- Words Laviea Thomas
Rising star Mai Anna discusses her recent single “Jupiter”, running a non-profit tutoring programme and plans for 2023.
At just 22 years old, Mai Anna has already achieved more than most. From perfecting her skills as a multi-instrumentalist to studying psychology at Harvard University, in many ways, it seems there’s almost nothing this young artist can’t do.
Attending a writing camp in New York in 2019, Mai soon developed her authentic songwriting skills and networked with like-minded songwriters and producers. Throughout her releases, the artist has mastered effortless R&B with nonchalant production and smoother-than-butter harmonies.
Just three singles into her musical project, Mai continues to hit the ground running with her charismatic character. Much like her other tracks, her most recent single “Jupiter” is completely infectious upon first listen. Underpinned by ethereal production from Devin “sawcy_boy” England and delicate key work from Solomon Fox, this track was a captivating release to round up 2022.
Alongside building her music career, the artist also runs a non-profit tutoring program called ‘Sparks Within Reach’. As we enter a brand-new year, Mai speaks to us about her signature sound, growing up in Queens, her musical inspirations and more.
Hey, how are you?
I’m doing good! I’ve been back in NYC with my family so it’s been really nice.
In December you shared your third single “Jupiter”. Can you talk to me about this release?
Yeah, I’ve been wanting to drop “Jupiter” for a while so I’m really excited it’s out. I actually wrote it a few years ago and at the time I was writing a lot about heartache. I always end up writing songs as if I’m writing some forbidden letter to someone. Like I would never actually tell them: this is how I feel. But that’s why music is such a therapeutic expression for me.
“Jupiter” was an expression of feeling both love and heartbreak at the same time, and that translated into this bittersweet song about longing for someone that I knew I had to let go of. I was also in a creative space where I wanted to experiment with my voice. I was really inspired by Yves Tumor’s song “Strawberry Privilege”, and that’s where I got the idea to sing the bums which are meant to emulate a beating heart.
How would you describe your sound to new listeners?
I would say my sound is melodic and layered. It has a lot of R&B and soulful influence, and it’s kind of playful and floaty.
I’m aware you grew up in Queens, NYC and later relocated to London – how did you find this transition?
I really love it. I moved to London with my best friend Treasure, and she’s also an artist – she’s so fun and free spirited, I’ve been having the time of my life traveling and living with her.
In my first few hours in London, I went straight to the studio with my friend Alex. There was an immediate adrenaline rush and excitement about stepping into a new music scene. I think the artist community in London is super inspiring and supportive. People just show out for each other and really showcase and make music for the pure love of it and for the love of the community, and that’s been such an honour to witness and be a part of. Something I miss about New York is definitely the deli sandwiches. I love my NYC sandwiches so I had withdrawals after like one week.
You have a non-profit, free tutoring program called ‘Sparks Within Reach’ – what do you teach here?
Yes. This is a program that I’ve been running since high school. Aside from music, I’m really passionate about education and teaching, specifically educational equity and social-emotional learning. ‘Sparks’ is a completely youth-run, free tutoring program that connects high school tutors with students in homeless shelters and students experiencing housing insecurity in NYC. We’ve provided over 30,000 hours of tutoring help and something I’m really proud of is that we use our own Key Stage five curriculum that we created. We’re going to launch our spring tutoring this month actually, so if you’re in NYC and interested in volunteering, you should definitely check us out. Our tutors are awesome and shoutout to them because they’re the reason that our program continues every year.
You also started a collective on campus in support of the queer community – what was the process like for setting this up – was it at Harvard University?
This is a collective that Treasure actually started, and then she recruited me and our friend Shavonna to be a part of running it. It’s called ‘Aw Sookie Sookie’, and the concept is rooted in play and fun as a form of queer liberation and generational healing. While we were at Harvard, we would organise events, throw parties for the queer community and cultivate safe spaces for queer folks to express themselves. Showcase their art, party, and really just have fun. Any kind of organising is challenging because there’s a lot of pressure to make sure it’s a productive experience for everyone, but all the challenges were worth it because I learned a lot of lessons on the way. And it also brought my friends and I a lot closer with each other.
In 2019 you attended a writing camp in New York – how was this experience?
The writing camp I went to in 2019 was definitely life changing. I was invited to the camp by my friend Zig who was one of the first people to see my potential and influenced my music career immensely. It was basically 10 of us in this cabin in a gorgeous rural area in upstate NYC, and there were four studios set up where we made music non-stop and really had fun with it for around two weeks straight. I was making songs with really talented people and it was the first time I stepped into an artistic community so learning from them was very inspiring. I still go back to that trip in my head and remind myself what it means to make music that moves me.
I read that Esperanza Spalding is one of your biggest musical inspirations, what other artists do you take influence from?
I had the honour of learning from Esperanza Spalding when I took her songwriting classes at Harvard, and I feel that I would not be the artist I am today without her insight as a music maker. She taught me very intuitive ways to access musical inspiration and really cultivated spontaneity and listening as part of the process in music making. I also think she saw the little artist in me when I was just starting out and helped me become more confident in my expression so I’m really thankful to have gotten to learn from her. Other artists I look up to are Lauryn Hill, Queen, Jazmine Sullivan, Jhené Aiko, Hiatus Kaiyote and recently I’ve been obsessed with Liv.e.
What artists would you love to collaborate with in the future?
I would love to collaborate with Dreamer Isioma because I love their vision and I love everything they do. I’m a big fan. Another dream collaboration is probably with Jhené Aiko.
And lastly, what personal objectives have you set for 2023?
I think 2023 is a year of releasing music, and in the midst of that also focusing on being honest in my music.