by Phoebe Blyth
When we finally got the chance to visit New Orleans, we were in awe of the incredible food, the vibrant culture, and the oh-so-talented musicians at every bar or venue we went to. One such musician was Mikayla Braun, who we got a chance to chat with at the House of Blues about what it's like to follow your dream in a city full of people doing chasing theirs.
1. What is your earliest musical memory (was there a specific moment when you decided to become a musician?)
When I was growing up in Washington D.C. my parents had an upright piano in the house - I remember trying to reach the keys on my own. This was when I was around 3 and 4 years old (but I think I only remember that far back because my parents have videos of me writing my own songs on it). I also remember putting all of the key letter names on each key to learn how to play when I was about 6 or 7. It was painfully frustrating, but I really wanted to learn. As I grew older I discovered my true love for singing, and became involved in choirs, a cappella groups, and musical theater throughout high school and college. But I didn't really decide to take the leap of faith to pursue music as my career until I studied abroad to East Africa in college. I took a ukulele (they wouldn't let me bring a guitar) because it could fit inside my suitcase, and on that voyage was the first time I had ever performed songs that I had written in front of strangers. I guess I felt like if they hated my music I wouldn't have to see them when I got back to America (we were all from different Universities). Haha, that's interesting to look back on and think about. But the experience made me feel much more comfortable with sharing my music. I was studying wildlife conservation and management while I was there, but playing music for the people I was with along with and starting a music program at a small primary school down the road really made me think about what I wanted for my future. I came home, graduated with a degree in psychology, and decided that I must become a musician. It has always been my true passion, so I had to give it a shot. So I moved to New Orleans :)
2. Who were you biggest musical influences when you were younger, and have they changed as your career has grown?
My first concert was Etta James at B.B. King's Cotton Club in New York City. I was 13 years old with my parents, and I will never take that for granted. Along with her stunning voice, her stage presence and the way she captured her audience will never leave my mind. I always loved Billie Holiday, Norah Jones, Ella Fitzgerald, Lauryn Hill, Barbara Streisand, and Christina Aguilera when I was younger, to name just a few, and that definitely hasn't changed. My biggest influences are definitely strong female singers, but I did/do look up to men as well such as Oscar Brown Jr, Ben Folds, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Talking Heads, etc. As I've grown older, my influences haven't necessarily changed, but definitely expanded. And certainly expanded to more piano influences as well, especially living in New Orleans (James Booker, Professor Longhair, Ellis Marsalis, Tom McDermott, Keith Jarrett, Aaron Parks, oh so many). Not all of those piano players are from New Orleans, but there are SO many amazing artists in this city, and I look up to so many of them. This city is certainly my higher education with an amazing musical community. Every song that sparks my interest is a musical influence.
3. How would you describe yourself as a musician?
I am first and foremost a vocalist, and I play piano and ukulele as well. I'm also learning trumpet and I want to eventually pick up the harmonica, too. I am a writer, and perform with my Quartet around the city. That is made up of myself on vocals, keys, and uke, a drummer, an upright bassist, and an electric guitarist. My original music is heavily concentrated on lyrical content, which is very much intrinsically driven. But I've found that people from many walks of life have been able to relate to my songs. The music is more often simple than not, so that the lyrics aren't overshadowed. But the more I learn (especially on piano), the more the music is always changing...I enjoy experimenting. I am also the lead singer of a 6 piece band with a couple saxophones and trombone. That is a very different experience, as we are much more funk-pop-rock oriented. We play bigger party shows where we focus on getting the audience to dance and party with us. My original music is more of a style to sit and enjoy while really being able to listen to the content. And my vocal repertoire is always expanding the more I sit in with various bands in the city. I have had the amazing opportunity to sit in with groups that range from traditional jazz, to rhythm & blues, to brass bands- I feel very lucky.
4. What was the particular appeal of New Orleans, and when did you decide to move there?
Well, I went to college in the Midwest (very cold), and didn't want to go back to the East Coast, so I decided I wanted to move south after I graduated. I was actually deciding between New Orleans, Nashville, and Austin. I had been to New Orleans a handful of times (my best friend went to college down here) but I had never been to the other cities. So, after I graduated I hopped on a plane by myself to visit the other cities. They are both wonderful places, but not for me. The whole time I could sense that I knew deep down that New Orleans was the place I would end up. It is unlike any other place I've ever been in my life, with a spirit that is incomparable. The brass music was something that kept drawing me back, too. I remember the specific conversation I had with my friend who lived down here that absolutely convinced me, though. She just gave me so many reasons why this is the city I need to be in. She was right. I moved down here in September of 2012.
