“a singer of composure and purpose.” – The New York Times
“a natural wonder” — Le Monde
We all have to hit reset on our lives sooner or later. Indie-pop singer-songwriter Maria Neckam was met with an unexpected heartbreak that sent her careening through a smorgasbord of emotions. Then forced to contend with a new life, she bravely picked up the pieces and now reemerges with her colorful, playful and altogether moving new album called The Leap. Through the towering 12-song lineup, she carves out lush compositions that needle through desire, joy, sadness, anger, hope and contentment. She punctuates such raw performances with an expanse of musical touch points, from a Sara Bareilles dreaminess to the ambition of Ingrid Michaelson. All the while, she roots her stories unapologetically in her own quirky identity.
“Oh, I'm tired,” she heaves an exasperated sigh. Romping opener “Familiar” peels back the layers of bad habits, and in turn, Neckam possesses a renewed sense of worth and rips the reigns back into her own hands. “I vowed to myself that I would never repeat the same pattern again. Life hasn’t been easy but so much more exciting, fun and fulfilling since then,” she says. The breakup, then, proved to instill within her not only a warrior-worthy strength but a daring to torch her own path.
Moments later, she goes for an unexpectedly delightful musical gut-punch. With “Heat,” electrifying with a rockier undercurrent, she offers a sizzling performance that sifts through what it means to live a real, authentic life. “Every time the sun comes up, we’re hurting / And we’re breaking these shells around us,” she sings. A life wrought of pain inevitably blossoms into strength, independence and determination. “It’s a good pain,” she confides.
She turns the emotional, psychological screws in a way that’s magnificently-visceral and supercharged with universal truths. Alongside co-producers Steve Wall (Lucius, Sister Sparrow) and Jon Cowherd (Norah Jones, Rosanne Cash, Iggy Pop), a collaborative tapestry that permits Neckam to stretch her usual boundaries, The Leap pings between intimate moments (“Hazel Eyes,” “Like a Lion”) and the more volatile mixes (“Happier,” “Temporary Ally”). Neckam balances on the tightrope with incisive urgency, both in allowing herself to gallop ahead unimpeded and recenter her classic structures.
Her background has certainly served her well here. Out of Austria, she grew up in a small town just outside of Vienna and was immediately immersed in a wealth of classical music. Evenings at the opera house or orchestra concerts were fairly commonplace, and the craft of songwriting struck her creative core when she was 12, setting the stage for her late musical endeavors. At 15, she was required to take a year of ballroom dance. Meanwhile, her social circle began to expand and that included a little imbibing on late-night Saturday gatherings. Schooling came and went, and she shaved her head and joined a rock band at high school’s close.
Her creative hot streak continued, and she moved to New York in the summer of 2005 to study at the Manhattan School of Music. She graduated two years later and quickly dove headfirst into the local jazz scene. Her jazz-reflected composer tendencies -- drawn from her work with classical composers, Indian musicians, saxophonists and other creatives -- gave her a new texture to her work. “I loved everything that felt authentic and brave, anything that seemed honest and not boring,” she says. Later, she would swerve back into her interests in harder-biting pop and alternative rock music. That decision was a simple one, yet resulted in truly rich and dynamic work in both tone and broader appeal.
Digging even deeper, Neckam’s Buddhist faith plays a crucial role in not only her craft but a generally self-aware attitude. “That has changed the way I make music from a self-centered, almost hedonistic approach (‘Look at me! Love me!’) to a giving approach,” she reflects. “I love ‘The Healer,’ a song by Erykah Badu (who I've had the honor of working with a few years back). I want to be a healer through music.”
To date, Neckam has released three full-length albums -- including the acclaimed Unison, as well as two electro-pop EPs under her Milán moniker. Time away to really live a life worth living, in addition to navigating an ever-shifting industry, allowed her to learn “what it means to be really, really broke and can't sleep from all the anxiety,” she offers. “I've also learned what it's like to feel inadequate as a musician. When I was in the ‘jazz world,’ somehow, I always had this deep confidence. It felt safer, because I could measure my ‘value’ as an artist by clear parameters.”
