Mak­ing mu­sic with scary dreams

~ Bianca Mu­niz talks mu­sic, fam­ily, and her ex­pe­ri­ences with cancer

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It is rare to de­scribe an artist’s mu­sic as gen­uinely haunt­ing, but Bianca Muñiz’s unique blend of jazz, pop, and rock fits the de­scrip­tion in the best way pos­si­ble. Muñiz, orig­i­nally from New York, is an up-and- com­ing young mu­si­cian work­ing on her de­but al­bum, due for re­lease in June. Her band — com­prised of vo­cal­ist sis­ters Bianca and Jac­que­line Muñiz, bassist Alex Talarico, sax­o­phon­ist Bap­tiste Hor­cholle, and per­cus­sion­ist Michael Ho­j­nacki — is cur­rently on a one-week tour in Mon­treal, with per­for­mances at La Marche à Côté, Le Cag­ibi, and Barfly, where I caught her per­for­mance this Tuesday.

I had met Muñiz and band­mates briefly ear­lier that day, when they performed at CKUT 90.3 FM’S Fund­ing Drive live show at Dis­patch, a cof­fee shop in the Plateau. Im­me­di­ately, I was struck by the warmth they ex­uded as a group. Her per­cus­sion­ist, Michael Ho­j­nacki, with whom I had spo­ken via email ear­lier in the week, seemed to be all smiles, all the time. His en­thu­si­asm for the band’s mu­sic and their fu­ture was con­ta­gious — I was told, by both Bianca and Jac­que­line, that it was his idea to come to Mon­treal for the band’s first in­ter­na­tional tour af­ter he vis­ited the city this sum­mer and fell in love with it. At the time he pro­posed this idea, Bianca Muñiz was in treat­ment for breast cancer, hav­ing un­der­gone a dou­ble mastectomy ear­lier this year at only 22 years old.

This is her sec­ond bat­tle with cancer — the first took place more than ten years ago, when she was 11. She is re­mark­ably open about her ex­pe­ri­ences, writ­ing reg­u­larly on her blog through her che­mother­apy and ac­tively work­ing in ad­vo­cacy for cancer pa­tients and sur­vivors. She dis­cusses the bad days, when she feels she has no agency over her body, and the good, when she can see the end of her dif­fi­cul­ties ap­proach­ing. She even tells her read­ers about the In­sta­gram mes­sage she re­ceived from a guy who wanted to know, “what went wrong on yo chest.” She replied, “cancer,” and promptly blocked him. “Ab­so­lutely noth­ing is wrong with my chest, I am per­fect the way I am,” she writes on her blog. “My chest is a tro­phy of how amaz­ing my body and I are and ev­ery­thing we’ve been through. My chest looks the way it does be­cause the doc­tors saved my life and that’s what had to be done. But I love my chest and the way it looks, my scars are badass and if any­thing, his ques­tion/com­ment made me love my­self even more!”

Through all of these tri­als, Muñiz de­scribes mu­sic as part of her heal­ing process — and while her story and ex­pe­ri­ences are what first drew me to her mu­sic, they are only the be­gin­ning of her artistry. The first thing that strikes you about Muñiz is her sheer tal­ent; the sec­ond is how im­me­di­ately like­able and kind she is. Stand­ing next to her for a pho­to­graph, I jok­ingly said that I was re­ally in­tim­i­dated given her beauty ( she is, un­de­ni­ably, stun­ning) — her re­sponse was to im­me­di­ately com­pli­ment me in re­turn, with the joy and fa­mil­iar­ity of an old friend.

See­ing Bianca, Jac­que­line, and their mother stand­ing side by side, one could not help but be struck by the fam­ily re­sem­blance and bond be­tween them. I imag­ine some artists would loathe to go on tour with their fam­i­lies, but re­main­ing to­gether is a nat­u­ral thing for the Muñiz fam­ily. “I adore my sis­ter,” Bianca says, “I love her so much; I love singing with her, I love hang­ing out with her, and she’s my best friend. This is just nor­mal for us — be­ing able to do what we love, to­gether, all the time, and hav­ing this week ded­i­cated to just that, what more could you ask for?”

On stage, Bianca and Jac­que­line sounded like magic. Bianca was on pi­ano as well as vo­cals, given the ab­sence of their pi­anist, and if you looked care­fully, you no­ticed that per­cus­sion­ist Michael Ho­j­nacki was playing with only one hand. He had men­tioned to me jok­ingly be­fore the show that he had frac­tured his left arm in a hit-and-run in New York; this fact didn’t seem to faze him in the slight­est, and if it com­pro­mised the band’s sound, the au­di­ence cer­tainly didn’t no­tice.

