How María Isabel Cured The World's Quarantine Blues With Her Debut EP
The Queens-born songstress details the makings of her deeply intimate debut EP "Stuck in the Sky".
The Queens-born songstress details the makings of her deeply intimate debut EP "Stuck in the Sky".
Photography: Zoey Grossman
Styling: Anna Trevelyan
Text: Czar Van Gaal
Born and raised in Queens, L.A.-based singer María Isabel has come a long way since her childhood “stadium” performances for relatives in her living room and is ready for the world’s main stage. Serenading away our quarantine blues with her diary-esque debut EP Stuck in The Sky, the Dominican-American musician emerged when we needed her most. With slow-simmering lovelorn singles like “Distance” and “The 1” a project that was penned as an ode to a long-distance relationship, served a greater purpose—ultimately offering solace to those confined to their homes and apart from loved ones. “I was using the music to get closure,” she explains. “We ended up in a pandemic where many were separated and it became something that resonated with people.’’ Streamed over seven million times on Spotify, the sultry love letters disguised as songs lacquered with Reggaeton flair have helped the 24-year-old industry newcomer find her rhythm. Now forging a full-fledged career as a musician, Isabel is zeroing in on her roots. “I’m figuring out how to combine my Latin sound with the R&B sound in a way that feels authentic to me.” With her daring twist on familiar styles, you’d be a fool to bet against her.
V Magazine: First off, I do want to start off by congratulating you on your EP Stuck in the Sky.
María Isabel: Thank you so much!
V: Before we jump into that, I want to backtrack and get a snapshot of your earlier years, just to give the readers a little bit of context into who you are as an artist and creative. So, where are you from? What was your upbringing like?
MI: So, I was born in New York. Both of my parents are Dominican and they were born there. Right after I was born, we went back to the Dominican Republic. I spent about four or five years there, and then came back to start school in New York. Growing up in DR obviously [meant] island culture, a lot of music playing everywhere, people outside, a super-strong community. Then we moved to New York, but New York is full of so many people from so many different places, and we were living in a predominantly Latin neighborhood too, so it honestly didn’t feel that different.
V: What was school life compared to home life like for you? With a lot of people who migrate to the U.S., there's an element of balancing two different worlds.
MI: It felt like a clashing of cultures in the sense of going to school during the day and coming home in the evening—school was in English, home was in Spanish, that sort of thing. But I think that’s sort of exactly how I’ve turned out in terms of being a [music artist]. I’ll be writing [songs], especially now going forward, and the English and Spanish are interwoven.
V: What other elements of your formative years in NYC do you think comes into play in terms of your sound?
MI: I think just as the music progresses, too, and I try to experiment with different sounds I’m figuring out how to combine my Latin sound with the R&B sound in a way that feels authentic to me. So I think you just get the New York-Dominican girl that comes through in the music that way too.
V: Yeah, that totally comes through! Who were some of those influences?
MI: Growing up, my musical influences definitely were Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey. As I got older it became Sade, Lauryn Hill, Amy Winehouse. Overall I just identified with really strong women, who weren’t afraid to say whatever they felt they needed to say.
V: How would you say your musical abilities came about? How did you get your start? How did you develop that passion?
MI: I truly have been singing since I could speak. Not quite sure how I figured it out. It just kind of came out of my mouth one day. My parents really love music too and it’s a huge part of our culture. So, there was always music playing in the house, and I would watch live concert DVDs. My parents would record everything. So at the age of three or four I was putting on shows for my parents before anyone else knew I could sing.
V: How did those living room performances translate into public?
MI: I grew up Catholic, so church became how I first started singing outside of home. I was in church choir for a good amount of time in elementary school, middle school and somewhat throughout high school. In high school I went to a performing arts school in Queens, so I kept honing my craft that way.
V: Following high school what did pursuing music look like for you? Did you decide to just try your hand at a career in music or did you go to school for it?
MI: After high school I knew I wanted to do music full-time after school, that was the goal. I did kind of want to fan out my educational aspirations in terms of going to college. I started out as an English major. I was writing essays every day, and I was like “I want to be making music, not doing this.” So I transferred back to music for the second half of college.
V: I feel like a lot of musicians who pursue higher education kind of get guilted or pressured into picking a major that can “lead to a job” or one that is “worth the money”, so kudos to you for sticking to your guns on that.
MI: Yeah it wasn’t an easy decision but music is what I live, it’s what I breathe.
V: I know you briefly touched on how you’re trying to synergize these two elements of where you’re from into your music. You have that Latin element, and then this classic R&B element. How else would you describe your sound? Or do you feel like that encapsulates it?
