Interview with Maria Brink by Nick DeMarino
Photographs by Jeremy Saffer
“I HAVE SO MUCH IN MY HEART AND IN MY CHEST, THIS FIRE INSIDE OF ME THAT I DON’T WANT TO CONTAIN.”
In This Moment has been on a hot streak. Garnering more and more attention for the band’s infectious blend of alternative rock, metal, and industrial, and with increasingly provocative, ostentatious live performances, frontwoman Maria Brink can apparently do no wrong. 2014’s Black Widow featured two of In This Moment’s biggest hits so far, “Sex Metal Barbie” and “Big Bad Wolf,” both of which helped to propel the band to a new echelon.
Then, in July of 2017, In This Moment unveiled its sixth full-length, Ritual. The suddenly serious tone of the album was a gambit, but one that is paying off in spades. Without relying on campy characters or amusing gimmicks, Brink’s indomitable, sultry voice leads the listener across a broad variety of emotional and empowering vistas. The instrumental side of In This Moment has always been noteworthy, but now it is more pertinent than ever. And, rising to the occasion, Brink delivers her most earnest and nuanced performance to date. Founding vocalist and high priestess Maria Brink discusses the context, content, and concept of Ritual.
What do you think of the reception of Ritual thus far?
It’s fantastic. I’m really happy with some of the feedback. I think people are getting it and really understanding it. We intended this album to be different. What most people are saying is good. If they weren’t grasping it, I imagine there would be a lot of horrible reviews. I wanted this album to be a bit more raw and stripped-down. There’s an honesty to it. I’m known for doing campy, funny things like “Sex Metal Barbie” and “Big Bad Wolf,” with these characters and a fun theatrical show that’s got a lot in common with Alice Cooper and Rob Zombie. But on this album, I wanted to strip away the fun stuff and have it be more serious. That’s who I am and the kind of album I wanted to do.
Why the shift in direction, considering how successful the band has become since 2012’s Blood, when the theatrics really came to the forefront?
Oh, the theatrics are still in there and a big part of our live show. The changes are more in the tone on Ritual. I think you change, and you need to reflect that change in your art. I felt what I was feeling, and I wanted to express that. I didn’t want to create campy characters. I wanted a more organic me. I wanted to sing about what I was feeling. It makes for a more honest album, and I really just went with it. For each album, I make a storyboard. It helps me and everyone else visualize what’s going on. It’s almost like a project when you’re in school or something, with photos and visuals for different songs and where I wanted to go. There were pictures of woods and swamps. So, I showed that to my lead guitar player, Chris [Howorth], and producer, Kevin [Churko], and then went from there.
Ritual is darker and more serious for In This Moment. There’s also a lot less sexuality. Do you agree with that assessment, and was it intentional?
It was a conscious choice. I have so much in my heart and in my chest, this fire inside of me that I don’t want to contain. I think you can hear that on Ritual. It’s more organic and stripped-down. There aren’t as many electronics. I mean, we did still use them, but not as much as before and not so much with those character songs. More and more, I wanted to sing as myself. I wanted to show my powerful side, that fire in my chest. I’ve always wanted to show that without having to use my sexuality. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very connected with my sexuality, but I didn’t think I should use that this time. I have a lot of fans that are young girls, who come to our shows, and some of them dress like me. We encourage outfits. It’s our whole fans become the show thing. Anyway, I noticed all these young teens wearing my crazy, very adult outfits that a 12 or 13-year-old should not be wearing, and that bothered me. There’s a girl wearing my whore hat, and she’s smiling at me and she wants me to feel proud of her. She’s trying to be herself, and, well, I wanted to show these young girls that there’s a powerful side in me and in them, that they don’t have to be half-naked to see that in each other and in themselves or to express themselves. It was also an organic choice for me. I’m barefoot on stage a lot now. I still put on high heels for the older songs, because I like to bring the music videos to life. But, for a lot of the newer songs, I’m wearing giant, long, flowing kimonos. That powerful side, it’s more about the inside, and I wanted to express that externally.
“NO GREAT ART COMES FROM SITTING AROUND AND SAYING WE HAVE TO DO THIS OR THAT BECAUSE OF THESE PEOPLE. YOU HAVE TO BE FREE.”
