Ryan Wilkinson speaks to HLAG’s Nicolle Maroulis about their latest record What Makes Love Last, and the forces that shaped it.
by Ryan Wilkinson
photo: Kelli Green
One of the first things you learn about Nicolle Maroulis, the mind behind New Jersey indie project Hit Like a Girl, is how kind and accommodating they are in their interactions with anyone willing to extend the same courtesy in return. It’s clear both online and off – whether they’re advocating for transgender rights on Twitter, or giving a clumsy journalist a few minutes to clean up their spilled coffee at the start of an interview (thanks again Nicolle!), their presence is soothing and welcoming, even when the subject of conversation is less than pleasant. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to speak with them: I had to find out how that quality translates so clearly from their bearing to their music.
Like a lake lost deep in some Northern forest, Hit Like a Girl’s new record What Makes Love Last projects a serenity that only hints at its darker depths, refusing to explain them outright and instead allowing the listener the choice to explore for themselves or stay in the shallows.
The album opens with a recorded voicemail left for a friend going through a hard time. As ambient guitar builds in the background, the listener feels a certain second-hand comfort from the spoken words: “I just wanted to make sure that you’re okay, and also let you know that you’re a wonderful person, and I love you very much, and everything’s gonna be okay. I hope you are okay.” It’s a personal recording, unpolished and soft-spoken, that was never meant to be heard by the public. Its duality ripples across the entirety of the album: unfiltered but self-conscious, caring but unapologetic. Past, but present.
From there an invitingly calm indie album blooms, with picked guitar and a healthy dose of reverb harnessed and crafted into a warm, cozy embrace. In contrast, singer Nicolle Maroulis’ lyrics feel much more direct, as seen in the opening lyrics of lead single ‘Cold to Be Alone’: “Trying to fix what you broke in the first place/ All I ever asked of you was for space/ But you couldn’t give me that and you still can’t.”
Maroulis tells the stories of relationships; romantic and platonic, long-lived and short, healthy and not. Like the lake in the woods, these stories get murky and sometimes a little scary (one even has a content warning in the title: “When I knew that I wanted to put Plan B on the record, knowing that a lot of the lyrical content is pretty specific, I thought fuck it, why not? I’m gonna put a content warning in the title because it’s important, and god forbid someone listened to it without that and felt triggered. It felt like the right move.”) These songs tell the listener about a person’s experience navigating young adulthood, but to get their full story you have to look beyond this one album, to the forces that shaped it.
While Maroulis has been playing music in private and in “punk bands that never left the garage” since childhood, Hit Like a Girl’s 2017 debut You Make Sense was the first time they had released any music to the public. “I got my first interface when I was 16 or 17, so I would record demos in my house,” they tell me. “I don’t know, I never really had the courage to show them to anyone, let alone put them on the internet, until recently. That’s sort of when Hit Like a Girl came about, when I started to feel the confidence to put them online and show them to people.“
From writing to production, You Make Sense took about three years for Maroulis to complete on their own. “I’d record guitar parts on GarageBand or whatever, and then try and write over it. But the new record is a collaborative effort with my friend Fred Pruden,” they explain, shedding some light on how What Makes Love Last dropped less than a year after its predecessor. Pruden (of Forever Losing Sleep) “helped me write some stuff for the new record as well. And then a lot of the drums and little details and stuff came from the producer, Levi Miller.”
Putting any part of the creative process in someone else’s hands after having full control can be a challenge, but Maroulis appreciates having a fresh set of ears in the room: “When it’s just you for so long, you kind of can’t tell anymore if something is cool or sounds good or is different, you know? Sometimes I have a habit of writing songs that are in the same key or whatever and not realizing they sound the same.”
A new production team isn’t the only thing Maroulis picked up since You Make Sense. Just a year after releasing their debut album, they took this interview over the phone from rising indie pop sensation Kississippi’s tour van, on the way to Chicago for the final date of tour with emo legends Foxing. It’s a big leap from private writing and garage bands to a Foxing tour, but they don’t show any signs of slowing down, with a stop at South By Southwest and a split EP with Richmond, VA-based Warrington already in the works for next year.
