October 5, 2022
Ithaca, NY | 55°F


Finding the right words

Over the quick plucking of a guitar and a fast, upbeat drum, sophomore Maria Shishmanian’s rich, rolling voice kicks in, and listeners can’t help but jam to the catchy lyrics about finding the right words on her album’s first track.

Shishmanian recently released her first full-length solo album, “The Right Words for the Wrong People,” which features 12 original tracks.

Audio Slideshow

This music composition major has an eclectic sound: an alternative rock focus with elements of folk, acoustic, indie and even ska.

With a mane of abundant, tight brunette curls framing her face, Shishmanian holds herself with a reserved energy, constantly expressive. She’ll roll her eyes up to the side, drawing her face back, forming her mouth into a thin line, making fun of something silly and letting out a contagious laugh. Others always describe her as determined, though her style is laid-back. She often wears button down shirts with cuffed sleeves or simple T-shirts.

For Shishmanian, life with music began with a trumpet in fourth grade and continued when she got her first acoustic guitar in sixth. She said as a music composition major, she has learned more about how to write music well over the last two years.

“My favorite songs on the album are the four I wrote in college,” she said. “You can tell. I can sit down and say, ‘This melody is boring because it lands on the same note at the end of every phrase.’ I know how to listen for it, because I’m listening to music and have to analyze it in class.”

Sitting under the dangling string of blue lights in her room, Shishmanian tunes a guitar. Leaning forward on her chair, she taps her red Converse to the early beat of a ska song she is making up on the spot.

When writing music, Shishmanian said she usually begins with some sort of musical structure first and then moves to the lyrics — ideas that she always has kicking around in her head.

“I’ll be sitting in class and think about the type of progression — I don’t necessarily know what key, but this is the type of rhythm I want it to be,” she said. “Then when I sit down on the guitar it’s that much easier, and I’m not starting from scratch. I’m starting from my little sketches on the side of my anthropology notes.”

Shishmanian often expresses doubts about her chosen career. But this CD is changing things.

“This is something I can be proud of,” Shishmanian said. “Something I will actually want to sell to people. I don’t want to have to apologize for what I’m giving people.”

Her favorite song on the album is “My Mistakes,” an upbeat anthem about not giving up. She never strains to overemphasize a note or leaves the listener wondering about a song’s progression.

“Why would you write music if you don’t want to share it?” she said.

Ben Perry plays bass on Shishmanian’s album, which he produced. He said working on the album was a rewarding challenge.

“There are parts I listen to and go, ‘Oh, I wish we could have done this,’” he said. “But in the end I’m happy with it. It’s a strong debut release for her, and it’s a good showcase of talent in every aspect.”

Shishmanian sings in chorus Monday. She takes skills she learns from her music composition major to help improve her own style of music. James Earl/The Ithacan

Shishmanian is also $1,800 in debt. While that sum might seem minute to other college students with large education loans, for her it’s more than enough, since it was her father who loaned her the money she needed to produce her CD. She’s working to repay him in a timely fashion.

“I’ve been carrying three CDs with me at all times,” Shishmanian said. “I see people as CD-buying entities. They’re not humans again until they buy one.”

Though her family is not especially musical, they are especially supportive. Angela Dias, Shishmanian’s mom, said her daughter has been writing songs since age 5. She said her passion for music has continued to grow.

“Her music just pours out of her,” she said.

Dias said though she has heard the songs throughout their development, she isn’t sick of them. Her daughter has always been driven, she said.

“I wish I could say it’s all because of us, but that’s just her,” she said. “Music is really what she’s all about. In every way, her sound has matured.”

Shishmanian’s lyrics have matured too, switching focus from boys to girls. She came out her senior year of high school and is dating sophomore Amy Obarski, her “a-muse-ing” inspiration.

Obarski said it’s flattering to have  songs written about her on the album.

“It’s great when you get a mixed CD from somebody, but when an entire album is inspired by you, it’s very touching,” she said.

Shishmanian usually gives Obarski a few quick kisses in a row when returning from getting her second cup of coffee at lunch every day, or absentmindedly twirls Obarski’s hair while they sit next to each other, fingers intertwined.

Shishmanian takes her inspiration from artist Ingrid Michaelson. She said being accessible while still remaining true to herself is what sets Michaelson apart.

“That’s who I try to perform like,” she said. “Making the audience a part of your show, that’s what music is all about.”

Two weeks ago, on the night she received the shipment of her CDs, Shishmanian performed an acoustic set in IC Square.

Standing off stage, she quickly adjusted her new fedora before picking up her guitar and ambling up to the mic, where she began by introducing herself as an LGBT musician.

Shishmanian sings Monday at the Elks Lodge in Ithaca. Graham Hebel/The Ithacan

As she started to sing, she tapped her clunky work boots as her smoky, powerful voice rang out. She glanced down at her guitar, bobbing her head along to her own rich voice.

Three songs in, she warned the crowd her next song may be funky.

“The Doctors!” someone shouted from the back of the room.

“OK,” she said, changing her line-up to please her fans. “This is ‘The Doctors.’ It is not a funky song.”

Her interaction with the crowd paid off. They laughed, snapping along to the tune.

Shishmanian wants to do gigs. That she makes clear. While she would love to play her music forever as her only job, she admits she’ll probably have to do other work too. Film scoring is her preferred option right now.

Music isn’t something Shishmanian views selfishly. If she can put herself out there, she will. She wants people to relate to her songs.

“I want someone to listen to a song of mine and be like, ‘I feel this way about somebody,’” she said. “Music is what speaks to people.”

“The Right Words for the Wrong People” is available now on iTunes, and at the tc lounge. Shishmanian will play at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Emerson Suites as part of the Benefit Concert for Japan.