More than likely, you have heard the sweet voice of Muhsinah and had no idea who she was. The Howard University graduate and Grammy nominated singer, songwriter producer, engineer and composer has worked with everyone from Common (“Universal Mind Control”) to The Foreign Exchange (“Daykeeper”) while releasing solo projects every so often. After taking a three-year break, Muhsinah is back with a new EP to set up the release of a full-length album later this year. Life+Times recently chatted with the Duke Ellington School of the Arts grad to discuss her hiatus, the significance of being a multi-talented female artist and what it is like to get shouted out by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke.
Life+Times: Why the hiatus?
Muhsinah: I took a break to experience life and to remember why I started making music. Sometimes when we are working we get confused. I had to take care of myself and redefine my sound.
L+T: What’s the difference between you then and now?
Muhsinah: During that time I was just figuring out what I wanted to do as far as production. My last EP had two different sounds; an urban side and a suburban side. As a producer I wanted to see how many directions I can go in. During the break I was still making music to see what I wanted to focus on.
L+T: Do you ever find it hard to channel all of those genres and put into one cohesive project?
Muhsinah: That’s what I wanted to accomplish with this EP. I don’t have them separate anymore. I’m not trying to categorize myself. I think artists should just be artists and people can make whatever assessment they want to make on our art. I just want to be really succinct with what I want to say.
L+T: What inspires you to write these diverse songs?
Muhsinah: I’ve been experimenting for the past two years. Everyday I go for a walk in a park and if I get any ideas I jot them down. When I’m in the studio, I go back to the book of ideas and figure out what emotion I’m going for today. I’ll start with a beat, usually drums and a sample first. Sometimes I don’t even keep the sample because I use it as a reference and end up playing it live. As far as lyrics, I have really simplified what I’m saying. I don’t use a lot of big words. I try to be very succinct and easy to understand. I feel like songs last longer when they are simple because it can be catchy. I do at least a song every day.
L+T: How many unreleased songs do you have?
Muhsinah: About 300?
Muhsinah: I’ve been making music since I was 11 and I’m 30. When you make music for that long it becomes cathartic and part of your life. This is how I live. Instead of going to work, I record in my house. This is my life and that’s how you get hundreds of songs. Like, how many times you have made eggs in your life?
L+T: Almost every day.
Muhsinah: That is similar to how often I write songs.
L+T: So what are you doing with all of these songs?
Muhsinah: I have an album finished. It’s called Amazing and it will be out in the Fall. I’ve been working on it for a year.
L+T: What do you want people to get out of the M EP?
Muhsinah: I want people to feel comfort in knowing that you can completely accept yourself in everything that you do. Whether you are excited about small things or just trying to figure out who you are, just marvel at how things unfold. Everybody has a really great story and it’s okay to tell yours.
L+T: Your story is that you are a Jill of many trades, how important is it for young women to see that you can be more than just a voice and a pretty face in order to make it in this industry?
Muhsinah: It’s very important. I feel like self-sufficiency is good for your confidence and the evolution of self. I learned a lot about myself just being a producer that I wouldn’t have learned as a singer. I think it’s important to know how to do different things.
L+T: With that being said, I bet you couldn’t have predicted this path to success.
Muhsinah: No sir! I was really shy growing up. I played the piano so I didn’t have to talk to anyone. That’s where I found my peace. I wasn’t growing up doing this to be famous. This is what kept me calm.
L+T: Through just making music you ended up collaborating with a wide range of artists who others bigger names will never get a chance to work with.
Muhsinah: It was totally not my doing. A lot of people ask how I did it and I don’t know. I just made music. It goes to show that when you love what you do, things line up. It’s not too complicated. I feel really blessed to have access to these people to just talk about the commonality of what we do amongst ourselves. A lot of people don’t understand what it means to be an artist all of the time so it is good to discuss it among a group of people. I still talk to Common and Flying Lotus once every few months. I really appreciate these guys because even though they are busy they still find time to inspire me to be more creative.
L+T: How did it come about that Radiohead’s Thom Yorke showed you love on his website for the Flying Lotus produced song “Lose My Fuse”?
Muhsinah: I was living in Atlanta with my best friend who was managing me at the time. I think my brother sent an email that said something like “Thom Yorke just shouted you out.” This is someone who I have been listening to for a long time and I feel like we speak the same language. He’s the only person I can listen to and I’ll just cry. He taps into my emotions. When you do music for so long a lot of things don’t affect you. It has to be special to tap into your emotions. I’m completely honored and blown away still to this day.
L+T: Grammy nominations, Thom Yorke shout outs and a ridiculous portfolio. Not a bad look so far.
Muhsinah: The recognition is nice but I’m kind of like the actor that wins the Oscar but leaves it at their mother’s house to do more movies. I want to make sure that I’m keeping up with my creativity and not expecting more of these things to happen.