It’s a little unusual for a songwriter who grew up on a varied diet of records from Bob Dylan to Fleetwood Mac, Metallica to Madonna, and who has co-written for artists just as diverse, to cite two of the most influential composers of, um, the 1700s as her main inspiration, but that’s what Maia Davies says.
“I come from a very classical background, and I base a lot of my melody choices on Mozart or Bach, because I think that they wrote all the best pop melodies already,” she laughs. “And then we carry that over musically for the instrumentation.
“Folk music has a lot of acoustic guitars; pop music has synths; rock music has big drums, and for the lyrics it’s always clear communication of an emotion, and a story that someone wants to tell. Then it’s really a lot about the artist, and who they are, and in what genre.”
Davies is a former member of all-female country-pop quartet Ladies of the Canyon, which was managed by Warner Music Canada’s new division at the time, and put out two albums, 2010’s Haunted Woman and 2013’s Diamond Heart. She’s co-written for Monster Truck, Jill Barber, One Bad Son, Serena Ryder, Mother Mother (whose song “The Drugs” earned a SOCAN No. 1 Song Award), Delhi 2 Dublin, Clayton Bellamy, and more.
Does the genre matter, in terms of approach? Davies puts it this way: “In Jill Barber’s songs you say the word ‘love’ a lot, and in One Bad Son you probably won’t.” She adds, “On the face of it, any good song that nears the realm of rock, or folk, or pop music, is just a communication of emotion – so there’s two parts of it, the lyrics and the music.”
In Ladies of the Canyon, which formed in Montreal in 2005, the four members had typically contributed their own songs to their repertoire — a process Davies says was very solitary — but “halfway through the first record, we started co-writing, and it was something I really enjoyed.”
“A lot of times if they’re coming to me, they’ve figured out what they’ve already done, but they want something they’ve not already done.”
While touring with Ladies of the Canyon throughout Québec, where she has family roots dating back to her great-great-grandparents, she was inspired to make a Francophone solo album, which she appropriately titled Héritage and released under her first name, stylized as MAÏA. That project led to lyric work translating — or as she says, “re-writing” — two songs from Serena Ryder’s 2012 album, Harmony, for the Québec market.
Ryder showed her the French-language versions she already had and Davies — whose parents are both translators and editors — took another crack at it. “I think we can do better,” she says she told Ryder, explaining, “I believe you shouldn’t translate songs, but you should keep the intention and meaning of the song intact, take some liberties, and write accordingly.”
Three Tips for Novice Songwriters
1) “Every idea and every song that you have is not always the greatest, and you have to be okay with that. They become your children, but you have to let some of them go. That’s how you grow and get better.”
2) “Get a mentor, someone you really look up to. Just sit in the room next to them, and you’ll be amazed what you absorb.”
3) “Creativity and inspiration isn’t something that happens to you. It’s the culmination of being awake and looking around you: Looking at colours, going to a concert, going for walks, and all these things – synthesizing them into what you think is “accidental” inspiration. If you get writer’s block, change what you see. I like to go to a museum exhibit anytime I feel stuck, or surround myself with creative, vibrant people, and share ideas with them. That’s how you’ll never lose inspiration.”
The opportunity to launch this new phase of her career, writing and producing for and with others, came after Ladies of the Canyon started working on their third album with JUNO Award-winning producer Gavin Brown (Billy Talent, Metric, Barenaked Ladies, Mother Mother, Three Days Grace, Tragically Hip). But that album was never to be. The band went their separate ways, but Brown became Davies’ mentor, and helped open up the world of co-writing to her.
He gave her invaluable advice, especially about lyrics: Who are you saying this to, and why do you have to say it in a way that’s trying to be flowery or poetic? Have a direct conversation in the song.
“He offered me a job to stay on his team, and learn to be a producer and professional songwriter. At first, it was like bootcamp, which turned into a creative partnership,” says Davies, who now works with Brown out of Toronto’s Noble Street Studios.
Brown is also producing MAÏA’s second solo album, an alternative pop record, again en français. “I can express myself more emotionally clearly in French,” she says. “This album has a different lyrical flair to it. It’s a destination. I went through a crazy breakup, so it ended up becoming a record about love, heartbreak, and healing. There’s a lot of images and emotion in it.”
The first single was “Echos,” and the follow-up, “‘Laisse-moi libre,” is out Aug. 17, 2018. The album, still untitled, will be out Oct. 12, via Brown’s Inside Pocket label (the company also manages Davies), distributed by Warner Music Canada. Meanwhile, Davies continues to co-write and produce, with releases on the horizon from Monster Truck, League of Wolves, Delhi 2 Dublin, and Clayton Bellamy.
“A lot of times if they’re coming to me, they’ve figured out what they’ve already done, but they want something they’ve not already done. So I try to envision where music is going; where it is right now; where I think it will be tomorrow; where that artist can sit in that landscape; and how I can help bring them there.”