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Cécile McLorin Salvant On Triangulating Grief, Longing & Hope With New Album 'Ghost Song': "That's The Moment Where Your Imagination Takes Flight"
Cécile McLorin Salvant

Photo: Shawn Michael Jones

interview

Cécile McLorin Salvant On Triangulating Grief, Longing & Hope With New Album 'Ghost Song': "That's The Moment Where Your Imagination Takes Flight"

For singer/songwriter and visual artist Cécile McLorin Salvant, loss — which so many of us suffered during the pandemic — is a prism. And on her phantasmagorical new album 'Ghost Song,' she turns it in the light to stunning effect.

GRAMMYs/Mar 13, 2022 - 05:40 pm

Grief. If there was only one word to describe the past two years of enduring the pandemic, it would be "grief."

In addition to grieving loved ones who have died because of the coronavirus, many of us have rued the loss of social gatherings, traveling, job security, and stable mental and physical health, among other crucial things. Coinciding with all that loss is our longing for either pre-pandemic times or hope for a better tomorrow. And on her phantasmagorical new album, Ghost Song — out March 4 on Nonesuch — Cécile McLorin Salvant articulates how grief, longing and hope are facets of the same prism.

Although she recorded the album during late 2020 and early 2021, the three-time GRAMMY-winning jazz singer/songwriter and visual artist (dig her vivid work on the cover of Melissa Aldana's 12 Stars) doesn't explicitly address the pandemic. Instead, most of her songs address affairs of the heart and mind.

Salvant conveys the maddening feeling of isolation and being trapped in one's thoughts on her haunting original, "I Lost My Mind," the desire to flee an oppressive romance with "Obligation" and the anguish of a crumbled relationship on "Ghost Song." The album also offers some striking covers, like Kate Bush's extravagant pop hit, "Wuthering Heights," Sting's cinematic "Until" and Gregory Porter's soothing soul-jazz ballad, "No Love Dying."  

Salvant's penchant for imbuing her work with literary references then delivering them in inventive, deeply personal ways that are empathetic and translucent reaches a height on Ghost Song. References to Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, and Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo intermingle with selections from The Wizard of Oz and Robyn O'Neil's "Modern Arts Notes" podcast. 

She ventures beyond her usual piano/bass/drums setting too. By incorporating somewhat unconventional jazz instruments such as the pipe organ, banjo, and lute, Ghost Song also finds Salvant singing in a grander aural environment than ever.

Just days before the release of Ghost Song and before embarking on a month-long European tour in Sweden, Norway, Austria, Germany, Denmark, and the Czech Republic, Salvant spoke with GRAMMY.com about her creative process and artistic decisions in crafting Ghost Song.

Talk about the creative decision and process of singing in a new sonic environment.

I wanted to have different sonic environments. I wanted to have a little bit of field recordings, some clean studio sounds, and echoing church. I really wanted to play with the different colors of environments and contexts, because that's how I listen to music. This is what I like as a listener — a lot of different textures. So, we were trying to go for that to an extent. 

But it's quite different from what I've done in the past. We recorded with great studio microphones but also with cell phones. Children recorded themselves on cell phones in their homes. I recorded my nieces in my sister's house on the cell phone. Then we recorded inside the St. Malachy's Church in Manhattan. So, there were a lot of different textures to play with. 

Talk about the creative choices of some of the instruments such as pipe organ, banjo, lute, and Latin percussion.

There's nothing calculated. It's all something that's reflective of my life and the people around me. For instance, something like the pipe organ is there just because of [pianist] Aaron Diehl, who plays the pipe organ on the album. He has such a love for that instrument; and he kind of introduced it to me. He took me to my first pipe organ concert. And I really feel in love [with the pipe organ] as well. So, I thought it would be fun to do something with him playing the organ. 

What about some of the Afro-Latin percussion?

The percussion parts came through an actual band that I played with at the Village Vanguard. It was one of the last concerts before the pandemic. It's almost less about the instruments; and more about the people who played them. So, the instruments like the banjo, the percussion, the flute, the piano — that band, which appears a couple of times on the album — was the band that I was with at the Village Vanguard right before everything shut down. 

I really wanted to record and capture that moment with that band because it was such an inspired experiment — putting together all these instruments that I really love with no bass, which was a bit strange. I just wanted to test it out. We finished it out feeling like we really found a band sound together as we were playing two concerts a night for a full week. We felt like we were cut off when the pandemic started because suddenly, we couldn't play with each other. So, it almost felt like the studio was an opportunity to revisit that experiment and continue that moment.

