Photo: Holland Brown
Maria Usbeck On 'Envejeciendo,' Finding Gray Hairs & Embracing Aging
Dream-pop performer Maria Usbeck rather serendipitously got her start in music fronting a synth outfit called Selebrities, which she started with her best friend from art school. In 2016, she released her first solo album, Amparo, marking the first time she wrote and recorded in her native Spanish. Last month, on Aug. 16, she returned with an ambitious, beautiful sophomore album (sung primarily in Spanish), Envejeciendo, which means "aging."
Prior to the album's release, we spoke to the Ecuador-born, Brooklyn-based singer over the phone to learn more about its inspiration (spoiler: a friend pointed out some new gray hairs), recording in Spanish and how she's pretty much ready for retirement.
Your new album, Envejeciendo, comes out tomorrow. How are you feeling about finally sharing this project with the world?
It's exciting. It's been about a three-year journey up to completion and for the release of the record. [I'm] eager to see how people respond to the songs and just happy to share these thoughts with everybody.
I always imagine too that when there is a personal journey that goes along with making an album, that when the finished product finally comes out, it can feel a bit surreal.
Yeah, and by the time it does, perhaps you're still fully diving into the thoughts that you wrote about, or perhaps you're completely detached. At this time, I feel like I'm still very much in the same place, so it's good.
The album is centered on aging, but it feels very playful and upbeat, which I love. Can you explain why did you chose to explore this topic?
I had a bit of a crisis when I turned 30. I think everybody goes through this. There's certain stages in life that you just have to take a moment of reflection and be like, "Okay. What am I doing? What is this?" It was because I ran into a friend I hadn't seen in a while and the first thing they said was, "Oh, wow. You have a lot of grays now." And I do have a substantial amount. It's a genetic thing, or maybe it's stress. I'm not sure. I felt bad, obviously. My first reaction was just like, "Oh. Ugh." That's a big deal.
So that spiraled into this moment of contemplation and observation of how I felt, why I felt that way, and it's developed this fascination with the idea. What is aging? What is the moment that we start observing it? Because as children we don't notice these changes. They're not as obvious. But as adults, we contemplate them. We notice the physical changes. We notice that our train of thought is different. We choose to do different activities. We start evolving in that way.
So that's what inspired this record, and also it's just having a few conversations with people while I was on tour and while I was traveling, conversations with my grandmother and my grandpa and just seeing how they changed, and my parents. I don't see my parents more than maybe once a year. Every time I see them, it's a bit of a shock. They just look much older. I had to just write it down. I had to observe it.
Do you feel like working on this project and pondering this concept in a musical format shifted your views around aging?
Yes and no. It's still something that I might feel a certain way about, especially the physical changes. But maybe putting them on paper and just putting sounds to them helped me take a moment to reflect. Whether it had a positive result or a negative result, I'm not 100 percent sure yet. But if it does help somebody that does feel bad about a certain thing, and it's one of the topics of the songs, then I've done my work. That's why it's upbeat, it's meant to be positive, but also at the same time be realistic about what these topics are.
For example, there's a song that talks about technology called "The Machine." This song is putting together this idea of as you get older, you become more and more detached from technology per se. It becomes harder to learn certain technology. Older people at the moment, have difficulty with iPhones. It's this idea that unless technology becomes a part of aging, we grow without it and you're stuck with what was there for you at one point.
Did the second song on the LP, "Un Cabello Gris" ["A Gray Hair"], stem from that initial experience with your friend?
Yes. There's definitely a moment right now to serve the beauty of elderly women and elderly men and gray hairs. There's been a moment in fashion, for example, of the beauty of these elderly people. I think that's amazing. When I started writing the record it wasn't really a thing, but [now] we're seeing it happen, and I think it's just like anything else. You see how a flower dries and dies and ages, and that's a beautiful thing. So why are we so obsessed with youth? Why do we want to stay the same? Is it just the physical appearance? Is it an energy thing? Is it just feeling sad and longing for those moments of energy? On my travels I've met some much, much older people that have the exact same energy that my nieces do. So I think most of it is psychological in a way, you have it in your head that you can make it happen.
