Artist to Artist: Anthony Nicholson and Maya Azucena
After hearing Brooklyn-born soul singer Maya Azucena’s vocals on ‘Changed My Mind’, DJ and producer Anthony Nicholson could immediately hear how it would translate to the dancefloor.
Known for his knack for crafting beautiful soulful house music, Nicholson has released outings under several different aliases over the years including Urban Sound Gallery and African Blues, and has made homes on acclaimed imprints like Distance, Clairaudience and Ron Trent’s Prescription.
Nicholson has frequently collaborated with vocalists in the past which made him a natural fit to remix Azucena’s work. The soul singer, based between Brooklyn and Turkey, has a long list of credits, appearances and accolades to her name, including a Grammy-Winning recording with Stephen Marley and a chart topping #3 Billboard single on KULT Records.
It’s her Cry Love album, originally released in 2011, that Nicholson hones in on. In particular the aforementioned track ‘Changed My Mind’, offering up three new interpretations including a jazzy deep house cut, a stripped back beatless version and an ‘Instrumix’. Following the release of the remix package, the pair talk musical clarity, inspirations and their own remix collaboration.
Anthony: I have long admired the tonality of your voice, your vocal range, your ability to belt a tune across that range and your meticulous and intentional approach to your craft. I am always looking for vocal performances that are distinct and signature in nature. Could you tell me about your evolution as a vocalist, when did you discover your own distinct voice and did you have a clear vision for where you wanted to go once you had that moment of discovery?
Maya: Thanks for such a beautiful compliment! I started to sing when I was a little girl, around age four. At that time, I just loved to practice songs over and over again and make up my own silly improvised songs. I knew that I had a powerful voice as a kid – It was just naturally strong and cut through. I started to participate in lead roles for every school musical. I studied opera technique in high school with a teacher who trained vocalists in Music Conservatories. But even then, in high school, I did not feel I had my own sound.
One of my strengths was also my weakness – and that is, I can switch up my voice and be a bit of a chameleon, shifting to match many genres: From Jazz, to Heavy Metal. From Gospel R&B, to Folk. For me, Music isn’t limited to one sound, but for a listener it can be a trap that they don’t know what to expect from me, the Artist.
I started to seriously write my own songs and perform live with my own band. This was a process that started to gel “my sound” which fuses genres, yet has a common character found in my singing voice and my lyrics.
By the time I wrote the Cry Love album, I felt I was closer to expressing my identity. It has been important to me, not to be stuck in one genre, but more-so to be sure my voice and my soul are unified. When you hear me sing, I want you to FEEL my soul and my message. I strive for this because this is the quality that my musical inspirations have. From Ella Fitzgerald, to Stevie Wonder, and Jeff Buckley, I feel the uniqueness of their voices is because we can hear the soul within them, coming through. I aim for this in my performance.
Anthony: Could you tell me about the original ‘Change Your Mind’ song from your Cry Love Album, that you allowed Clairaudience to remix. What was the narrative you were trying to tell with the song, and what inspired your performance?
Maya: ‘Changed My Mind’ is a “falling in love” song. It was about a time in my life when I became disillusioned with love, and just as I accepted that there may be no “true love” left for me, I found myself falling in love again. I was slipping and couldn’t resist the love. The person made me lose my inhibition and walls, and “changed my mind” about love.
First verse goes like this: “I walked along, this time I thought I’d be alone/Was satisfied thinking no one could really be The One/Appeared so fast, I didn’t know how to react/I hadn’t developed a plan with a counter-attack/You blew my mind, and now I’m on another ride/Fulfill my fantasy of what a man’s supposed to be/And now I’m free… ‘Cause now I found someone who loves me just for being me!”
Anthony: This reconstruction of your previously released material was accentuated by your willing to recut your vocals remotely from a studio in Istanbul to perfectly fit this new groove. Could you explain the process on how these vocals were recorded remotely, and please tell us about your team that you are currently collaborating with in Turkey?
