• Feature

Cincinnati Women in Music: Maria Carrelli

Photo Cred: Jon Calderas

March is Women’s History Month and CincyMusic is honoring local women in music. We chatted with singer/songwriter Maria Carrelli over Zoom to catch up on life during quarantine and what 2021 has in store. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

It’s really good to see you live! I was thinking- we did our photo shoot just over a year ago [I did a portrait session with Maria in my studio last year], just before all this hit. It feels like a lifetime ago.

Right? Wow. It’s funny, I keep telling everyone it feels like the longest shortest time that’s ever happened. It’s like no time has passed and we’ve warped, time jumped, but it also feels like ages have passed. I saw a meme today about March babies celebrating their second birthday in quarantine, and I’m like, “I’m a March baby!” I don’t even feel like it’s been a year.

Yeah, for a while there I lost track of what day it was.

I still don’t know (laughs).

So, apparently, we’re honoring all the women in music for one month. You guys only get one month a year (laughing)!

“We’ll take it! We’ll take that month!” (laughing and enthusiastic)

A lot of my favorite musicians are women. I don’t even think about music that way – male, female, black, white, Asian. It would never occur to me to say, “I’m going to listen to female musicians now because it’s March”. I just love music. Is it an honor to have a women’s music month or is it like, “Why the hell [is there still the need for] a women’s music month?”

Oh, I mean, absolutely it’s an honor! It’s a big chunk of my life, and anything that celebrates that, especially in an industry that, as you can imagine, is hard for women at a lot of times and is pretty male dominated- I’d say that is definitely changing - but anything that can celebrate that and push women to the forefront [is good]. I feel the same [as you do]. I love listening to female musicians. It’s like there’s this hunger deep within me that can’t be quenched. It’s like the words and feelings that come from a female-and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a cis female- it’s just this emotion, this feminine emotion that’s so powerful and so strong. I just want to listen to the heart musings of women. A lot of the music I’ve played in recent years has been country and folk, and so much of that is male dominated and has been for many years. A lot of the amazing women who have contributed to music like that have been doing so from almost under a blanket. But in the past year, I just can’t get enough female R&B, it’s such an emotional thing. I feel like you and I are kind of similar in that way. You also have this energy where you’re artistic, I mean, your hair is blue (laughing), you feel things. So, I feel like that is what a female musician does – emotes those emotions, that’s why I like it (laughing).

That’s so cool. I will definitely say when I started doing photography, especially portraits, it really opened me up to being more vulnerable and connecting with people. It was a very interesting change of perspective on looking at the world, just being that vulnerable and letting other people in.

Yeah, and there’s a strength in that too, it’s so beautiful.

So, you’re working in country and you say women are underappreciated and I think you’re right. At the same time, it shocks me because you can look at [influential women like] The Carter Family and Dolly Parton, Lucinda Williams, Rosanne Cash, June Carter Cash…all these amazing strong women that helped shape it. Rock and Roll too. I think a lot of people don’t know the stories behind the music. Men have definitely gotten more of the press.

Oh, for sure. But it’s like anything, times are changing. We’re embracing that idea of feminine as strong, being at the forefront, being forerunners, trend setters and movement pushers. I was very happy- I was honored to hear you wanted to interview me!

I remember at the beginning of quarantine; you were doing a lot of stuff online, especially songs [song requests] for people. And I don’t know if that kind of went away, or I just lost track of it on Instagram. What are you doing during quarantine to keep in touch with your audience and keep inspired? Obviously, you can’t tour and connect with audiences, which is horrible. What are you doing to feed your muse?

I have to say, admittedly, I haven’t been as active… because in a way the quarantine allowed me to take a step back for a second. Right now, I’m listening to all this different music that I haven’t allowed myself to listen to. It’s like now I can be a listener for a second instead of always being like, “Go, go, go, push, push, push!” And every time I consume something through my ears, it’s like, “Oh, maybe I can incorporate that or put this in a set” or “why is this so appealing?” or “I want to make myself like what I’m listening to right now.” It’s listening to music and developing that relationship again of what it was before, which was just for myself. It’s this little thing that’s just for myself that I can harness and be inspired by. As you know, it’s not a very particularly inspiring time and there were all these different phases of quarantine. At first, I was a restaurant worker and touring, so I was completely put out of a both those jobs. So, it was like, what do I do now? So, in that phase I was doing all those Instagram videos and making little songs for everyone which was amazing and it came at such a high volume. I was like, this is so cool, and I kind of supported myself in that way for a while. Gosh (muses), it’s been like a year. Other than that, I have a job right now to pay the bills and make ends meet but it is a job where I sit at like an office and it's not very artistically inspiring (laughs). But, you know, I go through all these emotions about it and I'm sure a lot of musicians or artists in general are going through the same thing, like, what’s the next step. And maybe not even having that next step plan is okay because we're in a global pandemic. It feels good to be able to lay low and save up a little; I’ve never been able to before now I am which is like a whole new concept to me. And then, you know, next time I want to get into the studio I don't have to fret about - like before I would have had absolutely no funds to go into that, now I can maybe make really strategic moves with where I want to put this, what I want to do, what I want the music to sound like - yeah just stuff like that.

