Refreshingly authentic artists are always welcome on the R&B stage. While you probably wouldnt recognize her face, Maya Azucenas (pronounced AH-zoo-SAY-na) sugary voicea concoction of soul, Hip-Hop, and funk with a little bit of rockreverberates across television screens daily. The well-traveled Brooklynite first gained notice doing live shows with her aptly-titled Band at local New York venues. Besides loaning her voice to several national ad campaigns, including Mike’s Hard Lemonade and Macy’s, Mayas single Right Way was featured in a Lady Enyce compilation. And the Vivica A. Fox-produced film Motives, starring Vivica and Shamar Moore, plays Mayas song “Still Searchin during a crucial scene.
Side collaborations with fellow indie artists like Monet, Jean Grae, and Jeru the Damaja plus numerous tour appearances further solidify her promising status. On the strength of her vocals and upbeat lyrics, Maya Azucena is steadily on the come-up. The soulstress opened up to AllHipHop.com Alternatives recently about performing live, touring, and her independent debut, Maya Who!
AllHipHop.com Alternatives: People tend to want to place new artists into categories as far as soul, neo-soul, R&B, etc. Do you think you necessarily fit into any of those categories?
Maya Azucena: Um, no, probably like a lot of artists I dont like to have to be categorized. My sound is sort of considered soul, not necessarily neo-soul. Ive kind of come up with a term called raw soul, which to me [is] like live stage soul music with some funk and Hip-Hop and it has like an edge to it. And its not too recycled sounding.
AHHA: Youve also described yourself as a live soul Hip-Hop artist. Can you define that term?
Maya: Yeah, well its like the instrumentation of the music. I have a band so I do a lot of playing with my project, my live band. And, in fact, my recordings have the live foundation and then to me, the funk and hip-hop aspect of it is like the hard-edge that there is. And also it has the high energy aspect of it, and I have that as a person.
AHHA: You seem to really emphasize the live aspect of performing music. Why is that?
Maya: Well, its because a lot of my songwriting comes out of working with musicians, and theres a lot of music on the radio which is based off of studioeverything done in the studio. It doesnt translate to something very interesting on stage for example. But a lot of the songs I write, I write together with musicians and I try to think about the song and how can it translate when I bring it to people, when I bring it to an audience, not just how is it gonna translate to the radio.
AHHA: What happens to you when youre performing on stage as opposed to in the studio?
Maya: When Im on stage, I feel like Im home. Ive been singing since I was about four years old and doing stuff on stage since I was a little kid, so for some reason when Im able toI think its also because I love people and being in a situation where I can reach out and communicate with a lot of people. I feel like Im in my element when Im on stage. The energy is like really high and really just like Im in my zone. So really when I record in the studio, I try to bring that energy along with me. I try to keep character in both settings. Its not too drastically different, but when youre in the studio its obviously more controlled, and its a little more technical, like youre trying to achieve something as close to technically perfect as possible.
AHHA: You do spoken word too, right?
Maya: A little bit. My relationship with spoken word and the poetry community is, like Ive done a lot of shows at poetry events, so poets have invited me to sing at their events, and as a result its like I have a relationship with the poetry world. And every now and then, I do do a little bit of poetry. But its sort of because I feel comfortable sharing my poetry when Im around other poets. Its not like I really go after that. I actually sing a lot at poetry events, and I think its because the lyrics, the words are important, so I really put people into the lyrics as well. When youre at a poetry event it feels like the audience is different because poets really listen to the words that youre saying. They really get into the value of where youre coming from and what youre talking about and the way you put it together. So I always feel like when I sing for poets that they really appreciate the lyrical aspect of my song.
AHHA: Do you play any instruments?
Maya: No, I studied music. I went to Performing Arts High School in New York, LaGuardia [High School], and I studied classically. But my focus has always been on the voice, so thats my instrument. I write by ear, so I dont play piano or guitar or things like that, but I have a very strong musical background.
AHHA: Can you talk about your album title Maya Who! and the mood of the album?
