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R&B singer Mai Lee defines her sound and honors her inspirations in debut album ‘FRIENDZ’

Grovefest 2021 1.JPG
Mai Lee Music
St. Louis singer-songwriter Mai Lee performs at Grovefest 2021.

Whether she’s feeding foodies her family’s delicious eats or crooning her sensual and vibey R&B bops, Mai Lee is making sure no crumbs are left. With her debut album, "FRIENDZ," the St. Louis native is minting her own style and sound while paying homage to those who have inspired her art since childhood.

Mai Lee says her biggest inspiration is her mother, restaurateur Lee Tran. After fleeing war-torn Vietnam and settling in St. Louis, Tran opened her restaurant, also named Mai Lee, in 1985. Before fleeing their country, the performer’s parents were in a band together.

Jennifer Silverberg
Mai Lee Music
Mai Lee's debut album, "FRIENDZ," was produced with St. Louis natives Vega Heartbreak and Bradd Young.

“In [Vietnamese] culture, we sing. We sing anywhere and everywhere,” Mai Lee said on St. Louis on the Air. “Every weekend there was a live band at my house, and I couldn’t sleep. … I just saw [my parents] singing, and I’m like ‘I want to pursue it for real, for real.”

Mai Lee chose her stage name to honor the hard work and dedication she witnessed from her mother. "FRIENDZ" is named for the impact her friends have had on her since she was a student at Gateway Tech High School. (The school was later renamed Gateway STEM High School.)

“I named each song by a friend because of how they make me feel and how they inspired me. … [The] majority of my friends are artists, they're singers, they're dancers, they're painters, they do something in the arts,” Mai Lee said Wednesday.

Between songs about love, romance and her sensuality, the album includes interludes voiced by her friends. The statements tell a story of how the singer has always combined her love for music with entrepreneurial prowess. She observed: “Why not have people know who I am by my friends explaining who I am?”

“FRIENDZ” also spotlights Mai Lee’s love for her city — reflect in her old stomping grounds in Forest Park and the way she speaks and sings.

“We [in St. Louis] definitely have a language. You know? We have an accent. And it is strong. I was pretty much everywhere. I was in U City because of the restaurant. I was in south side because of school. I was on the north side, and then I was in south county because that’s where we lived at the time.”

She added: “St. Louis is all over the album. I just want people to know where I’m from [and] how much gratitude I have with being born and raised here.”

Mai Lee will be performing songs from "FRIENDZ" on Dec. 30 at Delmar Hall. Tickets are on sale and for VIP ticket holders include a meet-and-greet as well as dinner from Mai Lee’s family’s restaurants, Mai Lee and Nudo House.

To hear more about Mai Lee’s musical journey and singles from the album, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, Stitcher, or by clicking the play button below.

R&B singer Mai Lee defines her sound and honors her inspirations in debut album ‘FRIENDZ’

Related Event

What: Mai Lee (with Vega Heartbreak)

When: Dec. 30

Where: Delmar Hall, 6133 Delmar Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63112

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org.

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Miya is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."

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