There’s an element of surprise that surrounds Maria Belle-Skinner and it does not reveal itself until after she speaks into the microphone.
“This song is called Siren Song,” she says, standing alone in the middle of Skyloft’s expansive stage. She’s in front of a crowd waiting to hear her and three other bands ranging in sound from alternative-rock to funk and groove. Diminutive and sporting a close crop haircut around a babyface that would compel any bouncer to card her, she appears better suited for a coffeehouse. Then she says, “It’s about a mermaid who kills people.”
Belle-Skinner is a Troy-native who now splits time between the Capital District and Brooklyn. She possesses a dark sense of humor, a keen ability as a songwriter and a beautiful soprano voice. She continues to captivate the crowd with an angelic voice as she covers Sufjan Stevens’ “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” a song inspired by the infamous serial killer.
“Those songs are similar in terms that there’s a bad character, said Belle-Skinner, “but in the Sufjan Stevens’ song — the last line ‘I am really just like him’ — we all have that dark potential within ourselves. And, the ‘Siren Song’ that’s more of an allegory of being afraid of commitment, of always hurting people without intending to, really. I used to introduce that song — I keep it short now — that it’s more about a mermaid who falls in love with her victims. But, every time, she kills them and she can’t help it. She hopes it’s going to be different this time, but it doesn’t work out.”
Belle-Skinner is not a coffeehouse singer. She was awarded a Maguire Fellowship in her senior year at Vassar in 2013. She used the award to study music production in London, where she recorded her first EP, titled “Operator.” Two years later, she was a finalist at the Telluride Troubadour Competition, a national songwriter competition exclusive to independent musicians. Past winners include Dan Sheridan, Gregory Alan Isakov and Greensky Bluegrass. Throughout her career, she has performed at venues like The Linda, Rocky Mountain Folks Festival and the Roundhouse Theatre in London.
“What first got me to writing songs was learning covers in college,” said Belle-Skinner. “I started by learning Iron and Wine — that’s where the finger-picking came from. I took a semester of classical guitar in college as well. That’s why I have people telling me I have good technique. [Laughs.]”
Belle-Skinner picked up her Danelectro guitar while studying in London. She was initially attracted to the shape and its orange color. Someone noted its vintage look despite a holographic silver pickguard. Though the name of the guitar dates back to the late 1940s, this particular model was made this century. She’s its third owner, and she intends to keep it, she said.
Just as her guitar has been passed around, Belle-Skinner is a bit cosmopolitan. Born in Troy, she lived in Queens, Albany and Brooklyn before graduating high school. She went to school in Poughkeepsie, lived in London and her parent’s homeland of Russia, before coming back stateside. She provides a hint of this timeline as she introduces another song, peeling away another shroud of her mystery.
“When I play solo, I say it’s dark, nostalgic indie-folk,” said Belle-Skinner. “It’s nostalgic, but there’s also this darkness to it. Dark humor or something beautiful, yet dark. I don’t know how else [to describe it]. Sinister, maybe.”
You can find Belle-Skinner perform again at Opalka Gallery’s Pop-up Beer Garden on Friday, Sept. 13, at 6 p.m.