With the song “Carousel” and the accompanying video. The artist known as MJ Songstress may have created the first earworm of 2021. With it’s bouncy beat, smooth vocals. The song runs smoothly between the listener’s ears insisting to be heard, and honestly it is hard do deny. The perfect warm weather companion, MJ Songstress has hit aural gold. It’s only fitting to try and find out more exactly who she is. We were lucky to catch up with her recently.
You tackle your music from all sides – singing, writing, dance, even visual. What steps do you go through putting together your music?
I personally don’t have any steps. I don’t follow any particular regimen or flow. I’m not an ABC’er. I just let it hit me. I really am in tune with what I feel. I know it’s the buzzword – “catch the vibe” and being in the mood, but I’ve always been about the energy in the room with the person I’m working with – what I’m currently feeling. And actually inspiration strikes me at the most random moment. I can’t sit down and, “I’m going to write a song today”. It doesn’t work for me. I have to get to other things, not think about it – or I could think about it. It’s really an out of body/out of mind experience. I find I always do my best writings or ideas I think up – a bass line or a piano or certain riff I can be in the shower, I find it I’m on the treadmill, I’m working out – I’m doing something that has nothing to do with music. And then when it hits me I’m like, “Oh my God, where’s my phone?” It’s really just being free with myself – just letting it hit me. It can happen at any given moment. It can happen if a song comes on that I hear that strikes me. Sometimes if a person is speaking and they happen to say something that intrigues me, catches me, inspires me – and that’s usually what happens. I’ll write it down or I’ll record it, take my phone and beatbox into the phone to save an audio note and then I’ll call my producer, “I’ve got this idea!”. And then we take it from there. That’s really how the whole flow of a song has been created.
Marrying the lyrics with the music. Is that hard? Do you get the music going first and then come up with the lyrics?
It’s random as well. Sometimes a producer – whether it’s been a producer I’ve been working with my whole life and career; Tyrice Jones, who goes by “TyJamz” – he’ll be like, “I’ve got something for you,” because he knows me so well. He’ll play it and in my head I start humming along. That’s on way. Or we’ll sit and start from scratch and just spend like a good hour or so vibing out. “Hey, what are you listening to? Let’s do some research.” Or like the way I said before, an idea comes to mind. It could be me beatboxing a beat or me thinking of a melody. It really comes out of order for me and it ends up just formulating into my own little personal masterpiece.
In the past you stated that you were some sort of a sponge because you absorb a lot around you and taking in everything you’re going through. I was wondering if there was a common lyrical them to your music or is it dependent on how the rhythm gets you – pardon that Miami Sound Machine play on words.
I love that. Hmm… there are moments where I am a blank canvas as an artist. I like to paint with my voice and paint with my words. Sometimes I hear a song and see where it takes me. How is it hitting me? Is it love? Is it pain? Is it healing? Is it joy? Do I want to dance and shake? What is this song telling me? I like to let the song speak to me. Other times I can let my current experience drive the procession. Whatever it is I’m currently feeling or personally going through – I like to include myself authentically in my music that way it can translate to the listeners and they can feel a connection to me as a human being: a person other than how people perceive artists; like we’re different or we’re separate from everybody else when we’re really just human beings just telling our stories in musical format. That’s really how lyrics approach me. What I’m currently feeling; what’s my current experience or just want to have fun and make people dance. Or there are moments where what’s going on in the world right now – what needs to be said. What do people need to hear? I’m very in tune. I like to consider myself a true creative and spiritual connector and mindful of what’s going on around me as well as what’s going on with me.
How did you put together the songs on you EP See Me? Did you see it as a bunch of singles? Was there something that tied them all together that made them the perfect package in your mind?
Yeah. With Tyrice and myself truth is… I can speak for myself and he’s very supportive of my personal experiences and feelings. I just got tired of the music industry. I got tired of “quote unquote” executives walking around saying, “I need a hit. We need a hit”. And it just got so annoying it no longer became fun and no longer became organic. It sounded like a bunch of robots. Everybody was working for a hit, but when you and when you got to ask what you are looking for, no one can give me a specific. And so third cap knee question: “Do you even know what a hit is or are you just saying let’s see what sticks on the wall? Let’s throw whatever we got.” I didn’t want to fall into that pressure again, again and again. Many artists have felt this way. They’ve expressed this way through their music and interviews, so I went into the studio and I said, “Ty, I don’t care. I don’t want to put that pressure on us of shooting in the dark. Let’s just create from what we feel in our heart. What are we feeling in this moment?” I really don’t care. Those hits matter of course. It takes the artist and catapults their career, but I really want people to see me for who I am. See me for who the artist I am; the woman; the vocalist; the producer; the musician – just see me as a human being. On See Me the songs; one came right after the other. It’s very storytelling. Each song was a brother to its sister; a cousin to its nephew – it just all came together with no pressure. There wasn’t a focal point. I was like, “what are we going to create today?” What is speaking to us? Either I led the shift with something I wanted to do or Tyrice would wake up early in the morning and then once I got up because I would stay with him and his family – they would always invite me into his space, I would hear him working upstairs where he had his setup and go up and be like, “What’s that?” “I don’t know, I just woke up with this idea.” We would just take it from there and just do it. It was definite very sultry R&B stuff. Let’s stick with this soulful vibe, very storytelling smooth vocals – Sade meets Janet meets MJ Songstress. And that’s how See Me was going.
