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Briston Maroney Approved Press Photo 19 by Muriel Margaret

How Briston Maroney learned to face his demons

17 October 2023, 10:30
Words by Kelsey Barnes
Original Photography by Muriel Margaret

Briston Maroney tells Kelsey Barnes about shifting up a gear as a songwriter and facing his anxieties as human being in order to make his new record Ultrapure.

For Briston Maroney, the creation of his sophomore album was a lesson in letting go — whether that meant releasing the stories and experiences he had so far or shrugging off the external pressures that come with being an artist.

He spent a decade working towards his debut record, the acclaimed indie-tinged Sunflower, which resulted in excavating his own stories and attempting to make sense of them.

Now, at 25, he’s reckoning with a few things. He squashed the fear he initially had with Sunflower, which is that he was “paralysed” with anxiety thinking that he would never write another song after his debut. Instead, that fear turned into self-reflection that would require him to open a lot of doors and peek his head in. “I’ve been lucky enough to be an artist that gets to make more than one record,” he explains. “Getting to make a second record meant that I could reflect on how the expectations I put on myself actually affected the outcome. I put so much energy into making sure so many people were pleased with the record before. I had all these expectations of trying to meet their expectations. This time, though, I'm very thankful to have the perspective of [making a record] and knowing what it’s like to put that energy into the songs. I didn't really know what I wanted to do this time, but I knew I wanted to try putting energy towards a different set of expectations.”


For Maroney, the moments that are ‘ultrapure’ aren’t inherently good or positive. Instead, he associates the word with feeling a myriad of things. Sometimes it’s the anxiety that comes from uncertainty or pains from his childhood. Other times it’s like he’s stepping into the sun and explaining to all exactly what it feels like. At its core, his new record Ultrapure is about addressing the things that were either hard to make peace with or too difficult to properly define in a song before this very moment.

“I’ve been less concerned with the external perception of who I am supposed to be with this album,” Maroney states. “I've just really tried to make the process of making a record be a completely personal and rewarding thing first before it's something that's intended to be shared with other people. It was important to me to turn off a little bit of the radio static noise that comes from the outside world.”

Briston Maroney Approved Press Photo 05 by Muriel Margaret

Part of turning off that noise meant that the songwriting process was starkly different between the two records. At the time, writing “Sunflower” felt cathartic to Maroney. It would take working on Ultrapure for him to realise that there were other layers to himself that would make him feel more exposed than ever — a new level of catharsis. After years of stress and pressure to make sure the songs on Sunflower could be commercially successful enough, Maroney found writing songs for Ultrapure a much more personal process. Instead of writing a song as a means to an end, there was no immediate intention behind anything. That mindset would, eventually, lead him to have a cohesive collection of songs all stemming from the same place.

Ultrapure is a lesson in relationships. Maroney excavates the meanings and reasons behind why he’s built certain ideas of what a friendship, partnership, or familial relationship looks like. For someone who is admittedly sensitive, the process meant that Maroney had to question and learn a lot about who he was and how those ideas and concepts shaped certain parts of his life.


One song on the record that explores that feeling is “Sunshine,” a track about being fearful of disappointment and learning to embrace unconditional love despite being scared. “That one is a funny puzzle piece kind of song for me where it came together in parts,” he explains. “I had the chorus for two years and the words changed a lot, but I played it over and over every time I picked up a guitar. I probably drove my roommates and my girlfriend insane. In my mind initially, it was going to be like a Fleet Foxes vibe, meaning that it was kind of vague and whimsical, with images of all these little woodland creatures. But over time, I realised that there is only one Fleet Foxes and I can’t just do their thing. Then, one day, I figured out what the record was going to be about. I thought that I should just play that guitar part over and over and just play that chorus and see if there was anything there. The lyrics are adjacent to right around the time I wrote “Ultrapure” the title track. It all just clicked into place as kind of an extension of that whole story.”

After releasing his first two independent EPs Reason to Shake and Big Shot in 2015 and 2017 respectively, he released his first major collection of work called Carnival in 2018. Eventually, this would take him on tours with Wallows and appearances at South by Southwest. One more EP would come before his debut in 2021 and now, after a decade in music, Maroney has the hindsight to see just how far he’s come.

With a changed perspective and newfound growth as an artist, Maroney’s own relationship with the songs on his debut album Sunflower has shifted. “That record feels like a kid record to Ultrapure for sure. It’s a younger version of myself that makes me feel like I want to squeeze my face and say, ‘You don’t have to worry about all of the things you’re worried about, okay?’”

