In Conversation: Maeve Aickin Talks Fragility and Finding Herself Through Recording Her Excellent Debut Album Waiting Rooms

Maeve Aickin is far from your run of the mill American teen. For starters, she’s significantly better traveled. Having been born in Minneapolis and mostly raised in Mumbai, Maeve has spent time all over the globe, living in Mexico and Brazil as well thanks to her parents’ careers as teachers abroad. She is also one of a few million young women living with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome. The disease effects your blood flow and heart rate in a way that can sap your energy away and make tasks like sitting down, standing up, and walking around monumentally more difficult, let alone the intense physical aches and pains it can cause. She was formally diagnosed with POTS in the midst of writing and recording the songs that would become her debut album Waiting Room, a monumental record that similarly sets her apart from everyone else her age filling out essays on CollegeBoard dot com. Maeve had started writing songs back in 2018, looking for the connective tissue between the tracks she was writing as she was looking for answers as to what was going on with her body. A song like “Bug” perfectly encapsulates that point in her journey, where she sings about the fear and uncertainty she felt not knowing what was wrong with her. On this track and others her voice quakes and quivers in a way that can give you goosebumps, closing out the song almost whispering, “Thinking my body is wrong, thinking my body is wrong.” As she continued writing Maeve realized that the fragility she felt with her body was reflective of the lack of certainty she felt in several aspects of her life, from her relationships to her self-image. Songs about failed friendships hit as hard as the songs about her medical woes, I’ll never forget the way my spine tingled the first time I heard her coo about how she was, “Scared to death I was a training wheel friend,” on “Harriet”.

With no equipment at her disposal but a microphone and an electric guitar Maeve got to writing tender stripped back meditations on her own perceived fragility from the comfort of her bedroom and whatever waiting room she found herself in, often choosing to record in her bathroom due to it being the quietest place in the house. For how sparse and quiet the tracks on Waiting Rooms can be they contain massive emotional and sonic depth; The vastness of the recording spaces utilized gives the songs a haunting quality that matches the tenor of the album. There are touches of Jeff Buckley and Sufjan Stevens, particularly from his Lowell and Carrie days, but no influence shines through stronger than Julien Baker, the artists who had originally inspired Maeve to pick up a guitar. Maeve was struck by how generous Julien’s performance was after seeing her play live and by how Julien was able to distill such intense experiences into concise and digestible lyrics. On Waiting Room Maeve does exactly that herself, singing about coming to terms with her body and her relationships in a way that is relatable for anyone whose felt like they were a discarded by a friend or who had to read old copies of People Magazine while waiting for a medical professional you barely know dictate your future to you. As timid and unsure of herself as Maeve may have felt while writing and recording Waiting Room she has clearly come out of it with a healthy and mature perspective on who she is and how she wants to live her life. In this interview and others Maeve has conveyed a fear that the record may come off as selfish, seeing as she has a family and friends who love her and has easy access to the medical care she needs, but that sagacious perspective only made the raw emotion of these tracks that much more poignant for me. Life isn’t easy for anyone, and coming to terms with the difficult aspects of her life have seemed to if anything make her more appreciative for what she does have, which is a lesson we should all take to heart. I was lucky enough to pick Maeve’s brain about her life, the writing and recording process of this magnificent record, and what she has in store next.

Who are you and how do you identify?

My name is Maeve, I use she/her pronouns, and I identify as a woman.

You spend most of your adolescence in Mumbai before recently moving back to your birthplace of Minneapolis due to the pandemic. Do you still feel a connection to Minneapolis despite spending less time there? How has it been being back in the land of lakes?

I definitely feel connected to Minneapolis, especially since I was born here, but I don’t know if I would call it home. When I’m in Mumbai I think of Minneapolis as home, and when I’m here it’s the opposite. There’s so much sick music being made in the Twin Cities and obviously such a rich musical history, and I do wish that I felt more connected to the scene. As a result of the pandemic, I have gotten to experience four seasons for the first time. I’ve been here in summer and winter, but I’ve never seen spring or autumn. I always thought that I would be an autumn person, and this year definitely confirmed my suspicions.

Do you have any Indian musicians that you hold near and dear and want to shout out?

