Maria Albani used to be anonymous—well, about as anonymous as a bassist who's played with five Chapel Hill rock bands over the last decade can be. In 1999, Albani, who'd moved north from Florida to earn her master's in art history and printmaking at UNC-Chapel Hill, joined Pleasant, a smart, hooky quartet with an appropriate name. When they'd climb onstage, Albani would stare at the wall, keeping her back to the audience as she kept time. It wasn't a shtick. She was just nervous.
"People would make jokes about, you know, the longer I played, I would start to turn around. 'Oh, she's turning around! We saw the side of her face!'" she says, laughing at the phase now. "That went on for years and years. I don't like people watching me."
Just as Albani started to gradually turn toward the audience during the course of a set, she's spent the better part of the last decade opening up to the audience in general. She began to sing with the sad-eyed indie rock classicists Tennis & the Mennonites, so she faced the band's other singer. She maintained the sideways stance for pop-basics trio Un Deux Trois, and she still stands that way to add low-end to Schooner, the slow-glow band she joined two years ago. She wasn't anonymous, anymore, but she wasn't in plain view, either.
"I've got anxiety about it," says Albani, pausing and changing tacks. Offstage, Albani is vivacious and opinionated, quick with a wisecrack or a loud laugh. She's an accomplished visual artist and a curator of Minus Sound Research, a successful program she started in order to show musicians' artwork in gallery spaces. Confidence doesn't seem to be an issue. "I get nervous about people judging how you look when you're doing something. I don't know if that makes sense at all."
In January 2007, though, Albani's life changed. With songs still waiting to be recorded, Pleasant had called it quits in November. She was going through a divorce after a 10-year relationship, so she left Chapel Hill for Hillsborough, where she moved in with her mother. She still played in Un Deux Trois, but aside from their practices she started going out less and staying in more, playing bass in her bedroom and slowly happening upon her own ideas for songs.
With no drums, no guitars and no band to call her own, she invented ways—like drumming on phonebooks and glass bottles, or playing the melody and the rhythm with two separate bass lines—to play the parts she heard her in a head. These songs needed to get out.
"I wasn't trying to do a solo project. It was like journaling for me. It was through my divorce and moving out of my house and all of these big life changes," she remembers. "I just played music."
The tunes came quickly and, eventually, so did the name, Organos. Albani downloaded a rudimentary program for free digital recording and began putting the songs down one part at a time. She was playing things she'd never touched before—makeshift percussion, little guitar riffs, stacked and crisscrossed harmonies.
Lyrically, the words that spilled into the microphone were all adult anxieties, addressing missed opportunities, future worries and lonely nights. And musically, it's certainly not simple, either. Albani's experience as a bassist shows in the way she marks and fills spaces, each rest decorated and exaggerated with complicated webs and wires of miniscule parts like handclaps. "Getbye" lunges ahead and collapses behind her rattling bass, the glockenspiel, guitar and drums syncing at each turnaround. "Rides," the first song she wrote, is a perfect pop miniature. In less than two minutes, and with no verses and no chorus but rather some strange hybrid of the two, the tune climbs up and down the bass melody, handclaps and spoons springing beneath like toddlers in a drum line. Still, they're short, playful and extremely catchy ditties, suggesting a prodigious child unaware that such a thing as traditional song structure exists. It's refreshing in the same way as some of the tracks from Panda Bear's Comfy in Nautica and Micachu's Jewellery. They sound like someone trying to start over, with no preconceptions of how songs, relationships or life should work.
The journal entries, as she calls them, eventually made their way to friends. They liked the tunes and encouraged her to keep writing. Eventually, local bandleader Nathan White insisted that she rerecord them, exactly as she had first imagined them, in a professional studio. They headed to Durham to Pox World Empire, the space where White's band, Nathan Oliver, and her bands had cut records. They left the songs alone, refining and collecting them for The Limbs EP. And these days, Organos the live band—formed after the songs were finished in the studio—just gives them a bit more verve.
"Maria went through all of the songs and designated everything she wanted to hear in the live versions. They're her songs, and she's putting herself out there," says White. "But it's definitely a different vibe—playing them live, they pick up a little more energy because it's a very close-knit, fun group to work with."
Albani agrees that the company Organos keeps is no small part of her emerging confidence as a performer. Live, Organos is a sextet featuring four Chapel Hill bandleaders—Reid Johnson of Schooner, John Harrison of North Elementary, Wes Phillips of his own material and formerly of Ticonderoga, and White —and Theresa Stone-Phillips, a best friend she made when she moved here with her own band from Georgia 10 years ago. Albani talks about them like a society of muses, extolling their songwriting, musicianship and personalities and, of course, their enthusiasm for making public the songs she'd written in private.
"I can't even imagine it any other way. I know a lot of people that play a whole lot of cool stuff that would probably be a lot of fun to play with," she says. "But there's something about feeling that my family is on stage with me. I've got this no-fear thing where, 'I'm not worried about how I'm doing. I'm having a great time being here.'"
And so, when Organos plays, Albani's out front, still cocked at a slight angle, a vestige of her days spent hidden on bass. She plays a little percussion, but she mostly sings, her slightly smoky, simple voice skipping along to the songs' skewed rhythms. Her bandmates wear construction paper masks that resemble Albani. And even though the players themselves don't face the crowd, the masks worn on the sides of their head do.
So, suddenly, she's not anonymous at all. She's the whole band at once.
Organos releases The Limbs EP with a show at The Pinhook with Birds and Arrows and Ye Olde Shoppe Friday, Feb. 5, at 10 p.m. Tickets are $5.