Maysa Bares Her Soul
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.
Smooth jazz singer Maysa knew she had a big voice deep down even when she was just a girl. So she belted out R&B classics in her basement until she got every note right. But fame didn't come knocking until her senior year in college when her sultry voice caught the ear of music legend Stevie Wonder. Maysa, a Baltimore native, left home for Hollywood to sing with Stevie. Her voice and name continued to grow into the 1990s, both as a solo act and as a member of the British jazz funk band, Incognito.
(Soundbite of music)
CHIDEYA: Maysa's back again with a solo record of classics. But she used to sing in her basement. It's called "Feel the Fire." She recently spoke with NPR's Tony Cox.
TONY COX: So Maysa, thank you for coming in. I'm a big fan of yours actually.
Ms. MAYSA LEAK (Jazz Singer): Thank you.
COX: You know, let's start with this. Tell me about your name. Maysa, M-A-Y-S-A. That's so interesting. Where did it come from?
Ms. LEAK: Well, it came from my father. His name was Mayso. M-A-Y-S-O. And his father was - name was Mayso. So it's being handed down the line to me.
COX: Does it have a meaning?
Ms. LEAK: Well, I found that when I Googled myself that Maysa is - it means beautiful flowers flowing in the wind, or proud and strong.
COX: Well, that's a nice name. And it works - it fits you, huh?
Ms. LEAK: Yeah, I think so.
COX: Let's talk about the new CD, "Feel the Fire." You do something that I would have thought that artists would generally try to stay away from or be careful of, and that is covering songs that were big enough hits that the audience already has a connection to them. But not only do you pooh-pooh that notion, "Feel the Fire" is completely covered tunes. Why did you do that?
Ms. LEAK: I just love this music so much and it's such a part of my growth as a child and it's part of who I am and how I taught myself how to sing. I used all of these songs to teach myself how to sing.
COX: How long did it take to finish this CD? I'll tell you why I'm asking in a minute.
Ms. LEAK: Mm-hmm. It took me 10 days.
COX: And the reason I'm asking is this. You said that when you began recording this CD, you were deeply in love.
Ms. LEAK: Yeah.
COX: But by the end, that love had turned kind of sour.
Ms. LEAK: Yeah.
COX: So what song were you recording when you were feeling loved or like, was it what? "Happy feeling?" "I'm in Love?" One of those?
Ms. LEAK: When I first started, we were doing "Ain't No Sunshine." But I said that when I first started the CD it was me at first who started choosing the songs.
COX: Oh, I see.
Ms. LEAK: So that's what I meant by that. That took - that was a couple of months. I chose the songs. And when I was choosing the songs it was more about him and what I was feeling for him. So the songs like "I Don't Want to Lose Your Love" and all those kind of things, I meant it in a way where, you know, I-love-you-so-much-I-don't-ever-want-to-lose-your-love kind of thing. But then as it turned out, when we did break up, it kind of turned into something different. Well, I really don't, you know, I-want-you-back kind of thing.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. LEAK: I can't believe it. All those songs are fitting. It shook me out because I'm really went to greats, you know, lengths to make sure I didn't - I chose the right kind of tunes for what I was feeling so that someone else would, you know, maybe they'd be feeling the same way, you know, and they would identify with the record.
(Soundbite of song, "I Don't Want to Lose Your Love")
Ms. LEAK: (Singing) Don't take my love for granted, boy, and then turn around and do me dirty.
Unidentified Group: (Singing) I don't want to lose your love. I don't want to lose your love. Don't want to lose your love.
Ms. LEAK: (Singing) Don't want to lose you.
Unidentified Group: (Singing) I don't want to lose your love. Don't want to…
COX: That's wild. So we picked up this CD and go through the 10 cuts that are on here, we get a sense of what Maysa's love life was like during the time she was going through this project.
Ms. LEAK: It's kind of weird because I went through every song that you hear, from "Happy Feelings" - and then the last song, actually, I was so devastated with that last song, "This Time I'll Be Sweeter." And even though I didn't do anything to break up the relationship I still, you know, a lot of those lyrics in that song just meant, like, you know, it will be better next time. And it's turning out to be that way as a matter fact.
