Maiysha’s This Much Is True, the first release on the UFO/Ryko-distributed Eusonia label, marks the arrival of a striking new figure in the presently up-for-grabs realm of contemporary soul music. The debut album from the Brooklyn-based writer/artist is elegant and intelligent, hook-laden and envelope-pushing – the kind of new sound that landed the first single “Wanna Be” a 2009 Grammy nomination in the Best Urban/Alternative Performance category. Maiysha and producer/co-writer/Eusonia founder Scott Jacoby prefer to describe their joint creation as progressive soul.
The album’s dozen original songs, plus a radical re-imagining of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” reveal an artist blessed with a seductive voice, rarefied technical skill and acute emotional authenticity, as Maiysha examines the dualities of striving and setbacks, strength and vulnerability, languor and urgency, sensuality and spirituality. The settings recall soul’s golden age—for the most part the arrangements are composed of real instruments played by skilled and knowing humans, starting with Jacoby himself on keyboards and drums—while also capturing the zeitgeist of contemporary existence. In a sense, this album could serve as the soundtrack to Man Gone Down, Michael Thomas’ celebrated 2007 novel describing the challenges facing a young African-American intellectual in today’s complex world. It’s that deep and provocative.
If her music is uncommon, so is Maiysha’s back story. Born to an attorney father and a TV journalist mother, Maiysha Simpson grew up as a self-described “Cosby kid—I have no shame about it,” she says, “to the extent that my parents even nicknamed me Denise, because I was a little quirky, with weird outfits and big hair.” She punctuates this remembrance with an easy, infectious laugh.
Maiysha’s parents divorced when she was three, so that she split her formative years between Chicago and Minneapolis, as her mom and dad continued to shape her budding sensibility. “When you’re a black girl,” she points out, “people always ask, ‘Oh, did you sing in church?’ And I’d answer, ‘No, I went to Catholic school, and there’s not a whole lot of that kind of singing in the Roman Catholic Church.’ Actually, I learned to sing in the backseat of my mother’s car. My mom’s favorite memory is me sitting in my car seat asking to hear ‘brown Natalie,’ which was my toddler’s way of saying Natalie Cole. So I was raised on all this great late- ’70s and early-’80s pop and R&B, which I’m sure is obvious in my music now. For me, it was always those iconic voices like Chaka Khan, Donna Summer and Diana Ross—although I don’t consider myself a ‘diva’—in addition to Stevie Wonder and Prince.”
During the time she spent in Minneapolis, her father, a former college DJ, handpicked vinyl from his extensive collection to play for her. “He informed me lyrically by turning me on to cutting-edge artists like Gil Scott Heron and the Last Poets,” she recalls “He wasn’t a musician himself, but he showed me what can be communicated through music.”
The youngster excelled at academics as well as musical theater, as she caught the performing bug early on. At 12, she got her first starring role as Dorothy in a school production of The Wiz. “I was really shy—I was never one of those kids who sang in the street—but something would happen to me when I’d get onstage, inhabit a character and sing those songs,” she says. “It was something that was easy and really joyful for me.”
Maiysha’s pursuit of excellence led her to prestigious Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where she studied vocal performance as well as creative writing and race and gender studies. It was during her undergraduate years that she delved into the nuances of vocal greats like Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, whose rich oeuvres further stoked the aspirations of this eager and gifted student. Those experiences “really opened me up in terms of my musical taste,” she says, “making me braver in exploring my sound. And because I was writing so much, I also gained confidence in expressing myself.”
After graduation, she taught for two years at a Manhattan private school while also taking some modeling jobs. “It was a way of paying off my student loans,” she says, downplaying what has turned into a successful career, one that continues to this day. “Some people waitress; I modeled.” After the end of an abusive relationship that had caused her to abandon performing for several years, Maiysha decided to audition as a back-up singer for a local band; before long she was fronting the group. “It wasn’t a serious band, but it was an important step for me, because it gave me back my confidence.”
Seven years ago, a mutual friend brought Jacoby to a show, and the chemistry between them was instant. “We just clicked,” Maiysha recalls. Realizing that their sensibilities locked together like Lego pieces, they decided to put their heads together and attempt to write a song. The resulting piece, “Over My Head,” fittingly opens This Much Is True. “We had nothing in mind other than making a song that was unlike anything you’d heard before,” Jacoby explains. The track inventively incorporates opera, drum-and-bass and hip-hop elements and changes in tempo and instrumentation, adding up to what Jacoby refers to as “no-compromise music. After that, we just wanted to do more, having no idea of what it would turn into.”
Thus began a fruitful ongoing creative partnership, and along with that a personal bond Maiysha compares to that of a brother and sister. As her modeling career took off, so did Jacoby’s career as a producer, as he won his first Grammy for recording The Carnegie Hall Performance by cutting-edge comedian Lewis Black—but the partners continued to collaborate whenever their busy schedules permitted. Gradually but obsessively, they developed the sophisticated yet accessible material and arrangements that grace the album, becoming ever more excited as the work in progress took shape.
“I write my own melodies and lyrics,” Maiysha says of their creative process, “but fleshing it out and making it what it becomes, that’s Scott. That’s how we work. He’s the Burt to my Dionne, as I like to say.” There’s that infectious laugh again. “He thought he was going to be a doctor and then realized he wanted to make music, and so I feel like he applies that same logic that would’ve made him a great doctor to the process. His skills as a producer are ridiculous.”
Meanwhile, Jacoby witnessed firsthand the increasingly problematic major label sector, as four album projects he’d produced were shelved and the artists dropped. That series of increasingly frustrating experiences provided him with the impetus to start his own label—and once he’d made the decision to launch Eusonia, the first signing was a no-brainer. Maiysha delightedly accepted her collaborator’s invitation to be the fledgling indie’s flagship artist, and they redoubled their efforts to complete the project.
“I always felt the neo-soul thing was relying too much on the past,” says Jacoby of his motives for working with Maiysha on This Much Is True. “On top of that, I loved the idea of bringing the song back to R&B, which I think has been largely absent for a lot of the ’80s and ’90s. In that sense, I do feel there’s something progressive about what Maiysha and I are doing. It’s my absolute favorite project, and the thing I feel the closest to. So we’re finally done and ready for the world to hear this.”
Maiysha shares her partner’s elation. “The whole thing has been incredible—finally finishing the album and seeing long-term goals become short-term possibilities,” she says. “I can’t wait for whatever comes next.”
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