Mariah the Scientist is creating her own formula

The former biology major’s intimate, innovative tunes have earned her a slot at Coachella and millions of YouTube views. Now, she's figuring out how to navigate stardom.

Gunner Stahl
Culture

Have you ever found yourself finishing a line to a song that you know you’ve never heard before? You’re not psychic, because over time certain words have become lyrical mainstays, turning the act of listening into a passive role. But you can't predict the lyrics from Mariah the Scientist, a former biology major who has turned herself into a different type of alchemist. “Every now and again when I’m writing a song and I don’t like the word or it’s too basic, I go to google and find some sort of synonym,” she shares over the phone from Atlanta, her hometown. “It’s kind of impromptu and it’s only when I’m really, really stuck.” By testing phrases and finding the right formulas to turn colloquial chit-chat into blistering farewells, her growing discography has already expanded the vocabulary for her listeners to ponder theories on self-destruction, redemption, and mourning a social generation’s apathy to intimacy.

“Initially when I made music, there was no structure. It was just a run-on sentence. If I were to make a metaphor for that science-wise, it would be that my songs were a cell with no cell wall,” she said. “That cell wall keeps everything together and in place. I didn’t really have that, but eventually, I started to come up with some type of structure — so a verse or a hook, another verse, then a hook again.” Over beats reminiscent of quiet-storm but rooted in Atlanta’s distinctly soulful 90s hip-hop, with an R&B lean, her music presents love not simply as a physical feeling that leaves you low or aching for tomorrow, but which compels your brain to recalibrate itself while reeling from grief.

Incidentally, it was the free-falling optimism of a first love that led her into the booth. While she was a freshman at New York’s St. John’s University in 2016, she recorded a playlist for her then-boyfriend. The romance fizzled, but the experience prompted her to pivot away from her dreams of becoming a pediatric anesthesiologist and towards creating tunes that were a salve for her sorrows, and medicine for open-hearted listeners who are fully aware of their own bad habits and toxic traits. In the less than five years since her arrival on the scene, expressive lyricism is undeniably present on her first two albums, Master and RY RY World. It has given Mariah the Scientist, born Mariah Buckles, a supremely lethal edge; one that’s grown sharper with every release.

Appreciating the artist still feels like a secret, even as the public has seemingly grown more conscientious of acknowledging underrated artists. When she announced her latest project, Buckles Laboratories Presents: The Intermission, fans applauded the news — and since its March 11 release, the four-song EP has been an irresistible teaser for her upcoming work.

On The Intermission, the Scientist moves from biting ambivalence to emotional self-deception via “Boys Don’t Cry,” and her tone shifts between controlled and slightly off-kilter on “Church.” Brevity has been a fertile place for her art to thrive, showing an ability to turn universally earnest musings into evocative, otherworldly chaos, even when some tracks barely creep past the two-minute mark. But she doesn’t belt out her songs, leading detractors to question her talent and undermine her vocal agility; they miss the skillful and intuitive ways she lightly lands on each word. Her vocals are feather light in tone with a steel-like force that adds clarity to the tangled aftermath of loving after heartbreak.

Her 2019 debut album Master was widely acclaimed, with lead singles “Beetlejuice” and “Reminders” climbing the charts (they’ve earned more than 2 million and 1 million YouTube views, respectively) and presenting the singer as an avant-garde lyricist with a psychedelic eye for visuals. “Reminders,” particularly, carries the sinister, sexy look of an 80s erotic thriller starring a righteous female heroine. The video is striking and unnerving, even if the concept wasn’t what she initially had in mind. “It was actually meant to be a lot more of a shock factor,” she said. “My biggest film influence is Quentin Tarantino, and his movies are really gritty to me and gruesome. ‘Reminders’ was supposed to be like that.” Master was also her first label-backed project, teaching the Scientist that sometimes an artist’s creative scope can supersede the budget — when that happens, a push and pull inevitably occurs. “You think it might be simple and easy to execute and then you realize that a lot of this stuff has million-dollar budgets,” she continued. “There are times in the process of making art that you end up having to cut corners, especially in the beginning, but you find ways around that.”

The timing release of The Intermission was as much an artistic impulse as it was a reflexive need to quell any rumblings before they began — specifically around her perceived silence. “A lot of times, people assume that if you’re not putting music out then you’re not making music, or you don’t have music to release, which is totally absurd,” she says. “It’s way more political than people think it is as far as releasing music. There’s a lot more logistics and technicalities.” Over the years, artists like Tinashe, Teyana Taylor, and most recently Normani have hopped, twisted, and twirled around such “logistics,” showing the fraught behind-the-scenes dynamic of being at a label’s mercy. They deliver diplomatic responses to inquiries about their upcoming releases — the takeaway being that no matter the talent, the successful track record, or eager fanbase, it’s hard out here for Black women. Two of these artists are now independent, and although Mariah the Scientist is currently signed to RCA, that hasn’t stopped her from expanding her interests and creating her nascent creative hub, aptly named Buckles Laboratories.

“Sometimes the turnover rate on my ideas can be a little bit off,” she says nervously, “but I want [Buckles Laboratories] to be a really big umbrella because I have a lot of ideas.” “I know that whatever I do, I want it to have some relationship to science because I am still very much in love with it and I don’t think that’s ever going to change.” It’s a love that’s incorporated not only in how she envisions her art as separate cells, but also in how she thinks about the melodies that form the architecture of her hits. “Before I dropped out of college, I took this class about how every sound that you hear strikes some sort of chemical reaction in your brain to make you feel some type of way,” she recalled, her words falling into each other as her enthusiasm builds. “That’s why in movies, they play particular songs in the background. If you watch a scary movie with no sound, I guarantee you wouldn’t jump nearly as much. It’s just all science. It literally strikes chords in your brain.”

Two weeks after we spoke, Mariah the Scientist took the stage at Coachella after days of nerves, anticipation, practice, and a search for redemption. “I see on the internet a lot of people telling me that I’m not good at performing,” she says. “It’s not that I’m doing that on purpose and not putting the effort in.” The insular nature of her songs makes it challenging to tap into emotions that are tied to specific experiences that she no longer feels so tightly wrapped up in. “That’s one of my biggest setbacks, because a lot of those songs don't resonate with me anymore.”

She later continues that part of the reason she wants to put out regular work is so she can better relate to her music when singing, and hopefully feel less anxious. “That’s why consistency is so important, because if I can keep up with my own emotions it will just make the art more well-rounded.” It’s an uneasy place to land, when your art is something that pulls you forward but also has the power to keep you tethered to a space you no longer inhabit.

It’s a formula she still needs to tap into, but the effusive online response to her Coachella set seems to show she’s mixing the right ingredients. The missing piece could be more practice, a different perspective on the role of performance, or even Bill Nye the Science Guy. “I met him recently at the Smithsonian [Futures] concert I did and I got the chance to hear him speak and hear his perspective on things,” she said excitedly. “What I think is so special about science is that you can come up with a theory, and if you think about it hard enough from your own perspective, you have the opportunity to come up with an even better theory.” That’s what Mariah the Scientist brings to the stage — new perspectives, braver theories, and more interesting melodies.