How Maria BC Let Go of Their Past Lives

We spoke with the Oakland singer/songwriter about character-led album narratives, psychopomps, the beauty of invasive species and their brand new LP, Spike Field.

Music Features Maria BC
How Maria BC Let Go of Their Past Lives

Growing up is hard to do. For Maria BC, that means more than just getting older. It means shedding their past lives. At 22, I share the same sentiment of not recognizing who I was even a year ago. Understanding who we are is life’s most complex mission but, to have a truly complete sense of self, we must look back before going forward. Maria BC aimed to solve that difficult inner battle on their sophomore album Spike Field.

The journey began for the classically trained musician in the hallowed pews of an Ohio church where their father was a pianist. While being raised in the atmosphere of Ohio—the birthplace of many rockstars—didn’t seem to impact them directly, the way they were raised bleeds into their music unconsciously in ways they just can’t quite explain. Throughout their youth, Maria sang in church and then took voice lessons throughout high school. The rigid training evaporated when they began to create for themselves. “I want to sing in a way that feels more freeing to me and more organic,” Maria says. Music permeates all types of religions and exists as a way to connect people through feeling and emotional space, and that unspoken language remains buried in all of Maria BC’s work.

Although music has always been in their life, the moniker of Maria BC wasn’t born until they graduated college and moved into the cozy isolation of their Brooklyn apartment during the pandemic. Their first complete collection of songs came out of, what they describe as, an extraordinary urgency to create. In 2020, all many of us could do was think, and Maria was desperate to extract those thoughts from their head and make them into art. In a unique setting, sharing walls with roommates, they were forced to sing in a hushed whisper, creating the subdued nature of Devil’s Rain. While the world was on fire, they found those fleeting moments apt to craft intimate expressions of isolation in the soft tone of their debut EP.

Just over a year later, the moody musical experiment evolved into more than just the quiet musings of an artist compelled to create, with the multi-instrumentalist’s first LP, Hyaline. One year after the world set ablaze, all anyone craved was the intimacy of connection. Now living alone, Maria BC found that kind of attachment through telling stories with character-led narratives. A step forward from the simplicity of Devil’s Rain, the follow-up remained quiet but rejected simplicity with a layered production filled with human sounds: scratches, panting and whispers. For something so subdued, it still entrances and demands your attention, something the singer continues to capture on Spike Field.

Now, three years removed from solitude, we have all fallen back into the flow of human interaction. Maria BC has spent much of that time with friends just existing. Something interesting happens when friends stay up late and are a bit sleep-deprived—a barrage of mindless babble arrives when we are most vulnerable. Those mindless topics for Maria BC and their friends are a bit more cerebral than anything I would ever discuss. For them one night, it was nuclear semiotics or the idea of what fundamental elements of communication are clear to human beings once language, societal standards and the concept of the time have all been removed. “I was listening to her talk about creating menacing earthworks—like horrible environmental architecture to warn people in the far future, without using any language, that they should not settle or build or work with this land beneath which radioactive waste had been disposed of,” Maria says. “I woke up the next day thinking about it and just became a little obsessed with it.”

Hyaline protected Maria BC’s inner conflict of self through character-led narratives, but Spike Field has them ready to bare their soul. When they began writing the album, everything coming up felt deeply personal and wasn’t as powerful coming from someone else’s voice. One of the first songs they wrote for the album helped them realize it was time to share their own stories directly. “‘Return to Sender’ is expressly about a loved one very, very close to me who’s going through this really intense, psychotic episode,” Maria explains. “I couldn’t respond, because it was just impossible to accurately track down her return address. I don’t think someone else needs to be narrating this. This is my voice. And I need to own up to that.”

