Following my review of Maria Mena’s album, White Turns Blue, I had the opportunity to dissect the brain of the clever songstress and the voice behind the popular single, “You’re the Only One.” She’s been tying up the phone lines of all enthusiastic fans of MTV’s TRL with requests for her single and steadily soaring to the height of modern music culture. She is in the midst of her mall tour around America, and is currently in San Francisco and is soon heading back to her homeland of Norway. About to enter the recording studio once more, Maria was kind enough to ring me up for a little chat despite a sore throat and the dizzying effects of Vicks Dayquil. The ever-honest and wise for her 18 years (kind of makes me wonder what the hell I’m doing with my life) shares her A’s to what I hope are insightful Q’s.
How did it feel doing a mall tour in America as a sort of burgeoning artists after you’ve done so many bigger shows and performances in Europe?
Mena: Well, at first it was pretty weird because, I think as Europeans we don’t have the same mall culture as in America; so when I heard about it I thought it’d be a good chance to do something good over the summer… but I found it really tacky. But then I started to do it and it was really cool, you know, there was no other way for my new fans to see me live so it was cool for me to just up there and perform for 20 minutes every Saturday and then sitting down and signing autographs for an hour to an hour and a half. I was really afraid that no one would show up and it would be a big disaster, but it seemed really really cool. I had no idea what to expect.
About your song writing technique, it’s been said that it’s kind of in your head and spontaneous; do you find it changing now as your music is evolving?
Mena: I don’t know- it actually hasn’t. It’s still the same way. I do have this sort of OCD thing that I can’t write songs unless I’m done promoting the album that’s out right now. So I do allow myself to write some songs now, but I’m trying not to because I’ll just have too much in my head and start concentrating on something completely different. But it’s more mature than it was and I think that’s very natural. I think I have a tendency to write about different subjects now. I used to be very much into discovering who I was with everybody else and I was extremely insecure at one time and I really use to use that a lot in my song writing. But now I think I’ve moved a little bit away from that; I’m still going to be the insecure person that I am because I guess I’ll never get away from that even though I try to- it’s very hard. I’m just insecure in different situations now and I guess I’m just going to have to deal with that, and I write about a lot of different people now and myself.”
Well, some of the best songs come out of insecurity.
Mena: Definitely. It’s funny because that’s when you usually write songs, is when you’re down and insecure. If you’re happy and up, you don’t want to write songs. You want to go out and be happy and up. I tend to only write songs when I’m depressed or just in a weird state of mind.
Do you think record execs or industry people are trying to change you since you’re becoming so popular and in the public eye?
Mena: It has happened. It’s kind of funny because they can change how I look- I won’t allow then to do that- but they’ve tried to do that before; it’s been going on for a long time. I wasn’t the typical, norm- like I wasn’t the teen queen kind of girl. I was always me and I was weird and nobody understood that, so they thought that since they’d never seen anything weird happen before, they thought, “let’s see if we can change her because this is what we know works- the teen queen stuff.” So, yeah, they’ve tried to do that; they’ve tried to sort of, before, market me as teen girl and I think me, my personality, when I talk to journalists or when I get in front of people, I realize that I’m not like that; I’m a bit creative so I get a different fan base.
Yeah, I think that’s a major factor of your success- that you’re not like everybody else.
Mena: Thank you, I’ll take that as a compliment.
Oh, it is.
Mena: Thank you.
A lot of people, when they try to get a grasp on what you’re about, compare you to people like Alanis Morisette or Michelle Branch. Do you think it’s a compliment or generalizing of your music?
Mena: It’s a compliment, definitely. I do admire those two, especially the first one. But I’ve always known I’m going to start to stick out after a while so I’m not very worried about that. I think that in general, in life, we have to sort of put people in boxes just to know where we have them because of the unknown- we’re always afraid of the unknown, and when we don’t really know where we have you it gets scary. So I’ll just let people do that now and they’ll just naturally progress into something that’s just- I just think that they’ll understand that I’m different, that I’m me and I don’t need to be like anybody else. It’s sort of funny because I don’t even know who I am. Especially musically, I have no idea where I’m going. It’s scary but it’s extremely fun as well, at the same time because there’s no end to what I can do. Well actually I’m just starting to realize that I can actually do whatever I want to do. And my voice has grown as well; it’s not the same as last year, so I can’t wait to go home and record an album… again.
