Moments In Time: Maya de Vitry on capturing an impermanent world through collaboration - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

When I caught up with Maya de Vitry on the phone this week, she and her bandmates were pulling into Brooklyn for a night off from their first east coast tour since…well, you know, before. After almost two weeks in the van, they had a nice stretch to rest up, rehearse with an old friend who’s linking with them for these last few shows, and then play a gig at Jalopy Theatre Tuesday before heading a couple hours south for two hometown-adjacent shows, one in Philly at World Cafe Live’s Lounge stage on May 25th and another at Lancaster’s Zoetropolis on May 26th.

de Vitry is immensely positive about this run; after spending most of her 20s in the hard-touring bluegrass trio The Stray Birds, which took her around the country and world before resettling in Nashville, she took a step back after that band’s dissolve to refocus and try her hand as a solo artist, something she described in our conversation as liberating. Adaptations, released in 2019, saw her moving beyond the studious string band sounds of her old band’s early days and into the more personal, genre-agnostic direction of their later releases, Magic Fire and Let It Pass. Performing under her own name, she found that suddenly her perspective and her emotions were the true focal point, moreso than the style she was playing in, and two LPs later, de Vitry has written some of the most moving and relatable songs of her career on her new Violet Light.

Released in January, the record follows her last outing How To Break A Fall, which released March 13th of 2020 — the week COVID touched down and two weeks after a tornado tore through Nashville. Heavy things were on her mind, clearly, for this next batch of songs, and Violet Light talks a lot about ideas of mortality and impermanence, from pets and family members who pass on to the broken system that results in police violence in America. But it also confronts the passing of time head-on, seeking joy in things that we know cannot last. We talked about all of that in our conversation, but I began by asking about the progression from The Stray Birds through solo LP number three.

John Vettese: The Stray Birds started out playing reels and trad style songs and grew to include more narrative, personal songwriting by the end of your time together. When I first heard Adaptations, it felt to me like you took that element of your old band and chased it even further. Is that how the journey feels to you?

Maya de Vitry: I haven’t really thought about that, but I think that’s really accurate. At first, I definitely applied my songwriting to a more traditional setting, probably because I was learning a lot of traditional songs, old-time and bluegrass songs. When I was starting to write, I was thinking more in that format and less personal. But I think as I’ve become more comfortable with writing and more comfortable with expressing things through that, it’s kind of gone the direction that you’re noticing.

JV: You started in Lancaster, became an artist that was basically on the road all the time, and eventually landed in Nashville. Obviously the legendary music scene there is a big draw, but how does that play out for you on the day to day — does living in Nashville mean more gigs, more opportunity to jump on tours? More inspiration in the air?

MDV: It’s been different throughout the years that I’ve lived there. I’ve been there for about seven years now, and when I first moved there, it was just kind of a place to reset in between tours, and do laundry. But I knew I had community there and friends there, and I was seeing a lot of people who I was also running into at music festivals. But then as I left the band and started playing my own music, it’s definitely been a good place to try things out in local spots and know that the musicianship that’s in town, and the listeners and the players and the people I can collaborate with, it’s really high-level.

It’s really exciting to be able to play there. But honestly, sometimes I get burned out playing there, too. It’s so so rich and deep, the music scene there, that I think people start to take it for granted a little bit, going to local bars and kind of forgetting how amazing the music is. I’ve gotten used to living there, and being on this tour I’m reminded of how incredible the music scenes and music listeners are in so many different places — I just haven’t had the chance to feel that recently, especially in the past two years.

But [Nashville] is a very supportive and collaborative place. One thing it’s really opened up for me is more co-writing — writing with other artists for their records. That’s something that’s a big part of the culture there, is collaborative songwriting. That’s something I’ve enjoyed; or just singing on other people’s records, singing harmony vocals, playing as a side person. All that’s part of it. But there’s other things, just like life in any other town. I’m a barista, I have a job there because I’m not full time on the road right now. I enjoy it. It can be challenging to live there sometimes, but for the most part I enjoy it.

JV: On the topic of collaborators — each track on the new album Violet Light features an entirely unique band, and the list of collaborators includes folks like Kaia Kater and Chris Eldridge of The Punch Brothers and the Infamous Stringdusters, as well as folks who didn’t make the final project like Sierra Hull. Can you talk about the decision to work this way — was it out of necessity due to the time in which you were recording, or was there an intent to tap into all these folks around you who you, as you said, built community with?

