Maria Mena was totally broken. What began as a two-month break to reset turned into a four-year hiatus from the music scene. “I remember not waking up,” she says. Mena speaks figuratively. A jarring realization, that her path to healing was going to take much, much longer, sent her sliding from the spotlight.
The Norwegian artist has always been open and honest about her struggles with mental health, but this felt different. “It was like my body shut down for me. I had to understand who I am. The way I had been working, long term, was going to kill me,” she tells American Songwriter over a recent Zoom call.
In her time away, she didn’t even write a single song, perform a show, or do an interview. What an immense shift that was from what she had been doing since she was 14 years old when she released her debut album, Another Phase. She went on to release seven more records, but the pressures of not only her personal life but her professional one became unbearable. So, she hide away.
The quick loss of creativity, and ability to write songs at all, hit her hardest. “Songwriting has been my best friend for years. It would be the place where I would confide my biggest secrets. Suddenly, it feels like your best friend is gone. For me to be able to write music the way I do I have to be honest with myself.”
Part of her emotional journey was also accepting that she was “the other woman” in a relationship that nearly destroyed her. That’s where her comeback mini-album, They never leave their wives, enters the frame. Across seven songs, Mena pours her heart out, confronting the destruction and learning to let it all go. If she were to ever heal, she needed to stop running and deal with it.
“The thing is I used to be the wife. I’ve been through that. I had this person come in and ruin something for me. And I hated her until I became her. Then, I wanted to know who this person was and how she got entangled in the whole thing,” Mena muses. “Of course, it’s a painful thing. The best feeling in the world is being able to blame someone. The older I get, the less black and white everything becomes for me. I tend to want to understand the people we usually, as a society, dislike or judge.”
“I let myself cry, swallowed my pride / It is hard, hard to change your mind,” she sings on the sweeping theatrics of “Let Him Go,” an attempt to convince herself it was time to move on. But it’s never so easy. The record cobbles together her anger, sadness, loneliness, and the sting of silence that comes when the noise fades away. Left to her own devices, it was now or never.
“You Broke Me” is one of the set’s most visceral. “You brokе me, I’m broken / I used to believe in love,” she wails through driving percussion and guitar. “I used to be certain I’d find it one day / Now I’m just afraid.”
A drunken taxi ride home one day put her emotional state into stunningly clear focus. “I’d gotten so drunk to the point that I wasn’t drunk anymore. I was having these clear thoughts. I started crying because I realized I had just lost ─ and I didn’t believe in love anymore. I’ve always had fairy tale thoughts about love. He treated me so badly that I lost it. I felt like he broke me, and I became obsessed for a very long time with wanting him to feel as broken as I did. I wanted to break him, too.”
In the brand new lyric video, Mena employees flower imagery to underscore the need and desire to find new life again. She had stumbled across this quote from inspirational speaker Alexander den Heijer: “When a flower doesn’t bloom you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” And it hit her. She had to totally rearrange her surroundings to give herself that chance at a fulfilling, healthy life.
“I found that [quote] really profound. That is what had to happen. If you saw my life then, versus now, you’d realize there were a lot of people who allowed me to lie to myself and live a very toxic, self-destructive life,” she says. “I live a very quiet life now. I don’t need a lot of friends. I need good ones. The flower symbolizes being able to bloom again but having to change everything around me. With that, [I became] healthy again.”
Planted in a new environment, Mena continued toiling and nurturing new soil ─ resulting in more emotional and psychological work that she didn’t quite expect. “The problem with growing older is it’s not as much fun just being angry. You feel you want to learn something. The way I wanted to write music wasn’t to get revenge. I wanted to dig deeply into the psychologies of going through the relationship.”
Even the recording process was illuminating (and painful). “It’s usually fun to go into the studio, and you’re full of inspiration.” Her collaborators, including producer/songwriter Olav Tronsmoen and Anders Nilsen, became the “only ones I could open up with” about what happened. “I could go into the studio and just cry. And they were understanding that that was it for the day. I wish I was just a songwriter who could write about going to the club and dancing. I can’t do that.”
There was also an encounter which resulted in further transformation. “During this process, I met the woman,” who came into her marriage, 10 years prior, “and I forgave her. I accidentally met her, and I broke down. She was afraid of me. Of course, I knew something about her that wasn’t flattering, but it takes two to tango. I realized whatever attraction was there and what happened… I get it. We’re human.”
Marian Mena’s They never leave their wives is emotionally confrontational, hooked together with some of her best work to-date — and without it, she would never have been able to flourish. Now, she eyes the follow-up, a yet-unnamed companion piece, set to drop this April. “It begins darker but then becomes really light,” she teases, noting its themes of self love, “becoming my own best friend, and then finding love again.”
Photo by Morgan Norman