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For the last decade, I’ve been an ardent follower of Argentine singer-songwriter María Pien. I first came upon her work in the early 2010s, shortly after the release of her debut album La Vuelta Manzana (2012). That would put me squarely in my mid-20s, usually the time in one’s life when one shakes off the doe-eyed naivete of youth to take their first true strides into adulthood. Over the following years, she would become the artist I’ve seen the most times in concert. 

The fact that her music entered my life in this period, coupled with us being more or less the same age, has meant that witnessing her artistic growth through the years has essentially served as a parallel to my own growth as a human being. I’ve been able to trace milestones, accomplishments, hard-earned lessons, and even personal tragedies to specific releases, specific songs, and even individual lines from her oeuvre.  As I move forward in life, this intertwined narrative continues to unfold in ever more nuanced ways. Each new album María Pien releases seems to arrive at a moment when its themes echo my current preoccupations or challenges, almost as if her work serves as a sonic mirror to my evolving self.

And as with any record of a bygone era, the further we get to that starting point – the sweetly-strummed indie-folk chords of La Vuelta Manzana – the stranger it feels that we were ever those people at all.

Certainly María Pien’s most recent album, the newly released Recordar / Volver a Pasar, exhibits a sound and aesthetic that is virtually unrecognizable from that debut. It’s a heady record, heavy with grief and complexity of emotion, dripping with pure and sincere feeling. It is murky, complex, and absolutely gorgeous, both in its compositions and in the ideas explored within them. 

Photo by Josefina Chevalier

Recordar / Volver a Pasar is an album inspired largely by the passing of María Pien’s father, and her experiences making sense of his departure. It’s not a mere tribute to a father, but an acknowledgment of the many shades and complexities of their relationship. Recordar / Volver a Pasar delves into the emotions surrounding loss, not merely as an elegy but as a complex tapestry of sentiments that encapsulates love, regret, forgiveness, and the intricate dance of human connection. It is a testament to the emotional odyssey that comes with reconciling one’s past, a journey both intensely personal yet remarkably universal.

It is honest and personal, unafraid to be strange, to be difficult, to be jarring. It’s textured and nuanced, experimenting with sounds and found media in a way that her recent string of releases seemed to be amping up for. It is the most rewarding listening experience in her discography.

Recordar/Volver a Pasar is María Pien’s first full-length solo album of all original material since 2014’s Malinalli, but nobody could say she’s been resting on her laurels. In the time since, she’s put out a string of fascinating releases: the 2017 EP Tres Poemas (a complex, layered, decidedly progressive conceptual piece featuring spoken-word poetry, labyrinthine song structures, and post-rock influences); the 2018 album Afuera el Sol Estalla (a gorgeous and richly-layered collection of songs written by her peers in the music scene); the 2019 album Viaje al Centro de la Selva Eléctrica by her band Ruiseñora (a psychedelic romp full of pop-rock bangers); and the 2020 EP Una Película (a fittingly cinematic experience anchored around its astonishing title track). This on top of her work performing with the bands GULI and Melanie Williams & El Cabloide, as well as acting as producer for artists such as Emilia Molina, Bela Zugasti, and Jaz Pimentel.

She’ll be performing with a full band this coming Thursday August 31st at Centro Cultural Konex, performing songs from Recordar / Volver a Pasar and throughout her career. You can find tickets here. I recently spoke to María about the making of this album, as well as her career trajectory and what lies ahead.

Note: the below interview has been condensed and edited for clarity, as well as translated into English.

What have you been listening to lately?

I’ve been listening to two albums by Pauline Oliveros. She’s a sound researcher, exploring soundscapes and the art of listening. She has a book that serves as a touchstone for those of us interested in the subject of sound from a more sensitive and experimental perspective. One of her albums is called Deep Listening, which features a bowed instrument and a wind instrument, recorded inside a cistern. I’m not sure how deep the cistern is, but it’s as if they went down about 60 feet into this cistern to record. The experience is incredibly emotional. The music is constructed in a way that isn’t traditionally tonal. There are moments when some recognizable tonal tensions emerge, but it’s mostly about the emotion and the immediacy of the moment and what unfolds.

