Amparo, the first solo album by musician Maria Usbeck, is utterly dreamy. Sung almost entirely in Spanish, it chronicles Maria’s travels through South America and her reintroduction to the places she grew up (she lived in Ecuador until she was a teenager). Listening to Amparo is like flipping through a scrapbook filled with flowers, postcards, and snapshots collected from places preserved, immaculately, by memory. The music video for “Moai Y Yo,” the record’s first single, is similarly serene, and we are very excited to premiere it today:
Last week, I chatted with Maria about the inspiration for her songwriting, and how she finds joy in travel and making music.
SUNNY: Hi, Maria!
MARIA USBECK: Hi! How are you?
I’m good! What have you been up to today?
Well, I woke up like an hour ago. I had a show last night.
Oh, that’s so cool!
Yeah, it was a good one! I had a lot of fun.
I wanted to first talk about your video for “Moai Y Yo.” I’m super into the visuals—they’re really magical! What kind of aesthetics you are drawn to?
Thanks for watching it! Basically, the inspiration behind the video was a bit of a mix of this thing I’ve been watching obsessively. I’m going to butcher the name, but it’s this really beautiful Danish ballet from, I believe, the ’70s. The relationship that the characters of the ballet have with movement is quite robotic at times. There’s so much to it—it’s more about the placement of each of the characters in relationship to the others, and to the camera. That’s what I wanted to mimic in the video, because that’s how I developed a relationship to the Moai statues on Easter Island. They’re completely still, and usually on a bit of a step, so they’re raised above you. It’s sort of a glorification of them, where they’re placed. Of course, you can’t get near them. I was dreaming, and picturing myself hugging one, touching them and getting up close, but you can’t do any of that. There’s this limitation. Watching the ballet, I felt the same way; there’s this limitation between the characters, and they can’t really touch each other. It’s all about this distance, space, and placement. So that’s the inspiration behind the scene. The colors came from these beautiful rocks on Easter Island; they’re, like, kind of purple coral, all over the beaches on the island. I took a lot of the colors from those rocks.
I love how you combined the immutable nature of the Moai statues with the movement of dance—that’s super intriguing. You reference Easter Island, and you’ve lived all over the place: Costa Rica, Argentina, Ecuador…does that influence your music?
I think that’s where all the inspiration came from. I was pretty bummed out after my band [Selebrities] broke up, and we started to go solo. There were a few months when I really didn’t even want to touch a keyboard! It was a really strange reaction. So traveling, going somewhere else, opened my eyes and opened me up to wanting to continue writing and making music. Seeing all these people in all these different places playing music really for the fun of it, just for the enjoyment they get out of it, rather than this idea of making something commercial, or making something that’s going to get them somewhere. There’s no stress behind that. It’s just the pure beauty of enjoying music. It really inspired me a lot, and warmed my heart back to wanting to write.
So it is really about you going back to the joy you get from creating.
Yeah, definitely. When I started writing this, I was completely alone on Easter Island, and I was so overwhelmed by it that I needed to do something. I needed to write things down and hum things. It came purely from just the joy of it. I had nothing planned, and I wasn’t really thinking, you know, What am I going to do with this? It was just for fun.
I’ve read interviews of yours where you talk about the importance of language to you. This is the first album you’ve recorded mainly in Spanish. Can you talk a bit more about that?
The language aspect of it: I’ve been craving to really speak in Spanish, because it feels a lot more natural to me. Just talking to you right now, I get a little nervous about doing interviews in English. My friends who speak both languages say that it’s very strange to speak English, like you’re a different character. When you speak in Spanish, it feels like you. You’re just so loose and carefree, and a little bit more serious. It’s an interesting concept, almost having these multiple personalities through languages. It’s that in itself, and also just wanting to express myself in my language. I was learning all these other languages while I was traveling, and it was so interesting to hear it, and the sounds you make. Rapa Nui, from Easter Island, for example, has a lot of vowels, so it just sounds very musical, like melodies. It was very easy for me to bring that into the songs, for “Moai Y Yo.” And it’s just fun, you know? It’s really difficult, yet essential, to preserve languages and cultures. It’s important to give it a shot, and do what you can.
This album is very joyful, and while it’s evocative of many different places, it feels so comfortable.
It comes from my subconscious, almost. I listened to this kind of music so much growing up. I didn’t have to search for it, it was just part of the environment. My dad really likes Spanish music, and that was just around. When I started writing it, and keeping these instruments, it came naturally to me, and it was really comforting.
I was just about to ask what kind of music you grew up listening to!
Yeah! You know, I wasn’t really inspired by that type of music growing up. It was around, and it was stuff my parents listened to. You’d go to a restaurant and it would be playing, and people would play those sorts of instruments back home. I remember…to be honest, the first CD I ever bought was a Blur CD. I was really into Britpop when I was 12, and in high school I just kind of went through a lot of genres. Mostly European music. It was really bizarre. I had this disconnect as a teenager, and the need for rebellion, the need to not listen to what my parents listened to. As silly as it sounds, we all go through that, and I became really interested in cultures other than mine at that time in my life. A few years ago, very recently, I started missing it. I started missing salsa and merengue, dancing, and I missed hearing it around me. So I sought it out, and started downloading a ton of music in Spanish, so it just became part of my life again. Same with speaking the language. In the past three years, I began to use Spanish obsessively, wherever and whenever I could, as much as I could. I’d use it at the bodega, or with friends who spoke Spanish, or at work, so I could have it back in my life.
It sounds like a learning process, and at the same time a celebration of these memories and the places they came from.
It really is a combination. When I was traveling, memories were coming back to me, whether through smells or food. Looking at trees I’d forgotten about, and listening to words again while being surrounded by the language. It really triggers these memories. For example, I’d forgotten all these riddles in Spanish. It’s really beautiful and quite empowering to be able to remember all that, and to be part of it again. It felt really good. Memories were crucial for me to put this together.
There’s this really great movie called Cria Cuervos, by this director Carlos Saura. It’s a really great film. “Cria cuervos” roughly translates to “raising vultures,” and it’s about these three little girls, especially the middle child, and how she sees the world. She sort of misunderstands situations and moments. I saw this movie a few months before I started traveling and writing the album, and it reminded me of my childhood. When you’re a kid, you don’t quite understand what’s going on, so you interpret things in your own way. It’s such a beautiful way to see life. When I was traveling, I was trying to forget what I knew and completely embrace the environment I was in. Without any judgement or prejudices. I wanted to think, This is what this is, this is what I’m seeing and feeling in this moment. This is what I’ll write about. The songs themselves—they’re like a diary of these places. ♦