Before stepping out on his own with his first solo effort, Bad Medication, the golden-voiced, Maori-Scottish, Aotearoa, New Zealand wunderkind Mara TK was the frontman of the acclaimed Kiwi future soul trio Electric Wire Hustle. On his new project’s first single, “Met At The River,” he offers up a delicate track that flips into a neo-soul jam that will surely have you hitting the repeat button over again.
“The first artists who inspired me and who I consciously considered as being beyond the norm was Bone Thugs -N-Harmony as a young kid,” Mara tells ESSENCE via email. “I couldn’t believe how fast they could string words together. In my own head, I am always to make Hip-Hop records [in my work].”
Recently signed to Extra Soul Perception, Mara’s own ESP is extraterrestrial since his imaginative style has been beautifully paired with such names as Om’Mas Keith, Steve Spacek, and J Dilla collaborator Waajeed.
“Met At The River” is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Mara’s songwriting skills. Fueled by his community-based activism and work with the indigenous Maori youth of New Zealand, Mara says those efforts are reflected in his songwriting. “I’ve been purging myself of my own ego, so, the more work I do, the more I find that music industry cruxes like “brand” or “image” are a total distraction from what we are trying to do, which is just to be as transparent as possible.”
It is within that honesty where Mara TK excels. “Never hold back when you’re writing music,” he says. “Even if it is something weird or wild or confronting or whatever — just be yourself. It would be a disservice to your development as a human being to be anything else, right?”
Indeed, and with Bad Medication rounding the corner to release, Mara hopes new and returning listeners are excited to “catch a vibe” and “feel a way” about his first project as a solo act. “Hate it or love it, I just hope they receive it — whatever that may be,” he says.
For this week’s edition of ESSENCE’s The Playlist, Mara and I salute the sounds of our favorite songwriters. As always, check out previous curations to add a host of new and classic music to your personal rotation.
1. Maa — “Miss U”
MAA is an exceptionally talented Japanese artist, former TV host, and play-sister to Mara TK. His first pick, “Miss U,” doesn’t replace “Ghost Enemy” as my favorite, but when it comes to songwriters, MAA is high up on the Maori-Scottish performers’ list.
“My sister MAA is as cool in person as she is on this record,” says Mara TK. “It’s not easy to be an open book like she is, and I couldn’t respect her more for opening up on the big subjects of loss and friendship.”
2. Yebba — “The Distance”
Yebba has been quietly bubbling on the scene, but her pen game is well known. After her backing vocals on Chance the Rapper’s “Same Drugs” helped to introduce her debut single “Evergreen,” Yebba has since worked with artists including Sam Smith, PJ Morton, Mark Ronson, and Ed Sheeran. On “Distance,” she writes an airy and swooning number that recounts the events that lead up to a relationship’s end. It is a beautiful number that shows why Yebba is a voice to keep listening to into 2021.
3. AJA — “KĀWAI”
Fearless and driven, AJA, the free-thinking singer-songwriter, has delivered a song that speaks to the widely exposed issues and effects of “human disconnection” and “mass-consumerism.”
Reflecting on the significance of her song “KĀWAI,” Mara TK says, “There’s a lot of concern from the indigenous people here as to how the government administers rights to freshwater.”
4. Missy Elliott — “Best Friend” (ft. Aaliyah)
Before you hop on the timeline to tell me about myself, yes, I know this is an Aaliyah-centric track, but the pen belongs to Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott. “Best Friend” showed just how important it is to have people in your life who genuinely want the best for you. Play this one for your BFF and watch how happy your day becomes.
5. The Sweet Enoughs — “Dream Puppy”
When you hear this song, you may think you’ve stepped into a dream. In reality, it’s Paul Bender, the bassist from the incredible band Hiatus Kaiyote and his new easy-listening project The Sweet Enoughs.
“[‘Dream Puppy’] sounds like it just stepped out of an Italian film from the 1960s,” Mara says. “Every song on the album is so well put together and [this song] is a real throwback to composing entire songs via an instrument rather than a computer.”
6. James Fauntleroy — “Take Me There”
A personal “friend in my head,” James Fauntleroy is the mastermind behind your favorite songs sung by Frank Ocean, Bruno Mars, and Rihanna. Oh, did I forget to mention King Bey? “Take Me There” is the demo track the Grammy Award-winning songwriter and producer co-wrote which ended up becoming “Part II (On the Run),” a spiritual successor to The Carters’ “‘03 Bonnie & Clyde.” If you don’t know about this guy, listen to his versions of “James Joint” and “Fertilizer”.
7. Troy Kingi — “Caught in the Rain”
“Troy Kingi is another Maori brother from Aotearoa,” Mara shares about the 2020 Taite Music Prize winner. “Caught in the Rain,” a dope ditty from The Ghost Of Freddie Cesar, was inspired by 70’s soul king Shuggie Otis. “Kingi’s whole catalogue is dope. He is one of my favorite songwriters here and definitely worth a listen.”
8. H.E.R. — “Damages”
It goes without saying H.E.R.’s talent with the pen and pad are beyond legend. “Damages,” her emotionally charged, love-centric smash hit, still gets the body swaying whenever it comes on. Her solid songwriting is ever-present and authentic, making H.E.R. the leader of a new school of writers that will take Black music to another level.
9. Eno x Dirty — “GETURSELF2GETHA”
Producer Eden Jouaval (Eno) and rapper Manu Walters (Dirty) met at Ponsonby intermediate, but never lost the edge to speak truth to power. Straight from Grey Lynn, the New Zealand duo of Eno x Dirty have gained a hoard of supporters thanks to their gritty-rap sensibilities.
“Good god, if anyone had told me that Trump would have supporters in NZ from the poor brown community, I would’ve laughed,” Mara says. “This song talks about the rise of white supremacy in NZ and reminds our own community to not believe every preacher-type they see on YouTube!”
10. Ty Dolla $ign — “BOSS”
Nate Dogg controversy aside, Ty Dolla $ign is one of the hardest working songwriters out right now. His words have been sung and rapped by everyone from Christina Aguilera to Kanye West and Drake. When Beyoncé and Jay-Z dropped their first collaborative album, Everything is Love, the L.A. hit-makers’ “BOSS” reference track found its way online just a few days after Migos’ “Apeshit” did too.
The amount of creativity that flows from Ty Dolla and these other songwriters looks to power 2021, too, so dive into their respective discographies and enjoy the audio adventures.