Mariah van Kleef Entwines Trauma with Dueling Divinities on ‘Saraswati’

A strange exhilaration

Mariah van Kleef looks up at the camera kneeling on an area rug in a dimly lit room
Mariah van Kleef (Photo by Jared McQueen)

Mariah van Kleef unleashes her elemental and unnerving new single “Saraswati” with a wordless incantation that sighs like a whispering, wavering breeze. 

As pulsing heartbeat bass, hissing percussion and spectral flute join in, van Kleef’s vocals grow forceful, unsheathing a sawtooth edge. An insistent Middle Eastern groove builds as a battle unfurls amid wheeling woodwinds and coiling synths. 

“Two goddesses/ who rode on verses/ but shared their hearses/ as one/ One frail, undelicate/ who wailed like elephant…”

The tune, as contemporary as electronic chillwave, as ancient as an incantation echoing across the centuries, depicts two deities locked in a whirlwind of parry and thrust. Tensions remain unreleased and unresolved.

“So you stay here/ I’ll go there/ We’ll never share/ at all…”

Spiraling into a droning reverberating root note, “Saraswati’ doesn’t seem to end. Instead, van Kleef’s song imprints the aural equivalent of a vivid dream, an afterimage burned onto the waking world. 

The otherworldly single drops today, Feb. 22, and van Kleef and her band will play a release party March 15 at Petra’s

“Saraswati” was born during a dark period in van Kleef’s life, the singer-songwriter says, a time when she felt insecure and defeated. For the song, van Kleef drew on an interest in the occult she had since childhood and a fascination with Hindu mythology inspired by college religion courses.

The antagonism between the goddess of music, Saraswati, and Lakshmi, who represents wealth and prosperity, mirrored a real life struggle where van Kleef felt another woman was encroaching on her life and home.

“I [thought], ‘This is a perfect metaphor for me to mask what I’m feeling,’” van Kleef says. “I know now that I could have handled [the situation] with more grace and none of that would have happened, but my dark side got a hold of me.

Mariah van Kleef smiles at the camera while sitting next to a window on a sunny day
Mariah van Kleef (Photo by Mariah van Kleef)

Her own story is a tale of uncompromising creativity amid potentially soul-crushing obstacles, a chiaroscuro portrait of elation and despair that ultimately documents acceptance, love and artistic freedom. Fittingly for an artist who has embraced mythology as a tool to explore self-actualization, van Kleef’s biography begins with not one but two versions of family mythology about the moment that sparked her musical career.

Mariah van Kleef grew up in an unconventional family in York, South Carolina. Her Dutch-born parents weren’t Christian, and from the age of 10, she felt she had to hide her spiritual inclinations from her classmates. 

One thing she couldn’t hide was her precocious vocal abilities. While singing, 10-year-old van Kleef began mimicking the phrasing and nuances of Icelandic folk singer Emilíana Torrini.

“It was very dreamy, ambiguous acoustic music, which is what I make now,” van Kleef says. “In one version of the story … my mom … heard me singing that record perfectly and drove me to the guitar store right then and got me my first acoustic.” 

In another version of family lore, however, mother and daughter introduced themselves to North Carolina roots music legend Doc Watson at a local diner.

“[Watson] held my hands and [said], ‘You have the hands of a musician.’” van Kleef says. “And that’s when [my mother] drove off to get a guitar.”

Either way, the primarily self-taught guitarist blossomed gradually. By age 16, van Kleef was writing songs that she admits sounded a lot like Taylor Swift. Pretty and popular at school, van Kleef felt nonetheless like an outsider, and that mindset manifested in an increasingly diversified taste in music. 

Mariah van Kleef (Photo by Brittany Nailon)

She leaned into becoming a cover artist as well, earning a spot playing at The Garden Café in York, a gig that lasted 7 and a half years.

In 2016, van Kleef recorded a three-song debut EP, logically called Debut, which was mixed and mastered by her sister, singer-songwriter and producer Fay Grant. Highlights include the mist-shrouded bossa nova “Thawing Out” where sharp yet dreamlike imagery seems to capture memories on the cusp before they dissipate into ghosts.

“Holding on the hand of sister/ Whiskey curling in our mouths/ I’m thawing out…”

I’m still very proud of those songs,” van Kleef says. “They came from such an organic place. I [only] want to redo them because my musicality has improved since then.”