Mena: Yeah, it really is. It’s kind of funny though because I have to wait a little while because I’m still doing promotion in Europe, but God, I can’t wait until I get home.
And like you’ve said before, you’ve grown through adolescence working on your music and finding out who you are; do you think school got in the way or that you missed out of anything?
Mena: About high school, I really don’t feel I missed out on anything. It just seems like a big drag. Really, it was hell. It was just full of people judging and me feeling like I didn’t fit in at all. And so I never felt a part of the whole pop culture, the whole teen thing, the girly thing. That was just me. A lot of people think that those were just coolest years of their life, and that’s cool for them. I just always felt that there was something else out there. And even though I didn’t really have friends at that time because I didn’t know anybody who I could respect and I thought was weird as well- so I just waited. And I think right now is when I’m actually discovering these people who I’m really starting to admire and respect and really want to know more about, so I’m getting a lot of new friends right now. But I don’t think I missed out on anything. My best friend just started school again, he had a year off- he started high school again- and putting myself in his situation, thinking about going back to school, I was thinking “Oh God, no.” it’s not because I don’t want to learn, that’s one thing- I definitely want to finish high school- I just could never see myself in that whole situation again, with all the drama. It’s just not worth it. So definitely this seems better than that.
So about performing and songwriting, do you think you prefer songwriting as to performing?
Mena: They’re very different things. But when I perform I sort of get to package and deliver my own music and I get to pull back into the feelings I had when I was writing the songs that I’m performing, and I get to share them with people- I actually get to see their faces; I get to see them sing back to me and get an idea of how they would listen to my music at home. It’s a gift in itself, just to actually see people connect with you, that I don’t even know them and that’s just scary for me because when you’re in your privacy writing this album, you’re sort of thinking “this is only for me,” but then you see all these people and all these faces singing back and you realize that they have actually probably gone through the same exact emotion or they’ve heard your deepest darkest little secret. Although they don’t know the details, it’s still my secret and it’s weird. But that’s the reason why I’m doing as well.
I do believe that I have the ability, and it’s only getting stronger, to put words to my emotions. And I remember as a teenager I really wished there were songs out there I could listen to to just make me feel less alone. So I’m not going to stop doing that, but in the studio you get this whole privacy thing where I get to tap into a lot of emotions. The reason why I write is it’s therapy. I get to know myself better and I get to analyze myself and I love analyzing. But it’s really bad for you though. I just got a boyfriend and there is no end to how much I’m analyzing him and thinking every single thing he does, I’m looking at him thinking he doesn’t love me or… it’s just bad, very bad for you. But that’s me.
Do you remember your first time performing, how you felt?
Mena: [big sigh] I was probably very very nervous. I didn’t really like it at first. I thought it was stupid. I really did. I didn’t understand why people would force me to do that. I just felt like I didn’t know what to do, I thought the songs spoke for themselves, I didn’t know where to put my hands. I didn’t want to be a distraction. I felt like I was standing between them and the music- that I was just this clumsy idiot standing there that was trying to play a song. But then I got more confidence; I started brainwashing myself thinking, I enjoy watching people live, why wouldn’t anyone want to watch me live? It’s just all about how I think. And I went up on that stage and I no longer felt that they can see through me. It was all up to me. I could actually stand there on stage and decide how they would actually see the song. And that’s actually- it’s pretty cool because, you know, I went up on that stage and I would only think about how nervous I was and how people could see that I’m nervous and how stupid it was to be there and how ugly I was and everything, but when I could go up there and just decide and be in charge- it was all about how I decided the music.
Do you think you’d ever want to perform with any particular artists?
Mena: I don’t know. I did once, on the Mellow album, which was this original album that we took away three songs but we added three songs from the first record. But the original second album, I had a song which another guy wrote, he’s a pretty big singer/songwriter in Norway, but it was really cool for me to see if I could interpret a song that wasn’t my own and it turned out really really good. Our voices really clicked together and it was just a really cool thing to do. But it was never performed live. And I don’t know who I would choose to perform with, or who would want to choose me. I have no idea.
Do you have a favorite song to perform?
