The Cultural Reset kicks off Black History Month with an intimate interview with singer and actress Maya J. TCR’s Nick Lee and Shay Ervin sat down with Maya to discuss her new single ‘Trouble’ as well as her experience navigating the ups and downs of the entertainment industry as a female artist. From her unique perspectives on artist-label relationships to her pledge to always create outside of the box, Maya dishes on the importance of maintaining artistic integrity in an era of oversaturation in music.
Photo: "MAYA J"
Click here to listen to MAYA J FULL INTERVIEW
Nick Lee: Welcome back to another entry in The Cultural Reset’s Artists Interview Series. This is Nick Lee and...
Shay Ervin: Shay! And with us today we have Maya, would you like to introduce yourself?
Maya J: Yes! Hey guys, it's Maya J. I'm an actress and singer. And hopefully you've streamed my music on Spotify.
N: Absolutely, I love your music. It’s so good! Where and when did your individual creative journey begin?
M: Well, my individual creative journey started when I was around 15, because that's when I became heavily involved in music and acting—more so acting first. But I always knew I wanted to do music. So that was when I figured out how I was gonna make these two things intertwine no matter what. And it did end up happening. They haven't crossed paths together yet, but I'm hoping that the acting and music does intertwine because that would be amazing.
N: That's kind of a big thing in the industry, too! TV and film are married in a way. But for some reason, they're very distant from the music industry. I think there's actually a lot of creative overlap between the two. That's just my opinion though!
M: Yeah you're right!
N: Yeah there are so many artists that can do both music and acting and so many other mediums! But sometimes they're confined to this one facet of the industry—just because people always say: “you can only do one one thing or another.”
M: I’ve heard that too many times and I'm like “no.” I met a manager before and she told me to “choose something”. No! I’m not choosing anything; I'm gonna do everything! The vision board is big and you don't have to stick to one corner.
N: Exactly. That's exactly how we are. Shay can probably tell you too—I'm the same way. I do a variety of different things. I screenwrite. And I act and I sing and I songwrite. The biggest thing about this industry is that you should not be confined to this one box! And I believe that we're headed into this era where young people like us are reinventing the rules of the industry. Do you feel like you are reinventing the rules or are trying to reinvent the rules?
M: I talk about that daily! And this is interesting, because 10 years ago, indie artists weren't as much of a thing as they are now. I mean you see indie artists left and right—but you see indie artists that are also co-producing, writing or having their own label and doing things that an A&R at Def Jam would do—but on a smaller scale because they're indie, you know? I feel like I wear so many hats right now. The producer hat, the director hat, the video producer hat, the songwriter, of course, and then managerial sometimes. In all these different jobs, sometimes I'm just like, “hold on.” But then I remember why I love what I'm doing and why I'm doing what I'm doing and why it's important to keep making the art. Even though it's harder for me right now, I think that it's worth it and I can't really stop. It’s a twisted thing, I guess! A sadistic “hurt myself” kind of thing. But I love it! Haha.
S: There’s a lot of creators. And I feel like if you have the creative mindset, you can dip your toes into many different mediums. If you're in TV you can also be a music; if you're a painter, you can also be a musician; you can also be a sculptor; there're many different mediums out there. And if you are creative, you're probably very curious about these other mediums and want to know more about them and be like “hey, maybe I'm really good and I just want to do all the things!” I, personally, am an “all the things” type of person. I just want to do all the things.
M: Yes, I was like that too. Even when I was younger, I went to an art school and I was a music major. I played violin and orchestra. But the theater classes were right there and I would always want to be in there, but I was always like, “I don't know if I can really do that.” But then I discovered that I thought I could and that I'm happy to do that.
Photo: "MAYA J"
"...To me, the mission is creating art that people can feel to. All of my life I've said, “what would the world be without entertainment? What would it be without music? How can I make sure this continues forever?”..."
S: I'm curious about your, your creative process. When you’re writing a song, do you sit down and just write the song? Or is this something you do over time? How do you approach that?
