For a lot of Twin Cities music lovers, Eric Mayson’s vocal talents first came to light while hearing him sing about being a woman.
The buoyant-haired and otherwise quite manly Minneapolis musician often gets a turn at the mic during an especially feminine portion of Caroline Smith’s concerts, where you’ll see Mayson on keyboards (including the opening slot before Hozier at Roy Wilkins Auditorium next Thursday). Smith always enlists her female backup vocalists to sing a few lines of her anthem “Half About Being a Woman,” and sometimes she pushes Mayson to follow suit — usually to big laughs and bigger cheers.
“It’s always done in fun,” Mayson said of his girl-power showmanship. “This is different. This is supposed to be serious. So it’s a lot scarier.”
“This” is Mayson’s first solo album, “Detail,” which is indeed very serious, and scary good. He’s nervous about putting it out since it marks his first venture as frontman after several years of playing backup (also for Toki Wright & Big Cats), and as the instrumental backbone of the hip-hop group Crunchy Kids.
An ambitious sonic collage of psychedelic R&B grooves, experimental hip-hop and straight-up sexy pop tunes with Mayson’s smooth but piercing voice out front, “Detail” would make the 26-year-old Minneapolis musician a fitting opener for Sunday’s D’Angelo concert at First Avenue. Instead, he will host a release party Friday at 7th Street Entry.
“Honestly, I’m perfectly comfortable and happy helping other people realize their vision,” he said. “This is going to take some getting used to.”
“Detail” is coming out via RiverRock Music Group, a record-label offshoot of RiverRock Studio in northeast Minneapolis, where Mayson has recorded with Big Cats and Crunchy Kids. The studio’s owner, Eric Blomquist, pushed the keyboardist into making the solo album after hearing him sing John Lennon’s “Isolation.”
“He came into the studio and sang the first half of the song in one take, [then] the second half in one take — no tuning, no editing, just incredibly inspiring talent,” recalled Blomquist. “He had been talking about wanting to dabble in solo music, but I really encouraged him to go all in.”
Mayson said he intentionally didn’t think hard about the offer.
“My career philosophy so far has been, ‘Always say yes,’ and it has worked out very well, I think,” he said. “It was probably good I didn’t think too hard about it or come up with the idea myself, or else there would have been a lot more self-doubt and second-guessing.”
His credentials should have instilled plenty of confidence. After bouncing between Texas, Minnesota and South Carolina as a kid with his artist parents, he wound up back in the Twin Cities in time to join the first graduating high school class at St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists.
He initially wanted to be an actor. A musical he wrote at age 17 called “Angst” took him from the Minnesota Fringe Festival to New York’s International Fringe Festival, and he later worked on several productions at Mixed Blood Theatre.
However, Mayson said he ultimately got drawn to playing music in clubs because “the audiences are more reactive and less confined.”
The music on “Detail” sounds the opposite of confined. With fellow Smith backers Jesse Schuster on bass and Arlen Peiffer on drums, he and Big Cats mixed the album with a free-flowing, improv-like approach. From its astral-jazzy opener intro track to the dramatic neo-soul single “Contact” to the dark, trip-hoppy “Hello,” the songs run into each other nonstop as one singular suite of music.
Mayson lifted the idea for the nonstop approach from J Dilla’s 2006 album “Donuts,” which he listened to on cassette over and over after buying a car with a tape deck. In tribute, he’s actually manufacturing “Detail” on cassette (in addition to its digital release). He will also perform the record without breaks in concert — which he said serves both the music and his nerves well.
“That way I don’t have to think of something to say between the songs,” he quipped. Folks should have plenty to say afterward, though.
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