THE INAUGURAL VOCALMUSICIAN INTERVIEW
by Dawn! E. Robinson
Jazz/funk singer-songwriter, MAYSA has had two high-profile gigs - as backup singer with the legendary STEVIE WONDER and as "the voice" of British jazz/funk band, Incognito - before venturing out into a solo career. I sang with MAYSA for seven years and have always considered her to be one of the most underrated singers in the music industry. This interview was taped at the beginning of July 2002 as MAYSA was expecting the release of her third album, OUT OF THE BLUE, and preparing for her fourth return to Blues Alley in Washington DC...
D!: Do you remember the first time you sang in public?
M: In public? Um... no I don't.
D!: Were you very young?
M: The first time I sang in public, I believe I was like seven years old.
D!: Wow! Do you remember what you sang?
M: "Evergreen" [by Barbra Streisand]
D!: Really? Oh cool... Did family members of yours sing or were you the only one?
M: Both my mother and father sang. My mother has a beautiful voice. She was going to sing professionally. When she had her first gig in a club, she laid her dress out and took a nap but her aunt never woke her up, so she missed the gig.
D!: Oh my gosh!
M: And she never sang again after that. But she should have.
D!: Did you study voice before you went to Morgan [State University in Baltimore, MD]?
M: Before I went to Morgan? Yes, in high school. In high school I did a lot of musical theatre and I was also in choir.
D!: Did you have a private teacher?
M: No, I didn't have a private teacher.
D!: And in your high school, what kind of music did the choir do?
M: Mostly show tunes.
M: Yea. That's all I really remember doing is the show tunes.
M & D!: [Laughs]
D!: Let's talk a little about your time at Morgan State. Who did you study voice with?
M: I studied with Betty Ridgeway.
D!: And were you a voice performance major?
M: Yes. Vocal Performance.
D!: So, you had to do juries and -
M: Oh, my gosh, that was so hard! [Laughs] Juries just made you feel like you were going to jail. It was like skip the jury, you just get jail time. It was like going before the parole board. [Laughs] That's what it really felt like.
D!: [Laughs] Exactly. What was the worst jury you did. I mean, you were prepared and -
M: OH! The worst jury I did, I prepared "Summertime" like I was LEONTYNE [PRICE] and I did a jazz inflection at one point - I didn't realize I did it, now - but when I did it, the teachers looked at me like I had stabbed their children! [Laughs] I was like, "What did I do?" and they were like, "You can't do jazz inflections in 'Summertime' - this is classical!" Oh my gosh, it made me so nervous, I had to sit down. I was so sick after it. I thought, you know what? I am never gonna sing classical music.
M & D!: [Laughs]
M: That's when I decided I would never sing classical.
D!: What singers did you listen to growing up?
M: I listened to every pop singer on the radio or MTV; OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN and people like that in the beginning. GREASE was my all-time favorite movie. And I actually sat in the movie theatre - me, my cousins and my brothers - we sat in the movie theatre and watched it all day long for thirteen days consecutively! Our parents were glad to get rid of us, so they let us go. And we sat there all day for thirteen days in a row - I don't know how many times that is, but we saw it all day long.
M & D!: [Laughs]
D!: So, you saw the same movie, GREASE, all day long?
M: The same movie over and over and over again. And this was back in the day when they'd let you sit in the movie all day long if you wanted to. Now, they kick you out.
D: When did you start listening to jazz?
M: At 12 years old, there was a breakthrough it seems like. My uncle was tired of me listening to "all that junk" and he said, "Why don't you listen to this man named AL JARREAU." There was a concert coming on this PBS station and when I heard what [Al Jarreau] was doing, I just lost my mind! I was like, "Oh, now I wanna do that!" I asked my uncle what that was called and my uncle said "scatting". So, when I was 12 years old, I started scatting and trying to learn about it. Then I starting getting into BILLIE HOLIDAY, really deeply. And I studied her for years and years and years. Then SARAH VAUGHAN and CARMEN McRAE and everybody that came with that. You know, once you start getting into the jazz world, then you wanna listen to everybody.
D!: So, your uncle had a large record collection then?
M: Oh yes! And he still does.
D!: For the sake of singers who are studying classical voice who are reading this interview, do you remember any arias that you did at Morgan?
M: Oh my gosh. The names of them? No. I know I did the "Seguidilla" from Carmen and the "Seven Spanish Songs" of Manuel de Falla. I did so many, but I can't remember the names of them now. And they're all in my books at home - I still have all the books.
D!: And you went on tour with the Morgan State choir?
