Anyone who thinks it's easy to make it big in the music business is kidding themselves, and yet to find any significant level of success, it takes a certain amount of delusion. After all, if you can't even convince yourself that your music deserves to go viral, climb the charts, or win a Grammy, then how can you expect anyone else to believe in its worth? Fortunately, Mariel Loveland gets this, and - what luck! - she also has the songs to back up the belief she has in herself as a singer-songwriter. Indeed, she's been proving it since she was fronting the Candy Hearts, and she's continuing to do so with her latest project, Best Ex.
Loveland took some time to chat with Q about Best Ex's first full-length album, With a Smile, and she delved into the differences in her current music, explained why it was time to leave the Candy Hearts behind, talked about how much things have changed since the pandemic, and how important Taylor Swift has been to her personally as well as the music business in general.
After I listened to the Best Ex album, I went back and listened to the Candy Hearts as well, and all told, I walked away feeling like your music is a combination of the Muffs, Juliana Hatfield, Taylor Swift, and a little bit of Ellie Goulding because of your use of synths.
That's literally exactly it. [Laughs.] Especially when I started Candy Hearts. I was, like, "What if I made a more modern Juliana Hatfield type band?" Because I was obsessed - and still kind of am - with the Lemonheads.
I don't know if it's a case of a bigger budget, a different producer, or just general musical evolution, but it's definitely the best-sounding thing you've done to date.
Thank you! It's definitely not a bigger budget. [Laughs.] I self-funded the whole thing, so while, yeah, it was a bigger budget than my things after the Candy Hearts, because I'd managed to save some money over the pandemic, it was definitely lower-budget, I think, than Candy Hearts was. Especially because Candy Hearts had so many favors that people were doing for us for good prices. I was really lucky with that. But thank you for saying that. I tried really hard to work on my vocals during the pandemic and spots that I thought were weak, and I worked on my songwriting and my storytelling and all those things.
I know it's ostensibly a solo project, but who else plays on the Best Ex album? I didn't get the feeling that it was a one-person operation.
No, definitely not. [Laughs.] I'm going to be honest: I'm not the best studio musician. Although this is one of the first albums that I did play significant portions of guitar on. I'm usually, like, "Why would I bother when someone in this room can do it in one take? Why am I going to waste our time?" I'm very practical that way. But, no, a lot of the instrumentation was done by Andy [Tongren], the producer. My bandmate Matthew Florio came in for the last song on the album ["Daylight"]. He played on some of that, and so did the producer of that song, Gary Cioni, and then I did the guitars on that one.
I think the song where I really noticed how much it sparkled and shined, so to speak, was "Tell Your Friends."
Yeah, I wrote that one originally on piano, and I wanted it to be kind of like... I had heard a Bright Eyes song that was in 3/4, and it was on piano, and I totally sort of ripped off that style of piano playing, I guess? [Laughs.] Of course, it sounds nothing like that, but that was my original inspiration. "Tell Your Friends" is so dark and kind of scary-sad. It turned really sarcastic.
"The End" is kind of a dark song in its own right.
Yeah, that one... I was feeling pretty upset for a length of time when I was writing that. But I was really proud of myself for writing a song that is so dark, as you say, because I feel like a weak point in my career is that I've really struggled writing songs like that. I wrote songs that were kind of angry, but...someone being sad about heartbreak and yelling at someone you're dating or whatever. Not true darkness or true hopelessness. I was never really previously able to capture what I felt like was a very mature, dark sound, if that makes sense. And I was really happy that, on this album, I feel like I was finally able to do that.
So have you reached maximum maturity, or do you still have a ways to go yet?
You know, life surprises me. Because if you'd asked me when I was 19 and I was writing, like, All the Ways You Let Me Down, I would've been, like, "Well, this is the best I can ever sound." And now I just feel like that was probably one of the worst that I ever sounded. I love all the songs, but I just feel like, as an artist, I've really tried really hard to strengthen my proficiency as a musician. I feel like as a songwriter I've always been solid, but I don't feel I've always been a very proficient musician. I feel like my songwriting developed way before -and I caught people's attention way before - my technical skills caught up with it. [Laughs.] But I feel like that's kind of a common problem with people who get popular and get to have amazing careers so fast and when they're so young.
As far as the All the Ways You Let Me Down album goes, I was trying to pick a gateway track into the album for my daughter, and I picked "Coffee with My Friends."