Leaving behind the crammed quarantine-era bedroom and tiny New York City loft for an expansive, quiet space with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, Maria BC began to create Spike Field. Hidden in a family friend’s Berkeley Hills home was an old, out-of-tune Steinway piano with squeaky hammers and a history of its own. “There was still masking tape on the tenor octave of the white keys with the note names, leftover from when my friend was a child and learning,” Maria says. “It was endearing. I am super attracted to human sounds and recordings and old things in general. It was a really special instrument to get to play. It felt like you could hear the history in it.” The piano makes its mark on “Tied,” especially with its off-kilter tuning (or lack thereof) flair masterfully directed by Maria BC. “God knows I wish you could turn back time / Hold me in all that I was / all I revise now,” they sing. The track is a tender and compassionate reconciliation of their childhood self, similar to the ambient singer’s admiration for the piano’s history rather than a disgust of it.

So much of the ambient folk artist’s music has a visceral attachment to space, and recording in this house stuck in time created the perfect setting to track Spike Field’s themes of the deep conflict—the push and pull between looking forward and honoring your past. The piano was one consistent bubble Maria BC operated in. Still trying to access their inner juvenile years, they were drawn to their childhood friend’s bedroom, looking for the ghost of another youth trapped in the bed’s fabric where they dreamed of the future. “There was a gorgeous view through the window—this lattice pattern of vines. It just felt warm and ideal,” Maria adds. That particular warmth is heard in the album’s opening track, “Amber,” with its melancholic strings and the gentle comfort of Maria BC’s vocals as they sing “Her scent is on me now / Her senses draw me out / There is no place to hide and no wrong.”

The nostalgia of Spike Field is the motions of hurt felt when you can never get back to your past, and Maria BC is at a point in their life where it is hard to reflect without being ashamed of who they were. However, they remain fascinated with how memory invades the present, whether we like it or not. Like so many young artists, they look to different forms of media to reconcile with the pain of growing up. “I think a lot of it has to do with how adolescence and childhood get refracted through art,” Maria notes, having discovered Jennifer Reeder’s films and their explorations of girlhood and letting it impact their own journey of self-discovery and identity. “She made this series of short films about teenage girls,” Maria adds. “Young girlhood felt so beautiful, and it was so respectful of the ways that adolescence is about figuring things out and not having any answers. Shit like that makes you feel compassionate for naïveté.”

Stuck in a similar part of life between girlhood and womanhood, I felt a deep connection with the album’s story of learning to give yourself grace for where you came from to get where you are going. There is a unique pain in nostalgia when you are too young to appreciate how far you have come that I look forward to seeing blossom into compassion as I age. Maria BC feels similar pain in the soft acoustics of “Still.” “I wrote a piano part for it when I was 16 and just never forgot it. Because I liked it, I guess, I just kind of developed the muscle memory around it,” they mention. The songs on Spike Field, especially “Still,” boast a perfect intersection of sound and memory, and they speak greatly of historical connections within Maria BC’s catalog.

“I had this idea of, as both a therapeutic and formal exercise, reaching back into a body of work from a long time ago and trying to see if I could redeem that into something I would be proud of now—see if that would make me feel more integrated with that version of myself,” they say. “And so, out of that came ‘Still,’ where the lyrics are directly addressed to my childhood self and take the form of a love letter saying I know, and see all of the things that you feel shame about. I see you for who you really were, and you’re still with me, for sure. In my life, I struggle with feeling like I have a coherent or core self. I always think that even a past version of myself as recently as a year ago is not me anymore. I don’t want people to remember that person as me. I don’t want to feel that way. It’s like a really shameful and unbecoming and unnecessary feeling to hold on to.”

In one of the many efforts to confront their past self, the album’s second track, “Watcher,” leans on longtime friends to provide the choral vocals that echo Maria BC’s childhood in church. “I held my peace far too long,” they belt in catharsis, over softly plucked strings that unlock a dust-covered door to retrospect. Communication comes easier through music for Maria BC. “I have a troubled relationship to language, and I often feel frustrated when trying to express myself verbally,” they confess. “But in music, I feel like it gets much closer to that place of it being a one-to-one or an umbilical cord—where the self and others can be experiencing the same thing, or at least give the illusion of that.”