M: Oh yes! That was really my major. My major was really choir. [Laughs]
D!: And you went to Africa on the tour?
M: Yes, East Africa. What happened was the government wanted to send a choir to Africa on a goodwill ambassadorship kind of thing. They were worried about the cost of sending so many people, so Dr. [Nathan] Carter got it in his mind to show them that he could break the choir down into smaller and smaller units and still get the same type of sound. And so, he started with 60 people, went down to 40, went down to 20, went down to 14 or 15 people. Then he went to six people. I was one of the six and I was representing the jazz section of the program. We had two gospel singers, two classical singers, I was jazz and one guy was Broadway. We ran the gamut to show off the different styles.
D: You told me once about a talent show that you did that TONI BRAXTON and TRACY HAMLIN were also in.
M: It's called the Randy Dennis Best Fest. It was a weekly thing where they totally exploited talent in Baltimore 'cause you sang for free. It was a big thing back then. I was in it with Toni Braxton and Tracy Hamlin. We used to sit up there and joke and laugh about stuff and we were all really tight back then. So anyway, Tracy won the contest and left me and Toni there looking crazy.
M & D!: [Laughs]
D: For the sake of people reading this who know your voice, but maybe don't know your story, talk about what happened after you left Morgan - how you got the Stevie Wonder gig, for instance...
M: A girlfriend of mine who had been in the Morgan choir had left school to be in a girl group in California and the girl group didn't work out. Then she was singing for Miki Howard one day and a guy asked her if she wanted to audition for Stevie Wonder. And she was like, "Shut up 'cause he's my hero, so don't lie." [Laughs] But he told her where Stevie was holding auditions and she went and got the gig. And after she had been out there for awhile, Stevie was looking for more singers, so she called me and said she wanted me to audition for him. Then Stevie came to Baltimore for a Martin Luther King celebration and the [Morgan] choir was singing.
When I auditioned for him the first time, he was playing these intricate harmonies where he had her sing a certain melody and me sing a counter-melody to that. And he only taught it to you one time. And underneath he was playing this kind of... modal thing. It was hard. And I was like, "You know what? Is this really worth it?" [Laughs] I was really nervous. But he made it fun. He was serious at some points and made me nervous and I think he was enjoying that. But then he turned really cool. He said he wanted me to work on some things which I did and the second audition he said, "You got the gig, baby."
D!: Very cool. And with Stevie, you were featured on the Jungle Fever soundtrack.
M: I got out there just in time to do that. Actually the first audition I had with Stevie, I hadn't finished school yet. And when I did the second audition, I had one year left. And after my parents had sacrificed so much, I asked him if I could finish school first. I know most people are like the hell with that, they would have dropped everything. But I wanted to finish and get my degree... in choir [Laughs] and voice and move on with my life clean and free, so I wouldn't be worrying about the fact that I had dropped out. I'm glad I did it that way. It gave me some kind of foundation.
D!: What did you sing on Jungle Fever?
M: I sang the ending part on "I Go Sailing" - I had a little solo - [Sings: I go sailing - I go sailing]
D!: I remember that part - I remember hearing it on the CD.
M: And also "These Three Words." That was the first time I heard myself on the radio! And I could really hear my voice and I was just shaking - that's an amazing feeling!
D: I love that song "These Three Words" - do you remember what part you sang?
M: [Sings: These three words - sweet and simple - these three words - short and kind] When he gave me that part I went in the corner and sang it about three thousand times [Laughs] 'til the other people came to sing theirs! And he was like "Maysa! Shut up! You got the part! Now, shut up!" [Laughs] And I was like [Sings: These three words - these three words - these three words - these three words] I was scared to death because the other singers - you know, they were tripping, trying to make me mess up on purpose. And they should remember that and I'm gonna tell the truth. So, if they've got a problem they can call me.
M & D!: [Laughs]
D: Now, how did you get the Incognito gig?
M: I was chasing down a British producer named Steve Harvey who I was doing demos for in L.A. and he owed me some money. And he said, "Maysa, I don't have the money, but I have this gig for you." [Laughs] He said that his best friend, Bluey, had a band in England named Incognito and they were looking for an American singer. And next thing I knew Bluey called me and I was singing over the phone and they called the next day and told me to come to London!
D: Wow! The next day!
M: Yep, the next morning!
D: Did you get to write anything while you were with Incognito?
M: Uh... NO!
M & D!: [Laughs]
D: Did you want to?
M: It would have been nice, but I wasn't asked, you know what I'm sayin'? [Laughs] It was pretty much Bluey's baby. He had the control.
D: How long were you with Incognito?
