Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Maya Azucena has travelled the world and found inspiration on every journey she's taken. That journey has led her to create her upcoming collection titled Unleash Me, led by the release of its first single "Favorite Song".
A keen and outspoken activist determined to do what she can to help raise awareness of domestic violence and support victims and survivors, Azucena uses her music to inspire and encourage others to believe not just in themselves but also in the power that exists within a song.
With a busy year ahead, she kindly agreed to this interview to talk favorite tunes, tour plans and the evolution she's undertaken as a true independent artist.
PW: Please introduce yourself.
Maya Azucena: Nice to meet you, I am Maya Azucena.
PW: When did you first realize that you wanted to be a music artist?
MA: I started to sing as a young girl, from as young as I could remember. By 4 years old I would memorize and rehearse songs on my own, then do impromptu performances on a milk-crate for my parents and their friends. After appearing in every school production from age 4 - 14, I auditioned and was accepted into a specialized high school in NYC where I received conservatory level training in opera. I was pursuing acting in high school as a profession, and thought singing was a side gig. Now I know singing is my calling and life’s purpose.
PW: How, if at all, did the first record you bought and the first concert you attended impact your career plans? And what were they?
MA: The first record I bought – could be selective memory at this point – was “Purple Rain”. Not just the music, but the album artwork itself had an impact on me. At a young age I was dealing with terrible insecurity and some of it was because I am half black-half white. At that young age I felt it was hard to fit in. Prince’s “Purple Rain” album artwork has an illustration of a beautiful female face - one side was white and the other side was black. For some reason it gave me comfort and helped me not feel as awkward.
Prince has had a lasting effect on me because of his genre-hopping approach, his equal facility in soul, rock, funk, and pop and his ability to incorporate substance into pop lyrics, his musical technique and prowess, stage presence and unique style. Prince has absolutely encouraged me to be free to be myself, as an artist and creator.
PW: Is there one particular band or artist you think you're most similar to or get most compared to?
MA: I feel that I have an “old soul,” as they say. The music production behind my songs vary greatly from project to project. This year’s forthcoming album, Unleash Me, reminds me of eclectic artists like The Roots, Cee-Lo, or Bruno Mars. However, my voice often gets compared to classic vocalists like Chaka Khan, Tina Turner, and Whitney Houston…
PW: You've been championed and praised by the likes of Billboard and The Washington Post but are the thoughts of critics something you pay attention to or are you more concerned about what your fans think?
MA: You know, journalists can be fans too! If this is so, I will say that the thoughts of my fans are most important. It is important for me to really connect with people. I am not an artist just for the sake of attention. The greatest compliment I can receive from a fan – or the press – is that my music inspired them in some way.
PW: Tell me about your new single "Favorite Song". Is there a story behind it?
MA: "Favorite Song" is the debut single from my forthcoming album, Unleash Me. The hook is: "You messed up my favorite song, now I can't even sing along/Because of all the dirt you done, I can't play Anthony Hamilton!" It is a funny but honest way to deal with a past betrayal and heartbreak. I now struggle to listen to one of my favorite voices because it reminds me of an ex.
PW: Who or what most influences your song-writing?
MA: In my song-writing I write about my own stories, things I have a connection with, observations of the world, and my passion for human rights and social justice. I try to always express my ideas from a personal place.
PW: Is song-writing something that comes easy to you or do you find that it varies depending on what you're writing about?
MA: Song-writing is a skill that I am ever improving. Writing songs that I feel have great potential to be classics doesn’t necessarily come easy. It is a craft and requires the ability to take advice, edit myself, and push myself rather than settle.
However, writing songs not for industry use IS very easy for me. I am a full-time artist and music is inside of me at all times. I will just be walking to the subway, from one meeting to the next, and have to pull out my iPhone to capture a random song idea on voice memo.
PW: What, to you, makes a great song?
MA: For me, a great song is one where I am reminded of a pain and struggle, then surviving despite it. I have many songs I perceive as great and they include “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Bonnie Rait, U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, “Chandelier” by Sia, Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain”, “Jezebel” by Sade, “Zion” by Lauryn Hill and “Mercy Mercy Me” by Marvin Gaye. I also love “When Doves Cry” by Prince, “Redemption Song” by Bob Marley and Jeff Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”.
PW: If you could have written any song by any artist living or dead, which would it be and why?
MA: Whoa. There are too many unbelievable songs! There are too many to choose from. I will say that “Pop Life” by Prince is a perfect song, in my opinion. It is like the perfect balance of substance and simplified. To me it is like a bible proverb, each phrase is profound, boiled down to a simple sentence. It is memorable and poppy, and soulful, and deep all at once. I love it!
PW: The single features on your EP Unleash Me, due out later this month. What can you tell me about it?