Another example is I was reading this really interesting article a little bit ago about this man that was born without this part of the brain that senses pain. He has no limits. He has broken his spine a few times. This guy should be totally immobile, but he's not because he doesn't have the function, the pain itself, so he's walking. It's a marvel to doctors, obviously, like how is this possible. But if you don't feel it, then there's no limitation. Unfortunately unlike him we're all quite limited. Fortunately and unfortunately.
How much is it me thinking that I can't have the same energy that I had in my twenties versus it actually being true? Just reflecting on that and the physical part of how much of it is the emotional changes. Like how they say, "Oh, you're becoming an adult now" because you start thinking about having kids, and you get a real job, et cetera. How much of that is inflicted by society and serves a standard of what is expected of us at different ages, versus how we really feel.
Until I turned 30 last year, I thought, "I have a long time until that happens." Now I wonder if we need to be more open to end of life. Do we need to just be more open to however aging affects our bodies? What are your thoughts on where the mental element of a fear of aging takes us?
It takes ahold, yeah. Definitely something that I looked into is just the increase of the fear of death as you become ill, as when you're in a moment of danger. It's a real thing that people think about and feel. I don't think there's any control to it except that perhaps it's cultural. Again, we're raised to have that fear. I don't think, necessarily, we're born with that. We're born with a fear of what we know, and that is something that we've never experienced, we don't know it. And perhaps that's where it stems from, the not knowing.
But also if you think about every movie that we watch, every piece of literature, there's interpretations. And in different cultures, especially in some tribes, they embrace it. It's that moment that you culminated your life, this is what you came here for, basically. You've done what you need to, you pass and that's that. It's the embracing that I think is very necessary because it helps you to be more present. It helps you to deal with things in reality perhaps without the need of religion, perhaps without the need of this belief of the beyond, because you're here.
You understand that you're here for only a certain amount of time and you don't know how long that is. You live every moment and every day in a more grateful, interesting manner. If you knew how long you were going to live for, if it was a month from now, wouldn't you spend every single day just having the best time? Obviously there's limitations to that. We all live within a certain society, we have to pay bills, et cetera. But it's interesting to think about that. It's endless.
On "Amor Anciano," you included your grandmother's voice.
Yes. I had to. She passed away last summer, actually out of nowhere. It was pretty shocking because we were expecting her to outlive my grandpa. So my grandpa is now alone, and it's been hard, but he's doing a little bit better. One of the last conversations that I had with her I, luckily, recorded. And it was an interesting conversation because I had had a similar one in New Zealand with this man, an older person as well, and he's talking about this idea of a long lost love, the what if had I done this versus what I chose to do with my life, and I think that's something that we all think about. It's not so much the regret part of it as versus the longing part of it, like what if I had been with this person [instead]. What if I would have chosen a completely different career?
My grandma, who was a very emotionally in touch person, very outspoken, just went off on one of her speeches about all of her youth and all of these men that chased her and wanted to marry her in front of my grandpa. I thought it was hilarious; you get to that point in your marriage and then life that jealousy is not even a real thing anymore because you've been together for 40-something years. It's totally okay to joke about that and talk about it. He would just laugh.
I thought it was so special that she pushed upon the same topic and this idea of the "what if," which is valuable because we make these choices. We choose where we live, to an extent, if we have the means, or we were escaping from something. Talk about immigration, just making decisions to move to a different country and try a different way of life. These are all decisions that we make, and we do, and later in life we can reflect upon and hopefully we're comfortable with them. But it's a thought that might come back. Like, "Oh, I forgot about this person that I met when I was 20-something. What if it was them?" Right? It's a love song in a way.
What was the biggest piece of advice that she gave you that stuck with you over the years?
That's a good question. She never really gave me any advice whatsoever. She just wasn't the type of person. She lived in dreams, my grandma. She liked to read. And then she liked to just have conversations, none of them included any advice, which is nice. I never really asked her either. I've never been that kind of person myself. Not even with my parents. But that's me.
She sounds like she was a very just thoughtful and intuitive person. Is there something about her that stuck with you? Or, by adding her voice to this song, an older woman's perspective, do you feel like it shifted the song?
There's definitely some statements that stuck with me through the years. I wouldn't call them advice necessarily, but more just general observations of life. Her attitude towards death, for example, was very memorable and impressive in a way, despite the fact that I'm not a religious person. The way that she put it together didn't really feel that specific to any religion. It was more of just this idea of energy and having to evolve to the next space and how if it was time, it was time. She was really ill a few years before, and I remember her saying that, "If it's time for me, then it's time for me to go." And she seemed very calm. If anything that really stuck with me is this idea of just calmness and being able to control yourself in that way. It's impressive.