Although the songwriter has some of the most poignant lyrics I have heard in a long time, they still lean towards nonverbal cues in their music to communicate, like in the album’s two instrumental tracks, “[A Backlit Door]” and “Lacuna.” While both are similar in that they are wordless, they each have two very different purposes on the album: “[A Backlit Door]” is a stinging, eerie electronic track akin to what I imagine the silence at the end of the world to sound like. At just under a minute, it interrupts the peace of “Watcher” to flow seamlessly into “Haruspex,” where Maria BC’s vocals deviate from the softness at the beginning of the album to take on a deep richness that haunts as much as it mesmerizes. “Lacuna,” however, opens with the soft tingling of a wind chime transporting us back to our youth—only to rip us through time with the whirring repetition of vocals into that Berkeley Hills home with the out-of-tune piano. It’s deep, mysterious and melodramatic—something Maria BC intends always to have present in their music.

The nonverbal cues don’t stop just sonically. Imagery is a huge part of Maria BC’s art, too—and the album’s title alone should invoke a certain feeling. “[A spike field is] a powerful image on its own. A field of irregularly sized and angled spikes that serve as a warning. That’s really important to me in my work that there be images that people can hold on to” they say. Perhaps their desire to have imagery to hold on to in their music comes from being bathed in iconography during their formative musical years, or maybe it is just a way for them to communicate beyond language in another form. One of the most potent images aside from the album’s namesake lies in “Haruspex,” which, by definition, is a person in ancient Rome trained to practice a form of divination called haruspicy—where they inspect the entrails of sacrificed animals. “Always on my mind: is my body right? / A pound of flesh / A dime for the haruspex,” Maria BC sings. “That line ‘is my body, right?,’ I was trying to hold a bunch of different anxieties within that,” they tell me. “One of them being my anxieties around gender, how the world interprets me and how I can better discipline my body to be more in line with how I longed to be perceived. I held on to that line, ‘is my body, right?,’ because I felt like it encapsulated anxiety—and so many people could infuse it with their own anxieties or hold on to it in some way, too.”

In “Tied,” Maria sings the line “Weaving home through man-made woods / That seed in fire.” The image comes from their experience with something as simple as the controversial yet beautiful Tasmanian blue gum—a eucalyptus tree present where they live. They were inspired by how these trees are a constant threat of wildfire. The presence of this invasive species has fueled debate for years, but there is a certain beauty in the dangerous for Maria BC. “What excites me is trying to express how you can feel multiple things at once and how a thing can be multiple things at once,” they say. “The eucalyptus trees were born of settler colonialism and destruction. As gorgeous as they are when I’m going for a walk, they give me shade and smell great. I appreciate them and their beauty, but only more disruption will come from them—it can be both things at the same time.”

In the second to last track, “Mercury,” the journey of self-exploration is exhaled through a sigh of relief now that you have reached the end of life. While the entity of “Mercury” has many meanings—the planet, the element, the god—Maria BC had a specific interpretation in mind to close out the album: “When I was writing that song, I was referring to Mercury the psychopomp—the being that carries you across the river when you die—and the song is supposed to refer to this moment where you experience the release of all of the painful memories of your life and suddenly you’re like slipping into oblivion.” Yet, “Mercury” sits as the most anthemic song on the album, with soaring vocals and the cheeriest beat you’ll find on Spike Field. But the darkest notion lies under the surface, a darkness that Maria BC personifies best. They are raw and honest and unafraid of talking about things the rest of us are too scared to say out loud. But they create enough space to show us how okay it is to feel these ways about yourself.

When Maria BC is singing, they are dissolving and soaring all at once, with the desire for destruction but the need to reconcile with days now gone. That notion comes to a close with the album’s final track, “Spike Field.” The gentle sting of each piano note indicates a hopeful curiosity for where we are headed—with the delicate hum of the vocals drifting in, reading a warning sign in an effort to atone for the vile acts of our old selves and the orbits we embrace or admonish: “Blight along this road / Here in your time as in ours.” While we are locked in arms with the persistent future, Maria BC has shown that we can still learn to revel in reflection and reckoning—if only by holding peace in our memories, just as they have across the enigmatic ambiance of Spike Field.

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