If Sunflower is the kid brother, Ultrapure is the confident and mature sibling that has their feet firmly planted on the ground. Described as a “hand-in-hand” journey with himself and the people and the memories that make up the songs, Ultrapure is Maroney confronting past issues that have occurred in his life. The record, which was crafted in Nashville, is tied together with ‘ultrapure’ moments. Some of those moments are sickly sweet, like the romantic ode “Spring.” Others, like “Breathe” and “Chaos Party” are sprawling sonic explorations into how humans can deal with pain. It is Maroney’s attempt at facing the things that have plagued him and learning to sit with them. “It’s like looking in a mirror, in a way,” he admits.

Briston Maroney Approved Press Photo 50 by Muriel Margaret

As a child, Maroney was an avid reader, entranced by the tales that sat upon his great-grandmother’s shelves of books. When she passed away, she wrote in her will that all of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren should take books from her library. Maroney picked “A Medicine for Melancholy,” a collection of short stories by American writer Ray Bradbury that was published in 1959. “I didn’t actually read the book for years after I got it,” he says. “It had this cartoon-like cover with wild creatures on it and I was so drawn to the idea of what that book could’ve been. I actually think about that all the time — the image and the texture of the book, how it faded, and what the title actually meant. I’m still drawn to that image even today.”

In turn, visuals would eventually become an integral part of Maroney’s artistry. The process of writing a song and imagining what it would look like visually works together in tandem. “I do like to complete the songs first and then, for actual recorded visuals, I like to sit down and listen to the song completed and try to scheme from there. I’m always describing sounds and stuff in the studio, trying to explain what the visual image would be. What I’m sure drove my producer and engineer crazy is that we always had Cartoon Network on the TV in the studio which I really love.”

Back in May, Maroney released “Body,” the first single from “Ultrapure.” Aside from a short intro, “Body” sets the stage for what’s to follow and, in a way, doubles as a call-to-arms of sorts. It was the first song Maroney wrote for the record and felt like the floodgates had been inevitably opened. The second song he’d write would become the album’s title track, something that would become the thesis of the album as a whole. “Tracklisting can make or break an album and it’s something I’m horrible at,” he laughs. “I'm so bad at that and at picking singles. I wanted it to sound like a montage, as a way to bring in the rest of the story.” The release of “Body” encouraged Maroney to open up further, describing what it’s like to struggle with the anxiety of not feeling enough. It’s through music, and the support of family and friends, that remind him that moments like those are “just the beginning of the never-ending fight that is being able to really see life at its very real core.”

Like the greats before him, Maroney is a perfectionist at heart — never knowing exactly when a song should be labelled complete. With “Ultrapure,” Maroney found beauty in the beautiful accidents. “Knowing a song is done is a case-by-case basis, but I definitely feel like a perfectionist about recording. But the older I get the more I’m super down for imperfections in recording and live performances. I kind of enjoy how the imperfections can make something stand out in its own way. I think it's also just because I'm not technically able to make stuff perfect because I'm just not smart enough or good enough,” he laughs. “I think songs are still an area where I will beat my head against the wall until everything feels exactly how I'm hoping it will feel and sound, though.”

Being a recovering perfectionist (“I’m really passionate about music and songwriting and there have been times where I’ve tried to chill a bit, but I just want to hold onto it myself”) meant that Maroney had to let go of the reins and let other people into his creative process. On “Ultrapure” he worked with GRAMMY-winning producer Daniel Tashian and engineer Konrad Snyder who coaxed him into learning to trust himself to the point where he would eventually find himself playing every single instrument on the record. For an artist so used to writing and working alone, playing drums and piano for the first time in front of people was an experience that brought another meaning to the word ‘personal.’

The characteristic of ‘personal’ is woven through the DNA of the album, like with the aforementioned “Spring,” a standout on the record, which is an ode to his partner. On the track, Maroney sings “I'm gonna make her my queen/Little white church on the first day/On the first day of spring,” subtly proclaiming a marriage proposal. It’s a lot for any artist to really bear it all in a song like it, but it was a natural catalyst for all of the feelings he was experiencing. “That was one of the earlier ones that I wrote for the record,” he explains. “I didn't know it was gonna be on the album but I had it forever. That was right when I met my partner. We've been together for years now but literally within the first couple of weeks of us knowing each other, I wrote this incredibly intense love song about how we're going to be together forever. It was a pretty direct retelling of the first time we hung out. There were a couple of different versions of it — we tried to make it really upbeat and then we tried to make it fragile and intimate. The version that we landed on for the record, which I’m really stoked on, feels a lot like those feelings we felt when we first met each other.”

