Babehoven Search For Meaning in Multitudes

Maya Bon and Ryan Albert discuss the art of making sense of subconscious writing, turning consonant melodies into celebratory motifs, their passion for Balkan music and Black Sabbath, and their sophomore album, Water’s Here in You.

Music Features Babehoven
Babehoven Search For Meaning in Multitudes

“With hands outstretched, I forgive you,” Maya Bon beckons at the beginning of Babehoven’s newest album, Water’s Here in You. “I forgive you, I wish there was something I could give you.” The year is still young, and yet Babehoven (Bon and her partner/producer, Ryan Albert) have returned to us here—not even two years removed from releasing their beautiful debut, Light Moving Time—with another collection of songs that pore over with empathy, kindness and cosmic companionship. Tapping into a Babehoven record is its own form of self-care, as the wonders of Bon and Albert’s world are loosely wound around a totem of heavy-hearted intimacy—a closeness you can grab onto and use to nurse yourself back to completion.

Babehoven formed in the late-2010s, and the duo released a handful of EPs before finally unveiling Light Moving Time in 2022. Now, Bon and Albert are finding themselves in a space full of an energy not yet zapped by the streaming age and relishing the untapped potential an LP can offer them (“I love the art of an album,” Albert contends). On Water’s Here in You songs like “Millennia” and “Lonely, Cold Seed,” they are buying into the unavoidable ebbs and flows of a record while finding moments to experiment with their musical interests that, often, exist far outside of indie music—including minimalist noise, Laurie Spiegel records and Gamelan music. “It’s us stretching our creative legs and going down a rabbit hole,” Albert says. “I don’t think we could have done that in the EP world.”

After the release of Light Moving Time two years ago, Bon and Albert felt good about what they had made and weren’t feeling like anything was left unsaid or any kind of production was left uninterrogated. Albert had been noticing, at shows, that some of the new material they’d already been working on brought forward an exciting energy that he wanted to pursue further, too. “After Light Moving Time, we did a fair amount of touring and I was thinking about what feels really good to play in a live setting,” he says. “Songs like ‘Chariot’ and ‘Birdseye’ definitely feel so good to play live. I think I was chasing that a little bit more with some of the guitar parts on Water’s Here in You.” Likewise, Bon found herself feeling particularly galvanized by how her and Albert’s chemistry and partnership flourished then, and the options that that momentum had given them felt both rejuvenating and limitless. “It quickly became evident that there was a whole world available to us to explore—between our collaborative songwriting—that was such an exciting trampoline to bounce on,” she says. “It ended up being that we had a whole avenue that we were able to take.”

Bon and Albert live together in Hudson, New York—a 6,000-person city two hours north of the Big Apple. It was there, at their home, where the collaborative affection warming the coals of Water’s Here in You began to run aglow in more vibrant ways than ever before. A particularly momentous thing occurred when Bon began hearing Albert noodle on some guitar lines around the house, which would quickly become a first stepping stone for them both—leading to the foundation of a song like “Chariot,” which is carried by a riff that Albert wrote more than a decade ago while he was still in college. “I had said for years that I really liked guitar lines that Ryan had been working on, but we’d said it explicitly—a few times—that those are Ryan’s songs that he might, one day—” “In a million years,” Albert interjects, laughing. “—write a song with,” Bon continues. “He sometimes writes songs—and I love his songs, too—so I didn’t want to overstep and say, ‘Can I write a song with you with that?’”

There’s a warmth shared between Bon and Albert that radiates across Water’s Here in You. They are not just a couple who also happen to make and perform music together. Rather, they hold reverence for each other’s talents in a quantity that certainly could never be defined by something numerical. The work and love they hold is spiritual and embedded deep within their personhood—and it arrives symbiotic and nurtured here across these 12 songs. But even just speaking with them for a moment, you get the sense that Water’s Here in You only scratches the surface of their musical relationship together, that it’s an outlet for them that is often indescribable—though they certainly do their best to make sense of it for the rest of us.