It’s interesting that change was catalyzed by the fans, especially because of how much flak you’ve gotten for your look in the past.
What people have said? I don’t care about that, not at all. The more people that are talking, the more successful the art is getting. Everyone has their own point of view, and not everyone is going to understand what we do. And, hey, some people are going to hate it. You can’t have everyone in the whole world loving what you do. We push a little, do controversial things, and some of our stuff is R-rated. But that’s being an artist and being true to your art. That’s true whether you’re a painter, moviemaker, writer, or dancer. You have to do what’s real to you. No great art comes from sitting around and saying we have to do this or that because of these people. You have to be free.
How has your approach to vocals changed across the last few In This Moment albums? How do you feel when you listen back to your earliest work?
Nothing was particularly difficult this time around for Ritual. We wanted to try a few different things, and I wanted to show a few different sides to my voice. I think if you look back across our body of work, you can see a girl who’s just angry and screaming and doesn’t know what she’s doing, and she grows and matures into a woman. Of course, when I look back at things, I would do them differently now, but I wouldn’t change anything that I’ve done. In another five years, I’ll probably think the same thing about my performance on Ritual. You just have to push yourself every time.
Let’s go through Ritual track by track. What’s the idea behind the opener “Salvation?”
It’s the introduction track, and it’s really about setting a tone and all of us creating this vibe for the album. It’s also important, for me, because I love and get very excited about these atmospheric things. It’s not even necessarily a song. It’s just this body of music, this intro to create emotions in people through sound. It’s setting up the album to start.
The first actual song and single is next, “Oh Lord.” How did you come up with it?
I started hearing a little bit of the melody and the stomps in a very delirious state. I’d just gotten back flying from Japan. I was in a layover at a hotel, and I still had one more flight to even get home. So, I was definitely delirious, and this kept popping into my head—these melodies over this stomping noise. The meaning behind that is kind of a surrendering. In one sense, it was this balance for me between Christianity and…I don’t think I’m a very religious person in the sense that I don’t follow any one specific religion. I believe in a higher light, I believe in God, I believe in science, I believe in Jesus, I believe in Mother Earth and quantum physics, so I have a very overall wide spectrum. I think it’s all connected and it’s all one. I used to always think that with this Lord that I couldn’t believe in these other sides of myself because I was sinning or I was wrong or I was going to burn in hell. I had a mother who believed in Christ, and I felt that magic in me, but she also believed in other things. She would lay me in the woods on the ground and tell me I needed to ground myself when I feel stressed. She would do these little magical rituals, and she told me we were manifesting things. We’ve come to learn there’s love and there’s light in all kinds of different places that I didn’t always know. We just believe that things, as long as they represent love, good energy, and empowerment, that there are all kinds of ways to feel love and connect to the universe and to yourself. I don’t think I’m going to burn for that, but that was my struggle. This song is going back and forth questioning myself, when I started to feel these different avenues of empowerment, love, and strength within myself, and realizing that I was all different types of different magical parts that make myself up. It didn’t have to just be this one avenue. For me, it was about letting go of fears of what I’m supposed to be or who I’m supposed to be in the eyes of a spiritual world, just surrendering to being who I am. That it’s perfect on this path I take and in what I believe in, and that I don’t have to be afraid.
What about the song “Black Wedding?”
I love “Black Wedding.” It’s one of the more fun, lighthearted, crazy songs on the album. The concept was me in a place of confliction, turning to this oracle to guide me, and where do I turn, what do I do from here? And that this higher power is putting me into a ceremony with myself to empower myself. “Black Wedding” is about taking these dark things I’d experienced and turning that experience into this empowering ceremony where the black wedding is this empowerment of this strong strength in me, this independence in myself. It’s this beautiful black wedding. It’s that strength in the face of loss or heartbreak, or thinking something isn’t going to unfold the way you think. It’s not this happy white wedding. There’s a strength in not getting that happy ending, that fairy tale ending. Instead of letting it break me or me lose myself, to take that experience and grow from it and empower myself from it. We have Rob Halford in this song, which was an honor. We shot a music video for it, and it was really paying a lot of tribute to him. He’s such an amazing guy. When he came to the shoot, he was just humble and sweet. We were so grateful to have him there with us. He had come to a show of ours, we met him, and we became acquaintances, we became friends and have grown a little relationship. So, when we’re doing this album and this song, the lyrics weren’t originally saying “Priest, are you there?” but I kept being drawn to this “Priest, are you there?” and kept envisioning this visual. I wasn’t going to have a guest singer on this album, but every time I kept thinking of “Priest” and kept thinking of Rob, it all matched up. I mentioned it to him, and he immediately responded with interest and seemed passionate about being a part of it.
