Too black for some and not black enough for others, Maiysha defies racial and musical conventions. With the launch of her debut album underway, she chats about race, celebrity, and a typical day in the United States of Hysteria.
When the clock struck midnight on August 26, 2008, an album entitled This Much Is True arrived on record store shelves. At the Union Square branch of Virgin Megastore in New York City, the album's artist, Maiysha, and her producer Scott Jacoby were among the first to buy a copy. Two days later, Maiysha is still relishing the excitement of finding her album wrapped in shiny cellophane. "I'm sitting here right now looking at my own Virgin copy that I will leave in the shrink wrap with the $10 sticker on it," she says. "All of a sudden it's like, 'Oh my God. I did this!' I'm trying to stay here, at least for these five minutes, and be really proud of what we did."
To find This Much Is True requires a visit to the R&B section. While not entirely out of place nestled between the Main Ingredient and Teena Marie, it's somewhat misleading, for R&B is but one of the styles Maiysha toils in. She has a rocker heart with a jazz background and her musical muses are far more diverse than her press release would lead you to believe. Categorization be damned, a superb musicality anchors This Much Is True. Seven years in the making, but based on three decades of life experience, the album showcases Maiysha's versatility as a singer and songwriter, but also as an individual who is not loath to acknowledge she's a work in progress.
Based in Brooklyn, Maiysha's musical education is rooted in the listening sessions her father shared with her as a child growing up in the South Side of Chicago. She was fed a healthy musical diet that included Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Donald Byrd, Roy Ayers, Phyllis Hyman, Marlena Shaw, and Joni Mitchell, while first-issue vinyl copies of albums by the Temptations and the Four Tops could readily be found in her father's record collection. The influences remain with her to the present day. She says, "I was referring to [Joni Mitchell's] Court and Spark album earlier to somebody and they were like, 'Did you get turned on to that in college?' And I was like, 'No, it was my dad.' Lyrically, it's an amazing album. It's her magnum opus. It's so complete."
While clearly molded by a different set of musical sensibilities, This Much Is True could also be a considered a complete album. It's imbued with a tidal wave of melodic hooks and soulful phrasing that make current Top 40 radio sound sour and stale. The songs are devoid of formula. Maiysha and Scott Jacoby do not write by numbers.
The creatively synergistic relationship between Maiysha and Jacoby is actually the key ingredient to the album's infectious energy. The two met through Arthur Everett, who co-wrote "Over My Head" and "This Much Is True" on the album. After attending one of Maiysha's shows, Jacoby approached her about collaborating. From day one in the studio, a fruitful partnership took shape. Together, Maiysha and Jacoby wrote twelve of the album's thirteen tracks. She cites Jacoby's objective ear as an essential ingredient to their relationship. "Objectivity is really important," she says, "as is -- and I say this as a self-confessed control freak -- the ability to hand it over to someone else and to trust someone enough to do what they need to do with it. That's been so much of what our relationship is about. At this point, we're like family. We're so unconditional with each other that I can be mad at him and it's okay," she laughs.
The initial goal of their partnership was to co-write and co-fund the project, then shop the album to major labels. Throughout the course of the writing and recording, however, Jacoby met investors who were eager to help him launch his own label. He suggested to Maiysha that her album be the inaugural release for the label, christened Eusonia. She graciously accepted. "Having done it this way, I'm so glad it didn't happen any other way," she explains about releasing This Much Is True on an independent label. "With the level of creative control I've been able to have and the sense of ownership over the work, I'm as much a part of this as anybody else. I'm a partner in a project and I actually think it's so unfortunate that a lot of artists don't get to feel like that. They feel like a product but not like a partner."
Creative control, which Maiysha and Jacoby retain as Executive Producers of This Much Is True, is essential to the project's wide-ranging appeal. "Over My Head" was the first track Maiysha penned with Jacoby and it is also the most structurally unconventional of all the songs on the album. The music builds dramatically underneath Maiysha's lyrics with a pronounced drum motif that signifies a heartbeat. The song doesn't have a traditional verse-chorus-verse-chorus pattern. Instead, the lyrics are structured almost like a monologue. "I've heard it said that romance is dead but from the moment that we met you made me forget all that came before you," she exclaims, stoking the song's intensity. The music stops abruptly and shifts to Latin-like chord progression over a jagged drum rhythm. Backed by voices that evoke apparitions, Maiysha's crystal clear phrasing then morphs into an enthralling fever dream.
