Maya Stoner’s ‘Gray Pop’ is a Product of Love and Resilience: An Interview

Maya Stoner is the musician creating gray pop. Her dark lo-fi sounds mix with her poignant and personal lyrics to create music that serves as a catharsis from toxic relationships and sexual assault. She embodies the DIY spirit, helping run Good Cheer Records, a music label out of Portland, OR, and is a college student on top of the music career.

Stoner slides along this line of soft landscapes and punk through her lyrics and music. False Baptism, their second album, was released last June. Through her band, Floating Room, she has transformed the punk/riot grrrl genres into these serene melancholic genres that put you in the middle of a rainy day in Portland themselves.

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Maya Stoner playing with Floating Room. Photo by Dan Lurie.

Currently an arts student at Portland State University, she has a busy schedule but that does not stop her from creating a unique genre of music that encapsulates the feel and culture of a whole city.

The Floating Room sound is the lullaby version of 90’s grrrl riot that Stoner grew up listening to. The occasional riff resonates from their music that you would find in Bikini Kill or Bratmobile. But what is more reminiscent of punk and what hits so hard about Floating Room’s music is the lyrics. Stoner writes authentically visceral and personal songs that are the same catharsis Kurt Cobain found in the Raincoats’ music.

Floating Room consists of Maya Stoner, Kyle Bates, and Sonia Weber. This interview has been edited and organized for clarity and length.

Antonio Villasenor-Baca: I first wanted to start by asking you a little bit about yourself. I know you’re based out of Portland now. Have you always been in Portland? Can you tell me a little bit about your growing up and when you started getting into music?

Maya Stoner: Yeah, I was born and raised in Portland. I’ve always lived here. And that has a lot to do with me getting into playing music because I started playing guitar because I went to the rock and roll camp for girls, which actually started here and there’s there’s always been a really great music scene over here. The rock and roll camp for girls taught me to read tabs, [and other music basics], but mostly the focus is just like you go there for a week and start a band and write your own original music. So I did that when I was in like the sixth grade. There are some cool women there, and they actually took me to see like Sonic Youth. 

AVB: And is Sonic Youth roughly that type of music that you grew up with?

MS: When I first started playing music, riot grrrl music was an influence on me, and that originates from Olympia, Washington. So that’s Kinda the Pacific Northwest thing. Artists like Mirah, and The Microphones. I guess there were a lot of house shows and stuff going on when I was younger and I went to those and was really influenced by like a, it’s kind of like the DIY music scene I guess.

AVB: That sound really isn’t in your music. Do you think in Floating Room and your music today, do you think it has had an any kind of impact on your sound now?

MS: I mean, I wouldn’t really be able to see it in our sound either. I think it just had a huge influence on me to like see women playing music. I do think that riot grrl music talks about a lot of issues that I also like to talk about. Like, I’m a survivor of an abusive relationship and I also have experienced sexual assault and riot grrl brought those topics, in a way, to the table as part of like a public discussion.

AVB: Right. Yeah. And so I guess, uh, I guess it’s more of a thematic type of thing and especially in the song in the lyric, songwriting process.

MS: Yeah, definitely. I guess like the music might not seem super punk when you listen to it, but I think it’s just talking about like personal things like that.

AVB: What does punk mean to you anyway? 

MS: I guess there’s like a multitude of meanings, but just, I guess it’s really just for me, it’s just being genuine in what you have to say, even if it’s kind of confrontational, I just feel like there’s so much music out there that just doesn’t say that much and it’s not very personal and it just kind of like, “Ooh, this is nice,” you know? But I think that sometimes music can be like kind of a cathartic release for songwriters.

AVB: I did just want to talk a little bit about the album. The track “Dog” got a lot of attention. Can you tell me a little bit about your process behind making this album? You said already that the two albums of yours are very, technically and production wise different, but thematically and just like about the kind of place you were in when you wrote one compared to the other?

