Try and catch me if you can
There ain’t no maps that can lead you to where I am
Don’t put your locks and chains, your box and frames around me
Because my mind is free.
-Mayda, “My Circuitry”
In her 2011 video, a Fender Telecaster®-slinging Mayda leads a troupe of dancers through the interiors of the Guthrie Theater, until two large men take her by each arm and hoist her through the air. As the aloft singer feigns surprise, it’s clear that the moment is a playful acknowledgement of what’s fascinated her audience ever since she appeared on the Twin Cities music scene in 2007-for all her big personality, big voice and big sound, Mayda Miller is remarkably small.
At only 4 feet 10, she’s a full 4 inches shorter than Minneapolis’ most famous diminutive musician, Prince, a strong influence on what she describes as her “pop-neo-funk” sound.
“My size is not a barrier for me,” Miller said. “I like to poke fun at it myself. This is who I am and I don’t want to change for anyone.”
Appropriately, Miller’s 2007 debut bore the title “Stereotype.”
“Do you see the chains that lock me in one place?” Miller sings on the title song, before snarling: “I wanna break your stereotype.”
Born in South Korea, Miller was adopted into a Twin Cities family that appreciated music but didn’t have the emotional connection to it that she did. “No one in my family even listens to music except my brother,” said Miller, a graduate of St. Paul Central High School and the University of Minnesota. “Where my musical interests come from are unknown to me. It is definitely biological.”
As a child, Miller said, she “loved the response of the crowd,” either when playing sports or performing in piano recitals. “I loved putting in days and weeks of hard work into perfecting my crafts.” Today, Miller cites Sly and the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Nine Inch Nails, Shirley Manson and Janis Joplin among her influences.
In an industry that can have very particular physical expectations for women performers (think Britney’s abs and Shakira’s hips), Miller stands out. She’s in a musical genre in which Asians are underrepresented, and her considerable charisma as a performer has less to do with her body than with her obvious talent and wit.
In fact, Miller cites the late comedian Gilda Radner as a role model. “Gilda was not afraid to look ugly, stupid or nerdy,” Miller said, “which made her even more hilarious. She took a lot of risks.”
Miller herself takes a risk every time she performs onstage. “I admit I am socially awkward,” she said. Music, however, “allows me to be as expressive as I want. It gives me the freedom to be whoever I want to be and to say whatever I want to say … songwriting makes it easier for me to get my thoughts out.”
Sharing the message
In the chorus to the song “The Panthers,” the lead single off her 2011 album “Tusks in Furs,” Miller sings: “If the panthers prey, open up the cage, turn the music up, don’t be afraid.”
Miller works hard to take her own advice. “In the beginning of my musical journey,” she said, “[performing] was all about self-expression. Now, it’s more about sharing with others and sending a positive message.” That message? “Do what makes you happy. Don’t base success on what others say.” Miller added, “If I can influence someone else to do what they love-whether it be art, theater, sports, education, work-then I have done my job.”
In the video accompanying “The Panthers,” the camera lingers on a dancer’s tattoo of the famous woman power symbol of feminism’s Second Wave: a closed fist inside the sign of Venus. “I don’t consider myself a protesting feminist in the stereotypical sense,” Miller said, “although I do believe in promoting women [and] I think the majority of my fans are female. I would like to see myself as an artist promoting strength, talent, equality and a positive message-who happens to be a Korean-American woman.”
On her way
At the finale of the “My Circuitry” video, Miller’s guitar renders all of the dancers powerless, and the downtown Minneapolis skyline is claimed as her own. Though she remains based here, Miller has her sights set beyond the Stone Arch Bridge.
“I want that Grammy, a huge tour bus and sold-out shows at stadiums,” she said. “It can take time or it can take a [single] moment … but it could also never happen.” To increase her chances of Grammy gold, Miller recently made her second appearance at Austin’s legendary South by Southwest music festival in Texas, and she maintains a steady touring schedule across the Midwest.
“To me,” Miller said, “‘living big’ means living life to your fullest potential.”
It’s clear that Miller’s panther is never going back into its cage.