It’s funny, there was this pressure for a while and maybe it's going away now where…there was some meme early on in quarantine that was like, “Oh, what, you haven't learned four languages and learned to bake by now?” It felt like there was this pressure to be hard on yourself, oh you should be doing something. I think you're right, it's just taking that pause to ground yourself, you run so fast for so long…

Absolutely, yeah. It can be really cool. Like, what does this art form look like for me and where am I exactly drawing the inspiration from? You can take a deeper look at that. Or what's not making me happy about this process which is a big part of it too you know? It's like you have to find that super delicate balance of selling, of being a salesman – saleswoman, salesman -of what you're doing but then also trying to separate and create a healthy balance of keeping your heart protected, because you're putting so much of your heart in the thing that you're selling and trying to market. I've always envied people that have been able to create a separate persona. I’m like, why didn’t I do that? Cuz now what people see all the time is Maria, Maria… I don’t get to not be [Maria]. When I walk in the door after a gig it's like, “Oh, now who am I?” Like, I guess that was Maria that was on stage, but are people still going to like the Maria that likes to keep house plants and is super shy and really loves chillin’ in my sweatpants? Like, is that still a Maria that people want to be around? It’s kind of like this huge existential thing. I envy people that have been able to create that healthy space, a different persona that they put on. They go on stage, rock it out, get off stage and they are the person that they are in their normal life. So, now I’m going to this other job that’s not music and I’m like, “Who am I?” (laughing). Really, I’m just a person who’s trying to make ends meet in a global pandemic who got both their jobs taken away.

It's crazy because, yeah, you're all those things, right- and none of those things. All those things go into creating what you are and what you are as an artist. I’m an engineer by trade, but I love doing photography and painting and writing. But it took a while for me to call myself a photographer, because I wasn’t trained as one.

That’s so interesting, because you are a photographer, you are an artist, you are an engineer- why do you need to be one or the other? I'm speaking for myself; I think the second that I call myself something, then it becomes something I have to prove. It’s almost like you’re putting a responsibility on yourself. There’s this one song I love by Rubblebucket. So good. One of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. Female led. The lead singer, she's so amazing, you need to go listen. They have this one song that I sing to myself when I have those feelings and doubts, or stuff like “you’re just like imposter syndrome “or like identity crisis and she sings (Maria sings part of “My Life” by Rubblebucket): “But if you call yourself a Rockstar/You would rock harder still/And if you call yourself a Rockstar/La di da da da da/And if you call yourself an athlete/You would run faster…” Her songs are so inspiring. It’s like, so true, go ahead and call yourself that. Allow yourself to be whoever you want, you know. Call yourself that and then go forward with it. I don't know. It’s a refreshing take on it, because I’m too shy to call myself anything. I'm not a woodworker, but like, I’ve made a table before and it's like well, then you are a woodworker compared to someone who’s never made a table before. I’m not a runner but like I literally run like at least three times a week. So, I’m a runner.

I think it’s a weird perspective we have on ourselves. I saw a comic artist once on a panel and some guy said he wanted to be a comic writer and he said, okay, you’re a comic writer. Now, go write. Don't let that stop you right?

Yeah, which is easy enough to say, but I struggle with it every day (laughs). I’m sorry, I feel like I’ve talked so much… but it’s nice to see your face and interact with other creative souls. It’s been a tough one for us.

Definitely. I told you before when we did our photo session, you started singing a song just out of the blue and it was absolutely spellbinding, one of those beautiful moments I will always remember. I was just fortunate enough to capture some photos of you doing that. I was holding my breath it was so beautiful.

That’s so sweet of you, oh my gosh, you are going to make me emotional!

I felt so privileged, I was thinking, “I’m the only other person on Earth hearing this right now”. How incredible is music and what a gift it is and how sad it is that we can share it together yet?

I know. We will though. We’ll find ways to persevere. We'll keep it alive, things like your blue hair (laughs), just bringing the spark back into it.

I think things are going to get better. It’s getting warmer, we’ll have outside gigs, people will get vaccinated. For now, we’re spending a lot more time alone and you’re cut off from your audience and bandmates, does the music get more interior and reflective or acoustic and personal?

I think so. I mean inherently just because it is just me and a guitar, but I think even before the quarantine - there's some undeniable magic of just a person and a voice and a guitar. Just the simplest, most pure beautiful- like Blaze Foley for example. Maybe I should mention a woman since it’s women in music month (laughs). But I think of those simple lyrics, honesty, feelings, guitar – phew - there it is. I would love to write an album like that. And maybe I will. Maybe that’s what's coming next. Until then, it's just been wonderful just writing these songs or even snippets of songs that aren't even done but it's like, “Where is this going next, oh, what’s this?”, it’s different, you know?

Where do you see your music going this year?

I think it’s going to involve making music for myself and then see what that looks like, you know? I've already written a couple songs; I have new ones on the docket. Getting into the studio with them, what that looks like, I’m not sure yet. It's going to be different than the album that I have out now because it just has to be. There's so much that happened. It's just – we’re all different people right now, in good ways, I think. We're doing what we can to get through this and I think we're doing a good job of doing it together and trying to stay connected so hopefully that will come out in whatever I do musically.