She has other albums as well, and another one I’ve been listening to is Accordion & Voice, a recorded accordion and voice improvisation. The music is pretty meditative. I also started listening to a new album by Misi. I haven’t heard the whole thing yet, but it’s on my to-do list. I love everything Misi does, the various ways she approaches sensitivity. I’m really into it.

I wasn’t familiar with Misi until recently. I think Elefante en la Habitación shared her album on Instagram, and I gave it a listen. I really enjoyed it, especially the track “Cinturón.” We picked it as one of our favorite songs of the month. Going back to these experimental albums you mentioned, it seems like your interest in the more experimental side of sound is increasingly appearing in your own music. Can you talk about your relationship with that?

It has to do with auditory sensitivity, something I’ve always had since I was little. I remember having intense reactions to sounds—joy and exuberance when dancing to music I liked, but also significant distress when certain sounds scared me. For instance, I have vivid, early memories of being scared by the sound of a vacuum cleaner or a nebulizer—those loud, jarring noises. So, I totally get why animals get scared during thunderstorms.

And yeah, I live with that sensitivity. Shouting and violent expressions really bother me, as do loud mechanical noises. Don’t even get me started on neighbors who blast their music. So what interests me is the emotional aspect of sound, like how it can induce anxiety or fear, but also how it can bring pleasure or a sense of calm. It’s about how our sensory experiences can either stabilize or destabilize our nervous system—that’s the motivation behind my search.

It stems from my own experience of feeling either stabilized or destabilized by sound. Since this is how I experience it, I’m also interested in contributing through my own music. For example, I love ASMR. I consume a lot of ASMR content on YouTube because it relaxes me immensely. Or sounds like healing music—if it’s just singing bowls, for instance, giving yourself over to that experience is wonderful. You can even do it with a piano; lying underneath a grand piano while someone plays is something I’d highly recommend. The vibrations are transformative.

I never would have thought of that.

It’s beautiful. The person playing has to do it with a lot of love, especially if you’re lying underneath. It goes back to intentionality and the way you go about it. Vibration has the power to stabilize the nervous system and assist in healing processes. With this album, the attempt was to convey some of that healing journey through sound, and maybe also capture moments of inner conflict. With some of the tracks, the sound isn’t all feel-good; it’s a mix.

Let’s talk about your discography a bit. La Vuelta Manzana and Malinalli are albums we love, but they feel musically clean, sonically refined. Then something like Tres Poemas comes along, and there’s a shift. Suddenly your music is much more textural, with a wider range of sounds. It feels like something changed. What happened?

I think the main difference between those first two albums and the ones that followed is that I had more input in the production process. During the making of La Vuelta Manzana, even though I was totally inexperienced, I was listened to and respected by Diego Rolón, who produced it. He was a great mentor to me, not just in guitar but in how to make an album. We used to say that La Vuelta Manzana was like “album-making school.” I started from scratch, not even knowing what a click track was, and slowly got the hang of it. I realized that making an album can take many different paths; there’s no single formula. This fascinated me, and I recognized that I had so much to learn. I still have a ton to learn, particularly when it comes to arrangements and musical production. I don’t have a formal background in sound engineering; everything I know I’ve picked up by watching and listening.

So, those first two experiences, La Vuelta Manzana and Malinalli, were different from each other, made with different teams. But afterward, I had a more hands-on role. Another shift was in my aesthetic interests; they started to broaden. I was never comfortable with the way those early albums were received—like they tried to pigeonhole me as this girl who writes sweet songs on her guitar. It was always about my “sweet” and “pretty” voice. I never felt comfortable with that characterization because my internal emotional world is anything but just “pretty.”

So, I needed my music to start showing a broader emotional spectrum. I find it a bit disingenuous to lean solely into the “pretty” aspect. It’s just not representative of who I am. Everyone’s journey is different, of course. And time has a way of maturing your aesthetic ideas and artistic pursuits. Not to be overlooked, my dad’s death also played a significant role. It brought me face to face with my own shadow, but in a much more raw and intense way than before because of everything that was happening. My dad passed away in the summer of 2016, and Tres Poemas came out in 2017. So, I think it’s a confluence of all these factors.

