Singer Maysa On Applying To Home Depot And Earning A Grammy Nomination

Originally published on January 14, 2014 12:02 pm
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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. This is the time of year when we've been talking a lot about resolutions and goals and what it takes to see them through. I think most people would agree that one of the traits successful people seem to share is the willingness to press on, even when success is not assured. Well, that could be the story of Maysa. After more than 20 years in the music business, she has been nominated for a Grammy this year in the category of Best Traditional R&B Performance.


MARTIN: "Quiet Fire" is the name of the song that earned Maysa her Grammy nomination. It's from her latest album, "Blue Velvet Soul." It is her 10th solo album and she says her best. And she is here to tell us more. Welcome. Congratulations. Thank you for joining us.

MAYSA: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me on.

MARTIN: So where were you and what were you doing when you found out?

MAYSA: I was celebrating my son's 14th birthday. We were at home, and all his friends and cousins were in the living room. And they were just playing video games and stuff. And I got a call from Wendi Cherry, who is the executive director of the D.C. Chapter. And...

MARTIN: D.C. Chapter of the...

MAYSA: Of the Grammys. And so when I saw her name on my phone, I just - it didn't register to me. And it was so weird because I was waiting all day for the nomination show to come on at night. And it was, like, an hour before the show was going to start. And when she called me, and I just said oh, hey, Wendi, how you doing? She said, hey, Maysa, I just wanted to call you and let you know you've been nominated for a Grammy. And I just lost it all over the place. I screamed and hollered and the kids came running in the room.

MARTIN: Dropped the phone.

MAYSA: Yeah, they came running in the kitchen. They were like, what's going on? And I was like, I just got nominated for a Grammy. I cannot believe it. I was just bawling. I just couldn't believe it still because for so many years, I get to that day, and it didn't happen. So I kind of put up this kind of shield where, you know, I was ready for it not to happen again. You know what I mean? So when it did, it just was overwhelming.

MARTIN: Is that funny, how things are? Well, just tell, like, a little bit about your background - born and raised in Baltimore. You went to Morgan State University.

MAYSA: Yeah, sure did. Yeah.

MARTIN: You sang a backup with Stevie Wonder right out of school...

MAYSA: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...As I recall. How did that come about?

MAYSA: Well, my best friend, Kim Brewer, was already singing background for him. And she wanted me to move to LA after I got out of Morgan. So she asked Stevie - 'cause he was looking for an alto voice at the time - and she said, well, can you audition Maysa? And when they came to Baltimore to do a Martin Luther King celebration with the choir - Morgan State University choir, he let me audition that day. And even though I passed the audition, I wasn't finished Morgan yet. I had another year. So I asked Stevie if I could just finish my last year of school and then come to California. And he was like, cool, that's OK. I understand. That sounds good.

MARTIN: That's bold.

MAYSA: I know.

MARTIN: I mean, a lot of people would have been, what? What? He asked me?

MAYSA: I know.

MARTIN: I'm sure your mother was very proud of you.

MAYSA: She was. My friends were like, are you crazy?

MARTIN: Were you tempted to leave school? 'Cause I was going to say...

MAYSA: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Your friends thought you were crazy, right?

MAYSA: Yeah, they were like, are you crazy? You got to go now. I'm like, I have one year left. Like, my parents - I know my mother sold one of her rings for me to go to school, and I never forgot that. And there's like - I just - I don't want - I want to hand my parents the degree and then go do what I want to do. And I did finish.

MARTIN: And you did. And you did. And Stevie Wonder was true to his word.

MAYSA: Yeah.

MARTIN: You did have an opportunity with him after you finished.

MAYSA: Absolutely, He was working on the "Jungle Fever" project with Spike Lee. It was amazing, just like magic. It really was.

MARTIN: But you can see after an early start like that where everything's kind of going your way, where you might think it's going to continue going that way.

MAYSA: And it did. And it did a little bit.

