Interview with Maryjo Mattea
by Molly Guillermo
There are few ways to describe the genre of Maryjo Mattea’s music, mostly because she experiments with different tempos and chord changes, as well as rap features and guitar tones. But don’t mistake her music for excessive or muddled—her voice balances her music and creates a harmony very few artists can pull off. Her music is a hybrid blend of pop and rock, and her voice is the charismatic connection between the three. The local artist is a local indie rock icon—listening to Mattea is like listening to a significantly more refined version of Courtney Love. And if, you know, Courtney were also a social scientist and Zumba teacher. She’s backed by Scott Manley on drums, Joshua Hunter on guitar, and Eamonn Donnelly on bass, all of whom are essential to the mix—no one is ever truly a solo act.
Good storytelling is in the details, which is demonstrated by her lyrics, that are at times existential, and at times meditations on love and relationships. The emotional truth of her lyrics reveal the importance of women artists—they offer a fresh perspective of what it means to be a musician in the political context of DC.
Alchemical Records: How did you initially get into making music and how long have you been doing it?
Maryjo Mattea: If you want to start from the very beginning, I started making music when I was about seven. There’s a scene in the Tom Hanks movie, Big, where he and his boss play “Heart and Soul” with their feet on a giant floor keyboard at FAO Schwartz. Apparently, after watching that scene I went to my room and figured out how to play it on my Muppet Babies keyboard. My parents were then convinced that I was some kind of musical prodigy and enrolled me in piano lessons. I started singing in choir in middle school and wrote my first songs when I was about 13. I begged my parents to let me take a guitar class in 10th grade and they bought me a cheap POS junker guitar from a pawn shop for it (which I still own). I also started singing competitively in high school. Despite all these years of musical training and experience, I didn’t actually have the guts to play my original music in front of anyone until I was in my mid-20s. I was a grad student at Penn State in State College, PA and the owners of a tiny tea shop there offered me a gig and I haven’t stopped writing and performing since.
AR: What are the most important themes in your music?
MM: I’ve historically used songwriting as a vehicle for expressing emotions that are so intense, that I feel like I might explode if I can’t get them out of my brain and onto a page. Anger, infatuation, frustration, obsession—these states would consume me if not for the act of channeling them into music. I struggle with clinical depression and a fair amount of that finds its way into my songs–songwriting has been both a means of managing this condition as well as a way of communicating what the experience is like.
AR: Tell me about where you grew up and how that reflects in your sound.
MM: I grew up in suburban Fort Lauderdale, FL in the ’90s. I don’t necessarily think that geographic location informed my sound as much as the time period. I watched a lot of MTV growing up (back when it was MUSIC Television) and listened to a lot of alternative radio. Alternative, grunge, and pop punk are so inextricably a part of my musical psyche; these styles seem to subconsciously influence nearly everything I do musically.
AR: How does DC influence your sound and how do you see yourself in that space?
MM: I moved to DC in 2011 for a job. (I’m a social scientist by day.) Whether or not you work in politics, it permeates every aspect of the culture of this city. People here host watch parties for the State of the Union address rather than the Oscars. Bars name cocktails after controversial political figures and offer drink specials for each new salacious scandal. For the most part, I would say my music has been relatively apolitical, but I had such an intense, visceral emotional response to the results of the 2016 election–which was influenced largely by my election night experience at a neighborhood bar here in DC–that I had to write a song to express that grief and frustration. I’m not sure that I would have written that song had I not spent election night in a DC bar surrounded by other DC residents. Aside from that, I’d say one big thing I’ve learned since moving here is that the conception that people in DC “are what they do,” is wholly inaccurate. I can’t count the number of friends for whom I have no idea what they do for a living and it’s because it simply isn’t the only thing (or even the most important thing) that defines them. In that respect, I feel like I fit in pretty well here. I’m not just Maryjo, the social scientist; or Maryjo, the musician; or Maryjo, the Zumba instructor (yes, I do that too!)—I’m all of these things and no single one defines me.
AR: What is it like being a successful woman artist in a male-dominated industry, and what would be your advice to aspiring women artists?
MM: A pain in the ass! LOL. But seriously, it’s tough. I perform in a lot of bands and I’m the only woman in most of them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been assumed to be part of an entourage as opposed to a member of the group. But times are changing and things do seem to be getting a little bit better for us. In DC and across the globe there are now groups devoted to supporting and advancing women in music and publications and playlists that focus exclusively on female and non-binary artists. In DC, I find a great sense of camaraderie with other female artists; we have each other’s backs and empathize with each other’s struggles. My advice to aspiring women artists would be to find these networks and embrace them because without them, it’s an intimidating, frustrating, and lonely arena in which to share your art and bare your soul.
AR: How would you describe your music to someone who’s never heard it before?
MM: I like to call it the perfect blend of polished pop and raw rock! There’s definitely some heavy 90s alternative influence as well. I get a lot of comparisons to Alanis Morissette, Liz Phair, and Jenny Lewis.
AR: What artists do you look up to?
MM: I am OBSESSED with The Beatles. I saw The Beatles Anthology on TV when I was in 9th grade and it changed my life forever. They are by far and away my #1 influence. Alanis Morissette is also another major influence of mine. She was a woman who made angry, angsty, intense music that didn’t sound like anything else like what other women at the time were doing and it was exactly what I needed to hear when I was fourteen years old. Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard is also one of my favorite songwriters of all time; I long to see the world the way he sees it.
AR: Are you releasing new music soon?
MM: Yes! I have a new single coming out NEXT WEEK called “A New Normal,” another one due out sometime this summer called, “Candlelight and Roses,” and an EP that should be ready before the end of the year. I’m also supposed to get my hands on the live recordings from my solo set at last summer’s DC Music Rocks Festival at the 9:30 Club at some point and plan to release both the audio and video from that show. Finally, my band is recording a couple live in-studio songs this month. We’ll be releasing both the audio and video from that session as well.
AR: What are your biggest challenges as an independent musician in DC?
MM: I struggle with how to reach new people, expand my fan base, and get these people out to shows. For as supportive as the DC music scene is, that support is very insular, by which I mean artists support other artists, but generally speaking, the appetite for original live music in this town seems to pale in comparison to other places. Cover shows sell out while acts that write and perform original music have to be hounded by venues for their shows not having any advance ticket sales and barely earning enough to cover the costs of operating the event. I haven’t figured out how to address this issue. How do we incite a love of ORIGINAL music in this town? After all, the cover band scene can only be successful for as long as there is original music to cover! While many folks just re-locate to other cities to advance their artistry, that seems like a bit of a cop-out. I want to know how we can make things better where we are rather than simply throwing our hands up at the problem and concluding that “DC just isn’t a music town.” I’d love to hear from your readers if they have any thoughts on this issue!
Based in DC by way of San Francisco, Molly originally hails from southern California and has a background in English. She aims to explore music’s inextricable tie to pop culture and its evolving relationship with politics.