Nothing Deep To Say #6: Maria BC And Engineer ODAE Break Down Their Intimate, Intense, Romantic Album Spike Field

Maria BC and ODAE break down their new album and discuss tracks like like "Lacuna" and "Watcher."

When I wrote my review of Spike Field for Pitchfork, I had trouble putting into words why it resonated; normally I pride myself on just getting other people’s music and why it works. This one was both more visceral and more enigmatic than I’m used to, even for albums I really like. I knew how striking the lyrics were, how devastating the music was, but there was something deeply personal I still can’t describe.

Made after BC’s move from Brooklyn to San Francisco, it’s this expansive, almost sweeping thing with lush instrumentation. There were Grouper comparisons, but Maria BC’s mezzo-soprano is proudly front-and-center in the mixes, and that voice is epicene in a way that reminded another music writer of 2000s indie rock band Copeland. Every time I was lulled into complacency, a new detail would shock me back. The first time I listened to the album, I was on the way back from a part-time job and literally jumped out of my bus seat when the live drums kicked in, to the chagrin of the passengers next to me.

On music podcast The Space Between The Notes, host Sam Walsh asked Maria BC about the "most fun thing outside of music. They responded with “intimate intense, romantic time with friends", and the album clicked into place. These are intimate, intense, romantic songs about friends, about lovers, and ultimately, about past versions of your own self. There’s a powerful theme of self-forgiveness that runs through the album – counterintuitive on a record that sounds so desolate, but I find a lot of hope at the center. We don't talk about any of that here, but that intensity informs all the choices made on this record.

Below, Maria BC, engineer ODAE, and I, all discuss the making of Spike Field. This is the longest issue yet, with still more in the paid tier about acoustic guitar mixing and Maria BC's former work in music writing.

How did your approach change from Hyaline to Spike Field

Maria BC: For Spike Field I had some money and which meant a little more time. I was lucky enough to write a song for a movie the summer of 2022 [I Saw The TV Glow!], and was able to live off that for a while to work on Spike Field. I was able to buy a condenser microphone, buy an acoustic guitar, I just had more resources at my disposal and so I think the sound is a lot different on account of that.

On Hyaline, I was interested in stuff that kind of sounded bad, I wanted to sound bad, but also good, bad but good. And then with Spike Field, I was more, I wanted to step away from that a little bit more and embrace more lush arrangements. there are a lot of moments where it's, there's rattling and noise and hiss and stuff. So I step back from that a bit with this record.

ODAE, how did you get involved?

ODAE: I got cold-contacted. I forget which month I could probably find the email.

But it was a really well written inquiry. And sided friendships with two people I'd worked with before G Brenner and and Dear Laika. 

And they're on this record too. It just came at the right time. I didn't really have anything I was working on and I was like hell yeah, I’ll do something for Sacred Bones. I listened to the record and it already sounded really good - it was handed to me on a silver platter, so I could put all of my energy towards making things more conceptually slotted rather than trying to quote-unquote “fix things” If my intention is to fix something I'm not doing something right. 

Maria BC: Aww, thanks! I don't believe that for a second.

Talk about working with ODAE.

Maria BC: I knew that I didn't want to mix this one myself and I also knew that it's that it's quite vulnerable to yield that control and that power over to someone else, because the mix does a lot. It's delivering the music to your ears.It's a huge part of the process.

And I didn't want to just give that over to some random person. But G Brenner and Izzy are friends, and their music sounds incredible, and they both recommended ODAE, and not only for their work, but for their sweetness and personality, and I was like “okay, I'll give it a shot.”I think it worked out really well. 

Spike Field sounds much bigger than Hyaline, to the point where I nearly called “Mercury” a power ballad in my review. From me, ‘power ballad’ is a compliment – I made sure not ot make any piano pop comparisons like that, I feel like if you’re non-binary and people just compare you to Grouper, that isn’t really reflective of the album or your voice.