I love that one! I actually have a tattoo of that song on my ankle that I got on the Warped Tour on...someone's bus. [Laughs.] It doesn't sound that sanitary now, actually, looking back as someone a bit older. But me and my bandmate got matching tattoos for that song, because that was our thing: every morning, no matter how bad things were on tour, we would just have our Starbucks together and kind of assess. "Okay, pause the day. We'll deal with stuff later."
In regards to the jump from the Candy Hearts to Best Ex, would you say the Candy Hearts came to their natural conclusion? Or did you guys just walk away?
No, we never made a conscious decision to walk away. I think was more like... [Hesitates.] After the Warped Tour, I had a really bad experience, and I was just kind of done with that scene. I was really done. The bad experience I had was just the tip of the iceberg, and I was just, like, "I can't deal with this anymore." I felt very restrained, that I had to kind of accept things that were unacceptable - not within my band, but within my peers in the scene - in order to continue, and I couldn't do it anymore. So I wanted to take a break, but then I was, like, "Maybe I won't take a break, because all I want is success in music, it's all I've ever wanted, and I finally have it."
So I started making demos and, honestly, the demos were really bad. I think I'd just checked out. But I was pumping them out to all these labels, and I remember the president of Pure Noise Records being, like, "Mariel..." And this was actually really mean, but it wasn't wrong. "Mariel, are you really going to, for the rest of your life, peddle this music to Real Friends fans that don't care?" And I was, like, "Um...no?" [Laughs.] I think what he was trying to say was, "This genre is not where you belong." And I think I agreed with him. At that point, I was, like, "I can't do this anymore." I'd walk into these hyper-masculine spaces and just feel instantly belittled, instant animosity for me. For any feminineness that I would express onstage, people would be hostile. And I was just done with the hostility. It wasn't even, like, "We're not into your project." It was actual hostility. And I was done.
And as I was figuring out what to do, how we would fund our next record, who would put it out, I started writing a lot of songs that were kind of different, and my bandmates picked up big-boy jobs. [Laughs.] And they had trouble leaving them to do stuff. And I was, like, "Well, that makes sense. We're getting older." So I was, like, "All right, maybe we'll change the name to Best Ex, and we'll make it more pop and find a genre that isn't so hostile towards me." And I went on one tour as Best Ex, and I was, like, "This is not Candy Hearts in any way. This is absolutely a solo project." And it just felt different, so I leaned in that direction while my bandmates did things like have children and gain real employment where people would miss them if they were gone. And I never did!
Even though you were already fronting the Candy Hearts, did it feel at all weird stepping out in a different way for Best Ex?
Kind of, but not really. Because I started Candy Hearts when I was a teenager, and so much about it was about me fearing that nobody would want to listen to a female solo artist, so I had to make this band, and I had to make it seem like the creative input was heavily directed by men. And I started to get frustrated throughout the course of Candy Hearts because it was always, like, when someone in our band would leave because we weren't making any money...
Like, I think one of our bandmates was nearing 40, he was way, way, way older than us, and I remember he left the band...kind of actually because he was a dick and we kicked him out. But it was his time to go! I'm, like, "You're 40 years old. I'm 20. Why are you here?" [Laughs.] And he was a dick, I'm not afraid to say. But people were, like, "Oh, now all the songs are gonna be different because he wrote them and he's not in it anymore." And the same thing happened when my other bandmate left right before our full-length, because he was, like, "I want a stable job, I'm making a lot of money as a guitar teacher, and I want to get married, and I don't want the grind anymore." And I said, "Fair enough, that makes sense." And then suddenly it was, like, "Oh, her band's not going to sound the same anymore because he left." I wrote all of the songs!
Not that I didn't ask for input from people, because I did. I was, like, "Hey, if you want to write a song, write a song!' But no one ever did! [Laughs.] Someone wrote a third of a song once, and we used that. But I was the driving creative force of everything, and I handled our whole business, and I ran everything. So it didn't feel weird to do Best Ex. That was also kind of why I was, like, "Maybe it should just be Candy Hearts, because it feels weird if Candy Hearts was all me to have this thing that's all me not called that." But then I realized that it did feel different, because my bandmates did contribute a lot of morale to me that I do lack as a solo artist.
And it has to be nice to be able to get your femininity out in front more than you were able to do when you were dealing with the extreme masculinity of the rest of the scene.
