Soulful lead singer of roots rockers Lone Justice, Maria McKee embarked on a solo career that often reflected the country and blues accents of that band's work while also taking on a more eclectic and personal outlook, both in lyrics and music
Maria McKee had been out of the proverbial spotlight for some time, her creative talents re-engaging with her first love of acting, performance and the musical tapestries that accompany such activities. During the last ten years or so, her philosophical worldview has evolved, grown, matured. And as chapters from her diaries were torn off, old values were questioned, and new ideas were pontificated as the decade drew to a close. Maria McKee was recast; reborn.
Candid and passionate, she’s, quite simply, had a beatific awakening and in a crescendo of prose, her new album ‘La Vita Nuova’ unlocks her story, sketching out her journey that started many moons ago when she sang in her bedroom with her older brother, the late, great musical innovator Bryan MacLean. Along the way she retooled punk and country in Lone Justice, released a string of evocative and eclectic solo records, wrote chart topping hits and touched millions of people before seemingly disappearing…
It’s been some time since the last studio album ‘Late December’ that was released back in 2007. During that time Maria was working alongside her then husband in independent film, casting, producing, scoring and acting in them.
Some of the new album sounds like modern show tunes for musical extravaganzas that are still to be penned. ‘Little Beast’ is almost Sondheim-esque and ‘I Should Have Looked Away’ has a real stagey feel to it. That kind of drama dovetails into what is a very personal experience, almost like the listener is being given the opportunity to pry into a private life that’s unfolding; to overhear a set of very rich storylines. ‘Effigy Of Salt’, title track ‘La Vita Nouva’ and ‘Let Me Forget’ are all beautifully written stories of relationships in various states of evolution or disrepair. And, ‘However Worn’ is like a slice of American gothic.
“I guess I was at that mid-point in life, looking at death, like a ‘Death In Venice’ moment where you have that vision of youth and beauty and it possesses you and you start to grieve for the loss of all the things that youth and beauty allow you to experience; I was grieving at not having had a child and also witnessing young lovers in a relationship that became a friendship and not knowing how to take a step beyond that.”
There’s a real intensity to the record, it’s a wordy conversation that almost demands a level of deep concentration.
“The album became sort of an elegy to desire, almost a fond farewell. So, to all intents and purposes it is ‘La Vita Nuova’ (The New Life). I chose that title because I identified with Dante’s idea of the artist’s muse, the worship of the beloved from afar, the love of someone who you don’t know personally who inspires poetry.”
Challenging and orchestral, these are confessional songs with the concept of the artist’s muse being a bit of a metaphor and since writing the album Maria has come out as queer.
“Much of queer liberation is finding a way to live beyond hetero ruminative models we’re conditioned to live with. This album is, in a way, an exorcism, a sort of purging of those ideas and expectations”
There’s a decidedly spiritual feel to the album too. Previously the ‘You Gotta Sin To Be Saved’ and ‘Life Is Sweet’ albums ramped up that devotional element to the music and Maria’s background with religion certainly continues to impinge on the songwriting.
Following a recent psychic awakening around her mother’s advancing dementia, Maria went on to pursue a more disciplined spiritual practice and started studying the occult.
“I’m a member of an esoteric lodge, we study the hermetic kabbalah, the order of the Golden Dawn, which was the group in London that formed from the 1800s, where people like William Butler Yeats and those sorts of intellectuals studied.”
Track ‘Page Of Cups’ suggests a deeper metaphysical element, it also sounds like a dead ringer for ‘Forever Changes’-era Love as does ‘Just Wanted To Know You Were Alright’, both are heavily influenced by brother Bryan MacLean.
“Bryan still communicates with me and I think that I probably should have given him songwriting credits, he’s was very much involved spiritually in the making this record, I think people don’t realise how influential he was to Love and how much he influenced Arthur.”
A homage to new life, the completion of ‘La Vita Nuova’ saw Maria’s life entirely change and illustrates an important period the artist’s life.
“It’s a really personal record; all I can do is tell my story. People can find their own meaning in it, taking them deeper, perhaps, into something they need to experience, I think that’s what music and art does.”
“Bracing, thrilling” ★★★★ Pitchfork