I really like your current song and video, “Carousel”. The video especially struck me because it was very easy flowing and the music was infectious. You find yourself moving along with it. It seemed like a very easy organic thing. Was it that easy? It almost seemed too natural in a way. (laughs)
Thank you for that. I loved that you experienced this. People’s opinions do matter. I don’t know if you’re a “sign” person, but I will tell you this – I am a typical Aries. I will stop at nothing. What does that mean? Aries is a Fire sign. I’m either the loudest in the room or I’m the quietest just fuming – in a good way, like just sizzling. I stop at nothing. I’m spontaneous. I’m not a planner at all. Any idea that I have; it will work. I will see it through regardless if I have analyzers and controllers around me. And that’s how “Carousel” came about. Alright guys. There’s no budget. I’m doing this by myself. I don’t have any backing. I’m going to present a project to my label and just kind of drop it on their desk. “Here! Say something to me!” I do believe artists’ teams matter. You are nothing without a team. I always wanted a team, however, it counts on artists to go out there and fetch for themselves – go out and create product to present as well and not always rely on a label or a team or management. So I just go and pull together all my friends. “Guys, can you do this for me?” As we say in the culture, you know what? I got you. I’ll do it for the love. So everybody was free! (laughs) And did it. And feedback from me that I will never disrespect somebody’s work ethic, professionalism. I was in a space of I really want to do this, however I don’t have much. They’re like, “Nah man, we love you. We see you moving. You’re my girl! I’ve got to!” Oh my God, I’m so grateful. I also get mushy and emotional and everyone came together added their ideas into the pot. And they like, “What are you thinking of doing?” I was like, I’ve got this crazy idea we do a music video and a photo shoot at the same time. Of course everybody argued with me that’s impossible. That doesn’t happen. It’s going to be chaotic. Chaos can be fun. And sure enough I literally had a photo shoot with photographers on set, a videographer. And it was like, “Guys, I’m quick, here we go. Take your shot? Good. Now let’s play: ‘Love is like a carousel’”. It just flowed. We basically did it in my apartment and just looked around for a cool area to shoot. Great. Here’s a pool. Hey, here’s the backyard. Cool. Here’s the street. Here’s the parking lot. It all came together and made it happen and were able to release it during the pandemic. It’s also giving that organic feel given that there was a pandemic occurring. And it made it look like, “Oh, did she make this in her space? Where is this?” I’m so happy the way it came out the way it did. It was a lot of fun. Everybody just had to jump in and have a turnout. And that’s just what I love about people that work with me. Give me a slow yes instead of a fast no and you’ll see how it works out.
I think the video actually helps the song. The visual taking place is esthetically smooth. I think music videos are a lost art form and most these days are pretty contrived. The way you incorporated so many elements it was more along the lines of a movie feel t it.
Oh, that’s so cool. Thank you for that. That’s really cool.
You competed on “The Voice” a number of years ago and I’ve got two questions about your experience. First, what goal do you think it helped you meet as a musician/singer/songwriter?
I was a Top 20/Top 5 Finalist on Team Usher in the U.S. Voice and I was a finalist in “The Voice Mexico” Team Alejandro Sanz. Both were definitely a different experience also different execution and different reasoning behind it. What I will say just to put them together, leaving “The Voice” it just basically reminded me of who I am and to just keep going and having no expectations. Also, not letting these shows be evidence or the answer, or the be all say all. It’s a show and that’s what shows do. Those are entertaining and they go left, right, up, down and it’s ever what’s truly expected. I had to come out of that telling myself this is a show. This is a show and this doesn’t mean this is the end for you and keep going. Mainly it was just an experience. I did what I did. I was happy to have been invited. I don’t think many people know that on both shows I was invited to be a part of the show. I just went with it with my heart on my whole body – forget the sleeve. I tell other artists – I like to tell other artists not what I personally feel about the show, but to influence others. You know what? It’s something dear to your heart and get your foot in the door and build up your followers. That’s what it’s all about – social media and Tik Tok, Instagram, Facebook. I tell many people who have asked me if they should go to the show, absolutely. Go for the experience, go for the community. Go for the connections. Go for the understating of behind the scenes learning the business and putting yourself out there challenging yourself. However, go with no expectations and go prepared. That’s one thing I didn’t do. I didn’t go prepared. I tell all my friends and young singers that I have mentored, have your music ready to go. Know who you are. Have your team and just know you’re going to utilize the platform. Don’t set your heart on winning because it will only destroy you. Just go say, “I’m here”. Know your fate, gather your fans and when you leave gather yourself and, “Oh, what a great experience. Peace out, y’all. I’m gonna drop this new music”. It’s more of me continuing on a message that was passed down to me. So rather than walk away and have a bitter or negative experience with it, I was able to create a different interpretation for myself to help me and move forward powerfully. It’s all about transformation and motivation and inspiring others. I have to go through my ups and downs in order to come out feeling good about it and being able to talk about “The Voice” in a very positive way. Again, it was an experience that I was definitely grateful to be a part of it – and very competitive too. To walk away knowing that was a chapter and it wasn’t the end of my story.