That comes across on the album. You're exploring end of life, aging, things that can feel very heavy, but there's a calmness throughout it, even as some of the sonic elements add texture or intensity. It still feels like an album that you could listen to poolside.
Yeah. That was obviously on purpose. Since the topic is so heavy, some of the songs especially, I wanted it to feel calm. There's people that are going to listen to this album that don't speak Spanish, or they don't speak English as well, and they might not get the idea whatsoever. So what do they hold onto? That's how I feel when I listen to songs in other languages that I don't understand. What I hold onto is those melodies, and there's a feeling with a melody. If you can somehow connect that feeling of the message of this song with the melody, then I think you've done your job. It's pretty impressive, and I think most successful songs do that. It's hard to do, but I think if you can manage to do it, it's impactful.
Also, we are seeing a lot more Spanish-language music becoming popular and charting in the U.S., which makes me happy.
Yeah, it's great.
A lot of times I get lyrics, even in English, wrong in my head. I feel like music is way more of a mood for me, so it's cool when there's different layers to connect to.
And you're making it your own if you're coming up with your own lyrics. I think that's so special. I grew up in Ecuador, and whenever I would hear songs in English, before I really knew English well, I would make up whatever and it was my own thing. And it took me years to realize that I was wrong. It makes it more special. It's like that Ace of Base song, "The Sign." I thought it was "I saw the sun."
I thought that too!
Yeah, exactly. See, and you speak English [natively], so it's totally fine. It's their Swedish accent. It's still good. There's a value to the song standing on its own regardless of the lyrics, right? It's the melody.
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What music did you listen to and love when you were younger growing up in Ecuador?
Like every other child in the universe, I was just like, "My parents like boring stuff," like folkloric music. My mom was super into ABBA. My dad was into the Beatles and all this stuff. I was just, "I don't like any of that," so I started getting into Brit-pop. I started getting into techno and dance, all this European and American music, and purposefully not listening to any salsa, or anything like that. It would be played out. At parties in high school, it was there. We would dance to it. It was a part of life, but I was like, "No, I want to listen to goth music," like every teenager out there.
But I liked it, and now it's all nostalgic. I think it's also awesome how, for example reggaeton, which is something that came out after I left high schoo,l has become so massive in this country. I used to complain a few years ago with some of my Hispanic friends here in Brooklyn. We were like, "Every time we go out it's just this English music. I wish they'd play some salsa, some merengue, something more upbeat. We got to go find that." Now you go out and bam, reggaeton. It's awesome, it's like someone was listening to our wishes and they made it come true. It's pretty cool.
And like you were saying, the Spanish music scene right now is big. It's grown significantly since I put out my first record. When I put out Amparo [in 2016], I was like, "This is crazy. No one's doing this. No one's going to like this. But I love it." And I just stuck with that. And [now] there's all these different levels of indie musicians or bigger musicians [singing in Spanish]. It's so cool.
That's such an interesting point because when you put out Amparo, you were switching from performing in English with Selebrities to singing primarily in Spanish, correct?
What did it feel like for you?
It was just unreal how good it felt. At first, it was difficult because I had only written music in English. So there was a bit of a gap. Before I started traveling, going to all these places, I would just be fully immersed in Spanish again so my brain could go to that place. Once I was there, it was a breeze. It felt so natural, and it made me really happy. I was like, "Wow." It's almost like this whole time, as fluent as I am in English and as perfect as it may be, it still feels like I'm playing a little bit of a character. And people always tell me, though, when I speak Spanish I sound a lot more serious. The reason for that I think is because I take it seriously because it's my first tongue. I know my English will never be 100 percent perfect, but my Spanish has to be. You know what I mean? It's a pride thing.
"It was just unreal how good it felt… It's almost like this whole time, as fluent as I am in English and as perfect as it may be, it still feels like I'm playing a little bit of a character."
More Spanish-language artists are becoming huge, like Bad Bunny, J Balvin, Rosalía. While they all speak some English, they're like, "We're performing in Spanish because why do we have to perform in English?" I think that is sending such a positive message. It feels so refreshing versus the idea that everything needs to be in English in order to be consumed on a global scale.
