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INTERVIEW: Maiysha Talks About Her Definition Of ‘Soul’

16/08/2010

Grammy-nominated songstress Maiysha blew me, and many others away with her debut album This Much Is True. 2 years after it’s release, and following a hectic touring schedule, Maiysha decided to shun the studio in favour of heading to the world famous Blue Note and recording a live album as her follow up. With an interesting mix of covers and takes on her own material, Undercover has raised the bar for both live performance and the often overdone cover version. You can check out my review of the album here, then check out what Maiysha has to say below.

First of all thanks for taking the time out to answer these questions, I guess things must be a little hectic with the new album release?

Well…yes and no.  Because this was a live album, and an album of covers at that, most of the work and emphasis was on making it, so things are actually starting to (thankfully) slow down again now!

Your debut album This Much Is True led to a Grammy nomination, for the track ‘Wanna Be’, a huge achievement for a debut, especially on an indie label. How did that feel?

Obviously, it’s a tremendous honor to be validated by the Recording Academy for my very first single. If I never record another song, I’ll be a “Grammy-nominated artist” for the rest of my life.  That said, it definitely raises the bar, and the expectations…not least of all, my own.  The Grammys were an incredible, wonderful, surreal experience, but when I returned home, I was still an independent artist facing the same issues every indie artist faces…not the least of which is how to keep moving forward in a turbulent industry on limited resources.

The new album Undercover is, as the title suggests, an album of cover versions. Why did you decide to take this route rather than an album of original material?

This album is, at its heart, an offering to my fans and supporters. One of my biggest frustrations as an indie artist has been not having the resources to tour and perform for the people across the world who have shown so much love and support for what I do. As I continue to perform and write new material, I draw on a lot of my early influences, including my jazz background, which is all about interpretation. As a result, covers have increasingly made their way into my live shows, and I’ve become a better vocalist for it.  This album was really an amalgamation of that, and a vehicle through which I could bring my live show to places I haven’t been able to reach yet.  Not to worry…there will be more original material coming out. A lot has happened in the past two years since I released “This Much Is True:” – professionally and personally. I want to take time to write about it honestly and with as much as much integrity as possible.

Your debut covered numerous genres, from soul and rock through to drum n bass. Undercover also sees you tackle music from across the spectrum, was this a conscious decision or did it just happen that way?

The songs and/or artists I covered on “Undercover” have all been very strong influences on me as a writer and performer.  It would be an understatement to say that I’ve been difficult to categorize…at least in the lexicon of American music.  Despite clearly being having an “urban” perspective, I’m also frequently described as “genre-defying”, which I’d agree with. This project allowed me to give more context to who I am as an artist, which is…consistently unpredictable!

How did you pick the cover versions?

Several of the covers were songs I’d been covering in live performance during the 6-8 months to the recording…others were songs I’d been wanting to do for years.  All of them resonated with me for some reason…which I often had no explanation for, but no matter how much I love a song, I have a rule about covers: I don’t attempt it if I don’t think I can bring something new to it. Whether it’s a contemporary song or a jazz standard, I approach every cover the same. Because I’m a writer, I look at a song lyrically first. There are songs I love melodically that I won’t sing because the lyrics don’t resonate with me.  Next is the musical approach – is the song malleable – can it be anything other than what it is already is?  Can it tell a new, or deeper story than the one seemingly on the surface? Am I capable of telling that story?  So, it’s a very thoughtful process, and one I really enjoy, because it’s wholly creative and challenging in an entirely different way than composing is.

After hearing your music I think it comfortably sits under the very broad umbrella of what can be termed ‘soul’ music. I noticed on the album you have chosen to pretty much avoid soul music. Was this done intentionally, and if so why is that?

I don’t know if I’d agree with that. Despite the fact that the songs I chose to cover may not fall under what would traditionally be categorized as “soul music”, I think soul is what you bring to a song, not how the song is written.  Al Green singing “How Do You Mend A Broken Heart?” is most definitely soul, but the BeeGees’ original wouldn’t necessarily be considered so.  Similarly, the Red Hot Chili Peppers covering “Higher Ground” isn’t what I’d consider soul either, but c’mon…it’s Stevie!

If I consider myself in any part a soul artist (and I do), it’s not due to what I sing, but how I sing it.  I actually feel that “Undercover” has captured some of my most soulful performances to date, and I’m really proud of that.  It’s always been a challenge for me to reconcile my instinctive love of soul music and song styling with my desire to continually push the envelope and defy restrictions.  With that in mind, “Undercover” is a very honest representation of who I consider myself to be, as both an artist and music lover.

The new album was recorded live. How was that experience and how does it compare to a studio album?

Recording live is both exhilarating and entirely nerve-racking; particularly under the circumstances in which we recorded this album. We did one set in one take at the Blue Note.  No sound-check, no do-overs, and only three rehearsals prior, so what you’re hearing is authentically a live show…a lot was left to chance, and a LOT could’ve gone wrong…in fact, there were songs that didn’t make the cut.

That said, there is a freedom to any live performance that is nearly impossible to recreate in a studio in this era.  When you start performing as early in life as I did, you learn that the audience is such a huge part of the performance, and are truly the impetus for so much of what happens onstage. You can’t match the level of adrenaline that surges through you when you know you’ve got one shot to get it right.  The studio is ideal for composing and getting things perfect, but the stage is where I go for inspiration.

Your career has been an interesting one, from teacher, to a stint as a model, and now a singer. Was singing something you always had in mind? How does it compare to teaching and modelling?

For clarity’s sake, I was singing long before I taught school or modeled…performing was my first love. I was six when I made my first appearance onstage, and by the time I started college, my ambition was to make a career as a performer, ideally on Broadway.  Teaching (two years teaching Drama, actually) was a necessity after college, and modeling was a wonderfully convenient career to stumble into, which I’m lucky to also love…but it was never my childhood dream.  That said, modeling prepared me to run my own business and braced me for this lifestyle…for the unpredictability, in particular. I never would’ve been able to afford to invest the time or money to make my first album if I hadn’t been modeling to fund it.

Are the artists you chose to cover on the album representative of your musical influences? Which current artists are you listening to at the moment?

I don’t think I could’ve covered anyone who hadn’t influenced me…I pulled every one of those cover ideas off my iPod!  Currently, I’m listening to The Roots, Corinne Bailey Rae (who I saw perform live recently — spectacular!), Jamie Lidell, Miike Snow, and lots of Serge Gainsbourg and Bryan Ferry.

Finally, what does the future hold for Maiysha? Are you working on any projects (musical or not) that we should be aware of?

In addition to composing, I’ve got a few new ideas percolating. In order to give myself a little space to develop them, I’m taking a (very) brief hiatus from performing. I want to put the finishing touches on some new material, have time to rehearse them, and return with a new show…it’s the least I can do for my audience. Right now, I’m in a very “build it, and they will come” space, so…I’m building!

Thanks for answering my questions. I wish you all the best with the album.

Thanks! I really appreciate the ongoing support!

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