Mayda Miller’s background isn’t the most obvious for an up and coming R&B star. Korean by birth but American by adoption, she grew up in “very white, very not funky” Minnesota, dividing her time between classical piano and playing on tractors with cousins in Virginia.
But it was on one of these visits to her “hick relatives” that she made the discovery that would later shape her career.
“In their basement they had all these old blues records, really old and dusty. But when I heard that blues note, that’s in R&B, that’s in funk, that’s in blues and jazz, it struck a chord in me. I was, like, five years old and I was almost crying, I was just like, wow. I’ve never felt like this before,” she says.
“So I did that, every time I went round there. I just shut myself off. And then I started studying it more – you know do-wop, and Motown, and the psychedelic era, and Curtis Mayfield, you know? And I was like, this is amazing. This is real soul music. This moves you. This is real and genuine. That’s all I’ve been looking for in life.”
As she got older, angrier and more interested in grunge, Miller tried to make use of her skills as a classical pianist to explore the music she admired, playing songs by Nirvana and the Beatles as well as the blues classics she’d grown to love. But eventually, she found the piano too limiting for her developing sound.
“I was like, well Nirvana and Weezer and people like that, they play guitar, and I want to play guitar! So I went and got a really old beat up guitar in a used store. And I just started teaching myself.”
Performing a heartfelt acoustic set at the Jazz Club last night, Miller’s showed off her versatility and charisma – she’s equally impressive in an intimate setting as she is stirring up a dancefloor, as she will tomorrow, with her friend and collaborator DJ Nico, who is based here in Phnom Penh.
Last year, she brought her confessional style to the stage in a very different way, performing a one woman show that brought together songwriting and storytelling to tell the tale of her own life – and she plans to bring another show to the stage soon in the US, using burlesque to explore ideas about sexuality and asexuality. She’s also working on a new album, currently in its infancy.
Her sound is a continually evolving into a soulful blend of funk and R&B, enriched by gorgeous, vulnerable vocals and a passionate performance style. Her lyrics, meanwhile, deal with the issues that have shaped her life: navigating identity, carving our her own niche, an uncertainty about where she belongs, resistance to stereotypes or rigid definition – especially as a Korean American from the Midwest performing blues-tinged R&B.
“It’s tough and it still is. People don’t really seem to get it. I don’t know why it’s so hard to swallow – music is the universal language! Everybody knows emotions, knows sadness, knows love.
“But who you are is important. I know that. And being a Korean adoptee, I’ve never really felt like I fit in anywhere. I’m still not used to it. I’m still singing about it!”
Mayda Miller performs at 9pm tonight, 8th April, at the Jazz Club, St 282, Phnom Penh.