Maysa Leak's hug is warm and tight.
"Come in," she says, directing you through her well-appointed living room filled with stylish cream furniture and gleaming dark wood tables. The acclaimed jazzy soul singer grew up in this spacious split-level house, which sits on a quiet tree-lined street in Gwynn Oak. When she's not on the road, the artist lives here with her mother, a homemaker and part-time caterer, and her 8-year-old son, Jazz. Maysa (she goes by just her first name) settles in the cozy kitchen, where she chats about her nearly 20-year career under the radar.
"I think this is gonna be the one to do it, to take me to that next level," the artist says, referring to Metamorphosis, her sublime new album released last week.
Maysa, who headlines the Lyric Opera House on Sunday night, is a jewel in the backyard, so to speak. The Baltimore native is perhaps best-known as the featured vocalist for Incognito, the London-based urban-fusion collective spearheaded by the great Jean-Paul "Bluey" Maunick. The group reached its commercial peak about the time Maysa joined the fold in the early '90s. Those are her rich, chocolate-and-coffee vocals heard on the 1994 hit "Deep Waters," which still gets regular spins on adult urban and smooth jazz stations.
Although Maysa still sings with Incognito off and on (in fact, she's featured on the group's latest album, this year's excellent Tales From the Beach), she has been cultivating a solo career for 13 years. Since 1995, the singer-songwriter has released six albums, including two cover projects for the New Jersey indie label Shanachie Entertainment. The last one, 2007's Feel the Fire, made its debut in the Top 30 on Billboard's R&B; charts, higher than Maysa's previous releases. But for her follow-up album with Shanachie, she wasn't interested in reimagining soul evergreens from the '70s and '80s.
"I just had to get my expression out," says the singer-songwriter, 42. Although she's outfitted in black workout clothes, Maysa is in diva mode from the neck up: Her makeup is immaculate, and thick hair extensions cascade down her arms and back. "I enjoyed doing the [covers], but I didn't want to do any more. I had some things I wanted to say in my own music."
But beyond the music, she wanted to make a personal metamorphosis.
"When this whole project started, I was gonna lose weight and come out reinvented like a Madonna thing. Then I found myself eating cheeseburgers," she says, between throaty bursts of laughter. "I didn't know what was going on."
Standing no more than 5 feet 2 inches tall even in heels, Maysa has struggled with her image since starting her career in the late '80s as a backup singer for Stevie Wonder. She's a curvy, full-figured woman - the type you don't often see in pop and urban circles these days. But "it's all right. I'm not gonna stress myself anymore," Maysa says, flipping her hair past her shoulder. "As long as I'm healthy, I'm fine. It's not like anybody's complaining, you know."
Everything seemed to be going fine just before the singer started recording Metamorphosis. But a sudden, ugly breakup with her boyfriend - her first serious relationship in seven years - almost halted the record.
"I was devastated," Maysa says, still sounding a bit shocked. "I was hurting, crying all the time, doing [stuff] I swore I wouldn't do again."
But out of the hurt, songs started to bloom.
"All of the songs started coming out of nowhere," she says. "The music started coming to me so forcefully. It was amazing."
Although Metamorphosis was borne out of a painful breakup, none of the 12 songs carries a trace of vinegar. The album, perhaps Maysa's most cohesive set, feels hopeful and optimistic. The velvety tone of her voice and its floating, almost flutelike quality bolster smart, jazz-suffused songs of romantic love and self-discovery. The production of Metamorphosis may not be as richly textured as 2004's Smooth Sailing, Maysa's last album of original material. But the CD shows more depth in her songwriting. "I Need a Man," a midtempo standout, delves into the need for positive male role models in the black community.
"I was outlining the man I was looking for, but I know these days people say that's a fantasy: 'You'll never find a man like that,' " Maysa says. "I know there's a black man out there for me who's not in jail, who's not a womanizer. Maybe God's molding him for me. I don't know. But I'm not gonna settle."
Maysa, the oldest of three, says the song was partly inspired by her devoted father, a mechanic and car repair shop owner who died in 1994 of a stroke and heart attack at age 54. She says presidential candidate Barack Obama was another inspiration for the song. An "Obama mix" of "I Need a Man" was posted on her MySpace page last week.
"Michelle [Obama] has what's eluding so many black women these days: a strong black man," says Maysa, who's never been married. "They say 40 percent of black women haven't been married or won't ever get married. That's deep."
Elsewhere on Metamorphosis, the artist, who earned a degree in classical performance from Morgan State University, stretches her vocals on the scat-driven "A Conversation With the Universe," featuring Global Noize. She also deepens her compositional skills on the mostly instrumental "Let's Figure It Out (A Song For Bluey)," featuring guitarist Nick Colionne. For the shifting tune, Maysa sang the lines she wanted the musicians to play.
Although the smoothed-out, subtle sound of Metamorphosis probably won't set commercial urban airwaves ablaze, Maysa is hopeful that the album will garner some industry buzz. Maybe she'll receive that long-awaited Grammy nomination. A copy of the CD, whose cover features a saucy, back-lit glam shot of the singer, sits between two porcelain angels on the mantel above the brick fireplace in the living room.
"That's where my Grammy will go," Maysa says, smiling. "Oh! I want one so bad. I want to be able to do theater, movies, finish fixing up this house, buy myself a Jaguar XKR, make sure my son is taken care of. There's so much, man."
She sighs. "But I have the best life, you know. I can't complain. I've been rolling this long, baby. I'm gonna stay in the game."
if you go
See Maysa at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave. Tickets are $27.50-$47.50 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-7328 or going to ticketmaster.com.
online To hear clips from Metamorphosis , go to baltimoresun.com/listeningpost