Written by James Barry
Happy Mondays are all about openness and opportunity. They often provide young artists with their first gig in Asbury Park; a chance to make a mark on an audience who’s always hungry for a fresh sound. Years ago, a young artist with a black Stetson and an acoustic guitar landed this very opportunity, playing her first show in Asbury. And on Monday night Renee Maskin returned to Happy Mondays to perform her latest record, & The Mysterious Wilds.
Things have come full circle for Maskin. After releasing four albums with the indie band Lowlight, she released her first solo album, Swimming, in 2020. Maskin recorded everything herself, working through a long period of trial and error. But with this recent release, she returned to a collaborative form, working with Mike Noordzy and Ben Ross across the whole album.
The result is a darkly comic, hazy trip through half-lit alleys, onto the open road in the plains, past galloping horses, back into the woozy heat of a summer night in the city. It melds Tom Waits with Deerhunter. It mixes the urban with the pastoral. And it captures the inward space one seeks when he or she is surrounded by people yet feeling totally alone.
All of this was floating through the air last night under purple lights in the Wonder Bar. But before she took the stage next to Noordzy’s upright bass for their minimalist performance of the record, I had a chance to sit down with her and pick her brain.
What have you been listening to lately?
Oh, the same as always. Bob Dylan, David Bowie. I’m just a David Bowie fan so I’ve been nerding out on him again lately. So yea, the usuals, the heavy hitters.
What is it you admire about Bob Dylan? The songwriting? And what about David Bowie?
It’s everything with Bob Dylan. He is our biggest national treasure as far as I’m concerned. And he gets even more interesting as he ages … David Bowie is a great songwriter in his own way, but it’s more about the music with him. The experimentation. The textures. He goes crazy with the music while Dylan goes crazy with the lyrics. Playing live with just an acoustic guitar, it’s hard for me to experiment with textures much at all…But when I’m thinking about recording those are the worlds I’m trying to bring together.
I’ve always admired how Bob Dylan has drawn from poetry. He really seems to be a poet at heart. Do you find yourself reading any poets when you’re in songwriting mode?
Well the song title “Hot Moon” comes from a Pablo Neruda poem. I saw it and thought it would be a nice phrase to use. I have a little book of his…And sometimes when I don’t know what to write about I’ll just pull different things out … I’m not trying to steal anything, just drawing inspiration. If I get stuck, I’ve got different ways to unglue myself…If you don’t know what to do, there’s plenty of other people who have done great work for you to mine through.
Speaking of different forms of art … If you picture your latest record as a soundtrack to a film, what does that film look like? Where’s it set?
Well it starts off so dark. “Garbage” and “Dark Afternoon,” they’re both horror movies in their own right. And then Mike wrote “Deep,” which sounds a little Tom Waits-ish. It could be a Jim Jarmusch adventure … a little quirky, but not so quirky that you can’t follow it…just a little off beat. A trip taking you through the country and then back into the city.
Carrying that image, I listened to “Horses” a few times today and I got the sense of being fed up with urban social life and wanting to start anew in a rural space where all of those anxieties disappear. Were you feeling anything like that when you wrote the song?
Yeah that’s pretty close. I was, in that way, writing about social anxiety. I remember writing it. I thought it was sort of a funny image where everyone is talking at you in this party and your mind goes to a field way off, nowhere near New Jersey where horses are running. It really is about when you’re feeling awkward, just going to this insular place to calm yourself down.
Have you ever lived a rural life? On a ranch with your own horses? Anything like that?
I’ve never lived that kind of life. I’ve played in rural areas. I did a show in a barn one time…We slept outside the barn and the van was full of flies the next day. I haven’t lived the rural life but there is something escapist about it that I think I tend to draw imagery from.
I felt that theme of urban anxiety develop even more as the album moved from “Horses” right into “Big City.”
It’s funny you mention that. I didn’t think of “Horses” leading into “Big City” when we structured the album but there’s definitely a connection. You know, the catch of the song is “Big city don’t care about your blues.” It’s like there’s so much going on around you and you’re having this intimate conversation with yourself. And you know New York City doesn’t care.
Do you feel like Asbury Park cares?
I do. Artistically speaking. In a way, I went to New York, and I stayed there for a few years, and I didn’t leave with many more friends than I came with. Then I moved to Asbury Park and met a whole bunch of people. I feel like I’ve got a whole community here that I didn’t feel when I was in NYC. It’s funny that I’m playing Happy Mondays here, that’s where I got my start. I definitely feel a connection here.
When was that first Happy Mondays gig? How did it happen?
Oh it’s been so long; I don’t even remember. But I had moved into town, and I didn’t know anybody, so I would just go to Happy Mondays every week. It was cool, a free show. I figured, all the locals are here, if me and my hat show up here every week, we’re bound to run into somebody. And it worked, you know, they booked me for it. So I’ve always thought of Happy Mondays as my hang.
And are you working on new music already? How’s the rest of 2023 looking?
I am working on some new stuff. I’m planning some fun collabs. Mike’s having a baby soon so we’re trying to perform this record as much as we can before he takes time off…I’ll be putting a new band together soon; I’ve got a big gig at the Vogel next month.