Yes! Pacifist is an excellent hardcore band based in Mumbai. They have an EP out, and I especially love the song “Reactionary.” Death by Fungi also goes really hard. One of my favorite folk artists is called Ditty. Her debut full-length, Poetry Ceylon, takes my breath away whenever I listen to it; the title is so appropriate because she swings between blissful spoken-word and these soft, soaring melodies. “Food City” is an excellent gateway into the record; the ending is like a hug and a punch in the gut simultaneously. It’s the kind of album you wish that you could live inside.

You wrote this record over the course of two years from 2018 to 2020. What is the earliest song you wrote and what is the most recent? How do you think your process changed over the course of writing the album?

The drafts for “Furniture” and “Temple” were written in the same week, but I am ninety percent sure that “Furniture” was first. “Harriet” was the last song I wrote, back in April, as I was starting tracking on the record. I think that my guitar work has definitely gotten more mature. The main process shift I can think of is that by the time I was writing “Medicine,” I knew that I was working on a record. “Furniture,” “Temple,” “Bug,” “Noël,” and “Guilt” were all on an EP of the same name that I released in the summer of 2019. While they shared thematic similarities, they were not written with the intent of being collected and contextualizing with one another. I tried to be a lot more intentional in the later stages of writing Waiting Rooms. I was thinking about side A/ side B even though it wasn’t physically released, and I was trying to construct sonic undercurrents to complement the lyrical ones.

You have jokingly called this album “Bathroom Pop,” a nod to how you recorded a good deal of it in both your bathroom and bedroom. Is there something about the acoustics of your bathroom that made it particularly good for recording? Can you talk about your recording process in general?

That joke can be attributed to my friend Zack. I think I was bemoaning the trend of any woman or non-binary person making quiet DIY music being labeled as a “bedroom pop” artist, and he came up with the phrase. I don’t dislike pop music in any way, it’s just that I don’t think that most of my music is written using pop structures. I picked the bathroom as my studio because it was the quietest part of the house. My parents were teaching on Zoom and my sister was going to school virtually, so my choice was mostly by circumstance. I did notice that my vibrato came out a lot more when I sang in the bathroom, which made “Bug” feel kind of messy, but it also enhanced the effect I was aiming for on “Elsewhere.” As for the recording process, I spent a lot of time on Logic forums troubleshooting, and the audio interface I borrowed was pretty mercurial, so I had to mess around a lot to produce a clean sound. I did the EP in a studio; there are obviously merits to both approaches. The problem with studios is that they are so expensive and part of the reason I took down the EP was that I wasn’t satisfied with all of the choices we made because there just wasn’t a lot of time to record. On the LP, I got to be a lot more of a perfectionist, which may come as a surprise considering the human error evident on the final product. The biggest challenge was figuring out when to stop working on a track.

Who were your musical influences while creating this record? You talked about Sufjan Stevens being an early inspiration growing up and there were moments on this record that really reminded me of Carrie and Lowell.

I am so honored that you picked that record! “Eugene” is a perfect song; I could listen to it over and over for hours on end, and I think I’d notice something new each time. That last line, “what’s the point of singing songs / If they’ll never even hear you?” crushes me. Olivia Barton’s debut from 2019 is a definite influence, especially with regards to production, and Rilo Kiley when it comes to songwriting. There are so many pearlescent little lines from their catalogue that I would honestly consider getting tattoos of. I thought about Julien Baker and Keaton Henson with frequency as I was writing about my illness. The way that they treat mental and physical illness is so frank, but they illustrate their experiences with shimmering clarity through their writing.

You were also diagnosed with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome in the midst of writing the record. How was it coming to terms with that diagnosis? How has it impacted your life?

I was overjoyed when I had a diagnosis. I was just so thankful that there were words I could put to what I was experiencing, especially after months of doctors treating me as though I was making up my symptoms. “Bug” sort of addresses that period of fear and uncertainty. Knowing the name of the illness was pivotal in being able to look at treatment. When teens are diagnosed with POTS, it often begins to fade away in their twenties, and I am hopeful that the same will happen for me. Mostly what I do is try to exercise every day, keep to a schedule, take my medicine, and distract myself from the pain. It’s a lot better than what doctors were telling me before I was diagnosed, which amounted to “drink more water.” I think that in the most simple terms, POTS has made me confront the finite nature of my energy. I don’t have the capacity right now to do everything that I want to, and that’s okay. So I try to put my energy toward the things that I hope cause the most good; toward learning, toward music, toward my family. Obviously some days suck and some days are good, but knowing how to prioritize rather than trying to be everything to everyone was transformative.

