Maysa is one of my favorite singers but also one of my favorite people in the music industry. Her voice is unforgettable and she is one of those “salt of the earth” people who means what she says and says what she means. She’s celebrating the release of her 14th studio album – Music For Your Soul. Maysa joined me to talk about her upcoming release, her experiences navigating the music industry, and how she has survived and thrived for over 32 years.
Watch our conversation here:
Pat Prescott: Maysa, hello. Always so good to see you. Congratulations on the new record.
Maysa: Thank you. I’m really excited and proud—although it took three years. A lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into making this record and producing it. It’s just been a whirlwind.
Before we talk about Music for Your Soul, let’s talk about your early career and your time with Stevie Wonder, followed by how you connected with your forever friend and colleague, Jean-Paul “Bluey” Maunick, leader of Incognito. Let’s start with Stevie first. I love origin stories. How did you come to sing background for one of the greatest music creators of our generation?
One of my best friends in the world, Kimberly Brewer, had moved to California to sing with Miki Howard. She got a call to sing with Stevie and she worked with him for about a year. In my last year at Morgan State, they came to sing with the Morgan State University Choir as part of a Martin Luther King tribute. After that concert, she asked Stevie if I could audition, because she wanted me to come to LA after I graduated.
I passed the audition, but I asked Stevie if I could wait one year to finish my degree because my parents had sacrificed for me to go to school. Only after I graduated, would I be able to come out there. All my friends were like, “How are you going to tell Stevie Wonder that’s what you want to do?” Like I was crazy. They were like, “You take your butt to California.” I was like, “I can’t, I have to finish this.” My mother had sold her engagement ring so I could go one semester to school. I couldn’t do that to her or to my father.
A year later, I was in the right place at the right time. Stevie was working on the Jungle Fever project with Spike Lee, so I was able to sing background on that record. And the first song I sang on that record is “These Three Words.”
You also have a great story with how you met Bluey and how you came to be working with Incognito, which is where a lot of people first heard your voice as a standout. As a matter of fact, I think a lot of times when people hear you, they think it’s Incognito. There’s been a revolving chair of lead vocalists in that group, but you are the one who really stands out. Isn’t there’s more to this than a working relationship?
This is a friendship and mentorship that’s gone on for 32 years. It’s been interesting. When I started with Incognito, Bridgette Bryant, one of the singers from “Wonder Love” was working with a producer named Stephen Harvey from Scotland. He had a kind of jazz song that he was working on and she said she thought my voice was better suited for the song, so she put me in touch with him. I started working with Steve and then about three months after working with him, he came to me one day and said, “One of my best friends in England is looking for a new American vocalist for his band called Incognito.’
Now, I had never heard of Incognito, and back then you couldn’t Google to find out more. I went to the music store to try to find the music, and what I found was “Always There” with Jocelyn Brown on it. I thought, “Wow, this is sounds like something I would love to do.” At that time, I was working at Macy’s. One day I came home sick and Bluey called me and said he’d been trying to get touch with me. He said, “We want to bring you to England for your audition.” We started talking about music, about life, and about family. He asked me to sing, “Don’t You Worry About a Thing.” I sang that. Then he said, “Change the key and sing it again.” And I did. Then he said, “Okay. In about a week or so, I’m going to bring you to London. Get ready, I’m going to have my manager call you and make arrangements.” The next morning, his manager calls me and says, “Maysa, I don’t know what you sang to Bluey yesterday, but you got the gig and we’re not going to ask anybody else.” That was just like a total magical whirlwind.
God has given me a lot of them in my life, but I have to say, all these magical moments where my life just kind of teleported me to the next thing. It’s just amazing how it happened. They flew me to London about two weeks later, where I lived for four and a half years. It’s hard to describe the positivity.
That was a great period. That story and what went on in those four years in London would make a good dramatic movie. Let’s talk about the relationship that you and Bluey have. One of my favorite moments is when we were on the Capitol Jazz Super Cruise a few years ago. Just seeing the two of you together and not just on stage. He really is like a big brother to you, isn’t he?
He is. One hundred percent. He gives me advice and then he tells the world about my business. A lot of people don’t even know that these songs are my life story songs. From day one, he has been an amazing mentor and a big brother all the way through.
Bluey not only recognized your voice. It seems he was getting a lot of material from the drama in your life so you contributed in a couple of ways. Take me back to where and how that happened. One of the things I love about you Maysa is all the challenges that you’ve overcome. You are an overcomer of so many things that have happened in your career. People told you that you wouldn’t make it or that you didn’t look the part or that your voice wasn’t that special. People said all kinds of things. People just did you wrong in a lot of different ways, but you still managed to survive and thrive over 32 years. I’m willing to bet that means a lot to you.
