For Maddie Jay, a solo project means a chance to play by her own rules
After touring with Naia Izumi, Skylar Grey and Emily Warren, this hired gun needed an outlet for herself
Maddie Jay quit her job as a session and touring musician last February. For the B.C.-born artist, years of playing for other acts, learning and internalizing other people's music, was equal parts rewarding and tiring. But ultimately, she wanted to focus on her own project.
"I just needed an outlet," she tells me over a Zoom call from Los Angeles. "I was in the thick of touring, and I had this goal of creating just one song."
That one song turned out to be "Lunch Break," a sunny pop melody where Jay admits on its chorus, "I just want a vacation from this life that I made for myself." Of course, Jay's timing couldn't have been better since touring and being in enclosed, indoor spaces like studios and concert venues were all put on hold a month later because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a turn of events, Jay was forced to isolate and continue working on her own music, stretching that one song into what has now become two EPs of vibrant, DIY pop.
Before she came into her own musical identity, Jay spent years as a devoted student who followed other people's rules. She says she grew up in "Canadian fiddle culture," playing in groups and alongside her family, which included her father on mandolin and mother on accordion. "We would go to all the B.C. music festivals every summer, that was my earliest musical memory," she explains.
During a fateful five-week jazz program at Boston's Berklee College of Music in 2012, the bass player for Jay's ensemble didn't show up, leading Jay to assume the role. She didn't know how to play bass, and feared she was too old to pick up a new instrument at the age of 16 (she laughs at this now), but figured its similarities to a violin as a stringed instrument would be a relatively easy transition. And not only did Jay learn the instrument, but it unlocked a new passion.
"I haven't touched it since," Jay says, of the fiddle. "I still have a lot of love for it, but it didn't gel with what I wanted to do. I was an indie kid. I liked Vampire Weekend [...] I just really liked the role that it plays in music. Like, basslines are cool. If you play a cool bassline, you're a cool person."
Jay went on to complete a full program at Berklee for jazz bass performance, writing her own music and even starting her own acid jazz band during her time there. But practically speaking, she needed to plan her next steps.
Being a session musician was "a professional music job that I knew existed," Jay notes, of how she landed on her objective, post-secondary school. She knew she wanted to move to Los Angeles, so with the help of some friends who graduated ahead of her, she was tipped off on the bars she needed to play at in order to catch the attention of local music directors. During an audition to join a wedding band, she was recruited by a guitar player to play for a blues artist. "It was some of the worst touring conditions I've ever had," she recalls, "but it was my first gig and when I got that first paycheck, I was like, 'Bass money! Yeah!'"
Jay says she enjoyed learning other people's music — as well as touring all over the world to places like China, South America and Europe playing with Naia Izumi, Skylar Grey and Emily Warren — but eventually her urge to flex her own creative muscles became too strong to ignore. Soon, she split up the two: playing with others was Jay's day job while kick-starting her own solo career was an extracurricular hobby where she could assert and explore her own ideas.
"I don't like collaborating on my own stuff," she says, of her more guarded, solitary approach to her own songwriting. (She is open to changing this, but for the moment prefers to work alone.) "I think, because I play with other people, this is like my own little safe space where I can literally do whatever I want and try all the weird things that other people wouldn't normally want. Like, I get to try bad lyrics and no one will tell me, 'No, not like that.'"
There's a playfulness throughout Jay's music, a loose experimentation with words, instrumentation and production that feels joyfully unbound from her previous occupation's limitations. Flutes, rhythm guitars, pops of synths all bubble to the surface, creating a colourful frame around Jay's airy vocals. (Jay admittedly wasn't comfortable singing at first, but says she developed that skill when she moved to L.A. because she was told, "You're never going to be unemployed if you can play bass and sing.")
Jay's two releases, 2020's Mood Swings and this year's CMYK, were put out one year apart, but they clearly display the skills of a fast learner. (Jay both plays and produces on her own records.) Having picked up on production tricks from other musicians, CMYK makes steep improvements on a more polished, but still whimsical sound. (Part of this is also credited to Grammy Award-winning engineer Emily Lazar, who found and connected with Jay via social media and ended up lending a hand on CMYK. "She is all about just spreading her success and helping people," Jay praises.) Single "Excuses" is a highlight: a warm, sprawling number that self-deprecates ("I'm stuck in my mind games, stalled out in the driveway") without ever turning into a full-blown crisis of confidence.
Subjects like depression, anxiety or even romance were topics that took Jay some time to feel comfortable opening up about. "I was a little guarded, emotionally," she admits. But the act of accessing her vulnerability allowed for Jay to "form an actual emotional connection with the music I was making." That said, it's still a work in progress, and Jay still hides her emotions sometimes like on CMYK's romantic ode, "CR-78," which is named after a drum machine instead of using a more direct title because, as she says, "If I gave [that song] a pop love song name, I would have been too embarrassed."
As lockdown restrictions began to lift gradually in certain countries including the U.S. and Canada, Jay felt a sudden itch to hit the road again. Even though she informed everyone around her that she had officially quit being a hired gun, she ended up getting an offer she couldn't refuse: accompanying New Zealand pop star Lorde on her upcoming 2022 tour. "They sought me out specifically," she says, adding that their team loved that she also has her own solo project. "I think I was so starved of live performance at this point that it just sounded really fun. When I first moved to L.A., I had that drive and hunger to just play, and it kind of burned out, but I think that flame was reborn this year. So by the time I got that call, I was like, actually that sounds good.
"People know my project now, I don't have to prove anything anymore," she continues. While this means that the timeline for her own album and tour will have to be pushed down the line a bit, Jay assures that this move feels right: "If this is the last touring gig I ever do, I can tell my kids, 'Yeah, I played with a big pop star.' Like, I think I can rest easy."
That is, until Jay herself becomes a big pop star.