Maria Neckam

Maria Neckam is one of the most innovative young singer/songwriters on the New York scene today, traveling in an uncharted, breathtaking and unpredictable territory between jazz, pop, rock and art music. She creates unique song poems in a wide variety of musical styles and contexts. Both of her major releases – Deeper (2010) and Unison (2011) – are ostensibly in a jazz context, but flit boldly between pop hooks and the brain-crunching atonal. One moment an innocent, love-struck ingénue; the next, pondering analytically the very fabric of an intimate relationship; the next, engrossed in religious reflection (she's a practicing Buddhist) – always intimate, always thoughtful, always engaging.

Check out her intriguing video of "I Miss You" or the unsettling "Deeper," or any of a range of live performances demonstrating the uncatagorizable but always riveting music of this fascinating young artist.
Jeff Meshel (Songfacts): What's new with Maria?

Maria Neckam: I just have a bunch of shows coming up. And that's why also I don't have that much time today, because we have a show Sunday and Gilad Heckselman is playing for the first time with us. We have to rehearse, because he's never played my music. So that's exciting. And a bunch of shows coming up, that's good.

Songfacts: Where?

Neckam: In New York at different places, like Littlefield and Bowery Electric, some places I've never played before. And there's also in May in this new theatre in the village, SubCulture. I'm going to Canada at the end of the month. So that's all good.

Songfacts: Do you enjoy touring and performing?

Neckam: Yeah, a lot. I love it. I love traveling, too. I've always loved traveling. And of course I love performing. I love the thrill of it, the energy. There's always something new.

Songfacts: Who are your audiences? Do they usually know your music?

Neckam: That's a good question. It's very different. It depends on the place. That's also something that's interesting about touring, because you never know. Sometimes you have fans, people that already know my music, and sometimes it's just a club where they have a regular audience and they don't know anything. It really depends. But it's a good challenge to connect with different people.

Songfacts: Does your set vary a lot from night to night?

Neckam: No. Usually I have certain things that stay the same. It evolves throughout a tour. I'll make changes, a little bit of changes every night in the order and maybe add some songs or leave out some songs. But there's some basic structure that stays the same.

Songfacts: Do the songs themselves change very much? How much room is there for improvisation in the songs?

Neckam: There is definitely room. Because otherwise it would get boring. They definitely always grow in a tour, also. The energy of that group of people together makes it a new thing. So it's not like it becomes something completely different, but it just develops a new flavor, a certain energy. And every night is different, too, because every day is different. That's one thing I love about music.

And I love playing with amazing musicians like the people that I'm fortunate to play with in my band. They're just so open and creative, and there's so many ways you can go that makes it exciting.

Songfacts: How much room is there for the songs to change structurally? Not that, okay, we have a 32 bar saxophone solo now, but actually the structure evolving during performance?

Neckam: The structure itself doesn't usually change unless we make a mistake, and then we embrace it. [Laughing] And sometimes it just happens that somebody doesn't go to that other part and then we just all don't go there, because it would be weird. And then it ends up being really great. Actually, that happened in the video of "The Laundry Song" from Rome. In that performance, the ending was not supposed to be like that. But then it became the version, because we really liked it.

In terms of structure of different parts and where things happen, that doesn't change. But the solos are never limited to 32 bars with a certain amount of repeats or something. It's always open however long to go on and play.

Songfacts: You have vocal solo improvisational sections of your own. Is that different from an instrumentalist's? You as a vocalist riffing, as opposed to a saxophonist.

Neckam: Yeah. Some vocalists are really into improvising. That's their focus and they work on that a lot and that's what they really enjoy, doing long solos and building them. I had a time where I was focusing on that, but nowadays I'm not so much. I don't think it's the most valuable use of my instrument or what makes it sound the best. It's just not what my voice is made for, I feel.

I'm not into soloing for a very, very long time. But again, it depends on the situation, too, and what it feels like and how I feel that night and the energy and everything. So sometimes they can go there and keep building. But sometimes it's also great if it's very compact.

I'm trying to think more and more these days about the audience, and giving them a great experience and not just thinking about what I feel like right now, or what's fun to do. Because sometimes what's fun to do for yourself onstage is not fun for the audience. A lot of times when it's more compact, it's better. Then you also just do your best more in the moment, rather than just going on forever and ever.

Songfacts: Have you been performing a lot of standards or covers?

Neckam: In the past. That was never my focus.

Songfacts: What about in the last couple of years?

Neckam: No, not at all.

Songfacts: Your material is all original?

Neckam: Yeah.