Besides having a lovely voice and a visual presence, you’re a multi-instrumentalist as well. That may get lost in the fact people see you as a vocalist. What instrument did you pick up first and of the instruments you play is there one you prefer?
It all starts off with my father and being a multi-instrumentalist, watching him as he went along growing up around dad – just touching all his instruments. He would tell me, “don’t touch my instruments”. And of course I would do the opposite. (laughs) For me, I also want to be a stand for vocalist as well. I do believe that our instrument should be recognized and respected. So my first instrument is my voice. That is my favorite instrument of all. It’s not something I can take out, fiddle with or tune. It’s just all internal. I did also pick up the clarinet, the piano and acoustic guitar, and I had a drum pad. Understanding all of these melodies and rhythms, understanding how each of these instruments works; that ‘s why I am able to be around these instruments and be a bandleader. I am able to go into sessions and tell the person exactly what I’ looking for; what chord progression, flow, rhythm, punch, kick, I can get down to all the details. For me, I understand every single instrument and I’m able to execute it. I like to pull from my mentors and people I have learned from like James Brown, Michael Jackson – like basically going into a session and speak it with their mouth and beatbox. I was very inspired by that. Those are people I pulled from for energy sources and inspiration. I’m actually looking at my acoustic guitar now that I have in my living room. It constantly reminds me, “Pick me up! Pick me up! I’m here whenever you need me.” And I’ll just pick it up randomly. I do like to play along. I’m not like my father. I learned by ear and I like to learn the hardest don ever. And he goes, “You have to start from the basics!” I’m like; no, no, no, I want to learn the hard stuff. I love the stuff that’s cool. (laughs) I like to push myself in that way and I’m glad I have understanding of instruments. For me, my best instrument is my voice and being able to control it without knowing how I’m controlling it because it’s internal and it’s a feeling. Being able to execute vocal tones whether it’s breathy or a chest voice, a soft voice or a whisper, that is very exciting to me of being a vocalist.
Of course the pandemic has put a wrench in everyone’s plans in the last year. I was wondering what affect it had on your songwriting and were you more concentrated on your songwriting since there weren’t many opportunities to play out.
Ugh. Again, back to being in the experience… in the beginning it was very, kind of tapping in. There was a reason for this happening to the world. Like it’s telling people to pause. It’s telling people to check within themselves – self-care, mental health, connecting with family members because we’re always on the go-go-go, especially New Yorkers. Non-stop, go-go-go, gotta do something and people had forgotten how to just be. I was all for it. I didn’t mind being indoors. One big secret of mine is I’m a big homebody. I kind of like to fizzle in my home – revamp, recoup myself. I guess I took some time to see what was coming up for me. What are the topics I wanted to talk about, what melodies were coming up, what do I want to sing about today? And there were other times that I don’t want to sing at all. I don’t want to force it. I didn’t want to put that pressure that I need to create. I needed to step away from it with the world shutting down and so may emotions flowing – work stopping and me not being able to be around people – the people I love and the energy, creations and community. It started to take a toll on me. I’ve been using this break to be. And whatever that means to people – and whatever that means to people when I say that. Just be, whether it be nothing, being silent, being still, listen to some jazz all day, get organized, get to a drawer I’ve been meaning to get to for the longest – whatever that is. And now I’ve been in that space of like, okay, get up, let’s go. What’s coming up for me? Time to create without the pressure of I’ve got to finish something. So, with “Carousel” and actually the rest of the project that I’m really excited to put out, it really just came when it came. Again, I don’t like pressure and humbly, I don’t like to be told what to do. I can’t be told by anyone – I don’t care who you are – just sit and write a song, because it won’t work. Because you’re telling me, my brain shut down. Just let me be and you check on me. Just ask me how I’m doing, offer to bring me a cup of coffee. I see what you’re doing. It works. And you leave me alone and I’ll come back with ten songs and you’re intention was to just have me write one. That’s what works for me. Really, to put a bow on your question, it’s been an extremely difficult time. I miss getting out. I do miss being around my crew and team. However, being indoors has taught me how to step out of the box and still find ways to be creative and challenge myself as a musician and a creator. I will say I am still grateful that I am still able to produce music and have a team that can help me execute that. It’s what every artist hopes and dreams of, so I’s grateful to have tis at the end of the day.
– Dave Weinthal