Sky Trails: An Interview with Mai Agan
Mai Agan is a bassist with an incredible story. Like every good story, it comes from tons of hard work and a little good timing.
Born in Estonia, Agan started her musical career as a child, picking up the bass as a teenager. She studied music in Estonia before moving to Stockholm, Sweden to continue her education. It was there that she started to gain wider exposure with her own jazz fusion band, MaiGroup, with whom she has released two albums: Luv and You. Agan quickly became a top call bassist in Sweden and Estonia, playing with the area’s top jazz and pop stars.
A twist of fate brought her to the attention of some of America’s top performers. Subsequently, she’s performed alongside Jackson Browne, Joan Baez, Seal, David Foster, and Greg Leisz. Currently, she’s on the road with folk rock legend David Crosby. Croz’s new album, Sky Trails, is due out this year and features Agan’s bass playing.
We caught up with Agan to get the scoop on her incredible story, how she got the gig with Crosby and her musical start.
How did you get your start playing bass?
I played the violin for 8 years when I was a kid but it was never my instrument – it just never felt right. I started singing in a jazz band in my early teens and when the bass player left the band, I impulsively said that I’m going to play the bass now. As soon as I touched it, I fell in love with it and knew that from this day on, we belong together.
What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
I grew up in post-communist Estonia, a tiny country that gained its independence from the Soviet regime with singing patriotic songs during “Singing revolution” and Baltic chain (2 million people joining hands to form a human chain spanning 420 miles across Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania). When I was a kid I listened to Estonian artists – that was pretty much the only thing that was available. Deep in my heart I knew that there is this crazy world out there and soon the music from the outside world started to sneak in and play in our radios – Spice Girls, Christina Aguilera, Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears. I was in my early teens, so of course, I was digging that stuff. If only I had known about Joni Mitchell or Jaco Pastorius, Led Zeppelin or Jackson Browne, The Byrds or Crosby, Stills & Nash or… But the times were different and they were a-changing…
How do you think growing up in Estonia shaped your musicality?
I learned to work hard for my dreams because I grew up with people who taught me to never give up because they never gave up. My grandparents told me that if you want to get something in your life, you have to work for it – nobody is going to bring you anything on a golden plate. So I guess I was a hard worker from the very beginning. I was always a bit of a loner, living in my own world of dreams. Even during my music studies in Sweden, I rarely hung out with other students. I was only practicing, rehearsing and composing, every hour of the day. Soon the hard work started to pay off and my name was spreading in the circle of musicians and I had work, more than ever.
How did you meet up with Jackson Browne?
It’s a really long, written-in-the-stars kind of story, so I’ll make it short. In June 2015 I had a few days off from touring in Scandinavia and I was busking in old town Stockholm with my friend Doug Seegers, a country artist from Nashville, Tennessee. We managed to play for about 10 minutes until it started raining. During these 10 minutes one of my favorite musicians walking this Earth, Greg Leisz, walked by. I never saw him. On his way to have lunch, he saw bass player Bob Glaub and told him about Doug and the bass player and told him to go and check us out because “the girl was playing this rare Kay bass.” Doug and I had already packed our stuff together when suddenly someone stopped us and asked if he could see my bass. I didn’t recognize him at first. We started talking and Bob said that he’s a bass player too and he’s in town, touring. I asked, oh yeah, with who? He said: “Jackson Browne.”
I dropped my jaw. We walked down to the centrum where Bob played a song on my Kay bass, then asked for my contact and the next day invited us over to have dinner with them and see their show in Waterfront Stockholm. When we got there, they were having soundcheck. Jackson came to say hi and said that he would like us to join him on stage. That’s when I saw Greg Leisz and his other band members for the first time. From there on, we kept in touch and I’ve got to sit in with Jackson and Greg a few times. It’s quite an unbelievable story.
What led you to come to the U.S. to live in Los Angeles?
After meeting Greg, Bob and Jackson, my life has taken some really crazy turns, in every meaning. Last fall I got a tour offer from one of my biggest musical heroes, David Crosby. This spring I’m graduating the master’s program at The Royal College of Music in Stockholm, so now it’s time to spread my wings and fly.
How did you land the gig with David Crosby?
Greg Leisz played on my group MaiGroup’s last album You. He gave that record to Croz and said: “Listen to this, you will love it!” Right before that, I had the honor to be invited to the CSN after the show in Oslo in October 2015 and I got to meet Croz in person. So when he listened to my album, he already knew who I was and instantly wanted me to record some fretless bass for his upcoming album Sky Trails. In September/October last year I was in Los Angeles and we got to hang out, record and write some music together. One song, “Here It’s Almost Sunset,” made it on the record as well.
How has the tour been going?
The tour has been going great! It’s such an amazing band – besides the almighty David, we have James Raymond on keys, Michelle Willis on keys and vocals, Jeff Pevar on guitar and Stevie DiStanislao on drums. We have a lot of fun. Most of the shows have been sold out and the audience has been absolutely fantastic.
What can fans expect from Sky Trails?
Croz is on fire! I mean, he is singing really really good. He is a happy man and you can hear it in his music. On “Sky Trails” there are songs that he has co-written with his son, James Raymond, Becca Stevens, Michael McDonald and myself. What I admire about Croz is that he doesn’t stand still. He is constantly moving, wanting to get better, writing songs, looking for new sounds. He’s more alive than ever. Yeah, it’s a great record and I’m really happy to play on it.
Any advice for up and coming bassists?
It’s never too late to find a real job… just kidding. It’s not about what you play, but how you play it.