MDV: In this case, it happened really organically. I was coproducing this with Ethan Jodziewicz, and as we went through these songs, we started imagining different players on every single one of them — like “wow, wouldn’t Kaia’s voice be so perfect on this song, and just this song?” — instead of building a band to get together live in the studio. And I think that came organically out of making it in our basement and making it during the pandemic where no one was gathering at all, so we were doing it remotely or having one person over at a time. It felt like adding colors to a painting one step at a time, and then turning the page and doing a new painting with new people.

For me, especially coming out of a band that was pretty strictly sticking to the arrangements that were on the record, and also pretty closed-doors as far as being just those three people for all those years…I didn’t realize at the time how confining that felt, and it’s been really freeing to be able to collaborate really freely with other people and not feel possessive, or possessed to be honest. For collaboration to be part of it, the songs are a constant, and the arrangements can be fluid and the players can be fluid.

JV: When you talked earlier about co-writing, collaborating on a song that’s not yours — it seems like that’s a really different and unique muscle to flex creatively. The way you just described the process of Violet Light it seems like it gave everybody that opportunity across the board.

MDV: I think it’s kind of like when you’re in a conversation with a different person you talk about different things. When I’m playing with a different person or singing with a different person, you rise to whatever occasion you’re in and sing with that person. Or if you’re writing with that person — like I’ve had fun writing with Steve Poltz and also Molly Tuttle, people who are so different to their own approaches to writing and singing and the environment they want to play their songs in. That makes it so fun to give a different part of yourself in different situations.

Maya de Vitry - How Bad I Wanna Live

JV: One of the songs that’s a standout on Violent Light, “How Bad I Wanna Live,” was inspired by a backpacking trip in Hawaii, getting caught in a storm, and fearing for your life. What was it like extrapolating the specific feelings of that hike into something bigger picture, emotionally speaking?

MDV: I think what’s cool to me about that song is when I was writing it, I just wanted it to be as literal as possible and remember the details. So I’m talking about the wet red clay, and the goats that were on the path ahead of us. Reaching for the ground. Things that I think when someone hears it, it feels like those can be a metaphor for something — and they do have another meaning than that. But mostly it was literally that moment. When I was writing, I wanted to be as specific and as true to that moment as possible. I think that’s in that first thing you mentioned, about coming from traditional music and moving towards personal, more personal stories, I think that’s one of those cases. I’m realizing it doesn’t matter — when I write a really personal story, or something that’s details about clay or oceans or goats, it’s still ends up meaning something personal to the person who hears it, and it’s not necessarily what I meant it to be. But that’s what songs do. I was writing that to make sure I didn’t forget that details of what happened and how I felt, and how excited I was to make it to the other side of the cliff.

JV: How long did you wait between the trip and documenting it? Did you start writing it right away or did you return to it later?

MDV: I started writing it I think as soon as I got home from that trip. Maybe two or three weeks later. I started playing it right away, too, I played a really early version of it at a Folk Alliance conference. It wasn’t even done, I was singing something else for the bridge. I finished it right away and started playing it right away. It was kind of a mantra to me.

JV: On “Real Time, Real Tears,” I love the lyric “I give my pain a window now, I give my pain a door” — windows and doors can be both entrances as well as exits, and by not specifying which direction the pain is traveling, this lyric can work on two levels: embracing one more vulnerable moments, but also knowing when to let go. Is there one you had more in mind than the other when you were writing?

MDV: Until you mentioned that, I always pictured it as an exit. I never imagined it as an entrance. That’s really cool. But I totally always saw it as I give my pain a way out.

JV: Three members of your family are are on the album with you contributing vocals on that song…can you talk about your decision to record that song with them?

MDV: I finished that song right after I got the news that one of my uncles had passed away really suddenly. In my dad’s family, the siblings are really really close. They took care of each other, they took each other in at various points in their childhood, sometimes in place of a parent. I think I didn’t realize the intensity and meaning of that kind of relationship — my dad living with various older brothers at different times — and then when the first sibling of that generation passed away so suddenly, the loss just felt so immense. Seeing my dad process that, I wrote this song right after I got that news, and then seeing how everything felt in our family, I wanted to bring my siblings into that song. It was my siblings singing to his siblings. My generation — we’re three sisters and a brother — singing to that generation — seven brothers and one sister. It just felt like, in the spirit of choosing different collaborators for each song, that was a fit, and it felt really right to sing that with my sisters and have my brother join us on guitar.

