Maya Azucena Interview

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    Building the Masterpiece: An Interview with Maya Azucena 
    By Christian John Wikane

    When most of us are sleeping, Maya Azucena is working. On any given night, she might be in the studio, at the airport, meeting with other artists, responding to fans' e-mails and letters, writing a new song, or dousing an audience somewhere in the world with her fierce and fabulous stage show. Listeners and industry insiders agree that she is a one-woman powerhouse, a magnetic force who is one of the best performers to emerge from the independent artist community in New York.

    Building the Masterpiece: An Interview with Maya Azucena 
    By Christian John Wikane

    When most of us are sleeping, Maya Azucena is working. On any given night, she might be in the studio, at the airport, meeting with other artists, responding to fans' e-mails and letters, writing a new song, or dousing an audience somewhere in the world with her fierce and fabulous stage show. Listeners and industry insiders agree that she is a one-woman powerhouse, a magnetic force who is one of the best performers to emerge from the independent artist community in New York.

    Her appeal is wide-ranging. She not only bridges rock, soul, and hip-hop in her music, but she bridges audiences: old and young, men and women, black, white, Asian, Latino, and everyone in between. The audience at a Maya Azucena show is as diverse as the music she records. Those who have followed her know there's a whole lot more to her than Maya Who?! (2003) and Junkyard Jewel (2007). She recently released Taste This! (2008), a compendium of her collaborations with other artists and her work with a number of different producers. The disc emphasizes the variegated geography of her musical path and, like the title suggests, gives a taste of all the flavors she's served up over the years.

    Gearing up for her appearance at the 2008 SoulTracks Readers' Choice Awards, Maya Azucena took some time to reflect on the past five years, share her thoughts about the industry, and to let listeners know that a full-length follow up to Junkyard Jewel is in the works.

    How would you characterize the reaction to Junkyard Jewel?

    Junkyard Jewel is not what people expect and I like that. I like that for myself because I see myself as having a lifelong career. I'm not a person that sees myself as having one album and disappearing. I thought Maya Who?! was a good first project but I think it didn't have teeth on it. My live shows are so dynamic and I felt like Maya Who?! didn't match that dynamic. Even though it's a fine project, I feel that it kind of got smoothed out so much that if you heard that, and you didn't see me live, you would have thought I was a different artist.

    What I wanted to do with Junkyard Jewel, with this acoustic almost singer-songwriter project, was I wanted to counteract that with something that was just no mistaking where I'm coming from lyrically or where I'm coming from vocally. I'm not hiding behind any production. It's very raw and it shows my versatility as an artist. Why I love Junkyard Jewel is because after getting offstage at a rock show with someone like Vernon Reid - I'm the lead singer in his group Yohimbe Brothers - I can hand somebody that and they're going to get it. Then I can hand that to somebody who likes Jack Johnson, Raul Mídon and Corrine Bailey Rae and they can get it. I can hand it to somebody that's into "neo-soul" and they'll find something in there. What you do get out of it is, "Okay this is an artist that's coming from an honest place." It's not pretentious, it's different, and it's dynamic. It has range, both vocally and range in subject matter.

    "Set You Free" was the song that got me hooked on Junkyard Jewel when I saw you perform at the first Culture Bandit Soul show with Vanessa Hidary at Joe's Pub last year. You also recently released a remix of the song. What was the inspiration for you and Christian Ver Halen (Azucena's co-writer) to write that song?

    You know, that song was one of those songs that we wrote it almost in its entirety in about 20 minutes. You can probably tell from knowing me, but also hearing my music, that I'm a spiritual person. God is my strength and my sanity and my guide. He's always with me. He's my light and my fire. "Set You Free" is the way that He talks to me: "I'm the one moving you and even if you don't believe, I still love you." That's what "Set You Free" is. When I first started singing that song, it was even hard to sing it without crying. That song is very special. My journey is unique and it seems long in a lot of ways but at the same time it's like I believe that I'm where I'm supposed to be. I believe that there's a reason that the story is the way it is.

    You mentioned that you've collaborated with Vernon Reid and his Yohimbe Brothers group. I'd be interested to know how you connected with him.

    I also sing with, what I call a freestyle rock orchestra, called Burnt Sugar. It's conducted by Greg Tate. Singing with Burnt Sugar is a lot of fun. In any given show, I can sing opera, jazz, rock, and soul in one show. That's just fun for me vocally. Through being in that world and the Black Rock Coalition world I was referred to Vernon. The original singer, Natasha, could no longer do the date so I think maybe she was the one that recommended me. Working with Vernon, we really respect each other, musically. We get along really well and he allows me to push him musically and he pushes me musically but we enjoy that. I'm right up in there with him so it's just kind of a magical combination. Now he's like family. Now we have all kinds of ideas for other collaborations.

    Do you feel that people have tried to put you in a box, stylistically?

    Yes and no. I kind of side-stepped that. My whole career really has been sort of developed outside of that. Basically, if somebody's a hater, I'm just like (shrugs), "Alright, more power to you. See you later." I can't be bothered with the people that don't share my vision. I'm open to criticism. I'm open to always improving so that's very important. If you develop a God complex and you think that you can never improve, that's very dangerous. However, even though I'm open to criticism and I'm open to professional guidance from people I respect, I'm really careful to avoid people that don't have vision and people that are making decisions out of fear. You have industry people that say, "I love it. I listen to it in my car all the time but I don't know how to market it." I'm like, "Well isn't that your job? Aren't you getting paid a salary to know how to market?"