Mena: Yeah, I usually sing Christmas songs. But I think “Sorry” is my favorite song to perform. Yeah, I just think that it’s one of those songs- it’s probably the most honest song I’ve ever written. Very emotional, and I still get very emotional when I sing it. And at a time I actually sort of decided never to sing it again live because it was just too emotional for me, because it’s not only talking about once specific incident, which it was- basically it was just me realizing or admitting to myself how extremely insecure I am when I let someone in. and I didn’t like performing it in front of people because I actually sort of started crying but then I realized that it was the one song people most wanted to hear. So I had to sort of force myself to sing it.
Do you think that’s the scariest thing you do, having to be so vulnerable in public?
Mena: Yeah, very much. One of the scariest things now actually is that I realize now that people are watching me. And I don’t like it. I’m a very private person- I’m very honest and I’m very open when there’s someone, you know, but I like to turn that off as well. But I’ve realized that people are really watching and analyzing, and I see it on my message boards- people really wanting to know every little stupid detail about me and it freaks me out.
Just wait until the paparazzi come.
Mena: Heh, it’s kind of a fun culture that I’m addicted to, this whole paparazzi gossip magazine culture, which is very a fascinating life of course because you want to know how they live, but you never picture yourself in there, like, grocery shopping.
Yeah, that must be weird… Er, a bit off-topic, but you know those one-hit wonder pop stars that just rocket to fame on other people’s songs- does that frustrate you, knowing that you’ve worked so hard to be where you are and they just sort of float by?
Mena: It’s definitely annoying sometimes, but you know what? I just think to never underestimate your fans. That’s one of my mottos basically, because they’ll seek you out, and I think it’s cool to people to cover songs and make great hits with them because then I guess people will see the fact that I’m different, you know; there’s room for me as well. If everyone was real and honest and intense, then I guess it would be boring. I’m pretty happy that they’re different. I just thought that I could sort of do my thing and have it be different.
Did you ever think that with your popularity, I mean, you’re pretty big in Europe- it’s pretty inevitable that you’re going to become a role model for young girls. Is that something you would want to take responsibility for?
Mena: It seems to me, especially in America, that you’re not supposed to be yourself; you’re supposed to be this very cookie-cutter perfect girl. I hope to be a role model for young girls and I hope to be the exact opposite of that. I hope to be the human role model. I hope to be the girl who makes mistakes and who sins, but who admits to herself that she’s not perfect and no one is. I wish I had a role model like that when I was young because I was striving to be perfect because that’s what all the people in the magazine were, and I realized after a while that you don’t have to be. And I wish to be a role model like that; if anyone wants me as a role model, I hope that they see that I’m human and that’s still ok and we all make mistakes. As long as we’re open with ourselves and as long as we try to be open with other people and we’re not ashamed of who we are and we try to be happy- I think that’s the most important thing.
So remembering when you were just getting into the music industry, what was your main concern about the endeavor, I mean, that’s a pretty big step?
Mena: Oh I think the first thing we were really scared about, me and my dad- he had to sign the record deal with me- was I think that we didn’t want them to market me as this pop idiot. I think that was the first thing we really discussed. I wanted freedom to, pardon my language, fuck up before they treat me like a fuck-up. I wanted to be able to create music and have them leave me alone, especially because the record company always wants to stick there noses in where they aren’t supposed to be, and I just wanted time to create and be creative and make a record, and then see if they would at least be happy with it then before actually just deciding that we’ll just send her in to the studio with producers that already have songs made for her. So I started writing songs, and I had a lot of songs ready and it took about a year and we just recorded and recorded and recorded and the record company was extremely happy. So the next time around when I recorded the second album they just didn’t even care, they just said “Ok, Maria’s going into the studio- it might take two years, who cares.”
And now in America, where everyone’s just starting to get to know you- you’ve just been on Letterman recently- and you have albums going platinum and all that in Europe, do you have plans now that you have the opportunity to do them with your fame and all?
Mena: I do, I think. Especially because I’m flying to Norway, that’s where my record deal is and that’s where the record company knows me best, so I definitely do I think. But it’s going to take a little bit longer than I thought. I thought I was going to promote for like six months or a year but it’s going to take longer than that because you sort of have to start in a new area where- I really need time off when I record. I don’t know why. I do know there are people out there who able to record and promote at the same time. I can’t see myself doing that; I’d just be too distracted. So I just wait until everything just quiets down and then I can go back to the studio and be creative.