COX: That's wild. That's wild.
(Soundbite of song "This Time I'll Be Sweeter")
Ms. LEAK: (Singing) This time I'll be sweeter. Our love will run deeper. I won't mess around.
COX: Listen, you were with the group Incognito and later ventured out on your own. And even though you've, you know, record with them - you still record with them from time to time, do you miss the group days?
Ms. LEAK: I think because I have my own solo thing going - I mean, I miss the guys, I miss everybody individually but I like doing the solo thing, too, so I'm kind of spoiled. I've been very blessed to do both things.
COX: Listen. let's talk about what I'll call generational music for a minute. Okay? This CD looks back into the '70s and '80s - a time, quite frankly, that a lot of today's music listeners don't know about and some don't care about.
Ms. LEAK: Right.
COX: How do you bridge that divide or do you even try to?
Ms. LEAK: I tried to bridge that divide by trying to stay in true to the music but also putting on few load twist on it to, you know, make it modern. But I think it's really not all the musician's job, I think the parents, if they let the kids hear the music, because I'm telling you I have two-year-old who is scatting - who's doing the scat on "I can't help it right now."
Ms. LEAK: Oh, yeah, I have - my cousin's daughter is doing it and a friend of mine's daughter doing it. So I'm thinking about having this kind of contest where I have the kids scat and teach them about music because that's the whole thing about being an artist and honing your craft. You know, I want people to start doing that because I think people are tired of this cookie cutter, make this person up in the studio kind of singing nothing. They want the real singer to come forth.
COX: Now you definitely are that.
Ms. LEAK: I hope so.
COX: Now that you've done this homage to some great R&B music of your past, let's talk about what you would do today. If you had to pick potential covers from today's music, all right…
Ms. LEAK: Wow.
COX: …today's music, is there a song or a singer who grabs you?
Ms. LEAK: A singer who grabs me right now is Fantasia.
COX: Really? Why?
Ms. LEAK: Yeah. She's probably one of the most fantastic new singers to come forward because she's truly a great singer and it's not about how she looks and how, you know, what kind of gimmick she has. She really can sing.
COX: What's been the response to the CD so far?
Ms. LEAK: Overwhelming. I mean, I've never, you know, we debuted number 30 on the R&B charts, which I've never done before.
Ms. LEAK: That shook me - Yeah. That shook me out. This has been overwhelming. I don't know if the planets are lining up right, or something is going on where everybody is giving me a great response. I mean, getting a lot of feedback from the media, which is great, which I've always tried to do because I think, you know, in my career, I think my career has been on this even keel all these years because I haven't really had the media exposure that I thought I kind of deserve. So it seems like it's coming this time. So I'm just opening it, you know, open doors and welcome it and…
COX: You talked about your diary in the Web site. I went and checked it out. You're blogging your way through a diet, aren't you?
Ms. LEAK: Yes.
COX: It seems you're trying to lose 92 pounds, did I read that right?
Ms. LEAK: Yeah.
Ms. LEAK: Yeah, it might too much but I'm - that's my goal right now. I'm doing the metamorphosis. My next record is called "Metamorphosis" and my music is going to change, you know, into something more exotic and doing that transition - I'm making a transition of myself, my physical self. I want to be here. I just turned 40 years old and I want to be here for a long time as long as I can.
COX: Changing your body shape and weight, is there any danger of that affecting your voice?
Ms. LEAK: Yes, it can. That's why I'm doing it the slow way, the diet and exercise, very hard way. My voice tutor told me that she thought it would be dangerous for me to do that but then again, like, singers like Patti Austin they've done it and their voice look great.
COX: Yes, she has…
Ms. LEAK: So, you know, but I just chose the regular way because I just want to do it this way and I want to challenge myself in a different way.
COX: And you're singing all while you're walking.
Ms. LEAK: Yes, I am.
COX: Maysa, it's great having you in. Thank you so much for coming.
Ms. LEAK: Thank you so much.
COX: Good luck too.
Ms. LEAK: Thank you.
COX: We will be listening.
(Soundbite of music)
CHIDEYA: That was NPR's Tony Cox with smooth jazz singer Maysa. Her new album is called "Feel the Fire."
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