Songfacts: I asked you about your riffing and you said it's not the ideal use for your instrument. What is the ideal use of your instrument?

Neckam: Haha. [Laughs] Well, soloing is, but for example, a lot of jazz instrumentalists play virtuostic stuff, difficult and fast stuff, and I can do those things, too. I can learn quick lines and I have a big range, I can go high. But a lot of times I feel when in improvising when you try to do a lot of crazy lines, it doesn't have the same effect as saxophone playing.

Songfacts: There aren't that many vocalists that really would go on scatting for several verses.

Neckam: Yeah. The content is not that exciting. For us, it's also harder to do that. If you want to sing really crazy stuff, harmonically, like very advanced, interesting stuff, you have to hear it all. On the saxophone you can just play it and know it's going to sound good. But when you sing, you have to just really hear it. And a lot of that stuff, that takes a lot of training.

Then for me the question is, is it really worth it? I mean, there are certain singers that do that. And personally, a lot of times, I feel when they do it, I can't even really hear what they're singing because the voice is not clear, it just becomes mess of sound for me.

Songfacts: You're avoiding my question. I asked you what the ideal use for your voice is and you said it's not this. So what are you shooting for?

Neckam: Creating atmosphere. Singing songs, that's one way. Singing songs, bringing out the lyrical content. But then also just letting my voice ring more, giving it space, and using the different sounds that I can create with my voice and letting it ring, instead of trying to do super fast and intricate and intelligent lines.

Songfacts: Okay!

Neckam: And also building a song in terms of vibe and atmosphere - making layers together with the band, creating different layers.

Songfacts: I wouldn't call you a singer predominantly. I'd call you a vocalist. You don't do songs for the most part. It's not really songs in the A-A-B-A sense, the catchy hook and you could dance to it. It's a visceral thing, you're creating I think a work in which your voice is a central component, a central element, but it's part of the fabric of the entire thing. The gestalt. It's not all about you singing.

Neckam: Definitely. In my albums, what I do as a main artist, not me as a side man, is something different. I do that, too, but that's really my thing: singing my own music.

In my - whatever you want to call it if not a song - in my composition, I make a statement and sing it. So I feel there's not that much need for me soloing on top of that and adding to that statement. Because I already made the statement. So maybe that's why.

Songfacts: This is perhaps the same question from a different angle – tell me how your compositions come into being?

Neckam: Well, it always starts with one element that I feel or I have some idea in terms of one element that I like and that I feel is just coming out of my life, something I want to express. And that could be a rhythmical element, a harmonic element, or melody, or a lyrical element. Or even just a vibe. Then I build on top of that. So sometimes I have lyrics and then I start writing a melody and the bass line, and then later I fill in the middle part, the harmonies. I think that's why a lot of times I also don't write chord symbols. But I just kind of have a bass line and a melody and I fill in the middle with notes that I like, and I write odd voicings.

In the song "Indestructible Fort," I had this idea of just using very simple triads on the piano, and just changing it in a minimal way and having this bass line going with it. So sometimes I try to see what I can do with just one small idea instead of trying to do everything. For example, "Obsessed" I wrote based on trying to do something with a half tone, whole tone scale. I had lyrics before that were kind of weird, and I was, "What? This is so strange!" But then I gave an assignment to one of my composition students, to write a piece of music based on this octatonic scale. And then I was like, oh, maybe I should do it myself, as well. And I thought the lyrics would go well with that.

You say there's no catchy hook, but I do think actually in a lot of my songs there is a catchy hook.

Songfacts: In some there are, yeah.

Neckam: So one thing I try is to bring together something catchy and something not catchy, and make that work together. In "Obsessed," that's the case as well. I wrote the main part first, [singing] "I am obsessed, I am obsessed," from that. And later I added the intro part, which is much simpler. It's like in 4/4. But I think that was very good to add that, because it gets really complicated later. And even in the solos, I wanted to not even have that in the solos, but the band would always say, "Oh, no, let's include that in the form. Because it's like a breather." So you always need that part where you can breathe, too. Where it's not so crazy, where you can just like, "Okay, I know this, this sounds familiar, this is comfortable." And then you go into the uncomfortable.

So maybe it's about that, about balancing the comfortable and the uncomfortable.

Songfacts: Do you write on the piano?

Neckam: Yes. Usually on piano, yeah. I love the piano, because it's all clear and systematic, organized. I like that.

Songfacts: You can see it all.

Neckam: Yeah. You can see it all.

Songfacts: How much of the song do you bring to the studio, or to the rehearsal room? How much of it is you, how much of it is the band?

