Maya de Vitry spent seven years as a member of The Stray Birds, a Lancaster, Pennsylvania, roots/Americana trio that moved seamlessly between influences, nodding towards The Carter Family, Townes Van Zandt, and Old Crow Medicine Show while discovering a sound they could call their own. The group was prolific, releasing five albums, each considered a modern genre essential, including their debut Best Medicine, their breakthrough Magic Fire, and their self-titled finale.
After the group’s breakup, de Vitry wasted no time establishing herself as a solo artist, a spotlight that showcases her poetic sensibilities and her commanding, yet assuaging vocals, the kind of voice one needs to hear when the message is bleak, the truth unavoidable. de Vitry’s first two records– Adaptation (2019) and How to Break a Fall (2020)– vacillate between the tender and gritty, the occasional flourish or swell that powers beyond the coffeehouse. Her latest, Violet Light, is a hushed, more compelling collection full of remembrances and calls to action that evoke the intimate shows at Greenwich Village’s Gaslight Café. “Working Man”, a pre-album single, forecasted Violet Light’s socially conscious path where even the celebratory “Dogs Run On” and “How Bad I Wanna Live” carry the weight of a sermon.
Underlying the hard truths is a warmth, a propulsion towards connection, making Violet Light a companion piece for a new year that offers no promises, only a confirmation in the power of communion.
CF- Your latest, Violet Light, drops on January 28th, but I noticed your previous record, How to Break a Fall, was released at the onset of the pandemic…
MdV- Yeah, my last record came out on March 13, 2020, the day that everyone was getting sent home from tour and everything was shutting down. I remember that weekend, my boyfriend and I started breaking ground on a garden bed. It was like, “I guess we’ll just do this instead for a while.” [Laughs]
How did you keep the momentum, or faith, when you couldn’t promote the record?
I think at first there was a weird sense of relief because there’s a constant “more and more and more” cycle, continuing to tour all the time, trying to be in more places in more days of the year, and work, really, really hard. I hadn’t ever spent time to make a home for myself before, and I’m an adult (laughs)! I think that’s where I redirected my energy. I thought, “Well, okay, now I can have a garden. It’s the perfect time of year to plant some seeds.” And I also pivoted myself right back to writing. In a way, I just had to let it go. Everybody had to let it go. Everybody had to let go of those tours, and we all thought we were just going to be doing that a couple of weeks, and here we are now, almost two years later.
I felt really fortunate to be living in a place where I had space to be outside. We could make a garden in our yard, spread out in the house a little bit, start working on making a studio space, and be able to do work from home.
In some ways, I dealt with a pretty difficult transition a couple of years before that when The Stray Birds split up, which is the band that I’d spent seven years in full-time. In a way, I felt much more alone during that time because everybody else was still touring the same tours they’d always done, playing the festivals. I felt a loss of community when I stepped away from that, so in some ways, that was the harder transition for me, the one that was two years before the pandemic.
A lot of artists I talk to are reluctant to admit they felt a sense of relief, that they finally had a moment to catch their breath through no fault of their own. Were you able to live guilt-free?
I think it has been difficult for people to admit that. It was difficult for me to admit it, difficult to face it because then we have to face the other part of that, which is we probably did have a choice to restructure the way that we were living, but we decided not to choose it, but it felt like we didn’t have a choice. When the Stray Birds ended, I got a job in Nashville working at Starbucks. I’m working at Starbucks again now because I can’t do the cycle of booking and rebooking– mentally, I can’t handle it. I’m planning a tour that’s all booked for May, but I know now that I can’t sacrifice my mental health to be able to play music, or else I will stop, I’ll quit. It’s most important to me to support my musical desires, so I have to arrange my life to healthily support that. This has been an opportunity to reflect a lot.
How do you find the balance between making a living and cultivating your creative side? I know I romanticized, and still do, the working all day, staying up, writing all night routine, but as I get older, like a lot of things we romanticize, it’s unhealthy and unsustainable. Is this work-create lifestyle something you romanticize?
