Maclean Daniel Ayres plucked an emotional chord with his breakthrough EP Drive Slow. The nine-track project prompted listeners to (wait for it) really listen, and partake in an activity many deem as a weakness or consider to be analog: Mr. Ayres made you feel.
Fans devoured the EP and were surprised to learn instead of an old-souled black man from somewhere below the Mason Dixon, the singer-scribe and multi-instrumentalist was actually a 20-year-old white boy from Long Island. Drive Slow was Mac’s lifesaver of sorts as he dealt with the pressures of the Berklee School of Music. As a songwriting major, he was annoyed he wasn’t writing as many songs as he expected. He figured he could either stay at the prestigious Boston school and learn about music or find a studio and make music. So with D’Angelo’s “Chicken Grease” as inspiration, Mac did like Kanye and dropped out.
The move paid off. It took about a year of writing and recording, but in September Mac released his formal musical debut, appropriately titled Something to Feel. While he never admits it, it’s not hard to miss Ayres is chasing the God-like greatness of ’90s R&B both sonically and lyrically. Whether he sings of a passive-aggressive lover on “Under” or licking his lips as a cutie moves her hips on the sensual “Roses,” Mac is in his lane. Give the record a few listens and you’ll pick up on the robust musicality of the project. Whether it be the flute, the sprinkle of jazz coloring the record or the many grooves drummer and best friend Chris Anderson bestows.
Mac was spending a relaxing Monday at home when he dialed in for the interview. An excuse me rolled off his tongue as he slurped the last bit of his drink before we got into the thick of it. His voice was warm and his attitude chill, but not a “I don’t give a sh*t about this interview” chill, more like “I’m comfortable with who I am and I’m only 21” kind of chill. I all but called him a liar when he said he’s 6’2 (He’s always behind a piano or sitting with his guitar. Sue me) and we both LOL’d at his visceral reaction to our combined love of his song, “Waiting.”
For just under 20 minutes Mac and I talked about his music, his travels and what exactly he hopes you feel after listening to his record. Spoiler alert: it’s not what you think.
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VIBE: Do you have a name for your guitar?
Mac Ayres: [Laughs] I do actually have a name for my guitar. It’s Papi. Like P-A-P-I.
Why do you call your guitar Papi?
I don’t know. I just call everyone Papi so I just started calling my guitar Papi. There’s no real exciting backstory.
Who are some of your musical forefathers and foremothers, the musicians that you are inspired by?
I’d say that throughout my life my biggest inspiration has been Stevie Wonder. He’s always been number one for me since like seventh grade. Other than that, I love D’Angelo, Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, J. Dilla, he’s a big influence of mine.
J. Dilla for his production, correct?
Yeah. J. Dilla was a big reason why I even wanted to produce my own stuff. He’s the real reason I opened up a computer in the first place. Aretha Franklin was a big one. Whitney Houston. I just love a lot of music and a lot of great singers of the past. I try to learn from them.
On Twitter, you said you were inspired by some athletes and you fused that into your music. And you said there’s such parallel between sports and music. Who are some of those athletes and how did you blend the two?
I blended the two naturally just from my love for both of them. I played sports my entire life along with playing music. I stopped playing baseball my senior year of high school. The biggest inspiration for me in terms of athletics is I’m a huge basketball fan. Kobe Bryant, just because there are constantly stories that emerge about him that say he had a crazy work ethic. He would do whatever he had to do to prepare himself and to make his teammates better. A big characteristic of mine is my ability to outwork people and I think Kobe is a big reason for that.
I really enjoyed Drive Slow. My editor who assigned me this story was the one who put me onto you.
Thank you very much!
But Something To Feel sounds like you endured a bit, or maybe even stretched. Did you go through any things or see your friends experience any things that helped make your album feel “bigger”?
Yeah, I’d say just another year of life, really. When I was making Drive Slow, I was staying in my house a lot. That album was really a kind of way for me to escape school and the stresses of going to school and being away from home.
Where’d you go to school?
I went to Berklee in Boston.
Oh wow! Berklee’s dope.
Yeah, well, you know. It was dope for a little while. I had to get out of there for a couple of reasons.
[Laughs] I knew you were going to pin me for that one. I thought they were a little restricting, creatively. I was a songwriting major so I assumed it would be a lot of writing songs and getting better at writing songs. But really it was just a lot of busy work and stuff that just made me feel like I wasn’t actually getting better, which is why I ultimately stopped going and started making Drive Slow. I’m sorry, what was the original question though? [Laughs]
The original question was Something to Feel sounds bigger and more mature than Drive Slow—
Right. Something to Feel was more… I started to see places in the world. I went to L.A. for the first time. I went to Europe for the first time. We went to Indonesia. That was crazy!
I saw that. How was Indonesia?
It was unlike anything I’ve ever done in my life. If you asked me to imagine what Indonesia was like before we got there I would not have pictured where we ended up. It was amazing. But yeah, just being out in the world and being a little less of a homebody. I’m naturally a homebody. Just getting out in the world. I think I was stretching in real life. Socially, I was just trying to do the same thing. Musically, I never want to be put in a box and people for my whole career to just be like, ‘Mac Ayres makes sleepy love songs.’ Maybe next time I’ll make a country album and throw people off. I probably won’t…but.
