Maysa Leak has been recording for an astonishing nineteen years, creating a solid audience for herself as a result of her seven solo albums and her work as one of the premier 'voices' behind the ever-popular Incognito. Classically-trained as a singer with roots in jazz, Maysa is using her eighth album - her fourth for U.S. indie Shanachie - to explore those roots while offering some great new original tunes that are sure to please her expanding audience. David Nathan checks in with the Baltimore belle...
David Nathan: Alright, well here we are, I’m doing an interview for Soulmusic.com with one of the truly leading ladies in contemporary music, in particular contemporary Soul music, or smooth jazz. Well, she’s capable of many different things, and as her latest album demonstrates, she’s also very capable of interpreting some of the classic songs of different eras. I am referring to Maysa, so welcome Maysa to Soulmusic.com.
Maysa: Hello! Thank you very much.
DN: Let’s start with a little lead-in to how this album came about. The previous album was “Metamorphosis” in 2008, so after that did you immediately make plans to do this, or was this something that occurred organically?
M: It occurred because Shanachie asked me to do it. They called me and said they were ready to do another record, and I had a slight argument with them saying, “I don’t think it’s time” because “Metamorphosis” didn’t get the support it should have gotten. I thought they should spend more time trying to promote that record, and they told me they want to do this one, and they had an idea that they wanted me to step into the straight-ahead [jazz]world, because they thought that with my voice and my background in jazz, that I should have done it a long time ago, and they wanted to be a part of me doing it. That’s pretty much how I got the record going, and you know at the time, I actually needed the money so that’s why I got going, got my excitement about the record together.
DN: When you said they knew you had a background in jazz, for the benefit of those listening and reading, can you share with us a little bit about that background and how jazz became a part of your life in the first place?
M: When I was 12 years old, my uncle introduced me to Al Jarreau on PBS [television] one night, and when I heard him scat, I knew that was where I wanted my music to go, and I knew that would help me define who I was as a singer, and make me different from everybody else, because at the time when I was 12 or 13, everybody wanted to sound like whoever else was out there. Everybody wanted to sound like Janet Jackson, everybody wanted to sound like Patti LaBelle or somebody. The people who were coming up were trying to pattern themselves directly after these people, instead of just using them as influences, and even at 12 years old, I knew that I wanted to be different, so [I was] listening to Al Jarreau, and I started listening to Ella Fitzgerald - and Sarah Vaughan became my absolute hero as far as tone and phrasing. I learned all that, and then I went to high school, kept at it, and then when I went to college, I started singing with local jazz bands around Baltimore.
DN: Do you think, had circumstances been different, would you had gone on to be a straight-ahead jazz singer at that point?
M: No, because I really love the mixture of, and the fusion of jazz and funk mixed together, or jazz and R&B mixed together. That’s why it was kind of like fate, that I became the lead singer of Incognito, because that music was what I was always going to do anyway.
DN: Is this particular new album kind of like a return to your roots, in a sense?
M: Yeah, it is. It’s a return to the 18 and 19-year old Maysa, who was learning the ‘Fake Book’ [of standards] and was out there trying to become the next Sarah Vaughan; I wanted to be known as that. I had a jazz teacher, Ruby Glover here in Baltimore, who taught me a lot about jazz, and she taught me, and it’s held true my whole career, that whenever I do a cover tune, or whenever I perform cover music, to pay tribute to the writer by singing the song as written in the first verse, and then after the first verse and chorus, then you can switch it up and make it your own.
DN: Why I find that particularly interesting personally, is because in a very memorable conversation I had with Roberta Flack, we were talking about the importance of interpretation, and when you are going to do a song that’s previously been recorded, maybe many times, the important thing to do, even though you want to put your own stamp on it, is to be true to the writer. What was the writer’s intent, what was the writer trying to communicate with the song, and after you’ve established that, you can feel free to do what you want with it, but you must at least honour their intention.
M: That’s what the younger generation needs to learn, historically where the music came from, and how to pay respect, because these kids are growing up in the MTV world; do whatever shocks people the most and do whatever you want to do. That’s supposed to be art, and it’s not art!
DN: When you were getting ready to do this album, given Shanachie’s brief to you, or mandate, whether they wanted something straight-ahead, or more straight-ahead than you had done, did you choose songs? Some of the songs on here are classics, songs that you sang in that earlier time in your life, when you were 18 or 19.
M: Actually, I don’t think I was performing too many of these songs when I was younger. I did more of Billie Holiday and all that kind of stuff, more of the ‘Fake Book’ stuff that I was doing. I did perform ‘Round Midnight’ before, and I chose that because I just love that song. It’s definitely one of my favourite love songs, among many others, so these songs I chose basically are songs I just was a fan of, and I didn’t particularly sing those too much when I was young.
DN: Let’s talk about a few of them, and then I also want to ask you about a few of the other songs on the album. Let’s just pick a couple that are particularly special. You already mentioned ‘Round Midnight’, but let’s talk a little about ‘Willow Weep For Me’, and your choice of that.
