Ebonique Little, Spectrum Editor
Despite the cancellation of live performances and fewer opportunities to collaborate, three local musicians hit their stride in 2020. Redefining Richmond’s R&B scene with genre-bending music, singers Maviii, Gretchen and Briana Chrissy are poised for a breakthrough this year.
Taylor McNamara, a VCU alumna better known by her stage name Maviii, said she got started in music in 2017. At the James Branch Cabell Library, a friend made beats in a study room. McNamara offered vocals, which led to the first song she ever recorded, “How Its Gotta Be.”
Experimentation led to her biggest project, “The Drive,” a double-sided EP that spans both pop and R&B/jazz genres. The first half was released May 30, 2019, and the latter March 13, 2020. Since “The Drive,” Maviii said she has grown tremendously and looks forward to her next single, “Time,” to release in April.
“Oh my gosh, I’ve grown so much. It’s like, not even the same person,” Maviii said during a Zoom call. “You have to be able to get into your flow for your best stuff to come out.”
Richmond native Gretchen MacIlwaine, who performs with her first name, is expanding her musical prowess in Nashville, Tennessee, after graduating from Belmont University’s music program in 2019. Gretchen said she fell in love with music at around 7 years old when she first started writing poems.
Gretchen sharpened her performance skills when she opened for The Beach Boys in 2013 at an Innsbrook After Hours concert and won an opportunity to sing “Baby It’s You” alongside singer JoJo three years later at Belmont.
Gretchen’s blend of rap and R&B has gained traction on Spotify in countries such as Russia and Thailand, she said. Her covers of popular songs have received attention from the original artists; her freestyle remix of Jack Harlow’s “Love is Dro” on Instagram was well received by the artist, who responded with a series of fire emojis.
“I was like, ‘Tag him in the comments if you’re loyal,’ and he actually ended up seeing it, which was really, really cool because I love Jack Harlow so much,” Gretchen said during a Zoom call.
Though she initially struggled with her artistic identity, Gretchen said she is glad she continued making the music that resonated with her, and is gearing toward an EP by the end of this year.
“I always felt like, ‘Oh, I’m just a little white girl. Do I actually belong rapping?’” Gretchen said. “I don’t know if people will take it in a way that’s not genuine or authentic, but it’s always been so authentic to me.”
VCU alumna Briana Vaughn, known as Briana Chrissy, said she has been singing since she was 8 years old. The inspiration for her March EP “REM” came naturally, she said.
“Each song is literally my heart,” Chrissy said in a phone interview.
Originally from Portsmouth, Chrissy said she grew up singing in church, and performed in a group with her siblings across the Hampton Roads area. A well-received performance on Amateur Night at the Apollo in 2009 gave her the courage to pursue music as a career, Chrissy said.
Since then, Chrissy has been studying other forms of music and is excited for a shift from gospel to a defined sound in R&B.
Rounding out Women’s History Month, here are the highlights from interviews with Maviii, Gretchen and Briana Chrissy. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
How would you describe your sound?
Maviii: I would say intriguing. I’m definitely heading more towards ’80s pop style, but I kind of like it to just be intriguing pop. Like, people can’t place what genre or what time period it is.
Gretchen: So I’m working on an EP right now and honestly, I’m pulling a lot from Erykah Badu and The Pussycat Dolls, weirdly enough. I got something for everything — something to smoke to, something to get ready to, something to go on a drive to, to cry to. I want to be that artist that has something for every situation and that people can put on and be like, “Thank God, G’s on.”
Briana Chrissy: I’m pretty versatile because I can sing other genres and still pour my heart into it. So it’s relatable, and people grasp it.
Can you talk about the concept of your recent projects?
Maviii: I have a song coming out at the end of April that I’ve been working on for so long. It’s kind of like the start of a new era — more of a solidified sound, more solidified in the pop world and like a retro era of confidence.
Gretchen: The name of the EP is called “Heaven Knows.” It’s from a line of one of the songs and it says, “Heaven knows I’m somebody.” … I don’t need to prove to anybody who I am and what I’m here for. But heaven knows that I’m here for a reason, and I am an artist, and I’m meant to do this.
Briana Chrissy: “REM” actually stands for “rapid eye movement,” and rapid eye movement is a period of the sleep cycle that requires you to be still and allow the mind to answer to an entirely different world that we call dreaming. They feel so real that sometimes we can’t recall if it’s really a dream or if it’s reality. I always say there’s times in life when we find ourselves in the “REM stage of life.”
What’s it been like working through the COVID-19 pandemic?
Maviii: I’m trying to become self-sufficient. I’ve been doing my recording sessions literally in this closet. It’s definitely been an adjustment.
Gretchen: This time really gave me this space to come into my own a little bit more. I had COVID and the flu back to back, and that forced me to actually quit my serving job and do music full time. So now I’m actually working at Songfinch, which is [where] I write, record, mix and master personalized songs for people. I prayed about doing music full time for years, and I just didn’t know how it was gonna happen.
Briana Chrissy: Being stuck in the house is the perfect time to create. The networking has actually been better, more feasible to reach certain people through Clubhouse and Instagram because these people are at home, just like you.
Who are some of your biggest musical influences?
Maviii: My biggest one is Lorde — I love her. I will always mention Taylor Swift. Like I know, it’s so basic, but she basically reinvented the structure of writing certain types of music. I think that’s really cool from a writer’s perspective.
Gretchen: I love JoJo. I love Ambré, Kehlani. When it comes to flow, I’ve been listening to Lil Wayne and Birdman since I was 8. And I love Aaliyah — rest in peace. Not even just sound, but just the way that she carried herself. I feel like it’s really important for artists to not change when they get all this fame.
Briana Chrissy: I fell in love with Whitney Houston and her performance. And Brandy — she’s like the vocal bible.
What’s it like as an independent artist?
Maviii: Oh, my gosh, it’s stressful. I pay rent, and I put the same amount of money into music every month. It’s extreme.
Gretchen: Bro, when you’re just on the cusp of the come up and you don’t have a manager and you don’t have a team and you don’t have people helping you out, it can be so defeating and honestly feel like everything you’re doing — there’s no point. My goal is to stay independent as long as possible, though, because I just don’t want someone to try to tell me what to be and what I should sound like.
Briana Chrissy: That feeling knowing that you did something by yourself, it just feels amazing. As long as you have a good support system, then I don’t think a label really matters.