Maria McKee lived the early years of her musical career as the singer of the country rock band Lone Justice. Her song “If Love Is a Red Dress (Hang Me in Rags)” was featured in the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, making her further dominant in the memory of popular culture. However, following her 2007 record Late December, she apparently disappeared from the music scene.
Her new album La Vita Nuovais, therefore, a celebration of McKee’s glorious return. Recently released, the record is both a nostalgic look into her past and a fresh page in her career. It goes without saying that it’s one of this year’s bright treasures so far. We soon felt the need to speak to the artist herself.
We chatted with Maria about her new album, her process of enlightenment, her brother Bryan MacLean, her love towards literature and more. Enjoy.
Click here for the Turkish version of the interview.
First of all, how are you? Hope you are staying safe in the days of pandemic…
I’ve actually been feeling a little
weird this past week. I don’t have a cough, but I’ve been feeling a little bit
Oh, take care.
It hasn’t progressed into anything.
I’ve just been feeling a little strange, so I’ve been staying in bed.
I think that’s the best move. In addition to drinking herbal tea, etc…
Let me congratulate you for your new record, La Vita Nuova. I think it is refreshingly haunting and intimate.
And considering the long road you’ve taken across your early days with Lone
Justice up to the baroque sound of this album, it is practically a new chapter
in your career as well, am I right?
Thank you! Yeah. I hadn’t made an
album in 13 years, so that tells a lot.
As you have said, it has been 13 years. During this period you came out
as queer, became an advocate for LGBTQ rights, began living in two cities and
reshaped your love for literature. You have been active in different ways.
Yeah, and in the making of the album, these experiences really drew me a map. That map sort of opened a door and I walked through it.
There are lots of literary influences in the album and in the lyrics. In
a lyric for “The Last Boy” you say: “I have an existential understanding of /
What the poets mean when they refer to love”. Have you had, let’s say, a
grand enlightenment during the recent years? If so, how has that experience
paved the way for the album?
I was in a lot of pain. I was living
a life that was buttoned down a little bit. I can’t really explain, but it was
almost like I was living in a shadow. I just couldn’t find desire, and it had
started to break my heart. I am still married, and my husband (the director Jim
Akin) is like my brother, my father… We’re family but we did not have a
romantic marriage for a long time. We were just friends, really. I thought that
would be okay, that would be enough. But it wasn’t. I felt regret and longing
to a certain degree that my heart was breaking, and there was nothing to do but
to write songs. It was the only thing that saved me.
So it was the light at the end of a dark tunnel.
La Vita Nuova has a complex map of influences involving the poets Keats
and William Blake. Can you give us a basic guideline involving your greatest
My grandmother on my mother’s side
studied Esoteric Arts. She was into Rosicrucianism and practiced the Occult.
She was also an intellectual, she studied and wrote poetry. I have always
kept those poems with me. I have admired a particular poem of hers about a
little dog. And that was the inspiration for my song, “Little Beast”.
William Blake, on the other hand, is one of my spirit guides…
I guess he was the spirit guide for lots of people, and was so ahead of
Yeah. He’s important. I have spent
time with him on the astral plane.
He’s shown me some extraordinary things.
You borrowed the title La Vita
Nuova from a work by Dante Aligheri. How does Dante’s legacy reflect the
album? How strong are the two connected?
This album is not a version of (Dante’s) La Vita Nuova, but I read the book while I was making it. I was very much influenced by Dante’s approach to writing about the muse from afar. For me, I had to focus my attention to the muse that I created in my head. It was the embodiment of my desires. Not a real or living muse, but a phantom that I created. For me, (Dante) is the best. He was the one most successful in keeping the muse as a guide throughout his entire work life, and also in transforming the muse into exactly what you need it to be for creativity.
This phantom is your guide throughout your work. That was the process for me. It was also the philosophy of this particular literary movement called Fedeli D’Amore. It speaks to such a degree about desire, the beloved, the beauty and all the things you project on the muse that it elevates one to this divine state which they call dosis, where you are in a state of hypnosis, in a higher state of consciousness. That’s what happened to me. I felt that I was elevated.
You mention a certain muse in the song “Page of Cups”. Is that the same
I did create a muse that I used as a
life model, a mantra. It came upon me like a vision. Creativity arrives all at
once, you never know if it will happen again. This may as well be the last
album I ever make.
I hope not! (mutual laughs)
I hope not, but you just don’t know.
I don’t write unless I have to. I don’t write unless it’s coming out of me in
obsessive ways. I can’t just go in a room and write mediocre things, which is
why I don’t write albums very often. There has to be a drive that makes you
feel like you’ll die if you don’t.
One thing I have noticed about this record is that your vocal performance
has become a lot more operatic and has reached new heights. Do you have a
secret recipe for people who want to improve their vocal talents?
(laughs) Thank you. I had to become more operatic in a way. I learned how to sing above my previous performances, and it was safer for my vocal cords. It’s hard to explain. It was a way of means to and end, really.
The memory of your brother (Bryan MacLean, the legendary singer of the
band Love) is present in songs like “Page
of Cups”, “I Just Want to Know That You’re Alright”, and, if I’m not wrong,
Yeah. Bryan is actually present in the entire album. He was my main influence, artistically, and he was my best friend. You know, father, brother, soulmate, everything. In his youth, Bryan was influenced by some big names in the musical theater: Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, Rodgers & Hammerstein and all that stuff.
I think the reason people have said
that the song “I Just Want to Know That
You’re Alright” evokes Love is its chord structure, not the melodies. It
sounds like something Bryan would have done. And the strings, too.
Although the songs are immensely nostalgic, it seems that you’re particularly
looking ahead to the future. Are you excited by what future may bring?
My life has always been shaped by
surprises, so I have no idea. I’m open to surprises. I’ve created a life in
front of myself where spiritually I have no fears and romantically I have no
containments. My heart is free and open. Creatively, the sky is the limit.
I have no idea.
Maybe the current situation the world foreshadows –I’ll put a pun here- a
new life for us?
(laughs) All I can do is hope, you
know. I think everyone’s gonna slow down, and they’re not gonna take things for
granted. I hope we’ll learn how to help each other. We’ll see.