Neckam: [Long pause.] It's mostly me. [Laughing] Yeah, I have a very clear idea. Sometimes there are certain things, like, in terms of groove, maybe, where we have to try it out a few times until we get something that feels right. But I usually have a very clear idea of what it is. But then I also ask musicians that I know will bring their own thing to it, but a thing that works with my idea. You know, our visions work together.

I do have a very strong idea of what it's like, what the vibe is of a song. But I also give people room to do their own thing. I don't think I'm super controlling, where people feel they can't be themselves. I always want any musician that plays with me to be themselves in my music, feel free.

Songfacts: You're teaching Gilad Heckselman your music now. How long will it take him to get up to speed?

Neckam: Not long. He's great. We've played together in another project, so we know each other a little bit in terms of playing, and otherwise we're friends, too. So it will be fast, easy. That's the amazing thing about these incredible musicians, they just get it really quickly. That's the thing about living in New York, there are so many very, very talented and very connected people here. Very connected with music and what it's about.

Songfacts: A lot of your close friends and associates are musicians.

Neckam: Yeah.

Songfacts: And do you do a lot of real collaboration, not just singing background harmonies, but 50/50 collaboration with people?

Neckam: I have done that lately more in the pop thing that I'm doing. I work with this producer for his album and he would have a track, and then I'll write lyrics and the melody and put it together. More in that environment. Not so much in the more jazzy world. No.

Songfacts: There you have more your own vision that you want to express?

Neckam: Yeah. I know what I want, so I don't have to go out and look for something else. I have my own ideas and my own voice. And honestly, that's another thing about living in New York, everybody here is so busy all the time. It's a rough place to survive. Everybody always has to work really hard and it takes a long time to get places, so that doesn't happen as much. You have to be very focused and just know what you want, because otherwise nothing happens. You just don't have as much time as in other places. You can't hang out and just try stuff as much.

Songfacts: How do you feel about your career so far? Are you happy with the amount of opportunities that you've had? Do you feel stymied and wish you would be able to record more, perform more, or that would be too much?

Neckam: It's never too much. Lately I've been really busy, I'm really happy about that. I won't say yes to just anything, I just don't have time. It's good to be able to choose what you do.

Songfacts: That also means you're making a living from it.

Neckam: Yeah. But there's always more. There are so many more things I want to do. That's also the thing about being an artist: I am never satisfied. I always want more. And I could be very much focused on that. But at the same time, I'm a Buddhist, so I'm trying to also become happy right now. It's finding that place where you are happy where you are right now and appreciative of what you have, but at the same time always challenge yourself to do more and become better.

Songfacts: It sounds a little antithetical to me, Buddhism and being an artist. One seems to be very ego driven and the other very ego diminishing.

Neckam: I don't think so, though. Because first of all, Buddhism is not ego diminishing. It's really about just expressing your individuality in the most value-creating way. At least the Buddhism that I've practiced. I don't know if you know, but Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter actually practice the same Buddhism, and I think they're amazing examples. They're so different from each other in personality and what they do, and how their careers have been, but they're such amazing friends. They are both so strong in who they are and what they do, and they're really good at what they do. And they're doing so much good for other people. So that's what I want to do, as well. I want to become the best Maria that I can be as a person and in my music, and that doesn't mean I'm not important. It's the opposite; I am important. I have to take myself seriously and have to also always work on myself to become the best. I want to shine as who I am, but at the same time it's not only for me, but it's about giving something to other people with my music.

And it's not just about, "Oh, everybody thinks I'm great, so that means I'm great." It's finding that inside of yourself, and then it just goes back and forth. When you have that in yourself, you can touch other people, then you also become more successful because people actually get something from it. In all the artists that I love, that I'm inspired by, it's almost a spiritual thing - they give so much.

That's the thing about the difference between the music itself, the art, and the whole business aspect of it. Because that's all - excuse my language – it's all bullshit in the end, the business aspect. It's all about hype and who's the cool cat right now. But in the end all of that doesn't matter. What really matters is who touches me when I listen to them. I could go to a concert in the city and there's five people in the audience, but the artist is amazing, and it really touches me. And sometimes I go to a club and it's packed, but it's just all ego, and it doesn't do anything to me.

So that's what I'm really trying to focus on these days again: the music, the content. Because that's why I started making music. I have these albums that I've loved all my life and I want to make music that makes people feel like that, that when they feel bad, they can listen to my music and then feel better.

Songfacts: How much interaction do you have with your audience, and does it make you uncomfortable?