Maya de Vitry - Real Time, Real Tears

JV: There’s a lot about passing of time and impermanence of things in our lives and mortality on this record — it shows up in “Dogs Run On,” about our animal companions; in “Margaret,” looking back over one’s life. “Watches Out of Diamonds” uses the image of a clock, and “Not A Trick Of the Eye” is very much about mortality, about murder, but also seems to allude to police brutality as well. Is this focus on Violet Light a by-product of the time you wrote it, and everything that was going on around you — and all of us — or was it more of an intentional theme?

MDV: It wasn’t intentional, it was definitely something I noticed as the songs came together. I think I felt a lot of grief in the world around me at the time. I think I also for a while did not realize how much I was grieving various things that were going on in my life. And even the grief in the aftermath of The Stray Birds. Grieving certain things about that and a sense of time, the shock of standing in a new space after doing one thing for seven years. Feeling like wow, I’m 30 now. Where did that go? Just grieving change, but trying to accept change, and that’s the impermanence part of it — trying to come to acceptance in some way.

But I think it is a theme. Even the color violet, the moodiness of that. If there was a stage and there was a lighting, it feels like we could have violet light on the stage for the record, for the songs to be played. There is grief on this. And celebration. But the acknowledgement of the grief is definitely there.

JV: Returning to your family — your brother Lyle is also a cellist, and played with you in Asheville earlier this year, your sisters Monica and Nina are also singer-songwriters. Can you talk about growing up in a household where music is such a common language among your siblings?

MDV: It was really valued in my family. My parents would sometimes take us to music festivals growing up. Like, that was a family vacation, going to Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, or go to Clifftop, this old time string band festival in West Virginia. It was very normal for us, it seems like what you would do on a family vacation — you’d go camp out and learn fiddle tunes. I didn’t play very much or collaborate much with my siblings too seriously in high school. We each have different tastes and different directions in our music. It’s been really cool to see how, even though we came from the same house and the same parents, the same childhood, we have different things.

Like my youngest sister Nina is really really inspired by piano-driven songwriting. My brother Lyle loves Nick Drake, and is obsessed with fingerpicking guitar styles and open tunings or different tunings on guitar. I can remember any time we would find a guitar and it was in a different tuning, my parents would be like “Lyle!! You have to put the guitar back in standard tuning or no one else can play it!” [laughs] So, I don’t know, that just spoke to him. But it’s been cool, we’re each on a different path, and it feels so abundant to be able to appreciate that about my siblings and know that, and enjoy the uniqueness of what we’re each doing musically. And it felt really fun to bring them into my world and ask them to sing on that song, cause they’re all really great singers.

JV: Tell us about your bandmates on this tour — who’s performing with you at World Cafe Live and Zoetropolis?

MDV: Dominic Billett is the drummer on this tour. Dom has been in my live band for almost every show that I’ve played in Nashville for the past couple years, and he also used to play drums occasionally with The Stray Birds. He’s also from Pennsylvania, he grew up in the Lehigh Valley so he’s just a really great friend and collaborator, and we go way back. He happens to not be on Violet Light but he is in the touring band right now.

And then Shelby Means is the bass player, and Joel Timmons is the guitar player, and they’re both singing harmonies as well. And I had never toured with either of them before but they are the harmony singers on “How Bad I Wanna Live” on Violet Light and they actually have come to a lot of shows that I’ve played in Nashville, local shows that Dom and I were playing with other band members. They’ve been in the audience and enjoying the shows, and they’ve been fans and friends. We’ve also been adventure friends — getting together and going on a hike — or I would sit in with their band, getting to know each other musically. I played with them at Americiana Fest in Nashville last year, and it was rally elevating to play with Shelby and Joel and sing with them.

That’s the crew, and today in Brooklyn we’re meeting up with Charlie Muench, who was the bass player in The Stray Birds. He and I have stayed super close and really good friends, he’s super supportive of everything I’m doing now. And he’s going to be a special guest on these next three shows, in Brooklyn and Philly and Lancaster . He’s going to be singing on some things, we’ll feature him on some things, he’ll play some banjo and some bass. In the spirit of collaboration, he’s here and I’m excited to play with him in this context for the first time.

Maya de Vitry performs in Philadelphia at The Lounge at World Cafe Live on Wednesday, May 25th, and in Lancaster at Zoetropolis on Thursday, May 26th; tickets and more information on both shows can be found at the WXPN Concert Calendar. Violet Light is out now, and can be ordered on Bandcamp.

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