M: Well, it really depends. For example, there was the song that I did for Freeform, back in 2018-19. They called me and asked me and said, “I love your music. Can you write us a song?” And I was like, “Okay, yeah”—I did that one in two hours. I was like, “I'm gonna write the best song that I ever have right now.” I feel like it's a mindset sort of thing: and that was very exciting, because I just pour out when I’m inspired.
And then one song I was like, “I love this melody, but I don't have any words for it”—it took me a year to completely finish it. The melody was done, I just needed words. I've also had the opposite thing happen, where it took me a week to finish. So I really can't pinpoint an actual formula that I've used. I'm a spicy Pisces. I'm a fish and I go where my current flows. And if it's flowing one day, it is; if it's not another day, I'll watch Netflix and study some scripts and hope that tomorrow is better.
N: You're such a free spirit. I love that. Do you feel like you have a mission with your art? Be it in acting or being a singer-songwriter? Is there some sort of mission in what you do?
M: I feel like the mission is quite simple. To me, the mission is creating art that people can feel to. All of my life I've said, “what would the world be without entertainment? What would it be without music? How can I make sure this continues forever?” And for me, that was someplace where I always knew I should be. Because whenever I'm sad, where do I go? I need to listen to music. I need to make music. Whenever I'm happy. I’m like “you got to crank up Call Me Maybe and jam to it!” There's got to be something that you're creating for people—and not just for people, but for yourself. And if you can share that? I think sharing art is one of the greatest gifts in the world.
N: Wow, that's a beautiful answer. Connecting everybody and making sure that everybody can relate to your feeling and also feel within themselves.
M: Right. And it's special because when you go to the movies, everyone's so happy. When you're out at the movies or a concert, the person next to you could be completely different from you, but you're connected because you're both enjoying the art that's there. And people don't even recognize it sometimes— they take it for granted. But those people that you see in that movie? They work so hard. Kerry Washington works so hard. Justin Bieber works so hard. But it’s also a creative thing. “I'm sharing this with you and I hope that you love it. Because that's what's gonna keep us together.”
S: That same connection happens at live concerts. It doesn't matter that you don't know anybody's names—you might not even speak the same language—but you're there experiencing the same thing as everybody else. And you're there for a good reason. And you're there because you want to be and I think that's the peak of joy for people: being able to be around other people also having joy.
N: Speaking of working hard on your art form, how would you describe your sound with the music you create?
M: My sound is...again it is so hard to ever describe my sound to someone because I always feel like when I'm making a record, I want to go for a certain sound or I’ll say, “okay, for this record, I want to do this”. And by the end, it's a completely different thing.
It's such a fusion that I can't put it into a box at all. And maybe that's what I'm always going to be in music—something different. I grew up with a lot of good influences that range from like Sade all the way down to Rihanna and then, in my teeny bop era, Miley Cyrus when I was a young kid. Every single thing that I like now is a wide range of music. I feel like my music tends to sound a little more R&B and a little more indie R&B pop that's slower. And even when I'm trying to be up tempo, I'm always mid tempo. The irony is, when I was little, I hated piano ballads and slow songs—they would make me sad and want to cry. But that's the majority of my catalog—softer songs that are wavy and sultry. And that's just what it came to be. But yeah, I'm definitely on a chiller playlist for the most part.
S: That's one part that I think will help reset the music industry is removing the labels of genres and taking yourself out of the box. You don't have to choose just one. It can be a pallet full of many different genres.
M: Right? That part! That's very important, because even when you hear artists like Kelsea Ballerini, or it's not like “this is country.” No, it's got a little country influence, but it's R&B; it's jazz. Country and R&B are so close together; what separates country and R&B besides a banjo? I mean, sometimes you'll hear different things. All of this is intertwined and I think if we do take away that box of “genre”, I think a lot of people are going to be more open to hearing different types of music.
S: I want to call you a “resetter”, by the way. I think you yourself are a “cultural resetter”. Because you are not prescribing yourself a label and you're like “I'm over here, but I'm also over there, and I want to do this, and I want to do that!” and that makes you such a creative. It's so beautiful.