“Un Minuto” is a track I heard you perform live some four years ago. How did you choose these tracks? I know some didn’t make the cut. How long have you been working on Recordar/Volver a Pasar

This album has had a long journey. The starting point was that summer at the end of 2015. My dad was hospitalized on December 10th, the day Mauricio Macri took office—a truly terrible day. I was in Córdoba, deeply concerned about all the news I was getting about my dad being in the hospital, and my mom telling me, “Just finish your tour, don’t rush, come back on the day you had planned,” which I think was around the 15th. So, I returned a few days later.

My dad passed away on January 21st. So, I only had a brief time to be there with him. He had an advanced stage of cancer with extensive metastasis. It was so advanced that they couldn’t even determine where the cancer had originated. We didn’t even know he had cancer until a few days after he was admitted and started undergoing tests. It was all very sudden and swift. I did my best to document this journey, because it felt important to keep some sort of written record in notebooks.

I had this small notebook that I carried around at that time. Many texts in it were used for songs, while others weren’t. They were thoughts and feelings that crossed my mind, and I wrote them down as a sort of cathartic release. Another thing I did that summer was take a portrait photography workshop with Lula Bauer. I ended up taking a self-portrait that, for me, really captures what I was going through at that moment. My intention for taking the workshop was to capture photos of my dad in the hospital. But I couldn’t—it was too much. When I was there, all I could do was talk to him. We had some really meaningful conversations. I would often play music for him—I had this small guitar that someone loaned me. It was small enough to fit in a closet, and I would spend my afternoons and sometimes nights there with him.

I knew I had to be there, especially because all my siblings have children and I’m the only one who doesn’t. So, I was the most available, and my mom was there a lot too. My presence also provided her some relief.

I share all this because it really forms the foundation—the creative wellspring. I started writing songs based on these notebook entries. Some songs, like “Un minuto,” literally took a minute to write. It’s one of those blessed songs that just come out whole—lyrics, music, everything. But it took me a long time to be able to perform them without crying, without feeling that same emotional intensity that hit me when I first wrote them. That was the hardest part.

That’s why I decided to let them marinate for a while, to wait for the right moment when some of that emotional rawness had started to heal. After my dad passed away, there was the process of emptying his apartment, finding his personal belongings, and discovering who he was and things about him that I never knew. And not having the chance to talk to him about any of that was tough. I didn’t have an idyllic relationship with my dad. It was complex and I wanted that to come through in my work. I didn’t want to create a monument to my dad, as if to say he was a wonderful father—which he was, but I also had a conflicted relationship with him, especially during my teenage years. I wanted to show those emotional contradictions, you know? Learning that you can deeply love someone who you may also reject in other ways, and realizing that this rejection is tied to things you yourself carry, traits you’ve inherited because you’re cut from the same cloth.

So, I had to reconnect with my dad’s presence in my life after he was no longer physically around. I kept doing other things, releasing two albums—an EP and another where I mostly didn’t write the lyrics. It became clear to me that I was unable to use my own words in those projects because, well, I was at a loss for words. I couldn’t articulate what I needed to say. Not yet. I just couldn’t. Really, I couldn’t.

Releasing an album like Afuera el sol estalla was like a break for me—a much lighter, happier project where I could focus on covering songs and borrowing words from others. Yet the themes still resonated. For instance, the song “Agradezco” from Niké‘s album was about her mom’s passing and deeply influenced my own work. Her album was called Estábamos Tan Tristes Que No Podíamos Cantar (We Were So Sad We Couldn’t Sing), recorded after her mom died. The song spoke about remembering and thanking her mom, and that spoke to me. I felt like thanking and remembering my dad. It talked about mountains, and it felt like those songs tackled themes that I needed to explore in my own work but just hadn’t found the words or the strength to do so without breaking down.

There were other projects, like Ruiseñora, which were more light-hearted and fun. They were playful and recreational. But then came a point where I realized I couldn’t put off dealing with all these emotions and impulses that had surfaced since my dad’s passing. I made the decision to share them. Another album that emotionally supported me throughout this process was Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens. I wanted my work to contribute to the broader conversation about how we deal with death and the new ways the departed continue to manifest in our lives, just like these albums had done for me.