Maria BC: I love that and appreciate that. Yeah, as far as power ballads go. I'm for sure with you on that. At least in some circles the norm has been to think of piano ballads and piano pop is cringy or outdated. One of my best friends has been getting me into Tori Amos lately, and I fee like, oh my god, she couldn't have made her music any other way, but there is something really especially moving about that kind of pace and tone and music that some people shy away from because it's theatrical.

One of my favorite things about the record is that there are pop structures and there is a way in, especially for somebody like me that comes from a pop background. Were pop structures something that you had to unlearn?

Maria BC:  I don't know if I was thinking necessarily in terms of Verse, chorus - I don't know if I was writing early songs under the assumption that was how it had to be, but it was just such a miracle to come up with any part at all. When I was a child writing songs on the piano, it was, “if I can come up with this part and then I can come up with a second part and if they fit together that's miraculous, and that's the verse and that's the chorus and that's a whole song and whoa, isn't that crazy?” And then slowly over time things become more amorphous as I feel more comfortable just writing parts, if that makes sense. The more I've done it, the more power and control I feel I have over structure, and the more I wanna the more of a perfectionist I become about structure, maybe for me that's the most important part.

You wrote the piano part to “Still” when you were 16. Something I’ve wondered about this whole album is the tension between making something pretty and fucking the sound up. Because throughout the album, there are all these weird jumpscare glitches. I called them Brain Zaps in my review.

ODAE: A lot of those decisions are Maria BC's decisions. Those were things that were given to me that I looked at and I appreciated and I just did my best to slot it more and maybe give it a little more conceptual interest.

Like maybe instead of a reversing track, maybe it's a reverse rrack with an additional bit of texture. But they were all choices that were given to me, especially the glitches. The glitches at the beginning of “Amber”, those ones I really was surprised by, I heard that glitch and I was, oh yeah, I wanna work on this.

There’s that glitchy guitar squeak, and it's got a bit of delay on it. II went and I added some extra delay on it, and I added maybe a little extra element of reverb in a certain direction that made it pop out even more, but just the fact that it was there in the first place really excited me and invited me to enhance them.

I was wondering whether you processed the guitar squeaks separately, I noticed how loud they were relative to the rest of the guitar track. I know there’s a plugin in iZotope RX where you take out the guitar squeaks, and here you are, literally emphasizing them.

ODAE: For the guitar squeaks themselves, I had a track that was set to be an insert, and it was listening to the guitar squeaks - there was a noise gate, listening to the high frequencies at 1khz-2khz where the squeaks were happening. When the guitar squeak would happen, the gate would pop in for a second. And then that had 100 percent wet reverb on the return track. 

That’s so cool. Maria BC, what gave you the idea for the glitches? Are you naturally intending to make something glitchy?

Maria BC: Yeah. That's a good question. It's hard to say. I'm mostly just trying to follow whatever impulse seems to be in service of the song at that moment. Maybe it makes it prettier, or maybe it makes it uglier. I just try to trust my instincts with that.

But I am trying to make a conscious effort to not just apply the same techniques or approaches every single time I go to arrange something. I hope it leads me to interesting choices. 

If I put it in and it's interesting but it doesn't seem to flesh out or bring out the feeling and depth that I want, the kind of unspoken things if it's not doing that, then I just have to just let it go.

For me, every time I’m relaxing into the song, there's something that takes me out, and that's one of the things that I really like about the album. 

Maria BC: For me, I don't want listening to my music to feel too comforting, or one note. I want there to be elements of it that are soothing, or a balm of some kind. But I don't want to ease into that, or allow that to linger for too long. I want there to be variety and depth and I want to bring in the full spectrum of emotion. 

In the track-by-track I received, I was thinking about the kind of comforting and the kind of tough love towards yourself on “Still” and the love towards others on “Amber” and “Daydrinker.” I want to ask a bit about what kind of love songs mean, because I tried to argue with my editor that “Return To Sender” was a love song too – it’s about somebody’s breakdown, but there’s an element in wanting a better world for someone. I’m wondering if that resonates for you at all?

Maria BC: Yeah, totally. I knew someone who, when you asked him what kind of music he makes, he would just say that he wrote love songs, which I thought was very clever and beautiful.