N: That's what makes the best artists also—quiet as it’s kept. Artists that are able to take from all these different areas of music and other forms of artistic expression, to use for their visuals and songs and lyrics—I think that is really what sets good artists and great artists apart. So I love the fact that you're capable of doing that.
M: I honestly love that, because I've always been told to focus or stay on a track or zero in on something. And I've always been kind of bouncing from here to there—bouncing within my scope of music and art creation and that's just who I am. And to hear you guys say that’s meaningful? That's cool, because there's so much of the unfocus. And people are like, “Oh, you gotta just zero in on that”, but those days are gone.
N: Absolutely. I wanted to talk about your recent single ‘Unconditional’. I listened to it, and I really loved it and it's kind of that, slow, ballad type of song that you were talking about. And, for me, I love those songs. Even as a child, I would binge those songs. When I was little, Adele was always on repeat. But, I really got the same type of vibe from ‘Unconditional’. A lot of your music I feel is really sweet. And I feel like it's kind of sultry, and it's like a lover whispering in your ear. Could you speak about your process for creating that song specifically?
M: Lyrically, it started off being about only me, and then it turned into this thing that could be about multiple people that I've seen and stories that I've looked at, even in pop culture. Some have asked me “Oh my God, What's this about?” And I don't say “my songs about…”. But it's just a loving ballad about unconditional love. And I think, we don't have enough of that. We have what I like to call “kiss off” songs. And I just want to bring some of the love back with my music.
Honestly, it took a long time to make because it's a very unorthodox song. And I'm not very good at following mainstream formulas; I just do what I do, I don't try to fit into anything. So it kind of was like, how do we make this right, but without taking away the real essence of what it is? And then my producer, he really worked it out with me and there was a lot of me pulling out exactly what I wanted. I'm a nitpicker and I'm okay with that because I wanted it a certain way. And I think that it came. But yeah, singing...I just sing and I'm loving that you think it's a lover's whisper. That's beautiful. I’ll say that in my head forever.
N: I can really just hear you what you were trying to say. And I love that you talked about the fact that when you write your songs, you draw from your own experiences but you also imagine what it's like to be in other positions that the song could possibly relate to. So you're expressing yourself, but then you're also putting yourself in somebody else's shoes and writing a little bit about their story so they can feel it too. I think that that's very interesting. Just because usually, it's about designing a song that's specifically for somebody else, or designing something that is specifically for oneself, but you make it more well rounded. You're thinking, “how would this particular person feel if they were in the situation that I'm writing about?”
S: I think that also plays into your song ‘Hurricane’ because I liked that one. That one was badass.
M: Thank you. Yeah, ‘Hurricane’ was really 100% me in my heart. You know, I really did grow up in the tropics though.
S: So you really experienced that storm?
M: Yeah figuratively and literally; that was a fun one to make. And really, that one was harder to make because people were starting to get sick and drop like flies. That was the beginning of the pandemic and so many people just went from engineer to engineer to engineer and I didn't even know where it was gonna go. But I hoped it sounded good. And then I finally got it finished by the grace of God, and finally got it out.
S: Some art takes a lot out of you. It takes a lot of energy to produce something like that. In your experience producing these songs, you said that you bounced around from engineer to engineer? What has your experience been like in the music industry in general?
M: Well, my experience navigating it has sort of been a little bit like the movie ‘Cast Away’. Like I had some fun moments—mostly me screaming at the sky! But again this is me having to remind myself why I'm doing it. Why I love it. Because music and art sharing is important.
The business side is very hard, especially when you're on when you're the captain and the crew. Basically. It gets a little bit fuzzy, because you're doing so much of the work alone. But yeah, I just have to find a producer...even today I have so many things that I'm doing regarding the next record, but I say it's all worth it. It really is.
Photo: "MAYA J"
"...I didn't understand the true meaning of “everyone's different” when I was little—I totally understand it now. Everyone's different, no matter what your identity or your color or your way or where you're from, you're still you and everyone should be judged as an individual instead of being expected to fit into a box..."
