so as not to miss a single sound. You forget that you’re tired and you forget that you have anywhere to go.
That’s just some of the magic that Maria gives to her songs.
And I couldn’t write about Maria without speaking of her lyrical prowess and one of her favorite themes. She spends a lot of time in the past tense, reflecting on memories and lessons learned. One powerful example, (a song that has stayed with me for almost a decade), LadyLuck’s “Time Lapse Lifeline”, contains repeated phrases that are forever etched in my brain. Particularly, I think, due to the anguish released in this line:
“We can hear, we can hear the first beat to the flatline.”
Usually, Maria keeps a steady hand on the dial for her emotional restraint, but to me, in this line, her grip slackens, the heart valves open, and she expels grief unreservedly. In this song, she captures both the anticlimactic shock of sudden endings and also the way the things we grieve for live on in brief, unsatisfying flashes of remembrance.
Pairing well with her whispering-in-your-ear storytelling style, Maria Taylor’s singing voice is elegantly controlled and conversational. I’ve already used a lot of descriptive words of a heavenly variety to describe her and her music, but it’s undeniable - she has a fascinating, divine stoicism in her delivery. She brings a profound sense of balance, lyrically and musically, to every song she touches, even in her guest collaborations. I mentioned Conor Oberst earlier and it’s definitely not a coincidence that my favorite Bright Eyes songs are songs in which Maria contributed backing vocals, “Four Winds,” “Poison Oak,” “Old Soul Song,” “Method Acting,” and many others. If you’re a Bright Eyes fan too, I encourage you to look up the contributors and collaborators on your favorite songs. I guarantee that you’ll see Maria’s name on at least one of them.
Conversely, one of my favorite songs from Maria’s new record is “If Only,” which features Conor Oberst on backing vocals. It’s such a joyful song, yet it still contains Maria’s trademark lyrical pragmatism:
So take me down
'Cause I see you when I close my eyes
Turn a corner, take me by surprise
And what doesn't work on this first try
May be better in the next life
And we'll laugh until the sun will rise
Try to talk but only get tongue-tied
So I live until the living's done
Got a feeling there's another one
If you got through this whole piece without putting on a Maria Taylor song, then I’ve nearly failed in my mission, and you need to get on that. Right now (In the Next Life). You’ll never forget her preternatural, soothing voice after you do, and I promise you’ll have found yet another artist on the Underwater Sunshine lineup you can’t wait to see.