Used to working behind-the-scenes, the frequent Twin Cities producer and music director finds his own voice
Eric Mayson embodies soul. His debut solo album, “Detail,” was inspired by his various collaborators (among them, Caroline Smith and Lizzo) and reflects the 27-year-old producer and multi-instrumentalist’s complex artistic vision. Flipping through genres and defying simple categorization, “Detail” drifts from one soundscape to another with ease. Its beat-driven approach is filled with traces of hip-hop, neo-soul, and indie rock. In line with the cyclical nature of the record, it’s no surprise “Detail” was originally released as two 20-minute songs on cassette tape. Here, finally, Mayson the performer is front and center, and “Detail” is as much of a personal statement as it is a tribute to the friendships that brought it together.
The Wake: What’s the story behind “Detail”?
Eric Mayson: I’ve been doing a lot of session work at this place called River Rock Studios, and I’d been playing for people like Toki Wright and Big Cats and a bunch of other projects, and after I was working with them for a while, they asked if I had any tunes of my own. I said yeah, and they offered me a chance to record my record there. The idea for the record started with these other people saying, “Yo, man, you should make a record.” [Laughs]. It was a process of me digging through what I had, deciding what I wanted it to sound like, and editing works that I had made without any intention of releasing into this project.
What was the reasoning for releasing the album on cassette, and what was the process of winnowing it down for digital consumption?
EM: A lot of the pieces that I had written were about 45 seconds long, some longer, but it was this whole process of me thinking, “Well, I need to finish these songs because they’re not long enough yet,” which evolved into, “or maybe I don’t. Maybe this is a full idea. I just need to present them in a way where shorter ideas are palatable.” At the time, I was listening to a lot of the record “Donuts” by J Dilla, which is one of the most meaningful albums in my life, for sure. I had it on cassette in my car, and I kind of fell in love with that format. There’s never really an ending place. It kind of starts where it ends—like a donut—over and over again.
It’s about beginning with an outro and ending with an intro.
EM: Exactly! Every time you turn it on in the car, it starts at a new place. There’s no sort of consistency with how you hear it, and I love that.
Who else would you say you’re influenced by, or who is represented through your music?
EM: I would say Madlib, but I don’t know if that comes off in my music. [Laughs]. I really like Madlib a lot, but mostly the people I’m influenced by are my friends who I hang out with, who are just breathtaking artists, musicians, and thinkers. So even though a lot of it is nothing you can go out and listen to, I think most of my inspiration comes from the community of people that I have around me, a lot of performance artists and dancers. Most of the themes I came up with for the record were written during dance classes. I play for [the University of Minnesota] and a few other places as a day job, and it’s all improvised, and I just watch dancers and make stuff up. A lot of the music that I write comes from that environment. Most of my inspiration comes from improvising from dance.
You’ve done a lot of production work for other people, so what are the differences and similarities between that experience and making your own solo album?
EM: I think the biggest difficulty in doing a solo work was that I’ve gotten so used to creating in a collaborative sense. The idea of wearing a hat and closing the door to myself was a bit scary. I think I work similarly with other people as I do myself, just by nature. The people I produce with create a safe, creative environment where I feel comfortable being myself in. Making the music on my own wasn’t super hard, but bringing in other people to play it, and not “telling” people what to do, but being the guy who calls the shots, was a little unnerving because I’ve become so wired for collaboration. But really, it is still a collaborative work. It just has my name on it. It didn’t actually feel that different.
“I play for [the University of Minnesota] and a few other places as a day job, and it’s all improvised, and I just watch dancers and make stuff up. A lot of the music that I write comes from that environment. Most of my inspiration comes from improvising from dance.”
With this album, does it feel like you’re taking center stage and moving forward with your own voice?
EM: I do feel that way. I’m the kind of person who throws things and sees where they land, so I find it hard to come up with a plan for the future. But I definitely think that I have more of an interest in finding my voice, and now that I have experience in the scene, I know what’s there and what’s not there. I think there are some holes in it that I can fill with some of my own ideas.
The record takes on a lot of different sounds, like indie rock and hip-hop are infused into it…
EM: My job for a long time has been “to be the guy to make music for the thing we need music for.” Sometimes that’s beats, sometimes that’s piano ballads, sometimes that’s musical theater, sometimes it’s rock songs. I feel like because I work so much in theater and the dance world, and need a diverse palette, I don’t know why anybody would like to make one kind of music forever.
You mentioned working and directing in musical theater. What has that experience been like, and when did you get involved doing that?
EM: I did a lot of acting when I was younger, in my high school and stuff like that. For a long time I thought I wanted to be an actor. When I went to college, for a year I was actually studying theater, and I ended up not only acting but being hired to do a lot of the music for musicals or just plays that needed music. I feel like even though I worked in the theater, a lot of what I was doing was still music related. Because of that, my way of thinking about music also includes storytelling and theater and dance. When I was about 15, I wrote a musical called “Angst: A New Teen Musical.” [Laughs].
“I don’t know why anybody would like to make one kind of music forever.”
That’s awesome! What was it about?
EM: So “High School Musical” had just come out, and we wanted to write the musical that was a little more accurate, that had kids that were doing drugs, getting pregnant, and dealing with really heavy ideas. It was really tongue-in-cheek, and probably a little scary to see as an adult. We ended up doing it at the [Fringe Festival], and then we went to New York with that. I think other aspects of performance have always been a really big part of music for me. Music seems like a form of theater to me, that it’s like one of the more honest forms of theater, so much so that a lot of the people that do it don’t even realize they’re doing it, it just comes so natural, it’s like your unfiltered experience. Moving forward with this project, I’m really interested in trying to tie those worlds together a little bit more. There’s so much work that’s been done to experiment sonically with music, but there’s a lot of stuff as far as performativity goes that we could still find and push the boundaries of.