Maya Azucena: Who’s That Girl?

Refreshingly authentic artists are always welcome on the R&B stage. While you probably wouldn’t recognize her face, Maya Azucena’s (pronounced AH-zoo-SAY-na) sugary voice—a concoction of soul, Hip-Hop, and funk with a little bit of rock—reverberates across television screens daily. The well-traveled Brooklynite first gained notice doing live shows with her aptly-titled ‘Band’ at local New […]

Refreshingly authentic artists are always welcome on the R&B stage. While you probably wouldn’t recognize her face, Maya Azucena’s (pronounced AH-zoo-SAY-na) sugary voice—a concoction of soul, Hip-Hop, and funk with a little bit of rock—reverberates 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, Maya’s single “Right Way” was featured in a Lady Enyce compilation. And the Vivica A. Fox-produced film Motives, starring Vivica and Shamar Moore, plays Maya’s 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 Alternatives recently about performing live, touring, and her independent debut, Maya Who! 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 don’t like to have to be categorized. My sound is sort of considered soul, not necessarily neo-soul. I’ve 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 it’s not too recycled sounding.

AHHA: You’ve also described yourself as a live soul Hip-Hop artist. Can you define that term?

Maya: Yeah, well it’s 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, it’s because a lot of my songwriting comes out of working with musicians, and there’s a lot of music on the radio which is based off of studio—everything done in the studio. It doesn’t 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 you’re performing on stage as opposed to in the studio?

Maya: When I’m on stage, I feel like I’m home. I’ve 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 I’m able to—I think it’s 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 I’m in my element when I’m on stage. The energy is like really high and really just like I’m 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. It’s not too drastically different, but when you’re in the studio it’s obviously more controlled, and it’s a little more technical, like you’re 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 I’ve done a lot of shows at poetry events, so poets have invited me to sing at their events, and as a result it’s like I have a relationship with the poetry world. And every now and then, I do do a little bit of poetry. But it’s sort of because I feel comfortable sharing my poetry when I’m around other poets. It’s not like I really go after that. I actually sing a lot at poetry events, and I think it’s because the lyrics, the words are important, so I really put people into the lyrics as well. …When you’re at a poetry event it feel’s like the audience is different because poets really listen to the words that you’re saying. They really get into the value of where you’re coming from and what you’re 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 that’s my instrument. I write by ear, so I don’t 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, that’s true. That’s my record, the name of my introduction to the world ‘cause that’s my first record—it’s like who are you? So it’s a play off the fact that most people can’t remember my last name the first time out. But it’s also like, about [me] trying to make a mark out there in the world, and hopefully after the first record, people don’t have to ask that question anymore.

[The album] has a classic soul feel to it, which I’ve gotten comparisons to Chaka Khan, and the music, it’s not exactly like the stuff that’s out there so in that sense it’s interesting. It’s like it has a—it’s attractive because you’re not listening to it like, “oh it’s the same ole thing.” [To] go back to the feeling of it, it’s a lot of my soul side, and it’s got that live-based element. And the stuff I’m talking about, I’m talking about all different subjects you’re gonna go through. …The song “Still Searchin” [featured in Motives] is about avenging somebody’s brother. It’s 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 don’t 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 that’s 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, it’s 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. They’re 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: Who’s your favorite modern singer?

Maya: It’s hard to say who my favorite is because there’s just a couple, like Floetry—the singer from Floetry. She is off the chain, off the chain. Angelique, her voice is just [makes noise]. Of course I love Jill Scott’s voice. Anthony Hamilton is like my favorite of all the male vocalists, John Legend, I love John’s voice. I love Dwele.

AHHA: Can you talk about your band, Band? How did you guys come together and what’s your history?

Maya: We’ve been playing around town for about five years, and I’ve been a full-time singer for about five years. And so [the band] is just bass drums, keys, guitar, backup singers, and I’ve booked my Band all over the U.S. and I’ve even gone to Toronto. I’m 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 you’ve basically toured all over the states. Where’s 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. It’s 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. I’m going back in a couple of weeks. Man, loved it. St. Louis is dope and D.C. is off the chain, I can’t wait to go back to that.

AHHA: What’s 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 Macy’s 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.” That’s what somebody said to me the other day. ‘Cause I always try to think outside of myself, like it’s 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 do—and I guess that spirit is in the music—is I want to uplift people and motivate people.

AHHA: Where can people hear what you sound like?

Maya: – That has everything and then it also leads you to other places that have my music.