MARTIN: It did for a while.

MAYSA: Yeah, for a while it continued that way with - when I got the audition with Incognito over the phone.

MARTIN: Incognito, the British jazz funk group. You've also worked with Chaka Khan, Angela Bofill and had a lot of success. But there were times in your career where you felt tested, right?

MAYSA: Oh, yeah. Oh, my gosh.

MARTIN: As I recall, you were telling us that there was one point at which you actually went looking for, air quotes, real job.

MAYSA: I did.

MARTIN: Do you mind telling that story?

MAYSA: Yeah, I went to Home Depot. And I went to fill out the application. And the lady behind the counter was like - she just stared at me. And I was like, what's wrong? And she said, are you serious? I was like, yes.

MARTIN: She knew you?

MAYSA: She said, I have all your records. What are you talking about? I have everything from Incognito. I have all your solo records. I mean, what are you - what are you doing here? And I said, I just need a real job. I'm tired of this feast-or-famine lifestyle. I need a steady paycheck. And he was like, oh, no, you'll be OK. You can't come here. You can't come here.

MARTIN: Really.

MAYSA: You'll be OK. And I left...

MARTIN: Wow. So your fans turned you away.

MAYSA: She did. She turned me away.

MARTIN: And were you tempted to fight with her?

MAYSA: I left there crying.

MARTIN: You left there crying, did you say?

MAYSA: Yeah, 'cause I was so frustrated. She was like, no, no, no. Don't give up. Don't give up. You know, so I didn't give up.

MARTIN: Well, what help sustain yourself? I'm sure you're not the only person to have had this experience. It's interesting 'cause, you know, we had the opportunity to interview - obviously, you know, we have the opportunity to meet a number of artists on this program, and I remember meeting Ben Taylor, who's this wonderful singer-songwriter - the son of James Taylor. And he talked about how he said to his dad, well, you know, I think I want to be a singer like you.

Of course, his mother's a wonderful singer, too, but this is a conversation he had with his dad. And his dad said, this is a blue-collar job, and you just don't know that. And, you know, you have a nice lifestyle now. You're not going to do what this takes. And he said, yes, I am. And he actually had to prove to him that he was willing to tough it out. So...

MAYSA: You know, people in my family really said you got to keep going. And basically, what I did - just God kept sending me opportunities, like, lifelines almost. And the industry kept sending me these little ropes to tie knots with, you know. And I would just go from one rope to the next. Something inside of me, in my DNA, whatever, would not let me give up totally.

MARTIN: Let's hear a little bit more from "Quiet Fire." This is the song, again, that's earned you your Grammy nomination.


MARTIN: From your latest album "Blue Velvet Soul." Here it is.


MARTIN: If you're just joining us, that was "Quiet Fire." It is from the album "Blue Velvet Soul." It's Maysa's latest album. It's her 10th. You were just telling us a minute ago that during these difficult periods, one of the ways that you kept going was, you know, your family is a very important source of support.

MAYSA: Yeah.

MARTIN: You know, both of your parents, and then when your dad passed away, your mother continued to support you. And I understand that you lost her...

MAYSA: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...A year ago.

MAYSA: Absolutely.

MARTIN: And that was very hard on you...

MAYSA: Oh, yeah. It's still difficult.

MARTIN: ...In a way that you never expected.

MAYSA: Yeah.

MARTIN: Do you mind talking a little bit about that?

MAYSA: Well, I guess, you know, my mom was my best friend. And I just - it just feels so weird. Like, even yesterday I keep wanting to go upstairs to tell her something or to say, oh, yeah - I'll laugh at something or show her something on TV that she would laugh at. Or if I had made a phone call to her from Budapest or where ever I was, and I was like, mommy, you know this hurts. Somebody said something to me that hurt my feelings.

And she would say something so funny, it would just knock it out. I would forget about the whole thing, and it would take my heart to a different level. And that would give me energy to keep going. And so to not have that is kind of hard. I kind of rely on myself.

