Growing up in New York, María Isabel experienced a patchwork of influences from R&B and hip-hop to the classic songs of her Dominican heritage. She spent years learning how to distil these sounds into her own music, gradually refining her voice as a songwriter. When she released her first single “The 1” in February 2020, it finally felt like the perfect time to begin her journey as an artist… And then the pandemic happened.
While countless artists saw their best laid plans for rollouts and tours fall apart overnight, Isabel hit her stride. Everyone in the world had been thrust into the perfect headspace to connect with her music. As we were forced into isolation, her esoteric explorations of long distance relationships resonated stronger than ever. Meanwhile, Isabel flew to LA to finish off her debut EP Stuck in the Sky. Each of her singles in the following months proved to be exactly what we needed. Her contemplative lyrics and comforting production helped us find peace and beauty in time alone.
By the time Stuck in the Sky arrived in October 2020, Isabel had cemented herself as an artist who is here to stay. Today, Isabel is emerging from the pandemic with millions of streams, a record deal with Warner Music, and a fresh outlook on self care. It seems the only piece that’s missing is getting to bring these songs to life onstage and connecting with her listeners IRL. The mere mention of live music paints a beaming smile across Isabel’s face. She can’t wait.
In the meantime, Isabel’s latest single “No Soy Para Ti”—an infectious self-care anthem arriving just in time to soundtrack our return to normal life—continues to prove her knack for perfect timing. We caught up with Isabel to talk about airport pizza, turning poems into songs, and the future of New York’s music scene.
You tweeted recently that you changed terminals via air train 1 hour before your flight to get Pizza Hut… Was it worth it?
[Laughs] I wasn’t expecting that. I really have to stop tweeting. Okay, it was worth it. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was pretty bad. But I did what had to be done.
What’s your favorite pizza spot back home in Queens?
Stromboli in St. Marks.
Last year you moved from New York to LA. How was that experience of going coast to coast?
It was kind of an accident, honestly. I flew out at the beginning of COVID because I figured New York was going to shut down. I was living with my parents and it felt like a bad idea to get shut in for that long. I came out for a few months to work on music and it went surprisingly well. It was a big culture shock because I’ve spent most of my life in Queens. My family is Dominican and there’s such a big Caribbean population on the east coast. It was a cultural shock coming out here and being away from that.
Do you think there will ever be a time where Los Angeles feels like home?
I’m pretty comfy now but LA still feels like work and New York will always feel like home. I guess it’ll always be back and forth.
What is it about the New York music scene that you can’t find anywhere else?
It’s a combination of influences. I just went back to the Dominican Republic to see family and realized that so much of the culture I grew up with was because of the city. In New York, you have first-generation kids growing up listening to a combination of hip-hop and R&B and then the music of wherever your parents came from. My family is super Dominican so everything at home is in Spanish and we’re always listening to Dominican music. New York is one big melting pot of cultures and its music ends up being the same thing where you’re just exposed to so much.
Which artists would be on the soundtrack to your upbringing in New York?
It’d be Lil’ Kim, Jennifer Lopez—cause “Jenny from the Block” is the anthem—Aventura, and Usher.
What’s your earliest memory of the New York music scene?
I loved music at an age where I couldn’t really attend shows yet so I was one of those kids who sat inside and watched concert DVDs. But in the sense of live music in New York, I think about how you could walk down into the subway and hear someone performing or playing a beat on a set of buckets. There’s so much going on. The city is really alive with music.
Which concert DVDs did you grow up watching?
Alicia Keys Unplugged, Shakira, Shania Twain, Selena, and Mariah Carey.
It sounds like you were soaking up live music from an early age. Did you always have this drive to write, record, and perform music?
I just knew I loved singing more than anything. I loved reading and writing too but I hadn’t put together all the pieces that I was going to be a singer-songwriter when I grew up.
When did all the pieces come together? Is there a specific moment you can remember or did it happen over time?
I don’t think there was one specific moment, but it definitely started to click when I was halfway through college at NYU as an English major. I did music at my high school, which I loved, but it just became homework and I wanted a break from that. I don’t know what my plan was with an English degree, I just knew I liked reading and writing. So I did that for a while and then after two years of writing essays nonstop, I was just like, “I can’t do this anymore.” Then I learned that NYU had a build-your-own-major school, where you could take classes across different departments. I went to Gallatin and took classes on songwriting, business, jazz, and theory—I got to diversify my interests because it wasn’t such a strict curriculum. In songwriting class we had to bring in a fully written song once a week and perform it. I’d never had to do that before. That was the most motivating.
Have any of those songs seen the light of day?
Will they ever see the light of day?
Maybe some reiteration of them, but definitely not in their own original form. I was loosely exploring the same themes as “Love Song.” I just hadn’t figured out exactly how to turn my poems into songs. They were more experimental for sure.
Last time you spoke to Pigeons & Planes you said that so much of what you felt like you couldn’t tell anyone, you channel into your music, so in a way it’s like we’re listening to all your secrets. What’s your current process for writing lyrics?
It varies but for the most part I start by myself, writing a few lines that aren’t in any shape or form close to a song. It’s more about getting down what I have to say before I need it to fit into a song. At NYU a lot of the advice was not to overthink things or over-edit while you write. Just get everything you need to get out first and then you work backwards and organize from there.
What advice do you have for songwriters looking to improve their writing?
