Rocking retro-inspired dresses and homemade feather earrings, songstress Mara Hruby is constantly re-imagining and redesigning her world, and her music is no exception. Pairing her soothing yet commanding voice over iconic R&B tracks, Mara layered and rearranged, remixed, unmixed, tangled and untangled the seven songs featured on her debut EP, From Her Eyes, until they became her own. She brings to the table a background as a professional hip-hop dancer and a lifelong infatuation with soul and all that entails. Life + Times caught up with the Oakland native to talk inspirations and debut her latest music video—a cover of Mos Def’s “The Panties.”
Life + Times: From Her Eyes is a throwback to true, old school R&B, but what’s R&B to you?
Mara Hruby: Oh man, R&B to me is like soul music. R&B is Al Green and Marvin Gaye. The writing is just so poetic and beautiful that it reaches out to people and grabs them. That’s what R&B is—it knows no boundaries.
L+T: You grew up in the ’90s so I know you have something to say about ’90s R&B. What was your biggest guilty pleasure?
MH: I can’t even lie—when I was little, I loved Mariah Carey and the whole Butterfly album. I remember my sister and I used to imitate scenes from music videos we liked. The Box would always play the video for Boyz II Men’s “Water Runs Dry” and we loved reenacting the scene where they’re standing on sand dunes singing [laughs].
L+T: Why cover all men on your EP?
MH: All the artists that I chose to cover are people that I’ve been listening to for a long, long time. I wanted to put my perspective on their songs and convey the way their music makes me feel by recreating it. When I chose the songs, I wanted them to be songs that I could sing without changing any of the lyrics. I wanted them to be songs that a man or woman could sing without changing the message.
L+T: So what about the ladies? What female artists do you pull inspiration from?
MH: Amel Larrieux can do things with her voice that nobody else can—I love her. Her album Lovely Standards was actually an inspiration for my EP because she also took a set of songs and recreated them. And of course Björk—she’s just wildly creative. Also, Julie London—I love her voice, it’s just so classic.
L+T: It’s almost like you’re re-appropriating the meaning of these songs by singing them, especially with something like Mos Def’s “The Panties,” which is rife with sexual innuendos. How do you think you change the effect of that song by singing it as a female?
MH: I’m always flattered when I hear people say that they listen to my version of a song and forget that it was originally sung by a man. That blows me away. I’ve seen Mos perform a few times now and I never got to see him do “The Panties,” so I decided that I should perform it in my own shows so that someone could get that satisfaction [laughs]. I just love that song because it makes you want to just dance, it makes you want to move. It makes you want to just close your eyes and imagine whatever your mind can create for you. So to me, it’s not about a man’s sexual point of view. It’s about intimacy, which can just as easily be sung by a woman. I wanted my version to be sensual and inviting in that kind of way as well, but I wanted it to be about passion from a woman’s standpoint.
L+T: Your music has a lot of layers. Each song is sort of like a collage. How does arranging and engineering play a part in your work?
MH: I wanted this record to be sensitive and feminine, yet powerful and creative. Laying down the vocals is what puts out the content and when you start to layer and add harmonies and ad-libs, all those little extra things is how you get texture and emotion. If you took five people and told them to cover the same song, you would be able to hear each artist’s individual style and creativity in how they chose to recreate it.