N: So what does a day in the life of Maya J look like? Given the fact that you have all this stuff going on, you're kind of running yourself as a business. What is that like?
M: Well, I wouldn't say it's as organized as people think it is, because this business is so sporadic that one day you can be getting 10,000 emails and you'll have to reply and set up lyrics and meetings. And then the next day, it'll be much slower and you can focus more on the art, songwriting, meditation, violin practice—all of that stuff that goes into making sure your art stays top notch and you stay top notch. So the days...and now the quarantine days...are like, stuck in the walls. There's a lot of work involved, but there could be hours where it's slow and then hours when there's so much to do—when you need to know how to breathe. It's a very crazy business. But, hey, I live.
N: And the final product is something that you love!
M: You have to wonder how much you have to fight for it. Because I know that when producers that you're working with aren't making a million dollars off of you like they would be making off of Justin Bieber...people's motivation I’ve noticed is money and power. And my motivation is just music. And I'm starting to work with more people that align with those values, because it's really difficult to just have money as a motivator. If that's the motivator, then let you're wrong. You're completely wrong and you might as well stop. I find it important to make sure that people you work with line up with those values.
S: There is a very corporate side of the music industry. And then there's the very creative side of the music industry. For a long, long time, the music industry had been about “how can we profit from this? How can we make this a product of the corporate world? How can we really make this an industry?” But now I think that it's coming back around to the point where the power is back into the artists hands. And you don't necessarily need to be Justin Bieber in order to be happy with your art. As long as you have a dedicated following and you are very happy with your art. That's enough.
M:Yeah. Since I wear both hats, I find that I really see both sides of the issue when it comes to the balance between labels versus artists and I completely understand that artists need that creative control. It's your heart if you're an artist; I understand that first. And then I also understand a label because an artist, as much as they are talent and out on stage, they are the ones that are pushing and making everyone the money because of the stardom and the fans that are giving them the platform. It really is a joint effort, though, because the label even in Taylor Swift’s and Rihanna's case, in Kanye's case, they're not doing all of that administrative work alone. They're having people that are promoting the music, they're buying billboards, they're setting up live performances with Jimmy Fallon, they're setting up all the PR, they are outside, getting, you know, they're making the music in the studio, costing millions of dollars for an album. So the label does deserve something in that case; I do believe that the labels do deserve a cut and I do believe the artists deserve to control. So I'm not saying that “oh, they should own their masters and that's it! Well, unless you make the Masters...I mean, I'm financing everything and I'm doing everything so of course I would never give away my Masters. But if another label came into the picture and we made a joint effort, it would definitely go around the table because you're not the only person that it took to make it. So we all have to support each other.
S: So you have both perspectives. And you're right, it does take a whole team; it does take both sides in order to actually be able to produce a master. So how do you make sure the people that you work with align with your morals?
M: I've had some very, very tough experiences that have ended negatively because you really don't know before you start working with someone. Two meetings can't tell you, and a contract can't tell you, if someone's going to be honest. Or if someone's morals are where you would like them to be. So yeah, I mean, I've lost, I've lost money, I've lost things, I've lost songs, there are records that didn't come out. There are producers that did some bad things. But at the end of the day, you can't let those people make the whole industry a bad place. And I'm not gonna do that, you know, I'm about honesty and I think that exudes. And I think that if you find someone who's about honesty—keep them. Hold them close, because that is more rare than you think.
N: Very sound advice. Since it's Black History Month too, we really want to highlight the experiences that black creatives have navigating the industry. What has it been like for you, as a black woman working in this industry? Has there ever been any setbacks that you’ve faced specifically because of your identity?
M: I don't mean for this to come off as offensive to anyone else. But I honestly feel like I've suffered more as a female than as a black woman in the music industry, and that's just my experience. I'm not saying that other people don't have that experience. I think being a woman has honestly stomped on me a little bit more. And I always say that, because a lot of producers are predominantly male. But I do understand that being a minority or person of color, it's definitely hard—especially when you might sound different than the “typical” woman of color or the “typical” person of color. If you sound different, a lot of people start looking at you a sort of way and I think that's something that's a problem that we should tackle more.