I think what has been romanticized to me so much has been being a full-time musician and being a full-time creative person, whatever it takes, and that led to a really unhealthy lifestyle for me for many years. But that was romanticized, and then it almost felt like a failure to step away from touring full-time or doing anything like that, and instead, making coffee for five or six or eight hours a day for people.
The thing for me is that I don’t have any other job that I really love. I work at Starbucks, and I don’t have to put my soul into it. I’m present, and it’s fun, especially now– it’s fun to leave the house and see people– but I’m not trying to climb a corporate ladder there. I don’t even want to be promoted. (Laughs) I limit it and think, “Okay, that’s a job,” and then music is my calling in my life. I would be doing music no matter what, even if I only had an hour a week to play guitar on my couch, and I didn’t have the drive to make records. I’m sure I would still be finding time to sing.
It’s funny that what has been romanticized was a life for me that was at times really brutal, the hardest work I’ve ever done, to the point where I was mentally in a bad place, being on the road all the time. I don’t want to sacrifice some of the most real and whole parts of my life completely in order to live on the road permanently. As for playing live shows, it’s not that I don’t want to do that– I’ve missed it very much, and I’ve continued to play. I have a show I’m playing in ten days in Nashville. I’ll continue to play, and I love to play, but I also sat around with friends last night. They came over to the house, and we played along to that album Home by The Dixie Chicks that came out in 2002. I was twelve years old when it came out, and it’s insane how well I know the lyrics from that album. We blasted it on the speakers, played along, and figured out all the different arrangements that they were doing. That was so much fun, just hours… And that’s what I want. I want time for that in my life.
Violet Light is a serious record. The single leading up to it, “Working Man”, focuses on the working class who built the nation. “Flowers” deals with our hand in the ruination of nature. You deal with violence in “Not a Trick of the Eye”. Did you feel pressure because of the state of current affairs to tackle such cosmic concerns?
I don’t know if I feel pressure. It’s more like as a human being, I feel weight; I feel pressure in my life. If I’m reading the news or following any kind of the movements that are happening out there, there’s so much. I’m a raw and sensitive person, feeling things, and then I want to express it and channel it. Sometimes, it’s stuff that’s a really big topic, a really weighty heavy issue, or sometimes it’s interpersonal, which can feel just as or even more weight. But I don’t know that I feel specific pressure, other than the pressure I feel being a human in a crazy world.
Is there a risk in writing lyrics that are too raw, too close to the bone? Do you have to pull back sometimes?
I don’t know. I guess the risk of going there is regretting going there, later on? I do feel like the one thing about songs and poetry, over and over again, I find that the song can be whatever it is to me, and I can have this kind of feeling, or the song can be colored with a certain kind of light– maybe it’s melancholy for me– but then somebody else climbs right inside of it, and they bring their own experiences to it and complete the song in a way. Each song that goes out there gets completed every time it’s listened to because it’s perceived in a different way; they shine a different light on it…
I love that you say that. I listened to Violet Light before I had your album notes, and the song “How Bad I Wanna Live” grabbed me. I was wondering what precipitated that song, but I’d already made my mind up as someone who is middle-aged and realizing his mortality, thinking, “Hey, I want to live as long as I can.” Or I assumed it was a response to the pandemic. Then I read your notes and saw it was about a near-calamity you had while hiking.
I remember when I was just starting out to write songs when I was like eighteen, and I was nervous, like, “Wow! This is like letting people read my diary! People are going to know everything about me!” Then I quickly realized that I would play a song for somebody, and they would tell me what it was about (laughs)! It wasn’t what it was about for me! And I thought, “Oh, wow! I think I like it!”