Maya: All of my fans know I am a Brooklyn girl. My international travels have brought me to fall in love with a place named Turkey! I have traveled to more than 50 countries, touring with my music. From Indonesia and Philippines, to Russia and Croatia. All through Europe, to South Africa and Kingdom of Lesotho. Even Jamaica and Haiti. But somehow, I never imagined living anywhere but Brooklyn (and that stint in Los Angeles).
In 2017, I did a Summer residency singing in Turkey at luxury hotels and different live venues. In that time, my relationship solidified with the woman who is now my Manager, Reyhan Yalhi. Two of the live musicians who played with me are a married couple who also own a professional recording studio: Bahcekat Muzik (owned by Oya Erkaya Ayman and Serkan Ayman). At Bahcekat, they record, arrange, produce, mix, and master many professional Turkish Pop records. They are like my family now, and whenever I can, I record my vocals with Oya as my Engineer. We work joyously, and she helps me to identify the best takes of my vocals so that we finish the job quickly.
When Clairaudience suggested that we release the remix of ‘Changed’ My Mind this Summer, I felt strongly that I needed to record fresh vocals to be more in pocket with Anthony’s faster tempo. I’m so happy we did that, because now it is not just a remix, it is a remake.
Anthony: How does a soul singer from Brooklyn end up in Turkey, and what is next creatively for you?
Maya: Haha, I think I answered part of this question in my last response. Due to the recent limitations on travel, creatively, I’ve been able to focus more on writing new songs. I believe that our ‘Changed My Mind’ Remake has a longer life to live, and I hope more people will discover it.
I also just finished writing a song that reflects on the tensions raised by the oppression of Black people in America. It’s a generally empowering song that lends a voice of self-love to Black, Brown, Indigenous Peoples, Women and LGBTQ communities. The song name is ‘YOU MATTER’, and I just released this independently on October 30th – the weekend before American Presidential Elections.
Maya: I want to thank you for the great remix you did for my song, ‘Changed My Mind’. I always felt this song, and my Cry Love album, did not fully meet its audience. What made you select that particular cut off of my album, to remix? What about the song attracted you to remix it?
Anthony: I’m honored to do the remix. What attracted me to that particular song is how the vocal performance created such an emotional atmosphere that drew me deeper into the listening process. it was easy for me to imagine it being played on a dancefloor.
Maya: How long have you been producing Soulful and Vocal House music? This is such a special genre that it takes a certain talent to produce. Do you also produce in other genres?
Anthony: I have been producing dance music since the early 90’s, and really started to focus on Soulful vocal house in the very late 90’s. I also produce other genres such as jazz, jazz-funk, techno, R&B, fusion, soul, leftfield.
Maya: Wow, you are incredibly diverse! Where can I hear your R&B, Fusion and Soul? *Maya thinks to herself about next collaboration with Anthony* And what is “leftfield”???
Anthony: Some of my old albums and old EP’s feature my take on those sub genre’s. I’ll send some links. Leftfield to me just means electronic music that’s difficult to pinpoint. It can be music with an abstract mixture of two or more sub genres.
As a DJ, how many years have you been playing at venues and clubs. And do you still tour?
Anthony: I’ve been DJing since I was in high school and playing professionally in clubs and other venues for at least 25 years. I’ve held multiple residencies in various Chicago clubs and one in N.Y. Well of course, I’m not touring now during the pandemic. Yes, I was touring from time to time, globally and throughout the USA .
Maya: Can you tell me about the musicians on my remix? I especially am curious about the pianist, bassist and percussionist. Did you record them all at separate times, in separate studios? And do you play live instruments as well?
Anthony: The main soloist and keyboard player is William Kurk. He also played bass on the remix. He is a great friend, phenomenal musician and regular contributor in a lot of my productions. All was tracked at my studio in one session, track by track. I performed and arranged all the percussion and some additional keyboards. I dabble a little around the keyboard. Definitely nothing to brag about, lol. I’m actually not bad with live percussion.