The Marías bilingual debut, CINEMA, received a Grammy nomination last month for best engineered album, non-classical — a rarity for an album that features Spanish lyrics.
The nomination in that category goes to the engineers and mastering engineers, not to the recording artist. However, Josh Conway, one of the L.A.-based indie pop quartet’s members, is credited as one of the engineers on the album. So, Conway is nominated, along with fellow engineers Marvin Figueroa, Josh Gudwin, Neal H. Pogue and Ethan Shumaker and mastering engineer Joe LaPorta.
The best engineered album, non-classical category has been presented since the Grammys’ first ceremony in 1959 and traditionally recognizes fluid, orchestral, and instrumentally-driven bodies of work. Besides CINEMA, the other 2022 nominees are: Yebba‘s R&B/jazz fusion album Dawn, Low’s percussion-fueled Hey What, Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga‘s collection of Cole Porter classics Love For Sale, and Pino Palladino & Blake Mills‘ collab Notes With Attachments. (Mills is nominated as one of the engineers.)
Drawing influence from film and specifically Pedro Almodovar classics, CINEMA’s genre-bending sound features reggaeton, indie, and rock en Español.
In conversation with Billboard, Conway (who does vocals, drums, engineering and producing on CINEMA), María Zardoya, the quartet’s lead singer, engineer Pogue and mastering engineer LaPorta reveal the process behind putting together the debut.
Conway recalls CINEMA’s conceptual motifs and sonic themes emerging around Zardoya’s birthday in 2020 when he turned his bedroom into a movie theater. According to Conway, a large part of the project’s muse came after spending entire weekends watching contemporary classics, such as Black Swan, Golden State, and “every Pedro Almodovar movie.”
“Talk to Her (Hable Con Ella) by Almodovar is the one film we just all fell in love with immediately,” remembers Conway. The film served as the inspiration behind both the track “Hable Con Ella” and the closing track, “Talk to Her,” the latter detailing a dark time during The Marías’ first tour as a supporting act in 2018.
Once the album’s overarching theme was established, Conway’s instrumental-heavy and melody-focused production style made its way into the album’s infrastructure — leading listeners through a narrative starting with an introduction, a climax, and an ending.
Of the mixing process, Conway kept in mind the advice of “our very trusted A&R, Ricky Reed, he told me once, ‘Try and get the mixes as close as possible before handing them off.'”
Previously, The Marías had operated independently — meaning no fancy pool of mixers to choose from, just Conway and occasionally a few mixing friends who would offer a hand on select songs. But with a label, all that changed and Conway got to work perfecting every mix. “That made things very hard, just a lot more time-consuming but I’m so glad that I did that because you can’t put that much pressure on the mixers. Once I gave it to them, I was beyond thrilled with what I got in return.“
After combing through the many layers of CINEMA‘s production process, both Conway and Zardoya point to their recording space in Los Angeles’ Beachwood Canyon as the atmospheric backdrop that served as sanctuary during last year’s quarantined summer.
“We were recording in our neighbor’s house. She had left for a couple months and asked us to house-sit. She was like, ‘Can I pay you?’ and we were like ‘Well, you wouldn’t have to pay us if we can move our studio in here!'” says Conway with a laugh.
“It was a very long process working on the album,” shares Zardoya. “Right when we were at the mixing stage, our studio flooded. It was just a lot of obstacles that we had to overcome and obviously this album was recorded during the pandemic. When we finally got the mixes in line from Neal [Pogue], who is just amazing to work with, seeing the track listing and seeing it all together, we both had a moment of relief. We were just really proud of ourselves for sticking through it, for having this project to show these really crazy but special, beautiful moments of our lives.”
The band’s first EP, Superclean Vol. I, dropped in 2017 and was followed up by its second in 2018. Both projects reflected the band’s euphoric soundscape of jazz percussion, spellbinding guitar riffs and Zardoya’s distinctive satin vocals.
Sultry and romantic details unravel across The Marías’ discography, adapting the sound to fulfill different moods, themes, and genres. With Spanish film as the core inspiration for CINEMA, Zardoya says her love of movies and music can be traced back to her bicultural childhood, acknowledging the ways in which her Puerto Rican and Spanish ancestry materialize throughout her artistry.
“I grew up listening to a lot of music in both languages and so [CINEMA] has that perspective [of] growing up in the culture,” explains Zardoya.
Beyond the album’s cinematic roots, Pogue — who is also nominated for album of the year as an engineer on Doja Cat’s Planet Her (Deluxe) — cites vocalist Zardoya as the “glue” of the operation in pushing the project forward.
“She is the main detail no matter what style they’re doing from song to song. She keeps it together,” he explains. “They have a sound like no other. The different musical cultural influences they bring to the table creates a special sound. Whether they know it or not, they have an old-school style that I relate to which made me fall in love with the project more and more as I mixed each song.”
“The band’s very specific vision for the record helped facilitate great results in the mastering stage,” says LaPorta. “Neal, along with Josh Gudwin and Josh Conway, already had the mixes in a great place, so it was all about the subtleties when it came to bringing them all together within the album context.”
On the album, “’Un Million’ has the most recognizable reggaeton roots and ‘Fog As a Bullet’ has Spanish guitar – nylon string guitars are really all we use,” Conway adds, outlining the unique blend of instrumentals and complex chord progressions at the heart of the band’s sonic exploration. Moreover, in “Hush,” Conway’s pulsating bass experimentation unspools tiny details that dance with every brooding “Hush,” that snaps you back into the chorus.
“Then the melodies came out for the chorus and we both just kind of looked at each other – We were like, ‘Okay, this is our Britney moment'” – referring to the snappy, futuristic pop beat supporting the delivery of the lines: “(Every night) Got you running in circles, I know (Touchin’ me) Get your paws off my Dolce Cologne.”
After capping off a year full of career highs — including signing a deal with Atlantic at the start of 2021 and a first No. 1 placement on Billboard‘s Adult Alternative Airplay chart — the band is hopeful for what 2022 may bring. The Marías are slated to tour in January to perform their nominated album for the first time since its release.
“Whether it’s in the passion or in the nostalgic melodies, I think it goes beyond the language or the rhythm even — it’s the overall feel of growing up Latin that’s naturally is implemented in all the music,” says Zardoya, summing up the ethos of CINEMA.