by Kimberly Foster @KimberlyNFoster
We grew up with Mya. When she released her debut single, "It's All About Me," at 18 in 1998, she embodied a cool that most can only aspire to. That easy, self-assuredness never left as she grew into a dynamic artist and savvy businesswoman.
Like any artist, Mya, now 36, has endured bumps in her career, but she's weathered them by taking charge. Her latest EP, Smoove Jones, is the final installment of a series released on her own label, Planet 9. On it she's sensual and free. Her voice glides over beats born of 70s and 80s R&B.
We caught up with Mya to learn more about the project and her almost two decades in the music industry.
Mya: Smoove Jones is not an alter ego, but it's another extension of my already existent personality, a laid back part of Mya. The grown and sexy flavors on this album exude that energy. Smoove Jones is a boss. Smoove Jones does things her way and lays out the facts on the table. Not in a condescending manner, but in a welcoming manner. She is basically a vulnerable, strong woman with many different facets.
You released this project and your previous projects on your own record label. Does being the boss allow you to explore all of those parts of yourself?
Mya: Yes, absolutely. Creating a platform, a playground, your own studio, [and] knowing how to do many different things like sound engineering, et cetera, allows you the platform that every artist should have. 24 hour access 365 days a year to be able to create and just create from a place of being an artist and not think about any of the particulars on the business side, which then come later or come initially in order to work with other people. But in a creation practice, there should be no interference or thinking about too many things regarding numbers and charts.
You became an independent artist and became the head of your own label after a legal issue with a bigger record label. Is that right?
Yeah. Things happened and my fourth album with a major label [Liberation] was accidentally released once the release date changed for the fourth time. There are other territories in the world that are ahead of the United States [time], and if they don't get the word in time that it's coming out that day, it's a day ahead. So that's essentially what happened.
I was given the choice by my legal representation, at the time, to either go to court, which could take over a year, and sue for the money that were owed to me because the album technically came out and legally came out, or just go independent. So I decided to go independent, whatever that meant, and in the interim, I got a partnership offer by a label in Japan called Manhattan Records, and that's when my independent journey began.
Has anything surprised you about being an independent artist?
I've traveled more parts of the world in my independent years than I did as a major artist. That was very shocking to me. The very first place that I went to was Japan in my independent journey, and I had never been before as a major artist. I had never been to Australia as a major artist even though I had number one hits in those countries. It was very shocking. I find myself doing a lot of the things that I should have been doing as a charting artist on a major label now than ever before.
Why is that the case? You have huge hits. Why would you not be able to go to Japan or Australia?
Sometimes there's a budgetary issue, or a budget becomes open and then [it's] closed depending on the financials of the label. They are multi-million dollar companies; however, when you are tied to a label, understand that everyone's going to charge that label exorbitant amounts. A production might be $75,000. I get it for $7500. I've been able to negotiate with team players and keeping my budgets to a minimum [by] working with really talented people that believe in me. And I don't necessarily go into the debt that a major label will that can take a lifetime to get out of.
When it comes time for tour, there's no tour support [from the label]. It's not their priority because it's a huge expense to fly to Japan or Australia. I'm also my own manager. I have my own management company. I see everything that comes in, and if it works for Mya financially, and it benefits Mya and the brand and other people that are around me, and [it's] lucrative, then I get to have the say. I get to see everything that comes through and make a determination.
It seems like there's a great deal of freedom in that. I think there's been a lot of conversations recently about black artists, black creatives striking out on their own, putting their own money up and not being subject to gatekeepers. Is the independent route something that you would recommend to younger artists artists?
This is what I have to say. In a realistic world, that's fine and that's wonderful, but you have to have money to make money and to invest in yourself. How are you going to do that? You can play "go independent" all you want, but if you don't have the resources, the relationships, the patience or the platform and the access to be able to create, it may take years. It may take over a decade. That is what you're dealing with. It all falls on you financially. If you're looking for immediate results, maybe going independent is not for you, but it is the stepping stone to creating something incredible.
Now, when you are tied to a major situation or major investors and brands, when they put up money you still have to operate as an independent, meaning you have to bring something to the table, whether it's the investment in your talent [or] your artistry, that still takes investment and that's time investment, working on your craft and what it is that is going to attract the masses.
Because when you step into a business of any sort, the mindset is different than just making great, cool art. There's a business model. Wanting to reach the masses costs lots of money as well as selling to the masses. It's marketing [and] advertising. [It] all costs lots of money. Not always, but most of the time in addition to artistry. But I think the best way to operate is to always be active even if it's on a small scale because in the stepping stones or baby steps you begin to grow and you begin to cultivate everything about yourself and your craft [like] independent thinking [and] independent action. Then hopefully one day it will be made and [you'll] possibly [be] partnered up with the proper support to get it out to the masses if it's not strong enough of an independent scale because it can also be.
You mentioned that it's really important to keep working, keep moving. You have been consistently making music, but you're not as visible as a lot of the other artists that we loved and grew up with. Is that intentional? We don't see you at all the parties. You're not on reality TV. It seems like you keep it kind of low key.
