Which city would you prefer to be in at this moment if you were an independent musician with a new (and rather lovely, we might add) collection of songs to share: Houston or New York City? Maryanna Sokol’s lived and worked in both and she says today, right here and now, she’d choose her hometown of Houston as the ideal spot to unveil fresh tunes. That’s exactly what she’s doing, too. Her latest EP, Sea & Scape, bows this Friday.
Sokol’s music career has taken her from the Spring-Klein area she grew up in to Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan and back. She says, “Houston is home. I may go somewhere else someday, but Houston is (my) main home base. NYC was another home, but temporary — I lived there about three years. I moved there mostly to pursue music, and it worked out alright.”
She said she had a steady stream of gigs, did some tours, got licensing placement on MTV’s The Real World, had an interview on NPR. But, that was then and this is now. Houston’s the right place to recharge her music energy in 2018, she says.
“I think one advantage of being in Houston right now is that we've had a bit of a spotlight on us recently. We’ve had so much going on, good and bad, between major sporting events, the Parts Unknown episode, Hurricane Harvey, and then that poetic Astros win,” she says. “And on the music side we've seen the success of The Suffers, who perfectly represent Houston’s melting pot culture, taking their individual styles and backgrounds and creating something awesome and unique. It feels like Houston is developing a new respect and reputation in the eyes of outsiders, and I think it's a good time to be making anything here!”
What Sokol’s crafted is a six-song EP, her first collection of new original music since 2010’s Landfill, which drew accolades from the likes of Consequence of Sound and NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday.
“My last album was recorded in 2008 and released in 2010, so the writing process for this one was just me living my life between now and then. I write constantly, for better or for worse, so I had a lot of material to choose from,” she notes. “My life took a few unexpected turns and I ended up with some really raw, really personal material.”
We’ve had an advance listen of Sea & Scape. Every track showcases a confident songwriter and skilled vocalist and musician in full stride. You hear influences like Leonard Bernstein in the theatrically-tinged “City Song,” or Regina Spektor on the impossibly catchy opener, “Secrets and Lies.” The Beatles, Fiona Apple “and a little ‘freak folk’ band from San Francisco called The Dodos” are there in spirit. The skill inherent in Sokol’s work on Sea & Scape is she’s able to paint her own visions from that broad musical palette.
Music is a natural path for Sokol to follow. Her parents met at Berklee College of Music in the ‘70s, “when it was still more jazz focused,” she notes. “They’ve been professional musicians my entire life, so of course I was heavily influenced by any music they listened to, played and respected. They had a Christian rock band for a while and I recall going on tour with them and participating in music festivals. I got to meet some of my Christian music idols, which was obviously a plus.
“My brother and I performed with them sometimes and we both ended up playing instruments and studying music in college,” she continued. “I learned a lot from them, but one of the things that sticks out most is respect for artistry and songwriting. They had their preferred styles and tastes but could always appreciate talent, good composition or artistry, no matter the style."
Coming from that background, it’s little surprise Sokol’s day job involves music, too.
“I am a neurologic music therapist, which means I have been trained to use a standardized set of techniques that utilize the intrinsic properties of music to help create new neural pathways and connections. This is a fancy way of saying I use music as a tool to help address goals specific to people with neurologic disorders,” she explains. ”I work with Houston Area Parkinson Society and a small therapeutic school system called The Next Step Academy — both non-profits, always accepting donations! I also work for a company called Rehab Without Walls, which provides comprehensive neuro rehabilitation services in the home and community. On any given day I might lead a music and movement group with older adults, a variation group for kiddos on the autism spectrum and then co-treat in someone’s home with an occupational therapist, using drumming to help a patient practice arm extensions or range of motion.”
In spite of all the music she shares with others, Sokol maintains a very individual relationship with her songs.
“My songs are basically my way of processing life and navigating being a human in this world. I think a lot about human behavior, how society interacts, people as individuals, and genuine human connection, so that is typically what comes out when I write,” Sokol said. “I think when artists are passionate about something, that is what shines through most purely in their art. And as such, it is vital that pure art continue to be released, in every format. In this social media society it does feel like we are losing our individuality and our ability to connect with and find value and common ground with others. So yes, it is vital that we continue to be reminded to connect on an individual level, and I love how that can be achieved both through the expression and the consumption and appreciation of art.”
Songs like “Quiet in the Morning,” and the especially gentle “Nope, Not Us,” are good examples of that writing. Sokol said she approached her friend Jared Saltiel in New York to see if he’d be interested in making a long distance, no-deadline, completely DIY project together. The entire process took nearly three years of work, occasionally interrupted by life, to complete, she said.
She tabbed fellow Houston musician Alan Garcia for bass on “City Song” and “Liar,” but the rest was her and Saltiel.
“The process was actually pretty similar to my last album, with the major exception of Jared being my good friend and collaborator. He really took these songs to heart and took great care in bringing them to life. It felt like it was a personal project for him too, and I will always treasure having been able to make this record with such a dear friend,” she said.
It would be easy to pause to celebrate the release, but Sokol is hard at work on new things. She’s written her “first classic country” song, she says. She’s lowkey writing songs for a musical “or maybe a concept album?” – she’s not sure yet. She’s making the rounds promoting Sea & Scape, appearing on KPFT or at Urban Eats. She’s got an 11:30 a.m. set there Saturday as part of a closing party for Kaci Vigil’s art show there.
“There will be major sale prices on all her art, and she’s been donating proceeds from art sales to several local causes, including the therapeutic schools I work with, and HATCH, which benefits Houston LGBTQ youth,” Sokol mentioned. “After that, the next confirmed date I have is August 18 at Tacos A Go Go Garden Oaks on T.C. Jester. I will be trying to book one to two gigs a month though, and I update my Facebook and Instagram pages most consistently, so that's the best place to find the latest news.”
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Start spreading the news, as Sinatra once sang, Sokol’s not leaving today. She’s planning to make a brand new start of it in H-town.
“I can’t speak to New York now because I hear the changes to the indie art/music scene have been swift and devastating, but I can say one of the biggest advantages in New York was proximity to resources, media and other artists. There is an ocean of talent in Houston, but you have to know where to go to seek it out, and reversely you have to know where to find people who can help you develop or release it. In New York you just have to go to a party and shake someone’s hand. Boom. Connected to someone in the industry.
“One similarity is that most everyone still has to have a day job in addition to their music, so life becomes a hustle between the dream and the reality, and we work hard for it,” she said. “But maybe that’s just life in America right now.”
Maryanna Sokol’s new EP, Sea & Scape, is available Friday on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, Bandcamp and other major music listening platforms. She performs songs from the album 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Urban Eats, 3414 Washington Ave.