    Major labels are outsourcing everything to independent labels. They're seeing that the independents have been able to survive this incredible shift in the industry because they've always been on the ground level. Their antiquated way of doing things is obviously not going to continue to be successful. Now they're just throwing money at independent labels and bringing those independent labels under their dome. If the point at which major labels are being bought by liquor companies and computer companies, you realize that the people at the top have absolutely zero interest or respect for music. They don't care. Maybe I'm a visionary; I look at it more as how an entrepreneur looks at things. If you're an entrepreneur and you're waiting for everyone else to think your idea is good before you start business, you're too late. If you are trying to build something that is lasting and powerful and credible as a business, and you have the vision ahead of everyone else, that's the perfect place to be for a successful business. The industry is not working that way. What they're doing is they're waiting until after something has sold x, then they chase it. By then, if you look at it from a business perspective, it means you missed the boat.

    I say focus on quality first. An artist is a product, not just a song. There are artists that don't like to do interviews. That's not good, that's not going to work in terms of a long-term investment. There are artists that hate the camera and they don't like people. That makes it harder of an investment. You do have to consider things from a business perspective but I'd say once the quality is guaranteed, the marketing of it is just about getting it exposure and then it can sell itself because it's quality and therefore will attract people that respond to it.

    Tell me about the sentiment behind the Taste This mix CD.

    I do tons of collaborations with different artists. When I'm not doing my album, you'll see my name on a bunch of other people's albums. I also have singles in other countries under my name. I wrote them and I sang them but I never collected all that stuff and put it into one package that my fans could buy. If you don't live in Holland, you may not know that I have a single or two in Holland. If you're not in Italy, you may not know that I four singles in Italy. Taste This was sort of two-fold: giving my hip-hop fans and my DJ fans something that they can support because even though they all love Junkyard Jewel, they can't really spin an acoustic CD in a nightclub. It's just not the right format. I also wanted to just put something out into the world to help people to see that this is all of the other stuff I've been doing. I feel like some press people go to the website, they see Maya Who?!, they see Junkyard Jewel, and they're like, "She did an acoustic CD and she did a somewhat-okay other one. What's the big deal?" I'm like, "Well, I'm here, I'm here, I'm here, and I'm here." I pulled all these things together into one project that gives people the idea, "This is her writing and this is what she's been doing since (the solo albums)" and also just something a little more beat-driven that DJ's and my hip-hop fans can really get behind.

    You perform in so many places all over the world. How differently are you received in the United States versus, say, Croatia?

    You want to know something that has been a resounding truth for me? I am received the same everywhere I go, whether they understand what I'm saying or not. That tells me something about the language of music and the spirit. I kid you not: I play in China, I play in Burma, I play in Sri Lanka, I play in Croatia, I play in Italy, I play in London, I play in Toronto, I play in Brooklyn, I play in LA, I play in the Bay, I play in Austin, Texas - all totally different audiences, different age ranges, different days and moments in time, different outfits, and people respond the same. That says something to me about the oneness of human beings. If you really are coming from a place of love and you really care and you really are open, it's not as big of a divide as people assume. People can tell if you're straight up, if you're honest, if you're real, and they can tell if you're fake. It doesn't mean I'm perfect but I'm saying that people can read you. I always feel that I owe it to my audience to be honest and to be real and to come from an honest place. They end up going on this journey with me. When they're elated, I'm elated. When they're touched, I'm touched. We feel the same things. When I sing the song "Hallelujah," which is one of the only covers I do, the audience and me, we have the same exact experience. That's the thing that I've learned on this journey, and I see it more and more the more I travel. If you really care about people and you're singing for people, they get it. Maybe it's an emotional risk because you're kind of pouring your soul out to people that may not care. I'm willing to do that because there may be one person there that needs me to have the courage to say these things, to have the courage to be vulnerable and tell their story. To me, my whole world of being an artist is created around that kind of notion so I don't understand the artists that their only concern is how many singles they're going to sell. I'm concerning myself with different matters.

    How would you say your writing has evolved since Maya Who?!

    I've had a lot longer to know my voice as a singer. I've been singing since I was four. I think I had my first vocal teacher when I was in the sixth grade and then I ended up going to Performing Arts High School where my main teacher in high school was also a professor at Manhattan School of Music. I was getting college-professor-degree education singing opera in high school. I had a lot more time to know my instrument but learning about me as a songwriter was kind of in the rear. It took much longer to catch up and the main problems that I had at the beginning were that I have this four-octave range, or more, and I was writing songs that weren't as interesting as my abilities. I wasn't writing songs that necessarily deserved my voice, in a way. Collaborating, I think, has been a very big key to me expanding as an artist and expanding as a songwriter so I just feel like over the past couple of years my songwriting has gotten much more comfortable, like I'm able to get at the vision I have inside and the words I'm trying to speak. It's just coming more easily whereas before I felt like there was this gap between the talent and the quality of the songs. Now I feel like the field is being balanced where now I'm writing songs that also reflect the gift that's inside.

    What's the status on the follow up to Junkyard Jewel?

    My next full-length album I've been making for four years! The reason that Junkyard Jewel came first is because it was easier to deliver an acoustic project than to rush the CD that I've been building. I didn't want to half-step on it and force it, so the next CD that I make is going to represent my full-spectrum that I have for my sound. It will have produced mixed beats together with live string section and horn sections. It's like the "masterpiece" record that I've wanted to make from day one.