Album review: Maeve Aickin – Waiting Rooms

Maeve Aickin is quite a talent. It’s incredibly clichéd to mention age like it’s a barometer of anything other than how many days somebody has been on the planet, but I’m going to do it anyway. At seventeen, the Minneapolis-based songwriter’s debut album Waiting Rooms is as astonishing a piece of work as I’ve heard since starting this blog.

It’s an unflinchingly honest set of songs that document Aickin’s life as a young person living with chronic illness – specifically Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome. Written over the last two years, and self-recorded during quarantine between her bedroom and bathroom on limited equipment borrowed from school, the album is a stark listen that draws you in and beguiles with its beauty. Endlessly shifting, at times Aickin’s vocals and skeletal guitar soar before almost disappearing completely. There’s a fragility to her voice, and a notable waver that appears at its most vulnerable, yet really these songs are anything but fragile. 

Since late 2018, my wife and I have spent a lot of time in various waiting rooms. Appointments with specialists, with consultants listening, consultants not listening, consultants pushing terminations, consultants drawing diagrams of the brain, neurologists, geneticists, dieticians, therapists… the list could go on. At least we get to go through these with our beautiful son now. But still, it’s very much a drag. Anyway, why do I mention all this? Well, put simply, I’ve been writing and making music in some form since I picked up an unwanted guitar from my brother at the age of sixteen. I’m thirty-five now. I like to think I kind of have an idea what I’m doing in some sense. On top of this, I understand far more about life, disability, and grief than I ever did, although I learn more every day. Listening to these ten tracks really struck a chord with me, and in truth I think it’s partly because I don’t think I’ve ever got anywhere near the honesty and directness that courses through every track on Waiting Rooms.

Oftentimes I will highlight lyrics or talk about what the music sounds like. I don’t feel the need to do it here, because there’s not a huge amount I can say. Nine of the album’s ten tracks consist of Aickin’s voice set against her minimal electric guitar work. Sometimes there’s a ghostly reverb, sometimes there are what sounds like some subtle double-tracked vocal lines and guitar parts. The approach is one of simplicity, and in this case it works beautifully. Essentially it’s gorgeous. It has its ups, it has its downs. It’s tender, it’s defiant, it’s angry, it’s joyous, it’s intelligent, it’s humble, it’s flawed, and it’s complex. Above all, it’s very good. Aickin is a rare find and I hope that Waiting Rooms is just the beginning.

A conversation with Maeve Aickin

Intrigued by the narrative around the album, Maeve’s relatively young age, and her background – she lived in Mumbai for the last nine years, recently moving back to her birthplace of Minneapolis due to the pandemic – I was keen to ask a few questions about what she does and how she does it.

(As ever, my questions are in bold and Maeve’s responses in plain text).

You’ve mentioned Julien Baker as a huge influence on what you do, and I can definitely see that coming through in these songs. What is it that draws you to her music?

It’s tough to crystallize what it is about her discography that is so meaningful to me. I think it was the beauty of her melodies that first drew me toward Sprained Ankle. “Blacktop” was the first song of hers I heard, and the soft glissando-y thing she does on the chorus broke my heart. Her melodies just feel so full of grace. Once I started reading the lyrics, her candor and eloquence were what drew me in further. She can distill such intense experiences into concise phrases– “rejoice and complain” comes to mind. The specificity in her writing is what makes me see myself, see who I’ve been, and who I want to be.

• I was really surprised by the last track riffing on the Pet Shop Boys, too. It’s quite a big leap in sound, and it got me thinking about what other music you’re influenced by?

I’m so glad that you asked about the Pet Shop Boys reference! I know very little of their music, but I came across that song a couple years ago and it had a profound effect on me. I was comparing the context in which it was written against the context within which I live. It’s such a tragic irony, the “we were never being boring” refrain. When he writes “all the people I was kissing / Some are here and some are missing,” all I wish is for the speaker to live a boring life, a contented one without the devastation of the AIDS crisis. In response, I thought about my own aspirations for a life of simplicity after a revolution; a life wherein I work a job that helps others, have time for music, live with someone I love, and worry about things like getting milk at the grocery store. It’s an idealized life that I know is unlikely to materialize due to climate change, imperialist wars, global capitalism and the resulting exploitation of workers… the list is, obviously, extremely long. And “Boring” is a selfish song, which I realize, but I meant it to be just specific enough to be trenchant and just general enough to be relatable. I am totally rambling, but that Pet Shop Boys track was instrumental in helping me find an angle into approaching the anxieties that keep me and so many others up at night.