I think most songs can be shuffled into that category in some way or another. Some, I think, may require more imagination than others. But mostly, you are moved to write a song when you feel some form of desire or lack. Or you want to celebrate something, right? “Return to Sender” definitely is, I hope, a not too abstract call for a better world where everyone's needs are met.

There’s this Hanif Abdurraqib quote that’s like “All songs are about how much of someone we can take into ourselves until we both become dust.” (Hannah note: my automatic transcription service misheard this as “All songs are about homosexuals.”) Almost every song on Spike Field to me feels like an extension love songs and caring deeply about other people. 

Maria BC: I'm feeling so moved by that. Thank you, Hannah. I really do think and hope that all my songs are an expression of care in some way, even if that care is being frustrated in some way.

You characterized the first one as more character narratives and this one is you writing personally. How did you feel about writing that, and how you feel about talking about these things in interviews? I really admire people that keep a boundary around themselves in that regard.

Maria BC: I think I'm not exactly sure what drove the change between these two records to move from more character driven songs to more just songs that are straight from the brain or soul or heart or whatever. I will say it can feel difficult to talk about. My own work and interviews, for sure. it's just part of the task, and I'm just stoked that people are interested in hearing me try to stumble through that. And I'm very happy to share. I definitely feel an instinctual rejection of self mythology. 


ODAE, how did you mix Maria BC's vocals?

ODAE:  The general process is first manually editing the clips. Songs are only three minutes long, there's only so few words. I feel due diligence is to just manually automate everything - so you select words that are too loud or too quiet, move them up and down. I grab the each every single S and I just move that up or down as necessary.

Once everything is generally leveled together, it's really easy for compression to do work very transparently, because it doesn't have to do a lot. And then sometimes a little bit of limiting. And I also use a lot of short room reverb. I really love the convolution options in the Ableton Hybrid Reverb. That creates a little bit of stereo width and interest when you use that really subtly.

A trick I've been using is the side-chain feature in Soothe2. (HANNAH NOTE: Soothe is an audio effect that automatically smooths out harsh frequencies/) The instrumentals, I will bus everything that isn't the vocals. And it's the instrumental bus, and then there's the vocals bus. Then I'll use Soothe on the instrumentals bus in the center channel, on the mid side slider on it. And I'll link it to the vocals. And a little bit of the center channel in the instrumental bus will be ducked according to what vocals are happening.

I'll also use Soothe in its traditional way on the vocals at the very end, but it's really easy to go too far with that plugin. Another record that I worked on, I use it way too much on purpose. If you ever heard Scuttlefuzz. He released an album called Ghosts and it's incredible. I go really hard on Soothe.


What made you bring in Dear Laika and G Brenner for that song?

Maria BC: I really wanted the beginning of that track to sound like an angel chorus or a Greek chorus of some kind, and as much as I do love to layer my own voice. And I do layer my own voice a bunch of times, even still on that song.

I wanted the distinct other tones and timbres in the mix as well. And Gabe and are my two of my favorite vocalists. So I was so honored that they were willing to do that. I think our voices blend really nicely.


Let's talk about the ending of that song, it's so uplifting!

Maria BC: I didn't necessarily make the choice to have that moment be uplifting until MIZU sent me her cello tracks to add to the arrangement, I do think the song was falling flat. I wanted there to be a moment where things open up and transform at the end of the song and what I had done. on my own wasn't really working, and then she just came in with this beautiful, romantic melody at the end. I have to credit MIZU entirely with that moment. 

ODAE: That song was so hard to mix. 

Maria BC: Sorry about that.

ODAE: I love it when it's hard to mix! But yeah, because there's a lot of bright, breathy elements, because there's a lot of bowed strings and having very close whispered vocals on top of that, making it sit, is so difficult.

Because there's sidechained Soothe2 going on, there's lots of volume automation, lots of compression and also just making things ebb and flow in a way that feels right, and also preserving a dynamic range that is consistent with the soft tracks that come before and after.