The band has an eerie, in­sis­tent sound — I hadn’t re­ally un­der­stood their self- de­scrip­tion of “avante- pop” un­til I heard them live. As I see it, the band’s sound isn’t nec­es­sar­ily about a genre as much as it’s about a feel­ing. For me, this feel­ing is a bit like run­ning to catch a train that’s leav­ing the sta­tion: ur­gent, quick, full of long­ing and an­tic­i­pa­tion. There is a sense of drama to Muñiz’s mu­sic, con­sis­tently un­der­laid with in­tense per­cus­sion and bass gui­tar, tak­ing breaks only to al­low for lively sax­o­phone so­los. At one point, Ho­j­nacki did a one- handed drum solo; at an­other, bassist Alex Talarico grabbed a drum­stick and played his gui­tar in a man­ner vaguely re­sem­bling a xylophone. It was a sight to be­hold, and cer­tainly not some­thing I’ve seen be­fore.

Lis­ten­ing to the con­tent of Muñiz’s mu­sic, it’s also easy to tell that she was a poet be­fore she be­came a mu­si­cian. My favourite song of the set, and the tit­u­lar song in her 2016 EP, is ti­tled “Scary Dreams.” Muñiz started the song by de­scrib­ing her in­spi­ra­tion for it — she once had a vivid dream that New York was un­der at­tack, and from it was born a chaotic, creepy, in­tense piece of mu­sic. She later told me that she has scary dreams all the time, but this one was a par­tic­u­lar turn­ing point in her song­writ­ing. She woke up with the bass line in her head, and the song it­self is a de­scrip­tion of her dream. She re­calls the ethe­real “pur­ple lights, sparkling lights, shin­ing over my head,” the bloody wa­ter filled with bod­ies, and the feel­ing of free-fall right while New York burned be­hind her. These dreams are a re­cur­ring as­pect of her life, per­haps par­al­lel­ing the imag­ined at­tack of New York to the at­tack of her own body by cancer but this dream stood out to her, and grew into some­thing beau­ti­ful.

Muñiz’s ex­pe­ri­ences with cancer and the de­bil­i­tat­ing ef­fects of che­mother­apy haven’t di­min­ished her am­bi­tions in the slight­est—if any­thing, they have lit a fire within her to go even fur­ther. “Hon­estly,” she says, “I feel like cancer and the treat­ment has had a re­ally pos­i­tive im­pact on my mu­sic. I feel like it was a real turn­ing point in the way I sing, the way I write and per­form.” She goes on to de­scribe how the mean­ing of her mu­sic of­ten dawns on her af­ter the lyrics and sound have al­ready come alive. “This is the first song I’ve writ­ten that is ac­tu­ally about my­self,” she says, speak­ing of a new sin­gle to be re­leased in De­cem­ber, which is about her ex­pe­ri­ence with cancer. “I’m fi­nally al­low­ing the dark side of ev­ery­thing that’s hap­pen­ing to come out, but in a pos­i­tive way—to ex­plain how it re­ally feels. I don’t see that a lot, and this ex­pe­ri­ence has helped that hap­pen.”

Muñiz’s pos­i­tiv­ity is dis­arm­ingly gen­uine, espe­cially for some­one who has had to ex­pe­ri­ence cancer twice be­fore she’s even 25. Her blog speaks to her bad days as well, the days when chemo is par­tic­u­larly rough and she ques­tions why this has to hap­pen to her, why her body is out­side of her con­trol. But her band—her fam­ily—seems to pro­vide a cru­cial sup­port sys- tem through dif­fi­cult times. “We are lit­er­ally fam­ily — we love each other! We un­der­stand that some­times we’re go­ing to step on each oth­ers’ toes, but we have so much fun to­gether; our per­son­al­i­ties and the ways we in­ter­act to­gether are so im­por­tant to me.” She pauses for a moment. “Maybe even more im­por­tant than the mu­sic, be­cause it re­ally im­pacts how we’re go­ing to play to­gether.”

Muñiz’s ca­reer is at its early stages, but the band-fam­ily has big plans for the fu­ture. Muñiz ad­mits to the fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties of tour­ing with the band, but this doesn’t dampen her spir­its. Cur­rently, she mostly per­forms around New York, will be work­ing on some new tracks in the stu­dio through­out Novem­ber, and plan­ning a tour for next year. Un­til now, Muñiz may have sung about the an­tic­i­pa­tion of wait­ing for life to be­gin, but it’s clear that her ad­ven­ture is al­ready un­der­way.

“My chest is a tro­phy of how amaz­ing my body and I are and ev­ery­thing we’ve been through.” –Bianca Muñiz

“I’m fi­nally al­low­ing the dark side of ev­ery­thing that’s hap­pen­ing to come out, but in a pos­i­tive way.” –Bianca Muñiz

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