Yeah, I’d think that’s a very personal time. So one last question- what’s currently in your CD player or mp3 player?
Mena: Um, I have a thing about listening to music- I don’t really listen to music a lot when I’m working because it’s too much sometimes. You just get fed up. It’s like if you work in a chocolate factory, you wouldn’t eat chocolate for a couple years after that. It’s really the same thing for me with music. But I do still listen- I just don’t have my favorite albums which I listen to when I really feel creative or need something to distract me. It’s just basically Jeff Buckley with Grace– that album is amazing- and this new artist called Joe Firstman. He has a record out now and it’s called The War of Women. It’s very very good.
Sounds interesting, I’ll have to check that out.
Mena: Yeah, it’s really good.
So that’s all the questions I have.
Mena: Thank you so much.
No, thank you. I hope your voice feels better.
Mena: Oh, me too. I’m going to have to perform two times today so I’ll just have to drink my throat coat and see if I feel better. That Vicks thing has really gotten me high.
You should probably lay off of that.
Mena: Heh, well good luck with college and everything.
Oh Thanks, and best of luck with everything.
Mena: Thank you.
The Down and Dirty: An interview with The Aggrolites
We chat to “dirty reggae” kings The Aggrolites about their new record Reggae Now!
It’s been a long time between records for Los Angeles reggae band The Aggrolites. 8 years to be exact. After countless albums and endless days on the road, the band felt like it was the right time to step away from the grind of writing, recording, touring. But the extended break between records meant the band just had time to get some air, recuperate and find the charge that would ignite that next spark. That next spark ended up becoming Reggae Now!, a collection of the band’s signature “dirty reggae” sound, packed with life-affirming songs about hope and positivity. And while the album isn’t afraid to challenge and question the current landscape we find ourselves in, it doesn’t shy away from having a good time.
The record has received some lavish praise, with noted filmmaker, DJ, and Big Audio Dynamite co-founder Don Letts saying; “Their tunes perfectly echo the human chemistry you can hear in those early Jamaican productions. The band’s old-school analog sound totally captures the spirit of the music I grew up on“. While Specials vocalist/guitarist Lynval Golding has said; “This is THE album.“
It’s easy to say that one of the most influential bands of modern American reggae is back. But the truth is, they never left. In between stops of their current North American tour, we had a chance to chat with vocalist and guitarist Jesse Wagner about Reggae Now!, how it feels to have written the record on their own time, and the significance of reggae music in America.
Congrats on the new record; how does feel now that it’s out?
It feels awesome. We are beyond stoked to see how positive the vibes are coming from all the fans old and new.
It was a long time between records- 8 years. It was the right time to take a break after 2011?
We felt so. We were going hard on the road for a good decade. I think 250 days a year can wear anyone out. We never quit though. We just needed some time to do our own thing with our families and friends back at home.
How did Reggae Now! come together- was there a spark that got you guys back into the writing process?
It just felt like the right time. We had talked about it for a while and when it happened it just worked.
Was this the first time you had the chance to write and record an album without the pressure of label deadlines? How did it feel that you could just write Reggae Now! on your own time- the way you want to 100%?
Yes it was. And it felt really chill and relaxing knowing that time was on our side. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
How did you connect and end up working with Pirates Press Records? It seems like a great fit- plus their roster of artists is incredible.
I’ve known Skippy for a long time now and have been a fan of what he has been doing with Pirates Press for years. Playing the style of music we play isn’t necessarily an easy target to market. We knew Skippy and Pirates Press would know exactly what to do with our album and are all grateful for them.
For those who may not be too familiar with the Aggrolites- share with us a little bit of your history and how the band came to be?
We’ve been around since 2002. We all pretty much come from the same scene in Los Angeles and all have the same love and passion for old school Jamaican music. With that passion, the band has managed to keep it going ever since.
How has the tour been so far? You guys are hitting cities all across the US until August; how is touring and getting to meet and perform for the fans now than, say, back in 2002?
It’s been an amazing run so far. If anything, things are getting better. I think with the internet it’s easier for people to find out about certain genres of music. We’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback.
I love the video for “Pound for Pound”- where did you shoot it? How was it?
