Interview: Merival

On a rare occasion that Anna Horvath (Merival) attended school – she was home-schooled for years from her isolated, rural farm– she heard her Art teacher say, “the more you know, the less you know!” It’s an idiom that has become truer to her over time, the Toronto singer-songwriter increasingly aware of how tiny her corner of the world actually is. The mantra perfectly encapsulates her aptly-titled debut ‘Lesson,’ a 23-minute-long admission that Merival, the person and the artist, is still under construction, still learning from her failures, her mistakes, her successes.

The long player’s third track ‘Planting A Garden’ is about how “the actions I take now, however small, can become the basis for new habits, ideas, ways of being that will allow me to flower and become strong later.” ‘Lesson’ is the first seed planted in that fertile ground, and a vital, beautiful one at that. In our chat below Merival discusses how she tilled and readied the ground for ‘Lesson’ and her future plans for growth, personally and musically. A journey well worth reserving a seat for.  

Can you tell us a bit about your childhood? What was it like? How does it play out on your album?

I learned to be pretty introspective during my childhood, so I think that’s informed my songwriting process a lot. I grew up pretty isolated on a farm in a rural area, and I was also home-schooled for years, so I didn’t really have any friends until I was around 13. Most of my time was spent running around outside, reading book after book after book, and playing piano for hours a day. At times I’ve been grateful that that experience taught be how to be alone with myself, and at times I’ve been upset that I missed so much social experience and growth, but ultimately all there really was to do was to go inside my own head and see what was kicking around there. My parents are both into that sort of thing as well – my dad voraciously devoured podcasts like 10 years before it was cool, and he and my mom will often dissect her long, complicated dreams, they’re definitely both thinkers and growers and I’m really glad I had that example. 

Are there any lyrics on ‘Lesson’ that are particularly pertinent to you? If so, what are they and why?

They all are! I feel very strongly about lyrics in general. There are some lines on the record that I could explain for like paragraphs and paragraphs, but I guess one song that I feel particularly aligned with right now is ‘Planting A Garden.’ I was really trying so hard to change some things in my life at that point, and I think I was starting to have an idea of how slow growth can be / is / sometimes should be. I feel like with that song it’s like I’m just peeking out from behind a door and starting to take it all in, but like one eye at a time, at my own pace. When I sing “I could be planting a garden” I mean that the actions I take now, however small, can become the basis for new habits, ideas, ways of being that will allow me to flower and become strong later. I’ve also had the next line in my head lately, about how touching the dirt is good for your soul, because I’ve been repotting a bunch of my house plants!! it’s very satisfying.

Can you tell us about one particular lesson that you learnt while making ‘Lesson?

I definitely learned to speak up! Sam Gleason (producer) and I have a great relationship, and I think the strength of our friendship allowed me to be upfront and honest if something wasn’t working for me. Historically I haven’t been great at that in my life – I spent time in other bands when I was younger where I was not given an equal opinion, mostly I think due to my gender and age – but with this record I had to strengthen that skill. What’s the point of making the record if I don’t like the way it turns out? This one is just for me. I’m actually excited to get even further into the nitty gritty of production on the next record. I wanna do some whacky stuff!

Can you tell me about ‘Sinner’? What it’s about? How you felt when you wrote it?

I mean, I think it’s pretty lyrically straightforward. I developed feelings for someone while I was otherwise romantically committed. It was tough for me, I felt desperate a lot of the time – I think it didn’t help that I was clinging to a relationship that I couldn’t see yet was unhealthy. The new person represented so many things that I’ve since figured out are actually necessary for me in a relationship, and my current situation was not fulfilling. At the time it was pain, pain, pain for either me or them and, as it turns out, both.

Similarly, can you also give us a bit of insight into the meaning behind ‘I With Mine?’