ODAE:. Lacuna was the sparsest piece that I received, and it was the one that kind of puzzled me the most. Because all of these were these really fleshed out songs and Lacuna came to me, And there was a sort of section where it felt it was a drop to some sort of hard beat and the percussion that was given were a couple of BandLab loops, and I was curious as to how to make this feel just to give it to the weight that I felt it deserved.

Maria BC: Yeah, it had no depth when I handed it over. I think there were also only five tracks in total. 

ODAE:. Yeah, it was really sparse. The thing with drum loops is that it's difficult to work just with what you're given when you're given one single track drum loops.

I felt a little bit nervous about that song in particular. I didn't necessarily know at the time when I started working at it, on it, I didn't necessarily know how much of a hand I should be putting into the work. And so I initially asked, “Hey , how important is this piece to you? Does it have to be on the record? What do you want from this?” And the response I got was that it actually was a very important piece of the record, and I was given one of the tracks from Rachika Nayar’s “Heaven Come Crashing” as a reference. 

Was that a reference point?

Maria BC: Yeah, I think Rachika’s influence on me is pretty unmistakable and ubiquitous and that one is the most clear example of that. It to me feels an answer to that song that she and I made together. 


ODAE: The track used to be five layers and then it became 57, just for the drum part at the end.

ODAE: Initially I was given two different drum loops with two different grooves that call and respond to each other. And so I made two different bus groups, for each of the different rhythms, and I just supplemented the drums.

In Ableton, I like to duplicate a track and then lower it, and then use beat stretching to isolate certain elements and then just use it as texture. So this was additional high-end with a quarter note delay. Here we got some supplemental kick and snare samples. Most of them are samples from sample packs that I have.


Maria BC: When I was on tour in San Diego, she had this this gorgeous set of wind chimes, and right outside her patio over this big canyon in her backyard, it was just so lovely, so I took a sample of it.

ODAE: There's some synths that happen in the back half and they are all just [stock Ableton plugin] Wavetable! Which is amazing. I just brick wall the synth after the reverb and then I just manually automate everything. 

What are the vocal chops? Is that your voice?

Maria BC: That is my voice. Granularized and stretched out.

How did you stretch it out?

Maria BC: It's a sample of my vocals run through that, a granular plugin and turned into this long drone and then in Ableton, stretched again and gated.

ODAE: It's cool to receive things as stems, because it’s something need to make fit rather than changing the sound and potentially changing the soul of it.


I love the overdubbed line on "everyone wants their hard earned break." Can you describe getting that person on board and adding there has to be this other element here? 

Maria BC: Yeah, he was on Hyaline for one word also funny enough. This one, originally, I had recorded him singing harmonies for the entire chorus and it just wasn't working, but I loved how it sounded just at the end of certain lines, and I did want to have him on this because he put in a lot of time and effort to recording those harmonies and I would have felt bad just scrapping it.

It adds to the paranoia of that song.

Maria BC: When I had that moment in the mix, it was pretty buried, and ODAE  brought it out in a really cool way. Do you want to talk about what you did with that moment? 

ODAE: Yeah! I wanted it to be articulate, or articulable, but I also didn't want it to be too forward because I feel an element that is really easy to sound corny instead of uncanny and frightening. So a trick I use often is using binaural spatialization plugins.

And so I just plopped a DearVR Micro plugin, which is free, by the way. and I panned him hard left and that was pretty much it. In order to get something to sound quiet, but also push through the mix, you just need to compress it a lot. Things that are quiet usually need more compression than the loud things a lot of the time.


ODAE: This song did have live drums. And it was far away, recorded with a single mono mic with a ping pong delay and I thought that sounded really cool. There's this song called My Lonesome Drumset by Stimming, that I immediately recalled [while mixing]. That's one of my favorite songs as far as production choices are concerned, and I really wanted to highlight the roomy sound of the drums.

Oe track with a ping pong delay, I separated it into one center channel, one left channel and one right channel. Basically I just copied it over and isolated the left and the right channels before the ping pong delay. And then I did the binaural spatialization plugin again on both of those.

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