By Franc Sayol
Born in Tallinn, capital of Estonia, 22 years ago, Maria Minerva (real name Maria Juur) only needed six months to become one of the revelations of 2011 when it comes to underground pop. The daughter of a reputed music critic, she grew up with music; at the tender age of thirteen she already was a regular on the club scene of her hometown. Now living in London, she uses the spare time from her Cultural Audiovisual studies to record cosmic pop fantasies in her bedroom with nothing but a laptop and a microphone.
Her natural curiosity for all things music had her find sample sources in places she never thought she would, samples she manipulated meticulously to later use for her nebulous lo-fi beats over which she sings languidly, her voice drenched in echo and reverb. The result is a set of strange and sensual songs on which influences - ranging from industrial experimentation to the most hedonistic house - sit side by side in peace, well-fitted in some weightless melodies. Soon after she started to make music, she sent her songs to the house of intrepid souls that is Not Not Fun, where they picked her up and added her to the family with the cassette “Tallinn At Dawn” (2010) and the 12” “Nature Savage” (100% Silk, 2011). Presenting her recent (and excellent) “Cabaret Cixous”, she'll be performing at the Unsound Festival, to be held between 10th and 16th October in Krakow. We asked her a few questions in order to know more about her magnetic personality.
Your father is a well-known music critic in Estonia which meant you grew up constantly surrounded with all kinds of music. Do you recall the first albums or artists that really grabbed your attention and made you want to get deeper in your musical knowledge?
Hmm, he was massively into synth-pop: Soft Cell, Erasure and The Pet Shop Boys. That might be the reason why my own songs can be very sentimental. But he always had a very wide taste; there was a period when I was just listening to his jazz vinyls, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and all this stuff. He also got me into house, introduced me to Basement Jaxx etc. We are best friends! But our tastes are very different nowadays.
I've read you we're a prominent clubber when you lived in Tallinn. What attracted you to dance music in the first place? What's your favourite period, club-music wise?
I adore dancing. I prefer it to drinking and socializing. In Tallinn there used to be (and still is) this event series called Mutant Disco, the promoters always play the best stuff and fly over the best people. I went to my first Mutant when I was 13 and it was amazing, love at first sight. I love house music.
How was it growing up in Tallinn for music obsessive? Do you have any kind of strong musical scene over there?
There is some kind of scene but it is microscopic. Growing up in Tallinn I just got all my information online and obsessed over it with a bunch of close friends but yeah, in general it was pretty dull. The population of Tallinn is 400,000 and this is the capital, so what do you expect when there’s no-one there…
Were you making music before moving to London? What led you to start making your own tunes?
Yeah, I started during my last year at university; I was doing my BA in art history at the Estonian Academy of Arts. I just started out because it felt right, I thought that I am 21 and if I do not do it now I won’t probably ever do it. And if no-one wants me in their band, then I’ll just go solo. The beginning was very hard for me though, especially the technical side of it.
Has the fact of now living in London affected your sound in anyway or, otherwise, your Estonian background leaves a wider mark on it?
Well I’ve been in London for a year. I do not think the change of surroundings has influenced my music-making that much, or maybe it has. That’s a very abstract question, isn’t it? London is diverse, Tallinn is monochrome, London is too busy, Tallinn was kind of boring… I am caught somewhere in between. But when it comes to PR and stuff like that then it is easier being in London because, yeah, you can get anywhere from here and there is so much going on. As a human being I feel better here, as a musician I am just trying to not let this city exhaust me. I do not know really…
You've called yourself a “sampler alchemist”, is then every sound we hear in your albums sampled? What does this way of working offers you in contrast with working with synths?
I sample a lot but I also play a lot of parts and sing. My sound is a result of my artistic vision but also of my lack of skills and resources. I’d love to have a room full of analogue gear but I have never been able to afford it, haha. Especially after I moved to London to do my MA and living became three times more expensive. Very banal isn’t it. But yeah I have developed my own collage method, made something out of nothing, proved myself - and maybe to others too - that it is possible. I do not think people should fetishize how music is made too much, all music is right if it feels right, sounds right.
When sampling, what sources do you like to use? Do you comb bargain stores and street markets in search of obscure records, or is it more like something that grabs your attention regardless of its origin?
As stupid as that might sounds – I am deeply invested in the internet, I grew up online, first generation that had this “opportunity” probably. For me the internet is the market place for everything, including obscure sounds. I just try to listen very meticulously and find the unconventional in the ordinary. It can be anything, really. Sometimes when people speak in TV shows and have weird rhythm or stress to their sentences/words… I pay attention to this kind of things and it excites me - and from a little bit a song is born.