It was filmed in the San Fernando Valley at an equipment rental spot called Zio. Our friend Josh Rousch was the director and mastermind behind the whole thing. We had a blast filming it. So much fun and we were stoked to have some Aggro fans involved in the video also. That was a first.
Let’s talk about reggae- because it’s such an important genre of music (in my view) and I think some people only see it in one color. But there’s a lot of history and culture- how did you discover reggae and what are some of the most important aspects of the music and culture to you and the band?
I found out about reggae probably like the majority of the American youth from the early 1990s; punk rock and Two-Tone. The thing that got me stuck on it was how tuff of a sound it is, but at the same time so beautiful. It is by far the most interesting music I’ve ever gotten into. I love how they sang about social issues going down on their small Island, but how powerful the lyrics would be in relating to people all over the world.
Reggae, and ska and rocksteady seem to have a close relationship with punk. You guys have toured with and are close to many punk bands; what is it about the two genres that make sense and connects?
I believed it all goes back to the late 1960s when reggae became popular with the working class in the UK. It’s music for the people. Songs about struggle and overcoming it. Very rebellious music also. I believe Don Letts said it best that reggae was the soundtrack to the punk rock scene throughout the late 1970s.
How important do you think music of good vibes is in today’s world? I think maybe the world could use a little more Reggae Now.
I thank you for saying that and agree 100%. We’ve always said we are “Feel Good” music. Sometimes it’s nice to just play a record and have a good time. Especially in this day and age. There is a lot of corruption going on and hopefully, we can ease people’s minds from negativity with our album.
The Aggrolites’ new album, Reggae Now!, is available via Pirates Press Records.
Everything Will Be Alright: An interview with Ogikubo Station
There is great joy in simple chords and simple melodies. It is, after all, the feeling of comfort that these things often bring. Comfort from the day’s burdens, comfort from the issues that disappoint us, comfort when the sunsets bring us joy. Ogikubo Station, the music project of Maura Weaver (of Ohio punks Mixtapes) and Mike Park (of Asian Man Records), is that kind of comfort. It is music that makes us think of the week we’ve just had, music that makes us want to do better in our every day, and music that makes us laugh, cry, and sing-a-long.
Fresh off the release of a new 7” EP Okinawan Love Songs, we chat to Maura and Mike about the new songs, making music from distances, and how Ogikubo Station came to be. The chat was a reminder that music can be the result of many things and many reasons. Some simple, some more complicated. It was also a reminder that if we’ve got the music, then maybe, just maybe, everything will be alright in the end.
You released your full length We Can Pretend Like last year- was there a catalyst that sparked getting back into the writing and recording again so quickly?
Maura: I think Mike just called me and said do you want to come out to California and do some songwriting, and then while I was out there he booked two days in the studio and said “Guess what? We’re gonna record a 7 inch.”
Mike: Is that what happened? Haha. I can’t remember. I know we had “Would I Break My Heart Enough For You” written and we were playing it live, so I thought “let’s just add a couple more songs and release a fun 7 inch.”
Did you write these songs the same way you’ve written in the past; from a distance?
Mike: Not this time. Since it was only a few songs we just rehearsed for a day and then recorded.
Does that process ever get easier, being quite far apart?
Maura: Not really. I prefer being able to collaborate in person and I believe that’s the plan for the next record. We started writing 4 new songs aside from what’s on this 7 inch to go towards the next Ogikubo full length.
Mike: Yeah, it’s not the best case scenario, but I’ve been doing with a lot of different projects over the years. Sending mixes and vocal parts and asking various friends to guest on records, so it’s not that bad actually.
How was having Dan (Andriano) play bass on this EP? Will you be working with him again in the future?
Mike: I’ve known Dan since he was a teenager, so I just called him and said “Dan, I’m gonna send you a couple of songs for you to play bass on” and he was like “okay”. He has his own home studio and he’s kind of a gear head, so I knew it would be easy for him to do. I’d love to do more stuff with him, but I guess we’ll see.
Maura: Heck yes! I’ve been an Alkaline Trio fan since I was 14, so this is all kind of geeking out excitement for me.
For those who are new to Ogikubo Station – tell us how you ended up collaborating together?
Mike: Maura, you want to tell it?
