María Isabel Finds Her Strength in Soft Bilingual R&B

Photo: Louisa Meng.
María Isabel has mastered the art of songwriting. You can hear it in her sophomore EP, i hope you’re very unhappy without me. Through the eight-track project, the Queens, New York-born Dominican-American artist gets vulnerable and transparent — key elements of the emerging bilingual R&B singer’s art. 
The 26-year-old started off penning poems in her bedroom before composing music in the studio. “Everything really starts as a poem. It’s a lot easier to write in that form as opposed to starting everything off as a song. I think writing music is a bit more strict,” Isabel tells me while backstage of Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right, where she’ll soon take the stage as part of her first New York tour. “It's freer [to create poems], so I express myself more that way and then I can scale back and turn it into a song.”
While Isabel has opened up for other artists and played smaller shows, she has never had a headlining tour before. As we speak ahead of her second New York show of her 14-part stint, she sits nervous and excited below a makeup artist glamming her face and a stylist spraying her hair. Her lifelong passion is turning into her career, and after moving to Los Angeles, she’s temporarily back in the city that birthed her to embark on this journey.
“Performing anywhere at this point is the best feeling in the world. It just gives so much more meaning to the music; it’s why I do this,” she says. “I met people here after the show, and it was kids who went to my middle school in Queens. [They] were years below me, so I didn’t know them very well, but they were so happy to be here and excited it was someone who grew up in the same place as them. That’s the best feeling in the world by far.”
Corona, the Latinx-dominiant Queens neighbourhood Isabel calls home, plays a key part in the evolution of her sound and style. “It’s like growing up in a bubble, but in the opposite way where you’re exposed to everything instead of one thing,” she says. “That comes through in my music. There’s R&B, but there are hints of hip-hop, reggaetón, and other kinds of Latin music that happened as a result of my seeing and hearing so much growing up as a kid. It’s the reason I sound the way I do.” 
Photo: Louisa Meng.
You can’t miss Isabel’s New York Dominican roots in her music. She merges her sound, influenced by Sade, Selena Quintanilla, Alicia Keys, Lauryn Hill, and Amy Winehouse, with the soundscapes of her neighbourhood — language specifically. She seamlessly switches up from English to Spanish in her music. “No soy para ti. / You’re no good for me,” she softly sings in her fan favourite “No Soy Para Ti.” It’s imperative that her Spanglish is genuine; many of her family members don’t speak English and are only able to sing along to her songs during the Spanish-language parts. “Some things just sound better in one [language] than the other, and some things are really hard to translate. I think there’s that aspect and accessibility, too. It’s the way I grew up in New York; it just makes it more inclusive,” says Isabel, who calls herself the Latina Carrie Bradshaw because her kitchen, with more clothes than food, resembles that of the fictional New York writer.
Her bilingual lyrics also bring the universal themes she tackles in her music to a larger audience. Her sophomore EP i hope you’re very unhappy without me is loosely based on a past breakup, but it’s really a testament to her strength and storytelling. The project shows the evolution and fall of a relationship. “All the songs are really honest and vulnerable and not exactly the feelings you want to share when you’re going through a breakup. I liked the idea of the title being like ‘I don’t need you,’ but the songs demonstrating the opposite. I wanted to demonstrate every feeling, like the whole spectrum of losing a person.” 
Isabel’s debut EP, Stuck in the Sky, released in 2020, set the tone for i hope you’re very unhappy without me. Listeners discovered a young bilingual songwriter and vocalist unafraid of being delicate in sound and verse. But in Isabel’s latest work, she takes more risks. For instance, in “No Soy Para Ti” and “Back of My Mind,” she pairs her soft, airy runs with slow-moving reggaetón beats. “[Stuck in the Sky]  was a good place to start as an introduction to me and what I knew at the time and what felt comfortable. Once I was able to set that in stone, this is what I sound and write like, then from there I tried new things,” she says.
It wasn’t always easy for Isabel to sing publicly about the intimate moments of her life. But she found a process that works for her: sit with her feelings, write, and sing what she’s written once she’s worked through her emotions. “When I first put out this EP, I got a lot of ‘are you okay?’ I’m like, ‘yeah, I’m good.’ I’m writing about these things after I process them and make my peace with them, and then I make them into a song,” she says, adding that she often encourages the first listeners of her up-and-coming music not to focus on the lyrics in order to avoid unnecessary conversations about relationships and experiences she’s moved on from. 
While difficult at times, Isabel knows that her raw songwriting will be part of her success, and she encourages other emerging artists to similarly sing their truths. “Don’t be afraid to share [your work] out of fear of people not liking it. There’s a place for anything you have to say; someone needs to hear it,” she says. “Taking the risk of no one ever hearing it because you’re afraid to fail is far worse than putting something out and it not doing well and having to pivot and do something different. It's worth a shot, always.”
With butterflies fluttering in her stomach backstage ahead of showtime, María Isabel is betting on herself. In five years, she hopes to be doing it all over again: living back in New York, selling a new album, and touring — perhaps on bigger stages across multiple cities. 

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