It does but I kept my eye and my heart on the prize. My mom and dad taught me that through their work ethic, as well as who they were as people. They told me to just keep going. One day I was singing background for a singer named Lizz Hogue. I had to go from class at Morgan State to home, get my clothes and jump on a train to go to Philly and then drive 18 hours or so to Detroit to do these nightclubs.
I was just so stressed out and my mother said to me, “Maysa, don’t stop until you get where you want to go.” Those words fueled my whole life, and that’s how I’ve been. I just keep going and do the best I can for everybody. I try to be professional and give more than what I’m being paid for. But I think that commitment to customer service is what’s kept me in the business this long.
I know that family means a lot to you too, and I know that your mom’s passing was a really big deal for you. I get the feeling that part of your career came to fruition after your mom passed. You have really dedicated your music to her memory and to her legacy.
Absolutely. She used to tell me, “I’m going to find some gold and make you Grammy things.” I used to be so distraught about the Grammys, saying, “I’m not getting any recognition. No one is noticing my music.” She was like, “Oh, come on. Just forget about that. It’s about the music.” I realized, “You’re right, mommy.” After she passed, I got my first nomination, so I know she had something to do with it.
Definitely. I know that one of the big obstacles in your life and one of the greatest blessings in your life was the premature birth of your lovely son, Jazz, who means the world to you. Talk about that experience—what that was like and how you managed to get through that.
So many people helped me through that. Besides my mom and my family, there was my best friend, Troy Burton, and all my best friends. So many people took me through it. Through the March of Dimes, I was able to speak to counselors from Osaka, Japan. At that time, it was difficult to even get a line from Japan to the United States. I was able to get some help to cope with having a premature baby, not knowing if he was going to survive or how he was going to thrive, even if he did survive.
I didn’t know what my life was going to be like to care for a baby who may not be able to walk or speak or eat on his own, and all the things that they told me would happen. My whole thing was to project myself into the future. I had to do it mentally. I know I had a slight nervous breakdown at that time. To overcome all of that, I focused on the future. Prayer is miraculous in itself but for the most part, I kept dreaming of the future when I would throw him a ball or when I would buy him clothes or when I would have Christmas ready for him, or when I would cook him dinner, when I would take him to school and those things.
It was a terrible time and it was a beautiful time. It was just really weird. I’m pleased to say that he’s 23 years old and handsome. He got his own apartment recently. He’s a grown man and he’s working hard. He pays his bills. He’s a sweet, nice man. Just a nice human being, which I’m most proud of. He is healthy and strong. We are very lucky since he overcame retinopathy. The doctors used laser surgery on his retinas so that he’d be able to see. It’s amazing, amazing work these people did for him. We’re so blessed and grateful.
Raising him was really a family affair too, wasn’t it?
It really was. My mom up until 2012 when she left us, she really was my rock with him. The invention of FaceTime was a big deal and helped a lot. We did a lot of talking on the phone on my days off when I was on the road. That’s how I got into the show, The Walking Dead, because of my son. We watched a twelve-hour marathon on my day off. He’s on the phone at home and I’m in my hotel room and we both held the phone with him talking. I ordered food for him from here and I ordered food for myself in the hotel room. We just spent literally all day long. That’s one of my fondest memories with my mom supporting my son and I to connect.
Let’s fast forward to today. Your 14th solo album, Music for Your Soul, which features some really wonderful music. Let’s talk a little bit about the songs. The beginning of the album is really like a meditation. The words that you speak in that opening track and then just the whole feel of it has got to be intentional. I found myself getting lost in it.
Oh, that’s good. That’s what I wanted. I was almost finished the album and I said to my producer, Chris “Big Dog” Davis, “I want to start this album off as a meditation, welcoming people into just relaxing and listening to the album.” Which we don’t do because we are always in a rush, always have too much going on, always overwhelmed. I wanted to start the album in a peaceful way that also tells and shows people that I love them with all my heart. I asked him to make some music for these words.
When he came with the music, I lost my mind. We didn’t do any planning. I didn’t write it beforehand. I just went into the studio and sat in the chair and I just said what my heart was feeling at the time. Not all the wording is correct, but I didn’t care. I just wanted it to be real from me at that time, at that moment. I just wanted to relax.
Well, it really, really works. You’re going to let us hear just a little taste of some of this. We’ll get to that at the end. A couple of other things I want to ask about the record. You have some wonderful guests on this, including Chris Walker, who was a longtime music director for Al Jarreau. Also Frank McComb, who in my opinion, is one of the more underrated pianists, vocalists, and songwriters in music today. You’ve got guitarist Chieli Minucci of Special EFX fame on there and soulful singer Noel Gourdin. But the song that moved me the most was called, “Lord, I Thank You” featuring our good friend Kirk Whalum. Tell us the story about that song.
