Mayda Miller can't help being the center of attention.
Even as she walks across the front patio at the Guthrie she draws some curious glances, dressed in a bright red vest and yellow T-shirt, one half of her hair buzzed while the other is streaked with blond highlights. Her style is unmistakable, but so too is her size, as she's a four-foot-ten Korean girl who probably weighs 80 pounds soaking wet. But as Miller sits down at a table and orders a glass of water, what stands out most is how remarkably shy she is.
Indeed, the Mayda most of us know is the charismatic leader of a five-piece band, a bundle of energy with a booming voice who stomps her feet and strikes rock-star poses like they're second nature. She wears wigs and dresses up in costumes, and is equally comfortable jumping onstage with Heiruspecs, like she did two weeks ago at Grand Old Day, as is she is appearing as one of the headlining acts at the Stone Arch Festival, as she'll do this Sunday.
That doesn't mean she's always so comfortable with herself, though.
"It's funny, in high school I tried to be in all the cool groups—I tried to be an athlete, a theater kid, join jazz band—but I never made it into any of those groups," she says, playing nervously with the long string of pearls that hangs loosely around her neck. But even if her demeanor suggests otherwise, Miller's convinced being a performer has always been an important part of who she is. "Onstage, I'm much more comfortable; I don't feel like I need to or should hold back. It's one of the few places in this world where I can express myself."
Part of the fun in performing is in not taking herself too seriously and occasionally making light of her own artistic pretensions. So when her playful brand of pop-funk music and distinctive stage presence draws inevitable comparisons with a certain other diminutive rocker from the Twin Cities, Miller doesn't get too far ahead of herself. "I get speechless whenever people compare me to Prince," she enthuses. "I don't try to do anything like him, even though we have so many similarities, and I do definitely relate to him."
Miller has had a pretty steady output in the four years since she released her first EP, and with a new full-length due to be released in the fall, it's not surprising to hear how much she admires the scale and breadth of the Purple One's output. "I already have another two album's worth of songs written," she confesses, as if she's relieving herself of a burden in saying so. "It's kind of a metabolic reaction. I need to get things out of my system in order to keep creating, or else things get kind of backed up—as disgusting as that sounds."
For her upcoming album, Tusks in Furs, Miller builds on her catchiest and most accessible tendencies, but that's not to say she sacrifices much in her typically frenzied approach. The heavily mechanized beats in "Oasis" cross-pollinate house music and old-school hip hop, "Rubies" builds its bizarrely apocalyptic vibe on a Velvet Underground song, and "Get Loud," with its oversized bass line, sounds like an unadulterated call to the dance floor. With so much action going on, you could easily overlook some of the music's more serious points.
"I want people to take the lyrics seriously," Miller says, explaining that Tusks' central themes revolve around instincts and survival. One song, "Now," features a guest spot by Felix from Heiruspecs and was written shortly after Obama's election in 2008, but others turn their focus elsewhere. "A lot of things have happened in the past couple years, like tsunamis, or floods, or tornados. So it's like, what do you do in those times, when all your material things go away?"
One of the more surprising developments that Miller has come across is her unlikely popularity on television, as her songs have been used on Jersey Shore, The Real World, and even on a KFC commercial. She says she appreciates the exposure but also enjoys the challenge. "I work well with limitations. If someone says, 'Write a song about jumping off a cliff, but jump off a cliff while cooking a steak,' I will try to do that!" she laughs. "A lot of the time I write songs from a different perspective, whether it's from an animal's perspective or a tall person's."
Even as she begins to enjoy some widespread recognition, Miller remains self-conscious, continually aware of what makes her stand out in a room full of people. "Throughout my life I've always felt different or been pointed out as being different. You'd think I'd be used to it, but I don't think I'll ever be used to it," she shrugs. She doesn't linger too long on that thought, however, lighting up at another typically humorous idea. "As an artist you can do whatever you want. You can have five legs and be amazing!"
MAYDA performs this SUNDAY, JUNE 19, at STONE ARCH FESTIVAL OF THE ARTS. For the full lineup visit stonearchfestival.com