She’s gonna be performing at Blankets and Wine this Sunday. A Kenyan with German\Italian roots, her music is soulful and will make you appreciate life from a totally new angle. We got the chance to interview Maia & the Big Sky just after the release of her latest album:
You got the chance to play at the very first Blankets and Wine, when no one knew about it, it was in its baby steps. Now it’s grown to be this cultural behemoth and you’re performing there on the 10th of December. How different is the feeling back then compared to now?
It feels so different! The first B&Ws took place in Ridgeways in a garden with a pond (if I remember correctly). It was small, intimate but filled with good people who enjoyed listening to live music. I was starting my musical career at that time and it was a perfect platform for up and coming musicians to mold their careers as budding professional musicians.
Now B&W has become a wonderful, vibrant giant with different arms that stretch across our creative landscape. The stage is bigger, the people further away but you give it everything you have. I cant wait to share what I love doing most!
What do you have planned for us on the 10th at Blankets and Wine?
I am playing songs from my new album Maia & the Big Sky with some of the amazing musicians that also recorded on the album and whom I perform with regularly. We have Radanz on bass, George Nzuki on drums, Tugi Mlamba on guitar and Wakake Otieno on percussion. It is going to be fiaaaa!
So you’ve been doing music for quite some time now, from your debut album, Drift, to your latest album, Maia and the Big Sky. How has your perspective on life and art changed from back then to now, has it changed at all?
It has changed considerably. From the first album, I didn’t really know what I was doing, or what I wanted from my music. A couple of years older, a new 11 track album under my belt, my youthful insecurities lessened, I am comfortable and proud of my work, and I know that other people will relate and feel what I feel.
What challenges did you face when starting out, and how did you overcome them?
Identity in myself and in my music was the biggest challenge. Not being fluent in African poly-rhythms, not being fluent in jazz, not being fluent in Swahili, not being a good lyricist to be able to compose the greatest hits ever, and the list goes on….Some of these things still nibble my brain, but over time it becomes easier, I am not so scared, not so self conscious and ultimately I just do what makes me happy! I am tired of boundaries, genres, what the West think of what African music should sound like. I am a person of the world and I enjoy weaving all the bits and pieces that make me Maia.
Maia and the Big Sky just dropped recently, your latest body of work. How would you describe this album, how important is it to you and how does it add to your narrative and beliefs?
Yes it did! Chris my husband and co producer on the album are super proud of Maia & the Big Sky. It dabbles with jazz, folk, Afro poly-rhythms, reggae, Lingala licks, and disjointed Kiswahili words. It explores my Mijikenda roots that very subtly can be heard throughout the album and the mixture takes you on a familiar journey that transcends continents.
Four years is a very long time to space out your albums, why the long wait?
I usually compose something on my guitar, I then write lyrics that I play around with on the new melody. The lyrics and melody expand over time. When I am happy with the song I share it with the rest of the band and after explaining my vision they add their spin onto it and it is there that the song forms and more ideas come. The song breathes, we turn it, we improvise on it and we see how many things can come from it. When it is ready, I start the recording process. I record a few songs, save up some money, record a few more. Then usually the songs sit for a while. This may be because other things come up, you run out of money, or you may just need a break and give yourself a few months off to then listen to the songs with fresh ears.
You think that all the hard work is done? Now it is thinking of how to effectively release and distribute the album to get as many people as possible to listen to the work of art you have created.
What would you want your listeners to take home after listening to this album?
I want my listeners to be inspired by the eclectic mix, tempos, rhythms and lyrics that make my music what it is and interpret it in any way that they wish.
How did the song Pawa(ft. Blinky Bill) come about?
Blinky and I were neighbors for several years. His studio was across the road from where we lived so we would hang out. We would bounce ideas off each other all the time and one day I put down some vocals on his song, ‘Don’t Doubt’. I knew that I wanted to feature him on the new album Maia & the Big Sky and ‘Pawa’ to me was the best fit!
From your name, it seems you have German heritage(correct me if I got the country wrong hehe) How has the reception to your music in Kenya been, especially considering your heritage?
My mum is Kenyan but her parents were German/Italian and my dad is Kenyan. I am Kenyan, I was born here. My mum listened to a lot of jazz, soul and salsa music that has shaped my sound over the years. In Kenya the reception to my music has been very mixed. Some people love my music, others think its not ‘Kenyan’ enough and because it explores different time signatures and styles, some people have told me that they are not used to hearing ‘my sound’. This is all good for me because it challenges me, it challenges my audiences and it expands the sound of what Kenyan music is today.
How does the reception compare when outside of Kenya?
Different. When people see a poster saying ‘Maia from Kenya’, some people expect a more traditional Kenyan, African sound (whatever that means in this day and age). But when I perform, I engage with audiences and I think they forget their initial judgement and are hypnotized with the sound. It is important for me to break out of stereotypes and showcasing the many contemporary sounds we have in Kenya today.
The song Lola is easily one of my favorite songs by you. To me, the song is about living, being conscious of life and the excitement that surrounds it. What inspired you to write this song?
You have hit the song on the head! It is about all those things you mentioned. I was inspired to write LOLA after I got married in 2014. Marriage, commitment, living, living with someone is exciting, it’s a new chapter, but it is also quite daunting. Everyday you are figuring out what you want, how to better yourself and find compromises to make this amazing vehicle of love move. ‘Red light to Green in another unfamiliar scene’
What’s the story behind the video for Lola?
The LOLA video initially started as an experiment but it then turned into a piece of art thanks to my amazingly talented husband Chris King.
It took a lot of having to be very still and singing the same lines over and over again as the shae sizes changed each tie to get the pulsating effect of the shapes.
Finally, what’s your favourite Kenyan song at the moment?
My favorite Kenyan song at the moment is ‘Dala’ by Nina Ogot. This song gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. Ninas voice is captivating and the chorus is a gem. The song is about travelling to many places but always knowing that home is best.
Maia’s new album is available for only 50 bob a track on: