Interview: Cécile McLorin Salvant

Cecile McLorin Salvant is a jazz vocalist, performing unique interpretations of unknown and scarcely recorded jazz and blues compositions, jazz standards, as well as her own composed music and lyrics. Cécile's "WomanChild" was nominated for the 2014 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album. Her album "For One To Love" has won 2016 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album. We've loved her music for a long time and it's been a huge pleasure to meet and talk to Cécile before her concert at the Théâtre Nationale de Narbonne.

Cécile, how was your love for singing born?

I’ve always been singing at home, and I loved it from a very young age. I remember my first piano class was when I was 4 years old. My mother loves music. She wanted me and my sister to play an instrument, to practice music, we always listened to music in the house. It feels like it’s always been a part of my life.

Was there a tradition of singing in your family?

My dad is a lovely singer, he has a beautiful voice, but he’s not a professional. My mum not so lovely voice but loves to listen to singers and dance. I would say, rather than a tradition of performing music there was a tradition of listening to music and enjoying music in my family. It seems to be the case for a lot of people - there’s a lot less singing at home, you just put some music on, and you enjoy that, but people don’t sing amongst themselves. I do remember that with my parents we would try to harmonise songs that we listened to, that we knew, just for fun - we’d just walk around and make horrible harmonies, and laugh a lot. My dad would always get mad at my mom, because he thought that she wasn’t doing it right. It was a lot of fun. We definitely do that a lot.

You are involved in a lot of creative activities - you sing, draw, write, compose. Where does this wish to create come from?

Oftentimes it’s instinctive, there’s a natural need to express something, or to create something. Something that’s in my head, can be an image, a feeling that there’s something that I need to express, that I need to share. Or even just to get out from myself, just to get rid of certain thoughts or feelings. And certainly drawing is a way, singing and composing music is a way to do that.

Who are your muses?

First and foremost, other artists, other art. A lot of visual art - I like to go to museums a lot and look at visual art. Paintings I love, woodcuts, sculpture. Other musicians of course, other composers really inspire me. Films, books. And of course people - seeing like people interact with each other in life, and how they speak with each other, how they describe their experiences. A couple of weeks ago I spent time with my grandmother and just listening to her talk about her life and all of her experiences is really inspiring to me. Not that I’m going to exactly copy something that she said, but it goes in there somewhere, and I know that it will influence the way that I sing, and the way that I write, and paint. I notice expressions, the way that people act, how they put on a mask when they’re with other people. And how they have this character, we all have a character depending on a situation. And just expressions in people’s faces, and how they communicate emotion. Or how they try to hide emotion. How people lie, or how sometimes they give a little bit of the truth. That’s very fascinating to me. And of course, humor. Laughter of course, the social aspect of that. The importance of humor, and how people use that in their life - that’s also something that is very important and interesting to me. I certainly know that it somehow has a way of being in my singing and in the way that I am in life, in general. 

You also have a really eclectic mix of songs. How did this come about? 

I think it started with my mom. She is very eclectic in her musical tastes. So from a very young age I would listen to Cape Verdean music, Portuguese music, French music, Senegalese music, music from South America, disco, classical music. So I just learned to appreciate music in that way. I learned to appreciate food in that way, too. My mother was born in Tunisia, she lived throughout Africa, she lived in South America, she lived in the Caribbean. She picked up all these recipes from all the places she grew up in and lived in, from the people who lived there. So even the food she would make was very eclectic. And the artwork that we have in our home is very eclectic: it’s from all over the world. So that’s always been a part of my life - the idea of juxtaposition of very different things. Mixture. And my family is a very mixed family too. So I think I’ve always been attracted to the idea of not having just one thing or one culture, one style, but having many different styles. And also the way that I listen to music now - I love to listen to music randomly: to baroque music, and then folk music, and then hip hop, a then RnB - just one after the other. It’s exciting and it also allows me to see and hear certain connections that are within these different genres and styles. Same in visual arts. I’ve always loved eclecticism in cinema too. There’s a certain richness when you mix very different things together, a certain very interesting result. Jazz is of course a result of that. Jazz is a music of eclecticism, a fusion. It started off that way. And I think that’s in part why I love it so much, because there are so many different elements in this music, and you have all those different cultures coming together to create jazz in the first place. In itself it has that eclecticism. In its own foundation. 

What drives you to do this work, to go on stage, to sing for people?

Well, I don’t feel that I’m a performer first, I always feel that I’m a listener, a spectator, an audience member first. It always seems bizarre to be on this side of the stage, and not on the other side, listening. But I suppose I do it for the people who come to the show, for that feeling of community that I have and dialogue with the musicians that I play with. What moves me is the people, otherwise I would just sit at home. And knowing that I’m extremely lucky that I can sing jazz - music that swings, that I can sing these sometimes very old songs, or some compositions of mine, and that people are actually interested in hearing it! That is motivation enough, because it seems like such a miracle, that people would be interested in my music. I am grateful for that. It’s almost like I’m taking advantage of it now as long as it lasts - this opportunity of having an audience, to express certain things and maybe in some small way I’ll have a good impact, or an interesting impact in the world, in a very small way.

