Considering her biography, it's surprising that no one saw it coming. Maria Juur, or the artist known as Maria Minerva, was born in the Estonian capital city of Tallinn a few years before the country achieved independence from the USSR. The daughter of an Estonian music critic, she gravitated to the more theoretical side of the arts, earning a Bachelor's Degree in Art History from Tallinn University. Like many a member of the post-communist generation, Maria eventually grew restless in her hometown. A year ago, she moved to London to pursue a Master's in Aural & Visual Cultures at the city’s prestigious Goldsmiths college.
Maria did not begin making music until fairly recently, but her distinctive and zeitgeist-embracing lo-fi disco-pop quickly piqued the interest of the blogosphere when MP3s like "Disko Bliss" and "California Scheming" started circulating in early 2011. On the heels of a 12" on 100% Silk and her Tallinn At Dawn cassette on Not Not Fun, Maria recently dropped her first proper LP, Cabaret Cixous. Two more Maria Minerva releases are also on the way: a second EP on 100% Silk called Sacred and Profane Love, and a collaborative effort with Amanda Brown's LA Vampires. Last week, I spoke to Maria on the phone about Cabaret Cixous and the theoretical underpinnings of her music.
AZ: When did you begin recording as Maria Minerva?
Maria: I started in September 2009. I had been in London during the Summer, and I was so miserable about being back home. I was just sitting in my room and thinking that I needed a hobby for the long Estonian winter. So I made a track called "Lovecool," which is now the single for Cabaret Cixous.
AZ: Can you describe your recording process a bit?
Maria: I don't know, it's kinda hard to describe. Sometimes I just use the chance method, where I enter a random word into YouTube, and something comes up, and then I listen to it and I take a little loop or vocal sample or other musical snippet. It's not very interesting, I'm afraid; it's not like live jamming, but just me with my clips [laughs]. And then usually I have to wait until my flatmate leaves the house so I can sing.
AZ: Initially, writers were comparing you to Nite Jewel and other very '80s-inspired West Coast underground pop, but I think you music is more '90s-informed. Would you agree?
Maria: I don't like the assertion that something is '80s or '90s, but yeah, it's true. I don't listen to that much '90s music though. Of course, I know all the songs, but it's more in the back of my head. Though I know I'm guilty when it comes to being nostalgic. About that Nite Jewel comparison, I am a fan of her music, but I think her agenda is a bit different. She tends to play around with certain genres-- disco, lounge-y type of stuff-- and I think I try a bit of everything. Nite Jewel's music is way more coherent, so I think our similarities are just the vocals, and that we both use reverb. I also made a disco track or two-- but that was just another experiment.
AZ: Despite hailing from the underground, would you consider yourself to be a big fan of mainstream pop?
Maria: Oh yeah. You could definitely say that I have a bad taste, or at least that I have moments of extremely bad taste, like listening to Justin Bieber sometimes. I love pop music, and my dream job is to be a pop producer and make shitloads of money, and still to do my underground stuff on the side. Then I could live off royalties forever. But seriously, I hate the money-making machines behind them, but genuine talents like Justin Bieber or Justin Timberlake... sure, I love them all.
AZ: You grew up while Estonia was transitioning out of the Soviet era and opening up to culture from the capitalist West. Is pop music connected to the idea of personal freedom for you?
Maria: Hmm. That's a good question. I think it is and it isn't. At first, especially for the young people, it was a big freedom to be able to consume Western pop music, but I think that the consumerist aspect of it also shows that you're not free. You're not really choosing this stuff; it's fed to you by the evil corporations and so on. On the other hand, now that we have YouTube and I have the chance to consume everything without paying for it, I feel like I have the whole world at my fingertips. And yeah, that is definitely freedom.
AZ: You usually refer to yourself as a "non-musician." What would you rather people call you?
Maria: I think recently someone called me "the Estonian producer," and I liked that. The word "producer" is maybe more accurate because I am producing music-- "musician" to me sounds a bit too holy. But I end up with a product, a piece of music. The way you achieve it is not that important.
AZ: Would you say that you have a distinctively meta-perspective on music, seeing as you both a critic and an artist?
Maria: Definitely. I think I'm too informed. When you can deconstruct the music of others so easily-- and your own-- then it's kinda hard to make it at the same time. But this sounds annoying only in theory; in practice, it's something you can actually forget about. Because the best thing about music is that it's beyond words. It's on the level of sensations, and it's very easy to forget everything I've learned when I'm listening to or making music. That's why I love it so much.
AZ: Let's talk about the album. Would you say that your music has evolved since you released Tallinn at Dawn?
