Maria Minerva

'My biggest fear is that I will end up sounding twee,' confides the Estonian electronic whiz...

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 9 Jul 2014
  • min read
Underneath her archaic electronic wizardry, Estonian artist Maria Minerva is a classic songwriter.

Although she goes to great lengths to obscure her vocal melodies under a web of electric aftershock, she seems to have a great affinity with the mechanics of classic pop.

At the heart of her experimental sound lies an intrinsic understanding of emotional pull, an off-kilter lyrical approach and a melodic tendency that gets you hooked.

Employing tactile hypnagogic arrangements in her retro-focused sound, Maria seems to cherry pick her favourite electronic moments from the last forty years for inspiration.

Surfacing as a London based bedroom producer in 2011, and releasing a limited-run cassette tape, she generated a deafening buzz for her decaying loops and lo-fi technique.

She has since developed into a sharp artist, as motivated by the world around her as she is her own theoretical study into cultural, social and musical forces.

A constant traveller, she has an ability to tap into and process the local electronic scene around her, while her recent relocation to New York has allowed her a new urban anonymity.

Maria’s third album Histrionic, released in April, sees her clear some of the fog around her vocals as she brings her songwriting to the fore.

We caught up her just after its release to learn about her musical influences (from The Cardigans to Cosey Fanni Tutti), find out why she battles her instinctive ‘twee-ness’ and hear where she thinks the future of electronic music lies.

This interview forms part of our Women & Machines feature, which includes Cosey, Nik Void, Planningtorock, Gazelle Twin, Little Boots, Naomi Kashiwagi and more…

I can’t really mark the moment but my background is quite specific because my dad has always written about music. He always had a lot of CDs and records lying around. I don’t remember getting into electronic music, for me it’s always been there. When I was 15 I went to see Kraftwerk with my dad. Before that, independently, I remember getting really into house music.

When did you first think you could have a go?
Actually, it was really strange. I was doing my internship at The Wire and I was feeling quite intimidated by the whole UK scene. But I was bored and alone subletting in Camden. I didn’t have anything else to do so I got Ableton for my computer and just started. What followed was a huge paradigm shift in terms of how I thought about music as a maker rather than listener.

What influence did your degree in aural and visual culture at Goldsmiths have on you?
I was reading Kodwo Eshun’s More Brilliant Than the Sun at the time – nowadays there is a PDF circulating of his book – but I had the honour of owning a paper copy because one of my ex-boyfriends gave it to me as a present. I was surrounded by well informed people when I was growing up so they’d give me things and I was very lucky. Kodwo writes about black music in the context of futurism so it’s pretty much all electronic music. That was a massive influence. Even now, a lot of the music I listen to is black music.

How do you feel about music technology like Ableton and Pro Tools? Do you see those programmes as an enhancer or as the crux of your music?
I had no relationships with musical instruments, either acoustic or digital, when I was growing up. I was a computer person – when I was 12 we got broadband connection so I’m part of the first generation raised on the internet.

I’ve had no training in it; I’m self-taught, as are most people in electronic music. They do have music programmes at university but I don’t actually know that many musicians who actually took those courses.

Ableton is very intuitive, and the idea of something being intuitive often feels female. We’re talking over Skype now, but because I slept in, I’m still in bed. I’m always all over my computer, it’s my partner. It’s become a massive part of my life. People are in bed making music – it’s quite intimate. You wouldn’t take your sampler to bed but you can definitely take your laptop. In a weird way it’s a more intimate relationship these days.

Historically more men study engineering or work as sound engineers but as someone who’s started out recently, I don’t feel that all. You just need a functioning brain and you can pretty much work it out.

Cosey Fanni Tutti is one of my biggest idols, as is her husband Chris Carter, who builds his own instruments - which is another technological level altogether.

I think it’s improved slightly. It’s been a conscious choice to let people hear my vocals because, for three years, all the criticism I got was that people couldn’t hear my singing. It was interesting to hear how it turned out, because I didn’t even know myself.

I could’ve made a normal indie record at this stage but I tried to avoid that bate because I have a very problematic relationship with indie music. My biggest fear is that I will end up sounding twee. So I have discarded so many songs in the process because I was afraid they sounded too twee. I wanted it to sound weird and alienating, so I guess I succeeded!

Why are you so scared of twee?
I don’t know! I grew up listening to Stereolab so I am kinda twee. But I wanted to take it a step further. They always had this combination of having a great song but also a weird way of producing it, so I guess that’s my starting point too. But I just want to make it even more weird and even more sad. Happy-go-lucky indie music is one of my most hated things in this world.

