There is empowerment in living authentically, a lesson that rising singer, songwriter, composer and multi-instrumentalist Michael Mayo has come to realize. Born in LA to a musical family, his mother Valerie Pinkston, now a back-up vocalist for Diana Ross, also sang with Beyonce, Luther Vandross, Ray Charles, Whitney Houston and Morrissey and his father, Scott Mayo, currently the musical director for Sergio Mendes, was a saxophonist for Earth, Wind & Fire. Growing up with those influences, as well as artists such as Brandy, The Fugees, A Tribe Called Quest, Brian Wilson and Bobby McFerrin, Mayo approaches his voice like a musical instrument. Having attended the LA County High School for The Arts, the New England Conservatory of Music and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance, Mayo was mentored and coached by artists such as Herbie Hancock and Herb Alpert, as well as given the opportunity to attend a Masterclass with Diane Reeves, all of which opened his mind to other sorts of music and set him on his path to finding his voice and identity as a singer and composer. Growing up, Mayo didn’t consider himself a songwriter, finding it easier to focus solely on the melodies, harmonies and rhythm of the music and causing him to lean more towards composing. Upon entering grad school, he started venturing into songwriting and figuring out the things that were really worth writing songs about. Today sees the release of his debut solo album Bones, a long time in the making. Growing up in the closet, Mayo never felt free to be be his true, authentic self and, being an intuitive person, he had never felt that push to make an album. Following a tour with Herbie Hancock in 2018, something shifted in him and he felt the push to release a statement coming out as bisexual and began work on the album. “In many ways, this album is a letter to myself,” he confesses. “I was in the closet for years, lying about who I truly was and felt. This album affirms you can live authentically, and not be afraid to express it. Bisexuality is still not taken seriously by a lot of the LGBTQ community. I had no black bisexual role models growing up, so maybe I can be that person for someone now. The eventual goal is to not have to come out, for everyone to just coexist with our differences.” Now that this album has been released, Mayo is already looking ahead to his next album, for which he has already started writing songs. With immediate plans to celebrate Pride in LA and tentative plans later this year to tour and attend live shows, Michael Mayo is living as his most authentic self and forging full steam ahead in his career. With the release of Bones and more music on the horizon, Michael Mayo is definitely an artist to watch! You can connect with Michael Mayo via the following links. Photo credit: Lauren Desberg.
You were born and raised in LA by parents who were first-call session and touring musicians who toured with a lot of great artists, such as Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston and Diana Ross. What can you tell me about your childhood and growing up in that musical environment and spending a lot of time in the studio with your parents? What did you learn from that experience that you have carried with you over the years into your own music career?
For me, obviously you only ever know what you know, so for me it was normal. It actually wasn’t until I got older that I realized how sort of irregular my childhood experience was. I always had music around. My parents and my way of communication is through song, so when my friends would come over, we would have normal conversations and then someone in the house would just start singing a random song about, like, washing the dishes (laughs)! In terms of their careers, it was really amazing because I got two living examples of a successful career in music. I was fortunate enough to not have that doubt. A lot of my friends and peers coming up had to sort of fight for their right to make music within their own family, and for me it was more of “if you want to make music then you can”. It was totally viable and there was never any real doubt there. In terms of the amazing people that they were playing and singing with, I think just being around that and being immersed in such a high caliber of music most of the time really just…I don’t know. You don’t really think of this stuff when you’re growing up and when you’re a kid, but reflecting back on it now, I think a lot of what I’m doing now and a lot of my perspectives started to be shaped during those times.
You attended the New England Conservatory of Music and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance, and were only the 3rd jazz vocalist to ever be admitted into the 20 year program at the Institute. You were also mentored and coached by a lot of really great people like Herbie Hancock and Herb Alpert and did a Masterclass training with Diane Reeves. What were those experiences like for you and how did they shape you as a musician and help you to forge your own musical path?