MS: The song “Dog” is written from the perspective of the dog and its owner. I actually wrote it before I was in Floating Room back when I was in Sabonis, but it never got recorded or anything. And so it felt important to me to finally record it. When I wrote it, I was in a abusive relationship, with like a much older man and it’s just like about the experiences, like I’m trying to think of a smart way to put it. It’s just like at the time, you know, I still felt love for this person and I thought that they loved me too and maybe they did, but it’s still is like unhealthy and you know, at the time I thought like it was unhealthy for both of us.

I’m really, I don’t really feel sympathy for that person anymore. But I also have a dog too that I was thinking about this dynamic of like, no matter how much I like love my dog and my dog loves me, my dog would probably like, love to just be outside all the time, like hanging out with other dogs and being free. And um, when I was in that relationship it was kind of like, I didn’t totally realize it at the time, but it was one of those relationships where you kind of get cut off from your other friends and it just, I guess I could see similarities.

AVB: Right.

MS: I mean I know that sounds like I’m like a horrible dog owner. I love my dog so much and I think I’m a good dog owner, it’s not totally the same. 

AVB: Yeah, I see the, the comparison and the contrast between the dynamics.

MS: Yeah.

AVB: And, and what, what about the album? What was the thinking, I guess behind the title and the actual writing of it and producing of it?

MS: When I wrote the first album I was still kind of in the midst of all this trauma and I didn’t really have clear eyes. This deal was going on and I felt kind of just a like in shock and confused. When I was writing this second album, I was still dealing with a lot of trauma and I realized that the healing process wasn’t so- what does that term like cut, cut and dried, or I don’t know like there’s different things that you can do that you think will like change your life but it doesn’t really always work like that, you know? I mean I was raised Christian and so I guess that’s why that imagery of a baptism kind of stood out to me because I was baptized as a kid and it’s supposed to bring you like a new life or whatever. I also did like psychedelic drugs a lot after the abusive relationship and I thought that, that might change everything and save me, but that didn’t really necessarily work, although it has aspects of that experience really helped me. But yeah, I guess I was just thinking about the fact that I was like still experiencIng these things, you know, working through my shit and it’ll probably never go away.

AVB: It was like about a year and a half maybe between your first and second album. How much, how much of it was just the actual process of creating the album, song writing and producing and all that and how, how much of it was your hectic schedule, since you work with Good Cheer Records

MS: I’m also a student and I help run Good Cheer. So that had a lot to do with it and honestly I guess I probably could have probably put it out sooner. The sound is a lot different than our first album, so I kind of was feeling a little shy about putting it out so I might’ve put it off for a little bit, but I was mostly just really busy so it made it easy to put it off.

AVB: So can you tell me a little bit about your work with Good Cheer Records? What it was like taking over it because I was reading a little bit of a summary about how, I guess you kind of took the place of like one of the founders. Mo? So what, uh, what kind of stuff do you do? What’s it like balancing that and schedule? What’s the work like?

MS: So Blake Bickman, who is the other founder, he’s the owner too, and he does so much and he’s made it really easy for me to be doing my own music and going to school and they also worked. He does like the every day kind of work that you have to do and just kind of allows me to be in more of a role where I helped find new bands and just do meetings with the bands and stuff like that. I’ve known Mo [Troper], since I was 17 and we’ve grown up in the same music scene. So it felt pretty natural. I was very familiar with what the label was about.

AVB: I saw you listed under KPSU. Do you work there as well? 

MS: Yeah. Yeah. I have like a campus job at the radio station and I also deliver pizzas for a pizza company. It’s very stereotypical to be like in a rock band and be a pizza driver and do college radio, and my last name is Stoner. I feel like a cartoon.

AVB: And are you working on your undergrad?

MS: Yeah, I, I’ve been going to school kind of, off and on, for a long time. Like I’m 27 now so it feels like, I dropped out a couple times, but I think this will be my last school year this year.

AVB: So like you mean like you’re close to graduating?