I felt more healed, stronger. The words I had written back then, I could now arrange coherently, giving them a narrative thread. I think my work can make a similar contribution to that of these albums that have helped me so much. They provided a safe space for me to cry or to grapple with the contradictions of varying emotional states. So, in sharing my work, I hope it can serve others in the same way those albums served me—a safe space where you feel understood in the complexity and mess of what you’re feeling. Now it’s my turn to give back by sharing my own experiences and insights, for whoever finds them nourishing or useful.

The end result is wonderful. As I’ve told you several times, the album is a true beauty and conveys an emotional catharsis that I may not fully understand, but you can definitely feel it in the songs. Going back to Afuera el Sol Estalla, what did you learn or gain from singing other people’s songs throughout that period?

I learned so much. For me, interpretation is a deeply creative endeavor. I’m interested in making choices and taking creative liberties. The learning experience and enrichment I got from Afuera el Sol Estalla was immense. It gave me the confidence to trust that what moved me deeply would also resonate with others. It confirmed that following what calls to me, what emotionally affects me, was the right path. And learning through the words of others is just invaluable. I always emphasize how crucial it is to listen—in every sense of the word. To listen to the history of music, to try and broaden our horizons and perspectives in what we listen to, even venturing into genres or musical styles that we might not initially be drawn to. The key is to set aside prejudice and just listen, to find the authentic core in a multitude of expressions.

The same holds true when it comes to listening to my peers. It was immensely enriching, not just creatively but also in terms of human relations. When it comes to performing, I discovered that I really enjoy it. It allowed me to delve into that aspect and realize there’s creative worth in covering and interpreting songs. I mean, it’s about making choices, adding your own unique flair. The very word ‘interpretation,’ both in its etymology and its meaning, embodies this idea. An interpreter doesn’t just translate; they add their own real-time perspective. I like to operate on that understanding. It’s my personal translation of what I take in and what touches me. This journey has been an incredible learning curve for me.

We also loved Ruiseñora’s album. Last year, the group released “Tanta Data,” an amazing song. Is Ruiseñora still active, or do you plan on picking it up again?

Right now, it’s marinating, so to speak. I think it could always make a comeback. Ruiseñora is primarily a group of friends rather than just a band. We’ve often said that it’s mainly an experiment in friendship and music. Within that experiment, the possibility always exists. But at the moment, it’s on the back burner. Friendship is the most important thing in this group, and that friendship is still strong and valuable. I think it’s more about timing—about synchronicity. If the timing aligns, we’ll become active again.

I guess at some point, maybe this year, we’ll release a track from the same session as “Tanta Data.” There are two more that haven’t been released yet, but we’re waiting because that track was chosen for a compilation. Right now, each of us is focused on different projects, and that’s how it naturally evolved. Since friendship is the core, we don’t want to force it.

I know you’ve done some shows recently. How has it been performing the songs and reliving those moments live? And what are your plans for future gigs? Will there be more performances?

There’s more to come. I’m going to perform with a band again, after about four or five years. Performing songs from Recordar has been deeply moving, and I really appreciate the intimacy it fosters. I think because the album is so documentary in nature, it allows people to find resonance with their own stories. Many come up to share their stories, or just give me a hug or say “thank you” or “let’s cry.” It’s a very emotional live experience, and I try to be as open as possible to facilitate that. Now, I’m excited to experiment further.

I find that the ideal format for this, given the intimacy it promotes, is to perform the songs solo or in a scaled-down setting, like in someone’s home. It facilitates deeper listening. In larger venues, you sometimes have distractions—ambient noise, staff who are there to work and might not be as engaged. Those elements can be distracting, so a home setting feels just right for this album.

Last year, I performed many of these songs in a duo format with Juan Pérez, the bandoneonist who also played on the album. He’s been a valuable musical ally. I offered him general narratives and specific stories for each song, some melodic guidelines, but mostly I wanted the bandoneon to be a character in itself, almost like in a theatrical scene. Growing up in Almagro, the colors of tango, the hues of Buenos Aires, have always resonated with me in a special way. My mom used to tell me when I was younger, and perhaps a bit more closed-off in my musical taste, “Tango will wait for you.” That’s something that has stayed with me.

You can listen to Recordar / Volver a Pasar on Bandcamp.