The album title being Waiting Rooms is no doubt a reference to the countless hours I am sure you spent in doctors offices as you got this diagnosis. How did it affect your songwriting and the shape of this album?

I am going to say something extremely pretentious, but thinking about the concept of the waiting room from an artistic lens made me pay attention to transitional spaces of waiting. I thought about the concept through time and space, but also within interpersonal relationships.“Harriet” and “Park” try to address this idea. The truth is that a lot of my best lyrics come from messing with words in those waiting rooms. Wordplay is something that brings me great comfort. Sometimes my dad and I do crosswords while we’re waiting for health news, or waiting for an intense pain to subside, so I think I’ve grown to associate waiting with internal reflection and connecting ideas through language.

Do you have a favorite song on the record or one that holds the most personal meaning? 

My favorite is probably “Elsewhere.” It is one of three songs on the record wherein I’m talking to or about my future self. I worry a lot about all my songs sounding extremely “woe is me;” I’m generally a pretty content person, and I am deeply grateful for so many things in my life. I wish I was better at writing songs about those aspects, but it’s a lot easier for me to write about the difficult stuff. I like “Elsewhere” because it takes a sort of indirect approach to addressing sickness. I usually go to bed at nine, but that night it was a Saturday and pain was keeping me up past midnight. I was thinking, like, “I could be out at a gig or with friends or at a movie or doing something fun, but instead I’m just sick in my bed.” So I tried to write a letter to my future self, imagining this person who does all those things, goes out to gigs with friends and sees movies and has fun. That “Elsewhere” refrain is something I took from a song I wrote the year before about quantum entanglement, which I realize is a sentence even more pretentious than the one I wrote earlier. While I abstracted the word in the original song by using it to articulate something very difficult to encompass, in this song it’s a prayer, repeated and extended until it holds less resonance semantically and more resonance spiritually. I wrote the first version of the guitar riff that night, and I think processing the pain rather than focusing on it was a balm in that moment. I’m really proud of the swirling soundscape I developed on the recording. I produced this howling echo on my voice that reflects back the words as a whispery baying, and I loved how it abstracted the language to a point at which it’s not about the meaning of the words but their shape.

You talked about how seeing Julien Baker live made you want to teach yourself guitar. Can you describe that concert experience? When/where was that? How long after that did you pick up that guitar?

This was two years ago at Surly Field in Minneapolis. She and Lucy Dacus were opening for Courtney Barnett, which is sort of a serendipitous triangle of musicians I love. Folks were milling about and getting beer during the opening sets, so I was at the front of a small but dedicated crowd. The best word I can summon for her performance is generous. Her conviction as she sang “Rejoice” made me want to feel the same thing, the same sort of certainty in my chest. Ironically, “Temple,” the only song of the record that directly addresses religion, settles on the phrase “I never know who I’m praying to” as a rallying cry. I wasn’t out yet when I saw that show, but in retrospect the power of seeing three out musicians at once where their sexuality almost seemed incidental was mind-blowing. My favorite non-musical moment was probably when Julien said something along the lines of “it’s so cool to be on a line-up with just women,” and when we all cheered, she grinned and was like, “that’s how I feel about women too.” We were back in Mumbai a week after the show, and on the night we returned I picked up my Dad’s acoustic guitar. I taught myself “Casimir Pulaski Day,” felt self-satisfied, and then immediately fell asleep.

In previous interviews you have listed a wide variety of musicians you hold dear, from Moses Sumney to Joni Mitchell to Yo La Tengo to Bruce Springsteen to Soul Glo. How did you develop such an impressively deep historical appreciation for music at such a young age? Was someone in your life turning you on to different music or was it all going out and seeking it yourself?

My interest in music started out with my parents showing me bands: Wilco, The Smiths, and Fiona Apple from my Dad; Trip Shakespeare, Stevie Wonder, and The Replacements from my Mom. I also got into country because of The Voice (a very embarrassing sentence to be writing in 2020), so I dove into Pam Tillis and Willie Nelson. Sixth grade was when my tastes started expanding. I got into Jane’s Addiction and PiL, which were my gateways into heavier music. I listened to Illinois by Sufjan Stevens and devoured his whole discography. In 2016 when they released the most recent record, I got into A Tribe Called Quest and tried to learn as much as I could about ‘90s hip-hop. The next year DAMN. came out and got me deep into Kendrick. I listened broadly and seriously. I could go on and on about the music that has shaped me, and I actually worry that folks will read the interviews I’m doing for the record and think I’m making up my love for all this music because there are just so many artists who have expanded my understanding of songwriting. But the simple truth is that I listen to and love a lot of music. The blind spots I’m working on right now are instrumental and jazz. I know very little about these musical traditions and want to have as wide a knowledge as possible so that I can understand how different traditions trace through time and overlap with others.