I'm always hustling. Hustling does not always have media coverage. Hustling to me is traveling the world and getting paid and doing shows. That's how I fund my projects, and all those other things that I am interested in like philanthropy and my foundation and teaching children. I don't publicize everything, but there may be a time and place when people do see me on TV. I can't really answer why, but I know that I stay busy and doing certain things like certain reality shows that have been offered to me. I have rejected because it's not something that I was feeling based on all of the factors. I live a pretty low-key life, but I'm very behind-the-scenes. My time is pretty consumed with handling all of the logistics and the admin and the paperwork.
Do you find, in the age of social media, in an age where people are documenting every single moment of their lives, that people feel like if you are not documenting it that you're not working?
Well, many people have many different perceptions. Obviously if you don't publicize something, people don't know you have a show. If there is no marketing promo, radio, television budget or tour support then obviously people don't think you're working. That's just the perception of people that don't know. The core fans, they pay attention to everything, even the pictures that I don't post. They're searching my hashtag because they're hardcore followers and that doesn't necessarily have to do with just following me. It's following people that do follow me or that are in the city posting about me.
As far as the masses are concerned, yes of course I can understand out of sight, out of ear, out of mind, but the reality is I work a lot harder doing many different things now than ever before. Will it be shown or showcased, it's a possibility on the right platform where I feel like I'm ready.
You have been in this industry for a really long time. Smoove Jones came out on February 14th which was the 18th anniversary of the release of your first single, "It's All About Me." You released that when you were 19?
18. You have grown up in the entertainment industry. What have you learned in that time and what have you learned about yourself as a woman and as an artist?
I've learned to protect my space and take things at my own pace. Living under a microscope is very uncomfortable. With every blessing or gift, there's a slight curse. But you do it at your own pace. [That] doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to miss the beat, but I think if you're not prepared, you can crash and burn and things can no longer be fun for you. I've always been the one to protect my space and make sure that I follow what's real for me, and sometimes that requires me to take ten steps back, so maybe later on in life I can be 50 steps forward. Anything that does not feel fulfilling or comfortable, I won't to do. That can play a part in perception of success, but defining what success is to you is the most important thing. Definition, pace, patience, and protecting your space.
You have been an artist that has consistently set trends. I remember watching the "It's All About Me" video late at night because my mom didn't let me watch videos. Can I just say that the Asian inspired 2-piece was kind of iconic for me. Do you know what I'm talking about? It was like red and you had the chopsticks in your hair. Can we talk about that look for a minute? Who came up with that look?
Well, I drew the look. I always drew designs when I was in high school, designed dresses for some classmates of mine, and designed some of the things that I wanted to wear one day. That was one sketch that I designed, and a seamstress that was hired by the label made it. The chopsticks obviously went along with the print. I did the song as a collaboration with Sisqo from Dru Hill and Sisqo was always about the dragon. Well, Dru Hill was always about Asian-inspired things. Being that we partnered up on this song, some of those influences worked in the video. That's sort of what dictated the print.
It's really cool that you had so much influence at that time. I think we assume that younger artists, new artists, wouldn't necessarily get to dictate their image in that way.
Well, I did have a lot of creative freedom, which was really cool. I think I just always had a lot of ideas in every facet of production, being a theater kid and wanting to be a part of the process and drawing and painting early on, so being an artsy child and then being able to present what you envision to people, they'll say either "we love it" or "we have another idea", but they liked it, so they allowed me that freedom.
You are a vegan.
Yeah, I am.
Every year of my life for the last seven or eight years, as soon as I went independent actually, I set a major challenge for myself and that was to strip myself of something. I've been celibate. I've done that challenge a couple of times. [I've tried] no alcohol, then it was pescatarianism. From there it was "I'm going to run a marathon," then it became vegetarianism. It was reading the bible one year. I had never done veganism, so it started off as a challenge, a willpower challenge. I ended up losing weight. My skin was amazing. I looked a lot younger. I loved the benefits, but in the process of executing that challenge, I've learned so much that I was ignorant to. And it's very difficult to turn your cheek after you've learned the truth or the facts attached to it.
I'm now very aware of the non-vegan lifestyle, and I'm just so turned off by my old self that I don't ever want to go back. It has a lot to do with animal cruelty, being lied to, and just being ignorant to a lot of awful things going on in the world that are affecting people and the entire planet as a whole. I'm sticking with it and wondering what the next challenge will be because I'm definitely evolving.
Yeah, was it difficult for you at all when you first made the transition?
Well, because I was vegetarian prior to it, it was not as difficult as it would have been had I tried to go vegan cold turkey from just eating meat or chicken or pescatarianism, so no, but I can say the first 2 weeks were a challenge for my body to adjust to. There were a lot of things that I didn't even know that I couldn't have until I had to start reading all of the labels. Foods, unpackaged foods, et cetera.
It's just an adjustment period, but if you make yourself and force yourself to do something and you're doing it only for you, and you don't want to be a disappointment to yourself, you quickly fall in line and you quickly whip yourself into shape. It's been very interesting for me to keep doing.
Do you plan on releasing a full length album soon or was this just to give your fans something to hold onto?
This is for the fans to have for completion of the series, because what I do plan on releasing next is a longer project. I'm not going to say what type of project that is, but it will not be an appetizer. They wanted an album, but they also want longer and I didn't want to call this an album because it's a different type of project and one-dimensional. It's a specific vibe, more old school. It's not to be taken as the album, but more fulfilling appetizer to keep them a little full until the actual masterpiece comes.