M: ‘Willow Weep For Me’ was one of my choices because I loved the way Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday performed the song. Billie Holiday performed the song from a moody and deep perspective, and Dinah Washington, she sang it so masterfully and so classy, it’s just a classy sound she has, and the meaning of the song meant a lot to me, because when I’m brokenhearted, I can tell the draperies how I feel! I tell it to everybody I can to get it out of my system, and the thought of singing to a willow tree, you know the weeping willow, ‘cry for me because this hurts…’ I just love that thought. That’s why I chose that song, for those reasons.
DN: One of the interesting choices for me, because I have a particular affinity with this song, is ‘I Put A Spell on You’, previously recorded by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and then reinterpreted by Nina Simone, and now Maysa-ized, if I may use that term, by you.
M: I like that.
DN: So, what was your thinking behind doing that song, and as anyone who has tried to sing that song knows, it’s not an easy song. It’s just not.
M: No, it’s not. It’s not an easy song to sing. It really intimidated me at first. I listened to Nina Simone sing it, and I was like, “Wow! She was so slick!” It’s like, when you listen to her version, she was just so sassy with it. The way she was interpreting the song was just brilliant. I wanted to lock in her way, and also Screamin’ Jay, because he was just crazy, like a witch doctor kind of vibe, but I loved it, because it was so powerful, the emotion when he did it. Emotions are so important in music and singing, because that’s how we talk to each other. That’s how we talk to people who listen, we’re sharing emotions, and that’s the best thing humans can share together, is emotions. They had me floored when I heard those, both versions, and I wanted to put my own stamp on it, but I wanted to mix both of them together in this new version, and I hope that everybody enjoys it, because I really was feeling it. When I’m in love with someone, and they’re not responding the way I hoped them to be, I feel exactly those words. I know there’s a man in my life who cares for me deeply, I know it, and he tries to hide it, it’s part of his personality to be quiet about stuff. You can fake it, but I know I’ve got a spell on you. I know it.
DN: When you first mentioned it to the record company, what was their reaction?
M: Oh, they loved it. [Shanachie President] Danny Weiss, he suggested it, so I was like, “Oh yeah! I love that tune.” We definitely agreed a lot on the music. There was never any problem choosing. The only time we bumped heads about a song was probably ‘Misty’. I didn’t want to record that again. That’s Sarah Vaughan’s song, and I don’t want to record that again.
DN: What would you say was the most challenging of that particular set of songs, for you to record?
M: The most challenging song was ‘What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life’. OMG is all I can say.
DN: What made it challenging?
M: The melodic structure, just the first part, the “What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life”, that first line, melodically, is very hard to sing. You really have to know your stuff, and again, I was intimidated by Barbra Streisand, who sings it like she wrote the song, and she owns the song completely. Every time I’ve heard her sing that song in a live setting, she absolutely just killed it, and of course she’s known for that song; that’s her thing. It’s just awesome, and I had a hard time with it, but I got it, and I think I got it now in my system, so hopefully it’s there forever.
DN: You worked with [producer] Chris “Big Dog” Davis on this, and I think most people who are familiar with his work would consider this a departure for him to some degree.
M: Yes, they would, because they haven’t heard him do jazz. That’s his background, jazz. Throughout his college days, he played jazz with various people around Connecticut and around New York and stuff. That’s his whole background, but he hasn’t displayed it enough, because he’s done a lot of work in Smooth Jazz and Gospel, and R&B. It seems like a departure for him, but this is his base too.
DN: So you guys found a lot of common ground in working on this?
M: Oh yeah, we did. It was excellent. I was so excited to work with Chris. I can only tell you that he worked really hard on this record. He really gave me his all, and I gave him my all, and we make a great team. It just sounded really good. I was really happy, and I wish there was more money to do live strings and all that other stuff that I would love to have done, but we didn’t have much of a budget, so to do what we did with the budget we had, it’s awesome. I’m really proud of it.
DN: In addition to 4 or 5 classic songs, you also recorded some new material, so let’s make sure we make reference to that, including a duet with Will Downing on ‘Love Theory’ so why don’t you tell us a little bit about how that came about, that particular duet situation?
M: Well, we were in the studio, me and Big Dog, and I just started to write the song with him, and I said, “This would sound good as a duet” and he said, “Who will we call?” We went down the list of names of singers, and I said, “I wonder if Will would do it” and he said, “Yeah, get Will to do it!” I called Will and said, “Will, would you please sing this song with me on my album?” He’s like, “Sure! Send me the tune.” So we did, and he finished writing it, and that’s some of the magical moments of the music industry, where it just comes together, and I love that song. ‘Love Theory’ is about how love is put together, like 1+1 = 2, it’s easy. If you give a little, and I’ll give a little, we’re great. That’s how it should be, but of course human beings make it more difficult than that.
