By Yara Alkurd, Ella Clair, Jake Amy
“As people, we react to honesty, even if it's a little bit crazy”, says Maya Vice, a Naarm-based RnB artist liberated by creative musical freedom. Once told to fit the “pop princess” mould, Maya’s African/American, Austrian-Czechoslovakian/Australian heritage as a 2nd generation immigrant has helped her become her “strongest self”. Yara chatted to Maya about stereotypes, embracing identity from experiences of hardship and the diverse and beautiful Melbourne live music scene. What follows is an abridged version of their conversation.
Do you feel as though your heritage transcends through your artistry?
Yes, with the tone in my voice; I feel like I try to really "see" people in the crowd and my musicians, so I can feel when someone's not vibing. I really try to connect with them. And I feel that deepness probably comes from my father. Because he's such a spiritual person that he's kind of pushed into me with his background and his knowledge, how to be open with everyone and how to notice things beyond what's said.
I noticed that you have transitioned your artist name over to "Maya Vice". What instigated this change?
Well, number one, I left my record label, and they basically took all of my stuff under "Maya". So I felt like I needed to kind of cut from them and get a fresh start. Also, when people came up to me at gigs, they'd be like, "Where do we find you? And I'd be like, "just search Maya!" And you know, there's thousands of Mayas. It was getting a little bit annoying. My last name is Weiss, but it's pronounced Vice. So I just thought; may as well get a name that people can search up and there's all my stuff straightaway.
That was the main reason - to cut through all the other Maya's. I thought it'd be nice to just start fresh. I love my old music, but I feel I was a bit more of a diva in that appearance than I feel like I am in real life. So I'm excited for this new stuff to be more artistic and more creative and less of a “pop princess" vibe; which my label was very much wanting to make of me.
Y: Do you feel your label was stereotyping you in a way?
Yes. And I understand why; to sell records, you have to categorise yourself. There's a lot of people who want one thing, and if you're in that box, it's easier for them to keep liking you forever. Whereas if you keep changing, a person who likes your pop song may not like your classical song. So I get why they were trying to do that and I think it was very smart.
I feel it's hard in Australia to be a soul singer without kind being stereotyped. Like, how many individual soul female singers do you really know from Australia? There's so few, because the market here is not that big. So you kind of have to really structure your place.
But I think I'm just learning now, especially with all this Coronavirus stuff. I just think that people react to honesty, even if it's a little bit crazy, or you know, it's boring. So I had to keep doing that over trying to make money.
Y: Yeah, that's so true. I also think that your fan base grows with you. It's more personal when the artist that you like is transitioning to something else and you can feel that with the music. It adds a nice point of relatability to the artist.
I mean my struggle was that I wasn't wanting to listen to my own music, you know? And that says something. When you're getting your songs back, and you're like, "Oh..." and they're like, "Yeah, put it out! It's amazing!" And you're like, Ah... I don't know". It just… changes. It's like people can sense it. I love honest music. I love music that takes you either on a sonic journey or a lyric journey. I respect great music over great branding.
Have there been moments where you've been confused about your identity?
In my childhood, I was always so confused. I mean, no one had similar hair, and no one had my background. At school, I would see groups of friends forming, and I never felt as though I knew where to fit in, which made me feel so anxious and excluded. That being said, I’m so grateful because the trauma, stress and feeling of isolation has taught me how to become my strongest self. The hardship from my childhood has given me an incredible work ethic, and I now see and not judge.
Do you currently feel centred in your identity?
Yeah, I would say I feel extremely comfortable in my identity in the way that I can do things without having to extremely straighten my hair and put on makeup. I want to be me. Not that [changing your appearance] means you don’t want to be yourself. I'm not trying to change who I am physically.
But sometimes, mentally, I struggle. I think I have a personality in my mind that I want to reach. But I think everyone has that. So yeah... I would say finally, I'm happy in my identity. It took leaving Australia and a whole bunch of revamps in the media for me to love it, but I do now, finally! They're like "So curly hair, brown skin, big bums..." I'm like, "what's happening?" All this stuff I got bullied so hard in school for. Everyone was like, [mocking] "frizzy hair, big lips, freckle face", and now they're injecting their lips and putting on fake freckles and combing their hair again. That was what we had as women when we were young; in television and movies curly hair was always messy. You were seen as not as polished if you had curly hair.
I did heaps of work for corporate stuff. And even just four years ago, every gig, they'd want me to slick my hair, you know? And now they're encouraging me. They're like, "Get out the afro! We want to see it! Shake it, shake it!" And I'm like, "Alright, what's happened? Finally!" It's great.
I believe in finessing yourself. I'm such a believer in changing your look whenever you want. As long as at the end of the day, you can go to bed and look at yourself in the mirror and be happy. That's that's the only thing.
Where do you feel your home is and what has created your sense of it?
Oh my god… I feel at home in so many places. I definitely feel most at home in St Kilda because I grew up in Elwood and I love Melbourne, because I've always lived here. But I used to feel at home in New York and I used to feel at home in Berlin. I think home is wherever you want it to be really. It sounds so cliche but wherever you're at and feeling amazing, that's where I feel is home. I love it. I'm such a travel bug, during this whole lockdown thing I've honestly felt like a caged bird that's just looking outside and thinking, "When? When can I fly? When's it going to change?"
Do you see yourself represented in the music industry of so-called Australia?
Yeah, I do. Because, I mean, I've worked in it for a long time. And I feel like so many people know me here. But I do feel like it's a bit hard to get commercial success in Australia. I feel like it very much runs on commercial success overseas, or success through a show or something that pushes you straight on to Sony and Universal. I feel like unless you're assigned to either one of those labels in Australia, it's really hard to reach everyone, especially as a female soloist.