I sort of look at my formal musical education starting off, and I’m not including growing up with my parents, but see it as having started in high school. I went to the LA County High School for the Arts. It’s similar to a conservatory-type environment, so by the time I arrived at NEC (the New England Conservatory) for my undergrad, the idea of being surrounded by peers that were all doing music, you know different kinds of music and disciplines and instruments, it was something that was already pretty familiar to me. I consider NEC the beginning of my journey of opening my mind to new stuff. I think high school was kind of about learning a lot of the rules and college/undergrad was a lot about opening my mind to other sorts of music. And then when I got to the Thelonious Monk Institute, now the Herbie Hancock Institute, that was about starting to find my own voice and starting to really find an identity as a singer and composer and side person in a way that feels meaningful and original. I think just really locating what my own voice was, and I don’t mean my literal, actual, physical voice, but rather my artistic voice and what that sounds like.
Aside from being a singer and instrumentalist, you are also a composer. What peaked your interest in composing and inspired you to go down that path?
I’ve always really liked writing. I didn’t really consider myself a songwriter growing up. I think the word composer resonated with me a bit earlier than the word songwriter, because most of my first songs that I wrote were wordless. A lot of it was pretty much wordless melodies and instrumental jazz-type sounding things and I think there was something about the boundlessness of not necessarily having to adhere to language or sentence structure or idioms. I think I was sort of intimidated by that for a long time. I really just zoomed into harmony and melody and rhythm, because those were worlds that I felt a lot more comfortable in. When I got to grad school, that’s when I started writing more lyrics and really diving into what is worth expressing differently than I might express it if I’m just hanging around outside or going to the park with some friends. What about going through a break up or what about starting a new phase of life is worth putting in a song. Why does that mean more than just saying it? I think that in starting to ask myself those sorts of questions, it hit something in me that I had never really explored before and I found that very exciting. So I started getting really into songwriting.
You have talked about all of the different genres of music you listened to growing up and that you used to be rigid about genre in your music before learning that things that seem like they are unrelated usually do have a common thread. What can you tell me about finding those common threads and using your voice to connect different genres of music together?
For a long time, I was pretty rigid about, like, “xyz” is jazz and “abc” is not jazz and if I’m singing jazz and I do “abc”, then I am singing jazz wrong. I sort of held that mentality for a while and realized that it felt very limiting. I thought I was doing something quite righteous or something by limiting myself to particular types of musical expression. I often compare it to how there’s a particular type of vibrato that Ella Fitzgerald uses that sounds very classic Ella singing jazz. There’s also that similar type of vibrato that is used in a lot of gospel music and R&B music of the early 2000s. Vocally, if you were to strip away all of the instruments and even take away the lyrics and just look at the actual notes and volumes, it’s almost identical. At that point, if they are doing the same thing, why am I saying that this is more valid because it’s in a particular genre? That is a logical fallacy that I realized I was making, so I was like “Oh. In that case I might as well just do stuff that feels good”. Because the genres that we have all started as an idea where somebody came up with something and showed it to someone else who thought it sounded cool and they started playing it together and then other people heard it and it sort of took off. But before that initial idea, it didn’t exist. Who am I to say that the only real, true things are the things that already exist? You know what I mean? We can forge ahead an make our own stuff.
Your musical path was centered around innovative elements of R&B and jazz, so what can you tell me about developing your own unique sound as an artist?
Yeah. It was definitely something that took a long time. I definitely struggled with the doubt of “What is my sound?” and “Is this even a thing? I’ve never heard anyone do this before” or “I’ve heard so many people do this so why even bother”. That sort of narrative I think is something that is really common, especially for people that go through music school. Unfortunately there is a lot of overly dogmatic thinking that can sometimes be characteristic of music academia. I went through some time where I had to deconstruct that. I think now, especially in making this album, I found that the most important thing for me was to try and not let placating other people be the driving force. And it was for a long time. What that meant for me was, as soon as I hear something, or when improvising and I feel that spark of “Oh. That’s cool”, I immediately grab my phone and start recording. No matter what it is or if I can hear the whole thing already or know what it’s going to look like at the end, it’s just that feeling of what I associate with something being worth writing down or recording in some way. To me that’s what it’s all about. You might as well create something that feels good, rather than shaming yourself to feel like garbage the whole time (laughs).
