May Days

Chris Wells talks to Texan jazz and soul artist Tatiana ‘Lady May’ Mayfield, whose second album is one of 2013’s hottest so far.

In the same year that Cecile McLorin Salvant won the prestigious Thelonius Monk International Jazz Vocal Competition in Washington, D.C., amongst the 12 semi-finalists chosen to perform in front of the likes of Al Jarreau, Dianne Reeves, Patti Austin, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Kurt Elling was one Tatiana Mayfield.
The Forth Worth, Texas based singer, songwriter, instrumentalist and arranger, known on her local live circuit as ‘Lady May’, was, in 2010, just out of college, had only one album of standards to her name and, she says, hadn’t really expected her last-minute entry to qualify her for a place in the competition’s final dozen. No wonder she was scared on the day:
“It was pretty terrifying getting to perform in front of people you have listened to all your life,” she recalls. “To top it off, the week before, I’d started getting sick because I’d done a show in the rain. So I didn’t feel completely well for it. But overall it was a good experience; definitely an honour to be chosen and make the final 12.”
Why had she put herself through it? Well, the previous competition for vocalists – the specialization changes each year – had been back in 2004, and so 2010 represented Tatiana’s best chance to get in there as a relative newcomer.
The challenge was to perform both as duo and trio, sing at least one song she’d written herself and, inside 15 minutes, give of her very best: Tatiana, like most other competitors, chose a ballad, a mid-tempo and an up-tempo tune. Like we said, she didn’t eventually win, but… let’s just say that the general standard was way beyond X-Factor.
Did her runner up status subsequently change her career pattern, though? Even the triumphant Ms Salvant has her doubts about that – and it seems Tatiana feels the same way.
“Yes, I guess I could say I pretty much found the same thing. I guess it did change some people’s views of me as an artist. That helped. And it goes in your resumé. But as far as getting more work? It didn’t really mean much, to be honest.
“I really just went back home to continue working with the people I’d worked with from college and around the Fort Worth/Dallas area. I knew their quality: I work with some amazing talent here.”
She’s talking about players like fellow University of North Texas College of Music [Denton] student, pianist and arranger Erskine Hawkins 111, who played on both Tatiana’s 2009 debut From All Directions and her recently issued A Portrait Of Lady May.
“I wanted the new album to showcase the fact that I’m not just a vocalist. I am a musician: I play piano, trombone and I arrange and write,” says Tatiana.
“A lot of the songs on the second album are very personal to me, whether I wrote them or not. I wanted people to see who I am musically. Whereas the first album was pretty much standards all the way through, on this one I really wanted to show all the different sides of me.
“I had parents who listened to all kinds of music, so I grew up like that, and I think we’re in a society now where versatility is key. If I want to draw a bigger audience, I need to do other stuff outside jazz.”
A Portrait Of Lady May does range from jazz standards such as The End Of A Love Affair across the Jill Scott-like soul of Judgement Day and the early period India.Arie-like Real.
“You still get typecast, if you’re not careful. People see me as jazz first, so it’s harder for me to get people to listen to me doing other stuff. You’ll hear it at my shows – I do R&B and a little pop sometimes – but I don’t think a lot of people listen to you long enough to find out what else you do.
“I plan on recording an R&B/neo-soul EP next to try and help with that. That’ll be different for everybody. And I will release another jazz album after that.”
Tatiana admits to having been surprised that her new album has attracted so much interest in the UK, where an initial shipment of copies to Soul Brother Records’ South-West London shop sold out within a week. As a result, she was in London by mid-July.
“I didn’t expect my album to be taken up overseas at all,” she observes. “When I found out how it was doing and that people wanted me for radio and press interviews, I couldn’t believe it. I was surprised that you guys had even heard of it. Not many people that I know around here in Fort Worth have been heard overseas like I have.”
That’s the positive aspect of trading via the internet. The downside, of course, is that every artist must weigh such benefits against all the illegal downloads of their recorded music – as Tatiana has found out for herself:
“I’m a member of ASCAP now and they sent out an email recently containing an article about the effect of the internet on artists. Basically, it seems that artists are putting out a lot of music for free these days, and making any money they make from the live shows. It’s so hard to sell your recorded music.
“The assumption seems to be that, as an artist, you’re rich anyway. That’s just not true for an independent like me. I teach private voice lessons at a music academy during the week and do gigs at weekends. Selling my CD is important to me. By selling my music, I recycle that money into making more music. It’s how I continue to record. I have to pay musicians, get a good studio… it’s not a hobby. And I do intend to stick around.”