MARTIN: Had she been ill? Or was it sudden?

MAYSA: Yeah, she died of leukemia. Yeah.

MARTIN: Oh, I'm sorry. And one of the things that made this so difficult is that music had been your way out of sadness. That was kind of your therapy, if you will.

MAYSA: Yeah. Absolutely.

MARTIN: It was your way of dealing with things. And then after she died, you couldn't write anymore.

MAYSA: No, I couldn't. I didn't hear a note. I didn't hear anything. I was even - I was angry at music, which is strange. I didn't want people to ask me to sing. I didn't want to go sing. I didn't want to write anything. I didn't hear any music. I didn't - I had no interest in music at all anymore.

MARTIN: You were angry at music.

MAYSA: Yeah, I was angry.


MAYSA: Because when I broke up with my boyfriends, I could go to music, and it would heal my heart. But when my mom died, it didn't help me. And I was upset about the whole thing.

MARTIN: How did you find your way out of that because you obviously did find your way out of that?

MAYSA: Yeah, that's due to a lot of my friendships. My friends really, they called me cussing me out. I mean, they were like, come on, oh, really? Get out of this. Don't let the music go away. You got to keep fighting. Your mother, you know, she wouldn't have wanted that. You know, that kind of thing. And she made it very clear. If you miss one show because of me, I will be very upset with you.

MARTIN: She said this to you, or this is a voice that you heard?

MAYSA: She said this to me. No, she told me.

MARTIN: She told you.

MAYSA: She told me before she passed. When she passed, I was coming back - I literally was coming off stage in South Africa, and I called them. And I said, tell mommy I'm on the way home now. And she passed 45 minutes later. I had to ride that long flight home. It was just - I started getting - I don't know - 'cause music took me away from my mother - a lot of those reasons why I was just so upset, and I didn't want to sing anymore. So when the record company came to me and said, let's do another record, I almost cussed them out. I was like, absolutely, no. I don't want to do your stinking record.

MARTIN: I can imagine. I'm actually picturing - I'm kind of hearing this in my head, the music going silent in a way - I mean, somebody who's always hearing music, and then having it go silent and how disconcerting, how lonely it must have been for you.

MAYSA: 'Cause music was a part of me. It's a part of how I wanted to make my family proud of me. Just the two people in the world that I loved with all my heart the most are not here for me to say, mommy, look what I did. Are you proud of that kind of thing? And so...

MARTIN: Do you remember when you first started to hear music again? How did it come back? Did it come as a note at a time?

MAYSA: Yeah, it came in a dream.

MARTIN: Or did it come in a flood? It came in a dream

MAYSA: In a dream, yeah. And that's what this song - I wrote a song called called "Inside My Dream." My parents came to me in the dream, and they told me - they told me don't worry about anything.


MAYSA: And they said, Maysa, we need you to start meditating. It was so funny. My father said that to me. And my father never meditated.

MARTIN: In your dream.

MAYSA: Yeah.

MARTIN: He never meditated in real life?

MAYSA: No, so I was like, what does daddy know about meditating? And it was funny to me. But they came to me, I think, in the same night. But they came to me at different times - one at 3 o'clock, one at 5 o'clock.


MAYSA: And they was saying, you know, you got to keep moving on 'cause some great things are going to happen to you, so you got to get strong.


MARTIN: Did each song have a specific genesis? I know you were telling us...

MAYSA: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...About one of the songs that you came to, "Inside My Dream," which is a special song for you. And now when I hear it, I will remember why it was special for you. But what's some of the other songs? Is there a through line to the album? Is there - was it kind of just as a whole...

