Maria McKee Has a “Spasm of Passion” With ‘La Vita Nuova’

“I was a sober, heteronormative married monogamous woman working on my husband’s movies,” Maria McKee begins, fileting the life she’s been in the process of shedding for the last few years. “I was basically a Beverly Hills housewife in a platonic partnership with my best friend, but the way I was living wasn’t sustainable.

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“As I started writing these songs, as they were pouring from me, it was like everything was breaking down. It started clawing through my skin, the reckoning, and I wasn’t sure what it was, but I knew once I started writing and went down that hole, there was no turning around.

“And it was so unexpected,” the Americana bellwether continues, on the phone from London where she lives half the year. “I hadn’t written a song cycle in 25 years. I’d tampered all those things down, working on my husband’s films, living this life.”

And then came the eclipse. 

“When it was over, I felt – literally –  like I walked in all new skin. I was queer. I’d always identified as bi[sexual], but coming to terms with what all that means. … After the heartache, the songs breaking through, it was metaphysical. Then it became almost academic. I started reading romantic poets.”

When she says “romantic poets,” she doesn’t mean Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger – she’s literal. William Blake, Byron Shelley, William Butler Yeats, and yes, Dante Alighieri. 

La Vita Nuova, McKee’s first album in almost a decade and a half, is a whirl and a spasm of passion sought, spent, wasted, tasted, denied, realized and lost. Almost baroque in places, elegantly kneaded songwriter stuff in others, McKee’s once spark-tossing exhortative vocals have been replaced by a mix of operatic and even incense-tinged choir voicings.

“I wrote this elegy to beauty and desire,” she muses. “I wondered, ‘How, after 25 years, is this happening? What happened to me?’ I wrote a lot of songs all at once, maybe over three months – probably 35 or 40. It was a little bit [like Hans Christian Anderson’s The Red Shoes].

“I was exhilarated. I was tortured. I was agonized and confounded.”

She also crafted a work of exquisite loveliness: poetry strung over string arrangements that never overwhelm, French horns rising in places, the piano ascending and moving through songs like horses. The language, dense by today’s pop standards, reflects the density of her desires, the layers that covered them, the denials inherent to keeping paths and the regrets of things forgone. 

“’Time is running out,’ I realized. I had to ask, ‘Am I living the way I want, or am I not?’” she pauses, laughs a little ruefully. “I suppose that’s why it’s called a midlife crisis.”

A 50-something woman coming to terms with her true sexuality is not unlike the married daddies of Greenwich, Connecticut, or Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the moneyed South and Midwest fighting their own burgeoning homosexuality in the ’70s and ’80s. With everything they could possibly want, how could they not be happy? 

Tough stuff no matter who someone is, but then there’s the clock ticking, the notion days are numbered. All that is intense, but then, this is McKee – a childwoman of such fierce creative passion and singular gifts, she captured the collective imagination of a pop world shattering through the emergence of MTV, the choke of arena rock and AOR radio and the last gasps of disco and what would become yacht rock.

Before there was Americana, a magazine called No Depression, Nashville’s Great Credibility Scare of the late ’80s or Uncle Tupelo, there was a ragged country-gospel band on the edge of the fringe of LA’s punk/roots explosion called Lone Justice. X was a wild rock/working poetry proposition. The Blasters’ inhabited the adjacency to rockabilly and the nexus between blues and noir jazz. Los Lobos offered a space where native Mexican music infiltrated rock and Saturday night, while the Motels brewed a plangent torchiness and the GoGos swerved through ’60s pop, surf and a brash innocence.

McKee, faced framed by a halo of blonde Raphaelite cherub curls and a mouth like a heart tied in a bow, wore prairie home depression chic with a leather jacket thrown over it the way most girls wore cut-offs. She was the cowpunk princess of the universe. Bob Dylan, Steven Van Zandt and Tom Petty wrote songs for her; U2 took Lone Justice on tour.