Yeah, it feels good. It feels good not to have a manager or someone say, "Hey, you're wearing a croptop onstage, and everyone thinks that you're a slut." Which is a real thing that people said to me. It's been over 10 years ago at this point, but it's a real thing. I was, like, "It's 900 degrees! What do you want me to wear? It's Arizona, in a desert. I don't know what you want from me." Or men backstage just thinking... [Pauses.] There was one tour I went on where I found out behind the scenes that different men had "claimed me first." I'm, like, "Um, can you do that? Because I'm pretty sure I have free will." But they don't view you that way. They view you as property. And I think part of it is that, historically in the music industry, women were tools to support men's creative visions. Especially when you look back in the groupie era of, like, 1970s rock. Like, looking back at Almost Famous, that movie is actually... I watch that movie, and I'm, like, "This is what my life was like. It's exactly the truth."
It's crazy to think that, so many years later, it was still generally the same.
Yeah! With the groupies being, like, "Oh, we're Band Aides," or whatever, that sentiment of how women are... Even now, women are working in the music industry, but so many of them are behind-the-scenes support positions - merchandise managers, social media people, photographers, people who work for the band - that people view you as their property and their employees, even if you're running your own project. And I'm just so happy to have distance from that situation, and also to no longer prioritize success over how awful it feels to just not say anything when that happens.
What are your plans for touring the album?
I have two shows coming up. I tried to have a tour...and it fell through at the last minute. [Laughs.] I'm trying! It's so weird. Things have changed so much since COVID. It's really hard to book a tour now in a way that just shocked me and my agent. It just wasn't like that before. I could book whatever. And if all else failed, there was always some bar somewhere that was, like, "Yeah, all right, you can play there that night. Who cares?" And it's just not so anymore.
But at least you've got those two shows.
Yeah, we're playing in New York and Rhode Island.
Well, fingers crossed that those develop into more.
Yeah, I hope so! It's hard, because I have such a good track record with Candy Hearts, but I feel like people aren't necessarily aware of it now, because so many people who used to be promoters are no longer promoters, and there are all these new people who are doing it instead. There was a huge shift during the pandemic with people really reevaluating, "Is this a sustainable career? Is this something I want to do?" So many people left, and then once the doors opened again, so many new people came in, and I feel like it's harder to get them. "No, you have to believe me! I was a thing!" [Laughs.]
You mentioned that you have former bandmates who now have legit jobs. Do you feel like you're of the vein that you're going to be doing this for the long haul?
Well, I do have a legit job. Sorry, first of all, yes, 100%, I have curated my entire life to sustainably do this forever. I'm a freelance writer, which helps fund my albums and stuff, and I can work as much as I want or not at all on that. I'm also a songwriter with other artists, and songwriting... Well, I mean, that's what I want to do for always.
[At this point, the conversation devolves into a discussion about the wonderful world of freelance writing, none of which is relevant to anything else that was talked about, but it eventually circled back to music, specifically about how all of the four key editors of Q have kids who keep us even more in tune with younger artists than we already try to be.]
You know, I have no idea how to reach kids. I look at my demographics on TikTok and stuff like that, and... Well, TikTok, at least, is mostly women. Because I just feel like I don't understand why women aren't listening to my band. It's, like, 80% women on TikTok, but all of my other demographics on every other social media network is mostly men ages 25+ and...it doesn't make sense. I would expect it to be either even or younger, college-age girls.
But it's no-one, really, under 25. And I'm writing the music that I would've wanted when I was in college. And in high school, but I think there's maybe some more real-life topics that you can't necessarily relate to when you're in high school. Like, I had no business in high school crying over Bright Eyes' "Lover I Don't Have to Love." [Laughs.] I was a 16-year-old who'd never had a lover at all and wasn't going to for many years! So I kind of understand why young teen girls are, like, "Okay, whatever." But the college girls... I don't know how to reach them. I don't know why it seems to be mostly men who are interested in my album about womanhood. But maybe they can learn something!
As far as your sound, apparently I successfully pinpointed some of your influences, but when you were making this album, were there any occasions where you leaned into the idea that, well, this could be a hit in a perfect world?
I mean, every time I write a song, I'm, like, "This is the one that deserves a Grammy!" [Laughs.] So I don't know. You have to have a certain level of delusion to continue to work in an industry that doesn't care about anyone because it's so oversaturated. I think I focus less on what I think is gonna be a hit and more on what I love, and I think the one I really love, and it's definitely not a hit, and I don't think I've even heard anyone mention it... Because I've read a lot of the reviews, and I've heard people mention "Daylight," which is a song I almost didn't put on the album. I thought, "Maybe it should be a B-side or a bonus track or on a deluxe thing or whatever." That's the one that people have pointed out as really connecting to and liking. Whereas "Stay with Me" is the one that I really, really am most proud of and thought people would really like. But no one's said anything about it!