MAYSA: Yeah, it just really - really it came to me - the songs - my dance music - the songs "Put It on Me" and in those songs, I went to Mike City. I went to specific people and said - like, Bluey from Incognito. I said, Bluey, I want authentic disco music. Like, I don't want to play at it. I really want disco, hard-core disco. And he gave me those two songs from that that he produced. And then he came to me. He said, Maysa, I have one more song called "Good Morning Sunrise" that I want you to sing with me. It's a duet. And I think that's such a beautiful song. And I keep trying to get the "Today" show to use it as a theme one day 'cause they have a sunrise thing in the morning where people send sunrises in.


MAYSA: Every song had some kind of connection where it was my friends helping me.


MARTIN: You know, people - artists have very different feelings about, you know, awards, right?

MAYSA: Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean, there are some artists who refuse even to participate in these...

MAYSA: Right.

MARTIN: ...Kinds of programs because they think that it, you know - it cheapens the art. And some people feel it's really important.

MAYSA: Right.

MARTIN: Obviously, it is something important to you.

MAYSA: Yeah, it is.

MARTIN: Do you feel - what's the word - vindicated now in a way?

MAYSA: I do. In a way, I do. I think that, you know, I've been wanting this since I was 14 years old. And I tried to do the right thing throughout everything in my life. So when I do the right thing in my music and it constantly didn't get recognized, it really was hurting me. And I think also, you know, the nomination means a lot...

MARTIN: Well, you've been very clear about that. It's interesting, you've been unexpectedly blunt about that. I mean, you've said, my music has deserved that for so long.

MAYSA: Yeah.

MARTIN: I don't know why it hasn't achieved that. This is an interview you did with the Baltimore Sun last summer saying you really wanted that Grammy nomination. Some people frown on that because they think, oh, it's politics, that, you know, it's not good. But you put it out there. Do you mind if I ask why you care so much?

MAYSA: I care because a Grammy nomination does mean things in the marketplace. And it does mean that - I mean, I'm just going to say it honestly - it means that I can charge more money for my shows. It means that people recognize you more, and they may say, oh, Maysa. Oh, yeah, let's call Maysa for that. Oh, yeah, you remember that girl that got nominated? Oh, yeah. You remember that song? Yeah, let's - that's what it does. It just gives you a little more leverage in the business. That's all. That's what it does - I think it does.

MARTIN: Well, you've got some tough competition in your category.

MAYSA: Yeah, I do.

MARTIN: You know that - you know, Gregory Porter, Fantasia, who are great artists as well.

MAYSA: Yeah.

MARTIN: I'm not going to introduce negativity. I'm just going to simply say, I think everybody wishes you well. Best of luck to you.

MAYSA: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: Why do you say this is your best, by the way? You say this on the album. I'm not making this up. I'm saying - please, join me in celebrating the release of my 10th and best solo album. Why do you think this is your best solo album?

MAYSA: I don't know. It just felt good. This record feels - from start to finish, it felt very nice. It felt relaxing and easy. And it covers dance music. It covers, you know, R&B. It covers a little bit of jazz. It covers everything that I'm about, I think. And I was able to do that this time. So I'm excited about it.

MARTIN: What should we go out on?

MAYSA: I think - I like the song "When Your Soul Answers." I like that a lot.

MARTIN: So we will go out on "When Your Soul Answers." We've been visiting with Maysa. Her latest album is "Blue Velvet Soul." We will be watching for her at the Grammy awards, which is at the end of January - January 26. Have you got your dress yet - a pretty dress?

MAYSA: Yeah, actually, I was rushing here today because I'm getting it made today.

MARTIN: Getting it made.

MAYSA: Yeah.


MAYSA: I'm going to get it made.

MARTIN: Well, we...

MAYSA: But I'm just so excited. I'm just - to be honest - let me just say really fast that I already felt like I won. Even if I don't win the actual award, the nomination is what I've always wanted. So I'm happy with that.

MARTIN: Well, congratulations. Maysa's latest album, her 10th solo album is "Blue Velvet Soul." And she was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Maysa, thank you so much...

MAYSA: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: ...For speaking with us and congratulations to you.

MAYSA: Thank you for having me.


MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.