An Analog Girl in a Digital World: Majel Connery Navigates the Plains of Pop
Apr 20, 2020 09:51PM
By Tara Spencer
Listening to Majel Connery’s music, it’s difficult to guess her origins.
The Philadelphia-born, Nebraska-raised, currently bicoastal musician creates music that sounds otherworldly yet of-the-earth. Her appearance is no-nonsense, with short hair and without makeup. She still looks as if she is always stage-ready—like she could perform at a moment’s notice. Honestly, that’s a huge part of her appeal.
In conversation, she is entirely open, freely sharing her thoughts and feelings.
“Just because I grew up with all these crazy, fancy people on the East Coast, it made me feel like somehow I should be embarrassed of being from the Midwest,” she said. “As I got older I was like, no, actually that’s incredibly unique…like people stand up and notice when I say I’m
Connery said she is in the process of trying to reclaim that sense of self and figure out what that means in terms of her public-facing artistic persona. After having worked hard to purge her Midwestern identity as a young adult, she now appreciates it.
Despite efforts to seem more “East Coast,” Connery was never quite able to shake her Midwest mentality. She is easily hurt by people. “It’s so nice to come back here. The places that I travel, they’re loud, they’re crowded, they’re dirty, everyone’s upset. When I walk into like, a Walgreen’s here, the people who work [at the store] are…friendly. They want to help me, like for real they wanna help me…I feel so taken care of,” she said. “It’s like a totally different universe here. It’s crazy.”
Connery’s path has taken her many places. A self-described “music machine” while attending high school at Duchesne Academy, Connery said she participated in everything from forensics to all-state orchestra. (She joined Papillion-La Vista High School’s all-state orchestra, as Duchesne wasn’t large enough to have a group.)
Classmate Meghan Schlattmann can confirm this. She said in high school, Connery would sing “Ave Maria” with a classmate. “[It] would bring tears to your eyes. She played the oboe, sang, played the piano—basically she could do it all…She is an extremely innovative musician.”
Connery received her undergraduate degree from Princeton University, a place she applied to at the last minute on a whim. Upon graduating from Princeton, she said she had plans to immediately enter into a conservatory musical program. However, they were thwarted by a vocalist’s nightmare—strep throat.
Forced to take a year off, she decided to apply to grad schools instead. She attended The University of Chicago and got a degree in musicology. For the next 10 years, she said she “pretty much” stopped singing, stopped playing piano, and wasn’t composing. She started an avant-garde opera company, Opera Cabal, while in grad school and was the managing editor for Opera Quarterly, a peer-reviewed academic journal. Connery also taught at the University of California-Berkeley for two years. She was becoming a part of the support structure, “the admin.”
At the end of those two years, she said she knew with “absolute certainty” that she would not be happy until she got back to performing.
Since then, she has embarked on the terrifying adventure of breaking into the mainstream music world. Acts that would be commonplace for a veteran are major feats for Connery. “I have spent many hours wandering through Guitar Center, looking at different kinds of cords and tearfully explaining my problem to the people who work there.” At the end of the day, though, she said she is proud for having tackled these challenges.
Technology isn’t the only issue she’s encountered. Things such as contacting a venue and organizing a show have also proven to be quite different from the music world she’s known, not to mention the ever-changing landscape of social media. “The ways that are available for people to engage online are so multifarious now that it feels very overwhelming. Before you can book a show, before you can attract a label, you have to have a following.” The days of sending in mix tapes and demos are over.
Connery said this has changed the way in which musicians have to be creative. They are forced to be original in a way that has little to do with music. She cites Vulfpeck and Billie Eilish as prime examples of this. Basically, it’s all about packaging, which is something she admits she is not good at. “I think that I’m an analog girl,” she said. “I feel like I could go to college [for] like, ‘how do you enter the pop world in your 30s?’”
This is a question she has struggled with while trying to define her persona. She said she draws a lot of comparisons to other women musicians, and while most of them are flattering, they are often wildly inaccurate. “I think that when people hear my stuff, they just think, ‘what female artist do I know that seems to have, like a strong individual voice?’ and then just kind of pull somebody out of a hat.”
If pressed to describe her sound or make comparisons, she said she would likely describe her music as “dream pop.” A comparison she makes is to Imogen Heap, because they both use vocal processing to create the impression of backing vocals. “She also composes songs that are kind of…achy? You know, like heartbreak? And I think my music is sad, a lot of the time.”
Allowing herself to put that sadness into words has been a challenge. Writing lyrics is a new endeavor for Connery. “I don’t think I realized until recently that writing the lyrics that will inform a piece of music is an even more intimate act than music,” she said.
Once she realized she would need to write her own lyrics, she knew they would have to be about subjects close to her. At the time of this interview, she was working on her upcoming album, Euphoria, a somewhat ironic title, as she said it’s a feeling that is foreign to her. Something she is familiar with is her relationship to stress and anxiety. “I wake up first thing in the morning with some anxious thought in my head, and I go to bed with 12 more,” she said.
So that’s what she writes about. She believes one song in particular will resonate with many, especially women. It’s about people always wanting her to act happier than she is. “I feel like it’s important for people like me who have a little more depressive side to be allowed to express that, and not be socially scolded for it,” Connery said. “I hate it when someone says, ‘hey, just smile’…there’s a sense that I am required to act a joyful part that I don’t feel I wanna play.”
People have told her she should play more uptempo songs in her set. They have also told her she looks like an “impassive ice princess” when she’s performing, which she finds laughable. “[This] is hilarious to me because obviously inside I’m like, dissolving into the floor.”
In reality, performing live is her favorite thing to do. Over the Christmas holiday, she performed at an intimate gathering in Omaha.
“It was her idea to have it be a fundraiser for the music program at Duchesne,” Schlattmann said. “And I couldn’t think of a better way for people of the Duchesne community to see how this talent has grown since her graduation.”
Now it’s time for the rest of the world to take notice.
Visit majelconnery.com for more information.
This article first appeared in the May 2020 issue of Omaha Magazine.