M: About... Well, it was an off and on thing, so totally 10 years.
D: Wow! That's a long time. And pretty much, people know you as "the voice of Incognito."
D: Now, how did your solo career get started?
M: My solo career got started when I was with Incognito at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland. And Carl Griffin - who is now president of my record label - was vice president of A&R at GRP Records and he came to the show at the North Sea Jazz Festival. We had something like 15,000 people in the JVC Room, which was the largest room they had at the festival, and they were going crazy for us. And he came to the gig and told me that the GRP people wanted Incognito but he thought if they had me, that would be great. So, they gave me a solo deal.
D: And the first album was called...
M: MAYSA. Just Maysa.
D: "Can We Change The World" was on that CD. I remember a gig we did at SOB's in New York and the people started singing along with you on "Can We Change The World." Can you describe what that felt like, hearing people sing along on a song that you wrote?
M: It's a great feeling, especially on something you wrote yourself. When people are singing along, it's like, Oh my gosh, they know my song! It's a great feeling - more special than I can even say.
D: And the second album was...
M: ALL MY LIFE
D: And on All my Life, you decided to do an aria. What made you want to do that?
M: I wanted to pay some kind of tribute to what I had learned all those years ago. And I just had a feeling that people would start doing classical on their records and I wanted to be one of the first.
D: When will your new CD come out?
M: July 30. 
D: And what's the title?
M: OUT OF THE BLUE
D: And this time you recorded the whole thing here in the US, right?
M: Yep. My first 100% made in America - I should have put that on the cover.
M & D!: [Laughs]
D: How was the recording experience different from your previous CDs that were done in London?
M: This time was different because I was under more pressure to choose the right songs, write the right songs and make sure that the things that I wanted in the production were there. Pretty much, Bluey [from Incognito] on my last record, All My Life - I was so used to working with him - I'd come to do my parts and or I'd ask if I could do this or that and it was so much easier. This time I had alot more input in doing the record and also alot more responsibility. It was just a different feeling because I was so used to Bluey doing everything. I guess he kind of babied me in a way. It just felt different - it seemed like hard work this time.
D: You had more to do this time -
M: Yea, I had alot more to do.
D: Okay - judging from your website, Maysa.com, you're really excited about your new CD. Can you elaborate on your excitement. Because every time I've visited I've seen something where you wrote, "My new CD is the bomb!" [Laughs] So, how is this CD different from your first two?
M: This CD is different because it's funkier - I approached it differently - I wanted this CD to be funkier but more American funkier. My earlier stuff had alot of British influence and this album I wanted to be like a classic 70s album; as close as I can get. But not trying to sound like everybody doing this "neo-soul" sound. I didn't want it to sound like that - I wanted it to sound like the original stuff. That's what I tried to achieve and I think I got pretty close.
D: And your producer was...?
M: Rex Rideout. He's worked with everybody... ANGIE STONE... I mean everybody - mostly jazz acts like WILL DOWNING. He's even done music for Poke-Mon, he's done alot of stuff. He's a great producer.
D: And who were some of the cats playing on the CD?
M: Wow - I had "Wah Wah" Watson, Paulinho da Costa, Mike White - he's a cousin of the Earth Wind & Fire guys. In fact he used a snare drum that Verdine White [of EW&F] gave him that he used on Steely Dan and alot of other recordings. "Wah Wah" Watson got so excited about the music, that everyday he would say, "Maysa, I'm going down in the basement." And he would come back everyday with something from the 1960s. He brought his original "talking box", I mean the tube was yellow, it was so old. And he did some great stuff with that. Will Downing is on the record, Peter White, Ronnie Jordan, Wayne Bruce. So many people.
D: How many songs did you write or co-write this time?
M: I only wrote or co-wrote four or five songs this time. My first record I wrote six, the second record I wrote nine. And this time, I chose - I was enjoying the tunes I was getting and there were some tunes that I was waiting to do for a long time. So, instead of trying to write - well, most people want to write everything because they wanna make money. But I figured, I'll still make money. I just wanted to get some great tunes on the record.
D: Which songs did you write this time?
M: I wrote "Blue Horizon", "Mr. So Damn Fine", "Out of the Blue", "Osaka"
D: When you're writing, do you have a set formula? Like do you get an idea, or does the melody come first or what?
M: You know what? It seems like the melody and the lyrics come at the same time. It's a wierd thing. Like for "Out of the Blue", I was lying in the hospital bed in Osaka, Japan after having my son. I was in a dark situation - I had just had the emergency C section and I was in alot of pain and I was worried about the baby 'cause he only weighed two pounds and... literally, the words to "Out of the Blue" came to me like a ticker tape running across my brain. [Laughs] In order to calm myself down, I started singing, [Sings: Out of the blue - into my heart - wasn't expecting you so soon - but I'm so glad you're here - in my life - now everything is gonna be alright.] I kept singing that over and over and wrote the rest of the song on the day I recorded it.
D: Obviously "Out of the Blue" came out of your own experience. But does all of your writing come out of your experience or does anything else give you an idea or...?
M: I've kinda been selfish about that. Everything comes from my own experience. I haven't really written - you know what? The funny thing is that I write from my own experiences but alot of people relate to it.
D: Alot of recording artists have songs brought to them that maybe they didn't like, but maybe the record company liked it or the producer liked it and they recorded it and it became a huge hit and they had to sing it every night! [Laughs] Did anything like that every happen to you?
M: "Deep water"!!! [Laughs] I don't ever wanna sing the song again! [Laughs] And I loved that song when it first came out. When I first recorded it I felt like, "Ooo, I'm gonna be a star!" That kind of thing. But after nine thousand six hundred and seventy-two times I'm like [sighs: deep water, I'm drowning in this song!] [Laughs] Now, it's like, oh my gosh!!!
D! & M: Not AGAIN!!! [Laughs]
M: Sometimes I'll be racing offstage to keep from singing the song!
M & D!: [Laughs]
D: We did one gig though in Pennsylvania when nobody asked for it.
M: Yea, I KNOW!!! [Laughs]
D!: And it was like the first time ever that nobody in the audience was screaming for "Deep Water" all night. [Laughs] Now for the sake of singers reading this who have never had studio experience, what would you say is different for you in the studio as opposed to singing live?
M: In the studio you get to do it over and over and over and over until you get it right. Live - I'm so crazy - it's alot more pressure live. The studio is easier to me for some reason. I'm more chilled out - it's all about taking your time and doing it the way you want to. But then, live gives you an energy and a feeling - that instant feedback from people is awesome.
D: Now, you're about to do three nights at Blues Alley in DC which is a pretty small club. Do you have a preference in the venues you play? Do you prefer larger venues to smaller venues or does it matter?
M: I like larger venues only because I can get my whole band onstage. And because I can get more people in the room. Other than that I like small venues 'cause I can get closer to people and make eye contact and laugh and joke and be close to them. Alot of big places, everybody is so far away that you feel no vibe and it feels like you're working. In smaller places, I don't feel like I'm at work.
D: Overall, do you think too much focus is placed on image and not enough on music or actual talent and ability of the singer?
M: Oh yes, 100%. It's been like that since I can remember and I'm wondering if it's ever gonna change. I used to hope and pray that it would change. But I haven't experienced anything like that changing. It's just all about being pretty. And you know, everybody wants to be beautiful. You know... I guess, the people who are in charge of all this - I guess that's what they want. I guess when the people in charge wanna look at fat people, then it will be different.
M & D!: [Laughs]
D: But some of the people who are put up there as being pretty aren't necessarily pretty.
M: Now, that's the truth.
D: I mean, they do alot of airbrushing and things to make these people look whatever - but if you really take a good look at them, they're not really that cute.
M: But it doesn't matter. If they think they have the potential to make money, then they'll go with that person. They don't care.
D: I think of you in the same way that I think of - say, RACHELLE FERRELL. You guys are kind of on a fringe of the success track. There are alot of people who know who you are; who know your voices; who know your songs and will pay whatever and travel however far to hear you. And yet, on the bigger picture or the larger scale, you mention Maysa or Rachelle and people say, "Who?"
M: I know! That really trips me out. But I think I'm getting used to it - actually I don't wanna get used to it. I wanna keep fighting it.
D: Do you have any routines or regiments that you would like to share with the singers who are reading this? How you keep your voice healthy and in shape, especially when your schedule is crazy and you've got baby and family stuff and you're on the road and have to run around.
M: Pretty much, you have to get no less than seven hours sleep a night - somehow, a solid seven hours of sleep. When I was on tour with Incognito and we had back-to-back shows every night, we would get back on the tour bus every night and I didn't do much socializing - they called me anti-social many times. [Laughs] But they didn't understand I had to protect my voice. If they wanted me to sing the next night, they needed to leave me alone.
M: So... I'd get on the bus and I'd pretty much - I might watch a movie or something; maybe laugh and joke with them for a little while, but I wouldn't over-extend my voice after the gig. I would pretty much whisper or just be quiet or you know... or go to my room, basically, and go to sleep. I make sure I've eaten a good meal before I go to bed.