I do like both of those songs, but I'm such a sucker for a pop hook that I latched onto "Give Me a Break."
When I wrote "Give Me a Break," I originally wrote that for the Good at Feeling Bad EP, because I wanted that to be a full-length. At the time that I wrote it, my career was very much, "Okay, do a tour, write a full-length, do a tour, write a full-length." And we'd done a tour, so... [Laughs.] And I was really looking at the world and just asking people I know who were having success in the industry, and they were all, like, "Maybe you should just do an EP. Because no one listens to albums anymore, and you're just gonna throw those songs out, and it's gonna go right in the toilet. People will listen to them, but you won't get the marketing power out of them." And I'm, like, "Oh, man, I hate that. I'll have to think about that."
So I just never released that song or "What the Hell." Those were songs I was saving for another EP.. But then I decided to make a full-length. And I threw out all of the other songs that were gonna be on that EP - I have so many things on my hard drive that were thrown out - and I re-recorded those two. But when I originally wrote "Give Me a Break," I was, like, "Yeah, this one deserves a Grammy!" I mean, in retrospect, maybe not. Maybe it's not that grand. But I like it so much! [Laughs.] I think it's really good!
I don't know if it deserves a Grammy or not, but I know it definitely deserves airplay.
Yeah, it deserves airplay. A Grammy... That's saying it's the best song written in 2023. I do think my album is one of the best albums written in 2023. I don't know if any individual song is. That's the level of delusion. [Laughs.] It's not full delusion...and when you start talking about it, it starts making less sense!
To start wrapping up, we'll go with one of the worst questions in the world: what are your hopes for the album?
I mean, my answer is gonna be so boring: I want it to go viral on the internet and suddenly become... I mean, maybe not the most famous woman, because that seems like a huge burden, but the level of fame where, like, if I did my hair different or didn't put makeup on, no one would recognize me, but if I did put makeup on and look really good, everyone would recognize me. [Laughs.]
My hope for you is that you can't keep up with all of the people who following you on social media.
That would be fantastic. [Laughs.]
Because I told my daughter, "You should follow her on Instagram, because she's very up on who's following her and very active."
You know, it used to be that way, where I couldn't keep up, and maybe it would be an incentive to put my phone down because I can't keep up with it. Maybe I'd get some of my life back. [Laughs.] That would be a big positive.
Well, that's the burden of social media, right? It's a tremendous time suck, but it's the best way to promote yourself.
Yeah. Especially TikTok. I had to turn off notifications. I couldn't keep up with it. I do a lot of analyzing of pop songs and why they're so good from a music theory / lyricist standpoint...and a lot of that is Taylor Swift, because she's my favorite songwriter, and I think she's both the Bob Dylan and the Beatles of our generation.
Way to drop a pull quote right at the end of the interview.
[Laughs.] I came from a country music background. I really loved country music for the storytelling and stuff like that, and when I started writing songs in high school, I really wanted to write pop songs that were storytelling. Like, Bright Eyes was, but it wasn't mainstream accessible at that time, if that makes sense. That was my goal: to focus on storytelling and pop songwriting, because the stuff that we heard on top-40 radio was not that. And she's really brought that into the mainstream, where I feel like so many people have been inspired to write better, more meaningful music because she's allowed them to do storytelling instead of just singing about very generic stuff. It's always a risk in the music industry. They say you want it to be universal so everyone can relate to it, and country is not like that. And she kind of married both, abandoning that fear of major labels being like, "Well, what if someone can't relate to it because it's hyper-specific?" But people really do. And that's why I just love her.
I actually just wrote about this for Q, but I admit that I literally didn't even tune in until 1989, and I almost hate to admit that it was because of Ryan Adams re-recording the entire album.
Oh, so I was just thinking about this, and... [Starts to laugh.] No offense to you, because it's understandable. You probably didn't have the exposure at the time. But Ryan Adams... It's just so offensive. If there was a symbol of the way our culture acts towards female musicians, it's the fact that people needed Ryan Adams to mansplain Taylor Swift's music to make people think that it's actually good. This - so I've read - abusive, narcissistic-seeming man needs to mansplain this woman's art to make people pay attention to it. And that is exactly just what I experienced constantly coming up in the music industry. So watching Taylor Swift battle that and break out of it to the point where people do take her seriously now? That's been really inspiring.