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Singer, songwriter and instrumentalist Michael Mayo describes his debut album, Bones (Mack Avenue), as the culmination of a journey many years in the making. Fresh off of touring with Herbie Hancock, Mayo, 29, began writing for the album in earnest in 2018. He recorded it live at Figure8 Recordings in Brooklyn, pre-pandemic, with his tightly knit ensemble of high school and college besties — keyboardist Andrew Freedman, bassist Nick Campbell and drummer Robin Baytas. The 11 original tracks comprising Mayo’s genre-defiant album were prefaced by a deep desire to publicly announce his bisexuality to the world, which unwittingly inspired themes of individual authenticity tied to universal truths of liberation.
A New York City transplant born and raised in Los Angeles, Mayo pays homage to his eclectic musical upbringing by blurring the boundaries between neo soul, jazz, electronic music and alt pop. The singer’s father, saxophonist Scott Mayo, formerly of Earth, Wind & Fire, is currently Sergio Mendes’ musical director, while his mother, Valerie Pinkston, is a back-up singer for Diana Ross whose A-list résumé includes Beyoncé, Luther Vandross and Whitney Houston, among others. (Mom and Dad join him on Bones’ final track, “Hold On,” the lyrics of which were written by Pinkston.)
Thoughtfully executed and thought-provoking, Bones marks a turning point in the life and career of an artist unafraid to share his reflection in the mirror with the world. Tracks like “You and You” and “20/20” resonatewiththe undercurrent of duality coursing through the album as a common thread. It’s fleshed out in the interplay between lyrics and vocal effects, electronic accouterments and a cappella vocals, as well as improvisation and more structured soundscapes derived from Mayo’s classical formations.
Reached by phone at his parents’ home in L.A. in June, Mayo talked to JAZZIZ about coming out, the making of Bones, and what he’s looking forward to just beyond the horizon.
What moved you to make this album?
I’d been building up towards this album for the past five or six years, really ever since I moved to New York in 2016. I knew that I needed to make it when the time felt right for me, and I was exploring a lot of ideas about exploration and plain curiosity and also deeper themes of authenticity. Everything sort of coalesced around late 2018.
By that time, had you come out to your family and friends?
I was out to most of my close friends and family, but not to the community at large. I had made a pact with myself that when I moved to New York that I wouldn’t lie about it anymore, but I wouldn’t necessarily offer it up freely. And then I made an official coming-out post in, I want to say, 2019.
In a way, this is your official coming-out-to-the-world album. It’s also your solo debut album and a letter to yourself. Did you have these ideas in mind as you were writing the lyrics?
I’d say yes and no. I try to not write with an agenda. I try to feel my way through the sonic world and then play around in it and see what themes come up. I didn’t necessarily start out with the goal of having that be a driving force, but I did know that I couldn’t put out my debut album and be closeted. I just knew for me that it wouldn’t feel right, so I knew one step had to sort of precede the next.
You seamlessly tie your personal story to universal elements with a neo-soul, eclectic, almost avant-garde vibe. It’s easy to forget that you’re singing about yourself, and the listener is taken on this expansive and nuanced ride. How much did growing up in such a musically diverse family influence your aesthetic approach?
My parents are the foundation of my sound in a lot of ways. They’re the first people that I ever heard making music. My first memories of hearing people playing instruments or singing is my dad playing saxophone and my mom singing, both my parents singing, so I think that having that foundation really set me up to feel just like an implicit comfort in music. In my house, we literally just sing about random stuff. I’m in L.A. right now, and before I got on the phone just now, my mom and I were singing about what we were going to do today, like [sings] ‘We’ll go to the store.’ It sort of gets in your bones, pun sort of half intended, when you’re surrounded by people who are just using music as a means of [everyday] expression.
You recorded this album live, right before the pandemic, with bandmates whom you’ve known for a while. What was it like recording with them? Can you describe that dynamic?
Totally, yeah. So me and Andrew, the keys player, we went to high school together and we’ve known each other for so long. We used to live together, so we have a lot of history of just like deep friendship and musicality. Robin, the drummer, and I, we were college roommates; he played on my senior recital, we go way back. And Nick and I, we play in a band called Shrek Is Love, and we’ve known each other for coming up on like eight years. If I could never hang out with them as friends again, I would still want to play music with them forever. And if I could never play music with them again, I would still want to be their friend. So there’s this really deep connection on multiple levels, and I think that’s something that I really needed going into the studio to make this project. Having friendship be the underlying bedrock for this was really powerful for me, and I’m so proud of the record because it isn’t just me. Everybody has their own statements and it would be incomplete without that.
Grammy-winning producer Eli Wolf produced your album. What contributions did he bring to the creative process?
Eli was such a gift. He was my rock during this process. Before we even booked studio time, he and I got together for these coffee demo hangs, where we would go to a coffee shop and I’d play him some of the demos I was working on and we’d talked about the sonic landscape of each song. He’s a pro. It’s very clear that he’s really good at what he does and we found a really nice balance of communication.
How has being in New York inspired you as an artist and what were you searching for in New York that you weren’t finding in L.A.?
