Avoiding clichés is a hard thing for singer-songwriters. How do you write an acoustic song without sounding like every other person at an open mic night? It’s no easy task. After years of teaching herself the ropes of pop music, Houston native Maryanna Sokol has luckily found a way.
Raised by a jazz-turned-classical guitarist mother and jazz trumpet composer father, Sokol’s parents had mastered those respective forms and tried diligently to pass them along to their daughter. Unfortunately for them, Sokol discovered The Beatles.
Sokol has been a musician basically all her life. Her parents credit her with her first song at the tender age of three, and she won a vocal composition contest at 10. It was obvious early on that Sokol’s life would be guided by sound. She received a degree in music therapy and, to make the rent, chose a side career in her field, mostly working with children. “I can put down a kids song in 10 seconds, and it can be catchy and kids love it,” she says. Since transplanting herself to Manhattan, though, her practical side has taken a back seat. She has finally found a place to work out her real ambitions, finishing her debut album, Landfill, this past spring, which was two years in the making.
For the first part of her life, she tried to stay true to her jazz routes. In college, she was part of jazz ensembles as she studied with the intention of being a studio musician, but something just didn’t feel right. She explains, “I really tried to hang on and be a jazz singer for a while, and it just did not work out.” It wasn’t until after college that she had the revelation that making pop-based music could be a good idea after all and that she wasn’t half bad at it either.
The Beatles may have been the spark, but it was Regina Spektor that lit the fire. With Spektor’s influence, Sokol is avoiding being just another guitar-only singer-songwriter, because, to her, it’s become a bit too cliché. “I felt there was nothing between Kelly Clarkson and Joni Mitchell or Ani Difranco,” she says. “There are tons of feelings and acoustic guitar, or super pop power music, but Regina was just everywhere, and I felt like my mind was blown.”
Sokol also credits Fiona Apple in that original revelation, but more recently, players like Sufjan Stevens and The Dodos have become sources for her creativity, especially on Landfill. With muses like those, Sokol’s music can be quite dynamic. Sokol craves sound and lots of it. On her debut, pianos, trumpets, strings, and layers of guitar make up a deceptively cheerful vibe. Her classically trained voice is sturdy, giving a sense of realism to her words. Being so well-trained in music from an early age has made her a very picky writer and one that never settles for what’s easy.
She admits it’s a bit strange, but of all the things to influence her, it’s the anger that religion and politics creates between people that drives her writing. “The way that people argue about politics and religion makes me want to write a lot,” she explains. “I’m very anti-politics.” She also finds doomsdayers to be just as ridiculous, so while the songs may be upbeat and well-crafted, there’s much frustration behind them. “I’m never inspired to write unless I’m upset, confused, or angry. When I’m happy, I just never feel like writing.”
Going deeper into her debut, Landfill hides the negativity quite well. “Pentameter” is littered with handclaps and a Spanish-influenced horn section making for the most proficient moment on the album. Strings pull the same wall of sound trick on the slowed down “Coffee Shop Scene”, showing that all the right ideas are in place. The piano-based “This Heart’s Mostly Filler” is one of the bolder tracks, her flawless voice coming out in full form before the strings and drums start up. She wears Spektor quite openly on her sleeve, and it sounds marvelous.
It’s been seven months since Landfill, and in that time Sokol has recorded enough demos to make a new record. She has also started to play a few shows around New York City, but the intention is to do a proper tour in the near future with her band. An EP is also in the works, so come next spring you may just hear a whole lot more of Sokol.
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