Like when we were talking about last night, listening through the Dixie Chicks, and there’s that Stevie Nicks song “Landslide”. We pulled up the lyrics and started to read through them, and we’re like, “Oh, I wonder what she means here? I guess she could also mean that the reflection is in the ice…” I mean, how literal? How metaphorical? We were being nerds about all the lyrics because that’s what I do for fun. And I think that’s it’s just so cool, like we’ll never know– we can’t be in Stevie Nicks brain. I’m sure that song is visually and emotionally her own journey to go through with those lyrics, and I just love that. It’s such a freedom. It’s amazing to write something and then feel it so deeply, going to that edge where you wonder, “Is this too raw? Am I saying too much?”
There’s a song on Violet Light– there’s a couple of different drummers who played on the record– and one drummer came over to track, and he had just gone through a pretty difficult and sudden breakup. He asked, “Did you write this song about me?” (Laughs) I said no, and he said, “Well then, what’s it about?” like he was completely convinced– and I won’t share which track, and I won’t say his name– but he was convinced that the song was about him. It was a song that I had a feeling about, wondering how it was going to land. Even before we tracked the drums, I thought, “Okay, this song is working. He is convinced that this song is about him. Now, it feels like it doesn’t belong to me anymore.”
Is that good or bad, giving up ownership of something you wrote?
I think it’s good because the songs don’t belong to me once they’re written and recorded. Once other people hear them, they don’t belong to me anymore because I couldn’t even write them again if I tried. If I tried to write some of those again, I can’t because I don’t have access to that particular brain connection or moment in time that I poured into that thing; I don’t think I could get back there. That was my moment with the song– writing it, recording it, singing it, bringing to it the emotion and the arrangement, everything we could give in that moment. That was my moment, and then it doesn’t belong to me.
Violet Light is quieter, gentler. There’s no blast-off explosion like “Open The Door” for your last record. Why do you go for a more introspective vibe for this record?
They were recorded so differently. Dan Knobler produced How to Break a Fall, the same producer I worked with on Adaptations, the first solo record. Dan and I put together a live band in the studio. We had those players for every song that we did, tracking everything, and I was singing live with a band. We had the dynamic range where we could go as loud and brash and hard as “Open The Door”. I remember when we were working on that one in the studio, Dan asked, “Is this too much? Is this too punk”? (Laughs) I said, “No, this feels like the song; let’s do this.” I’ve had people say, “Wow, when that track came on, I thought that my shuffle had skipped to another artist!” (Laughs)
A lot of How to Break a Fall was built around electric instruments and the tones of an electric guitar and a live rock band, basically. Violet Light was more built around the intimate skeleton of the songs. There’s a lot of acoustic instruments on this record, which I think does give it that more personal feel closeness because with a song like “Open The Door”, you probably wouldn’t hear that one played in a living room– you’d hear it played at a club. For this one, like the song “Margaret”, there’s harmonica, mandolin, guitar, harmony, and upright bass, all those warm acoustic tones. That song, precisely as it’s played on the record, could be played by people sitting on a couch beside each other, with no like amps or effects. I think it captures the woodiness of the acoustic instruments and even the vocals. Ethan Jodziewicz was my co-producer on this one, and he also engineered and mixed it. The way he mixed the vocals, the harmony vocals are very present– you can hear the tone of Ric Robertson’s voice on “Margaret”–there’s this graininess– some beautiful, almost broken graininess– in the way he delivers the phrasing. The mix is just high enough that even if you don’t hear that, it’s passing by you, you still feel it. Those kinds of choices make it feel like a closer listen.
In “Margaret”, you’re writing from another person’s point of view. Is it easy to step outside yourself?
It’s not as comfortable, and it’s not as familiar, but that song just poured out of me. I was thinking about my grandma. So many of those lines are inspired by her. Also, the name “Margaret” is actually a reference to Margaret Atwood. That’s a very random connection because I was listening to a podcast where she was talking about squirrels, and I thought, “Oh, wow! That’s all I’m doing right now, just like looking at squirrels.” (Laughs)
I wanted to make a little memory archive for myself. I wanted to remember the moment that I wrote that song because I won’t forget that it was about my grandma and where a lot of the images come from. My grandpa died twenty years ago, and my grandma is in her 90s now and has been living alone during the pandemic. I got to spend a couple of weeks living with her back in the spring of this year. She’s one of the most inspirational people in my life, the way she takes care of herself, her delight in the simple pleasures, and the way that she continues to seek pleasure in life despite all of the change that she’s seen and all the loss that she’s experienced.