“When I started writing indie songs, and also performing them on guitar and keys, so many times I felt, and still feel, like I'm literally faking it,” she says. “I’m just hoping they won't throw me off the stage -- but I'm enjoying it so much. And that's the cool thing. I love myself so much more now that doing what makes me happy is more important to me than the validation of others.”
The Leap is much more than a musical statement. It represents her own willingness to explore within the world blooming around her and to take risks. Her words pierce like arrows from Cupid’s gentle quiver, and her voice balances between smooth confessionals and mountain-tumbling majesty. Furthermore, the work seeks to dismantle certain tropes pressured upon artists themselves. “Too often artists feel that in order to ‘brand’ themselves, they have to be the ‘sad singer’ or the ‘sexy artist’ or the ‘angry chick.’ The reality is that we are all of that, and more,” she stresses.
And so, the new collection culls a vast array of “experiences and different kinds of connections,” Neckam says. “It paints the picture of a strong but vulnerable woman. I want to convey that it is OK to feel all kinds of ways. We should never suppress anything, but underneath it all, there is a strength that’s greater than we can even imagine. We are so powerful, and we have the capacity to turn any mess into something profound and valuable.”
The Leap is certainly all of those things and much more. Neckam brandishes a sharp pen for humanity’s truth, and the music pulsates with vitality, sensitivity and the impressive musical scope.
Selected press quotes:
“clear-water tones.” – Ben Ratliff, The New York Times
“a vocalist whose compositions are informed by unconventional phrasing and a striving for serenity.” - Patrick Jarenwattananon, NPR’s a blog supreme
“a valiant trailblazer” — Christopher Loudon, JazzTimes
"[Her] fecund creativity emerges from a genre-blurring sensibility that spans jazz, pop, rock, opera, musical theater and sacred hymns... She has found eager and superbly gifted copilots. Led by Neckam's crystalline soprano, they travel to some remarkable places, many not of this earth, several influenced by her conversion to Buddhism.... Every Neckam voyage is a wild one." — Christopher Loudon, JazzTimes
“Neckam functions as a coequal instrumentalist and deft storyteller, using a clear fluid voice to convey raw emotions with philosophical detachment. She dresses the stories with an impressive array of compositional and orchestrative strategies. Some evoke the autobiographical clarity of Joni Mitchell. Three duos with cellist Mariel Roberts nod to the art songs of Mahler and Schoenberg. Another three pieces frame poems by Hafez, Pablo Neruda and Rainer Maria Rilke. Others refract the rhythmic, harmonic and performative pathways established by stars such as Brad Mehldau and Luciana Souza. Whether rendering a lyric or a wordless melody, Neckam unfailingly follows her line, traversing the tricky time feels with confidence and grace.” — Ted Panken, DownBeat
“Lovely.” – John Schaefer, New Sounds, WNYC
“...idiosyncratic jazz riffs and haunting pop hooks.” — Jaime Cone, New York Daily News
“It's not often that a singer like Maria Neckam comes along. Blessed with a voice that she can set free as it flutters and streaks into stellar regions of music, Neckam is still able to keep it in control. She has a natural ability for heartbreaking emotion, in much the same way that Billie Holiday did.” — All About Jazz
“It’s going to be difficult for her listeners to avoid finding her irresistibly charming.” — PopMatters
“****Four stars. Neckam writes all of her own material and delivers it in a sweet, pure soprano that belies the dark sophistication of her lyrics... A collection of finely crafted songs that range from angular downtown jazz to poetic duets with cello to catchy indy-style numbers.” — Cormac Larkin, The Irish Times
“*****Five stars. ... this album [Unison] is simply genius.“ — Jazz Forum, Poland
“Her voice becomes a precious instrument that allows her to heighten her expressiveness and to engage in dialogue with the instrumental and rhythmical voices around her, painting scenarios of pure beauty.” — All About Jazz Italia
“...fuses Scandinavian, Indian and Japanese elements into a music that elates through its freshness and emotional depth.” — Jazzpodium, Germany