Alycia Mayhew – The Keys of Gotham
Written by Liam Sweeny on September 26, 2019
Performing is a power. When you have an instrument that you know how to wield, or a voice you know how to elicit a sweet tone from, you’re a superhero. You may be a mutant of natural talent, or an equipped super-soldier, but you don’t go to the bars or the clubs or the dance halls – you descend upon them. And in a city like the ones we call home, or in the bigger cities that we can spot in the distance, an epic comic battle occurs every weekend in 4/4 time.
Alycia Mayhew may not have picked out a superheroine name, but she has the power to lull the audience into a blissful embrace, all the while taking them on a journey of her inner fancy. She cruises the streets of the Big Apple, looking for her chance to avenge the deprivation of the dull and the blight of the boring.
We sit down with Alycia to talk about which Famous Original Ray’s is the legit one.
RRX: When I first met you, you were studying under the late Yacub Addy, renown Ghanaian performer and leader of the group Odadaa! Over the years, you’ve really struck out on your own, developed a great sound, and you’re claiming New York by the night. Was there anything that stayed with you from your time with Yacub?
AM: One of the biggest privileges you can have other than enjoying someone else’s music is understanding who they are as a person which feeds into their music. I appreciated Yacub’s kind soul and positive spirit. That absolutely stayed with me. Whether you’re performing on a stage in front of a crowd or simply speaking one-on-one with someone else, to be genuine and true to yourself with others speaks volumes, and people see it and feel it. Yacub really embodied this and it’s probably one of the most valuable lessons anyone who crossed paths with him would agree with. Yacub’s style of music is also something I had never really been exposed to, especially not in a live setting. I think it’s so important to explore other veins of music to spark fresh life into your own.
RRX: Your latest album that I could find is called Letting Go. The piano movements are very story-like, and you find the right spots to throw the power switch in your voice, or place an overarching vocal melody over a steady rhythm. You’re classically trained. Are there points where you have to throw out the rule book to pull something fresh?
AM: Absolutely! From the start of writing songs and especially with Letting Go, I’ve always let my intuition guide me. Being classically trained, I’ve honed technique, theory and progressions among other necessary basic skills I’ve learned, but your intuition is everyone’s ‘X’ factor. It’s what makes your special. You have to listen to yourself to bring your ‘special sauce’ to the table. You can study other songwriters and artists, but if you don’t listen to yourself and what your soul wants to scream from the rooftops, then you’ll sound like everyone else. I can’t help but simply listen to where the music wants to take me when I’m writing a song, and then I find a way to connect the dots into a story. Sometimes it’s very linear start to finish and other times I know exactly what I want to say and build around it, but don’t always follow a formula to get there either way.
RRX: Playing as a solo artist, I imagine, can be tough. Sure, it’s you and your name on the album art, but there’s the camaraderie that exists when you have to bail the bass player out of the drunk tank for expressing her Pastafarian religion in a restaurant at 3 a.m. How do you get the ‘band’ feel as a solo performer?
AM: Ha! I think as a solo artist it’s about your network. I feel very fortunate that I’ve cultivated other artist friends who I admire and love, and we genuinely support and inspire each other. I’ve had so many opportunities to book shows with other artist friends which allows us to work on the shows together in terms of marketing and communications leading up to the event and even working the room at the show and then post-show comms. We’re constantly in touch bouncing ideas off one another. We give each other a place to crash when one of us is in town for a gig, do photoshoots together for content or even attend business meetings and events together. The industry can get so competitive, but if you have the right network, it means you are never alone – instead you can choose how colorful your world can be at any point in time.
RRX: When I knew you before, you were getting an internship at a pretty big name in the recording industry. It was a major opportunity early in your career. You got to see how the groovy vinyl sausage was made, so-to-speak. Obviously, you’re still in music. So what went in your mental gig bag from that experience?
AM: To be honest it was hugely depressing! But let me explain – at the time I was a college student and an artist completely consumed with creating music, creating my brand and soaking up everything I could possibly learn from my mentors. It was such a fluid time and it all worked together seamlessly as I was growing as a young artist. Suddenly I received this incredible opportunity to work in the marketing department at an iconic record label in NYC – everyone told me how lucky I was. I had this fantasy-vision of working with A&R reps to discover new artists and learn how artist development worked in the ‘real world’. Instead, I found myself behind a desk for eight hours a day answering phones and stuffing envelopes. This isn’t to say the experience wasn’t valuable – quite the opposite – I quickly learned that music is a business and there are a lot of men in suits who run things that don’t have an artistic bone in their body. I felt jaded post-internship, but it also left me even more determined to keep my music at the center of my priority list and make sure I wasn’t only an artist, but an informed artist and business woman. Sometimes you need a dose of reality to understand how to leverage what you bring to the table. I’m forever grateful for the experience and the lesson.
RRX: You have a perspective on music, both from having a window into the workings of the industry, and being a solo performer in one of the toughest cities to make it in, that someone starting out right now could benefit from. A new musician can invest money and time in so many things – what would you recommend before anything else?
AM: Invest in yourself. As an artist, no matter where you reside, no matter what your craft is, your most valuable asset is your product. If you have a great product, people will want more and more of it and it will drive your career. There’s no road map for this – I think that’s what I struggled with the most as a young artist, I just didn’t know what the ‘right next step’ was. What I kept hearing from seasoned professionals was ‘just keep doing what you’re doing’. If you’re a performer, go to open mic nights and give everything you have to that stage, people will notice. Collaborate with musicians, find out who the best in the business is and get their attention and learn from them. Always seek out others who are better than you because they will make you better. Stay inspired, always learn, grow and make your product stronger, get your product out there for others to connect to, whether it’s YouTube, Instagram, music conferences, showcases, anything. Stay consistent, learn from others, build your network and your product and you will see a return on your investment.
RRX: New York City. I hear your playing, I’m picturing fancy places with baby grands, scenic skylines and marble floors. Of course, I get paid to make stuff up. What’s the truth? A singer/pianist in such a massive and varied metropolis – how far do imaginings have to fall for them to be true? Or is my imagination on the money sometimes?
AM: New York City is all of those things, but it’s all about perspective. New York is shiny, glamorous and inspiring – and it’s also gritty, dark and unforgiving. I think what you’re describing is the ‘Instagram’ vs. reality dynamic. As a NYC artist, I’m well aware that what everyone sees is a romantic, glossy version of the truth most of the time. As an artist, it’s not that we’re trying to deceive our audience in any way whatsoever, but it’s important to remember that we are not only musicians, we are creators. We are selling you a feeling. You feel when you listen to our music or when you see a beautiful photo that represents our art with a lyric or anecdote attached to it. We want you to feel. Behind the scenes there are plenty of outtakes, politics and stressful shows in dark clubs, with staff who are total jerks and get under your skin before you’re about to step onto a stage by yourself to command an entire crowd – and it’s simply up to you to put on a brave face. I love the quote, “darling, life is tough, but you are too”. The truth is that NYC is what you make of it, and the nightlife scene can be dark and grimy, or it can be a place to shine and bring your light to and otherwise dark room.