“I was just messing around with that [‘Chariot’] riff, and Maya was like ‘Let’s think about this,’ and it was exciting for me,” Albert says. “It was exciting to watch Maya’s songwriting brain turn on in a different way. I’ve watched her write a million fantastic songs on the spot. I was there when she wrote ‘Fugazi’ and ‘Often.’ Everything else, I was probably in the room or within ear-shot. [‘Chariot’] was an awesome experience of watching her come up with these melodies that, maybe, she wouldn’t have normally thought about if she was playing guitar. Especially on a song like ‘Birdseye,’ I was playing this guitar part and the way that she was able to bounce the melody around—I feel like it just maybe wouldn’t have come as naturally if she was playing it on guitar. I feel like we were able to open up a new dimension.”

“Ryan’s chord choices are things that I would not play, mostly because Ryan is a great guitarist—he has spent years working on guitar, in more of a deep way than I have spent with guitar,” Bon adds. “I’ve played guitar since middle school, but I play guitar to sing. I play as an avenue through which I can make a song. So, often, I end up getting—I don’t want to say stuck, but it is a little bit stuck, where I’ll spend years working on the same kind of pattern. This album, Water’s Here in You, I think what makes it so unique is that these are not predictable songs. I would never have written these songs if it weren’t for Ryan, and he would have never written these songs if it weren’t for me. And we have very, very different ears. But, together, we can create something where I would be like, ‘Actually, hold that chord longer!’ or ‘Don’t do that riff!’ We are co-writing the chords as we go. The chorus of ‘Chariot,’ those are classic Maya chords. But what makes these songs so good is they really are both of us being represented.”

On Water’s Here in You, Bon’s songwriting takes a particularly beautiful leap—as she commands syntax in really stimulating ways, including intentionally spacious pronunciations and sublime repetitions. It’s noticeable throughout the record, but it takes a really sunny shape on “Lightness is Loud”—when Bon sings “Coral, coral, snake, snake / Curl inside me / Soft wool, rough blue / Pearl inside you” twice over. When she recites the song’s title, she admits that she was conjuring a bit of Kurt Vile’s affectations while doing so. “When I hear it, I’m like, ‘Yeah, that is me. I’m cosplaying Kurt,’” she says. When Bon is not making music in Babehoven, she’s exploring her Croatian, Eastern European Jewish and Balkan ancestry—singing in Balkan and Georgian choirs and letting it influence her voice across whatever medium she falls into. (We’re always playing Balkan music,” Albert says of the couple’s home rotation. “It’s very much there.)

In the past, too, Bon has been a very, in her own words, “word-vomit, stream-of-consciousness-style” writer—often pressing play on voice memos and letting the whole song pour out of her before returning to the material and writing down what she liked about it. It’s very editorial, and that’s how some of Babehoven’s favorite songs, like “Often” and “Fugazi,” came to be: having expelled out of her. On Water’s Here in You, however, Bon wasn’t playing guitar, so she turned to her computer instead. “I can type really quickly,” she says, “which is helpful—because I think really quickly when this is happening. I just closed my eyes and these lyrics came out. What makes them unique, too, in this case, is that they’re very visual for me. The coral and the snake and the pearl inside you, the soft wool, the rough blue and lightness is loud—as a concept—I was seeing it all as I was writing it.”

On the production side, Albert is tasked with making arrangements that both nurture and compliment Bon’s patterns and stream-of-consciousness lyricism that she is constantly workshopping and fine-tuning—and he admits that “Lightness is Loud” was one of the more challenging songs on the record to bring across the finish line. “We worked a long time on that song, even though it’s only two-and-a-half minutes,” he says. “We couldn’t figure out what the heck to do for a bridge after the chorus and, funnily enough, we just repeated the intro—which, that should have been our first choice, but it was hard to find.” When Albert is working on songs with Bon, his first mission is to find nooks and crannies for counterpart melodies. It’s why the intro of “Lightness is Loud” arrives so dissonant, though that opening is what makes the track’s chorus stick out so much: It’s consonant, celebratory. “I try to boost up this energetic feel,” Albert continues. “Maya definitely helped with the arrangement because, when I was first playing the guitar part, she was like ‘Whoa, that’s cool, but it’s actually kind of annoying how you’re playing it.’ And I was over-playing; I was being a classical guitar player and adding too much shit. And then she was like ‘Take some of that back,’ and I did—and that left a lot of room for melody.”

