Maya de Vitry

The title of Maya de Vitry’s 3rd solo album, lifted from a line in the lead single “Not a Trick of the Eye”, is a reference to “ultraviolet” light—a frequency which, while visible to creatures like butterflies and bees, lies beyond any human sense. It’s a reminder of a simple human limitation and an inspiring concept for an artist who feels most at home in the woods or the garden, observing the non-human living world and then emerging with vibrant and vital songs on the human condition—songs that, as No Depression says, “open windows that give us insights into the ambiguities of our lives”.

Violet Light was co-produced by Ethan Jodziewicz and Maya de Vitry and recorded in their Nashville, TN home over the course of a year. The basement studio was created out of necessity when Ethan, a versatile upright and electric bassist currently touring with Aoife O’Donovan and who has previously toured with Sierra Hull and The Milk Carton Kids, needed space to record bass remotely and work from home in the earliest days of the pandemic.

Maya asked Ethan to join her in producing a full-length album, and Ethan also took on engineering and mixing duties. A palpable mutual respect between the two easily outweighed any hesitation they may have felt taking on a large-scale creative endeavor during the pandemic, as significant others in their own home.

“We like to go on adventures together,” Maya says. “Maybe this was just our way of going on another adventure, given the circumstances. We really encouraged the hell out of each other. We trusted each other and believed in each other. Sure, we both had intense moments of self-doubt and imposter syndrome, but miraculously those moments seemed to come at different times.”

Violet Light also became a way to reach for human connection, as the 11 new songs each feature an entirely unique band. It’s a true collaborative feat in a year of unusual isolation. Many local friends dropped by the basement studio to play or sing, while others sent in piano or harmonica from across the country or across the ocean. The gorgeously varied arrangements include the dynamic playing of instrumentalists Paul Horton (Alabama Shakes), Chris Eldridge (Punch Brothers), and Thor Davidsson (KALEO), as well as a stellar cast of harmony vocalists including Kaia Kater and Ric Robertson.

Pennsylvania-raised and Tennessee-based, Maya first appeared on the folk scene in 2012 as a founding member of The Stray Birds. When the hard-touring band dissolved in 2018, Maya began to steadily release powerful music under her own name—Adaptations in 2019, followed by 2020’s How to Break a Fall—writing boldly about borders, bodies, abuse, power, and love, with great imagination and empathy.

At once reflective and urgent, and as intimate as it is expansive, Violet Light is an open-hearted invitation to explore the tensions between the visible and the imagined, between love and control, and our unrelenting human desire to belong—to a home, to an environment, and to each other. Across a wide range of material and arrangements, Maya’s voice is present and rich, fluidly moving between moods and characters, between irony and sincerity, between the surreal and the mundane.

Some arrangements on Violet Light remain gloriously sparse. There is Tristan Clarridge’s soaring cello on “I Don’t Ask Trees”, a duo of acoustic guitars featuring Maya’s brother Lyle de Vitry on “Real Time, Real Tears”, and Chris Lippincott’s shimmering pedal steel on “I Don’t Need You”. In other moments, the band is thick and swirling, foretelling the exuberance these songs will undoubtedly take on in a live performance setting. Maya picks up the fiddle on “Never On The Map”, an ode to the traveling life that she first began as an 18-year old busker, driving west across the United States with her hometown friends, playing fiddle tunes and Johnny Cash songs at farmers’ markets and on street corners.

Throughout the album, Ethan and Maya’s graceful and intuitive production leans into the enveloping warmth of vocal harmonies, including an appearance by Maya’s two sisters on “Real Time, Real Tears”. Kristin Andreassen and Chris Eldridge blend their achingly beautiful voices on “Dogs Run On”, a song about the wholeness and playfulness that dogs bring to our lives. And in a moment of searing, palpable clarity, Maya is joined by Shelby Means and Joel Timmons (Sally & George) in energizing 3-part harmony on “How Bad I Wanna Live”, belting “I’m so happy knowing how much more I wanna give/I’m so happy knowing just how bad I wanna live”. It’s an autobiographical number, chronicling a journey across a harrowing stretch of washed-out trail on a severe cliffside, and as Maya describes it, “facing the gift and fragility of being alive in a physical body at all.”

As co-producer, engineer and mixing engineer, Ethan was Maya’s closest collaborator throughout the yearlong process of making Violet Light. “Ethan is able to listen to a work in progress, to feel the possibility in it, and inspire the dedication in me to keep reaching for something that is not quite yet there,” Maya says. She remembers feeling this patient listening most deeply while writing “Not a Trick of the Eye”, of which she wrote countless other entire songs on the topic, in various forms, keys, lyrics, and perspectives, before one day stumbling into the lines that would finally reveal the song.

The song is an emotional core of the album, taking the perspective of an unnamed, anonymous witness to violence—a witness who acknowledges that while they do not have the capacity of butterflies to see “violet light”, they can name what they so clearly do see—the murder of an innocent human being. “Once in a while, from a place of relative comfort and safety, we may witness brutality and violence, or watch it play out through a bystander video recording. We may sit at home and hear a human voice crying out, begging to breathe. But the violence in this song is not an isolated incident. And when we do see it, it is not a trick of the eye in an otherwise just society.”

The power of language to provide this space for questioning and reimagining, this idea that perhaps we only see that which we have chosen to name, is important to Maya. Her devotion to songwriting is grounded in a fascination with human communication and the diversity of human language itself. It’s a curiosity that was sparked in her childhood, surrounded by French-speaking relatives at family reunions, and sustained over the years as she independently studied French and Spanish while working abroad on organic farms and living with host families in France, Spain, Cuba, and Guatemala.

And although confined to her home more than ever during the pandemic, Maya has tried to find ways to keep alert, curious, committed to hearing new perspectives, and perpetually interrogating her own. During the entire process of making Violet Light, she attended classes via Zoom, and also met regularly on Skype with a language teacher in rural Guatemala, working towards a Spanish Language degree from Middle Tennessee State University after nearly a decade hiatus from college.

The power of music to connect, soothe and inspire is never far from Maya’s heart as she creates, and it’s clear that the process of making Violet Light was in itself a gift. “Listening back now, it’s all just magical to me,” Maya reflects. “All of this music now exists in the same time and place, although it’s made of moments that were stretched out over nearly a year. I am just so grateful that it was possible to make this record at all. I’m feeling an overflow of joy that I now get to begin to share these songs with people.”