Maysa Leak had always heard music in her head. But when the 46-year-old soul singer from Gwynn Oak lost her mother to Leukemia last summer, the music stopped. For the first time she could ever recall, the artist simply known as Maysa heard nothing.
"I couldn't even hear melodies," Maysa said recently. "It was so strange."
Normally, Maysa — a Morgan State alumna who got her start singing backup to Stevie Wonder and later became the featured singer of the jazz-fusion group Incognito — used music to get through tough patches. It didn't work this time.
"There was nothing I could listen to help me with what I was going through. Not even my own music," she said. "I was resentful that I didn't have an outlet."
Finally, after three months of mourning and writer's block, Maysa — who performs at Baltimore Soundstage on Saturday — emerged from the fog and began writing and recording with the help of close friends and producer Chris Davis. The result is her 10th album, "Blue Velvet Soul," which was released earlier this month. Completing the record after her own difficult period reaffirmed Maysa's purpose as an artist.
"I'm trying to be a musical therapist," she said. "I want to help people through their times."
From start to finish, "Blue Velvet Soul" took three months to complete, she says. The 15-track album was recorded all over the map, from large cities (London, Los Angeles, New York City) to smaller towns (Fort Washington, Md., Wallingford, Conn.).
On the record, her first since 2011's "Motions of Love," Maysa fulfills a lover's wishes ("What Can I Do"), finds understanding in life's disappointments ("Pouring Rain") and pines for the ideal partner ("Sophisticated Lover"). It's a smooth take on both classic and contemporary soul music, which falls in line with the work Maysa has done since her self-titled debut album in 1995.
The journey has not been as smooth as the music she makes. In 2003, fed up with a "feast or famine lifestyle," Maysa walked into the Home Depot in Randallstown to fill out a job application.
"I wanted a regular job with a regular paycheck," said Maysa, a single-mother. "I just didn't want to do [music] anymore."
Employees, who recognized her and identified themselves as fans, turned her away. They knew what Maysa knew all along: She's meant to sing.
It's still the case. While promoting "Blue Velvet Soul," Maysa speaks excitedly about future projects, including a "country-blues" album ("I am going to show the influences of blues and country music on soul") and a Christmas album. She's even taking guitar lessons.
Her motivation to continue in a changing, unforgiving industry has remained the same over the years — she wants a comfortable life where she can provide for her teenage son, Jazz. A fancy car wouldn't hurt, either. And, of course, she wants what has eluded her since she began: recognition from Grammy voters.
"The nomination is what I'm going after," she said. "My music has deserved that for so long. I don't know why it hasn't achieved that."
Maysa says she will keep creating music until that day comes. Knowing her, she probably wouldn't be able to give up the job, anyway — with or without a gold trophy.
"I cannot stop making music," she said. "I'm going to make it until I can't make it anymore."
If you go
Maysa performs Saturday at Baltimore Soundstage, 124 Market Place, Inner Harbor. Doors open at 7 p.m. Advance tickets are $28.60; day-of-show tickets are $33. VIP tickets are $49.50. Call 410-244-0057 or go to baltimoresoundstage.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun