Mary Akpa thrives on expression. The singer-songwriter is releasing her first new music in four years and in her time away from the studio, she traveled a lot, grew a lot and suffered a lot. But the winding road of life helped her find clarity, and now as she re-emerges reinvigorated, she talked to the Boombox about her new music and what it represents as far as who she is right now.
“I had such a period of growth,” Akpa says about her hiatus. “I learned so much about myself—I had some tragedies happen that taught me that a lot of what I was looking for was what I already had and just didn’t know it. So I was seeking validation and not trusting my own voice and looking outside myself for what I needed when all along—I had it.”
She eventually resumed writing but wanted to take a different approach than she did on 2012’s Brave. She decided to work the unfinished songs in front of an audience.
“I [was] really acknowledging my own voice and I’m not trying to compare it to anyone else’s–I’m just kind of going with it,” she explains.
“Also, I think the process of this particular record was an experience,” Mary continues. “I had a desire to play around with the songs a bit. So I had a skeletal idea of the songs and I loved them all separately, but I decided to workshop the songs—which was sort of a different process. I booked small gigs around town and I tried different arrangements and different layers and I added a bridge here or there or I added an intro or an outro. I tried to work them in different ways to find what was most authentic before I recorded them. I don’t know how that affects the finished product, but I know that it has to. I have a different relationship to the songs after that process.
“When I was performing the songs, it was more for me. I have so many influences and I can go in different directions. This was a way to actually feel out all of the directions you want to go in. I wasn’t looking for how audiences reacted to the song, I was looking more for what my inner voice was saying about the song and how it played itself out authentically.”
Her latest single, “That Day On the Train,” is a lilting and ethereal midtempo tune that tells a story of two strangers finding each other on the subway.
“‘That Day On the Train’ started as a chronicle of a love story that started when I first moved to New York,” she shares. The song is evocative of the way a casual glance between non-acquaintances can turn into so much more. Akpa admits that she’s not the standard New Yorker—she doesn’t believe in the feigned obliviousness that’s a hallmark of taking the train in the world’s busiest city. She doesn’t ignore the people around her.
“I’m the opposite by nature,” says Akpa. “So I met a person on the train who just shook my whole world and it happened right away. It wasn’t a physical attraction—it was a scene where your spirit recognizes a like-minded spirit. We immediately caught eyes and got off at the same train stop and started talking. Sometimes when you’re completely overwhelmed with love for someone it’s chaotic and out of control. But it moves into a place where things are completely settled.”
And “settled” is great for Mary Akpa. She acknowledges that, despite what some fans may believe, the process of songwriting doesn’t always start with a firsthand, personalized experience. Every lyric isn’t a diary entry notating some specific trauma; but Akpa admits that this time around, she did take a personal approach—but that might not always be the case.
“I think that what I’ve seen with this project, there were songs that I worked through that weren’t based on my personal experience but for some reason, for this particular project, they didn’t connect with everything else. These wound up being a story about this time in my life and those weren’t related to that so it felt very disconnected. But in general, when I’m inspired to write, its based on my observation of other people. I think it’s more how I emotionally respond to a particular thing—whether it’s happening to me or not.
“I was in a shop and a woman that was working at the counter was really polite and the woman she was helping was being so condescending and talking down to her,” she recalls. “Now, that wasn’t happening to me but I had to step in and say ‘She’s trying to help you—don’t speak to her like that.’ That wasn’t my experience but it drew a reaction out of me. I can really put myself in their exact position and see what they’re feeling. Or some close approximation of what they’re feeling and I think songwriters express that often.”
CHECK OUT “THAT DAY ON THE TRAIN” FROM MARY AKPA BELOW: