IT HASN'T been easy tracking Maysa down. The plush-voiced jazzy soul stylist has been on the move -- flying to Japan one week or Italy the next, performing two shows a night in packed venues. For the past month or so, she's been on tour with her old band, Incognito, the London-based acid jazz unit masterminded by the great Jean-Paul "Bluey" Maunick.
The Pikesville-based artist sings on the group's latest album, the luminous Adventures in Black Sunshine. In addition to that tour, Maysa has several other things popping off. She's the national spokeswoman for the March of Dimes for Premature Births, helping to raise awareness of respiratory syncytial virus or RSV, an infection that mostly affects babies. An endorsement deal with Ashley Stewart, the women's clothing store chain, is in the works; and there's her new album, the brilliant Smooth Sailing.
After missing each other for about two weeks, the Baltimore-born-and-raised performer and I finally hook up. She calls me at home on a chilly, rainy Friday evening.
"This last month has been insane," Maysa says. "But the Incognito tour has been fun. There was no diva crap going on. Everybody liked each other. There were, like, 11 of us, playing and singing every night."
With the hectic Incognito tour and the charity work, the singer has had little time to promote Smooth Sailing, her fourth album, the best one to date. It's also the only record for which she received executive producer credit -- though she had done such duties on her other three albums. Selecting the songs, sequencing the songs, picking the cover art -- Maysa handled all of that.
"This is my most personal album," says the 38-year-old, whose speaking voice is as mellow and velvety as her crooning. "It's more R&B; than anything I've done. Spiritually, I've never been happier with a record -- I guess because I had complete creative control of it."
Smooth Sailing is good company, one of those CDs you slip on after work to melt away the day. But the engaging set never feels like mindless mood music. Fluidly organic, refreshingly focused, the album centers on matters of the heart: love that left yesterday ("All Day Long" and "One More Chance"), love that's here to stay ("Hypnotic Love") and love for the universe ("It's Time for Love"). Grammy-nominated producer Rex Rideout helped Maysa maintain the flow, and her pal Bluey contributed the standout track "Soul Child."
The album is the singer's last one for the independent Warlock Records. And she's hoping to expand her reach with a major label next time.
"The real deal is fund your own record and sell it off to different companies," Maysa says. "I could make a lot more money that way. But I would like the push that a major label could give -- the promotion and all that."
Since the release of her 1995 self-titled debut, Maysa (her last name is Leak) has maintained a tight following on the international underground soul circuit. Her early-'90s work with Incognito introduced the artist to discerning music lovers who like their jazz with an urbane, soulful flair and their R&B; done with integrity. Although critics adored her previous albums, Maysa hasn't exactly set the charts aflame. And because today's pop-urban radio seemingly steers clear of music radiating real emotion, the singer has yet to score a major hit.
"I've been doing this for 15 years and I keep wondering, 'When is this going to change?'" says the graduate of Morgan State University, who started her career as a singer for Stevie Wonder's backup vocal group Wonderlove. "I want to be able to command a certain amount and have respect in the industry. I just haven't gotten that next level of promotion and distribution."
She and her management hope to change that situation as they talk to different companies about a contract. In the meantime, Maysa continues her charity work with mothers of premature babies.
Five years ago while on tour in Japan, the artist went into labor early and delivered son Jazz, who was only 2 pounds. Soon after she brought him home, the new mother noticed he had trouble breathing. Maysa thought it was just a cold, but when she took Jazz to the doctor, she was told he had developed RSV. He eventually recovered and is now "healthy, happy and real smart."
"I just want to spread the word about this," Maysa says. "Black women especially are more likely to have premature babies. And young mothers sometimes don't know what could be going on with their baby. RSV is potentially very serious."
I ask Maysa if she ever feels upset that her career has risen only so far, that her generally excellent records are seldom heard outside a hip but modest-sized audience.
She says, "There was a point in my life that I was so depressed about my career not going to the next level. But I had to decide to be happy or sad. Everything is not a drama. I had to choose to be happy. Since I've decided to be happy, I feel so much better. I have a core fan base that supports me. And my music helps people. I just want to be able to maintain my longevity."