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Why did you decide to name the album Something to Feel? Did you just enjoy the title track the most? Do you feel music lacks feeling?
I’d say it’s more music lacks feeling than anything else. To be honest, I didn’t really like the track “Something to Feel” off the album. For a long time, it wasn’t going to make the album. I didn’t like it that much. Then, once I started to re-listen to it I realized the sentiment of the song reflected what I wanted the album to say. I’ve only been writing tunes and putting them out for the last year. I started writing songs when I was 18 and I’m 21 now. I had my first song on Spotify when I was 19. I’ve always had things to say and I feel like I’ve not always been down to share it with the world and put myself out there. This album is just about if you’ve got something to feel you’ve got to let them know. That’s kind of where it came from.
My favorite song on the album, well, the song that struck me the first time I heard it—no, it’s my favorite—is “Waiting.”
Yes! Ah, thank you! Ugh! I love you.
It’s my favorite song because I can relate to the ambition of it. Did you come across any doubt or doubters that helped you pen that song?
Oh yeah! Too many. Oh yeah, my whole life. I grew up on Long Island in New York. It’s a lovely place to live but it’s not booming creatively. A lot of people are not exactly supporting each other like that. In every stage of life, I’ve had people, even now, who think ‘Who the f**k is this kid?’ I’m just out here enjoying life. “Waiting” is personally my favorite song on the album too, which is why I’m so glad to hear you say that. It’s just about the fact that when somebody slights me or tries to undercut me or anything like that. I’m kind of petty like that. I’m on my revenge tour, I guess.
Sonically I enjoy it. Lyrically I enjoy it and it’s where I am now, that’s why “Waiting” is my favorite.
Thank you so much. I made that with my drummer, Chris [Anderson]. We banged that out in one night.
Is Chris the one you refer to when you say ‘If Chris is driving then it’s give or take?’
Yeah, that’s on “Under.” Yeah, that’s Chris driving. My drummer. He’s been my best friend since we were 15.
My second favorite song is—
Oh! I can’t wait.
Nice! Like it! Love it.
On “Stay” you sing, ‘tell me you’re almost back home/don’t wanna sleep here alone.’ I know you’re in a relationship, but aside from that, are you naturally romantic? Are you a mushy guy?
[Laughs] I don’t know about romantic. I’d like to think I’m romantic toward my girlfriend but I think I’m very much an emotional guy. I like to cry it out sometimes. Often, maybe.
You like to cry it out sometimes?
Yeah. It’s good for the soul.
I like to give the people what they want in the interviews. I gotta be honest.
Where were you when you made “Stay,” emotionally, sonically, lyrically? How did that song come about?
That song first came about, me and Chris were at a studio in Brooklyn. It was a giant writing session and I don’t even remember who was there honestly. Nothing was really getting done and ultimately everyone decided to leave. And me and Chris were still there while everyone was tearing the city down and we were just jamming and that’s how we come up with most of our tunes. He started playing that drum groove that he comes in on the song with. I was playing the piano and that was the first pass of “Stay.” Then like a week later I called Jack [Dine] and we actually made “Stay” at Eusonia studios in Midtown. And so yeah, a week after we first jammed on it I called Jack and then the three of us got together and we made the whole thing.
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I see you spent some time with DJ Jazzy Jeff.
Yes! Uncle Jeff.
I know his son, Cory. Has he imparted any musical advice?
Jeff? Oh my God! Too much. I think more than anything to hear someone who has gone through the major label circuit, and somebody who’s been around the game far far longer than anyone I’ve talked to, to hear him say that I’m doing it right, staying independent and staying on the tracks that I’m on is the craziest sh*t of all time. To hear a legend like Jeff say it’s amazing. He’s very adamant on being yourself and bringing what you bring to the table instead of just gravitating toward what’s popular. I could talk about him for days. He’s a legend. He’s one of my biggest heroes definitely.
Brown Sugar or Voodoo?
Voodoo. Easily. It made me want to drop out of Berklee.
Really? Voodoo made you want to drop out of Berklee?
Well, not directly. I don’t want Berklee to come after my head like that, but Voodoo because the first real D’Angelo song that grabbed me was “Chicken Grease.” Voodoo gets the nod. A lot of good tunes on Voodoo. I could talk about Voodoo for a few days.
I see you’re almost sold out for your North American tour. How does that feel as an independent artist?
When five people pull up to the show I think it’s crazy. I really love my fans and I appreciate them showing love and always coming back.
I know this is a very abstract question to ask because you can’t control it—
I already like it.
When people play Something to Feel what do you hope they will gain?
That’s a really good question. I don’t think I’m aiming for them to gain anything in particular, but rather just something. So if they’re on autopilot in life and they haven’t stopped and thought about what’s going on… I hope someone takes away something but whatever it is, it should be what they want to take away from it.