Success as a touring musician is satisfying on its own, but for Maroulis it included a second, possibly unexpected gratification: gender validation. “I grew up in a small town, and it was very sheltered and close-minded, and no one was really open to these ideologies. So it’s really nice to have met so many people on the road and stuff who have an open mind to things like this,” they tell me. They spent much of their childhood struggling to come to terms with their gender, trying different identities out in an attempt to reconcile their body with the way they felt. “I always just thought I was transgender, and I kind of started living my life as male for a while,” they recall. “I had my friends start calling me Nick, and started binding my chest with an ace bandage, which is horribly dangerous and I would not recommend that to anybody. So I was living life as a male for a little while when I was younger, but I didn’t really feel 100% like myself. I’d wake up some days feeling more masculine and some days feeling more feminine, and didn’t really understand that area in between male and female until I first heard the term nonbinary.”
One might wonder how often gender identity really comes up in the one-off conversations a touring musician has with people all over the country, but it’s a little more common when all of your merch promotes your nonprofit instead of your band. Maroulis started No More Dysphoria four years ago with three friends – two of whom stepped back to avoid publicising their transgender identities when the organization started gaining traction.”I was living with a bunch of my friends in the band Forever Losing Sleep. We would have people come over to our house all the time… two of them were transgender, and one of them had this idea to start something where we could help transgender people pay for their transitions, because she herself knew how hard it was, and how expensive it was.”
On top of donating to help cover the costs of transitioning, No More Dysphoria also runs a clothes drive to help anyone who feels uncomfortable shopping for gendered clothing. It’s a labor of love, and it doesn’t come cheap; Maroulis estimates that they’ve put over $2,000 from their own pocket into the organization, and that doesn’t account for time taken off work to table at events or the missed profit they could be earning from band merch. With just two other board members to share in the work, it can be overwhelming at times, but reactions from the people they’ve spoken with have encouraged the group: “the people who care, they seem to care a lot.”
Their successes are one small step on the way to the lofty goals they have for the nonprofit, but Maroulis is confident that with hard work and a supportive network, they can impact a lot of lives for the better. “We really want to open a shelter for transgender and gender nonconforming people who may have been kicked out of their homes, or are not accepted by their friends and family and have nowhere else to go. Ideally, we want to be able to house at least 10 to 15 people at a time.” They also want to one day fund someone’s entire transition, from therapy to hormones to surgery (for reference, the cost of transitioning in America can easily reach six digits). It’s a high bar to set, but in the meantime, they’ll keep making smaller donations; after all, as they pointed out, “any little bit helps with any cause ever, so I think everything is certainly appreciated.”
As Maroulis tells me more about their passions and the lengths they’re willing to go to for them, the formation of an album like What Makes Love Last makes more sense than ever. Of course someone with the perseverance and drive to survive a life of hardship and discovery could put these heavy, heart-wrenching subjects into such clear words – after all, they’ve had a lot of practice with the often dramatic and emotional conversations that some people demand when confronted with nonconformity, with debating people who don’t believe that your identity, the state of your existence, is even real.
With more transphobia in the news every day, from a transgender student left outside in the bleachers during an active-shooter drill at her middle school to the Trump administration’s continuing push to eliminate trans rights in the United States, these fights are more clearly important now than ever before. In regards to the seemingly inescapable nature of triggering news in an era of brazenly abusive politicians and movements like #MeToo, Maroulis has a message for anyone who is struggling, or who wants to help but doesn’t know how: “Survivors need to be heard, and survivors need to be believed. We live in a day and age where it’s really uncomfortable to come out about things like that, and the system is really designed to work against us. So if people do feel the need to speak out, I hope they know that there’s a community around them that is willing to support them and be there for them, and my messages are always open. I hope people can feel the courage to speak up, be comfortable, and just talk. We have to have these conversations; no matter how hard they are, these dialogues need to be had. Things don’t change if we stay silent.”
Beautiful music becomes powerful when it shows us truths about the world around us, and What Makes Love Last is no different. Its serene surface shows us that even the most placid of lakes can contain dark and dangerous depths; its hard-felt emotional impact shows how our everyday words and actions can create ripples that spread far beyond our initial intentions, both good and bad. Mostly, it shows that even in our hardest, most painful moments, we aren’t alone. There will always be people who understand, even if we only hear them through their songs, and that solidarity will help get us through the hard times we face.
If you would like to contribute to No More Dysphoria, you can buy merchandise or donate directly at their website.