Don’t overthink it and don’t take yourself too seriously. Especially when you’re writing things down for the first time, just let everything out. I also read a few weeks ago that you shouldn’t write in a beautiful, expensive leather notebook because then you feel like everything that goes in it has to be perfect. And that’s so accurate because if I’m writing on my phone or in the throwaway notebook in my room, I can just scribble down all my thoughts and not care how it looks.
Don’t overthink it and don’t take yourself too seriously. Especially when you’re writing things down for the first time, just let everything out.
As a bilingual artist your songwriting moves effortlessly between English and Spanish, sometimes even in the same song. When you’re writing lyrics, how do you decide which language to use?
It’s less of a decision and more genuine because all of my life has been Spanglish. Growing up in New York, everyone at school and most of my friends spoke English. But a lot of my family still doesn’t speak English so there’s a lot of Spanish at home. The two languages are completely melded in my head to the point where I don’t think I speak English or Spanish properly anymore, it’s just a weird combination of both. That comes out naturally when writing. But I do think Spanish is a more passionate and romantic language so there are some things that just feel better to say in Spanish.
Can you think of a Spanish expression to describe where you’re at right now?
There’s a line in “No Soy Para Ti” that says “no te metas donde no te aman” which means, “Don’t put yourself where people don’t love you.”
You have this lyrical ability to say so much with so little. What does the title of your debut EP Stuck in the Sky mean to you?
It’s about a long distance relationship so I was quite literally stuck in the sky for multiple hours between LA and New York. I had a lot of time to think about the concept of a long distance relationship—how do you keep a relationship moving when you’re in two different places, living two different lives in two different time zones? It feels like the relationship pauses whenever you’re apart and starts again when you’re back together. But what about all that lost time in between? It’s not moving forward or backward… It’s kind of just stuck. Stuck in the Sky was about figuring out how to navigate that experience.
There’s an acute attention to detail in your work, from the way you write a lyric to the way you deliver a vocal. Is there a detail in one of your songs that you wish more people would’ve caught?
I don’t think there’s one where I felt people missed it, which I’m very grateful for. I’m the kind of person who reads the lyrics when I listen to a song for the first time. I always want people to do that with my music because it starts off as a poem and is so writing focused. I hope that the attention to detail leads to that.
New York has been hit especially hard by the pandemic and now there’s talk of the city entering a renaissance period. What do you envision as the future for New York’s music scene?
I think quarantine made us pay attention to what really matters to us and we realized that we just want genuine art. I’ve always found myself in love with artists like Amy Winehouse and Lauryn Hill who feel like they’re singing their complete truth, you know? It feels like everyone is just speaking their truth and that’s what people want to hear now.
I can feel the honesty in your work. I also appreciate the heavy emphasis you place on mental health. What’s a self-care practice that you’ve been doing lately to take care of your own mental health?
I’ve been learning to say no to things when I don’t have the capacity. Also just shutting off my phone and giving myself a break from being a person. We got such a long break with quarantine and then we went full speed ahead back into the world. There’s pressure now to just do everything because we’ve been stuck inside for so long, but coming back slowly is the way to approach things. Just taking the time you need.
What’s your favorite pastime when you’re by yourself?
Reading is still number one. I used to read all the time, but reading as an adult is weird because it always feels like I should be doing something else.
Which book would you recommend to fans of your music? Maybe something that covers similar themes as your work.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. I read it before the pandemic and then re-read it during quarantine because it’s about this girl who’s overwhelmed by her life so she decides to save her money and sleep in her New York apartment for a year. It’s the same sentiment as “Love Song” and Stuck in the Sky: Questioning everything and not being sure of anything in your life. Especially with quarantine, I felt very seen by the book.
What have you missed most about performing live during the pandemic?
All of it. Before the pandemic, I was still writing Stuck in the Sky and mostly performing covers. Getting a chance to hunker down and finish the project before having pressure to go on stage was kind of nice. But after Stuck in the Sky came out, I couldn’t wait to play it live. At the end of the day, music is made to share with an audience. Now I’m dying to play a show to anyone who will listen.
Which song are you most excited to perform live?
“No Soy Para Ti” because a year ago, I didn’t see myself putting out an upbeat song like this. My songs start as poetry so they’re usually slower, sadder, and more introspective. When I heard the final version of “No Soy Para Ti” my first thought was that I couldn’t wait to play this at a festival. I finally have a song I can move around to and I’m so excited.
“No Soy Para Ti” was your first release with Warner. After releasing music independently up to this point, how did you know this was the right time to sign a deal?
I was just a matter of the people because I definitely wasn’t in my head thinking, “Now it feels like a good time to sign a record deal.” I had been talking to Warner for a while, and definitely was in no rush, but felt really happy and comfortable with the whole team. I love everyone that I work with—I feel understood and listened to, which is all I really care about at the end of the day.
Throughout your career you’ve been surrounded by a team of inspiring creatives—from music and film to fashion and photography. What advice do you have for artists who want to start building a team?
Now that the world is opening up, just go out, meet people, and make new friends. I just made friends in New York and while I was starting my career in music, they were starting a career in photography or in directing or that sort of thing. It just snowballs from there. I’ve ended up working with so many close friends.
What can we expect from you in the second half of 2021?
Music. So much music. And hopefully more face to face time, fingers crossed. Just a new chapter of music starting with “No Soy Para Ti” and hopefully growing with everybody that’s on the train right now.
On the air train to get Pizza Hut?
Photoshoot styling by Anthony Clayburn with assistance from Garrett Dickerson.