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Full Circle Moment - María Isabel

Releasing music right at the beginning of the pandemic seems daunting, but for María Isabel it worked. She leaped into the spotlight with her deep-rooted, bilingual blend of New York R&B and the music of the Dominican Republic. Two years on, her introspection is transforming into tender and relatable modern R&B ballads - forever inspiring and creating more space for young, female Latina artists to follow in her footsteps.

María Isabel features in the latest issue of Tenner Magazine, the

'Voices of the Next Generation' issue.

As a child María was very talkative and outspoken, “I feel like childhood is before any sense of people’s judgements and caring about what other people care kicks in… so I was definitely very outspoken. My parents said I would never shut up!” and in a sense, some of that has remained. Her love for telling stories has stuck with her for her entire life, “I would come home as a child and my parents would ask me how school was, expecting “It was good, I had fun” but they always got a play by play of the entire day”. The high energy also found its way into the little performer she was when she was younger. She laughs, and admits that five-year-old María would never have been afraid to get on a stage, so she definitely goes back to try and channel her fearless personality.

Her inner fearlessness is apparent, to be releasing music at the dawn of a global pandemic seems crazy, and María agrees. While she admits it to me that it was truly insane, it was also a blessing in disguise at the same time. “It was a bit easier to not think about what other people were doing, and just focus on my own thing. It was definitely weird to hear that the world was shutting down as I put out my first song… but it worked out!” She released her first single, ‘The 1’ in February of 2020, quickly following global lockdowns. It was the most time she had ever spent alone, and not by choice. “There weren’t really any distractions from my feelings and the thoughts in my head, so a lot of self-reflection and introspection came out of it” she continues, “Which in the end was a good thing but it was a little tough at the beginning, I’m not going to lie.”

Since then, she has released two EPs, the first ‘Stuck in the Sky’ and the second ‘i hope you’re very unhappy without me’, each finding its own critical acclaim as the young poet continues to explore her rich and diverse sonic blend, a blend intertwined with her roots and upbringing. She has gone full circle, using her experiences to reach out and impact others, helping them express their feelings through her music just like the powerful women she idolised growing up.

Have you spoken Spanish all your life?

Yes! So my parents are both Dominican, my dad came to the US in his 20’s and my mom came when she was a young teenager - so Spanish is both of their first languages. I spent a lot of time in the Dominican Republic as a child, and a lot of my family don't speak English, so that’s always been super important. I mostly spoke Spanish at a young age, and then English came with going to school.

Do you have any favourite memories from the Dominican Republic?

I grew up in New York otherwise for the rest of my life, and it was the polar opposite… it could not be more of a different place. I spend a lot of time at my grandparents house in the Dominican Republic, it's a farm in the back, dirt everywhere and that was entertainment, playing in the dirt… the internet is unheard of, even now honestly! Growing up in that sense and being outdoors 24/7, having animals around always was amazing. I feel like it's so hard to forget about that because it was so distinct from moving to New York and being in the city and having trees be a rare occurrence.

Is it nice knowing your family can still listen to your music even though they don't speak english?

Yeah! I got the immediate reaction from a lot of my extended family once I started putting out music in Spanish, having them tell me their favourite song feels so good, it resonates in a different way.

What was your first ever show like?

I went to a performing arts school, so I guess that was my first real experience with performing. I started performing in New York in college but I didn’t really have any of my own original music, so it would be a song I wrote and then seven covers and that would be my show… that I remember blacking out through because I was so nervous! I heard it went well though! I just played all of my real first shows two months ago on tour, I think the first show of tour felt like my real first show ever because it was all my music that I had written in the last two years that I haven’t been able to play before, and I was doing covers by choice not out of necessity. That was easily the best feeling in the world. I was very shocked for at least the first ten minutes, just realising the other people knew the words to my songs, that was mind blowing. Having a band behind me made everything feel so real and concrete, everything that led up to that point was worth it and made sense. It felt so good!

And your last show was Day N Vegas?

Yes! That was insane, I remember peeking out to the crowd before my set and there were a good amount of people, I thought I had it under control… then when I finally went out there were so many more people, I stopped singing through the first song… I was like how did this happen? How did I get here? That was my first real festival experience performing. There were a lot of people I had seen on tour that I recognised in the first few rows, so it was cool to know they made the effort to see me again. It means the world.

What is one thing you have carried all the way through your career?

First and foremost, trying to stay true to myself and what I want to say in my story. Having big ambitions and wanting to do well and continue down this road, but I also want to make sure that along the way I recognise myself and always feel like myself on and off stage. I think that’s the number one thing I’ve done, checking in at all the different stages of what I’m doing to make sure I still feel good about everything.

How do you go about making sure you stay true to yourself?

I think it is just self reflection, it is easy to just get carried away with things. I think it's also about who you have around you too. I have the same people around me as when I started a year and a half ago, and my family has been there along the way too. I think having that solid group of people around me makes it easier.

What is the most important part of music for you?

It’s self expression, but in the sense of having that ideally reach other people and having those people resonate with it and being able to see themselves in situations I’m experiencing. I feel like growing up, that was a big part of listening to music for me. I definitely had a hard time when I was younger opening up about certain feelings, I always took to writing to express those things. Now being able to put those into songs and having people reach out and express going through the same thing is the most important thing for me. It’s all I’ve ever wanted.

You want to create a space for others…

Half of the battle is just being here, being able to demonstrate to other people whether it’s for kids who grew up in Queens in New York like I did, or other Latina’s or Dominican girls or other first generation kids, by being in the space that’s already starting to happen. When I was on tour I always stayed after the show to meet as many people as I could - and I remember in New York, one girl came up to me and she was a few years younger than me but she said she went to the same middle school as I did. She remembered me and was so excited to see the show… It was crazy for me! Especially being in LA where I’m a little more removed from home, just to have people from the same neighbourhood, young girls especially, coming to a show and inspiring them is the best.

"As I’m watching myself grow I also find myself seeing and meeting more women, and more Latinas in this space. The job is obviously not done yet, but I can see it growing from where I am. I’m not alone in this space."

Do you feel more seen?

Yes, and with things opening back up it is super validating. Especially after starting to put out music in quarantine. There was a lot of isolation and putting music out into the world and hoping for the best, not really being able to interact with people. So even just seeing people looking back at me in the audience is super validating.

What mark do you hope to leave with your music?

I think similar to what my goal is while I’m here and actively making music, trying to make space for others and hopefully pave an easier road. Essentially trying to make life easier for other people, just trying to communicate things that I struggled with in music.

In terms of making space for others, can you see it happening anywhere?

As I’m watching myself grow I also find myself seeing and meeting more women, and more Latinas in this space. The job is obviously not done yet, but I can see it growing from where I am. I’m not alone in this space.

What’s next for you? As an artist and as a person?

Great question… As a person? Nobody ever asks that, and I’m like yeah I am a person! As an artist there will be more music, and hopefully more shows. As a person, I would love to leave the US for a little bit and see other parts of the world. I think one of the coolest parts about putting out music is realising how many different places it’s reached.

María Isabel features in the latest issue of Tenner Magazine, the

'Voices of the Next Generation' issue.

Photography by Oli Spencer

Words by Oli Spencer

Listen to María Isabel's latest EP, 'i hope you're very unhappy without me' below:


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