I knew that I wouldn’t forget that because I’ve pictured myself in 20 years, thinking, “Oh my God! When did I write that song?” And I can say, “I wrote that on the steps outside of my house during one of the first weeks of the pandemic back in 2020, and I had just listened to Margaret Atwood, so it’s a note to self.
That’s quite a timestamp. So many of these songs are inspired by current events. Given your folk background, are you a fan of protest music, the kind of folk that gets political?
When I think about the words “political” and “politics,” I end up thinking about power and where the power is. Then I think about people and the common desires and humanity of people. I don’t see a lot of my desires reflected in mainstream political arguing, but I think everything I do is probably political because I do write a lot about dynamics of power and dynamics of human dreams, security, and borders, and what those borders mean, who made the borders, and why we believe in the borders. I think I’m very interested in thinking about things that humans have invented, and some of those things being concepts. We invent the concept, and then we all subscribe to that concept, thinking that it’s the be-all-end-all, but forgetting that we invented this, and yet we’re somehow upholding this and this.
I’ve read something recently about when you’re trying to solve a problem in humanity, don’t look at the people who are affected by the problem; figure out who is profiting from the problem. That is a really interesting thing to me. I’m always trying to read and listen and understand, and I try to read and listen to a lot of different viewpoints, and it probably comes through in my writing.
Besides music, what’s bringing you happiness these days? What are you doing to maintain a level head?
One thing that makes me happy is my chickens. We started out with three chickens, and then one of the hens went broody, so she wanted to hatch some eggs. We don’t have a rooster, so we had to get her some fertilized eggs from another farm. We got her some eggs and let her hatch the chicks. We gave a couple of them away, but we kept two, so now we have five chickens.
And we garden. I love gardening. Now, this is getting into the third season of gardening since the pandemic started. I’m getting ready to do an inventory of the seeds that we still have and look through the seed catalog that comes in the mail and plan what kind of sunflowers I want to plant, what kind of green beans. That makes me very happy.
I also just rearranged a bunch of furniture in house. That gave me a lot of joy (laughs)! But I love spending time with other people; it feels so special these days, you know, having one friend over to hang out and cook dinner together. And going off on a walk at the end of the day with my boyfriend, looking at the beautiful world that we live in– those moments are really important to me.
You’ve been prolific with your releases, looking back to your days with The Stray Birds and your solo records. There’s one release after another. Is there anything on the horizon, or can you relax and enjoy Violet Light?
Actually, I am working on another full-length record. I’m producing it, and I recorded it already (laughs)! I recorded it this summer with a full band. It was a nice balance to do that after taking a very long time to piece Violet Light together remotely. There was that stretch of time in the summer when everybody thought, “Oh, we’re vaccinated! We can do whatever we want. There’s no COVID!” I quickly got back in a studio that a friend of mine who is an engineer had access to. We spent three days tracking some songs in there. I still have a lot of work to do with editing and overdubbing, but the songs are all there and ready to go. But I’m not actively working on it too much at the moment. It was just that the songs were there, and I wanted to record them.
Now I’m focused on trying to balance releasing Violet Light and then taking these songs on tour in May, touring the east coast, and getting out, if possible, to play. One of the things that I’ve noticed about myself is I am usually working on multiple projects at the same time, all of the time. I love that; it gives me a feeling that’s like a wheel. I love every part of this process so much, so I want to be doing all the parts of a process all the time. The only way I can do that is if I have different projects going on. I’m trying to deal with some workaholic addiction, but it’s all the stuff I love to do.