Maya: Well, basically when you first introduce yourself as Maya Azucena, most people are like, Maya who? And after awhile, I was like, okay that makes sense Maya who, thats true. Thats my record, the name of my introduction to the world cause thats my first recordits like who are you? So its a play off the fact that most people cant remember my last name the first time out. But its also like, about [me] trying to make a mark out there in the world, and hopefully after the first record, people dont have to ask that question anymore.
[The album] has a classic soul feel to it, which Ive gotten comparisons to Chaka Khan, and the music, its not exactly like the stuff thats out there so in that sense its interesting. Its like it has aits attractive because youre not listening to it like, oh its the same ole thing. [To] go back to the feeling of it, its a lot of my soul side, and its got that live-based element. And the stuff Im talking about, Im talking about all different subjects youre gonna go through. The song Still Searchin [featured in Motives] is about avenging somebodys brother. Its like a modern-day cowboy song, like a street cowboy song.
AHHA: What other subjects do you talk about?
Maya: I talk about the bitter-sweet side of relationships Right Way is about being in a relationship and certain things not going right, and as a female all I really want to do is move you in the right way, but I dont know how long I can stay in this situation. And the first song, a lot of people like, is called Do You Really Want to Party? and thats just a story about waking up and having this itch to go to the club and go dancing, and like knocking your mom out the way to get to the club, its silly. I go through all sorts of subject matter.
AHHA: Who are some of your musical inspirations?
Maya: My musical inspirations would be, like, Mahalia Jackson and Ella Fitzgerald and Earth, Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder, Prince, those are the main ones.
AHHA: How do you think those artists would receive your music?
Maya: I think they would dig it. Ella and Mahalia are gone, unfortunately. I would like to sit down and have a conversation with either one of those women. Theyre so strong, incredibly powerful Black women, and man, just voices from Heaven. But Earth, Wind and Fire, and Prince and Michael Jackson are [great] song writers.
AHHA: Whos your favorite modern singer?
Maya: Its hard to say who my favorite is because theres just a couple, like Floetrythe singer from Floetry. She is off the chain, off the chain. Angelique, her voice is just [makes noise]. Of course I love Jill Scotts voice. Anthony Hamilton is like my favorite of all the male vocalists, John Legend, I love Johns voice. I love Dwele.
AHHA: Can you talk about your band, Band? How did you guys come together and whats your history?
Maya: Weve been playing around town for about five years, and Ive been a full-time singer for about five years. And so [the band] is just bass drums, keys, guitar, backup singers, and Ive booked my Band all over the U.S. and Ive even gone to Toronto. Im just taking my band and my music as far as I can so that I can be able to bring my music to more people.
AHHA: So youve basically toured all over the states. Wheres your favorite place to perform?
Maya: I have a very strong fan base in like, the San Francisco area so I love playing out there. Its just like, damn. Of course, New York is home. I grew up in Flatbush, [Brooklyn] and New York is my home so I love it here. D.C. and St. Louis were recent gigs that I did and we just got crazy love. St. Louis we got like a standing ovation, encores, they invited me back. Im going back in a couple of weeks. Man, loved it. St. Louis is dope and D.C. is off the chain, I cant wait to go back to that.
AHHA: Whats your ethnic background?
Maya: Mixed, African-American and White American. My pops is like Scottish, English roots, and my mom is like African-American, Jamaican, and Cherokee.
AHHA: Okay, why do you think companies like Macys and Lady Enyce are attracted to your sound for their commercials and campaigns? What is it about your sound that helps them sell products?
Maya: Hmm, well you know what somebody said to me the other day. They were like, Your music is feel-good music. Thats what somebody said to me the other day. Cause I always try to think outside of myself, like its hard for me to describe my own stuff sometimes. But somebody said that to me, and I think that might be why people from all walks of life respond to me. Because what I desire to doand I guess that spirit is in the musicis I want to uplift people and motivate people.
AHHA: Where can people hear what you sound like?
Maya: Mayawho.com – That has everything and then it also leads you to other places that have my music.