Music

Sananda Maitreya: 'You don't have to suffer. You can just choose happiness'

The 1980s pop sensation has encountered some big names along the way, but the one person he really wishes he’d met was his father

Sanada Maitreya

Image: Manuel Scrima

Sananda Maitreya was born in Manhatthan, New York, in March 1962. He grew up in Orlando, Florida, where he formed the band Modernaires in High School. He trained as a boxer and won the Golden Gloves lightweight championship in 1980. He served in the US army for three years, the last of which was spent in Germany, where he joined The Touch as lead singer.

After moving to London, his debut album performing as Terence Trent D’Arby, Introducing The Hardline… was a massive success, selling over 12 million copies worldwide and giving him the hit singles If You Let Me Stay, Wishing Well (a US No 1), Dance Little Sister and Sign Your Name. The following albums, Neither Fish Nor Flesh, Symphony Or Damn and Vibrator won fans worldwide, including the UK where he had a further five Top 20 singles.

In 1995, he adopted the name Sananada Maitreya and has since released eight albums and four live albums on his own independent record label Treehouse Publishing. In 1999, he fronted INXS for a one-off performance, celebrating the opening of Stadium Australia, Sydney. He lives in Milan with his wife, Italian television host and architect Francesca Francone, and their two sons.

Speaking to The Big Issue for his Letter to my Younger Self, Sananda Maitreya reflects on early inspirations, his rebirth and learning from his children.

I would adore my 16-year-old self. I would tell them that you are a visionary. You have an incredible idea of who you are. Be patient because your time will come [Maitreya rose to fame in 1987, performing as Terence Trent D’Arby]. Every insult, everything you’re going through, will transform into your own unique form of expression. You will inherit a chip on your shoulder that you will learn to use as fuel. I did not have a happy childhood. It was very dramatic and confusing. So see this as the preliminary process you go through to become a greater artist than you might have been if everyone was blowing smoke up your ass.

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You can be traumatised to the point where you are separated from the identification that you carried before. To the point where you have no fixed identity that you feel safe enough to embrace [he created his new identity in 1996]. The idea that we remain the same person, from the time we come out of the womb, to the time we go back into the womb of the Earth, is absolutely ludicrous.

Sananda Maitreya in 1983
1983: In Frankfurt, Germany. Image: Courtesy of Sananda Maitreya

There was a period of roughly two years where if you called me by my former name, it might take me a couple of seconds to register that you were in fact addressing me. I was to understand through a series of dreams that I must change my identity completely. It would be the most difficult thing that I’ve ever undertaken, but it was the only way forward whilst maintaining possession of who I knew I was. If you want to leave your footprint in the sands of Babylon, that’s the price you’re going to have to be willing to pay.

Corporations tell you that you might have created the identity, but they own it. It’s not in their best interest to let you keep expanding your view of it, especially since controlling the assets and property is basically what those corporations exist to do. Between my first and second projects my label changed from CBS to Sony. I was naive enough to care about more than just selling as many records as possible.

I always felt like my previous life was me fulfilling my mother’s dream. And Sananda Maitreya’s life is finally me fulfilling my father’s vision of the life he wanted. He wanted to be a guitar player in a rock band, so I will say to him, I’ll take care of it, but I’m sorry that I judged you on what little biased information they left me about you. My father was a married man – a two-timing, trouble-scheming rapscallion. But that’s my dad. And if he hadn’t done that, we are not having this conversation. Sometime in 1987/88, he called my mother and said, “I want to meet him.” Out of a sense of misplaced loyalty to the people that raised me, I refused. The biggest mistake. It was a posture; it was a pose. And to this day, I regret it.

