Interview: Mariel Loveland Talks Solo Project Best Ex And The Female Experience Behind ‘With A Smile’

Best Ex is the solo project of Mariel Loveland, formerly of the band Candy Hearts, and takes her long practice of songwriting into new genre directions. She recently released her debut album, With a Smile, via Iodine Recordings, building on her sophomore EP Good At Feeling Bad. The new album gathers songs she’s been working on for some time as well as newer tracks that came to life during the pandemic period. On the whole, the release is a kind of concept album about “the pressure of the female experience.”

Thought the songs are often universal and transcend gender limits, there is an ambitiously outspoken approach to sharing inner female thoughts, particularly surrounding relationships and the inequalities visible in our country. Mariel Loveland makes those subjects approachable, and even laces in some dry humor, alongside subtle compositions that feel intimate and lively. The combination makes for a great listening experience, and a thought-provoking one. I spoke with Mariel Loveland shortly before the record release about her road to her first solo, full-length album and the challenges that she’s faced in the music world which have informed her work.

Hannah Means-Shannon: What was the road like working towards your debut album? Did you always know that was the goal?

Mariel Loveland: I was thinking, “Maybe I’ll record a single and release a single.” Or, “I’ll make a three song EP or something.” But then Iodine reached out to me and asked, “Would you like to make an album?” I said, “Oh, an album? Yes, definitely!” So I took the songs that I’d written during the pandemic, and I took two songs that I’d recorded earlier and rerecorded them, so this spans so much time for me.

HMS: Often with a first solo album, that’s true. Sometimes that’s part of why people go solo, because they have material building up over time that they haven’t been able to share.

ML: That’s exactly what I felt. I felt there was a lot of material. It’s interesting, because with Candy Hearts, it was a kind of self-imposed box. My bandmates looked to me for what we wrote and the direction that we were going in, so it really was my call, but I felt like once I had committed to being in this world of Warped Tour, that I needed to stay there. I thought otherwise people would be disappointed. Also, a lot of the misogynistic things that people would say were really starting to get to me.

Someone in my band would leave because, for instance, being in a Rock band doesn’t make a lot of money all the time, and they wanted to get married, or have kids, or have a stable job. Those are normal things that happen when you’re in your twenties. But people would look at me and say, “She’s the problem, the reason people are leaving.” Or they’d say, “Now that that person has left, the songs will be terrible.” When I wrote all the songs.

That stuff really started getting to me, especially since I was so gung-ho in presenting us as a band. Though I did the songwriting and was the creative force, my bandmates carried a lot of the heavy lifting and were always there for me. But I also felt like no one would want to listen to me if I didn’t hide behind these men around me.

As I got older, it started bothering me that I wasn’t getting credit for my creative work, so I wanted to stand on my a bit where I could say, “I did this. I did that.”

HMS: That so many layers of relatable experience for many musicians, I’m sure, and especially women. There does seem to be an impulse where the public just decides who they think is, or should be, the creative focal point of a band. And they latch onto that, whether it’s accurate or not. If that gets misinterpreted, it’s very hard to correct. And I could see how one would feel awkward speaking up about it because it makes one look like an attention-seeker.

ML: Right. I would never want to discredit what my bandmates did which contributed to the band. I never would have been able to do Candy Hearts without them. When some people did leave because they didn’t want to be in a band anymore, I felt a real loss. But it chipped away at me that the songs are stories about my life that were being credited to other people.

HMS: Something that may be obvious, but we should bring up, is that in Rock music history, there has always been an underlying assumption that if a female vocalist is on the stage alongside men, they are just a vocalist, and not the songwriter. It’s a strong assumption that’s only beginning to be dispelled. Occasionally, if there’s a female guitarist or bassist, it’s harder for people to assume that they aren’t writing their own parts.

ML: I’ve had people question whether I’m actually playing guitar or if it was just the gimmick of the band because I was the vocalist. [Laughs]. I wrote all the songs on the guitar, but I didn’t play lead guitar.

HMS: Having had those unfortunate experiences, it’s still a big leap for you into going totally solo. I’m sure that has its own challenges. I would find that transition an intense one.

ML: It’s definitely been a transition. At first, when I decided what I wanted to do, everyone just said we’d rename Candy Hearts and play a different genre. But after one tour, testing the waters, it didn’t feel quite right. So I was testing out being solo. I do have people who play with me now, including my bandmate who plays as a duo with me. He’s pushed me to play live a lot more and that’s been so helpful. We’ve been playing the new album. I am someone who’s way happier in the studio writing songs, but it is nice to connect with fans in a different way.

HMS: I think the music on this album is about that. There’s a feeling of outreach to many of the tracks, if not all of them. I know that you’re writing from your own space, but you also seem aware that you’re speaking to others. I think it’s outward-facing.

