Mya Talks Creating ‘TKO,’ Being an Independent Artist & Developing Confidence as a Live Performer
After bringing blissful vibes to Billboard’s NYC office with a soothing and soaring medley, Mya is dead tired. Running on two hours of sleep can do that, especially when you’re asked to float through a bevy of tracks from your 20-year catalog.
With a cup of tea in hand, Mya finds herself sitting upright in the artist lounge with her eyes darted on me, her energy still razor sharp. “When you have a live performance, you’re going to be pitchy here and there, unless you have perfect pitch,” she says. “But if you’re tired, the first thing that goes is your voice. But it’s all about the message at the end of the day, which is why I love performing.”
Last April, Mya unveiled her eighth studio album TKO, which celebrated 20 years since she released her first single “It’s All About Me.” Though Mya missed the 20-year mark by two months — the original release date was scheduled for Feb. 14 — her decision to surgically enhance the sound of TKO trumped the timing of the project.
“It has to be right. It can’t be sloppy,” recalls Mya when crafting TKO. “So I’ve put all of that energy from all the other three projects into just TKO to make sure that it was right and tight and that there were visuals to support it and that there’s a publicist to support it and to be invited to great spaces like Billboard.”
With her new record titled “G.M.O. (Get My Own)” featuring Tink in tow, Mya appears primed and ready to dish out extra helpings of R&B flavor to her devout fan-base, while enjoying her independent status. “I don’t think you can buy me, but I’m gonna let you be a man and let you do you,” she says of her bouncy single.
Billboard spoke to Mya about creating TKO, her confidence level as a performer, and more. Check out the interview.
What did you learn most about yourself when making TKO?
Well, I had to learn patience. I definitely learned that when I want something done, I’m very tunnel-visioned out. I don’t come out of the house. I beat myself up. I don’t eat. I don’t sleep until it’s done, especially if I have a deadline in mind. It’s the 20th anniversary this year, so I had to be patient. It didn’t come out when I wanted it to, but I just said, “OK. We have another anniversary this year on April 20.”
I really had to practice patience and pull back and say “it has to be right and to perfection.” Let’s not base it off a deadline, let’s base it off when it’s right and when all of the elements and components are together. That’s the hardest part when you have artistic vision, release dates, and special dates to commemorate for the fans. It sets expectations for them. I had to pull it back and say, “If the mix isn’t right, do it again. If mastering isn’t right, go back and get it done again.” It takes revisiting.
How many times did you scrap the project?
I never scrapped it, it was about building and tweaking. The process to the project was easy. There’s songs on there from 2011 because I stayed in the studio, but they’re cohesive. So making a project is easy — the creative side — but it’s about getting all of the fine elements together. If I feel like “Damage” needed a guitar and live Prince feels to it, that’s what we were going to do. We had four guitarists because of that. I didn’t feel it was right and I edited the guitars out between all four guitarists because it had to feel a certain way and I was able to shoot a music video to that. Those little elements mean everything to me when I’m listening to other people’s projects. I’m like, “Oh, that’s special! Oh, did you hear that?”
I love when artists can still be fans of other people’s work. That’s so dope to me.
It moves you, certain things. And I wanna make sure those elements are at least in there somewhere. So it takes pulling back and meeting expectations on a different time frame than you planned or expected. That’s the hardest part.
With you being such a perfectionist, do you feel more pressure from yourself when creating music as opposed to the pressure you normally receive from your fans?
No, I’m an independent artist, so I don’t have the pressures of meeting charts or sales. That can make you go gray. I just have the pressures of putting it out. There are a lot of people that I know that will resonate with it and some people might not, but I know I’m going to do my best and if my best means waiting… that’s something I had to struggle accepting, you know what I’m saying?
I can tell based on this level of patience you’re exuding. Was this something you acquired based on life experiences, or just through creating music?
I’m very patient with life. I don’t like to rush things in life, but when I have an idea, or a release date in mind, a whole 20th anniversary plan like, “What are we going to do in February and what are we going to do in the second quarter, and the third and fourth quarter?” No, you work an entire album for over a year sometimes, and I wanted to put out four projects this year. [Laughs.] And go hard.
I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that.
But it has to be right. It can’t be sloppy. So I’ve put all of that energy from all the other three projects into just TKO to make sure that it was right and tight and that there were visuals to support it and that there’s a publicist to support it and to be invited to great spaces like Billboard, then I’m going to find some musicians, so that we can get more than expected and come with what we can work with.
What do you do with the records that you end up scrapping when you realize that they can’t make the final cut?
See, I don’t scrap, it’s just in the archive. Sometimes, I remix and just perform it live and then I go re-cut it. After that, I’ll say, “Well, this is the performance that resonates with an audience,” because I’ve been able to test it — since my life has been on the road hustling to fund the projects. So, I’d be able to test it and then re-record a different approach, which is beautiful because there’s no rush to get it out.
So the records that are just sitting there have turned into something special, or parts of them are in a little rap section of a song or are elsewhere. So I don’t scrap anything, I use it, I pull from it, I implement it into shows, I implement it into albums and I have the freedom to remix and make it new again, especially with ever-changing genres or sounds.
You mention getting inspiration from Prince when fine-tuning TKO, who else inspired you when you were writing and recording new music?
Mint Condition, Isley Brothers, there’s a couple of inflections on “Damage” that start very soft like the Isleys, but build vocally like Stokley of Mint Condition, and even the dynamics of Prince on guitar. That’s something special because it has all of those influences that are some of my favorites influences from the ’70s to ’90s R&B and bands. So, it’s just a musicianship and song composition. That’s what “Damage” is. “If Tomorrow Never Comes” is also one of those records where in the ’80s you heard these big ballads and in the ’90s too. The harmonies were stacked.
Jodeci was an inspiration for the harmonies that you hear in that record “If Tomorrow Never Comes” because they go. They do all the church harmonies and I put them in there because I wanted people to feel how I felt when I was listening to Jodeci with all those stacked backgrounds. So there’s a lot of influences. Some of it is just vibe music, some of it is just swag, but then you have those records like “Damage” that’s just a timeless, traditional R&B joint. Those two records are the ones that I recorded in 2011. Most of the other stuff I recorded in 2015 and 2016.
How would you compare your confidence level as a performer now in contrast to when you first came out 20 years ago?
Well, when I was a performer coming out in 1998, I was dancing at the same time, and I didn’t have the breathing techniques of dancing and singing. That’s something that you grow into — but you have to train like an athlete to do that in order to sound good live and execute your dance moves. That’s something I can do now, but it’s all about placement. I have mastered the placement of where things go. Today, I didn’t have to dance; Today, I just had to be awake, so that was the challenge.
I mean to us regular folks you sounded pretty damn good.
Here and there, I cracked. [Laughs.] But when you have a live performance, you’re going to be pitchy here and there, unless you have perfect pitch, but if you’re tired, the first thing that goes is your voice, but it’s all about the message at the end of the day, which is why I love performing songs like “Unbreakable.” Doing the classics is always nice, because it’s a part of the archive and that’s what people love to hear and I don’t mind that. But the songs that resonate are the ones that are unreleased and are sitting in the archive. Because those were like therapy.