By Madison DeLaere
A gold hoop dangles from his ear; a mop of hair hangs over his closed eyes; anguished lyrics come roaring out of his mouth; he is no longer the innocent kid on your TV. Briston Maroney has changed since his American Idol days — he’s still the same talented kid, but with a more distinct and developed look and sound. In November, the Nashville-based musician released his latest record, a five-track EP titled Carnival. It features three singles distributed in the months prior, as well as two new tunes “Hard to Tell” and “Rose.”
Over the past two years, Maroney has honed in on sharpening his own style. His grungy, relaxing, and twangy indie-rock sound possesses an entrancing balance. His songs stay crisp and bright despite the heavy, grungy guitar; his chord progressions are simple and delicate but build up with immense noise and vigor. The musician launched an EP titled Big Shot in 2017, three years after his TV audition, starting a new chapter of his career, with the hit track “June,” which garnered over 500,000 streams on Spotify.
Briston Maroney began December with his New York debut, taking the stage at Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right, opening for the indie-pop band Arlie in his first round of shows after being signed to CanvasBack Music, the record label that boasts acts like Grouplove and alt-j. Although he was the opening act, an active audience crowded the room for his 8 pm set. In the years following his American Idol stint, Maroney built an online following that now extends all the way from Nashville, Tennessee to New York City. The four walls of the stage room confined the crowd: sweating, shoulder to shoulder, and in awe — Briston was already belting.
The singer-songwriter croons, purrs, and groans, focusing on the core of each song, starting with the melody. But it doesn’t stop there. His guitar and a full band back up his vocals. His set highlighted Carnival, his new five-track EP that features an eclectic, brash sound that is straightforward and emotional. The EP reveals the contradictory range of his style and voice — a captivating combination of both playful and serious attitudes.
The standout track on the EP and the first single to be released, “Freakin’ Out on the Interstate,” encapsulates the capabilities of his musicianship and artistry. The music video, published on YouTube in March — directed by Joey Brodnax and shot by Drew Bauml — only enriches the song’s emotional resonance. It starts with Brodnax instructing Maroney: “I want you to take 3 short breaths followed by one really long one, and then hold it for as long as you can. Here we go,” and the guitar comes in.
The video includes nine clips of Maroney, some portraying symbolic acts of different ages — in one he spins on a tire swing, in another he’s shaving in the bathroom. The video highlights the in-between space of early adulthood that haunts all of Maroney’s music. This liminal space confuses all thought of stability; you’re floating; you feel a bit crazy. Videographer Bauml says, “I think this video proves that ‘crazy’ is something everyone should have in themselves.”
Bauml injects a vulnerability into the video with closely shot portraits of Maroney. He sits looking directly into the camera, in front of a rosy peach backdrop. He holds his breath, he cries, and he laughs. The emotionally intuitive lyrics accompany delicate riffs and dampened, rugged chord progressions. Maroney poetically captures the muddled definitions and confusing phase of early adulthood in the chorus:
I’m sorry I haven’t been myself / And something’s got me down / What it is, I cannot tell / I won’t be satisfied with anything I’ve earned / Fear is just a part of love / And one thing I found / Is love is what you deserve
The rest of Carnival is fraught with the same themes and styles. “Hard to Tell” contains rough, raw and straightforward sounds with simple chords and rock drums. Upbeat and brighter, “I’ve Been Waiting” uses catchy, vibrant guitar to satisfy any indie-pop fan who loves to dance. Maroney’s punchy ode to classic rock comes from “Under My Skin,” full of pent-up vocals that come bursting through after hesitant chords build. The EP closes with “Rose,” a slow lullaby with gorgeous chord progressions, ending the record with moody guitar and lyrics that round out the EP as a whole, “The carnival’s closed / they’re packing up all the lights / and who thought this love / would last beyond summertime.”
The passion and intensity of Maroney’s music emerged from his live performance of the EP, creating a palpable energetic response from the audience. The room was full from the stage to the raised bar platform — charged with electric energy, the heat of the air, and the urge to dance. Carnival’s reflection on the transience of youth encourages fierce headbanging, an involuntary stomp of the foot, and the uncanny parallel between a freak show and your early twenties, a connection all too real.
Listen to Carnival HERE
Watch the video for “Freakin’ Out on the Interstate” HERE