photograph by dante marshall
Mayaeni walks into a Royal Oak coffee shop, her straw fedora pulled low over her eyes. It’s not that the setting is uncomfortable for the 26-year-old singer/songwriter. She’s spent years playing her acoustic, soulful rock in similar coffeehouses. Rather, she’s been on a musical journey, including a trip to write songs and visit her manager in Miami, from where she’s just returned. And being on a traveling musician’s schedule means 1 in the afternoon feels something more akin to 8 in the morning.
Soft-spoken and a bit shy, she opens up when she performs. Think: Adele as a breathless solo rocker, playing cafés in 1970s San Francisco. There’s a little bit of Ani DiFranco’s rawness, the bluesy, foot-stomping rasp of KT Tunstall, and a background closer to that of Lenny Kravitz. (She and Kravitz are what Mayaeni playfully dubs “blewish,” half black, half Jewish.) Mayaeni’s style might best described as bohemian chic — a coffeehouse persona itching for a bigger stage.
Since graduating from high school, the Oak Park native, whose name is pronounced mah-yay-nee, has been in search of those bigger stages, doing stints in London, New York, and Los Angeles, playing wherever possible in between. “I’m never in one place too long,” she says. In 2008, she was poised for breakthrough by signing to a major label. When the label dropped her, she was undeterred, thanks to a changing industry where record deals are no longer the zenith of an aspiring artist’s career.
On that afternoon in the coffee shop, Mayaeni was orbiting metro Detroit, in limbo, waiting for a publishing deal with Sony/ATV to be finalized.
How did you get started playing music?
There was always music in my house. My dad was a musician. Me and my brother [D. Allie, of the hip-hop group United States of Mind] naturally got into it.
What are some of your influences?
It’s all the stuff you go through — breakups, love — all the stuff that inspires you. And then I pick up a guitar and see what comes out.
What’s the biggest stage you’ve been on?
In Japan — I played for about 4,000.
How do you like being a full-time musician?
It’s cool. I think it can make you go a little crazy after a while, like any art, because you absorb yourself.
How do you cope with the stresses of the job?
Just hanging out with friends. I have to remind myself to not let life pass me by. You can get really obsessed. I’ll end up playing guitar for nights on end. Sometimes I’ll go two weeks without leaving the house or seeing people.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
I think being able to pick up again has been the hardest. I had a major record deal with Universal Records, under Linda Perry’s label, Custard [home to James Blunt]. We parted ways, and that was hard to do.
When will you feel like you’ve arrived?
When I have a tour bus [laughs], that’s the official moment.
More information: Mayaeni.com.