It's really shocking how it's changed because for longer than I can remember—a perfect example of this is somebody like Shakira or J. Lo. Through the '90s they could have totally released songs in Spanish, and they chose to do English just because they wanted to get into the U.S. market, the big money maker market. So it was a choice. And who knows if they would have chosen to do [all] their songs in Spanish, if they would have had the same success. We'll never know.
Someone like Selena, for example. She had originally written "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom" as a song in English, something about fish. I just read about this. They decided to do the song in Spanish, and it blew up in the Spanish market. I don't think she was that successful in the English-speaking market. But yeah, it definitely was a choice. But by now, I think there's a lot more freedom because we've seen it happen and we've seen that it works. I think that's giving everybody a little bit more confidence to release the songs as they please.
I want to return to Envejeciendo. What really stood out to me about the journey of the album was how it opens with "Adios A Mi Memoria." The initial noise is jarring at first, and then the song goes into the calmer pace of the rest of the album. And you close with the appropriately named "Nostalgia." Can you talk about how you built the album out, maybe how you picked the order of the songs or which sounds you chose to explore in each song?
The order wasn't really defined from the beginning, unlike my last record, which I wrote chronologically. This one I jumped around a little bit just because I wanted to give the songs, and my brain, a little bit of time in between, so I could go back and really listen and make changes. The order itself came to me later on. The reason why it's in that order is mostly musical. I think the songs flow really nicely in that order.
But it's purposely that "Adios A Mi Memoria" is the first song because of that intro and because of the message itself. I think memory loss is one of the hugest things that we associate with age. It's also something that the sound itself is trying to convey that split-second where you can't remember something and it's a shock. You're like, "What? Why can't I ... I know it's in there." And you can't remember. I'm not sure exactly the chemical reaction that's happening in there, but that's what it sounds like to me. It's just like, "What? Why can't I access this piece of information?" It's terrifying. That's why that one's the first one.
"Nostalgia" is the last because I think it just embraces what everything really comes down to, which is this feeling, the missing of something. You might miss your memory or your physical appearance. You might miss things from childhood or that toaster. You might miss all of these things. That's what nostalgia's all about, the missing, the longing. That was why the order of the songs is like that. I thought of so many other things to write about, one of them being the biological clock. I'm a woman in my thirties and okay, the clock is ticking. It's a huge thing, but I just felt it was a little too personal at the time for me to write it down. I freaked out a little bit about that. It's such a vast topic. Aging is just endless.
One of my favorite tracks on the record is "Secret in Japan," and it's talking about the way that aging is perceived in Japan. It's a lot more spiritual, a lot more ingrained in society. There seems to be this more poetic view of looking at it. At the same time it's about all these little pockets in the world, these blue spots in the world where people live till they're a hundred and over. What are the factors that are allowing these people to live so long? Looking into it and doing research and being in a couple of these places, I'm just like, "I have no idea." I say that in this song as well because there's just so many things, and it could be nothing at all. Maybe it's just genetic and you got lucky. It's wild how there's just so much to talk about and so little time.
Zooming back a little bit, I know we talked about some of the music you listened to growing up, but did you have any musical idols, and was there someone specifically that you looked to that made you feel like you had a place in music?
I love his voice.
Yeah, his amazing voice, but also just his choices, just as far as the diversity of the music. He did those records in Africa as well. He really just dived into so many different genres and I find that really impressive. It takes a certain kind of brain to be able to do that and be that diverse with yourself.
As an adult, to be honest, I've been looking back quite a lot and listening to salsa, then listening to a little bit of everything. I'm a huge Japanese '80s fan, like the YMO [Yellow Magic Orchestra] guys. It's just all of those people from the past that I've always had in my headphones and in my brain since forever. Anything can really influence you, and that's just other music. Birds and the ocean and nature. Nature's the first music composer.
When did you start making music? Did you learn an instrument or sing when you were a kid, or was it not until you moved to New York? I'm curious as to when the musical bug bit you.
As a child I was forced to go to piano lessons. She took me when I was six because there's a conservatory run by nuns where my sister was already going to learn piano. It was terrifying. I was a really introverted, shy little girl. I started crying nonstop, and then she was like, "Okay. You're not ready." We went back when I was seven and she just left me there. I learned piano until I was 11 or 12, and then I rebelled. I hated it with such passion. And maybe that's just like your future, and being stuck playing these classical songs that you don't really find that interesting. Now I do obviously, but as a kid I wasn't that interested in them. So I stopped completely after 11 or 12.
