María Isabel is starting 2021 on a high note after the overwhelmingly positive response to her debut EP, “Stuck in the Sky”. With atmospheric production, introspective lyrics and Isabel’s hypnotic vocals, the R&B-leaning project marked her official arrival as one of the most exciting new artists on the rise. “It might be a little too ambitious given the circumstances, but I’d love to do a show this year… So much of last year was writing and recording, and it feels amazing to know that people are enjoying what I’ve put out. I’d love to meet them face to face,” she manifests.
The superstar-in-waiting lets us in on the creative process behind her debut EP, “Stuck in the Sky”, and how everything from her upbringing to journaling influences her music.
Songwriting is an intimate ritual for any artist, but was especially true of this record, with lyrics lifted straight from personal journals. Of the seven dreamy serenades, she singles out the love song “A Game I Lose” (inspired by Amy Winehouse’s “Love Is A Losing Game”) as both the most challenging and the most rewarding. “It was easier to let out the negative feelings because journaling is one of the ways I vent. But with this one being about love, it took a little extra work. It wasn’t something I needed to let out.”
Isabel’s choice to present as an open book in her music may be cathartic, but she stresses that there is so much more to self-care than being candid with her fans. “It was a long year, and I’d never had so much time to reflect. I’ve been good at expressing myself, but I realised I didn’t really know how to just be with myself and I found myself looking for company or distractions.” Her biggest takeaway? “Learning how to recentre and learning the power of yes and no in order to hold space for myself was a highlight for me.” Her current inspiration (both sartorial and musical) is FKA Twigs: “She’s mysterious and unpredictable, and also so vulnerable and open. It’s definitely a balance I try to emulate.”
Using music to express herself has been a common thread throughout Isabel’s life, and she’s one of few who can say that they were always aware of their calling to it. “It’s a cliché, but I’m told that I was singing pretty much as soon as I could speak! I was always in church choir growing up, and then I was writing my own songs as I got older. Music makes up a lot of my memories.”
It’s clear that her success is down to so much more than this natural musicality, and she credits both her childhood in Queens and her Dominican parentage as the source of her work ethic. “I grew up in a family where my parents’ priority was providing, so their passions were often put on the backburner,” she explains. “When your parents weren’t able to do what they love, but they did everything they could so that you could have that opportunity, it gives you a different kind of drive. I always carry gratitude with me because of that.”
These days Isabel resides in LA, where she’s currently looking to her next project. “Moving out to LA made me realise that New York City, especially Queens, is a diversity bubble. It’s a privilege I didn’t realise I had,” she reflects. “California isn’t as culturally integrated, and it reaffirms to me how much I want to see integration and diversity around me.”
The move to LA is a well-trodden path for budding musicians, and while there are many perks of living in such a small world of talent — “the ex- citing part about starting to grow as a musician is realising that opportunities are never as far as they seem” — navigating the industry has come with new challenges of its own. “Finding a balance between finding what I really want to say and sound like, and figuring out how it will translate, is an underrated challenge. Sometimes the artist side of me wants to completely ignore the business side of me,” she muses. “Maybe I should listen to it more.” I recall she has the Spanish word “intuición” — meaning intuition — inked on the back of her hand. “There are a million considerations besides the music, and sometimes you just have to go with your gut on what feels right.”