5. Describe a typical New Orleans weekend for you and your friends.
I love supporting other musicians and artists in the community. New Orleans isn't really a city, it's more like a big neighborhood or community. Half the people here are tourists, and half the people that aren't tourists are students. And within those of us who just live and work here is a beautiful little artistic community. Not to say that everyone absolutely knows everyone, but there's a saying about the music scene here - "1,000 bands 100 musicians". A majority of the musicians that I know play in multiple bands, of many different styles. The musicians are just so talented here, and so welcoming. Frenchmen street is somewhere I go often, mostly if I'm already playing a gig there that night. I like to go about an hour earlier than I have to be there and pop into all of the venues to support whoever is playing. Often, those musicians will stop by my gig when they are done playing. And people are so comfortable with letting other musicians sit in with their bands here. Say a trumpet player walks into a venue we're playing with his trumpet on his back (or her) and we'll say "oh our friend so and so just came through, want to come up and play a few?" The camaraderie is amazing, people just appreciate that you're doing what you love to do. It's pretty magical. Very musical. I definitely don't go out on Bourbon Street, I will say that. I also very much enjoy getting some boiled crawfish (if it's the right season) and sitting on the Bayou or the Mississippi River during sunset. Otherwise I spend a lot of my days practicing.
6. What is the biggest professional/personal challenge for you as a young musician?
I would say the biggest professional and personal challenge for me has been continuing to have a side job as a waitress. I don't regret that decision, because I know that it is the right choice for right now, but I can't wait to be a full time musician. Especially because I'm still focusing on learning and experimenting and really honing in on my sound, I don't want to rely on music for all of my money (bills, etc). I know that I would start to write to appeal to who is offering me the money that I need at the time, and I don't want to do that. I want to be able to write organically and having a steady income from another job allows me to do that. And I am so lucky to have a wonderful job that is so flexible, so if I go out of town on tour or have to take off work for gigs they are totally fine with that. But also taking the leap of faith to be completely financially independent as an artist is scary. Art is so subjective, and to think that you are relying on how other people perceive what you have produced seems like a gamble. But I want to do that. I just have more to do and learn in New Orleans before I do take that step.
7. When did you/will you know that you've "made it"?
"Fame and fortune" as most people perceive it has never been an ultimate goal of mine. I wouldn't say I'd turn down some magical opportunity that would lead to that, but paparazzi certainly isn't something I've dreamt about. I do have lofty goals, such as singing at the Grammys one day, but I'll feel like I've "made it" when I am able to comfortably make a living from what I love doing so much. My goal is to travel as much as I can with my music and connect with as many people as I can through what I write. Connection with friends and strangers alike through music is phenomenal to me. And you never know what songs will change someone's day, or week, or maybe even life. I just find that amazing and incredibly inspiring.
8. What is the one thing people should know about life in new Orleans that isn't already common knowledge?
New Orleans is so much more than just "Bourbon Street" and "Mardi Gras" and taking your open containers of alcohol out on the street. The cultural history runs so deep here from the music to the food to the art to second lines to Mardi Gras Indians to Storyville oh I could go on and on. You can feel the spirit of New Orleans when you're here.
9. Are there particular challenges/advantages to being a young female musician?
I think since this city is so welcoming to people that are passionate about and dedicated to music, I have been lucky to avoid a lot of sexism that I feel I may face in other cities. I am someone who takes my craft seriously and is always striving to learn and play with as many people as possible, and I think people respect that. I have had people assume that I can't carry heavy equipment or set up my own sound system, which is kind of a shame. I have also had people tell me that I should dress and act a certain "sexy" way on stage. Unfortunately there is still sexism everywhere, but I don't let it get to me... it's not worth the energy.
10. If you weren't doing what you do now, you would be....
I really don't think I could be doing anything else. I really believe no matter what I would be doing some kind of path would lead me back to music. Honestly I don't know how to answer this question because I have no clue haha. I mean I find the brain and behavior fascinating, which is partly why I got my degree in psychology, but music for me is very connected to that. My next album is actually called "Synapse", which simply put- synapses are junctions in the brain where transfer of information occurs between neurons by way of electrical impulses. It's truly the most primal transfer of information within ourselves before we can even understand our own thoughts. And those thoughts grow, we perceive them, react to them, act upon them, and life happens. I have one EP out, which is not on iTunes or Spotify or anything (just my website - www.mikaylamusic.com) so "Synapse" will be the first that I will publicly put out to the world to hear (for those who don't already know my website). I like to think of it as a little metaphor. I wrote my music based on personal feelings and moments of my life that spurred situations that affected my mindset. I want to share this music with people from all walks of life from all corners of the world. We are all transferring information all the time, and the music in this case is the information. Once transferred, people perceive the music, they can react to it in their own way based on their experiences and opinions, and maybe even act upon it (connecting with me, showing someone else, covering a song, etc). And life will happen.