In general, I think people should accept differences. I didn't understand the true meaning of “everyone's different” when I was little—I totally understand it now. Everyone's different, no matter what your identity or your color or your way or where you're from, you're still you and everyone should be judged as an individual instead of being expected to fit into a box. Why do you sound that way? Because aren't you blank? It shouldn’t be like that.
N: You know, I have to bring up Shenna, an artist we interviewed who is of African-American and Syrian descent and is more of a pop artist. While navigating this industry, she's found that producers and people in the music business try to fit her into this box of being like Beyoncé and Rihanna all the time. People always ask, “well why don't you perform like Beyonce? Why don't you perform like Rihanna? Your sound confuses me based on your appearance.” So that's definitely something that we talked about with her as well and it seems like it's a really prevalent issue.
S: She even had some labels that would have signed her if she was willing to change her sound and do R&B. And she said no, because she wanted to stick with the integrity of her owner.
M: Yeah, I feel like everyone understands that box and that in our society, there is a box to put someone in it because at the end of the day, it's about getting record sales and making money. I get that but I still think that in order to break those barriers, we're going to have to have someone be the first one to make a splash in that way. There can be a black Carly Rae Jepsen and there can be that, I would buy it. I mean, Rihanna’s got pop and R&B singles. I think everyone can judge each other as an individual and stop trying to box things. That's the reason why Justin Bieber had to grow his hair, because originally he had it shaved, I believe. And they were like “you gotta grow your hair because little girls have to love you—that's the brand that you have to fit into.”
So everyone's trying to fit into a brand. But now as we start to see more indie, and as the business keeps counting on mostly streaming, I think people can make what they want. And as long as people like it—even if it's low fi, even if it's even if it's made in a bedroom,—you can succeed. Because if it sounds good, and it's true, that means it comes from here. We can do more now than you could ever before. So those barriers are breaking.
Photo "MAYA J"
"...And I truly believe that a lot of people just want to see their face on iTunes, or to see their name. A lot of people crave fame more than they crave art. And I think that needs to be the opposite..."
S: I have a question about the music you listen to. First of all, what music did you grow up on? And how do you find new music now?
M: One of the top two ways that I discover new music are on a TV or film. And that's why that is. so important to me. What if people hear my music on TV? Because that is a big way right now, especially with all the TV that's on our computers—-Netflix, Hulu, all of that. The second way that I find out about music is Apple Music. I'm on there all the time. Their playlists, more specifically, because on Spotify and Apple Music, if you're hitting a playlist and something comes up, you don't even need to Shazam it, it's right there. And then I add it to my library and that's how I have permanent jams. Otherwise, it's of course the people that I follow—Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Miley Cyrus—you would know when they released something cuz they're superstars.
S: And what music did you grow up listening to?
M: The first thing that I really started hearing was Britney Spears. I was like a baby. And then I kept listening to mostly pop—whatever was really popular. Then while I'd be in the backseat and while my parents were driving to the beach, it would be Sade or Peabo Bryson and other R&B powerhouses like Whitney Houston. And then when I was a little bit older, I started getting into rap with Nicki Minaj and Drake, and then, I even dabbled in country. I like Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift and all of that. So I'm very, very eclectic. And I love music in general. And I think a melody is a melody. It's all art and if you like it you like it and there's nothing to be ashamed of.
N: I love that answer! This is a fun question that's a shoot off of that one. What's your favorite song that you just recently discovered?
M: ‘Prisoner’! I love that song so much and it's crazy because I think I play it a little bit too much. So addicting. I mean, that's just one of many songs that I'm into right now. That's the first thing that popped into my head because I just...last night I was screaming ‘Prisoner’!
N: Yes, that's so what it's like when you first discover a song that you really like. You just play it over and over and over and over again on blast. I'm guessing the neighbors were just like, “hey, um, could you please….”
S: Like “Did you go crazy? Are you okay?”
N: What advice would you give to aspiring creatives, looking to break into the music industry?