I had a show at the Life Lux Jazz Fest in Los Cabos, Mexico. We had a great time with beautiful scenery at an amazing hotel. Everything was great. It’s rare when I get to go someplace and I can relax in the environment where I am. I’m usually going from the gig to the hotel, down for the sound check, to the gig—there’s just never any time. To have that time there meant a lot to me. That morning, there was big bathtub in my room and I wanted to just chill out before I got on the flight. When I was in the bathtub, I just started crying because I was so grateful for everything in my whole life.
The good times, the bad times, the blessings and the lessons. I just wanted to thank God. I wanted him to know how I truly felt. I just started singing, “Lord, I thank you for the peace. Lord, I thank you for the peace.” That’s how I started. I got my phone and sang it into my phone. I sent it to Chris “Big Dog” Davis, my longtime producer. He put that beautiful music under it.
When we heard the music and we went to the studio to record it, I thought, “Who can I ask to play on this song?” We both looked at each other at the same time and said, “We’ve got to see if Kirk Whalum. is available because it sounded like him. When I sent it to him, he first said to me, “I don’t know if I can do this”. I was like, “Oh, okay. I’m sorry. I know that you might not have time.” He’s like, “No, I don’t know if I’m going to get through it.” He said, “This is amazing and beautiful. I’m honored that you asked me to do it. I’m going to try to get through it and I’m going to sing you something.” Which he did. What you hear is what he says and it is really perfect.
We alluded earlier about just how you are connected to your audience in such a special way. You’re the person who always has time for everyone, for every last fan that wants to take a picture or to say hello or get a hug and a Maysa hug is a hug you want to get. My motto is more hugging, less mugging. One great example of the connection you have with your fans is something that you do periodically. Especially during the pandemic, I think it was such a great source of peace for a lot of people. I’m talking about your “Kitchen Karaoke.” I see you’re in the kitchen right now. How did that come to be and how much has that meant to you to be able to really communicate with your listeners?
It’s everything. My friend Walter Beasley is the reason why it started. Tomorrow is the seventh birthday of Kitchen Karaoke. We started in 2016. It was just Walter saying to me, “There’s this new thing called Facebook Live, you should get on it.” And I was like, “I don’t know about that.” He talked me into it and I said, “Well, let me introduce my new website.” I got on, put my music tracks on, said hello to everybody, sang a couple of songs and then got off.
It was from 7:30 to 8 and that’s how it happened. When people said, “Maysa, can you do this again next week?” I was like, “Okay.” I came on next Sunday night, from 7:30 to 8 and now after so many years, it’s grown into a huge family. Before I was shadow banned by Facebook, I was up to a hundred thousand people a week watching. It was insane. I was like, “What is going on?” It was so fun.
Before COVID, I used to have a big karaoke with a lot of guests. I would cook and bring everybody over. I would have special guests. Frank McComb was one of my special guests. Dawn Tallman, the great amazing gospel singer who also sings a lot on my music too. We had Phil Perry. We had a great time bringing in everybody and that’s what I love because this house is where I grew up and my parents had a lot of “blue light in the basement” parties here as well as a lot of celebrations.
I love that I have been able to continue it with my audience that has grown from new people from Facebook or people that have known me for the whole 32 years. This way I can connect and have my family with me. It’s just a beautiful thing.
How can people connect with you on social media because I want people to be able to keep up with all of that and everything else that you’re doing?
All you do is go to maysa.com and you scroll down and all my social media is right there. The link to “Kitchen Karaoke” is on that page too.
Well, you promised to sing something for us, but before you do that, I want to talk a little bit about the significance of blue in your life. I wore blue today because I know you rock it. I know it’s your favorite color. Where does this love of blue come from?
I have a new magazine and I tell this story in my Maysa magazine. My love of blue started when I was a baby. I vividly remember being on my dad’s shoulders and going into the pharmacy. He would look in a big cylindrical pacifier bin which had a whole bunch of pacifiers in it. I remember him saying, “Baby, what color pacifier do you want?” I remember saying “Blue.” I was just drawn to blue every time. Every time I would lose my pacifier, he would take me again and I would always want the color blue, not any other of the colors. I remember saying, “I like blue, I want blue.”
So many things have happened connected to the color blue. I started my career with a man named “Bluey.” My first record deal was with GRP Blue Thumb Records. When I was a little girl, I always wanted a baby boy. I always wanted to play with boy dolls. Then of course having a son. The first time I got a Grammy nomination was for the album Blue Velvet Soul.
You did an incredible promo package that was just amazing.
Thank you. Blue has been leading me my whole life and it’s all around me. It’s a calming and peaceful color and it just means a lot to me. And of course, my favorite flowers are blue roses. I said, “The man who I marry, blue roses are going to be involved, whoever he is.”
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.