The early tunes of Mya served as the soundtrack to the teenage love affairs of girls who are now women with babies, marriages or at least a handful of failed relationships under their belts. Her visibility has waned as her fans have settled into adulthood, but the D.C. native has never stopped making music. The R&B crooner (real name Mya Marie Harrison) has released a total of 12 studio projects — including her 1998 eponymous debut — in the past 18 years.
Smoove Jones is for the fans who’ve rocked with her since the beginning. The 12-track EP fluctuates between upbeat two-step music and bedroom bangers. The set is essentially grown and sexy while still sounding like the Mya you sang along to in the early 2000s. These days, Mya releases her music without the heavy promotion that brought chart success for hits like 2000’s “Case of the Ex,” which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, or her first single, 1998’s “It’s All About Me,” which reached No. 6 on the same chart. The quality of the music, though, continues to evolve as she challenges herself as an artist.
At 36, Mya has managed to maintain the mystique of celebrity. A quick peek at her Twitter and Instagram pages will tell you she has a close relationship with her fans, she’s into nature and positivity, she performs all over the world and has aged gracefully. But she’s not only a performer — she’s a boss. She runs her own label, Planet 9, where she releases all of her own music. Billboard caught up with the singer shortly after her Feb. 14 release of Smoove Jones to chat about her inspiration, stance on feminism and love life.
Why the title Smoove Jones and why now?
Smoove Jones was a nickname I was given in the studio based on my laidback swag. The brothers that I work with told me I was cool, so I had to live with that name for a good two years. I’ve been thinking about some of the content that I’ve been recording, and obviously Valentine’s Day is a popular date for me to be releasing grown-and-sexy music because of the holiday, but also the 18th anniversary of a very sensual song, my first single, “It’s All About Me.” We just wanted to celebrate the anniversary together and I wanted to give [the fans] a bigger appetizer this time, so I went ahead and recorded Smoove Jones, which had a ’70s step to it. That’s what I wanted to name the project because that’s exactly what it is: real smooth.
It definitely feels good. What kind of head space were you in creating this project?
I didn’t necessarily say, “OK, it’s time to create a project called Smoove Jones.” I stay in the studio on the regular. I literally live in the studio. Over the course of the past three years, I’ve recorded hundreds and hundreds of songs, but like I said, when I decided that I was going to put out another EP to complete the EP series and that it would fall on Valentine’s Day, I knew how I wanted it to feel. I wanted it to feel grown and sexy for the fans that have grown up with me for the last 18 years [who] have kids, getting married and all that. I just pulled a collection of songs out of the archive that I thought would vibe well together, and everything was recorded within one to three years ago. It’s just been sitting around amongst other stuff that’s just unreleased.
On “Elevator,” you were rapping. Let me find out Mya has bars.
Well, you know it just felt appropriate to say something more than singing melody that I delivered in the verses. So yeah, I chose to flow, and I’m a spitting image of my brother Chaz [Cliff Louis], who’s a writer on all four of my EPs. And the first EP I rapped on was “Superwoman,” from the Sweet XVI project, so he was a co-writer on that and we just kept it up for this project, which might be the first time people are hearing the flow.
What inspires you to create music?
Feelings, healing. It’s therapy for me when I’m just creating music for myself. That’s first. If it’s therapy for me, it could possibly be therapy for someone who might feel the same way as I do in that moment. Music can definitely save. It can save you from doing something stupid or cause you to do something crazy and get outside of yourself. But it’s a release. It’s just expression and hopes to make people feel better, elevate them or tap into certain things we like to run away from internally. I do it for the way it makes me feel.
Let’s talk a little about your record label, Planet 9. What would you say you are most proud of as it relates to creating your own label?
I’m most proud of keeping my sanity and staying sane and taking matters into my own hands, going with the flow and not twiddling my thumbs. Making sure that in any circumstance I could pull it back together. I’m very proud of the resilience and the fight. It’s been a very long journey so staying sane in the midst of all that because it’s about trying on 20 different hats everyday, which is very necessary, but you either have to be insane, passionate or both. I guess I’m a little bit of both.
Who are you listening to right now?
