When it comes to backstories, Mai Leisz’s reads more like a fairytale than it does a musician bio. Add in a storybook romance straight out of a Hollywood movie and a surreal supporting cast, and that’s her life in a nutshell. Born in the tiny village of Leisi, Estonia with a population of 200, Leisz was sheltered from popular music due to regulations from the post-Soviet regime of the time. When she started playing the bass at 16 she was exposed to jazz through her music teacher’s guidance. As she gained more access to American jazz and pop music, Mai found tremendous influence in the playing of Jaco Pastorius, Gary Willis, Jimmy Johnson, Carol Kaye, and her first bass teacher Raul Vaigla. After moving away to Sweden to continue her bass studies, her bass was her only solace, until the moment that changed everything.

It was a day in June 2015 when everything was going wrong for Mai, as she took the wrong metro on her way to busk in the streets of Stockholm with her friend Doug Seegers, then wandered down the wrong road and ended up in an unfamiliar place. When she finally pulled out her bass to start playing, it started to rain. During those 10 minutes, someone who would play a significant role later in her life walked by and heard her soulful bass playing. The man turned out to be renowned multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz (Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, John Mayer), who was in town performing with Jackson Browne. Mai was invited to sit in with Jackson’s band the next day, whose bass chair was being occupied by Bob Glaub. She obliged and excitedly made her way to the sold-out venue for the most important performance of her life. “I was so nervous. I couldn’t believe where I was, and I had to focus so hard on making sure I knew the chords and all of the changes — but I couldn’t keep my eyes off Greg, and I kept checking to see if he was staring at me, too. He was.”

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Greg played on MaiGroup’s second album You [2015] and gave a copy to David Crosby, telling him he would love the bass player. A couple of weeks later Mai got an email from Crosby who asked if she would like to play on his upcoming album, Sky Trails [2017, BMG], which led to her becoming his touring bass player. As Mai and Greg were falling deeply in love, Mai took another leap of faith, packed her things and headed to America. It was there that she met and sat in with such music icons as Joan Baez, David Foster, and Seal. In her downtime from touring with Crosby, Leisz was able to focus on her own band, MaiGroup, which just released its latest album, Metamorphosis. The beautiful jazz-fusion-meets-singer–songwriter record features a slew of famous collaborators along with Mai’s lyrical fretless playing and smooth lines. Her ethereal soloing on “Monarch,” “Gregory,” and “Metamorphosis” shows just how heavy of a player the once small-town girl has become. And like every good story full of ups and downs, unexpected twists, conflict, and peril, Mai has emerged a new person, and her tale is one to surely continue on happily ever after.

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What was your musical upbringing like being raised in a small, remote village?

I was born in 1988 when Estonia was still part of the Soviet Union, before we became re-independent in 1991, but the echoes of the Soviet influence were still lingering. When I grew up I didn’t have access to music like Joni Mitchell or Weather Report or anything like that. I wish I had grown up with good music, but I didn’t. Luckily, I was very blessed with my teachers who started feeding me the right music. My first jazz teacher, Tiit Paulus, was a legendary jazz musician. When he was young he got access to American jazz by tuning his radio to AM frequencies in the middle of the night so he could hear all of the best musicians over broken radio signals. Jazz was forbidden in our country at that time, so he started transcribing everything he heard. Years later he started teaching it to his students, and that’s how I learned it. By the time I picked up the bass, I was already in love with jazz.

Was the bass a natural choice for you? 

I played classical violin from an early age, and Tiit asked me to back up one of his guitar students for a performance. Then he put together a band called 2+2=5 and had us doing old jazz arrangements. When the bass player left the band to continue his studies at a university, I impulsively said that I was going to play the bass. I figured, how hard could it be? As soon as I picked up a bass, it was like love from first touch. I was wondering where it had been all my life.

How did moving to Sweden at age 21 further your playing?

At first, like all of the changes in life, it was painful. First I moved to Skurup, Sweden and that wasn’t easy at all. I had no friends, I felt really alone and that I was so much worse than all the other musicians at school. Feeling like an outsider is part of what made me work so hard: instead of hanging out and drinking beer, I was playing for ten hours a day, and I would fall asleep with my bass in my arms and then wake up and keep practicing. Then I moved to Stockholm and it was the same thing all over again. I had no friends, no money, just my bass. It was hard being an immigrant and a woman. But I was working so hard that my music started speaking for itself, and people started hearing about me.

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What was it like moving to L.A. and playing regularly with musical legends?

Even after the endless hours of working hard for my dreams and playing all the shows with many great artists in Sweden, being in the company of your heroes and being treated so well and warmly by them is just unbelievable. It’s so inspiring seeing what beautiful spirits these people are. They play music because they love music, not for fame and fortune. That’s something that connects us all, no matter your age, where you’re from, your gender, or the color of your skin; it doesn’t matter. It’s always about creating music.

What is it like playing with David Crosby?

Croz has been a life-changing force for me. When I moved to L.A. I spent five days at his house with him and his family, and David and I wrote music, including “Here It’s Almost Sunset.” He was super supportive of my writing and loved my fretless tone. That was when he offered me the gig. Touring with him has been a dream come true, because the day I met Greg and Jackson in Stockholm, I told them I wanted to go to L.A. because people I had always wanted to play with were out there. They asked me who, and I told them David Crosby and Steve Gadd. I had no idea that they were all best friends, so they laughed, and before I knew it, it was happening.

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What was the writing process like for MaiGroup’s new album, Metamorphosis?

There are a few different ways that I write. There is a side of me that writes songs with the blood of my heart, and they’re so personal and emotional. For example, there’s a duet like that featuring Bill Frisell called “Gregory.” Then there’s a ballad featuring Charles Lloyd that was written with that passion as well. There are some songs on there, however, that came from ideas that I had written in my composition courses. There you’re taught to write music for deadlines; you can’t have your emotions involved, and you can’t wait for your muse to strike. I had an assignment where I had to write a song with only three notes and employ the “use-reuse” technique. Eventually I started loving that process and knew I wanted to record that song. I named it “Planted, Not Buried.”

You also reworked “Here It’s Almost Sunset,” which you had written with David Crosby.

It’s very different from the version Croz had on his record. I wanted to do my own take on it with my band, so I sent the bass tracks to my drummer and guitarist and told them, “fusion it up, guys.” They sent back their parts, and they were just great. Greg and I recorded some additional stuff on it, including background vocals to the new vocal that Croz sang, and then the legendary Jim Scott mixed it. I’m so happy with how it turned out.

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How is this album different from your previous records?

Everything is different. The album is called Metamorphosis, which is about all of the big changes in my life. Going from a girl to a woman, moving from a tiny village to Los Angeles, going from a music student to a world-touring musician, going from unhappy to happy, etc. It would have been much cheaper to go to Sweden to make the record with my band there, but I figured that I live in the United States now and I wanted to do it here, so I flew all of my bandmates out. Someone told me it’s like bringing sand to the beach, because there are already so many amazing musicians in L.A. But this connection with my band is so beautiful and so rare, and I didn’t want to let that go. We recorded everything in Groove Masters Studio, which is an amazing place to work, and you can hear that in the quality of the recording.

You’ve been working with MaiGroup for almost ten years now. How did you form?

It was in 2010 during my first year in Sweden when I was pretty depressed. We were playing crazy jazz compositions in school and I started doubting myself, like, who am I? Why am I doing this? Who am I doing this for? I was lost. Eventually it got to a point where I realized I had to stop crying and having a self-pity party and do something about it. That’s when I formed MaiGroup, which included the best players I could find there. I started writing music, and it turned out to be one of the best things in my life.

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Do you approach fretless differently than fretted basses?

The fretless bass sounds so moving; as Croz says, my fretless bass can make a grown man cry. You can have a little more of a melodic approach, because when you play longer notes you can alter the tone with vibrato and your natural touch. But I must admit that I’m a bit of a rebel, and on the song “Planted, Not Buried,” I actually used my ’75 Rickenbacker bass. The jazz police will try to call me out and say that a Rickenbacker bass shouldn’t be used in jazz, but for that song it was a perfect instrument and that’s what matters.

Why bass? 

I chose the bass because I’m pretty shy by nature and I never liked being the center of attention. Being a bass player and supporting those people who are in the spotlight is the perfect role for me. However, it means so much to me when the audience and the people I work with appreciate my playing. If people hear my playing and it moves them then my purpose is fulfilled.

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Listen

MaiGroup, Metamorphosis [2019]

Gear

Bass 1965 Fender Precision, 1981 Ibanez Musician, 1966 Kay Kraftsman, Estonian J-style bass, 1975 Rickenbacker 4001, Fodera Emperor J Classic

Rig EBS Session 30 Classic Combo, EBS Neoline 410, EBS TD660, EBS Reidmar 750, TC Electronic BG250-208

Effects TC Electronic Flashback Delay and Hall Of Fame Reverb, EBS Multicomp Compressor and UniChorus

Strings La Bella Deep Talkin’ Flatwounds 760FX (.039–.096)