MA: Unleash Me is actually not just an EP. It is an album worth of songs that I worked on over the course of a two year period, primarily produced by Sonix The Mad Scientist who has worked with Sean “P-Diddy” Combs, 50 Cent, DMC of Run-DMC, Maxi Priest, Mick Mars from Motley Crue and Mario Winans. The songs are a great fusion of styles from soul to rock. The full release date is still being determined, and I am so excited that the first single will be launched to the world on March 15!
Unleash Me, the LP, reflects on different stories overcoming obstacles in my life, and entering into my greatest potential. It is meant not just to be my own story, but empowering for any who are facing life’s challenges.
PW: Could you pick a favorite track from the collection?
MA: It is too hard for me to pick a favorite song from my album!
PW: You're also a recipient of a Grammy certificate for your inclusion on Stephen Marley's record "Mind Control". That must've been quite a moment for you...
MA: Working with Stephen Marley was very inspiring. The feature I did for Mind Control is the song “Let Her Dance,” where I sang two verses and the choruses. That was the first song we worked on together. After this, we actually began writing 3 unreleased originals and he flew me to Kingston to record several songs for a reggae Nina Simone tribute album. Working on the Nina Simone project was so deep because not only did we work in the legendary Tuff Gong studio, we also recorded my vocals in Bob Marley’s house on Hope Road, under a full moon!
PW: Your track "Dance Revolution" has also been used in support of One Billion Rising, an international campaign to end domestic violence. What was it that made you want to get involved with the cause?
MA: I believe my music is a service to help the world. I’ve sung on behalf of many humanitarian causes. Domestic violence is close to my heart because I am a survivor of a traumatic, violent relationship. When the founder of One Billion Rising, Eve Ensler, commissioned me to write a song to support the campaign, I was honored!
PW: You're also on the board of CONNECT NYC that helps provide training and counselling to those affected by domestic violence. How important to you is it that you can help use your fame and your name to support and benefit others in such a way, and do you wish more celebrities and artists would do the same?
MA: I say that music is my superpower: It is my way to help the world. I am an advocate for art as power and truly challenge all artists to acknowledge their power. Not every artist feels called to be a full-fledged humanitarian or social activist. But, my desire is for artists to recognize that their gift and status is a power, and to consider being very responsible with the way they use that power. I have worked with a lot of youth, and music artists are some of the most important role models they have. When an artist tries to disown the power they have to influence the world, I am angered. Young people all around the world memorize and repeat your lyrics over and over – why would we be irresponsible with this power?
PW: What was it like performing at Essence Fest in 2013 alongside the likes of Beyonce and Jill Scott?
MA: I was so excited about my experience doing Essence Fest that I did a whole web-series about it! Directed by young female photographer-director Rae Maxwell, the first season was all based in New Orleans around my appearance at Essence Festival. The series is like a grassroots reality show about the indie-artist adventure. I've done two seasons and they're both available to watch on my YouTube channel.
PW: Of the shows you've played so far, could you pick a favourite?
MA: Nope. How can you keep asking me to narrow down such hard choices to only one?!
A big highlight was doing a New Years Eve concert in Croatia in front of 100,000 people with Croatian rock star, Gibonni. Singing in South Africa at Cape Town Jazz Festival last year was also amazing. So was the Rio Das Ostras Festival in Brazil where the mayor of Rio Das Ostras summoned me to tell me, “The way you have been received here today, these are your people!” That was my first ever visit to Brazil. The next afternoon flocks of people surrounded me on the way to the stage to give me love and one woman asked me to hold and kiss her baby!
PW: What are your upcoming tour/performance plans?
MA: I intend to tour the world. That is the plan. See you there!
PW: How has social media impacted your career and would you agree that it's vital for bands and artists today to be socially interactive with their fans in order to maintain and build a fan-base?
MA: ABSOLUTELY. Fans are the foundation of a lasting career. They are moved by our work. And fans sincerely appreciate being acknowledged with personal interaction. That is how artists still have careers, even when the press is not featuring them heavily.
PW: Finally then, what does the rest of the year have in store for you and what's your ultimate ambition as an artist? Whose career would you most like to emulate and why?
MA: I don’t seek to emulate other artists. It is very important to be my own unique brand. I will say that I am very proud of what Janelle Monet has been doing. She has maintained a very unique sound, fashion, and also uses her art to empower others. I am super proud of what she is doing with her career. I also love the way she uses her success to support other amazing upcoming artists. She’s tapped into the potential of her gift.
2016 is all about breaking out my new sound and look. My most exciting desire is to be able to bring a message of inspiration to the world through my music. I imagine not just touring and doing television, but also partnering my music with meaningful campaigns that support women and girls empowerment.
You can listen to a snippet of "Favorite Song" here and for more information on Maya Azucena, visit her website, like her page on Facebook or follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Her music is available on itunes.