M: This question is tricky because there's no model and there's no real algorithm except for the fact that there are 1000 algorithms. There's nothing that's going to add rhyme or reason to this industry in particular; it's kind of like nailing jello to a wall. I will say that I do believe in God, or whatever higher power you believe in and I think that, that is ultimately in charge of your career.
I do believe you have to do your part, of course. But I think that it’s a lot of timing, it's a lot of being in the right place at the right time. And I think that He listens to your heart. Honesty is what people should take from anything that they're trying to do. Don't steal people's intellectual property or trademarks and things like that because that's just not right. And if you see someone else, obtain something? You honor that, and whatever it is.
I think we should all be kind. Because if you're not, then word is going to travel back. And that sounds super cliche but no. We've seen what a lack of kindness does to people. We've seen it. And I think now we can take from that and make sure that whatever you say is welcoming. And that's what it needs to be.
N: That's beautiful.
S: I have a question you might not have an answer to but what do you think is needed to reset the industry? Or what have you seen that works with improving the industry?
M: I know we're in an oversaturated market, but I believe the market is oversaturated because a lot of people are in this for the wrong reasons. And I truly believe that a lot of people just want to see their face on iTunes, or to see their name. A lot of people crave fame more than they crave art. And I think that needs to be the opposite. There's nothing wrong with wanting to be in the spotlight. I mean, people are that way, that's fine. I'm never against that. But I think people need me to really zero in on the art portion. Because that's what this is. You have to really want to storytell as an actor. Some musicians don't care about music, don't know anything about music. All they want to do is have songs on iTunes, which I have no idea why that's the goal. I truly don't know.
But I do think oversaturation is a big part of this issue. I do think it's because true artists aren't being able to shine because there's a lot of tomfoolery happening. But I do believe that the reality show” culture, that we've had over the past 20 years, has contributed to a lot of the “Oh, I don't need to do any talent. I don't need to do any art. I can just scream and then someone will follow me with a camera, or I can just be interesting to people!” I'm not dissing influencers at all. I mean, there's some really great influencers and YouTubers but I just think there's oversaturation coming from people that don't really love art. They just want to be popular.
N: Yeah. And just to add to that, I think that that's a really interesting issue that you bring up: how in this era, we've all found a way to monetize our existence...just our existence. There's no effort that needs to be put into it. If I scream and holler, I can get somebody interested in me. I can get followers and I can make money off of that. And that's easy. But there's not really as much of a focus on whether I am actually creating something of value for somebody—like an audience that I have. Be it in entertainment, or be it in whatever other field.
M: I've had people tell me that I don't want success, because I'm not doing something crazy. You know, sometimes that's what people believe that it takes is doing something crazy, instead of just focusing on the music, and one day, the music, or the acting, or that movie that you're in will take you there. But I will only want to rely on art. I would never want to do anything crazy purposely. If it happens, hey, sometimes, you get a little fed up with life. But no, I don't want anything crazy to happen. I just want my art to be loved. And I want to share it. That's all.
N: I think that speaks a lot to your integrity. Not just as an artist but as a human being. Do it the honest way.
S:...genuinely talented, genuinely kind and you clearly have your moral compass going in the right direction. I'm so glad we got to talk to you. The fact that you have so many different skills and you're applying yourself into all of them is really inspiring. So, thank you so much for your time today.
M: Of course. And oh my God, you guys didn't ask me about ‘Trouble’! My new single coming out!
N: Yes! Tell us about that!
M: Okay, well, ‘Trouble’ is coming out on January 29. It's a little bit different from what I've done, but it still keeps true to a sultry, mid tempo and slower feel that is half fast and half slow. And it's really exciting to actually do something that's a little more bop-py. I don't want to say too much about the lyric content.
N: I was gonna ask! I hope everybody listening right now goes and streams that!
S: We'll definitely add it to our playlist series to!
N: Well, thank you very very much for talking with us. And thank you much so much to everybody who is listening. Tune in next week for another entry in The Cultural Reset’s Artist Interview Series. Bye, everyone!
M: Bye everyone!
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