Julien Baker is obviously near and dear to your heart and you are wearing a Sleater-Kinney shirt on the cover of this record. Do you have a definitive favorite band or musician? 

Julien Baker. There are so many bands and musicians I love, but at the end of the day, Sprained Ankle is the record I’d choose to take with me to a deserted island.

What inspired the cover and the decision to rock that Sleater-Kinney t-shirt? Or was it more of a spur of the moment thing?

Definitely the latter, although I wish I had a cooler story. I had been diagnosed with POTS by that point and was at a clinic for folks with my illness. My Dad and I were in the waiting room before a session and he took the photo for the EP cover. The shirt was incidental; it’s just what I was wearing. I do think it’s funny that I’m wearing a shirt for a band that makes pretty stylistically contrasting music to mine on the cover, though. “Get Up” is one of my favorite songs even though I know I will likely never make anything like it.

In another interview you talked about how with Waiting Rooms you were writing songs and then figured out what connected them down the road whereas with LP2 you are consciously setting out to make an album. What did you realize was the connective tissue between these songs?

I think that fragility is the connective tissue. The obvious culprit is my body, but I hope the songs stretch far enough to intersect with other fragilities; of pride, of relationships, of self-image. Sometimes I tried to show how directly related mental and physical health can be. When I started writing “Medicine,” my intent was to write about recovery. I thought maybe I could will myself to fully recover by writing a song about it, like that Phoebe Bridgers lyric, “and wonders if he believed songs could come true.” And then my stomach problems caused by POTS started getting a lot worse. I won’t go into detail, but suffice it to say I was having a lot of trouble keeping food down. I used these droning, repetitive guitars to put a representation of my mental state in dialogue with the physical state described throughout the lyrics.

What did the process of discovering what LP1 would be teach you about how to consciously write LP2? Do you feel one method is better or more comfortable than the other?

I’m still feeling it out, but I really like having an overarching lens because it’s making me see connections between the topic of LP2 and the world around me that I don’t think I would have observed otherwise. However, there was a purity to the Waiting Rooms process, wherein I didn’t have expectations for the songs early on because they were just for me. Now as I write there’s a shameful voice in the back of my head like, “Is this a single? Should this be on side A or B?” 

You made this album with an electric guitar because that was all that was available to you at the time. What instruments or sounds do you want to incorporate to LP2?

I played the drums all through middle school, and definitely want to incorporate percussion into the next record. I’m also learning the mandolin right now and selfishly want to write songs on it because I just love how it sounds. I have no piano or synth experience, but hope to mess around with a synth on the next record. Caroline Polachek is a production hero of mine, and what she can do with a synthesizer blows my mind.

What music/television/movies/books/video games/content in general has helped keep you sane during quarantine? I saw you posted the Derry Girls mural a while back, I just finished the second season and absolutely adored it.

Yes! My maternal family is Irish and my grandmother is from Derrygonnely, so that show hits close to home for us. We actually rewatched both seasons earlier in the pandemic. The defining show of quarantine for us, however, was Lost. My family watched all six seasons in about six weeks. Sometimes when I get really into something it just consumes me, and that was Lost. I spent most of my day thinking about it and coming up with theories. I especially got obsessed with the character John Locke. I don’t want to spoil the show for folks who haven’t seen it yet because, contrary to popular belief, I think it is extremely worth watching, but I’ll just say that every Locke flashback episode made me cry. I also recently got a concussion and listened to The Song of Ice and Fire audiobooks while I was resting. I’ve watched all eight seasons, but for whatever reason I am still extremely invested in these characters. With the gift of hindsight I can definitely see how Martin was setting up some of the choices that shocked me when I originally watched the show.

Follow Maeve on twitter and insta, and listen to Waiting Rooms on Spotify, Apple Music, and BandCamp!!

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