Chicago Singer-Songwriter Alicia Maka on the Music Industry, Helping Others, and the Power of Performing Live

By Justice Petersen

Songwriter, storyteller, and Columbia College Chicago sophomore, Alicia is the embodiment of a true musician. Inspired by the great storytellers before her, Alicia hopes to provide community through her music as listeners can connect with words that resonate and heal. Her most recent single, “Stuck In My Head”, tells the story of Alicia’s struggle with anxiety through folk-inspired guitars and a voice reminiscent of Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval.

Alicia sat down with Chicago Music Guide to talk about long-term music goals, the music community at Columbia, and how she hopes to heal the world through her songs.

Chicago Music Guide (CMG): Thank you for taking the time today! To start, what is your major and your studies at Columbia?

Alicia Maka: I’m a music major. I have a music business minor that I’m pursuing as well. I’m a singer-songwriter primarily, but I did grow up learning how to play violin first at the age of five and then piano onto guitar. I was primarily an instrumentalist before Columbia, and then here I was like, ‘Okay, I’m actually going to start singing for real.’

CMG: When you started learning instruments, was that something pushed onto you, or was that something you wanted to do?

Alicia: For me, it was a cultural influence, because I’m also Polish. A big part of Polish culture is music. I was in a Polish folk band for a while and that’s how I started out. We would play in our little orchestra and then sing and dance and we would compete with other Polish folk bands. It was my grandparents that influenced me, but it wasn’t pushed upon me. Then once I got into middle school and high school I did classical orchestra.

CMG: Are you from Chicago originally?

Alicia: I am actually from Portage Park, Chicago, and Jefferson Park is where I grew up. In sixth grade, I moved to the suburbs, to Lake Zurich. I have a lot of family still here. It’s also a big part of who I am – Chicago and the culture around here.

CMG: What do you want to do after college?

Alicia: The dream is to become a big artist like Taylor Swift or something. It’s always been my dream. I’ve never been interested in doing anything else besides music. I would always say I want to be on the radio, I want to do performances and have concerts around the world. That’s my goal. Making this an all-around professional career.

CMG: Going off of that, what are your thoughts on the music industry?

Alicia: Morally, I’m not one to do anything just to make it. I know a lot of artists have done some awful things just to make it in the industry successfully and as much as I love it I’m not going to be that kind of person. The whole idea would be to do as much as I can on my own and if I do work with a label, which I probably will one day, I need to know what’s going on.

That’s why I’m a music business minor, so I don’t get screwed over and I actually can talk the same lingo as them and understand this. I just want to be very well-versed. That way I’m more aware of what I’m getting into.

CMG: I noticed a lot of people studying music business at Columbia are artists who are just trying to get knowledge of the industry. Who are your biggest musical influences?

Alicia: One of my biggest influences is definitely Beyoncé. I actually saw her last summer in Chicago. It was almost another validation that this is what I want to do. I really love how she puts her all into every performance, and she’s a pretty good person outside of being an artist. I really like Rihanna, and I grew up listening to Mumford and Sons a lot. My dad made sure to educate us about knowing who all the greats were.

When my siblings and I were born in the hospital, my dad played a song for each and every one of us, and that would be the song that we danced with him to on our wedding day. My song is “Can’t Help Falling In Love” by Elvis Presley. That’s how big of an influence music has been since day one. That was the first song I ever heard coming into the world.

CMG: That is such a sweet story! How would you describe your music?

Alicia: I could see myself being pop, rock, folk. Something in there, because my lyrics have meaning. It’s storytelling, which is very soul-based and emotionally based. I was working with my private lesson teacher; we’re still trying to figure out what my genre is, and he’s like ‘You may be one of those artists that just can do any of them.’ That’s great, but I was telling her what kind of vibes I was looking for in my productions. Alanis Morissette, The Cranberries, Fiona Apple, Kacey Musgraves, Sheryl Crow and people like that. The lyrics can be pop, but sound-wise I’m going more for a rock, country, folk, alternative kind of thing.

CMG: I wanted to go back to something you said earlier. You said you went to see Beyoncé and it reassured you that this is what you want to do. I’ve known people to have had that exact same experience after going to a concert.

Alicia: It’s definitely a surreal moment, and it’s a very intimate moment between an audience member and the performer. That’s why I want to do what I would do. A lot of my musical journey so far, I’ve had teachers in high school tell me ‘You’re not going to do that, just be a teacher or something.’ It’s condescending towards my dream, and I have always been very stubborn; that’s just gonna motivate me more.

The reason why I do what I do is because I want to connect with people through music. Not to get all deep, but I feel like my purpose in life is to help others. I love helping people and being there for people. I do that a lot through words, and a lot of my words stick with people. I’ve always loved making people happy through music. When I was a kid I would put on shows in front of my family. I loved making people sit back and watch me do something. Not in a show-off way, but I like making people happy and entertaining people.

CMG: It’s cool that you decided to pursue music as a method of helping others.