You mention Cosey Fanni Tutti or Laetitia Sadier from Stereolab – are there any other female producers or songwriters that have inspired you along the way? How important have they been for you?
I remember when I was pre-teen and before I got into cool music I was actually listening to Garbage and The Cardigans. They were major in my life before I became a conscious music listener. All the women that I listened to were quite avant-garde or interesting. The singer songwriter thing has never been my cup of tea. I got into Sonic Youth so naturally I got into Kim Gordon’s work. She’s a really interesting musician. She’s a living legend herself by now. I was into gay synth-pop and female experimental music. People like Laurie Anderson…

Was it their approach that appealed, or their voice?
It had to be their vocals, even though they were all involved in making all the music. Shirley Manson wasn’t just a pretty face, for example. What I enjoyed about them was that they were present in the music at all times. They had a specific authorial position or some sort of pose. The pose is something you imagine when you listen to the vocals. And that’s something I’m trying to do in my music. I want to be present at all times – which is why people love me or hate me – I’m always obnoxiously present. I like the human element.

I always like cool women, it’s about the attitude. There’s a real strength in that. It’s more dominant to have that attitude in rock music, but I feel that Cosey does that in the context of electronic music, which makes her so amazing. She’s a force of nature.

How important is image and public perception to you? Have you ever felt any pressure?
Yes, it was harder when I started because I didn’t even know what it meant to have a public persona. Until it happens to you, you don’t know. Even on a minor scale, people write stuff about you and they’ve never even met you. That happens and you become very insecure. Maybe I tried to have some sort of image at some point but now I feel like I’m really incoherent in every way. I like that. I guess that is my image for now. I don’t like coherent personas, because people are not like that. People aren’t flawless.

I feel like I’ve become more courageous and that’s a nice place to be. I think that’s just come with time.

Where do you think the future of electronic music lies?
I think there’s going to be even more crossover between the mainstream and the underground because it’s just taken off in the past few years. In the States it’s going to become more popular and it’s going to become part of the economy.

It’s strange moving here because you know that house music, and techno, and all these genres, are actually from here but people don’t know about them. It’s only had a revival in the US for the past three years. Hopefully some of the good stuff will also crossover, because right now it’s all Euro-dance and post dubstep – the lowest common denominators. I’m hoping that maybe some good parts of electronic music will cross over too. You can hear it in rap music – in Azealia Banks. She uses a lot of house music elements.

For the underground producers, they’re always going to be around getting arts council funding for their work, or here in the States they’re going to be funding their music by waitressing or babysitting or whatever. A lot of stuff comes out of the States because it’s so huge, but the arts aren’t nurtured here as they are in Europe, it’s all about money.

Someone like Hudson Mohawke working with Kanye West is a great thing – I hope we see more of that.

What do you think about gender within electronic music? Can you trace a line of influence from early female pioneers to now? Or do you think gender is irrelevant?
When I first started out there was an article in the New York Times about me and a bunch of other women who were making electronic music. There was a huge backlash against it, and people questioned why gender should even be mentioned in the context of us as musicians. So now, it’s almost become taboo to talk about it.

But you’re talking to me now and I’m referring to Cosey - there is a lineage there. She definitely influenced me and you can group people together in terms of inspiration and support.

Cosey is so anti-establishment in everything she does. I feel she’s more progressive than me, even though I’ve grown up in a time of possibility and accessibility. She’s already crossed all limits and used all the technologies out there. She’s toyed with accepted ideas of what it’s like to be a female artist. And she's juxtaposed her experimental electronic music with prostitution – the oldest female trade in the world. It’s so twisted, you could write about 5,000 academic papers about it!

I’d love to be someone like her but she’s already done it already. All the notions she was questioning in her work are incredible. When she was younger she wasn’t afraid of being sexualised, whereas now I think a lot of female electronic artists avoid it. You make life easier for yourself if you watch what photos of yourself you put out on the internet. You don’t want to undermine all these ideas of how a serious female musician should present themselves, but Cosey didn’t care – she was ahead of her time.

Do you think Cosey has made it easier for female artists to be more than just one thing?
For me, definitely. I feel I can have an incoherent image. I need her as much for the person she is as for her music.

A lot of the female electronic musicians that have emerged over recent years are from the States, which I think is weird. In the UK you’re almost discouraged from the club scene by guys in white t-shirts and caps, going crazy over a track. You have five different DJs and they’re all male and super-young. They are all really advanced in the technology because they’ve been doing it since they were 14.

In the UK there’s such a long history of club culture, but a lot of it is young blokes going crazy over each other’s basslines. You have to be a real tomboy to fit in, or really tech savvy to be able to make that perfect bassline. There’s not so much opportunity to present your music if it sounds different.