J. Maya is as impressive as they come, a Harvard graduate who combines her love for music with her love for books in an effortless way. She made waves across TikTok with her song "Achilles Heel," the mythology-laced song that gave new meaning to the term "smart pop." Her new EP "Poetic License" is the exact work you'd want from J. Maya, with angelic vocals and thought-provoking lyrics worth diving into. We talked to her about her decision to follow her music dreams and the process of creating her new project.
How did you get started in music?
J. Maya: I actually initially got my start in music learning South Indian classical (Carnatic) music! IT’s still one of my favorite art forms to this day; Carnatic music is so rich in tone, modulation, and improvisation, and really gave me the musical building blocks I needed at a young age. From there, I experimented on my own with jazz (which shares a shockingly high amount of similar music elements with Indian music, actually), learning how to sing standards, scat, and fiddle, and studied classical violin, eventually joining the Peninsula Youth Orchestra. While I’ll be forever grateful for these foundational skills, I will say my mind was fully blown when I eventually discovered pop music. I became obsessed in my teenage years with the big pop girls – Beyonce, Ariana Grande, Katy Perry, etc. – and, specifically, how big pop songs were written. Every moment I could find, I was deconstructing the songs, playing with chord structures, and developing a passion for songwriting. When I was 16, I wrote my first full song, and the rest is history!
I love that you’re a Harvard grad pursuing your dreams!! Was it tough making the decision to pursue music?
J. Maya: Thank you so much! And to your question – oh, absolutely. This decision was actually the inspiration behind a lot of the themes of Poetic License, my debut EP (especially the tracks “Two Roads” & “Prophecies”). In the process of writing this project and reflecting on these last couple of years, I realized that I’ve been trying to rationalize my decision to pursue music to everyone – including myself – because I’m just so terrified of letting the people around me down. Growing up a people pleaser, constantly gauging people’s reactions to my decisions to ensure I wasn’t disappointing anyone, I have really consciously had to work on living for myself as I’ve come into adulthood. I think a big part of that has been understanding the role community pressure played in my desire to follow a “traditional career” like law after college. I’m learning now how important it is to listen to the voice in your head that’s talking to you when you fall asleep. For me, that voice has always been telling me to follow my songwriting dreams, and I’m so glad I listened for once!
Tell me about the new EP, what was the process of it coming together?
J. Maya: Early in the process of curating this first EP, I had really one mission in mind: to tell a story, from beginning to end. Beyond that, I was starting from scratch. I was just writing and writing, trying not to stop myself from saying the things it seemed like I wanted to say in my music. Then, earlier this year, I had a moment of realization, where I realized that all the songs that were coming out of me fit into these two patterns: firstly, a lot of them were naturally referencing touchpoints of the Western canon (Western literature, poetry, and mythology) in the lyrics, and secondly, many discussed the feeling of starting to taking “control” over one’s life for the first time. The latter didn’t shock me at all, as that’s what this last couple of years has felt like for me; for the first time in my life, I’ve started to make my own decisions (a huge one being the decision to even release music, something I’ve been scared to do my entire life) and take “poetic license” with my own story, so to speak. I started connecting songs I’d written into a cohesive timeline, and “Poetic License” was born: the story of how I got here. I was really stoked about settling on that title, too, because I’ve found it poignant how I use these famous touchpoints of the Western canon to talk about things that feel both uniquely personal to me and broadly relatable to those who look and/or act like me. The whole EP feels like a really honest introduction to me and my writing style – as an artist, I’m not afraid of sticking out, of taking “poetic license” with things.
You have so many literary references in your music! Where did that interest come from?
J. Maya: Reading for escapism as a kid! (I’m only half-joking.) I’ve always been a big reader – when I was a kid, my mom would have to take me to the library every Sunday because I maxed out the borrowing limit every week. Eventually, she just got me my own library card so I wouldn’t have to be stifled by the family’s borrowing limit; this moment was such a defining one in my childhood that I ended up actually referencing it in the first line of my (appropriately titled) song “Library Card.” I think I’ve always just been fascinated by fictional worlds and people. I liked to dream big as a kid, and it was a lot funner to think big when you weren’t restricted by reality. I don’t think I ever really got over that, either. The badassery and whip-smart intelligence of the female characters that I grew up obsessing over – Annabeth Chase, Hermione Granger, Katniss Everdeen, etc. – are still traits I am constantly trying to stoke in myself. Also, I still read a lot! A combination of romance mythology, science fiction, and some middle grade fantasy, too, because I’m not ashamed of my desire to escape every once in a while.
What’s the one book you think everyone should read?
J. Maya: Oooo, I love this question! Especially because it’s such an easy answer: Lexicon, by Max Barry. This book changed my brain chemistry when I read it in college. Without spoiling too much, it’s a book about a world where a secret society of “poets” can persuade anyone to do anything with the right training, and, specifically, about a girl who gets caught up in the wrong part of the society and accidentally endangers humanity in the process. As someone who’s been obsessed with words and language and poetry forever, I devoured this book in approximately twenty hours and have re-read it every year since. I have always loved dystopian novels that feel realistic save for one defining conceptual quirk; it casts a high beam over parts of our daily lives that often go unnoticed. On a purely pleasurable level, this book satisfies the other common reader checklist points; the prose is sharp, the characters are fresh and engaging, the plot unravels unpredictably, and there’s a surprisingly wholesome romance at the center of it all. It’s my go-to example of a good book that has it all.
What has been the biggest challenge in your career?
J. Maya: An amazing question! I would say a huge challenge I’ve had to work really intentionally to overcome is cultivating a sense of “steadiness” in my day-to-day life. This is an industry where there are high highs and low lows, and, as an independent artist, it’s quite difficult to predict when each will come. I think this is especially true for artists who are trying to break the mold with their work; moments will fluctuate, and your job as an artist is to keep your eyes on what’s solid and try your best to move with what isn’t. I will say, though, that I wouldn’t trade this job for anything in the world. Whenever I’m having a bad day, all it really takes is one positive message or comment from someone to remind myself of the bigger reason behind everything: to connect with people, and to increase the amount of love and joy in the world.
What else has been inspiring you lately?
J. Maya: My incredible followers! As I’ve mentioned before, I think there are few things cooler than when art informs art. It puts such a huge smile on my face when I see people create visual animatics to my songs, upload a video cosplaying their favorite character and lip-syncing to some of my lyrics, or even just include a song of mine on a playlist of their favorites from the week. I’m inspired every day by the unbelievable art and talent in the community we’ve built; it really is remarkable, and I’m just grateful to be a part of it!
What’s your best piece of advice for young women?
J. Maya: I wish someone told me when I was younger that I didn’t have to fit neatly into categories to fit in. I hid the creative, artistic part of myself for so long because I thought I had to be the “smart” kid; it wasn’t until adulthood that I realized I had imposed such arbitrary distinctions on myself. I think women are often encouraged to shrink themselves in order to make themselves more palatable. If I could reach any young women out there, I’d want them to know that they can be anything they want to be, and more. You can be a bad-ass, and brilliant, and funny, and intense, and silly – the only person who decides what you get to be is you. <3