ML: That’s so nice to hear because so often, when I write songs, I feel like I’m speaking to myself. I often write to myself, giving advice, and I’m worried it’s too fictional, that fans will never connect with it. But six months down the road, I see that I should have listened to myself and it’s not so fictional. Maybe it’s a lack of self-awareness!

HMS: People seem to be able to write predictive songs that reflect what’s coming up in their lives. It’s a weird phenomenon.

ML: I think sometimes there are a lot of hard truths in your life that are difficult to face, so you write a song for someone who feels a certain way about a situation, without really admitting to yourself that it’s an situation that you’re in.

HMS: That makes a lot of sense. Whether you feel immediately that the lyrics are relevant to your life or not, you seem to be aware that these are things that people don’t say out loud that much. These are often challenging statements in your lyrics that might be liberating for the audience to hear.

ML: I think that’s true of certain things. I do sometimes worry about isolating male listeners because there is so much on there that’s part of the female experience. But I think there’s plenty on there about the human experience as well. It is definitely a concept album about the pressure of womanhood.

HMS: There are a lot of universal ideas. There’s also something to be said for hearing messages across gender that can lead to greater understanding. But certain songs here are not at all gendered. I feel like your latest track, “The End” is one of those, as the video also shows, I think. That song gives an impression of the bigger world throughout the country, too. I’m glad that you included that. It gives greater reach.

ML: I wanted it to be a very introspective protest song. So often, we have songs that are so outrageously loud about things. I grew up in the Rock against Bush era. The way those things going on in the world slowly chip away at your soul, especially if you watch the news a lot, is something that’s not talked about much.

If you’re a woman and you’re seeing the stuff that’s going on in our country, like overturning Roe vs. Wade, or overturning some of the gender protections in the working world, or hearing some of the things that the senators on the right say about women and regard women, that affects you. I think there are not a lot of people who talk about the way that chips away at you, your sense of value, and your confidence in the world.

HMS: That’s really well said. If people weren’t as aware of it before, even though it was happening to them, I think the experience of the pandemic brought it out a little more clearly. I heard more people commenting on it, saying, “Wow, I just can’t watch any more of the news cycle today! Does that make me a bad person?”

ML: I think for the first time ever, people weren’t in their own lives, but in a kind of purgatory waiting for good news. I’m a journalist also, and I’m a very on-line person, so I’ve always lived that. I was constantly reading the news because the news was changing so often. Later, when the world opened back up, I had to find my place in the world again, when I was afraid of so much. Things got worse in New York City because of mismanagement of social services and other things.

HMS: There have been a lot of ripple effects in culture due to the pandemic that challenged the standards of care in mental health services and even just challenged economic survival for people. It definitely made the world a scarier place and we’re still in that recovery period. I feel like poverty and mental health issues are even more visible now.

ML: I totally agree with you. It’s everything. The song “The End” is about that. I put in church bells at the end of that song for that reason. I wrote it around the time that I was diagnosed with OCD. I had an anxiety disorder, but during the pandemic it was so obvious that it was something more than that. I wrote the song when I was struggling with that, and during the week that I went into the studio to record it, Roe vs. Wade was overturned and there was another mass shooting.

My entire Twitter feed was full of this, but it was all people saying that they were praying, but not actually saying how they would do anything to fix anything that needed to be fixed. So I put church bells in the song to represent all the people pray about our problems, but they say that their hands are tied by something that someone wrote hundreds of years ago.

HMS: I don’t know if I’m reading too much in, but I think in the song it goes a long way that you mention the highways signs with religious messages and saying that you want to believe them. That’s kind of generous. It shows that you’re not so cut off from the other way of thinking, that you feel an emotional connection to the whole picture.

ML: That’s definitely not reading too much into it. I’m someone who was raised with strong Italian Catholic roots and when I look at the way that the right, evangelical Christian congressmen hold our country hostage, in the name of religion, I know that’s illegal. Secondly, it’s not even something I don’t believe in, but they are using it as an excuse to oppress others who are different than them. I only went to Catholic school for one year, but I learned more than these elderly bigots somehow.

HMS: What led to your video approach to the song? I think it’s really effective.

ML: It’s my favorite song on the album and I think it’s the most important one on the album. I was looking at my own capabilities in terms of making videos and thinking about what would capture the feeling that I had when I wrote the song. It just came to me one day. I originally wanted to do something that really brought people together and highlighted all these issues, but I felt that wasn’t able to do that. I thought my home-made videos weren’t up to it, but my team said that they loved my little stop-motion videos, so I got inspired.

HMS: It’s great when the artists is involved in making their own videos. I think the texture of the original song comes through more.

ML: I’m really involved in everything. Even when I work with professionals in their field, I’m still very involved in the process. Sometimes I do give people full creative control, but only if it happens by chance that their vision aligns with my own. That does happen more often than you’d think, though!