D: Are there any foods that you avoid when you're performing?
M: You know, I'm so trifling. I don't avoid nothing. Isn't that crazy? People are always saying, "Why are you eating that cream or -
D: Well, you know, some singers can eat whatever. Sarah Vaughan was known to be able to eat huge meals and get right up from the table and do a show.
M & D!: [Laughs]
M: I know! Well, I tried that one time and I will never embarrass myself like that again! [Laughs] That was hard!
M & D!: [Laughs]
D: But some people can do it - they can eat, stay up late, hang out with the band and drink 'til two or three in the morning...
M: No, I can't do it. I have to go to sleep and I have to eat. If I eat and sleep, I can sing the next day. Like - my voice can be raw the night before, but if I sleep like seven hours and I eat really well the next day, it comes right back.
D: Did you ever have an experience where you had to sing and then, all of a sudden, some virus or whatever hit you and sat right in your throat, and you only had a day or two to get it together?
M: I've actually known singers who've gotten steroid injections. [Laughs]
D: Ouch... ouch!
M: I went to the hospital with them to get steroids injections so their muscles would loosen up -
D: Where would they get the shot?
M: I don't know - I didn't go in where they were with the doctor. But I guess they got it in the neck to loosen that muscle... OH!!! It would kill me!
D: I can't imagine.
M: I'd just be whispering. [Laughs] I'd do whatever I could but I would never get steroids.
D: For singers who aren't necessarily going into classical music, do you think it's important for singers as a whole to have a background in classical music - either private lessons or in a choral setting?
M: I definitely think that all singers should have a classical background. That's my opinion. I know alot of people are like, "Oh yea, yea, whatever." But I think that training is so important at this point in life. I think we've seen enough mediocrity. We've seen enough of the people who are wanna-be and tryin' to be and not enough people who are; who have the know-how and who have the background. Sure, there are plenty of people who naturally "have it" but I think that even if you naturally have it, you should get the training for the discipline. Discipline is key for getting you ready for other things in life that you'll have to deal with besides the singing.
D: You mentioned your parents earlier; the sacrifices they made and how you wanted to finish school, etc. Did you want to say anything more about your parents and their influence on your life as a whole or their influence on your music. Your father in particular - I know you were Daddy's girl.
M: Oh absolutely! Well, my father's passed now, but growing up, my parents taught me about love and compassion, hard work. They taught all of us about commitment to what you're doing. And how to be good at what you're doing so that people will want you back. Also, to have compassion for people. Everybody loved my parents - everybody loved my parents. Recently I went to a car dealership and the man saw my name was Leak and asked if I was related to Mayso Leak and when I said, "Yes", the man almost started crying. But people loved my father, people love my mother. They were great people and they taught me to love people.
As far as music, my mother played "Early In the Morning" by the Gap band every day of my life - that's what we got up to every morning! I guess that's why I love the Gap band. [Laughs] That was our song to get up to. She didn't knock on the door, she didn't call you. It was that song every morning. [Sings: So I gotta get up!] And we were all like, "Okay we're up." That was our song to get up to. So, that's how I learned about music. My father was singing around the house. My mother was singing around the house. Music was played all the time. Every experience had music.
My dad would encourage me. I'd be in the bathroom singing and I would think I was by myself in the area. And then, all of a sudden, I could hear him say, "Sing it, baby!" and I was like "Daddy!!!" [Laughs] He would encourage me, but he'd also embarrass me doing that. He was very encouraging.
D: Did he get to see you perform before he passed away?
M: Yes, he got to see me here at Blues Alley with Incognito. I remember that night very well - he was all dressed up and it was all so nice.
D: I understand some changes are being made to your website?
M: Oh yea! More Flash!!!
D: More flash?
M: More flash! [Laughs] More flashy and I'm adding lyrics to all of my albums... I'll have a section called "The History of Jazz" about my son... Merchandise! Yes!!! T-shirts and stuff! A fitness page... A lot of good stuff - alot of fun stuff... Also, multimedia! Song samples and videos.
D: Will this just be stuff from the new album?
M: Stuff from Incognito, from all the videos I've ever done. You know, people don't even know I've done videos. I've done like eleven videos.
D: We definitely want everybody to go to Maysa.com... Well, thank ya, Ms. Maysa!
M: Thank ya, dahlin'!
D: Anything else you'd like to say to the readers of our new VocalMusician magazine?
M: This is a great great magazine! I can't wait 'til it comes out - this is awesome. Ms. Dawn is on the case!
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