And the Billy Idol reference?
We knew that was going to be in there pretty much off the bat. It’s giving him a little tribute, as well—“It’s a nice day for a white wedding.” He gets publishing from it because it is referencing it and obviously there. We wanted it to be obvious and have that cool spin off of “White Wedding” and do the contrary of that. So, it’s paying tribute to Billy Idol. When I was young, that song was the rebellion song, the rebellion attitude, and I think there’s a little bit of a spinoff in this song, as well, that makes you feel some of those feelings.
Next on Ritual is the Phil Collins song “In the Air Tonight.” Why that cover?
It’s one of my all-time favorite songs. It’s so special. It has this haunting feeling and undeniable, timeless beauty to it. It’s a beautiful song, and I’ve always wanted to cover
it. It’s always intimidating to cover a song, and with the best songs in the world—and, to me, it’s one of the best songs in the world—it’s perfect, so you can’t make it better. The key is to not ever try to make it better. You have to try to do your own version, your own spin, your own take, and that’s how we approached this. Like the drum fill, you can’t make it better, so you do your own expression of it. When we looked at it with that type of attitude, it wasn’t quite as intimidating, and we said, “Let’s do this.” There’s something about that song that has this slither to it. I wanted this slithering energy to be across the entire album. If you actually listen closely, you’ll hear slithering snakes and rattlesnakes throughout the album in different parts that bring it together. But this song had this slither to it that I just loved. We did our own approach, and it fit the energy of the album.
“Joan of Arc” draws on the story of the historical figure, correct?
She has always fascinated me, the story of this young girl who leads this army and was touched spiritually, and how everyone envied her, followed her, and then wound up turning on her and murdering her. The story really caught me and stuck with me. I just wanted to do a metaphorical spin off of her and what she means to me. She’s strong and was a leader. Sometimes when you want to channel strong parts in yourself, there are certain things you can think of and certain people, and she’s someone I would think of. We’re all drawn to different stories for whatever reasons, but that’s what that metaphor is and that’s what that song comes from.
“SOMETIMES THE DARKNESS IS BAD AND SCARY, BUT SOMETIMES THE DARKNESS CAN BE QUITE BEAUTIFUL.”
After that is “River of Fire.” What’s the story there?
We love this song. We’re playing it live, and it’s actually one of my favorite songs to play. It’s about, you’re walking outside into the woods by yourself and there’s a storm coming in. It was just me going through this transition in my life where I was really learning how to face things for the first time and to be really happy and comfortable alone. I used to need people around me a lot more, and I always had to be with someone to feel a sense of safety or a sense of wholeness. This song was about facing the fears of why I had to feel that and learning the beauty of being alone, facing things, and going through that storm. It’s liberating. So, that’s where I’m referencing that I’m in the woods, the storm is coming, I walk outside, and I want the storm to strike me with its lightning, I want the hurricane to rush over me, and I want to become the storm and experience it and grow. It’s about this journey that I went on and that baptized me in a river of fire. I’m a fiery woman. I always have been, and I think I always will be. I’m Cuban and Italian, and I’m from New York. I’m always about calming my fire.
The next song on Ritual is “Witching Hour.”
I’ve always had a fascination since I was a little girl with witches, the Salem trials, and even cartoons with them. When I was a little girl, I had little witch dolls. I was obsessed. Then there was a fascinating thing in my life. I’ll go to psychics—not a lot, I’ve only done it like five times in my whole life. I don’t actually go to an oracle or psychic very often, but I had two different ones tell me that I was burned in a past life for witchcraft, and it was mind-boggling to me. It was on different sides of the country, it was before my career, so it wasn’t like these people had anything to reference. It was bizarre. They said that’s why I’m a fire sign and have fire in my eyes. That’s my obsession with fire, so it was very peculiar. This song is talking about that experience and what I’ve come to learn, what I thought a witch was as a little girl and what I think now. I believe we do have this higher, powerful thing in us that we really can manifest things with, and I believe we’re powerful beings. Some people really choose to tap into it and some people don’t. I think it’s a beautiful thing, actually.