After this promising start to her music profession, the terrain turned rocky for van Kleef. She weathered the COVID pandemic better than many musicians by spending a year and a half at Snaggy Mountain, an organic farm and retreat for musicians and artists in Burnsville.

I was in the sun, hands in the dirt, jamming with different musicians every week,” van Kleef says. 

Getting back to Charlotte and into the swing of making money, however, proved humiliating. A fractious relationship didn’t help matters.

“The pressure increased, and I lost touch with the soft organic place where my music, my writing and all my ideas come from,” van Kleef says. “I lost my center.” 

She decamped for Myrtle Beach to move back in with her parents but found it impossible to break into the town’s tourist-centered music scene.

Mariah van Kleef (Photo by Brittany Nailon)

Hitting the road to be a hard gigging “show monkey” initially sparked a brief period of elation, but van Kleef’s constitution eventually succumbed to the grind. She was mentally and physically drained, and despite playing plenty of shows, she wasn’t earning enough money to make rent.

Seven years after Debut, van Kleef released her lush dream-pop-infused follow-up single, “A Fountain,” which van Kleef feels reflects the commercial pressure she was putting on herself. 

“While I think I negotiated making something that people will like with something … that was also true for me, subjectively it reminds me of a dark phase where I didn’t feel in touch with my artistic freedom,” van Kleef says.

Music had been van Kleef’s saving grace, but now it was failing her. She started therapy in the summer of 2021, and also graduated from UNC Charlotte after a protracted period of juggling school with gigging and making music. A December 2023 Instagram post, however, gave a stark self-assessment of van Kleef’s life and career:

“I spent the first half of 2023 actively trying to not kill myself,” she wrote. 

By early 2024, van Kleef’s situation and prospects had undergone a complete resurgence. She puts it down to two breakthroughs; one being that she fell in love and returned to Charlotte to be with her partner.  

“[He] held space for me and helped me feel safe again, and not like a burden,” van Kleef says. The other factor was that van Kleef found a job she loves, and can make music without the burden of requiring it to be a money spinner.

“What got me out of my head was working with children,” van Kleef says. “I started nannying, and it grounded me and took me outside of myself. Nannying is … the dissolving of ego, and it’s so good for me.” 

Working with children may give van Kleef an additional psychological boost because she can’t have children of her own.

“I was born with a rare syndrome called MRKH (Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser), and I was born without a womb,” she says. 

She believes that a lot of the insecurity she felt that sparked the writing of “Saraswati” is due to of her condition, 

“[I felt] like God didn’t let me be a woman fully,” van Kleef says. 

All that, however, is in the past. While the writing of “Saraswati” was spurred by troubled thoughts and sadness, the recording of the song was an artistically satisfying process thanks in large part to its producer, Justin Aswell, according to van Kleef. 

She praises him for the ability to find surprising sounds, including a recording of a washing machine to provide a sinister drone, and a sound like rattling chains produced by Aswell rolling thumb tacks in his hand.

“[‘Saraswati’] was written in traditional Indian carnatic tuning,” van Kleef says. “[It’s] an open tuning … that makes the guitar sound like an Indian instrument.” 

Over time, as the song was played live by van Kleef’s band, it took on a grunge sound. “Saraswati” went through its most surprising transformation, however, at Aswell’s home studio in Mt. Holly. 

Read more: Ogres Makes Music That Sounds Like Gaston County

“Justin [and I] listened to the ancientness of the song, but also wanted it to have this futuristic thing at the same time,” van Kleef says.

With van Kleef on rhythm guitars and vocals, guest Rodger Perry on the North American wood flute, and Aswell on pretty much everything else, the song emerged in its final form, featuring a Nordic feel coupled with Middle Eastern runs.

“I hope it sounds true to the original pantheon,” van Kleef says. “When it comes to art, [Aswell’s and my] philosophical inclinations are bang on. We have the same desire for freedom … [and] to be authentic to the process.”

On March 15, van Kleef will once again unleash the goddess “Saraswati,” this time to a live audience at Petra’s, with her band including lead guitarist Jason Cline, drummer J. Michael Scriven, bassist Jeremiah Small and flutist Perry.   

“I want [the audience] to be strangely exhilarated [by “Saraswati”],” van Kleef offers. “I like that the song has brevity to it. I like that … people say it gives them chills.”

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