It wouldn't be inaccurate, nor unkind, to call Mayaeni (pronounced mah-YAY-knee) a journeywoman. The 24-year-old singer-songwriter, born and raised in Detroit to a West African mother and a Jewish father (the latter formerly a guitar player with Jimmy Ruffin and others), found herself dancing to hip hop in London in her teens, then moving to New York by herself at 17, where she still resides. In between, she travelled and worked in places as exotic as Sierra Leone and Japan. But Detroit snatched her heart long ago.
At this year's Concert of Colors, performing the song "The Right Way" as part of Don Was' Detroit revue, Mayaeni showcased her skills, honed in New York City, to her hometown. Not only is she a fantastic guitar player with a stunning voice (not dissimilar to Sheryl Crow), she's an ear-pleasing songwriter, bridging the gap between Tom Petty and Joan Baez. She's essentially a pop artist, but with enough soul and honesty in her writing to keep her elevated above the disposable. Her multicultural background aided her musical education; and her talents are her own.
Mayaeni is sitting in a Ferndale coffee shop on a quiet weekday afternoon. On paper, she's a mess of musical contradictions — so, to simplify things, let's put her under the umbrella of soul, folk and rock 'n' roll. In the flesh she's half-hippie, half-glam, and it works — and it's apparent that her offstage personality shows that her onstage one is no persona. She calls herself "bohemian," which is, in an oversimplified kind of way, as good a description as any. She's refreshingly light on pretense and showboating, and is beautifully alluring with almond skin.
So what of her early years in Detroit? The music had to be there.
"There was always music in the house," she says. "My father was a musician, and we would listen to everything from reggae to rock 'n' roll, Dylan to Hendrix. By the age of 12, I was writing songs and recording in a studio."
Still, the opportunity to relocate to London was irresistible for a creative mid-teen. "I grabbed at the chance," she smiles. "I went to England after high school. I mean, who wouldn't have taken that chance? I worked as a hip-hop dancer, and I sold clothes at a stall in Camden Town Market. Soon afterward, I was in New York. That was a whole other thing again. I started performing in bars and open mics, and using a fake ID to get in."
Throughout her travels though, Mayaeni claims her affection for Detroit and its suburbs never waned. "I'm still very proud when I tell people I'm from here," she says. "Some people look startled by the notion. Others don't know anything about Detroit other that what they learned in the 8 Mile movie. It's nice to give people from out of town a positive view of Detroit. My brother, D. Allie, still plays hip hop here, so I have connections that are very much alive. I miss my family when I'm not here, and the luxury that comes with living at home again. I tend to move from place to place in New York, picking up people's leases for a couple of months at a time when they're ready to move out. It works, but I miss having a home of my own."
Despite her pop sensibilities, Mayeani is a DIY artist in a very pure sense. Her self-titled debut album was indie-released and produced by her father and Shaun Fisher (of Mandy Moore fame). She worked as many as four part-time jobs at a time to support the record. A diva she is not, but she was still naturally delighted when that record was received well and enabled her to tour Japan. While in the Far East, she earned herself an endorsement contract with Glad News Clothing, a Japanese designer label.
Mayaeni sees the Concert of Colors as a highlight of her career so far, not least because she got to work with Don Was, a musical relationship that was already blossoming.
"Both Don and I are from Oak Park," she says. "He knew my dad from back in the day, when my dad was still playing. He remembered him. He got in touch, and now Don is working on my forthcoming album with me. That's a real honor and a thrill, because he's an incredibly talented man. He asked me to be involved with his Concert of Colors jam, and of course I jumped at the chance. To play with those musicians in the house band was incredible. They're all awesome. We only had one rehearsal too."
And Mayaeni had been catching the eyes and ears of other industry insiders besides Was, including producer and Miss Hitster songwriter Linda Perry; in 2008, she inked a deal with Custard Records, a label under the Universal Records umbrella. She spent the next year or so writing songs with Perry, as well as other renowned songwriters such as Boots Ottestad (Science For Girls), Sam Bisbee (Reni Lane), Wes Hutchinson (Melrose Place, The Real World Brooklyn), Rosi Golan (Ben's Brother) and Martin Doc McKinney (Esthero, Res).
Recently though, she saw her deal with Custard get terminated. Mayaeni, to her credit, isn't discouraged. "Major label deals aren't what they used to be," she says with a resigned smile. "People think that, if they sign with a major, they're set up for life, but it isn't like that. It hasn't been for some time. There are no advances anymore. The industry is very different now from what it was like, say, 20 years ago."
Still, Mayaeni is able to make a living out of music and that's something that she's immensely proud of. "The fact that I don't have to work for 'the man' is perhaps my greatest accomplishment," she says. "I have done horrible jobs in the past, but now my music allows me to live off of it. I live a relatively humble life, playing my music and watching movies [Mayaeni says she's a "movie freak," watching anything from cheesy rom-coms to gory slasher flicks]. I don't want for a lot, and my music makes me extremely happy."
Back as an indie artist, the next 12 months look bright for Mayaeni. 2010 certainly started well, with the singer picking up an advertising campaign with Target/Converse One Star. She's touring New York and Detroit when possible, with a band all based in the metro Detroit area. She's splitting her time between the two cities while compromising nothing. She might be NYC-based, but Mayaeni will always be a Detroit girl.
So, what is, in her opinion, the best thing about Detroit?
"Motown," she says without hesitation. "The fact that all of that incredible music came out of that little building is amazing. It's humbling, and it shows just what this city is capable of."
Albums and songs that helped shape Mayaeni
— Albums —
Jimi Hendrix Axis: Bold as Love
Coldplay A Rush of Blood to the Head
Dion Runaround Sue
D. Allie The Cooperative
Michael Jackson Bad
— Songs —
Lauryn Hill "Lost Ones"
Michael Jackson "They Don't Care About Us"
Jimi Hendrix "Bold as Love"
Adele "Hometown Glory"
Tracy Chapman "Fast Car"Brett Callwood writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org