Cue an inclusion of a trumpet line wrapped around vocal intoning—which Bon takes the time to hum and sing while speaking about it—in the bridge, which became an element that reminded Albert of Titus Andronicus’ early material—even though it was Bon’s original, organic concept. “I remember that very, very intensely,” she says, “because we couldn’t figure out what to do with the bridge. It was driving us insane.” An early draft of “Lightness is Loud” included a spoken-word bridge that directly referenced Liu Cixin’s novel The Three-Body Problem through Bon and Albert musing, in harmony, “Andromeda style, baby” and “fourth-dimension shit.” “Thankfully, we didn’t do it,” Albert proclaims. That’s not the only out-there reference point that lives in the Babehoven lore, though. When the duo was recording the album, Albert was obsessing over Black Sabbath and System of a Down—even going as far as emulating Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler on “My Best Friend Needs.”

The Water’s Here in You centerpiece, however, lives at the beginning—in “Birdseye,” a folksy reflection on forgiveness and humanity, with motifs delivered on a platter of shimmery, angelic acoustic instrumentation from Albert. When Babehoven began making the album, Bon initially believed that—for the first time—she was going to make music not so immediately informed by familial pain. And, in many ways, Water’s Here in You is canonically not about that at all. “I actually think, in a way, it’s about living,” Bon says, with Albert affirming her. “I’m living right now. I was in a lot of pain when we wrote this album.”

“Birdseye” exists as a true anchor for everything that comes after it, carrying the torch of Bon’s songwriting crux: sharp, thoughtful delineations of how trauma and grief informs whatever follows, giving the record a momentary linear alignment. And Bon’s vocals flutter delicately through pitch, flirting with a falsetto, setting the song’s own reckoning with the mystery of distance and connections and the tokens of gratitude we extend towards those we love and whether there is redemption in forgiveness. Imagery of spices and stews, the song is as aromatic and whole as it is generous and open-ended—existing as a fluid cardinal direction colored by care and intent, penned by Bon after she connected with an estranged family member who’d fallen ill.

“I hadn’t spoken to this family member in 16 years and we thought he was dying,” she says. “It was this very intense moment where I went to go see him—and he’s still alive, thankfully. But, it was this big moment in my life where there were multiple routes I could take. I could have never spoken to him again. There was no right or wrong, in this case. It was like, ‘I have to look at this from as high as I possibly can and see the full landscape.’ As in most complex pain and dynamics, there was no apology. There was no recognition of damage or my feelings or my experience. But I can forgive in that. “I think ‘Birdseye’ is almost like a beacon of what loving can look like through the very tumultuous, painful road of human connection. I think the one thing that we know, definitively, is that humans are complex—we don’t make sense, in many ways. I think I get hung up sometimes on trying to make sense of the people that I’ve had to be close to. I don’t have to be close, I can be way up in the sky, guarded with my arrow—and it’s an arrow of love and it’s an arrow of protection at the same time. I’m in control here.”

Bon admits that none of these thoughts were conscious to her as she was writing the song, that only now, after the fact, is she able to make sense of it. “And I feel grateful, actually, for the opportunity to make reason in the somewhat randomness of it—because, actually, there could be many descriptions of ‘Birdseye’ that I’m also interested in in my own life and in yours and Ryan’s,” she says. “There’s so many ways that I think ‘Birdseye’ can be important without it being about this experience that I just pulled out of a hat because it was that experience.”