I am listening to quite a few [artists]. I am listening to Miguel, BJ the Chicago Kid, who just dropped a new project around the same time as I [did], Tori Kelly’s new project. I’m always keeping some ’70s music around. Earlier today, I was listening to some Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway. It varies from day to day.
Do you miss the R&B of the ’90s, or are you happy with where it’s at now?
I mean, I love ’90s music — that’s my era of when I grew up, so I have the experiences of [being in] my living room, my bedroom [with] my boom box and my friends in school. I have attachments to music just like kids do these days who attach experiences to what they hear. So for me, it’s ’90s male groups like Jodeci, Mint Condition, Shai and Boyz II Men. A lot of that is missing for me and it made me feel some type of way. Even the girl groups like SWV, Xscape, TLC, En Vogue. Those were my times. I miss it, but I guess I’m a little older.
You’re a well-known celebrity. What is the last experience you had with a fan recognizing you in public?
[Celebrities] can definitely go out; it’s how you go out. I travel low-key if I don’t want to be noticed. The last encounter I had was at the airport, which is normal. I took pictures. The guy that was checking me in pulled me to the side and said, “I downloaded your album today. I haven’t listened to it yet, but I just downloaded it.” So that was awesome to hear, because usually it’s the opposite: “When are you going to be put out some new music?”
Your earlier music was very much rooted in female empowerment and I still hear that element when listening to Smoove Jones. Now, you have artists like Adele and Beyoncé who proudly say they are feminists. Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Well, I have not yet decided feminism is for me. Once I find feminism for myself, I’m sure I’ll come up with a beautiful, balanced definition, but I have not found a form of feminism that I can focus on. I am into women’s health, women’s rights, women’s stability, being who I am as a woman, the history of that and the disadvantages. I am interested in knowing the full journey before I throw a label on myself. I’m very cautious of what I do because of the stigmas and the ignorance that’s attached to it. I’m here to represent as many people as possible — the underdogs — and I believe women are a part of that category historically with the disadvantages economically, financially, socially, politically. Absolutely, I’m here for women. Now I just need to do that work and understand how other people are defining what feminism is, because you know I’m here for men too, but I have a soft spot in my heart for women and children.
You told The Frisky that you are in love. Does this mean romantic love?
Well, it’s not in love with a particular person or another man, nothing like that. It’s really arriving to love me and being in love with myself. It comes in many different forms and I have to always be grateful for all of that love from the fans, my friends, my girlfriends, my family, our creator. I’m just in love with life, the journey, the past, and where it brought me.
Do you see yourself eventually with “The One,” settled down, maybe married? I don’t want to assume that you want to get married, but do you see that for yourself?
Well, I’ve watched my parents and I can make all kinds of assessments out of hurt, witnessing their truth, which is not my truth. I have thought that before out of bitterness and fear. I’m trying to not operate from that place. I do think it’s possible but it has to be a mature love that develops over time. I’m not in a rush. The most important thing is to be in love with self and to be the highest, best version of myself I can be to find what I’m looking for because that’s what I expect in someone else. So I think it is possible but I want to be ready for it because marriage is not to be messed with. I respect it. It’s a lifetime commitment but I believe in positive energy. I do believe there’s something special about exclusivity.
Do you think that you get credit for your contribution to ’90s music?
I don’t know. I don’t really pay attention to just due, credit or acknowledgement. I’m just trying to get my music out to the universe and trying to get to as many people as possible. I know that I was attached to a system who have specific expectations for numbers, charts and figures so I understand that being business, but that’s not the place I’m operating from. I’m not looking for awards, charts or pats on the back. I just want to make people feel really good, to fulfill any requests that come my way as much as possible and to be in love with my music for no other reason other than it feels good. I don’t really have any expectations.
What song of yours would you recommend for a woman going through heartbreak?
“Evolve” from the K.I.S.S. album is that song! A self-reassuring one in that aftermath of being treated unfairly and being done dirty. Claiming that you will prevail and not only come out stronger but evolving into someone so much greater to the point of being unrecognizable to the culprit of your pain. “This is my genesis, a total metamorphosis, didn’t think that I could handle it, but you gon’ be a witness, watch me evolve.”