At 18, I’m back at my parents’ home in Florida from basic army training. In the middle of the night I have this dream. I’m standing on a street corner in New York City and through this haze, I see this guy dressed in a white t-shirt, jeans and a cap. As he comes closer and his smile gets bigger, I realise, Oh my god, that’s John Lennon. He sticks out his hand and as I try to shake it, he walks straight through me. I wake up a few hours later and my mother says, “Did you hear the news? John Lennon was killed.” Shortly after he died, I guess his spirit was free to do whatever he wanted. I chose to interpret it in the most positive light possible, because we’re talking about my first heroes. Hearing The Beatles as a two-year-old was my first conscious moment in this life.

Prince answered any questions I had as to whether I was more rock than soul, more gospel than pop, more jazz than country. He showed me the answer is, fuck it, just be who you are, because who you are is unique. No more segregating ourselves to make them comfortable. To make it easier for them to not have to think about what we are. He embraced me as a little brother. We even had a close telepathic relationship, able to communicate without having to speak to one another. Very often I would call him knowing he was needing me to call. I even knew when to avoid him if he was calling to bitch about something that I didn’t want to have to deal with.

I was also very close to Miles [Davis]. After I got my first taste of crucifixion from my second project [Neither Fish nor Flesh, 1989], I asked him if he’d had a chance to hear it and he turned on me. I was startled, but in retrospect, he was absolutely right. He said, “Listen, don’t ever ask me what I think of your work. You tell me what you think of it. As long as you’re sure about what you did, that’s all that matters. If they don’t get it now, they will catch up to it. Fuck my opinion. What do you think of it?”

Sanada Maitreya performing as Terence Trent D'Arby in Liverpool in 1990
1990: Sananda Maitreya performing as Terence Trent D’Arby at the John Lennon Scholarship Concert in Liverpool. Image: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

You won’t meet the woman who will change the course of your life until you’re 33 years old. In the meantime, line them up. I never had as many as I could have had because I learned that there’s a price for overindulgence at the expense of your gift. There were contemporaries who left too many great songs in women’s beds. I would say, you’re gonna walk away from a lot of fun in fear that you’re going to lose balance. Don’t walk away. Just be smart, be cautious. Just go for it. As the Buddha has said: Jump, you won’t fall.

Your children are as much your teachers as you are theirs. In our zeal to be seen as adults, we lose contact with so much of what is vital within us, and your children gravitate you back towards those places. And in having them, you’re able to retroactively heal a lot of your own childhood. I didn’t know my biological father. I hadn’t seen him since I was two years old and he died in 1993. But at that point I was given to understand that my firstborn son would be him – the guy who was my dad, which would give us a chance to finally be together and finish our conversation in a much more amenable environment. Knowing that my son represented the fulfilment of a promise was a huge step forward in my own psychological process.

Sanada Maitreya performing in Italy in 2019
2019: Sananda Maitreya on stage in Bologna, Italy for his Fallen Angel Tour. Image: Pacific Press Media Production Corp. / Alamy Stock Photo

We are some angry bitches right now. We just are. And our various governments understand that until you actually have something to offer people, the only way to keep control is to keep them angry. Because angry people don’t think rationally, we don’t think straight, we jump more quickly into self-pity. We start pointing fingers at everyone but ourselves without realising that the person you have been encouraged to point the finger at doesn’t have shit, either. Because the greater fear is that we wake up and realise that we are not each other’s problem.

I was invited to participate in the John Lennon Tribute Concert in Liverpool in 1990. I was in a car on my way there with the legendary Al Green because we had back-to-back sound checks. And like the naive urchin that I was, I look at this great, great man and I say, “reverend Al, why are you always so happy?” And he looked at me and said, “I’m always happy because every morning, I wake up, and I make the decision to be happy.” I was like, the reverend has spoken! You’re telling me that happiness is a conscious choice? I’ve been thinking it’s a lottery! That blew me away. No less an authority than the reverend Al Green confirmed that you don’t have to suffer. You can just choose happiness.

Sananda Maitreya’s new album, The Pegasus Project: Pegasus & The Swan, is out on 11 May. He will play Love Supreme on 6 July and is touring Europe in June.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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