She was a muse, ultimately appearing in Robbie Robertson’s “Somewhere Down The Crazy River” video, providing “If Love Is A Red Dress (Hang Me In Rags),” the only original song in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, writing Feargal Sharkey’s global smash, “A Good Heart,” at 19. Singing on seminal tracks for Robertson, Cheap Trick’s Robin Zander, Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, the Golden Horde, the Heads and Counting Crows on “Mr. Jones,” her songs have anchored projects by Bette Midler, the Dixie Chicks and then emerging cred scare traditionalist Patty Loveless – by way of Lone Justice – with “Don’t Toss Us Away.”

Quixotic solo records amassed rabid acolytes. Maria McKee leaned her country towards a muscular pop; You Gotta Sin To Get Saved was an Americana masterclass. But perhaps the tour de force for the faithful was 1996’s moody Life Is Sweet, in some ways Vita’s bookend.

“It was visceral, angry, sacral chakra stuff,” she says of the earliest songs, “and those songs are another album (about) a lack of space, frustration, sexual tension. But there was also this agonizing grief, and this album was very much a theme, all these things that happened at once. ‘Oh, shit. I’ve run out of time for how I wanted to live, and any chance to have a child.’

“It was an agonizing grief. I have clinical depression, and almost didn’t survive it. These songs kept me alive … I’m at risk; I self-harm. I was cutting through my skin trying to feel.”

The songs, as they kept tumbling, broke through the emotional onslaught.

“When more kept coming and more kept coming, I realized there was a purpose to my suffering. I just needed to get them out. Then I thought, ‘Oh, shit, I’m making a record.’ When it was completed, I thought it was a eulogy, but I realized it was a birth.”

Beyond studying the romantic poets, haunting the various spots in London that hold history, spirits and inspiration, McKee found herself revisiting her childhood, remembering her maternal elders and considering the young girl thrust into the spotlight with great velocity, no map and great expectations. There was much to mourn, and also much to reach to.

“A friend said this phantom is your Beatrice,” she marvels. “And Dante’s version of unrequited love was hung on it. So, I conjured this imaginary muse, an amalgam of dreams, of the past, exes, children I might have had, romantic experiences I remember. I conjured this character from a movie, going into a state of gnosis when writing about beauty and the beloved.”

When the album was done, the woman appeared. Conjured almost literally. The affair was intense, then done. The transition to clarity complete. McKee marvels some, but more believes the universe moves with her. Just as importantly, she moves with it.

Embracing her love of ’80s goth (especially Echo + the Bunnymen’s Ocean Rain), early Kate Bush, Hunky Dory, Big Star, John Cale’s Paris 1919 and early ’60s stuff, McKee found her grounding. Co-producing Vita with now ex-husband filmmaker/groundbreaking skateboarding icon Jim Akin, the two found a creative footing that paralleled their work on Akin’s films After The Triumph of Your Birth and The Ocean of Helena Lee.

“I remember when I played him the songs. It was intense, but he loves me. We are family. We are best friends, and cracking through to the truth was obviously what was going on. 

“I needed to express love and tenderness, and we couldn’t do that. We had too much baggage and couldn’t break through. So it was devastating, but it was also truth. He knew it.”

Today they are neighbors in Los Angeles, where “my house is basically a queer Airbnb for these beautiful young queer kids. He’s very curious, and gets their pronouns right … We’re both very nurturing people.”

 Whether the Jacques Brel-evoking title track, the piano swirl “Right Down To The Heart of London,” the almost Springsteen/Smith tension of “The Last Boy” or the hushed relinquishing of “Just Want To Know If You’re Alright,” her velvety mezzo-soprano moves the emotions with a porous vulnerability. For all the churning of life and love, Vita is not an act of defiance, but one of embracing the unthinkable that will offer courage to those – whomever, however – also seeking a place beyond societal expectations.

“Because I freed myself up to come and go, be whomever and wherever, I’m …,” she begins, then pauses, as she weighs the unthinkability of it all. “It’s weird. If someone had told me three years ago, I’d be this pansexual, multi-partner dyke on two continents, I’d’ve laughed.”

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