Bushwick: it’s a place that everyone loves to hate and hates to love. Behind the vast gentrification—upscale dive bars, swanky restaurants, overly colorful homes—and claustrophobic streets of what might be the Brooklyn neighborhood most heavily populated with Manhattan workers, there’s a down-to-earth music scene formed on open mics, a love for jazz, and a need for practice and jam spaces in less hyperactive areas. This magical iteration of Bushwick formed five-piece future-soul band Smoke and Sugar, which released its flirtatiously heated debut EP Mindings on October 6.
Not that frontwoman and de facto bandleader Mariana Quinn-Makwaia didn’t notice the gentrification. After growing weary of what she describes as the “stylish wealthy cocktail drinkers” infiltrating her childhood home of the East Village (where she still lives, for now), Mari, as she’s more commonly known, began to long for the rich artistic community that surrounded her in her formative years. After expanding her search beyond her borough’s boundaries, she discovered that Bushwick was kindly waving her over: “There was just a lot of gold that I picked up on in Bushwick,” the 25-year-old Wesleyan graduate and Suzuki-trained pianist explains.
Even though she had found a new home to call her own, she still needed to step back for a moment. Relief came in the form of a trip to Cuba, but even this temporary escape couldn’t block out a thought she’d been trying to stifle for quite some time: Mari, you need to form yourself a band. She had recently written two songs she was especially proud of—a solo piece titled “Featherless,” the chords for which she plotted on her chromatic accordion, and “Runner (Slow Down),” a collaboration with new friend Brad Morrison—and couldn’t bear to let them sit for much longer. After watching a particularly inspiring performance on her last day in Cuba, she logged onto Facebook Messenger and dropped Brad a line:
“I just saw a rock band in Havana, and it’s my last day in Cuba, and the end of all my musical adventures made me realize I don’t wanna sleep anymore. Would you wanna be in a band with me?”
Though Mari had worried Brad would scoff at her dreams, he said yes instantly. How could he not? The connection these two felt when working on a mutual friend’s summer single transcended that one collaboration. They had already written an entirely separate song together. Why not go the full mile? Thus, Smoke and Sugar was born—well, kind of.
Mari and Brad were going to need at least three more people before their project could be called a band. Sure, they knew they could write simple yet powerful music together, but they were going to need a drummer, keyboardist, and bassist to turn their drafts into finished products. Back to Bushwick Mari went, both physically and in her head; as she mined her fondest memories of the scene, she pulled out memorable figures who might want to be in a band with her.
There was Mike Robinson, a giant of a human whose towering figure and tremendous bass skills didn’t suggest the kind, towering spirit he turned out to be; Lex Nordlinger, the drummer hellbent on using his jazz background to become New York’s best indie rock drummer even though he lived in North Carolina; and a keyboardist whom Mari would determine later. Recruiting Mike and Lex wasn’t hard; like Brad, they too recalled Mari’s magnetic, collaborative personality and room-dominating voice and immediately jumped at the chance to join her band. One Craigslist hunt later, and keyboardist Alex Bradford had rounded out Mari’s project. Now it just needed a name.
But first: shows. Together, Mari and Brad deftly booked the band a handful of gigs at respected neighborhood venues including The Bowery Electric. When it came time to start promoting them, Mari, Brad, Mike, Lex, and Alex realized they’d forgotten maybe the most important part of any band’s brand: its name. Five people from different backgrounds naturally proposed all manner of varied ideas, ranging from the theatrical to the common. The one name that everyone in the band agreed on? Smoke and Sugar.
Their process for choosing the name was a democratic one out of necessity; Smoke and Sugar is about as democratic as bands get. When Mari first envisioned the band during her Havana getaway, she imagined a group of collaborators, of talented musicians who would all write music anyway, even if they weren’t sharing it with other people. She handpicked the artists she would invite into Smoke and Sugar based on this founding pillar; make your own art, feel free to share it with us, we’ll build on it, make it something we all love and took a part in building, give it that unique Smoke and Sugar flavor.
The band’s collaborative backbone supports Mindings, which leaps from the headphones as a collection of diffuse ideas whittled down into four digestible but futuristic beasts of songs. “Runner (Slow Down)” ends in a spasm that aptly fits Mari’s descriptor of “epic,” each member bringing the boldest, biggest runs possible into one explosive space. “Fever Angel” individually adds its burgeoning layers, each one as distinct as it is interdependent on everything around it, until its first verse lands explosively. “Wonderful” hums with ambient influences and psychedelic synths as Mari reaches for the most classically soulful corners of her voice. “Featherless,” the most purely Mariana Quinn-Makwaia song on Mindings, pivots so strongly on its creator’s voice that the other players’ contributions merely dash the music; each member’s role within the band thus comes under a sharp, strong magnifying glass.
Throughout Mindings, Mari sings about difficult lovers, decaying relationships, and distraught moments alone. With her band carrying her through her most intimate recollections, she’s transformed from merely a dreamer to a true believer. She herself would say her songs are simple; the challenge is not believing in Smoke and Sugar right back.