By Brian Tucker
The title of Break the Skyline’s new album Learn the Hard Way speaks to the hard rock/metal band’s long road – from forming and sculpting their sound to line-up changes, learning song craft, and getting named Best Rock Band at the Carolina Music Awards in 2018. The result is an album of crushing songs with gutsy, soaring vocals by a band that pushed themselves with help from Chase O’Neal who recorded and produced it.
“When we first started as a band, the balance between vocals and guitar was the most difficult thing for us to figure out,” says singer Maria Watson. “I would struggle with a piece of a song already written with the guitar that didn’t sound like it was open enough for vocals to breathe in. Or, I would write a chorus and then it would take a while for us to write a guitar part that felt like it fit right. Some songs on the album that we wrote were essential to helping us learn to write together and to figure out our sound as a band”
The band – Watson, Jason Wiggins (guitar), Conrad Hinson (bass), and Sean Potter (drums), will have an album release show at Mad Katz on Saturday. They recorded songs for Learn the Hard Way over three years while opening for bands like ASG and Puddle of Mudd and maintaining day jobs. The steady work of both was a strange duality, leaving one world for the rush of playing where a crowd gives them permission to unleash everything onstage.
“Walking a way from a show is so difficult because we’re in that awkward stage of being in between a normal work life and performing in a band. For a half hour or an hour, we are standing on a stage and doing the thing that makes us the happiest in this world with people that like our music. Then the next day we snap back into our work routine like we were in a dream.”
In high school Watson was in rock band Deviant Rose. Growing up in a strict household gearing her towards specific education goals, she kept it secret from her family. At the time she used music as a means of reflection and expression. It continues, like “Hiding from Yourself” that recounts a close yet failed friendship.
“I used it to express anger and frustration and to find a release so that I didn’t bottle my feelings up. But when my confidence developed with performing on stage – that was when the adrenaline rush of performing finally clicked for me.”
Was music a means of pure expression for you or is it more about the rush, the energy of performing?
Watson: Music was a means of reflection and expression before it became about the rush and energy of performing for me. I didn’t attend my first concert until after we started the band because I grew up in a very strict household. I would have to lie about staying out late to go to a study group when I was actually performing and practicing with the band when we started. I was only eighteen at the time. I used it to express my anger and frustration and to find a release for myself so that I didn’t bottle my feelings up. But when my confidence developed with performing on stage – that was when the adrenaline rush of performing finally clicked for me.
Discovering you have this vocal power, did it give you strength, or additional strength? Did it help you or help change you?
It definitely gave me strength that I didn’t even have before. Before the band I was at a point in life where I was miserable and I was being controlled by what my parents thought was best, rather than what made me happy and satisfied with my life. I didn’t have the will power to stand up for myself because I didn’t know what harm would come to me when I decided to finally break free of the decisions my parents were forcing me to make in my young life.
But finding the support that I needed from my friends and my band mates helped me so much. And knowing that other people supported me in singing for the band and for myself changed me into who I am today. I am forever grateful for the people that made that difference in my life I needed.
Can you remember first becoming comfortable with your voice – this is me and this is what I sound like – let’s go.
I wasn’t truly comfortable with my voice until we wrote the first song where it felt like the band was beginning to come together with writing, the song “Broken Promise.” One of the first times we performed it was at Ziggy’s by the Sea. There’s a vocal part that we do live, but not in the album version, that’s an operatic vocal piece that comes before the guitar solo. When I heard people screaming and clapping in the crowd after singing that part that was when I felt that moment of being confident in my own voice.
Has it always been hard rock/metal as a vocalist for you? I ask because “Undone” opens with vocals that could go R&B.
I had a really short run with a couple of other people in a rock band called Deviant Rose when I was in high school, but as a kid in a family that was fully invested with my education and career path as a doctor, they did not support me being a musician at all. Before that, my father would make me sing karaoke with him at nursing homes as a kid. I would sing anything from 50s to modern day songs. A little girl singing “Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis was somehow entertaining to the residents of a nursing home. It wasn’t until I started singing songs from Evanescence in middle school that I started to get into rock and metal.
Can you share the story behind “Hiding from Yourself”?
The story came from a friendship that I had with a girl since we were in first grade together, up until we were in our late teens and it ended badly. It expresses the frustration that I had with watching her and how she behaved around other people. And as a close friend I would know what she was feeling on the inside and I would tell her to just be herself instead of portraying a different, muted version of her personality. I tried to encourage her to be less introverted, but to no avail.
As producer, what did Chase O’Neal do that helped get the best from the band?
He spent a lot of time with every single member of the band to get the best version of what we could play for each of our songs, which was a painstakingly long process, especially given the fact that he did it when our original drummer was departing the band and it was the last thing he did for us.
But it also improved our skills as musicians. The one phrase that came from him the most was “do it again” until it was the best that he felt we could do. And he pushed us to make us sound better and suggested changes to small parts that we didn’t even think of in the first place. He helped us make the album something that we are proud of, and will still be proud of down the road.
Of the bands you’ve opened for over the years, what have you learned from those experiences?
I would say that in terms of musical education, they want the people in the crowds to interact with them so the people that didn’t know them would become interested in their band. Little things like crowd sing-a-longs, well known cover songs and shout outs are what connect the band to the crowd. They also opened our eyes to the business aspect of the current music industry. Everyone always talks about making it big and being signed to labels, but being signed to a big music label isn’t always everything. And you have to make smart business decisions that helps your band, instead of hurting it.
Will you try other genres, projects different than Break The Skyline?
Probably not at the moment, because we’re doing a lot with the album and we’re already writing more material for our future album. But I am not opposed to anything in the future. I have a strong preference to rock and metal so I’m not sure about trying other genres.