Maysa Leak is a voice, a presence, an energy, as spectacular as she is consistent. Hailing from Baltimore, MD and beloved globally as the voice of the group Incognito, Maysa’s solo outings have wowed music lovers and amassed critical acclaim since her self-titled debut emerged in 1995. With the recent release of her tenth solo studio album, Blue Velvet Soul (Shanachie Entertainment), Maysa offers listeners a sumptuous soundscape that explores love and desire with soul-filled melodies. From the spoken-word poetry of “Sophisticated Lover” (some of which is in French), to the sensuous push and pull of “When You Touch Me,” to the come-hither groove of “Love Me Good,” Blue Velvet Soul is that album you put on for a cozy night in with your lover, or simply to unwind after a long day on the grind. Maysa is a master at weaving romantic love songs with uplifting and inspiring gems that speak directly to the heart, and it was an absolute joy to chat with her recently for this latest edition of SoulTrain.com’s Artist to Artist series.
SoulTrain.com: You attended Morgan State and earned a degree in classical performance. How did that very specific training prepare you for a career as a professional musical artist?
Maysa: I got the training by being on the MSU choir–we traveled the world. A few of us were chosen to go to Africa for a month. Dr. Nathan Carter was the conductor/director of music, and instilled in us everything we needed to know–everything I would learn later on being on the road. Musically, my voice teacher, Betty Malkus-Ridgeway, was phenomenal in teaching skills in how to prolong my voice. Your instrument only lasts as long as you take care of it.
SoulTrain.com: During your tenure as the lead vocalist for the group Incognito, you lived abroad in the UK. Did you notice any significant differences in the ways you–as both an African American as well as a black woman artist–were received by audiences overseas?
Maysa: In Europe, it seemed when I first started that what I did and who I was was more revered over there than here. They love soul music, period. Being a black soul singer was like being a superstar. They didn’t care about image and icon–to them, black soul music is something they loved and cherished and the artists were the stars.
[Soul music] is returning here in the states. They say Justin Timberlake is “bringing soul back.” I’m like, JT is great, and he’s embracing our music. But are we gonna let this Elvis thing repeat again? Soul is still there–but the kids these days have been force-fed pop culture craziness. They don’t understand the roots of soul.
SoulTrain.com: It’s amazing what is offered in terms of music these days, especially for young people.
Maysa: There was an era when teens had a musical conscience, when it was about the music. When I was coming up if you couldn’t sing you didn’t try to sing. Now people who are tone deaf make records and make money. No one in my era had the balls to sing in front of someone if they couldn’t do it. We have to put music back in schools to teach these kids how to hone the craft.
SoulTrain.com: In your bio, you speak about how you were six years old when you first saw the incomparable Melba Moore perform as Lutiebelle in the musical Purlie. What was it, do you recall, that grabbed you and made you know beyond a doubt that that was the path you’d choose, to become a singer?
Maysa: I lost it! I felt like my heart had grown outside my body! All the lights, all the singing, all the dancing–blew my mind. I knew at age 6.
SoulTrain.com: You’ve sung background with Stevie Wonder, and of course you are the voice of Incognito. You’re also your own, self-contained solo artist. There’s a great documentary called Twenty Feet From Stardom, chronicling some of the world’s most well-respected background singers–several of whom admit that they prefer that role to being a front woman. What about you? Which role do you prefer–performing as part of collective like Incognito or as a solo artist?
Maysa: I definitely love being a solo artist. I get to do my music the way I want to. If I never got past being a background vocalist, that wouldn’t have hurt me, but it’s one of the hardest jobs in the world. It’s a very important job and most background vocalists are the back-bone of the lead singer. It’s a revered position to be in. But being a lead vocalist…I love making music!
I’m blessed because 22 years in, I’m still in the game, putting out new music. When I was nominated for the Soul Train Award in 2009, I was in awe. I had no idea! I was just thrilled to be there. I don’t think anyone knew who I was, but it was still cool. And when they announced my name…I kept saying, “What’s wrong??” My friend was like, “You won!” I was in denial–it was weird!
SoulTrain.com: So let’s talk about Blue Velvet Soul, which was released on June 18.
Maysa: It’s a little bit more uptempo. Most of my records are ballads, mid-tempo. I was adamant about doing some authentic house and authentic disco, some different stuff on this record.
It’s the most difficult album I’ve made so far. My mom passed earlier last year, and when it was brand new I just really didn’t want to sing. Most of my albums were about relationships and things I was going through, but I had no intension of singing about my mom. I had writer’s block, I was fighting it. Most songs were written as I was walking up to the mic at recording time. “Inside My Dream” means the world to me. I wrote it because I’d been having so many happy dreams ever since my mom passed–my career is where I wanted, I met my soul mate, my son is doing well. And when I’d wake up, I’d be like “I wanna live in my dreams.”
For all things Maysa, visit her website maysa.com. She’s also on Facebook, and you can follow her on Twitter @MaysaLeak. Blue Velvet Soul is available on iTunes and at your favorite local brick and mortar record stores.
Rhonda Nicole is an independent singer/songwriter, lovin’ and livin’ in Oakland, CA, currently performing with San Francisco-based soul band Midtown Social. Download her EP “Nuda Veritas” on CDBaby and iTunes, check her out on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @wildhoneyrock.