MI: I think right now that does encapsulate my artistry. I think R&B probably became my preferred genre in terms of expressing myself when I was writing my first few songs. And that was the entrance I made into this career. I love the genre, and I want to continue growing within it, but I feel like especially with the next few singles coming out, the music is kind of leaning towards the Latin sound a little bit more. I feel like sonically that comes through a bit more. Honestly I’m just not a fan of boxing myself in. I know right now my sound is R&B with Latin influences, but this was the first project, and I hope to continue to grow and try new things.
V: No totally. I think especially with our generation, artists are embracing this notion where you don’t have to be defined by a genre. I completely understand wanting to explore every inch of your artistry whether it be R&B or Latin, but also not wanting to be put into a box while you do that.
V: Obviously, being a Latina in this industry, are there any obstacles you’ve had to face while curating your sound and discovering who you are as an artist?
MI: Just as a woman, period, I feel like there’s always an obstacle in the music industry. For some reason, women are more often told what they should sound like and what they should look like. Obviously there are a lot of powerful voices in the music industry advising people to go in different directions, but I feel like for women there’s a very specific, "you need to sound this way, you need to dress this way, you need to look this way," that really feeds into the toxic nature of the business.
V: I couldn’t agree more. It’s in all realms unfortunately; music, fashion, art, film, etc.
MI: Once I found my way in, there were a lot of people telling me what I was, and it was a little confusing at first. But with time I learned to stand my ground and stick to my identity. Also with me pursuing Latin music as well as American genres, the assumption was that my music is club music—because that’s what’s hot right now. Reggaeton is having its moment in the US. It’s just a lot of assumptions, I suppose. There's a lot of trying to box artists in and define artistry by one thing, one sound, one genre. So, for me, I think it’s really just about making space for other women to explore all facets of their artistry, especially right now as a Latina doing R&B. There are a few of us, but I think the more it grows and the more music we put out, the more it becomes the norm.
V: I mean, you don’t hear that often. For a new artist, especially a woman, to come into the industry, and have agency over their art is almost unheard of. I think more and more artists in general are taking the independent route so that they can have that agency. But it's refreshing to hear that you have control over your art and image. Segueing from that, I’m curious to know what the process of recording Stuck in the Sky was like? And how did you go about curating your sound for your latest project?
MI: Honestly, it kind of came together—not by chance, because I was creating the EP at a time where I wasn’t doing music full-time yet. I was just out of college and still working a part-time job, so, it was truly doing sessions in my free time and trying to write whenever I had the time and space to do so. It happened really slowly in that sense, and then honestly, quarantine gave me the chance to double down and really commit to finishing the project, and adding the final touches. Just having that free time and choosing to do music full-time at the start of the quarantine gave me the opportunity to get it done.
V: Love that you came out the other side of quarantine with an album, and in a really good place. It’s interesting to hear that because I’ve talked to a few artists now, and for the most part I would say majority of them crave and feed off of a vibe they get when they’re collaborating with other artists. So it’s interesting to hear that you basically locked yourself in and said, “Okay, I’m going to get this done, and actually take this all seriously.”
MI: I think I was also lucky. I was lucky to be right at the beginning stage of the project and my career, because I think as I grow and go further in the next projects, those are becoming more of collaborations and working with different producers. The first project was my first chance to sit down and decide everything I wanted to say and what I wanted to sound like on my own before I took it to other people. So, quarantine was oddly the perfect time for that.
V: Totally. With Stuck in the Sky what themes were you exploring? What story are you trying to tell with this project?
MI: It’s essentially the story of a long-distance relationship that took place between LA and New York, with a lot of back and forth over the years. But, I think I kind of just wanted to tell that story from start to finish. Weirdly enough, I was telling the story because it was something I was going through, and then we ended up in a pandemic where many people were separated and it resonated in that sense. Which I’m so grateful for in the sense that obviously, I’m not happy anyone was separated, but I was so glad the music would resonate on a different level with so many people having a hard time. I think generally, Stuck in the Sky, the reason I called it that was because I was literally taking planes back and forth, but also I think there’s something to be said with long-distance relationships. Specifically where, as much as you can keep in touch via all these forms of communication that we have now, it’s really hard for a relationship to progress when two people aren’t in the same place. They aren’t living the same lives, and they’re going about their days in two different ways, usually in two different time zones. It’s just super disconnected, and I think again people were feeling that too in terms of having to communicate with all of our friends and family on Facetime. We were all living separate lives. So I just wanted Stuck in the Sky to symbolize that feeling of, “We’re not going anywhere, and this is a single moment in time.”