Maria: The production skills have become better; I know that myself. When I listen to the Cabaret Cixous, I get the impression that I have progressed. But there are older tracks on the LP, too, like "Lovecool," which was the first track I’ve ever produced. "Pirate's Tale" is from the beginning of 2010 as well, so it's very hard to tell. I've always been going back and forth. My next recordings will probably sound a bit different.
AZ: Can you explain the title? "Cabaret" is a reference to Cabaret Voltaire, right?
Maria: It sure is. Their music is genius. I'm not as dark as Cabaret Voltaire, but their original concept comes down to being eclectic through sampling, and drawing on very different things, and I like that idea. I know it's very "art school," but it gives me great pleasure to have these little hidden things on my album that probably no one knows about. The title is the most obvious example of this; it's annoying to pronounce, so you start thinking about what it might mean, or what is this "Cabaret" I'm referring to, and what is this "Cixous"? Basically, it's just trying to be annoying as possible.
AZ: Let's come to the reference to Hélène Cixous, then. How would you describe your relationship with post-structuralist feminism?
Maria: Well, it's something I have studied. I'm not someone who's academic all the way. I'm not that confident when I try to talk about these things--not like John Maus, probably. But when you're a musician, you don't have to go all the way; you can still benefit from the concepts, and that's something I've been trying to do. When it comes to Cixous, then, feminism is an issue for me for sure. I think it's strange that the majority of people who listen to underground music are men, and that the whole underground is dominated by males-- especially when it comes to blogs. I'd actually like to see more women listening to this kind of music. This album is more for women than it is for men. It's really girl pop. I think that women who grew up at the same time as me-- they'll get it.
AZ: There's one sample on your record that I find particularly interesting, at the beginning of the song "Spiral," with the words, "[The university] ruled over and overruled my body." Who's that sample from?
AZ: Is the liberation of the body something central to your work?
Maria: Oh no, I think I'm way more mind-oriented than body-oriented. I'd say there's a misinterpretation that stems from that piece by The Wire's Tony Herrington, where he wrote that LA Vampires and I were trying to bring "sexy" back to the underground. To be honest, what I had in mind with "Spiral" was more the dichotomy between real life and academia, because this track was recorded quite late, when I was struggling with my life, my degree, and everything. I was really exhausted and I didn't have enough time for anything anymore. I was grumpy and I had the feeling that Goldsmiths was getting a bit pretentious, and this was my little way of making fun of it. I love Goldsmiths though.
AZ: You said in another interview that everyone's making references to your sexiness now because of that article. But it's really not only that piece-- Amanda Brown brought it up as well when she interviewed you for the 100% Silk blog.
Maria: Sure. I think it was a joke and it wasn’t a joke at the same time. I mean, I'm obviously not Pamela Anderson, but I guess when you're trying to be an "underground pop star" you have to have an image. And if this is mine, so be it. Still, I don’t want the focus to be on that image so much.
AZ: It’s in the world now though.
Maria: Yes, but I find it hilarious. I never thought something like that would turn up. It's just because of these photos probably, whatever. I have a good photographer.
AZ: So have you talked to Tony about his article then?
Maria: Yeah, we all had an e-mail correspondence-- Amanda and Tony had a longer one. I think it was a good piece because it was very polemical. But instead of thinking about it and maybe countering Tony Herrington's views, people have just absorbed the main slogans and now every random blog is simply repeating them. One influential piece and one thousand followers.
AZ: Would you agree with people describing your work as a deconstruction of pop music?
Maria: Well, I attempted to come up with my own language-- the overall sound as a language-- and I wanted to create something that is unmistakeably my sound, and I hope that I succeeded in that, at least. And sure, I'm using all these pop references, these clichés, and I'm trying to give them a twist. There are a lot of things going on, and this is why I get displeased by all those reviews that just repeat the same opinions over and over again. I'd like to see people getting behind the music and telling me what they see in it; that would be way more interesting. Another thing that I haven't understood is the New Age thing that keeps popping up.
AZ: I wanted to leave that out. Now you brought it up.
Maria: Well, I guess it's just because of the synths. They might sound like Tangerine Dream sometimes. I'm still waiting for someone to explain it to me. But right now I'm playing with that, too. One of the last songs I recorded for the album was "These Days," and I did that one after reading reviews of my first tape saying I made New Age music. So I went and sampled Deep Forest. I turned the reviews into a piece of music again. Likewise, my forthcoming EP on 100% Silk is gonna be pure Euro-disco trash, sugar-rush music. The inspiration for that was when some magazine wrote that I make "gay club music" or something. So I thought I'd show them what gay club music is.
Cabaret Cixous is now out on Not Not Fun