Sure! That came from a period of time where I was having a lot of pretty intrusive dreams about someone, I’d dated years before and, I guess, never really fully let go of. When we had actually dated for a short period of time, it was painful and difficult, and I clung to whatever I thought that connection was for a long time. Later on, with some perspective I saw that we had both been to blame for how it happened – while I was never outright cruel like he was, I was clingy, childish, and insecure, all things that brought out his derision. I don’t think I had any business trying to be in a relationship, but even at the time I remember palpably attaching myself to the situation and wondering if the feelings would persist far into the future. I’m sure I brought about a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy that way.

What artists making music today inspired ‘Lesson’?

It’s hard to put a finger on that because we started the process a few years ago and I can’t remember what I was listening to at the time. However, I’ve always aspired to melodies and turns of phrase like Joanna Newsom, Joni Mitchell, Adrienne Lenker. I think Sam and I both love all those artists so it would make sense to think there’d be some crossover influence there.

Can you tell us a little about you dropping out of University? What were you studying? Why? How it felt to drop out?

I was studying psychology at the University of Guelph. I always had this idea that I’d go on to get my PhD and be a therapist and really help people. Dropping out itself was easy – my parents supported the decision and by that point I was so depressed and so anxious that it barely mattered. I remember strongly desiring to get to the real world sooner, to be outside this bubble of school where you’re sort of protected from having to run your own life, set your own schedule, learn how to be accountable to yourself – I had no interested in delaying those skills for myself aaaand I had no money. So, I figured I might as well forget about going into debt for an academic situation that didn’t work for me anyway. I don’t regret it.

When you moved to Toronto, you didn’t have the idea of making it as a musician. What was your big idea? Is a musician now your ultimate dream or do you have other interests too?

I mean, I figured I’d have a go of it – but my knowledge of what that might mean was so limited! I had no idea what the “industry” was like or all the skills I would have to learn beyond writing and performing. I didn’t want to stay in Guelph because I was bored, and some traumatic things had happened there; I loved visiting Toronto and it seemed so overwhelming and exciting and I just wanted to be there playing gigs. That’s as far as I thought and yes, it’s still my ultimate dream. if I were to give up and choose another career, I’d probably have to go back to school since I don’t have an education. I’m basically putting all my eggs in this basket… I try not to think about that too much.

On that note, what do you do when not making music?

I do have a part-time day job as a nanny, and I spend a lot of time with my friends and partners. I go through phases of hermitting but generally I go to a lot of shows as well because my friends are all such badass musicians! I I’ve gotten back into voracious reading, like a novel every few days, and it’s been chilly late into the spring here, so I’ve been taking lots of baths. I also started doing yoga and I REALLY don’t want to be one of those people who’s like ‘omg yoga changed my entire life’ but I will say it is quite, quite nice!

You wrote the following on Facebook the other day – “I still feel like a kid this age – both sensitive and defiant, feeling wonder at the world around me and also anger that I don’t know enough yet, but stubbornly drawing in my breath and squaring my shoulders, hands on hips, to keep going.” Can you explain this feeling a little bit more for us?

In high school, my art teacher constantly told us “the more you know, the less you know!” I guess I feel more and more like that as life goes on. As you become aware of the scope of possible knowledge and experience, you realize how very tiny the corner you occupy really is. Sometimes I feel powerless and that makes me angry. There’s a lot of confusion in my life and in my line of work and I am a very sensitive person, so learning that that’s a valid way to be has been a hard one.

What’s next for Merival after the album release?

I’m working on a few small tours to Europe in the next year. I might make another recording this fall, who knows. I’m increasingly disinterested in doing things ‘the right way’ because a) I think that’s a fallacy and b) my mental health has taken quite a beating over the last few years and I need to prioritize things that make me feel healthy and stable. So long as I’m writing and playing and meeting new people, I’m not going to worry about it too much.

Lesson is out now

Merival headlines Balloon Machine Presents #2 on Thursday 12th September at The Eagle Inn, Salford.

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