Neckam: It can be a challenge, especially when it's more of a smaller place where people are right in front of you. But I try to not avoid that. Ultimately, I try to connect with the music. I've had a situation where we played at this concert in New Orleans at this place in the afternoon, and the audience was all older people. I was like, "Oh, my God, how are they going to relate to my songs?" That was like a while ago, and it was all songs about love and being young and not knowing what's going on.

But then I thought, well, maybe I can just connect with them through the sound of my voice, maybe it's not so much about the words, just connecting my life with them through the sound. And I did that, it really worked. It was awesome. So it depends on the audience and on the situation. But it's about always just having the guts, having the courage to open yourself up and just be there. It's about being vulnerable, too, which is always a challenge. But at the same time, there's a difference between the personal and the private. I feel I'm a personal artist, but not a private one. Because I'm not singing about stuff like what I'm eating for breakfast. It's not like Big Brother is watching, like reality TV. It's sharing something that I feel people will be able to relate to and put their own story in. So in that sense I don't really have to feel threatened.

With fans, especially lately, it's coming more that people are getting more excited about what I do, and sometimes don't understand the difference between me as an artist and as a private person. So I have to be very conscious of that and draw a line, because people will start confusing things. Confusing my music with who I am as a person. It's an interesting balance. It's not always easy.

Songfacts: How do you get feedback, and whose feedback matters to you?

Neckam: It's good when I feel that the person understands what I'm doing and why I'm doing it. And then I guess if I feel they don't, ultimately it's good, too, because you can always reflect on why the person doesn't get it. I guess in the end, every feedback is good. You might not always be happy about it, but every person's life is so different. I think it's just important to really look at who that person is, where they're at right now in their lives, and where are they coming from and why they say what they say. And sometimes it has to do more with them than with me, so I just have to really look at the situation and be open. But at the same time, also not to get swayed by what other people say. Know who you are and what you do, why you do it.

Songfacts: You mentioned before that you want to do to people what certain artists have done to you, artists who have inspired you. Who have been some of the artists that have inspired you?

Neckam: Well, there's so many, it's always hard. But okay. I mean, there's singers, like Billie Holliday, Nina Simone, Cassandra Wilson. At some point, Björk, and then this band, K's Choice I used to love.

Songfacts: Who?

Neckam: K's Choice, it's a Belgian band. They were never huge. And then rock bands - I love the whole alternative wave, the grunge wave. I love that kind of music. Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana. But then also John Coltrane, he's a huge inspiration for me. And then later also people like Luciana Souza, I really love her stuff. Kurt Rosenwinkel, I love Kurt Rosenwinkel.

Songfacts: Where would you like to see yourself going musically?

Neckam: That's a good question. Right now, it's a very Buddhist thing, but I'm trying to really open myself up and listen to myself, what I really want. Because sometimes it's hard to hear your own voice. Like you said, I'm not so much a singer, but right now I want to be a singer for a little bit. I'm excited about that, so I think that's the next thing that's coming. Writing more songs. And then also in terms of becoming a great pop artist, like more the electronic music that I'm making, I'm very excited about that, too.

But in the future there's going to be many more different things. I want to write for an orchestra, make an album with strings, and something that's again more on the classical/contemporary side. And also stuff that's more out there, pushing boundaries. Crazy things. But that's for a little later. Right now I'm trying to challenge myself in terms of writing songs. Making things about a story.

Songfacts: In the genre that I know from your two main albums?

Neckam: Yeah. But more in terms of song. Simpler.

Songfacts: But in a jazz context more than a pop context?

Neckam: Not necessarily. That's what I'm trying to figure out right now. We'll see. It's always for others to judge, anyway. You know what you want to call it.

Songfacts: Do you want to be popular commercially? Do you want to sell a lot of records?

Neckam: Of course I want to. Who doesn't? Yes. But I wouldn't make something just because of that. I want to make something that I believe in and that I think is great.

Songfacts: How do you feel when someone says, "Why don't you sing more like Diana Krall?"

Neckam: My mom has said that to me.

Songfacts: "She's such a good singer, she sings such nice songs."

Neckam: Right. That's why I haven't done standards. But maybe I will. I have another idea for an album collaborating with all kind of different jazz players, people I really look up to, and I'd be recording standards. But maybe not only standards. There are some I really like, but it's tricky, because so many people have done it already. If I do it, I want it to really come from out of my life and not just, "Okay, here's me singing standards." And there are so many great versions [of standards] already.

May 7, 2013

Jeff Meshel can also be found at Songs of the Week & Other Stuff.

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