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Maysa Leak

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Maysa Leak

While Maysa is no newcomer to the music scene, her ninth solo CD, Motions of Love (Shanachie Entertainment) that boasts cameos by the legendary Stevie Wonder and neo soul crooner Dwele, promises to introduce the veteran soul and smooth jazz vocalist to the widest audience of her career. She first gained fame as the featured voice on British acid jazz band Incognito’s defining `90s era hits such as “Don’t You Worry About A Thing”, “Still A Friend of Mine” and “Deep Waters.” She then launched a concurrent solo career with the hits “Am I Wrong (For Lovin’ You),” “Friendly Pressure” and “Hypnotic Love.” With a sultry alto on par with Phyllis Hyman and Patti Austin’s honeyed notes, Maysa should be one of the biggest names in the urban mainstream but instead she’s earned a loyal underground audience.

“This album has more popular appeal than my other stuff,” Maysa offers as a remedy for her status as Urban AC radio’s best-kept secret. “I love my cult following. I have no complaints about that because that’s more meaningful to me than anything. I don’t want to walk into a store and have to have bodyguards and all that crap. I don’t want that. If people come up to me in the supermarket and give me a hug, I love that.
When I was a kid I prayed to God that I would have longevity in the music industry and that’s what I have. I haven’t gone anywhere. I’ve been working 20 years straight.”

The Motions of Love project, primarily shepherded by Chris “Big Dog” Davis who has also produced Will Downing and Kim Waters, marks a new chapter in the book of Maysa’s career. “The original album title was Uncharted Territory because I kind of branched out a little bit on this record,” she confesses. “I had planned on having a rock song, I rapped a little bit and I had a country song. The country song and rap made it but the rock song didn’t make it because we didn’t have time to finish it. My degree is in classical performance. If I wanted to, I could go into opera if I put my mind to it. This was supposed to be an all R&B record with no jazz at all because I’ve never done a whole R&B album before.”

Instead, it’s a fourteen-track R&B album colored with funk, jazz, disco and a little New Orleans gumbo. Moreover, it’s the completion of a quartet of albums detailing Maysa’s rollercoaster romance with a now ex-boyfriend.

The couple broke up and Maysa funneled both her fury and her desire for the perfect man into this new album. “I chose the songs because of my raw emotions,” she adds. “One song says, `there may be some butt I have to kiss but your name ain’t on the list.’ I was on a plane to go work with my producer Big Dog and do a writing session. I told him that I had nothing to say. `I’m so heartbroken right now. I’m so angry that I can’t think of a word to say about this man or about how I feel. I’m just numb. I’m 45 years old and I’m still going through this craziness.’ It was a 45-minute ride and the song `When It’s Over’ came to me on that plane. As soon as I got to Big Dog I said, ` I wrote this on the plane’ and he was like, `wow!’ ”

“On the album, Metamorphosis [2008], I was feeling the same way but this is ten times what I was feeling then.,” she confides. “I love that album. I did a lot of writing on it and it all revolves around the same man. From me choosing songs on the album Feel the Fire [2007] that had a lot to do with this man. The last five years we’ve been together, we’ve broken up several times and Metamorphosis was like a letter to him. Then, by the time A Woman in Love came out, we had gotten back together. It seemed like we got it right and everything was cool. Then, on this new album we just suddenly broke up again …I will never give up on finding the man for me. I don’t care if I’m 85 years old, I’ll still be looking for him.”

Knowing that these musical tales sprang from Maysa’s real life soap opera makes them even more poignant. On her smooth co-write, “You Won’t Find Your Way,” the lyrics echo her details of the breakup. After critiquing her lover for spending the “summer away” and “playing summer games,” she informs him that “three strikes and you’re out” and declares: “You won’t find your way back into my heart…never again will you get in! Baby, the door to me is locked.”

Although, that relationship is over; Maysa clearly knows what she’s looking for in a mate and joyfully fantasizes about it on other songs. She co-produced and composed the dreamy disco-styled “Love Sweet Love (LSL)” with her bassist Charles Baldwin and keyboard player Damon Bennett. She boldly seeks love from that “Special Place” on one soothing track and tempts a man to a shower of love on the fast-paced “Get Wit Me.” She shows off her admiration for disco divas such as Linda Clifford and Thelma Houston on the club tune “Day N Night” in which she promises her next lover that, “anytime that you want it, I’m a give it all to ya baby.”

Maysa met a husband and wife singing/songwriting duo, Tony & Joann Kemp aka Southern Silk Duo, at an Incognito concert years ago. “They gave me a song called Motions of Love and every year, I keep saying I’m gonna use the song because I love it so much but I finally did it and it turned out to be the title track,” she offers. In spite of her recent heartbreak, Maysa finds strength in her faith. On the Latin-tinged “Hold On” she lays down some sweet scatting adlibs and encourages the faithful to, “hold on to God’s unchanging hand.”

