Small size, big voiceby Chris Roberts, Minnesota Public Radio
If you're a songwriter, being a Korean adoptee, a woman and only four-feet-ten inches tall gives you a lot to talk about. St. Paul musician Mayda's big sound belies her diminutive size.
St. Paul, Minn. — In a crowd, it's easy to overlook Mayda. But on stage, it is hard not to notice her.
"Just look at me," she says. "There's not a whole lotta Korean artists out there playing and writing their own material. And I'm teeny."
But while she may stand out in an ocean of white rappers and indie rockers, Mayda also has to resist being pigeon-holed. She thinks Korean adoptees tend to be typecast as American culture-obsessed, submissive and studious.
"When people look at me they think 'oh, she probably plays violin, classical piano or whatever,' and I don't," she says.
Mayda battles those preconceived notions in the title track of her new cd, "Stereotype."
Mayda is a St. Paul Central and University of Minnesota graduate. Over the years she has evolved from a guitarist and occasional back-up singer in an all female high school rock band to a solo artist and songwriter with a controlled, yet powerful voice.
"I feel like music just comes so easy," she says. "I have to do it. I don't have a choice."
"It's in my DNA," Mayda says, referring to her Korean background and the parents she's never met. It's not something she addresses directly in her music, but letting go or giving up something is a recurring theme, such as on the song "Quick as a Dove."
Last year, Mayda traveled to South Korea and played some shows for a Korean adoptee organization. She says it allowed her to claim her heritage while accepting the cultural gulf between her and all the natives who looked like her.
"It made me really proud," she says. "It really solidified who I am and who I'm trying to be. It definitely helped complete me, as corny as that sounds."
On some songs, Mayda sounds like a Prince protege. That could be because former Prince drummer Michael Bland has taken her under his wing. Bland discovered Mayda when some guy walked up to him on the street and gave him a demo tape.
"I wasn't particularly interested in most of what I heard except there was this voice and a couple of riffs that got my attention," he says. "I'm like, 'well who's that?' "
Bland has also worked with some big name talent. He toured with Paul Westerberg, and he's currently drummer for Soul Asylum. He's started a company devoted to grooming emerging talent called Sonic Matrimony.
Bland says the quality Mayda shares with some of the stars he's played with is that she embodies what she sings about. He says he's not so concerned with making her famous as unleashing her voice.
"She's a triple minority," he says. "She's short, she's Korean,and she's a woman. So she's got a lot on her mind and I just want to make sure she gets a chance to say what's on it."
One area where Mayda doesn't lack confidence is her ability to share observations, insights and wisdom about the human experience in her songs. That's why she is eager to reach as large and broad an audience as possible.
" 'Cause I think it's important that we're all on the same page, so we can learn from our mistakes, what we've done, what works," she says. "Let's keep going with what works."
And what does work?
"I don't know," she says.
Mayda says that's a subject for future songs.
- All Things Considered, 12/14/2007, 5:55 p.m.