María Isabel is following her own path
María Isabel’s gaze gently trails off screen as she fishes for what will be her must-have items for tour. Her white Air Force 1s – a New York native staple that, similarly to one’s phone, often serves as armour – stare back at her threateningly. The 25-year-old Dominican-American artist from Queens soon realises that this is a safe space and responds accordingly.
“I was tryna be deep but let’s just be honest: Air Force 1s, a pair of gold hoops and deep conditioner,” she decides. “As long as my Air Forces are on, hoops are in, and my hair’s OK, everything else will fall into place.” So far, it has.
When Isabel debuted in 2020 with The 1, a sleepy, melodic bop about falling in love, she arrived as a promising young star in the R&B circuit, following a similar road to fellow Latinx acts Yendry and Melii. Her sound, influenced by childhood heroes Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey and Sadé, is paced and contemplative, her voice always the focus. It’s got an introspective quality to it, like she’s singing only for herself.
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[Left] Full look: Hardeman
[Right] Full look: Mom n Dad Vintage
Isabel relocated to Los Angeles alone a little over a year ago, during the height of the pandemic. The artistic and personal growth that unfolded became something of an uncomfortable metamorphosis, as detailed on her introductory EP, Stuck in the Sky, which charts the inevitable tensions, and eventual breakdown, of a long-distance relationship. The project’s centrepiece, Distance, confronts these feelings head on: “Distance makes the heart grow fonder/ What about the rest of me?/ Even the moon must wanna go home, don’t you get tired of being alone?” But this heartbreak had a silver lining: the period of enforced solitude caused Isabel to turn inwards and make herself a priority.
“The biggest lesson I’m still learning is the need to be able to be present and centre myself regardless of what’s going on around me,” she reflects. “It’s important, as an artist, to take a moment and appreciate what you’ve done because your goals are always changing. The second you get something done, the music industry says, ‘Great job, on to the next.’ I want to celebrate any win because it’s easy to lose sight of what you’re accomplishing.”
To date, those accomplishments include over seven million streams on Spotify and a recording contract with Warner Records, all while staying true to herself. What that means through the lens of social media, where the lines of reality are increasingly blurred, however, is up for debate. The singer boasts over 325,000 followers on Instagram, many of whom were already there before she stepped out as a musician. There have been plenty of brand partnerships with the likes of Urban Outfitters, Revolve and Queens-based fashion label Aimé Leon Dore. Does she consider herself an influencer?
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“I most definitely do not. I think of myself as someone who overshares on the internet and sometimes it works,” she laughs, acknowledging her unfiltered approach. “I feel like we’re getting to a point in society where we don’t want false images of people.”
With this in mind, Isabel has been uncompromising in the artistic path she wants to follow. She says she isn’t into labels and doesn’t want to limit her early stages of experimentation. This openness has led her to her latest work, the bilingual No Soy Para Ti; a Latin pop-adjacent track with strong visual references to New York – the place in which she recalls first developing an affinity for the style of music.
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Like many diaspora kids, Latin music is the pillar that has propped up our varied identities. For Isabel, growing up in Queens – a borough that is home to one of the highest Latinx immigrant populations in New York – reggaeton was the sound of her surroundings. The genre’s wildfire-like spread, fuelled by an international resurgence thanks to 2017’s Despacito, has prompted everyone in the music industry – Latinx or not – to want a piece of the cake. Isabel says she isn’t pressuring herself to take the plunge, though it was “definitely a conversation that was had” early on because of her Dominican roots.
In order to move beyond what she deems “palatable”, Isabel is working on further exploring the Dominican sounds like the island’s celebrated bachata and merengue, and, more specifically, “the stuff that isn’t normally going to come out on an American artist’s album”. Ultimately, though, she’s calling the shots. “Regardless of what I end up sounding like, as I’m writing my own songs, it’s always gonna sound like me coming through,” she smiles.
That message is to always protect your peace and lead with honesty. This new, lockdown-indebted perspective, Isabel explains, has provided her with the right tools to find her footing in the crowded room of the music industry. Over the next year, she’s set to perform at eagerly anticipated festivals like Day N Vegas, Firefly and more, alongside R&B and hip-hop visionaries like Kendrick Lamar, Tyler, the Creator and SZA. She’s also sitting on the music she’s most excited about, a result of long studio sessions with Jeff Kleinman, the producer behind FKA twigs’ cellophane and Frank Ocean’s Chanel. These tracks, she says, are the ultimate expression of her artistry thus far – and, crucially, align with her mission. “I just want to be able to mean everything I sing. Obviously I want to grow and be as big as I can be, but I always want it to reflect me.”
No Soy Para Ti is out now via Warner Records