Although being constructed over samples and having this kind of “deconstructive” element on it, your music sounds really personal and cohesive, could you briefly explain the process you use to record? Is it always the same process?
As said, it just starts from somewhere. I like to come up with melodies. Melody is something that people can relate to. And however weird the background, when you sing it becomes personal straight away, the voice is like the signature.
You record at home, what's your studio configuration? Is it just a laptop or do you use external devices?
Yeah, it has pretty much come down to a laptop and my head.
The title of your last album includes a reference to feminist writer Hélène Cixous. Are you a feminist yourself? How do you feel being in a world (underground pop music) that's normally dominated (especially in the listeners end) by males? Do feminist ideas or concepts play any specific role in your music?
I do not know what being a feminist means nowadays. I find gender roles amusing, I believe in equality and humanity. In the world where I live it is not really an issue – I am surrounded by very intelligent people all the time, my friends are geniuses, gender is not an issue by any means. But there are a lot of configurations/institutions where this is not the case, sadly. I love being a cool underground chick or whatever, I feel sorry for the women in mainstream music who have to please everyone!
You were an intern at The Wire and still a collaborator with them. As some other pop musicians like John Maus you seem to have a big interest in a certain theoretical approach to pop music. Do you agree with this? For you what's the most important aspect in both making and listening to pop music? What would be the main idea or concept in your “pop music theory” (if you actually have one)?
I don’t have a special theory like Mr. Maus does. The most important aspect in music for me is the freedom to do whatever, not think about genres or people’s expectations. Also a freedom to be silly and /or pretentious.
You have been often connected to the hypnagogic wave or this sort of new age revival; do you feel comfortable with any of these tags?
I do not have anything to do with new age in the sense that I am not American and my parents were not into new age in the 80s and so on. The H pop wave – I was very aware of this scene before I got into music making myself and I think it is great, I had been waiting for a wave like this to come along my whole life, haha, so I could do what I wanted to without people telling me that I suck, well not too often!
Until date all your music has been released by Not Not Fun and its sister label 100% Silk. How did you made contact with Amanda Brown? Was it a case of you sending them some tracks or did they come to get you? It's curious because although operating far away from their context (at least in geographical terms) it feels like you perfectly match the label's philosophy and a specific west coast underground vibe. Do you agree with this? Are you open to work with other labels or will you stick with them at the moment?
I just sent them my YouTube link. I was a fan of the label before - and yeah - it was the only demo I ever sent and they replied straight away. In that sense I was pretty determined or conscious. Not Not Fun is great and my next few releases will be released by them, yeah. They are so prolific and I’d recommend people to dig deeper into their catalogue of obscure tapes and all that. Psychedelic underground par excellence.
With “Disko Bliss” as one of the standout tracks of the year (at least in my personal opinion), you've got another 100% Silk release on the way. Will it be, as “Noble Savage” more dance floor oriented than the albums? Have you ever planned producing more canonical club music, for instance without vocals?
100% Silk is meant to be more dancey and so will be my next EP for them. I am kind of sad that people do not consider it to be proper dance music. I’d love to be like a “real” producer, hell yeah!
Your videos and artworks often include this certain kitsch references such as soft porn, hazy VHS textures or primitive virtual reality aesthetics. Do you use these kinds of elements simply because you like them visually or there is any specific idea or concept behind this choices?
Both. I also work with other people as directors and I mostly just let them do what they want. When I do my own simple videos, then again, I just try to keep my eyes open and create something that is at least funny if not original.
You've just started giving live performances and you'll visit Spain in September. What can we expect of your live show? What kind of set-up do you use?
It is a solo show, kind of simple and music-oriented. I won’t do tricks but will try to create an atmosphere or feeling, just get into the music with the audience. I sing quite a lot. Doing lives is weird but I am getting used to it I guess. I hate singing live, I feel really vulnerable doing it but I probably just have to get over myself.
What are your immediate future plans? Both music and non-music wise.
Touring, recording, writing my thesis, touring, recording… PlayGround is a media partner of Unsound Maria Minerva is one of the big revelations in underground pop in 2011. With the excellent album “Cabaret Cixous” recently out on Not Not Fun, she talks to us about her first musical contacts, the difference between Tallinn and London and her peculiar way of working.
Review: “ Cabaret Cixous”
"Tallin At Dawn"