The sources of Bon’s inspirations are latent, often hiding away in the depths of her creative brain until they land on the page like a tempest. She’s adamant that there are only a handful of songs that she has intentionally sat down and written, one of them being “Ella’s From Somewhere Else”—which she composed after seeing Squirrel Flower perform a show. Water’s Here in You revels in human relationships, human connection and the precarity of the state of the current world, specifically the perennial environmental disasters we continue to face, and the album holds a balance between pastorals, ecological dread and soft moments of ubiquitous, unharmed tenderness. Bon was an environmental studies major in undergrad—having planned on attending law school for environmental law—and, naturally, it’s a topic that has remained on her mind ever since (and she explains that, likely in her late-30s, she will finally go to law school) and crops up in her musicality often.

“Ella’s From Somewhere Else,” in particular, asks listeners to step into Bon’s wondrous, tangible haven of metaphysical beauty that exists in intimate proximity with flora and fauna and fire. The song charts many dreams and many memories—cornfields, beached whales, spaceships, black holes, “in the magic,” “the place we said goodbye,” Bon’s childhood dog (also named Ella) and the flatness of loss. It’s backed by an acoustic guitar-heavy melody that slowly builds into a full-blown chorus of voices singing “you’re my brother, you’re my family, you are everything to me” over and over, as Albert lends his voice to Bon’s, but only at the very end. And nothing can compare to her singing “Five years old, five years ago, I first loved you—your eyes like I’ve known them forever.”

Though the music of Babehoven is divine, for Bon there is no all-encompassing conclusion that she is trying to reach in her songwriting. And if there is, it’s unnamable and unknowable right now. Instead, she enjoys creating meaning about the songs she’s written. “I almost try to approach it from a playful stance—where I’m like, ‘Okay, this could make sense’ or ‘Well, what do I think this could have meant’ and then I explore it without putting too much weight on creating a meaning,” she says. “I think what I like about songwriting is that I could write a song about literally nothing and someone might feel like that song is the reason that they’re going to change career paths or decide to have a baby. People can create narratives out of whatever you make. What’s so cool about songs is that it actually almost is better to me when someone doesn’t know what they’re doing. They’re writing what they’re writing—it just happens. Sometimes, I have a hard time with the question, initially, of ‘What is that song about?’ because a lot of my songs aren’t about anything in particular. They’re about so much and also nothing.”

And that so much and that nothingness arises in Bon’s fascination with Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty earthwork sculpture stationed on the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Bon’s mom is a land-based artist, working with land art and sculpture, and the Spiral Jetty is crucial to her and to Bon, who adores spirals, the concept of an aerial view and holds close the practice of multiple perspectives. “The concept of the sculpture not really taking shape until you see it from different angles, I think Spiral Jetty is, in a way, a synthesized example of what I’m talking about with songwriting—and just general life, with the bird’s eye view. There’s so many different perspectives and then, when you zoom into the spiral, it’s completely different. The terrain itself is really beautiful and it changes as the tides move. Meaning a lot and meaning nothing is extremely important to me.”

And somewhere in-between those meanings arose Water’s Here in You—a difficult record to make for Bon and Albert both. They don’t divulge specifics of how or why, nor are they required to—only briefly mentioning that the album took longer to finish than they had initially hoped or wanted. But what is particularly moving about that truth is that this album arrives like a tender attempt to grasp at love and understanding and peace through uncertainty. What’s personified across the tracklist is an idea that tumbling through this lifetime is easier when it’s being done in the care of others—when you are allowing yourself to take care of others and be cared for by them, too. It’s impossible for anyone’s affection towards not just songwriting, but towards living to do anything but change when you’re working in such intimate quarters with people who have made an intentional choice to take stock in watching you grow and experience the colors of joy.

Albert points to “Birdseye,” which was completed near the beginning of the recording process for Water’s Here in You, as Babehoven’s breakthrough, “holy shit” moment of tangible, stress-relieving reward. “I think Maya and I can be very particular and, to have something that we love so much that we both did together, just is such a beautiful feeling and something that’s not lost on me that we strive for many days out of the week to have together,” Albert says. “To be present and creative with the person you love the most, it is such a fabulous thing.”

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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