Maria Kelly reflects upon the journey she’s taken, and challenges she’s encountered, in the creation of her debut album.
” [The album] touches on mental health and figuring your way through those issues as well as navigating through your twenties.”
A little past the halfway point of Maria Kelly’s The Sum of the In-between, on a song entitled permission, we hear a woman recite the following: “If you could go back to the version of yourself that had just finished college, what would you tell her about the time between then and now?” It’s a question that, on a blissfully sunny summer evening, feels like a natural way to conclude my conversation with Maria Kelly as she edges ever closer to the release of her deftly-penned and deeply affecting debut record.
A considered pause hangs in the air before she poignantly offers the advice she’d share with her younger self. “I would tell her that she can do hard things. Not to give so much of herself to other people. And, finally, that she deserves the right help and support to get through whatever she’s going through.” That reinstatement of self-worth is a stark contrast to the Maria we meet on panic, the opening track of her record. An emotive sound collage centred on percussion mimicking a pounding heartbeat that culminates in a recording of the Dublin-based artist (made when she was seventeen) in a fraught state whispering, “I can’t communicate any of this to anyone.” In the initial moments of the album, Kelly cultivates a feeling of claustrophobia felt within one’s body and mind, launching the listener into a body of work that is constantly in conversation with itself.
Over The Sum of the In-between’s succinct thirty-four minutes, the lyrical themes are anchored by anxiety, self-doubt and the importance of support. The latter is conveyed through a series of voice notes from friends stitched into the seams of these delicate soundscapes. In those brief messages there’s humour, reassurance and, most importantly, love. Punctuating the lush tonal palette with these affirmations adds another perspective to the period in which Kelly was recording the LP. “Me and someone very close to me had very serious mental health issues over the last three years. [The album] touches on mental health and figuring your way through those issues as well as navigating through your twenties,” she explains. “Throughout the process, a lot of what made that time better was my friends and people around me. Both from the perspective of them supporting me, but also because people are always going through their own thing, as well. They can almost always give you the advice that they should be telling themselves. So, I thought it would be really nice to hear all these different voices throughout, even if they’re kind of saying the same thing sometimes.”
To any songwriter the process of writing and releasing a debut album is a monumental milestone. It’s a vitally important introduction. An opportunity to capture who you are at a particular point in your life, and make sense of that time. To be so revealing of oneself can be a daunting task to comprehend and overcome. For Kelly, it seems to have been an essential exercise in her personal and professional growth. “The album is a chronicle of the last three years of my life. I had a really weird three years and being able to write about it was definitely cathartic. It was difficult, in a way, because it was a different way of processing things for me. But certain tracks, such as 1bed, I wrote in the space of 10 minutes. It was a very peculiar splurge on a page that came from a feeling I was untangling in therapy at the time. It was almost like pulling something out and seeing it. And then being like, “Wow, I didn’t realise I was feeling that or that it was even there inside me.” I suppose, mostly, the album was my way of making something out of the last three years and trying to change my perspective around things,” she explains.
Within that three year period, Maria Kelly graduated from Dublin’s renowned BIMM Institute, a hub that has spawned recent success stories in Irish music such as Fontaines D.C. and The Murder Capital. Speaking about her post-college expectations and experiences – many of which inform the stark lyricism throughout The Sum of the In-between – Kelly is unwavering in detailing the myriad of pressures she put upon herself at that formative time. “When I finished college, I fully believed things would, immediately, happen for me. But after an intense four years of studying music, when I graduated I was like, “I do not want to play. I needed to take a break from music. I didn’t feel like I wanted to do the thing I had just spent so long doing,” she recalls.
However, affording herself the space to take a breather from her craft felt as though it would be to the detriment of the development of her career. She continues, “In the Irish music industry, it’s so easy to feel as though if you’re not doing anything, people will forget about you. After a while, I was convinced I was irrelevant and no one cared about whether I made music or not. There’s also the pressure of social media, too. I was seeing other people progress in their careers. It’s like being in a Catch-22 where you’re like, “I don’t want to do it, but if I don’t do it now am I going to ruin it for myself forever?”
Removing herself from the claustrophobia of the Irish music scene, a period of restoration came when Maria moved to Berlin, returning to Dublin in late 2019. The proceeding months saw her and her partner relocate to a cottage in a remote part of Wexford, within walking distance to a beach. “It was a total escape from everything that was going on. It was also the first time I had a proper studio space for myself. I kind of got to do the runaway to a cabin and write loads of songs fantasy!” It was in this house where Kelly wrote her debut, emailing tracks to her long-term collaborator and producer, Matt Harris.
This long-distance process of collaboration with Harris is one Kelly has been used to since they began working together in 2015. Over the course of eight months of being tucked away in the isolated setting of the cottage, Maria brought recordings of songs to the nearby beach, endlessly treading the sandy terrain before sending takes over to Harris.
One can suggest that close listening to the music through headphones serves the overall mood of the thirteen songs best. From the offset, an enveloping intimacy emanates from the interplay between the arrangements and Kelly’s vocal performances. Musically, the quickened melodies plucked on acoustic guitar on good enough evoke Big Thief, while Soccer Mommy feels like a guiding light on nobody but me. Elsewhere, the luminous burst of synth in the final moments of like I used to draw heavily from Sufjan Steven’s wheelhouse of stirring emotion in his audience. All of these acts and artists use their gently textured compositions to surreptitiously submerge their audience into similar experiences or emotions detailed in the world of the song. Maria Kelly effectively enacts that special quality in this record.
Arriving at a time where many people’s worlds were turned upside-down, many of the lines mapping The Sum of the In-between’s trajectory will undoubtedly provide guidance to anyone listening in need of support. How does it feel for Maria to revisit the thoughts and feelings that consumed her and spilled into her songwriting? “It’s mostly nice to know I’m somewhere else. Also, when you capture talking to yourself, talking in a certain way that’s negative, it reminds you that that never helps. We struggle with so much as human beings and we have an inherent layer of guilt where we often think, “Why don’t I feel like this? Or, I shouldn’t feel like this.” It’s nice to see the progression through the album and know I’m in a different place. And to know that if I do get in that place again, I have the perspective of the things that don’t work and the things that maybe do.”
The Sum of the In-between is out October 15 on VETA Music. Maria plays The Workman’s Club on Friday November 12, €15. She also appears on Seconds Away, a LPSS enabled showcase of new Irish music which is available to stream on Nialler9’s You Tube channel.