The eighth song also has a fire reference, “Twin Flames.”
“Twin Flames” is about losing a love. I’m definitely this woman who is always talking about empowerment and being strong, and I hold my head high and I turn all the pain into strength. That’s how I chose to live my life, but I do feel pain and I do hurt. I’ve experienced heartbreak, and I think we all know what that is and what that feels like. Real heartbreak, it’s close to mourning a death. It’s very painful. That song I wrote when experiencing some heartbreak, and it’s talking about that relationship with these two flames, these twin flames. That’s how I metaphorically reference it.
After that is “Half God Half Devil.”
That’s the balance we all have. I think we all have this light and this dark. We all have our beautiful sides, our compassionate sides, and our loving sides. And we all have that other darker side, that fighter, that thing when you have to protect your children and do what you have to do. People have to do all kinds of unspeakable things in life they don’t want to do. I think we all have those two sides of us, and it’s just a matter of what side we feed and what side we choose to live our lives by. Also recognizing that sometimes the darkness is bad and scary, but sometimes the darkness can be quite beautiful. It’s in the darkness that the beautiful moon glows, and it has to be dark in order for us to see the shine of the moon and the illumination. It’s also where you can go into the shadows and reflect to find yourself in the silence. It’s learning the beauty that you are half, that you have different sides, and that’s okay, that’s beautiful. I’m strong, and I’m also angelic, kind, and soft, but I also have fire and wrath.
What is “No Me Importa” about?
It’s about how it doesn’t matter who is judging you, who is observing you, who is diagnosing you. It’s just letting go of the strength that we give other people over us, and we chose to give that strength to other people, because other people can’t truly control the way that we feel. It’s up to us to either let other people’s actions control us or not control us. This is me just surrendering to that. I’m letting go of the power I let other people have over me. I have to free myself from this. I think we make ourselves sick when we try to fulfill everyone’s expectations. Because every different person has a different expectation, and everybody has an idea of who we should be and what’s right and wrong in life and what’s good and bad. We just have to live by our own experience.
Next is the heavy hitter “Roots.”
It’s the “Maria, thank you for your hate” that I’ve done in different forms in the past. I think that we all have to experience life in different ways. I’m just somebody who if bad things happen in my life or painful things or traumatic things that have hurt really deeply, I used to suffer from it and I used to just sit with it. I’ve learned how to take that and turn it in this way to liberate myself and to be really grateful for experiences even when they hurt, because I understand that I’m becoming a more experienced human being. I can empathize with different things because I’ve experienced them. I can relate to people who are going through stuff that I’ve had to experience, that I hurt, that I healed, and now I can share that with them, and they’re hurting, then they heal, and then they share that. I get strength from other people. It’s the things that have hurt me, like my father leaving or abandonment issues that I had, or when people are trying to flush their hate toward me, learning to take that and say, “Thank you for this, thank you for making me a more rounded human being, a stronger person.” It makes me have a stronger foundation for who I am and what I am. The people that I know are my real tight people, we’re stuck together by our roots. We are unbreakable into the ground. The roots grow together. They’re ever-changing and growing into each other, and you can’t break that. That’s what I’m referring to when I say, “My roots go into the hollow.”
The final song on Ritual is “Lay Down Your Gun.” How literal is that?
It has multiple meanings to me. That happens, you write things and they invoke different things and emotions. The real message to it is trying to find a sense of peace between turmoil, finding love in the hate, finding peace in the anarchy, surrendering and choosing to say, “Let’s stop killing each other. Let’s stop killing ourselves. Let’s stop, and let’s try to find a loving, peaceful resolution.” Love, to me, is the answer. I’m one of those hippies. There’s a lot of hate, and there’s a lot of war. There’s a lot of fighting going on, and there’s people who are killing themselves. Couples that are killing each other, and countries that are killing each other. It’s me just wanting people to look at each other as human beings and trying to find some sort of peace between each other, to find some sort of love. And not I blame you for what you did, and I blame myself because of what I did. That’s what I’m referencing when I say, “I pulled the trigger,” and what did I do to create this situation and what did they do to create this situation, whether or not it’s love. At the end of the day, stop with the fighting, the turmoil, the back and forth, and the fears, and find some sort of peace amongst the madness.
