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