I think there's a lot of reach for bands; there's a lot of reach for men. But when it comes to being a woman, I don't feel as backed, especially a brown woman. I don't feel as backed by Australia as I did in places like New York, and America in general. Just because they have so much more respect for a great singer versus someone who makes you dance.
In Melbourne, music always correlated with dancing, drinking and partying. It's not as much used for healing as it is overseas. But I work [best] live, and Australians don't see as much or promote as much live music as overseas. So I felt like overseas, it was easier for me to be noticed, and for my career to go boom. Here, I think you need more success online. And it's a bit of a shame.
A lot of the Australian music scene revolves around punk bands, boy bands, rock bands and solo men. Or you have to go on these TV shows and become like Jessica Mauboy or something. It's kind of hard to really make it big without leaving, and then coming back, which is a bit silly. So I'm a bit mad at the Australian music scene for that.
I still think there's amazing people here and the musicians back each other. The radio stations do a lot. They try a lot to play new music and stuff like that. It's more things like the ARIA Charts; I feel like they never support emerging artists, it always has to be artists who are signed to Sony and stuff like that. Whereas in America, there's way more experiences for emerging artists.
And as an emerging artist, what would you have liked to experience differently in this industry?
I just think; diversity. I feel like it's changing now, since this whole year, with Black Lives Matter. But why did it have to take America broadcasting a huge revelation for us to turn around and start respecting black people?
I've found, through working for so long in this industry, I've seen the same loads of people get honoured. And I've seen people pay to receive things that you should be getting for free. It's because we've got such a small scene. I think Australians get very anxious about broadcasting new talent because they always want to make [money]. So, whenever there's things like the tennis, or festivals, it's always the same acts. And I think there's so much better music in Melbourne and Australia; I kind of just wish our scene would stop trying to be popular and start trying to be good.
Y: It seems like there's such a divide between the commercial scene and the Melbourne live music scene; they're quite different. I think the Australian music scene should stop trying to be the American music scene (commercial) and it should just be... itself. Looking at the Melbourne live music scene; it's insane! Diverse and beautiful! But it isn't uplifted or showcased as much as our commercial side.
That's it. If you listen to Nova and radio stations like that, it's like we're always honouring people from overseas who are on the charts, or our same stock artists who have all come from these shows, which means all of their revenue is going back to the same labels. There’s this real understanding that everyone just wants to make money. I think it would be so nice for our scene to try to start honouring these musicians who are coming up a little bit more.
I feel like venues like The Night Cat do this. [The owner] Justin always tries to get new people in. I feel like there's a lot of venues, who are really helping us. It’s more that I want radio stations to turn around and do it. And I feel like Triple J says they do but then they keep putting the same big acts on the top 100. So I think it is our time to just stop trying to idolise American and European acts, and look into our own catalogue and see that we've got [acts] that are just as good.
It's a bit of a game, the music industry. The more people I meet, and the more I get into it, the more I realise you just got to love what you do. Because if you get pushed into something, and you don't love what you're doing, you are gonna end up hating it and probably extremely exhausted. Everyone I know who had to tour music they didn't like, ended up leaving their record labels and starting again. There's no amount of money in the world, I feel, that could make a great authentic musician want to change who they are. I'm just realising that now.
How diverse has your musical community looked over the past two years?
Oh, it's been completely diverse. That's the best part about the music community. It's like we never ever judge. It's kept me going really. The music community is what has made me feel accepted. They were the first people to turn around and not judge me by my clothes or by how much I had. It was always just like, "Oh, you're here. Amazing. Well, we love you."
How do you think we can create a stronger sense of home for immigrants coming into our music scene here?
I think once things start opening up again, to just try to show people that we love everyone. I think this is what's frustrating me. I always saw Australia as a place that was so inviting. I think it's up to the people to turn around and try to promote equality. All we can do is broadcast: We do love everyone. Because that's what I think now is about: actually coming back together again. Instead of staying together online, we need to hold events and say, "Everybody's welcome.” Because I've had so many friends pushed home; it's just madness. I feel for them because they've spent so long working to be here and loving it here, [then] they have to leave. I didn't even know... it’s so hard.
In your opinion, what social and political responsibility does an artist have beyond their immediate scene?
I think it depends how big you are. Because in my opinion, I think the bigger you are, the more you should be vocal about your views. Because you have such a platform for change. But I also do believe everyone's entitled to be private and keep their branding and their private life separate. So it really just depends on the person.
I do think if there's something going on, that you believe in, you have to talk up about it. And I think if you have a platform as an artist, even just to do it within your music or your art; it's very important. I try to stay a little bit out of politics online, because I just don't want to get into the heat. I don't want to have people forcing their opinions on me. But when it comes to something that I'm passionate about, I'll always speak up, because I think it's really important for people who have any type of platform to always use it for the right reasons.
What's one great initiative that you would like to see more of in the Australian music scene?
I think I would just like to see more diversity. I mean, I've seen so many people killing it, that were [once] struggling to fit in. But I think we could keep going. There's a lot of diversity coming through but I think now's the time to really keep rolling on that, whether it's in bodies, in cultural backgrounds or just in trying to hire unique individual acts. Just change it up!
Now that our whole economy has failed, so many people have gone into not having money and not having spirit. It's time now to give as many jobs out to as many people who need it; not just hiring the same people who are sitting in their mansions, you know? Obviously, they're great. But I think now, on our TV shows, it's time to hire people who need help.
We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognise their continuing connection in our community. We would like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other First Nations people who have read this article.