I immediately felt a push and a pull — a push to create, to write, to sing, to practice, and a pull to go to shows, to hang out with friends, to get on the train and go all the way to Harlem to see someone that I had been listening to for years. New York has this amazing energy to it and also art is so readily available … I’m talking pre-COVID. The situation is looking differently now, but it’s all around you. But I really like to chill and I really like to vibe, and I think I get that from L.A. New York has pushed me to not only chill.
What were your formative years like as a student at New England Conservatory of Music and the Thelonious Monk Institute?
NEC was really amazing for a lot of different reasons. I think one of the main ones was that it exposed me to a lot of music that I didn’t even know existed before. It really opened my eyes to the fact that a lot of the things that we take for granted, a lot of the things that we accept as rules, are just arbitrary standards that can serve a function if it resonates with someone but doesn’t need to be the end all/be all. And I think that I learned to question that which we seem to believe is like a rule.
Similar to the arbitrary societal constructs regarding sexuality.
Totally. And I’m all about challenging that stuff, and not even necessarily for the sake of challenging, but also just to show yourself that any label is just a descriptor and it has no bearing on what you should allow yourself to do or what you should keep yourself from doing. All it does is it describes what’s happening.
What was it like having Herbie Hancock as a mentor?
I mean, Herbie is amazing. The stuff that I’m talking about right now, I was sort of already playing around with these ideas in college. But you know, I was 19 and 20, and the ideas were sort of forming but I wasn’t able to verbalize them very well yet. So when I got to grad school and started working with Herbie and Wayne Shorter and all these other artists, hearing them talk about their life experiences — and also honestly just watching them be and move to the world — is what really got me thinking about this stuff on a deeper level.
Who are some of your other influences?
I could spend all day talking about that. But to name a few people that have been especially significant to me, I would say Ella Fitzgerald, Bobby McFerrin, Brandy, D’Angelo, Donny Hathaway, Aretha Franklin, Freddie Hubbard, Miles Davis — I could literally keep going forever.
It’s evident that you’re moved by different influences — neo soul, jazz, R&B, harmonization, drum ’n’ bass, hip-hop. Do you see plurality as being a driving force in your music? It seems as though, in the not-so-distant future, genres will cease to exist. They just don’t seem to speak to people as much anymore.
I would agree with that — we can’t know, but I would wager that. I think genre labels serve a purpose of sorting more than anything else. I think they’re really useful to help people get into a style that speaks to their interests. I believe that anything that’s made by a human, you’re going to be able to find some common thread between that and any other thing that’s made by a human. And once we start realizing that all this stuff exists on the spectrum, like discreet things that have nothing to do with each other, then I think we’ll start to realize that genre labels don’t really serve much of a purpose.
The track “Stolen Moments” rides on a single verse, and ironically, you recorded it in the closet of your new apartment after moving to New York. There are all these layers of vocals that you stack using a looper pedal. Is this a metaphor for something you were going through?
What’s funny is that it just happened that way because I didn’t have any furniture. I moved into this apartment. It was my first solo apartment and it was exactly around the time that I was making the record. And so suddenly I had all of these new circumstances and no couch [laughs], so there was something that felt really stark about the track. The clarity that I had of wanting to make this album, mixed with the very real thing of not having any belongings, I think that really spoke to me and made me want to talk about these moments that we take for granted, that if we took the time to explore could lead to something cool and beautiful if we allowed ourselves.
What role does technology play in your music and how do you use it to elevate your sound and make it more textured, layered and complex?
I started looping in college. I got a looper before my senior recital just by a total fluke because a friend of mine was getting rid of his looper pedal. It’s funny because that actually totally changed the course of a lot of stuff for me. I like to use technology because it provides something that playing live with other people or singing solo doesn’t provide, in that it’s not human. When I’m playing with people, there’s an unknown in that there are other human beings that are influencing what I’m doing and are influenced by what I’m doing. But the looper isn’t human, so you can experiment with sound in ways you wouldn’t be able to otherwise. I like to use it as a compositional tool as well as a performance tool and as an extension of my technique.
You speak four languages. How does that shade your voice in terms of tone and inflection, and how does it influence how you use language in your music?
I’ve always been totally enamored by language ever since I was a little kid playing Japanese video games and trying to mimic what the characters were saying. I think it’s really shaped the way that I hear things. I’m all about using abstraction as a tool to understand the world on a deeper level. Like, to me, when I see the number four, I immediately say the sound four and it’s instant and simultaneous because English is my first language and so that’s what comes out. But when you stop to realize that there are thousands of ways to communicate that same idea, then you’re realizing that the sounds themselves don’t mean anything, it’s the concept that means something. And I like that idea, because when you apply it to music, suddenly the possibilities are endless.
How does it feel, now that you’ve come out with this album and you’ve expressed your authenticity through music? Where do you see yourself now that the album is out?
I’m so incredibly thrilled that the album is finally out. I told my friends for a long time it felt like it was burning a hole in my computer. It represents a lot for me personally, but also on a more abstract level, it’s proof that you can take a huge undertaking and as long as you follow through the baby steps, the action steps, you can create something meaningful and you can see how it reacts with the world. And that’s one of the things that I find most exciting, because at a certain point, it’s not yours anymore. Moving forward, I’m excited to start writing again. I think I gave this project the space that I thought it needed and really tried to honor that. And now that it’s out, I already have stuff cooking for album number two. - Lissette Corsa