MS: Yeah I’m close to graduating. I do want to go back to school to be like, like maybe you really like teaching or something eventually, but I don’t know. I really enjoy school. But it was kind of hard to focus on it when I was younger.

AVB: Yeah. Well I can’t imagine that it’s, that it’s easy now. To phrase that in a question, what do you envision for yourself or for Floating rRom or for any of the projects that you work with? 

MS: I mean, it would be cool to be like, um, like a professor or like an art teacher. I’ve always played in bands and it just something that I’ve, I don’t know it, I just feel like I have to do it, you know it. So I’m going to play music no matter what, and always try to be moving forward and like experiencing new opportunities. I guess I’m not exactly clear on my picture though.

AVB: Yeah, I know question brings up a lot of anxiety with people.

MS: Yeah. I mean I just, I don’t know. I am an artist and that’s what I want to be, like I want to be an artist and like just live a creative life. I’m trying to figure out how to make that even though it’s not really the easiest thing financially. But I think it’s more of a mindset, you know?

AVB: Starting to get a little bit more into the bands, do you still play like with the band Sabonis? Or with Drowse, which you met Kyle Bates through? 

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Maya Stoner playing. Photo by Dan Lurie.

MS: Yeah, So I don’t play in Sabonis anymore but both Kyle and I have been in the same music scene for a long time in various bands and so Floating Room is my primary focus, but I do also play in Drowse. I play guitar and sing live and I think I’m in the last two releases, but that’s more of like a solo project for Kyle. Yeah. So he writes all the music and stuff for that and I just play what he tells me to play on the guitar. I’ll like sometimes do my own lyrics and vocal melodies, but it’s not the same as like a fully collaborative band. Floating Room is the first band I’ve fronted and it’s a really cool experience. Like I’ve been in bands where I was the only woman where I didn’t really feel like my voice was totally heard. Like maybe I would have an idea and then everyone would like not really take it seriously. And then later like one of the dude’s would say the same idea as if it was their idea and then everyone would get on board or like I don’t know, like even like in my last band I felt like they would kinda discourage me from bringing my own songs to the table. So it feels really powerful to be fronting my own band and to able to like write all the songs and have people support what I want to say.

AVB: Was it always your goal to be leading a band and have what is Floating Room now or was it something that just became, like came out of your experiences?

MS: Oh yeah. It happened pretty naturally. Originally it was just going to be solo music.

AVB: And kind of just out of curiosity for the name of the band, is that just a name that you thought of and that was cool or is that a reference to anything in specific?

MS: Yeah, it is kind of like a nod to the floating world; it’s like an era or like a genre of a specific time from Japanese printmaking. Printmaking was a hedonistic subject matter that I think is pretty cool. Also I’ve always felt like when I played music, like I’m just like in my room or whatever or recorded that, my room felt like a different entity from the rest of the world and so it’s kind of named after that experience.

AVB: And, the Japanese print making, is that more or less how you got the artwork for your first album, Sunless? False Baptism was designed by a friend of yours right?

MS: Yeah. My friend Ona [Greenberg] drew the figure on the last one. I took the photos. Ona is one of my best friends. And on the first album I did the drawings, like, which are mostly like a lot of figures, but then my friend Nellie [Papsdorf] took the photos so I thought it’d be kinda cool to have like an ongoing theme with that. And also to involve women that have been really supportive and always there for me. But yeah, I drew the art on the first one and my friend and I did on the second.

AVB: I’m kind of interested as to who coined “gray pop” and your thoughts on your sound being called gray pop?

MS: So Kyle and I both grew up in the Pacific northwest, with a lot of trees and foggy drIves and all that. Like right now I’m like, in a park surrounded by beautiful trees. I guess we kind of think of it as a theme from the Pacific Northwest and also like, I guess it’s like, to me it’s pop music, but it’s kind of dark so gray pop just fit. It’s always a struggle to put a genre on your band. Like some people will say it’s shoegaze, but I don’t feel like it exactly fits with that. I guess it just was easier to create our own genre. Temperate.

By Antonio Villasenor-Baca

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