It's very sentimental. It's also very natural. It wasn't anything calculated; it was very intuitive. This album is so much about intuition, memory, nostalgia. So, it just felt right that we would record together.

Talk more about the themes you wanted to address in Ghost Song. A lot of these songs touch upon grief and the fleeting nature of romantic love.

I've always gravitated toward songs that are about longing and desire – more about wanting than about love itself. It's about that moment before you get something or after something has been taken away from you. That's the moment where your imagination takes flight; you start to build stories and try to fill absences with these stories. And that is something that I'm so excited about. I'm fascinated by it. I think it's such a big part of our lives. It just made sense to try to synthesize that idea of ghosts. 

Explain how the works of Proust, Brontë, and Dumas filter into the album.

There are ways in which you can't have control over what filters into your work. You sometimes think you have control on that as a songwriter. You can say, "Let me transcribe this and see if I can make something similar or let me keep this [literature] in mind." But I think ultimately the most real stuff is that stuff that happens through osmosis — when it just becomes a part of your life and culture, and you don't necessarily actively think about it. 

There is no coincidence that something like Wuthering Heights and A la recherche du temps perdu are heavily about memory, thinking, neurosis, and [the act of] really spiraling in your thoughts, memories, self-consciousness and desires — this album is about that.

But that the same time, I wonder if I read those books because I was already attracted to those notions; and I wanted to read something that felt familiar and were better versions of things that I think of, because [those books] contain more eloquent and elegant ways of distilling these really specific feelings that I have, and many other people have.

Talk about the creative process of pairing "Optimistic Voices" from The Wizard of Oz with Gregory Porter's "No Love Dying."

Going back to the idea of things being very intuitive – that's number one. I can't overstate that a lot of this resulted from just feeling different songs. But when you start tying some songs together, you realize "Optimistic Voices" and "No Love Dying" are both different approaches to optimism and hope. When I look at a song like "Optimistic Voices" — this is the song they sing in a poppy field in The Wizard of Oz. 

One could argue that they are high on some psychedelic trip because poppies are opium. The singers are manic and hallucinating. They are so lost and desperate to find their way home that they've become crazy. So, they sing this song when they finally see Emerald City. It's almost too good to be true.  So, that's one side of it.

Then you have this other song that's about optimism but also incorporates death, bones, sadness, gloom. I felt like those two ideas were so complementary.  

Are there any songs you love but you believe that you can't yet render properly? If so, what are they?

That is such a good question. There are so many that it's hard to choose one. What happens for me a lot of times is that if I really adore a song, I hesitate to sing it, because I feel like it's going to ruin it for me. Because suddenly, I'm singing it many times or making an arrangement of it like I'm dissecting it. Sometimes I just want to enjoy the song as a listener.

So, I think it's less about me being afraid of rendering a song, because I'm afraid of rendering every song. I don't think I can get away with anything. I just suck it up and try. It's more that I'm afraid of ruining a song for me.

Talk about "Obligation." It's one of my favorite songs. The lyrics remind me of some of the sentiments Abbey Lincoln sang, but some of the inspiration came from Robyn O'Neil's podcast.

I love that you mention Abbey Lincoln, because she's the reason that I started writing songs in the first place. I was not at all in that mindset; I didn't think I could write a song. Then I started listening to Abbey Lincoln. 

She deceptively makes you feel like you can write a song. I thought, "Maybe I should write something that is personal to me." I think that it's a sign of her generosity as an artist and as a songwriter, because she encourages the listener to express themselves. So, she is the reason I started writing. She's a huge part of the reason why I started writing songs. 

"Obligation" is sort of my take on something my friend Robyn O'Neill says often in her podcasts, which is "expectations are premeditated resentments."

I understand that on "Dead Poplar" you also got inspiration from that podcast. Talk about that song.

That song is basically me setting to music a letter written by [photographer] Alfred Stieglitz to his wife Georgia O'Keefe. He wrote her this letter, which was very mundane and about him going through his day. Then all of sudden, he goes into this super poetic language that hit me so hard that I started crying the first time I read it.  

Then what I ended up doing was that I wrote the letter out on posits and put it out on my piano. I set it to music actually not necessarily because I wanted to make a song on my record, but more because I wanted to memorize it. I find that singing is the best memorization tool that we have. It's one of the first mnemonic devices. 

So, I just set it to music for myself and also because it was on my piano. Then little by little it became clear that if I wanted this record to feel like a diary — which is what I wanted: like you were opening pages of my journal — that song had to be in there.

Talk about the impact of receiving the MacArthur Genius Fellowship ($625,000) and a Doris Duke Grant (worth up to $275,000) in 2020 for artists such as yourself in terms of actualizing new goals and just survival.