Before listening to the album, I was immediately drawn to the Mumbai/Minneapolis thing. Seems like a really unusual combination of places! How did you end up living in India to begin with?

My parents started teaching abroad about twenty years ago and met in Brasilia. They continued teaching overseas after having me, so I’ve lived in Mexico, Brazil, India, and now the US. Minneapolis is where my maternal family immigrated to from Ireland, so it’s become a really meaningful place for us.

Speaking as somebody who’s also spent a lot of time over the last couple of years in different waiting rooms with my son, I was really blown away by your lyrics and how unafraid you are of exploring the notion of illness in such an eloquent, powerful way. Was that something you kind of worried about, or is it just natural for you?

I think my perennial worry is that my songs come off super self-indulgent. Like, “look at how horrible my life is!” Because the truth is, my life is not horrible. I have a loving family, supportive friends, financial security, access to healthcare, a place to live… I am extremely grateful for what I have. Writing about illness is not difficult for me, because on this record I mostly used songwriting as a way to offload the thoughts that were weighing me down. At the risk of sounding trite, I write what I know. What I do worry about is whether or not I am causing harm by curating a very limited narrative through my music. I don’t want to flatten my experiences solely to suffering, because that story is just not accurate. Through songs I wrote later in the process, I tried to acknowledge how illness weaves its way into mundane aspects of living without overwriting the beauty of those mundanities. That’s something I hope to get better at as I grow as a songwriter.

• I like the arrangements with the stark guitar and vocal. The simplicity certainly suits the to themes of the songs. Is it important that it’s just you, or do you see yourself expanding the sound in future?

I’m writing the second LP right now, and I am envisioning a much more expansive sound. Even on Waiting Rooms I saw space for synths and violins, but I only had access to an electric guitar, and ultimately decided that the instrumentation was appropriate to the writing. I tried messing around with plug-ins to make the production sound like more than the sum of its parts, but in the future I really want the opportunity to collaborate with other artists. That isn’t an experience I’ve had so far, because I’ve written everything alone and played my own guitar parts. I think that with this record I was so anxious to get it out, to get it off my chest, that I made peace with my own limitations. As folks have become more conscious of their health due to the pandemic, I hoped that Waiting Rooms might resonate or comfort listeners in a way unique to the moment. I’m expecting the second LP to sound very different, though; so far my authorial voice is lapsing between the confessional tone of the debut and a more omniscient approach, and I am planning on writing a couple full-band songs.

How do you write?

Most of my songs start out as simple thoughts that I write down in the notes app. As I begin to get a sense of the shape of the song, its texture, its form, I take a stab at writing verses in my notebook. I’ve had this notebook for a few years, and all the original drafts of the Waiting Rooms tracklist can be found within it. Then it comes down to editing, and sometimes it’s waiting for time to pass and letting the song mature that way. Sometimes I ad lib lyrics to a pre-existing melody; I wrote “Park” to a Deathcab song so that I could get something with the rhythm and meter I wanted, then developed my own melody around the verses.

Why do you write?

There is something extremely validating about writing down an experience or emotion, just literally seeing it on paper. I think part of my development as a songwriter has shifted from the framing “I should write about this because it’s important” to “I will write about this to make it important.” That’s one of the most transformative elements of the written word. I worry about folks not seeing their experiences reflected back at them in popular music and then feeling that they are not worth writing about when, in fact, the opposite is true. While I have had the privilege of seeing women who look like me writing songs about experiences I can relate to for most of my life, as I got sick, I started seeking out music about disability to help me process what I was feeling. While I found a lot of work about observing other people’s physical illnesses, I did not find much material concerning the personal experience of your body fighting against you. “Thinning” by Snail Mail is probably the song that I most acutely related to at that time; “In Your Head” by Nilüfer Yanya, too, was really special to me. So it’s a generative process– someone puts this moment to words, and someone somewhere else hears it, sees themself, and maybe feels an urge to preserve one of their own moments through songwriting. That’s what I really hope to do.

• Lastly, have you found the last eight months or so more productive or harder to make music?

I’ve only written about three full songs in the last eight months, one of which was “Harriet.” However, in terms of recording, I’ve been extremely productive. I recorded the whole project between March and August. I think that the stressors of senior year have definitely impacted the amount of time I work on songwriting, but I am currently learning the mandolin, and I’m working on my own music blog, which will launch in January.

You can find out more about Maeve Aickin on Twitter and Instagram. Waiting Rooms is available to download from Bandcamp.

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