You will be releasing your debut solo album Bones on June 4th and have talked about how the songs represent a learning experience for you and how those experience have made you who you are today. What can you tell me about the album and the process of writing the songs and what you learned in the process?
It’s definitely been one of the most intense writing experiences of my life, for sure. A few of the songs on the record are songs that I had already been performing for the last couple of years, but most of the songs are new, that I wrote specifically for the project. I waited a long time to make my first album. I’d had a lot of my friends and family being like “When are you going to put out your album?” and “When are you making your album? Come on Michael. It’s about time”, because I’ve been doing music for a long time. I felt all of this pressure, but something just never felt right. I’m a very, sort of like, intuitive person. I do stuff when I feel that push and I had just never felt that push. Then I went on tour with Herbie Hancock in 2018, which was a literal dream, and when I came back, I don’t know. Something had shifted. Suddenly, I realized there was a particular thing I needed to do before I could make an album, and that thing was coming out of the closet. I don’t know why, but for whatever reason, it became extremely clear to me in that moment that the only way this was going to happen is if I am being truly authentic. I made the decision to make the album before I actually made the big coming out post, but I didn’t start writing until after I had made that post. Since then, it’s just been growing musically, emotionally, spiritually and I really attribute a lot of it to that initial realization.
What can you tell me about growing up in the closet and not, as you have said, having any Black bisexual role models growing up and how that affected you? In what ways are you hoping to be a role model for other people who are going through the same things you did?
I think for me, and I can only speak to my own experience, but for me, I was very fortunate in a lot of ways in my upbringing. In this particular area, I never really had any queer role models, and especially Black queer male role models. And it’s funny, because the sort of, like, pool of people with every adjective you add gets smaller and smaller. Growing up, you sort of convince yourself that the only way to be in the world is to hide. It’s the only thing that feels safe. You convince yourself that there is really only one way to be in the world and that is to be not really truthful about who you are. I was always truthful with myself and never lied to myself about it. I just lied to the world about it. Now that I’m out and realize that living where and when I live, if I have the privilege of being out and being relatively safe, I want to show other people if I can…I don’t wake up in the morning and, like, idealize being this huge role model for every queer child, you know what I mean? But, if there’s a queer child in the world or a queer person in the world who identifies with the stuff I’ve gone through and it helps them, then that’s really great and I’m happy to be that if I can.
You moved to New York 5 years ago and have said that with that move you made the decision to not lie about your bisexuality if someone asked. What led you to move to New York and what do you feel it was about that move that made you decide to be honest with the world about your sexuality?
I actually had already, before I decided to go to the Monk Institute, wasn’t planning to go to grad school. During my sophomore/junior year of college of undergrad, I was like “When I graduate, I’m going to move to New York and become this straight ahead jazz musician” and doing all of this classic, New York jazz stuff. I had it very clear in my head and I’m 19 or 20 at this point. Then when I decided to go to the Monk Institute, I was like “I don’t know. Do I stay in LA or move to NY?”. And John Patitucci was actually one of our artists-in-residence who came and he specifically told me “When you get out of here, I really think you should move to NY. For what you are doing right now, I think it would be really helpful for you, not just in terms of your career but also in terms of your life and outlook.” He made a really good case for it, so I decided in the summer between my first and second year of grad school to come to NY and spend a month here. I had been here before, but only for a couple of days at a time, so I never really got the chance to sit here and be here for a time. That trip was actually where I wrote my song “The Way”, which is the first song on the album and the first single I put out. It was the first song I had ever written that sounded like that, and I think I derived a lot of what my sound would eventually become from that song, which I associate so strongly with being in NY for the first. So all of these different things made it make sense for me to move here.
I have heard other artists say that it can be easier sometimes to express what they are feeling through music more than talking about it in person. Do you feel that holds true for you?