You sing in front of so many people, is the stage a comfortable place for you?

It took a lot of time for it to become a comfortable place. The first concert I ever did I was just looking down on the ground, I didn’t look at anybody. And I realised that I was shutting out a part of me that loves to be on stage, and loves to be seen, and to be watched. Even though it’s very weird because I prefer being in the audience, there is still a small part of me that I feel flourishes from that attention really, that’s what it is. And from that opportunity to express something and how people actually listen to you. And I think it definitely took time for me to feel more comfortable on stage. Years. But I always did have that dramatic side of me, I remember at school, when I was very small, we would recite poems in French class. And every student would simply recite them. And I would make this whole big deal of it, and my friends would be like “You’re trying too hard, you’re making too much of a scene”. But I loved it and I would just make it so dramatic! I think I’ve always just really been interested in theatre and acting. Singing is almost an opportunity for me to act. Without having to go through auditions and actually learn a script and be an actress. It’s kind of my way to cheat and be able to do theatre and drama, honestly. And of course I say this but that’s an exaggeration, a huge part of it is music. The fact that those two elements are working together is something that is so so wonderful and I feel so lucky to be able to be a part of that! And I would say, for instance, going back to the idea of feeling comfortable and connecting with the audience, I’d started a few years ago to try that thing that scares me the most, which is to actually look people in the eyes when I’m performing. I was always very afraid of it. I thought “I’m singing these love songs, it’s awkward...” And then eventually slowly I realized that actually people are as uncomfortable as I am if I look at them. So it’s almost like I’m breaking the ice and I’m trying to figure out the way to say “We are here together! There is not such a wall between you and me, I could almost grab you, we are talking, almost.” I mean that’s something that I want people to feel when they come to the show is that they are almost alone with me and I’m speaking to them specifically, even though it’s a big group. Eventually, the more I did it, the more I looked at people I became almost addicted to the feeling of looking at people when I’m up there. I love doing it! 

How do you keep growing?

I have to admit that recently it’s not been happening as much as it was when I was a student and I had time to really be alone with music, and alone with my songs, and alone with my thoughts. And not always have to perform them or always have to prepare a show. But really just have this time alone to reconnect with whatever it is that I’m doing artistically, creatively. So now it’s finding little strategies to do it on the road, it’s never as good. Especially to do it off the road, when I’m back home to really make time to be alone, completely alone. And this is why when I’m in New York, when I go back home, I have friends who would be like “oh, come out, let’s do this” but I have to spend time as a hermit by myself. For a number of reasons, but also to be able to find that thing that drives me and that fuels me and also to just simply work on my music and develop my music and my voice and my art. I don’t think it’s possible to develop any craft, any work, if you are doing it with a bunch of people, and you are in a social environment, you are just not concentrated on what you are doing, you are distracted. The only way you can advance, the only way you can really learn anything is by finding yourself alone and really being confronted with whatever it is you are trying to deal with. At the very least that’s my experience. So it’s finding moments like that to really feel like a student (I think we are always students), and learn things. That’s a challenge but it’s also very important in order to continue developing. It’s always been a fear of mine that I won’t develop, that I’m not pushing myself enough, that I’m not working enough, or being creative enough, or learning enough. So I think in a way that’s good, if you are dissatisfied with yourself, then you are able to push yourself more and whatever has happened before is what has happened before. Whatever I’ve done, whatever I’ve created is in the past and it’s done, that’s not me anymore. I have to think about what the next things is, next song, next idea or project, or whatever it may be. That’s the important thing, and sometimes it’s hard to keep that in mind when we are always focusing on whatever we just did. Especially as musicians, we are touring the record that just came out, that we recorded in 2015. So that’s a weird situation to be in. You are talking about that record, you are playing the music from that record, but you also have to somehow behind the scenes be thinking “ok, what’s the next thing, what are we doing now?” 

What does success mean to you?

To me success is when you really work hard on something, and you’ve made something, you’ve made an object or whatever it is that you’ve really given yourself to, and abandoned yourself to. And it’s there and it’s no longer a part of you - you kind of give it to the world, you share it. When you are able to do that and be alright with it I think that’s the moment of success, a moment of pride. And to continue doing that throughout a lifetime - that would be success. You know when I look at the artist like Louise Bourgeois, I think she was in her almost hundreds and working, and creating new things. And not looking back at what she has done but always working, creating something new. That to me is a successful life. When you have this legacy of work behind you that you’ve shared with people. I think that’s incredible! I don’t know if I’m as hard a worker and as disciplined as Madame Bourgeois, but I certainly admire that and aspire to that. To just always be creating and pushing myself and learning - that’s something I would consider success. 

Cover artwork by Cécile McLorin Salvant