Maura: Sure. So I was visiting the San Francisco/Oakland area where my sister lives and we were hanging out with my friend Danielle Bailey who is also friends with Mike. Danny had posted some photos of us hanging and Mike called Danny and said: “ask Maura if she would record a song with me”. So we drove to San Jose and we recorded a song called “Weak Souls Walk Around Here” and that was it. Just a one-time thing.
Mike: And at that time I believe I told Maura I’d like to put out her solo album and so for the next 2 years I would bug her every couple months to see how it was going and she would say “oh, I’m still working on it”. And then I finally said “hey, let’s start a project together” and thus Ogikubo Station was born.
How many bands are you in now Mike?
Mike: Kitty Kat Fan Club, Ogikubo Station, Bruce Lee Band …are the only ones that play, but I’m working on a couple of new projects. Always doing music.
Maura, how different has it been with Ogikubo Station than say, writing and recording with Mixtapes? Do the different processes give you new ways to write and approach songwriting?
Maura: I guess the biggest difference is the distance factor and that Ogikubo is not a full-time band. Mixtapes was my first real band and it was at a time in my life when everything was a first. First tour, first record, first van, the first van breaking down. I was still in my teens with Mixtapes and we all lived in Cincinnati. So it’s very different with Ogikubo. It’s hard to explain fully, but both bands have definitely been influential in different ways. But the basic idea of writing a melody over a strummed guitar chord is the same no matter the situation.
I love the TMBG cover on the new EP, and the fact that you chose to keep it lo-fi—what are some of the other bands you say would have directly led to the music and songwriting of Ogikubo Station?
Mike: I guess I’ve been listening to a lot of 80’s bands as of late and just kind of falling in love again with bands like Hoodoo Gurus, the Replacements, REM, and then newer bands like ALVVAYS, PUP, and Laura Stevenson. I’m always just looking for a good melody and some lyrics that aren’t filler bullshit.
Maura: I listen to so much music. From Kate Bush, TMBG, Desmond Dekker, Operation Ivy, to Beyonce and Taylor Swift. It’s hard to say what influences Ogikubo Station, but those are some bands I’ve been listening to lately.
Mike, I know on Twitter recently you’ve expressed your frustration and anger at a lot of the political things that are happening in the US (hopefully that’s not the cause of those grey hairs!) – but as songwriters, do you feel that it’s more important than ever to provide listeners with fuel to fight for equality and kindness, or do you feel that its just as important to provide an escape through music?
Mike: I’ve always felt music is political even when you aren’t trying to make it political. The sounds fuel the soul, creates the body to move and puts you in moods that you may not even realise are happening. Music has been my solace when it comes to expression and emotion. An outlet to get my ideas across in an artistic and productive manner. I don’t feel it’s imperative to be overtly political. I try not to shove politics down your throat, but if something comes to mind and I write about it and it happens to be classified as political, so be it.
Maura, you did the artwork for the new EP, an illustration of your Okinawan grandmother. The art is beautiful, can you tell us a little bit about your art and how you came into illustrating?
Maura: I’ve always enjoyed illustrating and painting. Creating art: With a guitar or a brush or a pen/ pencil. I wanted to draw my grandmother and give it to her as a present. When Mike saw the drawing he asked if we could use it for the 7-inch cover. It wasn’t meant to be the cover, but after mike brought it up I said of course.
What are some of the things you’re looking forward to on this UK tour? You guys are going all over England, and then to Wales, and then Scotland.
Mike: Sadly I’m not going on the tour this time due to some hearing damage I have sustained, but I’m still going to Brighton for a wedding, so I will be there for 3 days. And I’ll try to do every stereotypical British thing. TEA/MILK/FISH/CHIPS/MUSHY PEAS.
Maura: Getting to travel with my best friend Megan is the most exciting part of this UK tour. She’s never been before and that makes it that much more special being able to share this experience together. We are both Vegan/Vegetarian and one of our favorite things to do is eat, so we’ll checking out the different vegan spots in every city. And just meeting new friends, seeing old friends, and Edinburgh. I can’t wait to go to Edinburgh.
Is there a new full length on the horizon?
Mike: I’d like to work on one next year. I’m tapped out for this year. I’m gonna work on some new Bruce Lee Band stuff next and then I have a couple of other collaborations, but hopefully sometime next year we can start the process for the next full length.
Maura: That sounds good to me. It will give me a chance to keep writing songs.