That’s a really interesting question, because I really like to talk (laughs). I really like to try and express the things I want to express in exactly the right way. And by right I don’t mean correct. By right I mean the most transparent way, because the message the person receives is the message I meant to portray. I think the funny thing about music is that it’s also really abstract. At any given moment, 12 different people could be hearing the same thing and have 12 different experiences. I use music as a way to connect to other people’s experiences, but sort of through the lens of my own, and I’m talking as a performer and not as a listener. As a listener, it’s totally flipped. I like to be more literal when I’m speaking and a bit less so when I’m singing. I don’t know. It’s a tough one, because I do find myself getting pretty literal in songwriting, as well, so I don’t really know.
What can you tell me about your recent single “Hold On”, which features your parents? Your mom sings on and wrote the lyrics for the track and your dad sings background vocals, so how would you describe that experience and full-circle moment for you?
Yeah. That song is definitely the most special song for me on the record because it’s my first album, and I find that for me, and I don’t know if it’s from being an only child or whatever, but the first time I ever do something, I tend to want to do it myself. I tend to want to sort of figure out the nuts and bolts of it myself and I tend not to get my parents involved, but I also knew that I needed them to be a part of it in some capacity. I didn’t really bother them when it came to any of the other songs. I’d send them mixes from time to time, but I knew that I actually wanted them to be on a song. I started out with a mission statement for the album, that I wanted to record 10 or 11 songs and here are our dates to record and our dates for mixing. Then we get in the studio and the studio experience is really great and everything is running smoothly, but at the same time you can’t lollygag. We got down all of the main songs but I was like “I still don’t have a song with my parents and I need to”. That was non-negotiable. So, I came up with this little ditty and sent it to my parents and asked “Do you guys like this? If so, I might be able to have some time to write some lyrics to this song tonight.” My mom was like “I love it. Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of the lyrics” and my dad was like “Yeah. Don’t worry about it. We’ll handle it and then we’ll send you the thing”. It just became this really collaborative thing that they really helped me through, because I was having difficulty just coordinating all the things. The message of the song is very sort of parental, and so it just represents a lot of that love that comes with the loving relationship between a parents and their kids.
Your latest single “20/20” came about kind of as a reminder to look back and see how you got to where you are today. What can you tell me about that track and how you feel that your past has shaped your present, as well as the music video you made for the song?
I actually wrote the main bits of it in a hotel room in Armenia. I remember that the chorus came first, and when I’m coming up with lyrics I will improvise a saying and then once I find a line that I like, I’ll figure out what the lyric construct should be from that one lyric. So I came up with “hindsight is 20/20” and the song ended up really speaking to me. I had been having these many experiences and going to Boston and Los Angeles and then to NY and being in all of these different places and realizing that the only way to really move forward is to actually think about the stuff that you are going through and not just letting it pass without learning anything and make the same mistakes over and over again. So the song just kind of became about that and saying it’s ok to appreciate the mistakes that you’ve made because you won’t make them again if you think about them.
What can you tell me about Pride in NY and do you have any plans for Pride this year?
So I’m actually going to be in LA for Pride this year. I really want to do something for Pride. I don’t have any concrete plans right now, because this trip kind of came about fairly recently, but it’s funny. I actually haven’t gone to Pride ever. Before I was out, I wasn’t going to go, but since I came out I’ve been traveling every year and it just happens that for 2019, I think, every city I went to either had Pride just after I was leaving or had just had Pride before I got there (laughs). Like literally…Boston, NY, LA and I went to San Francisco. Literally, with 5 separate cities I missed Pride. That’s not going to happen this year, thankfully, and we now all have the vaccine, so I’ll do some stuff but I don’t know what yet.
What’s next for you? What are your goals for the rest of the year?
I’m already writing for album number 2. I can’t really say anything about it because it’s still a larvae. But I’m really excited to start writing it. I’ve been sort of feeling like it’s hard for me to get in the mindset of the new stuff while I’m waiting for this album to come out, because I want to nurture this album and really see it through. I don’t want to be done with it and move onto the next thing until it’s really out. I have a lot of seeds that have been cooking for a while, so I’m ready to dive in there. Then, touring whenever tours and stuff start coming back. So playing more shows and going to see live music again. Being around music and not actually singing I think is something I really miss. I’m excited to just go to peoples’ shows and be around the arts again!