Maysa got a hand from neo soul artist ,DWELE on the mid-tempo hand clapper “Flower Girl” that is currently making its way up radio station playlists. Maysa’s stirring remake of Angela Bofill’s 1979 classic, “I Try” is another special moment. “I’ve been on tour with her the last couple of years,” she says of Bofill who suffered severe strokes in 2006 and 2007 that have left her unable to sing at her prior standard. “She narrates her life story and asked me to sing her songs for her in the show. It’s been a great experience.”

Another great experience has been the track “Have Sweet Dreams” that features Stevie Wonder who gave Maysa her first music industry gig as a member of his Wonderlove backing group in 1991. Maysa’s friend Kim Brewer told her that she had written her a song that Wonder was going to produce on Maysa. “When I got to the studio to go over the keys, Stevie started playing another song and he started singing and asked Kim to tape it,” Maysa recalls. “So, Kim started taping it on her phone and she said, ` is this a Stevie Wonder song or a Maysa song?’ He said, `it’s a Maysa song.’ He wrote a song on the spot for me and Kim worked on it with him. He played harmonica on it that night and then he said he wanted to put one more background part on it. I thought he wanted me to sing it and when he went up to go to the mic, I was like are you kidding? It’s almost like a gift. God has been putting these aha surreal crazy moments in my life. Twenty years ago I was singing backgrounds for Stevie Wonder and now he’s singing a background part for my song. I’m like what’s going on? It’s just beautiful.”

Romantic setbacks aside, it’s been a beautiful life for the Baltimore, MD native. Unlike many R&B singers, Maysa wasn’t raised in the church, so her musical style wasn’t shaped from the choir loft. Her early influences were her mother’s favorite soul records. “My mother played so much music in the house,” she laughs. “We woke up to it. We went to sleep with it. We celebrated to it. We ate food to it. Music was everyday, all day long. We had this big ole console record player. To wake us up in the morning, she didn’t come to our room and say get up. She would play the Gap Band’s `Get Up Early in the Morning’ song and she’d blast that so loud that you had no choice but to get up or have a headache.”

When she was about 14, Maysa’s uncle took her aside and turned her on to jazz. “I used to listen to Janet Jackson and all of that and he wanted me to stop listening to pop music,” she recalls. “He told me to turn on PBS one night and that’s when Al Jarreau was on and I was like oh my God! What is that? I want to do that!”
She then started studying jazz masters ranging from Dianne Reeves and Carmen McRae to John Coltrane and Stanley Turrentine. “I listened to them to get a different sound.,” she adds. “I think all of them are in me somehow.”

The songbird studied music at Morgan State University before heading to California to sing back-up for Stevie Wonder. During a tour break from Wonderlove, she auditioned for Scottish drummer, Steve Harvey, who was best friends with Jean-Paul “Bluey” Manunick of Incognito. Bluey was looking for an American singer to front his band and asked Harvey to compile a list of 25 prospects. He put Maysa on that list. “Bluey asked Steve which one of these singers would you trust with your children and he said me, so Bluey called me first.” Bluey asked her to sing Stevie Wonder’s tune “Don’t Worry About A Thing” over the phone. He, then told her where the official audition would be the next day and to show up there. The following day, Bluey’s manager called her and said she didn’t need to audition after all. Bluey had hired her and wasn’t considering anyone else for the spot.

The next few years were a whirlwind as Incognito reached new levels of fame with Maysa at the forefront. Their 1992 CD Tribes Vibes + Scribes produced the band’s first American urban radio hit with the favorite “Don’t You Worry `Bout A Thing” which was equally huge in Europe. Their 1994 CD Positivity is their biggest seller to date, pumping out megahits like “Still A Friend of Mine” and “Deep Waters.”

A turning point for Maysa came in 1994 when GRP Records Vice President of A&R Carl Griffin experienced an Incognito performance at the Northsea Jazz Festival. “We were playing the biggest room, The JVC room – 18,000 people,” she recalls. “If I waved my hand, they waved their hands. It was one of those surreal moments. At the end of the show, I was walking down the ramp to leave the stage and Carl was walking up. He stopped me and said, `I think its time for your solo career.’”

A year later GRP’s Blue Thumb imprint was releasing Maysa’s self-titled debut CD that featured radio charms “Can We Change the World,” “Sexy” and “What About Our Love?” While firmly established as a soloist, Maysa continued to perform with Incognito off and on. After GRP founders Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen sold their label, they founded N2K Encoded Music and Maysa moved there with them and recorded three other fine albums before joining the Shanachie roster in 2005.

As Maysa looks towards the future, she hopes to one day star in a stage play about the life of jazz great Sarah Vaughn that she’s been working on but her primary mission in the interim is to have the music on Motions of Love heard. “Everything I’ve worked for over the last 20 years,” she sighs. “I just want to see it blossom. There have been a lot of enjoyable parts and a lot of hard things in my career. I just want to get to the place where I’m on people’s minds without anyone asking. If there’s a part in a movie, I want them to say, `why don’t we get Maysa for that role?’ Or, `do you think Maysa would sing on this track?’ That’s all I want. That’s my biggest dream. This CD is the big one. I know it. I can feel it in my heart. I’m so excited.”