“I’M REALLY GOING THROUGH THIS INDEPENDENCE IN MY LIFE AND GOING ALONE, BY MYSELF, INTO THIS UNKNOWN PLACE.”
What does the album title Ritual refer to? Were there any other ideas discussed?
We did have multiple names going back and forth. I don’t want to give them away because I might use another name that almost was the name of this album in the future, but Ritual stuck for where we are right now. I’m really going through this independence in my life and going alone, by myself, into this unknown place. I’m a very ritualistic person. I’m a very ceremonial person. I guess, you could say to a fault. It’s very hard for me to do just normal everyday things that people do. I do things in a very ceremonial way because it keeps me centered, it keeps me focused, and it keeps me in control of my own life. I have a lot of madness and a lot of anxieties. If I don’t live my life a certain way, I can get filled with anxieties, fears, and these emotions, and all these things take my life over. When I live my life in this peaceful ritualistic way, I have these little things that I burn, and I use crystals. I have these little ceremonies that I do. They keep me connected and they keep me peaceful. I can let my fire out in a controlled way when I choose, instead of it just coming out whenever it feels like and I have no control. The whole way the album was feeling, it was just perfect.
How did you choose the artwork for Ritual?
I kept seeing these different visuals. I lay things out just like I do for the album, and I creatively come up with the concepts for the covers and the videos. Chris, Kevin, and the boys in the band, they trust me to do the vision. They still give me insight and they have great ideas, but if I get these things in my head, they want me to show them so they can see what page I’m on. So, I lay it all out, and we all work together to come up with the best way. I just saw it in my head, and we planned it all out where I would be floating in the in-between. I wanted it to feel like I’m being lifted up into this light in the artwork, that I was floating in this beautiful place. It’s crazy, because some people think it’s scary, but to me it looks euphoric and beautiful. It’s just a matter of perception and how you choose to view it.
The focus of In This Moment is always on you, and female fronted metal usually comes to mind. Does that term have a place in music in 2017?
I don’t even look at the female fronted thing as meaning anything. I think being a female singer in a rock/metal band is empowering and strong, and I don’t think it ever holds me back. I don’t worry how other people perceive me or how I’m supposed to be. You just have to let go of all of that. To me, it’s just fake. Just be you, whether you’re a man or a woman, and express yourself in your art and how you choose to. I think there have been powerful women in rock bands all the way back to Janis Joplin and Tina Turner. It’s been going on for a long time.
How has your relationship with the rest of the guys in the band changed over the years, especially with Chris Howorth, as he’s been there since the beginning?
They’re my brothers. We travel the world together, and we live our dreams together. I love them all. Obviously, I’ve been with Chris for the longest. He’s like my brother, literally, and he’s one of my best friends in the whole world. He’s been with me through thick and thin, but I’ve been with my other guys, Randy [Weitzel, rhythm guitar] and Travis [Johnson, bass] for a while. Kent [Diimmel, drums] is on the newer side, but so professional, so great. Not only are they innovative guys, they’re all the most amazing musicians. I’m lucky to have my crew, too, I’ve gotta say. We have this crew that works so hard, cares so much about our vision, and pays such attention to little details, because I’m very passionate about the live show.
What are your goals right now for In This Moment and yourself?
Just to keep evolving, to keep growing as an artist. I love doing the music, and eventually I’ll do a side-project to get out a lot more of the artistic, trippy side of myself that doesn’t always fully fit into In This Moment. That’s something I’ll definitely be pursuing between In This Moment albums. Also, I’m thinking about acting, and maybe getting into film in some way, getting on the other side of the camera. I am passionate about certain directing things, and I’m also passionate about acting, too, so I just have to pick what my next goal in entertainment is if I want to add anything to the music. Personally, I just want to keep growing spiritually, love my family, and try to live life happy and have new experiences as much as I can. And just grow and evolve as a being.