July 25, 2013

A Singer's Dream, A Voice in the Machine

By Mark MacNamara

Marissa MejiaA Monday ago, with no more thought than flying dice, we land in a Starbucks in Campbell, and not the pretty part, not the old town, but the part on Winchester Avenue where, in the strip malls, cars park in front of stores like cows at a trough. It’s mid-morning, we’re reading the news from Waziristan. The music overhead slides from “A Horse With No Name” to Alisha Keys singing “Fallin’.” But suddenly the sound quality is unbelievably good. It’s almost as if it’s live and then we look up and there’s a girl waiting for her order, and she’s singing, and it is live.

Not Alisha Keys but a young woman, with all her night moves, fingertips clicking and a voice that is instantly memorable. You hear it and you put other things aside. And she’s really getting into this. Afterward, we approach her. She’s in a hurry and signs a napkin with the name “Marissa M.” She adds a YouTube ID and her phone number and adds, “can’t talk now have to go prepare for American Idol.” And then, poof, she disappears like magician smoke.

The next morning Marissa answers the phone, but in a very low voice. Can’t hear you, I say, thinking, this woman must have some nightlife.

“I’m saving my voice,” she says. “I’ve been here since 3 a.m.”

You’ve been where? “Waiting to audition for American Idol. Can I call you back in two hours?”

Something to Fall Back On

She doesn’t call back in two hours, or in two days. But eventually I reach her: Marissa Mejia, 21, from East San Jose, who grew up in the Saratoga area. The youngest of five. “Sorry,” she begins. “My phone, my wallet, everything was stolen.”

Listen To The Music

Marissa Mejia sings an a capella version of Lights by Ellie Goulding

An irony because she’s going to night school to get office skills, but what she really wants is a degree in criminal justice. And also a BA in music. But she’s focusing on the criminal justice “because it’s better to have something to fall back on. I’ll always do my music, but if it doesn’t skyrocket, then ...” Then her voice falls away and comes back, like bad radio. “I don’t know; maybe I’ll be a lawyer or a detective.”

Hers is a familiar story. Marissa discovers herself at age 6; sings with the Anderson School All Stars, for the mayor of San Jose, at 10. The next year she just starts singing wherever she goes. “Like I’d get on the bus after school and it would be all quiet and I would just start singing. And people would grab their phones and take a picture.”

“Everywhere I go I just try to show people what I can do. I’m not a bragger, but I can bring people to tears. But at the same time I make then happy and so when I see people and they’re having a negative day, things not going well, I like to help any way can.”

“I’m a Christian,” she added. “I have a good relationship with God. I mean, it’s a little shaky at times but when I make a mistake He doesn't’ hold it against me.”

“I’d get on the bus after school and it would be all quiet and I would just start singing. And people would grab their phones and take a picture.” -Marissa Mejia

Marissa is also a hip-hop artist and heads a group called Golden Flowz, which includes three rappers, one singer, and a dancer. You can find them on August 15, at Club Rodeo, down on Coleman Avenue in San Jose, not far from the Guadalupe Gardens. Much of the music at Club Rodeo is in Spanish, but once a month Raw Natural Born Artists, an independent production company, hosts an eclectic evening that, in addition to hip hop, includes fashion designers and underground ‘creatives’ who come to share their wares.

So American Idol

In high school, at Prospect High, in Saratoga, where the motto is “Make It Count,” Marissa takes voice lessons from Mrs. Mahal, an opera singer; she learns technique, and how to maintain her voice, and how to write music. She also gets caught up in the dream to sing on American Idol. Years later, on the day after I heard her singing in Starbucks, on July 16, she finally gets her chance to audition.

The event is held at PacBell Park. Marissa cues up at 5 a.m.; there are hundreds of people. It’s heady and weird, but not unexpected. And also it’s the end of a mile in her personal marathon, because Marissa has always wanted to do this and has always told people she could. But of course there are always “the doubters,” including her mother for many years — all those people who never took her seriously, who said “you want to be a singer? Everybody wants to be a singer. What makes you so special?”

“I have a good relationship with God. I mean, it’s a little shaky at times but when I make a mistake He doesn’t hold it against me.”

Marissa receives her wristband and gets assigned to a group with three other girls. One of those becomes an instant best friend. Ray. “She was great, she sang R&B, which is different than me, I’m more soulful R&B, gospel, hiphopish, “with an underground type of feel.”

Auditions are held in four white tents, each the size of a livingroom, with a small entryway. There are three judges. In the group before Marissa’s, three of the girls are dismissed following the audition. They’re told to get their wristbands snipped; the fourth is given a golden ticket, which puts you into the next round. “We all saw her,” Marissa says. “She was beautiful, really beautiful, but when she sang it wasn’t good and she couldn't dance at all. So when she got the golden ticket, I thought, well I can do a lot better than that.

Marissa is the second contestant in her group. When it comes her time, she turns in her registration form and proof of age. But before she can start one of the judges has to go to the bathroom, so she’s facing just two judges, a man and a woman.

Marissa sings “Fallin,’” just as she had in Starbucks, and she gets right into it. This is her song, after all, and the lyric “Sometimes I feel good; sometimes I feel used;” the whole notion of ambiguity, of being loved and then not, that rhythm rings so true. Actually, that describes her mercurial relationship with her father, who’s been in and out of her life.

“I wish he could watch me, but he’s a recovering alcoholic, plus he had cirrhosis and almost didn’t make it. He’s changed himself, but I just don’t want to bring temptation into it, so I don’t invite him to the clubs or anywhere where there’s alcohol. But yes, he’s heard me sing. He has my CDs. He’s a fan. I gave him my business card.”

Fallen Idol, Rising Star

The audition is quick and brutal. Everyone in Marissa’s group is cut. Marissa is told her voice is perfect but she doesn’t have the right look. “The right look?” she says, still righteously angry. “What, I’m not a size 2? I don’t have the right boobs and butt? I wasn’t the next Niki Minaj.”

The name didn’t ring a bell.

“But that’s what it is: They look at you as though, you’re a little thick. It’s just so rude.”

“She’s a rapper and she had this small butt, she looked kind of like a dude. So she gets a bigger butt, has surgery, and after that it was like she seemed more fake.”

“But that’s what it is: They look at you as though, you’re a little thick. It’s just so rude. They told me they have a particular standard to uphold. Am I beneath you? I thought. I felt so belittled. And then they did this little interview afterward and even the cameraman seemed bummed that I was cut. And that crushed me a little more and it was all I could do to keep my pride. But this isn’t going to stop me.”

Marissa wants to make that very clear, and she adds, “I feel like maybe God was preventing me from a bad situation. Maybe it’s not my time to shine right now; maybe another door will open. They want a Barbie doll kind of look and I’m just not that. I am a little thick and you can’t auto tune me.”

“But I’m going to try next month. The Voice is having auditions in early August. And there the judges have their backs to the performers and they push buttons. I’ve just completed the online submission. To those doubters who still don’t take me seriously, you’ll see what I’m made of.”

Mark MacNamara (macnamband.com) is a journalist in San Francisco who has written for such publications as Salon.com, Vanity Fair, and The Stanford Social Innovation Review. He also wrote a recent piece for Nautilus, a science magazine, about Edward Elgar’s penchant for ciphers and riddles.