DN: Let’s talk about the title track, ‘A Woman In Love’ and the idea behind that…
M: ‘A Woman In Love’ came about because I wanted to say how important it is, how important a woman in love is, and who she is. A woman in love is just like a man in love too, but a woman in love is somebody who takes on a lot of responsibility, sacrifices a lot, and will take on the world when she loves somebody, and I think that’s a precious person in the world. My mom was like that; when she loves you, she’ll do anything for you. A woman in love helps to carry the world in a positive light, so I wanted to say that as positively as I could. I had a hard time with this song, because it seemed like my words wouldn’t come to me, especially where I’m doing something different, like spoken word. I had all the people in my mind, like I should have called Jill Scott, I should have called some of my friends to come in and help me write this, but I just wanted to say what I wanted to say, and it just turned out the way it did, and I’m proud of it, and I think that people get what I was trying to say.
DN: Let’s talk about how you feel about the entire album as a piece of work, and how it fits within the spectrum of your career.
M: I think “A Woman In Love” fits in my career perfectly. I think it’s perfect timing for it. I’m glad that I didn’t push back so hard and not do it, because Shanachie asked me to do this so quickly after “Metamorphosis.” I’m glad I did it. Whenever I follow my instinct, you know first I would say ‘no’, but then something told me to keep moving and do it. When I follow my instinct, it seems like God and the Universe just work things out for me, and things work out great. I was very worried about this album. I was worried about losing the people who have been listening to me for a while who are not into straight-ahead music, I was worried about the people who listen to the straight-ahead [jazz] who might like the straight-ahead [jazz], but might not like the R&B part. All those things worried me a little bit during the process, but when I listen to it as a whole, it seems to me like it’s just me; music for me. I could have put a country song on this album and it would have fit perfectly. Do you know what I mean? I do plan on doing that in the future, so I hope everybody gets ready for that.
DN: Well, that might take a little bit of prep.
M: (laughs) I’ll make it sound good, I promise. I’m just glad that I did the record. I’m really proud of it… It’s just setting me up. I think it’ll spread my audience out more, and I think it’s just going to help my career more than anything. It’s just the right place at the right time.
DN: One of the things that I became aware of prior to doing this interview, is that you’ve been recording now for 19 years, which seems sort of surprising to me, I guess because I couldn’t quite get it! ‘She’s actually been recording for 19 years? Wow!’ You have to your credit 8 solo albums, including of course the work you’ve done with others, including Incognito, so you’ve actually built up a really great recording legacy. How do you feel about having survived in the business, doing what you do, for almost 20 years? How do you feel about it?
M: I’m proud of myself, because I haven’t stopped. A lot of people have fallen by the wayside. A lot have given up, a lot haven’t been given any opportunities, so I’m very grateful for each opportunity, for each company that hired me, whether we had our differences or not, everybody who believed in me and kept me going, I’m really happy about that, and really proud and appreciative of that. What I’ve prayed for, longevity, is what I’m getting. I just want to be around, I just want to keep making music. I’ve been lucky in a sense, to not have been some big superstar that had to keep changing their vibe every 5 minutes, trying to meet the demand of the incoming young crowd and all that kind of stuff, I just stayed where I was, and it seemed like more people were coming to me. I’m getting younger and younger audiences, and older audiences, and it’s a beautiful thing. I’m really proud that I’ve stuck to my guns all this time.
DN: Well, I think I can speak for everybody who is listening to or reading this interview and say, so are we! What you’ve just said kind of answered what I was going to ask you, which is, do you find that your career is expanding, and your audience is expanding, and apparently what you just said was, that is what’s happening, which is great, what every artist would want that to happen. Are there any remaining comments that you’d like to make? Let me just say that, at the time I was doing this interview, I think you started to get some reviews of the album, and they’ve been absolutely great! How do you feel about the initial response?
M: It’s mind-blowing! It makes me even more excited about the record, because when you’re a musician, you give your heart and soul to a project. All of us are insecure people, period. You want to be loved; you want your music to be loved, because you’re trying to communicate with everybody. This is how I love people, is thorough my music, and I love to love people. I’ve been that way since I was a little baby. My mother would tell me stories about when the postman would come up, and I would say, “Hi, how are you doing? Do you want a hug?” I would just love people, and that’s been ingrained in my spirit for my whole life, so this is my way to love everybody, through my music, and when I get a great response, it just feels great, and I’m really grateful for it. Some part of me is still more surprised than anything, because the reaction is even much more than I hoped for.
DN: I think that I can speak for everyone who’s listening or reading this and say that you thoroughly deserve it. It is a great project, something that you should be very proud of, and for those people who have info on Maysa and have heard all those previous seven albums as well as your work with Incognito and others, I think that they’ll be seeing another dimension, because just by virtue of doing those classic songs, it sheds a light on a part of you that maybe a lot of people don’t know about. I think that’s really exciting.
M: Yes, it’s very exciting.
DN: Alright, Maysa, well thank you so much for talking with me today about “A Woman In Love”. The only thing I have to say in conclusion is that everyone who is listening to this interview should go buy it at the Soul Music Store, don’t forget to do that! Is there anything you’d like to say in conclusion? Last comment?
M: I’m very grateful to you all. Thank you so much for your support over the years, and I hope that I will always keep you happy musically, and I’m going to do my best to do that for the rest of my life.
DN: Amen (laughs). Thank you so much, Maysa.
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.