Despite the song's striking production, Maiysha's representatives had some reservations about including it on This Much Is True. "Our management was like, 'That's a really great song but we think it's a little ahead of its time. I'm not sure people can get that. It doesn't really have a structure and doesn't really have a hook per se. What is it exactly?'" Since its conception seven years ago, "Over My Head" encountered several re-writes to make it more palatable for listeners. Ultimately, the integrity of the original draft prevailed. The song remains an adventurous musical and emotional excursion into Maiysha's heart. She cites "Over My Head" as one of the songs she is most proud of, especially with the numerous responses she receives from listeners. Expounding on how the song specifically reverberates with audiences, she says:
"That song is about the headiness of romance and very much about me -- as much then as now. I'm pretty much still in that phase where you are so willing and wanting to be swept away but on the other hand terrified of what that means. We all want to have an adventure. We all want to be spontaneous. We all want to fall in love but there's that whole risk factor. I think everybody I know has found themselves in some position where they met someone and it was so organic and the chemistry was so strong and there was all this passion and heat. I'm constantly getting comments on it and people saying, 'I love that song, I totally get it.' Who hasn't been in that position? I think with any songwriter, that's what you're aspiring to do, to write something that people can understand and empathize with and strikes this chord in them."
More than half of the songs on This Much Is True examine the various facets of romantic relationships. Maiysha concedes that the total giving of oneself is the most challenging aspect of a relationship and that the prerequisites of openness and trust are not always easily met. She feels that some of the most successful relationships work because both individuals not only want to be with someone but they need to be.
"I'm definitely more of a want-based person than a needs-based person," she clarifies. "In fact, when I feel need creeping in, I tend to run away. I'd rather write about it. I'm not saying I'm always able to keep everything in this really neat contained little space but I find that, whether it's me or the other person, the surrender is generally the hardest part even when you're madly in love with someone."
Maiysha turns the mirror on herself on "Wanna Be". Eusonia released it as the first single off This Much Is True, introducing Maiysha in a video that amplifies the song's meditation on the human psyche's tug-of-war. Surrounded by a band dressed in black with mirrored masks, Maiysha nearly leaps from the screen with the song's explosive guitar riff, her hands flailing and feet pounding. It's a startling visual rendering of Maiysha's very personal lyrics.
"If I was asked to sum myself up in a song," she explains, "that would probably be the one. I consider myself a study in contrasts. I think a lot of people do. I'm not afraid at this point to be confused and to admit that somehow knowing myself is actually knowing that I don’t know anything! I like to consider myself a pretty fluid concept."
The series of guitar chords that begin "Wanna Be" sound like unresolved questions while Maiysha lays bare the contrasts that define her: naiveté and wisdom, challenges and success, doubt and confidence. Though a more standard structure frames the song, it is no less powerful or dramatic than "Over My Head". When the chorus kicks in, so does Maiysha's hard rock persona. "Am I all I want to be / All I'm gonna be / Tell me who this be / Looking back at me in the mirror now", she growls. She immerses herself completely in the song with a performance that never ceases to captivate.
One of the most arresting sets of lyrics in "Wanna Be" is found during the second verse pre-chorus where Maiysha confides, "I lose every single game I play 'cause I'm a slave to my distractions". The meaning of that line, Maiysha says, was inspired by the mind games she plays with herself. She explains, "The moment I think I got it all figured out is the moment that something else occurs to me or I'm just proven damn wrong. That line came from my own frustration with myself, not an angry frustration, but where to put that frustration? Well maybe you don't put that frustration anywhere. Maybe you just accept it."
Some of the frustration Maiysha experienced early on in life stemmed from her struggle to earn "street cred" among her black peers. As the daughter of a TV producer and an attorney, she lived a fairly comfortable life but, based a fatuous notion of hard-knocks equating authenticity, wasn't considered "black enough". Growing up on the south side of Chicago and then living in Minnesota offered Maiysha yet another study in the contrasts she's had to reconcile. She remembers, "In the Chicago environment, I constantly tried to qualify my blackness. When I went to Minnesota, it was a totally different thing because I was plenty black for everybody. I remember at one point someone spoke up and said, 'Yeah, but you're different. You're not really black.' I was like, 'Oh? Excuse me, I was unaware.'" She continues:
"I heard this wonderful quote by Michael Franti. He said, 'I think there's as many black experiences as there are black people'. I'm not at all trying to discredit your Mary J. Blige's and Keyshia Cole's. Their experiences have made them the vocalists that they are. They have earned that but I don't think it makes me any less legitimate to not have had that experience. I would be playing a role and some totally inauthentic version of myself if I tried to behave that way. That's not really who I am, which is not to say that I don't love my people or where I come from or any of that. I think that people like things in easily digestible chunks. The whole notion of street cred, for instance, I find a really interesting one, because street cred to whom exactly? Whose street? I think we need to stop treating people like they're sheltered and don't have other experiences or other interests or that they shouldn't".
