The Standard is a new Chapel Hill pub in a familiar space. On Rosemary Street, it claims the room that used to be FUSE—a restaurant, bar, art house and occasional music club that closed last year. The turnaround serves as a reminder of the constant reinvention upon which small, busy music scenes like this one thrive.
Against the chill of a relatively balmy late winter evening, Maria Albani sits outside on the bar's patio. She's smoking cigarettes, drinking whiskey and wearing a blue T-shirt covered by an enormous cat face. Albani, a bassist, has played in at least six bands since 1999, appearing on a dozen albums and touring and gigging that entire time. She now leads her own outfit, Organos. In a town of musicians, she knows the cycle of leaving and starting new bands about as well as anyone. Still, even after more than a decade, she doesn't know what notes she plays.
"Maria doesn't operate in the paradigm of music theory and stuff like that," explains Reid Johnson, her bandmate in Schooner, her boyfriend, and her roommate in Durham. "She just operates on whatever..."
Sitting across the table, another of Albani's bandmates, Annie Chu, interjects: "...sounds good."
Saturday night, Organos plays Durham's Pinhook in celebration of its second release, Concha. While it's true that many guitarists and bassists are self-taught, Albani—at least in Organos—makes no effort to standardize her style. These eccentric and addictive tunes depend on her counterintuitive, self-taught songcraft, taking lefts when others would go right, ending when others might go for another glib guitar solo.
"The very first lessons I ever took were drum lessons, and those are the only lessons I've ever taken. I kind of need to take bass lessons, I really do," Albani says with a laugh.
But this is an afterthought, rather than a precondition to, Albani's output. In most aspects of her life, she's cut her own path, ending up somewhere special by what often seems the least likely route. When Albani came to Chapel Hill in 1998, for instance, she was a 23-year-old high school dropout.
"I quit school at a very young age, at 15," she explains. She lived in Orlando and then St. Petersburg before moving to North Carolina with her boyfriend. She was just getting into music, so Chapel Hill in the late '90s offered a perfect incubator. "I was taking a walk one day and I was listening to Polvo on my Walkman and Ash Bowie (of Polvo) rode by on his bicycle and I about shit myself. Polvo is huge. They're my Beatles. Them and the Pixies."
She got her GED, went to Durham Tech and then transferred to UNC-Chapel Hill. She knew what it was like to work service-industry jobs with no room for growth or education and what it was like to struggle to pay the bills with no fix in sight, considering she'd done so since she was 15; she took school seriously because she had lived the alternative.
By 28 she was married, and by 33 she was divorced. Pleasant, the band she had been in with her ex-husband, dissolved with the marriage. Albani found herself in Canada and then in Hillsborough, living with her mom. She started writing songs to fill the musical void in her life. She had a little recording gear, a bass and an amp.
"I would usually start with a bass track and then write vocals and then try to fill in other sounds with random shit around the house," she says. From this peculiar approach came the first Organos songs and, ultimately, the project's entire ethos and aesthetic.
"The thing I like about Maria's songs is that she does whacked-out things that other people wouldn't do just because they know a lot about music," says Joshua Carpenter, who plays with Albani in Schooner. "Not saying Maria doesn't know music, but as far as theory, and, well, notes, yeah, she doesn't know that stuff."
Carpenter, who lives in Asheville and also plays in Floating Action, has known Albani since she used to ruthlessly heckle his old band, The Nein. There's a common thread among Organos' collaborators; they're all enticed by Albani's unusual approach to music, or how she's able to turn perceived limitations into stylistic assets. Vocalist and percussionist Chu wasn't initially in the band, but she would sit in on practices simply to watch.
"I would just kind of go underneath the table and sing quietly and play percussion and play the glock," she explains. But when one band member couldn't make a show, Albani asked Chu to fill in. She didn't need to learn anything.
Nathan White recorded Concha at Durham's Pox World Empire. He plays in Organos, too, and he sees the new material as a group gathering around a central, shared fascination for the songs Albani pens.
"To me, Concha feels like a collective making an album," White says. Organos and not just Albani made the album, but it's still anchored by what White calls Albani's "clanky percussion and strange catchiness."
For all her current music's magnetism, Albani struggled with stage fright for years, especially before Organos began. Early in Organos, she would play facing a bandmate, singing to her rather than the audience. At Organos' first show, everyone in the band even wore masks.
"I would play with my back turned; people would never know what I looked like," she says. "I didn't really know what I was doing and there was this sort of self-consciousness that came out of being up on stage and performing for people and not even knowing the fucking notes I was playing."
She remembers seeing a similar fear when she worked as a nanny for several kids who took music lessons. Many of them were so intimidated by the presentation of a "right" and "wrong" way to play music that they simply shut down. Albani realized she was psyching herself out in the same way. That epiphany helped her face her fear or, well, the audience.
"I eventually gained confidence and I was just like, 'I don't care. I like how this sounds and this is how the song goes. You either like it or you don't,'" she says.
This confidence comes across in the eight new songs on Concha. Albani embraces her homegrown style, with its percussive focus and condensed structures. The entire album is over in 18 minutes, but it doesn't feel rushed or truncated. Albani believes her short attention span is a strength.
"In every aspect of my life, I'm all about the quickest, most efficient way we can do something," Albani says. "If I write a song and I write the parts and it's a minute and a half, that's how long the song is going to be."
Both Albani and Johnson, her boyfriend, are songwriters playing in each others' bands. They lead their own music in distinct, yet very compatible directions. Over a fresh round of drinks, they spar playfully, as pleased and comfortable with each other's company as they are with each other's music.
"She was saying she needs to take bass lessons in that it just gives you tools to hash out ideas sometimes," Johnson says.
"Especially if you're playing with other people and you want to keep up and you want to know what you're doing," Albani agrees.
"But if you're writing your own concept, then fuck it," says Johnson. "You don't need to know everything."
Albani laughs, realizing that this sounds like her credo: "I kind of operate on 'fuck it.'"
This article appeared in print with the headline "Skipping steps."