Alicia: For a while, I even thought of being a music therapist. But I wanted to do something bigger and touch as many people as I could. When I retire one day I want to make a music academy. Kind of giving back to the community and helping people who maybe don’t have the resources to pursue their dreams. There’s a lot of talent out in this world and I feel like if you don’t have the resources, you can’t go far. Unfortunately, everything has to do with money, where you live, or where you’re from.

CMG: I have seen what can happen when communities without access to the arts are given that access. It’s so cool that you already have this end goal of one day giving back to the community!

Alicia: It makes so many kids’ minds better. I’ve never heard of music negatively impacting someone’s life. Please tell me if there’s been this scenario. Music is how we initially communicated and bonded. It’s a big part of humanity. It’s something we can all connect to and something that almost everybody enjoys.

CMG: How has music specifically helped you?

Alicia: It’s helped me express myself and communicate with myself. I struggle with severe anxiety. One of my songs is called “Stuck In My Head” and that’s about literally feeling stuck in my head all the time. Music is a very good way for me to communicate what’s going on and how I feel emotionally. Not just with songwriting, but even hearing songs. It could be a violin part and I feel emotional. That’s how it’s always been for me. I feel like my emotions are the most real when I’m listening to or playing music.

CMG: It’s crazy the physical effect that music has.

Alicia: I know! I’ve always been fascinated with how music affects the human body. There’s a whole psychological factor behind everything. I’ll get chills all the time. We have master classes at Columbia for the vocal and instrumental programs. For me, the vocalists have to attend a master class every other Friday, and basically, they’re student forums where sometimes we’ll watch other students perform. Even those classes reassure me that I love doing what I do. It’s awesome performing – I get such adrenaline. Am I nervous as hell before every performance? Yes, absolutely. I literally feel like I’m going to faint every single time. But I love it in the end.

CMG: I’m sure it’s cool to be surrounded by other musicians who feel the same way.

Alicia: I feel like it could go both ways. A lot of people can be very supportive and a lot of people can be very jealous and downgrading to people. I’ve had some experiences where it gets too competitive and I’m like, ok, we’re supposed to be supporting each other because we both want it. Why not help each other? In a super competitive industry, you want as much support as you can.

CMG: Kind of going off of that, a job in the music industry is difficult. You face so many obstacles, even at school. You said earlier your teacher told you not to do music, for instance.

Alicia: Yeah. I told him I was going to Columbia and he’s like, ‘I don’t know, that’s really hard to do what you want to do. Are you sure?’ Instead of being supportive and helping me get there, he was acting more jealous. People either help me get there or be a hater. That’s how it can be sometimes.

The industry, as you said, is hard, but I feel like if you’re talented in so many aspects musically, there’s always a job. There’s always something. There’s so much out there, why limit yourself to only writing lyrics for songs of yours? You could write for other artists, and they make so much money off of it. Lyricists do get the most credibility a lot of times. So I think that’s awesome. That’s kind of comforting to me.

CMG: Where can people find your music or projects?

Alicia: Currently I’ve been working on getting stuff on Spotify. Otherwise, I would say TikTok is pretty big for where I get a lot of attention. I do have Instagram and YouTube. I’ll live perform my music there that you don’t always see online. I’m growing into it because last year around this time I was too nervous to even perform my originals. I didn’t believe in myself and I’m very hard on myself. We’re our own biggest critics, and my anxiety holds me back sometimes. I’m starting to finally believe in myself because, like I said before, I was primarily an instrumentalist before college. I was still getting comfortable being a singer.

CMG: How long have you been singing?

Alicia: I’ve been singing for a long time, but I would only sing for fun. It’s not like I was in choirs or anything in high school. I never had lessons for singing or anything like that. Last semester was the first semester I started taking voice lessons. I’ve been learning a lot. I didn’t even know I could learn so much about singing.

CMG: My last question for you – what is the best thing that music has ever given you?

Alicia: Community and connection. No matter how bad a day can be, you put on music and we’re all there. It’s something that will always connect people. It’s kind of like my backbone. I fall back to music anytime I’m struggling. Anytime I’m anxious my headphones are in and it’s like an emotional support outlet. That’s the word I’ve been looking for this entire time. It’s my outlet.

CMG: That’s a great answer. Do you have any final thoughts or anything else you want to add?

Alicia: You get to know a lot of me from my lyrics because I tell you a story. Words mean the most to me; that’s my love language. I even got a tattoo recently that says ‘This too shall pass.’ A lot of people get embarrassed to say they have a therapist, but I’m very transparent. My first therapist that I had, she used to tell me ‘This too shall pass.’ I wouldn’t believe it, and up until recently and moving into college I decided I could finally get the tattoo because I believe it now.

Whether it’s tattoos, lyrics, or what I wear I love expressing myself. Aside from music, there’s a lot to my own story, and I try to tell that through music because I want people to relate and not feel alone. I wish I had that sometimes. Don’t get me wrong, music has helped me through emotional times, but there are some times when I’m like, ‘Okay, none of these songs explain how I’m feeling.’ That’s why I started writing my songs.

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