Briston Maroney Approved Press Photo 15 by Muriel Margaret

The beauty of songwriting and being an artist means that, despite being so specific to his own experience, songs imbed themselves into the lives of listeners. In Maroney’s case, he balances staying vulnerable and open in his work while still crafting tracks that easily connect with a broader audience. “We'll write versions of them that are a little more cryptic or a little more personal and then try to pick out the parts of the songs that make me question whether I want people to know what I’m saying,” Maroney explains when prompted with how he toes the line between being honest with being too forthcoming. “I do ultimately want people to know what I'm saying because the goal of these records is to be understood in a way. The process is jumping into the deep end, realising I feel something a lot, and needing to see if other people feel the same by admitting that I experience it. Sometimes it does not connect and you are the only person who feels this weird thing, but, for the most part, there's always somebody who has been there before.”

One of the songs listeners immediately gravitated towards, much to the surprise of Maroney, was “Delaware.” Touching on the pains of childhood, Maroney sings “There only a child/Left alone in the dark/Nobody wants to admit/That they’re capable of/Starting a flame by the spark.” It’s a distinct contrast to the fluttering emotions in “Spring,” but one that clearly shaped Maroney. “I really didn't expect people to connect with the song Delaware so much. I'm on this record store tour right now and everyone has been so sweet about that song. A lot of them have been saying that it was one that stood out to them. That one is so deeply personal that I was really, really surprised by that.”

Last weekend, Maroney put on the second edition of “Paradise,” a series of shows that he describes as “summer camp but inside in the fall.” Maroney, who plays all three nights, will share the stage with fellow artists and friends Samia, Charlie Burg, and Skullcrusher. “This is the second year we are doing it in Nashville. It’s a dream come true. I don’t remember who did it first, but I noticed a bunch of my friends were starting to do these mini-festivals and I thought, ‘What the hell, I want to try!’ It ended up being this wholesome way for all of our friends, and their bands in the community to come in. For this year’s shows, it’s all people that I know, like friends of mine, and bands that I followed forever.”

Briston Maroney Approved Press Photo 09 by Muriel Margaret

In November, Maroney will play shows across Europe, making stops in London, Paris, Amsterdam and beyond. Due to travel logistics, they are more scaled back than the gigs in America, but Maroney doesn’t mind trading flashing lights and production for a more intimate feel. “It’s a different vibe, it’s a bit of a smaller scale with what we can travel with,” he says. “But those shows are always pretty raw because they are so reliant on the band. We can't bring lights and we can't bring any stage design stuff. It’s a lot more like a rock show, but with the softer songs. It's definitely more emphasis on doing a good job versus looking good.”

Looking ahead, the artist who is obsessed with visuals and reflecting has one goal: “I need to find the right thing to get for my first neck tattoo.” He shows me his latest ink — Zero, Jack Skellington’s dog from Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas” It’s perfect timing not just for the season, but for the new chapter Maroney is veering towards. For those unfamiliar, in the film Zero lights the way for Jack to deliver presents a la Santa and Rudolph. Even if Maroney isn’t overly sentimental about tattoos and their significance, it is a nice nod to both the cartoons he loves and the way art and music continue to guide him.

“They don’t personally have to have a ton of significance, I just want them to be things that I love to look at. Sources of inspiration, like the book cover thing. I just want them all to make me feel like I'm being myself, which sounds like it is the same with you — you want to surround yourself with the things that you love and feel authentic to you.”

The album’s final song is the record’s title track, a song that sees Maroney reflect on the purity of being a child despite the trauma that surrounded him (“Head first into the water/Ultrapure like a child/I will walk through this fire/Full of doubts/With a general smile.”) He knows he’s no longer a kid that needs to carry any sort of guilt for feeling like something was his fault. Instead, it closes this chapter of Maroney’s life — no longer does he need to be fearful of knowing everything. Instead, he can now fully embrace the feeling of Ultrapure and all the “heart wrenching, belly-laughing, and breathtaking beauty” it brings him.

Sunflower is out now via Atlantic Records

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