The artifice of celebrity is another of Maiysha's socio-cultural concerns. "Celebrity" and "Gods" offer character studies of people who want to be famous without having any particular talent or skill to substantiate the fame. "Celebrity is our culture", Maiysha chortles. "I wrote 'Celebrity' first and it was very much when that whole 'celebutante' thing was starting. I was fascinated by it because I was like, 'What is this? Why do we care?'" Underscoring the Paris Hilton/Nicole Richie book of exploits, "Celebrity" admonishes, "If you want to stay on top then you can't give a damn 'bout your integrity".
"Gods" tells the tale of Gorgeous and Precious, two individuals who are a skip behind the beat but yearn for the spotlight. If they can "make believe" their talent – or cultivate a talent for not having talent - then they will be the object of the public's idolization. Or, so they are told. The instrumentation of the song captures the nuances of this particular pathology. Antonio Dangerfield's trumpet connotes the tipsy champagne wishes of the characters while Tyrone Johnson's Frankensteinian guitar riff signals the monstrous ramifications of seeking fame with such ardor. The song fulminates with Maiysha's roar, "You'll be the God of our creation".
"Celebrity" and "Gods" exhibit Maiysha's keen ability to show the many ways bullshit is sold in our culture. The politically charged "U.S.H." is no exception. It offers a glib snapshot of a typical day in the "United States of Hysteria", where the weapons that "put the fear of God in man are worth their weight in gold" and material consumption will strengthen our resolve and assuage our panic in a post-9/11 climate. "Fear only attracts more of the same," Maiysha explains about the sentiment behind "U.S.H", "and I felt like a stronger statement that we could be making was that we're firm in ourselves. Admittedly, it would be different if we had a government that we could unilaterally trust and that extends far beyond this regime. I'm not saying we shouldn't be conscious. I'm not trying to say anything except look at what we've become".
Whereas "U.S.H." illustrates the insidious ways the administration's handling of the attacks on the World Trade Center fostered paranoia, "This Much Is True" reflects how the human spirit prevailed in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Maiysha remembers the origin of "This Much Is True":
"The song is about the first day I walked out -- I'm not sure how many months after the fact -- and all of a sudden I felt, as Stevie Wonder would say, all this joy inside my tears. I felt it. I could feel it on the street. I could almost smell the humanity in the air, like, 'We're back. We're still here and we still love it and we're staying.' That was the largest testament to the city that one could make. I stayed after 9/11 for a very specific reason. At this point, no matter where I may be from or where my loved ones may reside, this is my home now. I can be gone for 24 hours and I come back and I'm hanging my head out the window like a sheepdog. I go through the same I'm-fed-up-with-New-York days as anybody else but at the end of the day, I'm so madly in love with this place. New York is the people as much as it is the place and the architecture and the history and the energy, it's the people who give it that energy."
With its ebullient beat, "This Much Is True" is a joyful tribute to New York. Seven years after 9/11, while wounds continue to heal for some and life has moved on for others, the constitution of New York remains irrepressible.
Turning towards more libidinous matters is "You Don't Know", a playfully steamy duet with Martin Luther that was originally written for Nas. Sony approached Scott Jacoby about submitting for Nas's project and Jacoby, in turn, asked Maiysha to write the hook. The two built the track together and remodeled it when it was decided that "You Don't Know" would, instead, be reserved for Maiysha's album. They discussed reworking the song a few different ways, including a rap interlude. The song found its identity when Christian Ericson, the Art Director of the album, brought Martin Luther onto the project. "I had actually written his verse," Maiysha recalls. "He improvised and came up with that whole spoken word break. It's so Barry White/Isaac Hayes. He said a lot of other stuff during that break but it was so scandalous it would never go on the radio".
Martin Luther contributed to another track but in a less direct way. Maiysha recalls, "He said, 'Let me hear some of the rest of the music.' He's so cool you would deny him nothing". When he heard "Chase", a track that reveals Maiysha in full tigress mode, he quelled Maiysha's concerns that the song didn't really suit her. "That right there! Who else can sing that song?" he exclaimed, despite the fact that Maiysha had not written it expressly with herself in mind. His enthusiasm, coupled with Scott Jacoby's persistence, ensured that "Chase" was included on the album.
Through all of the self-recrimination and self-doubt she faced bringing This Much Is True to fruition, Maiysha's perseverance never subsided. "I'm glad that I didn't allow myself to talk me out of it," she says. "I'm so happy that this is the piece of myself that I'm offering the world at this point. I'm glad that I had Scott who was very affirming to me and who said this is still relevant and, in fact, it's probably more relevant now. It took seven years to do this album. The next one will probably take seven months or seven weeks," she laughs.
Maiysha continues to bask in the glow of the nearly unanimous praise that This Much Is True has already garnered. She's been rewarded with an album that is indisputably one of the freshest-sounding releases of 2008, one that will no doubt inspire fathers to school their daughters in quality music in the years to come, just like Maiysha's father did so many years ago.