Maria Tuadi was in the middle of an emotional breakdown when the chorus to her award-winning song “Still” materialized in her mind.
The alumna’s single “Still” is a 2016 Grand Prize Winner of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest, and received the 2016 Lennon Award for R&B in May. Tuadi said she wrote the song during a time of creative struggle after being diagnosed with arthritis in her fingers, which limited her ability to play the guitar. However, Tuadi applied the skills she learned from studying film at UCLA to begin making music again.
Currently Tuadi is working on original music for an episode from a web series titled “Same Same, but Different” that centers on the lived experiences of Southeast Asian-Americans in the United States.
Growing up, Tuadi mimicked the voices she heard from her mother’s old cassettes, such as Lauryn Hill’s or Toni Braxton’s. She later learned to play the guitar and ventured into songwriting.
“I remember I would play ‘This Will Be’ by Natalie Cole over and over again,” Tuadi said. “Of course that was before it was the eHarmony song.”
In 2009, Tuadi auditioned for The Bricks, a band run by the Los Angeles County’s Human Relations Commission, and was selected as the lead singer of the group. During her audition, riKu Matsuda, who worked for the commission, said he immediately knew he wanted Tuadi as the band’s lead singer.
“I think within probably five seconds of her singing, everyone in the room turned to pay total attention to Maria,” Matsuda said. “I got goosebumps, I think I even said, ‘Wow,’ out loud.”
But during her second year of college, Tuadi was diagnosed with arthritis. As she began to play the guitar less and less, Tuadi said she stepped away from music and, consequently, her motivation to continue songwriting dwindled.
Tuadi said the condition was very painful during flare-ups, making it hard for her to move during the day. Arthritis in her fingers, jaw and arms complicated her ability to perform mundane tasks such as getting dressed in the morning or eating. Since her fingers would lock up in odd angles, it was also hard for her to hold down her guitar’s strings to play a chord.
“I would feel so jealous of the artists who were singing or playing (instruments),” Tuadi said. “It was hard for me to believe in my voice again for a while.”
Shifting more concentration toward her film major helped redirect Tuadi back toward creating music with a renewed strength. By collaborating on film projects with others, Tuadi said she realized that creation did not always have to be a solo journey.
While working on film projects such as her thesis film “Yellow Rice” and a short film titled “Chaos and Control,” Tuadi said she discovered that the best products came from the collective effort of a crew – not from working alone. Tuadi’s concentration in directing lent her a new sense of leadership and confidence, which she utilized to jump back into creating music, she said.
“I thought to myself, ‘Well if I can do that in film, why can’t I do that with music?’” she said. “So I decided to focus more on my voice and songwriting rather than musicianship.”
Tuadi remembers writing “Still” on a day she was feeling particularly unhappy. Although she had entered into remission for her arthritis, the song was a reflection of the emotional struggle that came with the arthritis during college and after graduating.
When the lines “Swinging back and forth through my mind/ Thoughts I never wanted” swam around in her mind, Tuadi stopped crying and immediately started writing the song.
“It was the kind of song that just rushes out of you,” Tuadi said. “After I wrote it I felt a big sense of relief, and I feel fortunate to have had that moment.”
Tuadi produced “Still” with just her voice and sounds from her MIDI player, a device that records and plays back music on digital synthesizers. The song – one of her first recorded without a guitar – was also one of the first Tuadi released that struck a deeply intimate chord, she said.
The lyrics in the song, “Hold me in your arms, in your thoughts, in the present, love,” convey the first instance she had ever asked for help or for someone’s assistance, she said.
Natsha Siri, Tuadi’s roommate who was an ethnomusicology student at UCLA, said the lower range of Tuadi’s voice sets her apart due to its unusual sound compared to most female singers with higher ranges.
“She has a very low and mellow yet strong type of voice,” Siri said. “Something about the timbre and voice quality reaches out to me because it’s rare to find a female singer that has her range.”
Siri, who lived with Tuadi at the time of her diagnosis, also noticed how the diagnosis affected Tuadi’s creativity for some time, she said.
“It was painful to watch her go through that because even though she wouldn’t tell me or show that she was in pain, you could tell she was at a loss of creativity because she was so worried about her body,” she said.
However, Tuadi was able to take all of the self-doubts from her experience with arthritis and turn it into music. Tuadi said she submitted “Still” to the international songwriting contest because she felt it was the song most personal to her and the best display of her musical style.
“It’s crazy how some of the lowest points in your life can bring you to your highest times,” Tuadi said.