When I arrive at a coffee shop 10 minutes late for our interview, sweaty and wheezing from a 85-degree bike ride, Maria Usbeck is sitting calmly in a blue upholstered armchair, drinking an iced peach black tea. She’s poised and elegant in a silk blouse, matching the intimacy and warmth of her debut solo album Amparo. For someone who lives in Brooklyn, the inner peace she radiates isn’t just rare; it’s enviable.
I attribute that tranquility to Usbeck’s travels, which serve as the inspiration for Amparo. After moving to the United States from her native Ecuador at 17, Maria had no commitment to pursue a future in music. “I was kind of against it when I was a child because I was forced into piano at an early age,” she explains. But after moving to Fort Lauderdale and eventually to Brooklyn, she began recording under the Selebrities moniker with a former bandmate.
Now, Usbeck is going solo. She recorded Amparo in Barcelona, Costa Rica, Easter Island, Lisbon, Buenos Aires, and her native Ecuador over the course of three years. The project is a stirring collection of haunting piano ballads, soaring bird calls, and airy spells, weaved together by Usbeck’s breathless murmur. Amparo captures the drowsiness of a long drive through the hills in the summer, the wind rushing onto your face while you drift in and out of sleep.
There’s raw emotional power here too, most evident in sweeping, heart-rending moments like “Jungla Inquieta.” Here, Usbeck sings simple phrases like “between the jungle and the sea” in a hypnotizing chant, backed by chirps, drums, and other percussive instruments she collected during her trips (some of which are now in the possession of co-producer Caroline Polachek of Chairlift). She wrote the song in one day, on the patio of her friend’s home in Costa Rica, surrounded by “holy birds.” “I’ve heard it a hundred thousand times by now, but [writing it] was just so overwhelming. All these emotions had to be let go. I think I forgot to eat,” Usbeck said of the track.
There are less obvious influences, too, like the field recordings Usbeck took on her iPhone during her travels: rich textures like gushing water, crackling whispers hummed from the mouths of strangers, warbling birds. Though we all wish we could abandon the garbage fire that is Twitter, Usbeck found herself writing poems to her bed on the app even while she was away. “Mainly to my mom and my bed–to what’s important,” as she put it. And as radically different as the two musicians are, the career of salsa icon Celia Cruz was a source of linguistic inspiration too. “She was such a massive wave for women, not just for [Latin American] women, but for [Spanish-language] singers. The work that she did by preserving that–she could’ve just also broken out into the American world,” Usbeck said.
Though returning to the Spanish language and her Ecuadorian roots was the driving creative vision of the project, the singer seamlessly weaves indigenous dialects like Costa Rica’s Bribri, Quichua, and Easter Island’s Rapa Nui in and out of verses. “I’ve always been obsessed with the Incas and the Chasquis,” she says. She picked up Quichua from her father and childhood nanny back in Ecuador, who would pepper their everyday speech with the language, little phrases and aphorisms like “eat your food.” “He was amazed that I could write [a whole song about that] on the computer with my Midi keyboard and his Spanish guitar,” she laughed.
Using a PDF she found online, Usbeck started playing around with Bribri and seeing how it would translate into Spanish. “I found this woman [on YouTube] speaking about the Bribri culture’s environmental issues and how they respect their land and they respect the jungle itself.” With the hopes of honoring that indigenous struggle, Usbeck injected some of the language–and the message–into the album almost completely after the record was finished.
When I ask her to break down the process of learning so many tongues for the project, she’s confident about the choice. “I’ve done my English, my share of it. I wanted to challenge myself.” It’s something she speaks about fiercely during our conversation. “The creativity, the nativeness of our culture, all these elements are fading away.” I mention a recent piece in The Guardian by Emma-Lee Moss (aka Emmy The Great), where Usbeck argues that music has become a vessel for the development of new languages, and that English is no longer the lingua franca of pop music. “We’ve seen a wave of people going back to their roots and writing in different languages and I’m all about it… It may not be realistic to conserve all of it, but why not make an effort, right?”