And then it wasn't until art school that my best friend was like, "I taught myself how to play guitar." And I'm like, "What? When? That's cool." "Hey, don't you know how to play the keyboard?" And I was like, "I don't really remember." And he's like, "Why don't we just get one where we can just mess around." And then it led to, "Hey, don't you know how to sing?" I'm like, "I don't," and he's like, "Yeah, you do." So you could say I was peer pressured into the whole thing various times, but then I quickly realized, "Whoa. This is really helping with my shyness and my introversion." It's a really good output for me creatively. I really enjoy it. The whole speech thing took a while, but now I like it. I mean, I still get a little nervous, but it feels good. It's good therapy for me.
And then when you were making music with your friend, when did it shift from being just for fun to more of "Maybe I should try to share this music with other people or record it," or what not?
We started my band together, the one that we had in my 20s, Selebrities. It happened that we moved to New York together after art school and we met our third band member, this guy Max, and he helped us produce everything because we were using GarageBand or whatever, super lo-fi. And then, as a joke, we put it up on a blog and it got picked up, and it started getting blogged about everywhere. Next thing you know we're getting emails and calls from labels. We're like, "Wait a second. What's going on?" And then next thing we know we have to play a show. We had no idea how, but we figured it out. Again, peer pressure. I almost threw up at the first show, but then I was like, "Okay. I like this. This is fun."
You couldn't escape music. It came to you.
Yes. I mean, you've got to do it. You've done all that effort already. Yeah. I didn't want to disappoint them. It became a thing.
I noticed on social media you talk about wishing you were retired and I think even your Instagram tagline is something about waiting for retirement, which is cute.
I'm exhausted. Don't you feel like that? You're just like, "Ugh." Every time you go on vacation, you're just like, "This is what's up."
Like, "How do I do this forever?"
Yeah, I know. It feels so good, especially for somebody like me that wants to just write a bunch of music and not have to worry about paying bills. That would be incredible. And have all the time in the world. But it's not realistic, obviously, whatever. Yeah, Mom and Dad, chill out. They're always just like, "Don't quit your day job." I haven't. That's the unfortunate state of the music industry, we're all just trying to get by.
It is a really interesting balance and dynamic where, I think, the best music comes from a place of authenticity, of being able to live your life and have the freedom to record what you feel. But then there's the other side of it, which a lot of artists talk about, the hustle. You have to tour. You have to get in the studio maybe when you don't feel like it. Sometimes you have to jumpstart the creative process.
Yeah. To play a devil's advocate there, honestly some songs come out of that frustration and that exhaustion, and they're amazing songs. Some favorite songs that I've written were definitely after working till 10 p.m. on whatever job and being super tired and just having to write about it. I mean, if somebody was like, "Hey, Maria. You can retire now and here's a bunch of money, and we just want to hear more music from you," I'd be like, "Okay, where do I sign?"
So you would still be making music when you're retired at least?
Oh, yeah. I think I'll make music forever. Whether I'll release it or not, we'll see. It's something that I just enjoy so much. Just like making sound. It's so fun.
What do you hope your legacy will be as an artist?
I'm not sure. If there was a category or type of genre that was more related to music that was about researching topics, meanings, I hope that's me. I really love and enjoy writing these concept albums that are about something specific. I hope that's what I can leave behind, more specific songs about certain things. At one point or other, after writing a million love songs, I was like, "I'm over it." It became a little obsession to just find these topics and find these things that I find interesting that I think hopefully other people do as well.
You can be the professor of this new genre.
No way. [Laughs.] I think there's a challenge to it that I really enjoy. It's challenging and that's why I like it. I love learning. It's the best, keeps your brain active.
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Hope everyone is chillaxing and enjoying summer a little despite the current state of things. Just wanna say that Envejeciendo has been the most challenging album I've written so far. Not just because of the classic sophomore slump (which is real) but also because I chose such a sensitive, deep and uncomfortable topic....aging. Thank you to everyone listening and reviewing the record. May it age gracefully. @pitchfork review link in bio. Pic by @cashmeremoshpit