The Prodigies of Harmonies

The members of Tiny Habits, a young vocal trio, met as students at the Berklee College of Music, in Boston. The Habits are Maya Rae, from Vancouver, British Columbia; Cinya Khan, from Montclair, New Jersey; and Judah Mayowa, from Birmingham, Alabama. It was January, 2021, and they had just moved into the same dorm, after attending remotely during the fall. Socially rusty, they weren’t quite sure how actual collaborations might come about.

“Here’s how it happened,” Khan said the other day. “There was a bathroom attached to the room, and I couldn’t fucking figure out the toilet-paper holder.” She posted a query about it on Instagram. Rae replied with a how-to-load-the-toilet-paper-holder video she’d made, and this led to a D.M. exchange about singing together.

Rae had also invited Mayowa to her room to sing with her. “I was so nervous,” he recalled. “I stood outside her room and thought, I’m gonna bail.”

“I hear this knock on the door and open it and here’s this very tall man named Judah,” Rae said.

“We sat on the dorm-room floor and started doing YouTube karaoke,” Mayowa said. They started with Adele and Rihanna.

“I remember when you first opened your mouth,” Rae said, re-creating an expression of wonderment.

“I remember when you opened your mouth: ‘This white girl can sing.’ ”

A bit later, Khan arrived. Together, the three sang “Happy & Sad,” by Kacey Musgraves. This wasn’t exactly the Crosby, Stills, and Nash eureka moment at Mama Cass’s house in Laurel Canyon, but it was a combustible start.

Their public début was a video they recorded in the dorm stairwell (that natural reverb) of themselves singing Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.” Eventually, they were making several videos a week, quick covers with delectable harmonies, and gaining an avid following, first among kids their age and then, before long, among older euphony connoisseurs, including Elton John and David Crosby himself. Nine months later, the trio wrote a song together. After a year, they formed a band and came up with the name.

Now, three years and a day after their first go at “Happy & Sad,” Rae, Khan, and Mayowa were in Khan’s hotel room in SoHo. They’d just arrived from Australia, where they’d been opening for Gracie Abrams, and had come from a rehearsal for an appearance on a new variety show hosted by the mandolinist Chris Thile and his band, Punch Brothers, where they’d met and sung with Musgraves. A new album and a tour of their own loomed: they were on that rocket ship. Still, with a couple of hours to kill, they were determined, or maybe just habituated, to make and post one of their signature short videos. They try to put out two a week. The space was snug, and, sitting cross-legged on the bed together in their socks, they exuded conviviality and ease. Rae and Khan wore parachute-y pants. Mayowa, the shy one, had a head scarf holding back all but a few of his dreadlocks.

Mayowa had chosen “Misty,” the Erroll Garner classic, with lyrics reluctantly furnished by Johnny Burke. First, they listened to Ella Fitzgerald’s version, then got to work arranging it into three parts.

Mayowa often takes the lower register, and Rae the highest, though they seem to weave around one another. On “Misty,” the melody fell to Rae. Sometimes they make a Google Doc, color-coding the parts, but this time they winged it.

Look at me
I’m as helpless as a kitten up a tree.
And I feel like I’m clingin’ to a cloud I can’t understand;
I get misty, just holding your hand

Khan recorded voice memos of her attempts to perfect the landings on “tree” and “understand.” She touched her nose as she sang, as though she could hear through it.

“Your part is too complicated,” Mayowa said.

“No, I like the part.”

“Don’t zip me all the way up—I’m claustrophobic.”

Cartoon by Barbara Smaller

“From the top.”

“Can’t understand.”

“Fuck!”

Khan was a font of alternate lyrics, delivered in a hearty tenor: “And I feel like I’m pooping on a cloud.” “I love mustard.” “I get musty.”

When they clinched the harmony on “clingin’ to a cloud,” Rae screamed with delight. Khan said, “Part check!” Mayowa mangled the “cloud” line. “What the fuck?”

“This is going to be so yummy,” Rae said.

“Someone’s flat there, is it me?”

“I sang the wrong part.”

“What note are you hitting?”

“You’re a great singer.”

“Debatable.”

“Should we try and film it?”

They set up an iPhone on some pillows and scrunched together at the foot of the bed. Ten takes later, they still hadn’t got it.

They went at it again, making their singing faces. They nailed it this time, and Rae shouted, “That’s the one!” The process had taken an hour. They tinkered with the reverb, and then got ready to post.

“What’s a misty emoji?” Rae asked. They settled on an umbrella, then titled the vid “misty . . . in manhattan.” It was time to get ready for a big dinner out with their agent. ♦

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