The impact is changing for me as time goes by. When I initially got the fellowship, the first reaction was "This couldn't come at a better time!" after I had lost all the gigs for the remainder of the year [because of the pandemic]. We didn't know when we were going to play again. There was no source of income. So, we were panicking as musicians. So, that was the first reaction. 

Now, as time has gone by, and we are going to play live again and things are coming back a little bit, I can look at receiving these grants as encouragement to continue pushing myself through boundaries and try to actually think like an artist without worrying about expectations of other people. 

Really challenging myself was a real big part of it. And then I started thinking about projects on a larger scale and the ways that I can include more people in what I do. I can hire more people. I can teach more people. I can really start thinking about giving back in whatever ways that I can — whether that's through education or collaborating with people. It's huge; it's just such an honor.

Tenor Saxophonist Melissa Aldana On Emerging From Chaos, Finding Her Chilean Identity & Her Blue Note Debut 12 Stars

John Lennon, Sting, Alicia Keys: 7 Songs For Starting Over In 2018

John Lennon

Photo: Ron Howard/Redferns

list

John Lennon, Sting, Alicia Keys: 7 Songs For Starting Over In 2018

With hits from Leonard Cohen, the Byrds, Nina Simone, and more, find the motivation for a brand-new you this New Year

GRAMMYs/Jan 4, 2018 - 11:12 pm

Each New Year offers the opportunity for a fresh new start, whether you're looking to wash away the sins of the previous year or reinvent a better future that follows your ultimate dreams. Starting over isn't an easy task, but we have one recommendation that will help motivate you: music.

Don't be a fuddy duddy. Kick-start 2018 with this playlist of seven songs all about starting over, including hits from John Lennon, the Byrds, Sting, and Alicia Keys, among others.

1. The Byrds, "Turn! Turn! Turn!"

Starting with its lyrics, "To everything (turn, turn, turn)/There is a season," this GRAMMY Hall Of Fame classic is a great reminder that everything is always changing anyway, so now is as good a time as any to give something new a chance. The composition was written by Pete Seeger in the late 1950s, but the lyrics come almost verbatim from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible. The song didn't hit it big until the Byrds got their turn at it in 1965. Reportedly, it took Roger McGuinn & Co. 78 takes to perfect their folk-rock arrangement.

2. Leonard Cohen, "Anthem"

GRAMMY winner Leonard Cohen had a knack for poetry powerful enough to move mountains, and his "Anthem" is one such gem. This 1992 tune about embracing imperfection and marching forward in the face of adversity contains one of Cohen's most-quoted lines: "Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack, a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in." And we'll leave you with one final line from the master that encapsulates starting over: "The birds they sing, at the break of day/Start again, I heard them say/Don't dwell on what has passed away/Or what is yet to be."

3. Gil Scott-Heron, "I'm New Here"

Taken from his 2010 album of the same name, "I'm New Here" came near the end of Gil Scott-Heron's storied life. The album saw Scott-Heron, according to Drowned In Sound's Robert Ferguson, "pick over the bones of his life, acknowledging the hard times and his own mistakes, but standing proud of all they have led him to become." Embodying this sentiment accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, Scott-Heron's bluesy, semi-spoken "I'm New Here" brings out the poignancy of change. Its key lyric, "No matter how far wrong you've gone/You can always turn around," is something to keep in mind year-round, let alone January.

4. Alicia Keys, "Brand New Me"

Alicia Keys went full bore on the empowering messages of her 2012 album, Girl On Fire —  the Best R&B Album winner at the 56th GRAMMY Awards — including the track, "Brand New Me." Co-written with singer/songwriter Emeli Sandé, the soft pop/R&B ballad describes growing as a person and becoming a brand-new version of yourself. "Brand new me is about the journey it takes to get to a place where you are proud to be a new you," Keys wrote on her website at the time of the song's release.

5. John Lennon, "(Just Like) Starting Over"

A quintessential start-anew song, former Beatle John Lennon included "(Just Like) Starting Over" on his GRAMMY-winning 1980 album, Double Fantasy. "(Just Like) Starting Over" was the album's first single because Lennon felt it best represented his return following a five-year hiatus from music. It's also a love song, but the theme of starting over has a universal resonance "It's time to spread our wings and fly/Don't let another day go by my love/It'll be just like starting over." It became Lennon's second chart-topping single in the U.S., reaching No. 1 after his death on Dec. 8, 1980.

6. Nina Simone, "Feeling Good"

"It's a new dawn/It's a new day/It's a new life for me/I'm feelin' good." Could you ask for better lyrics for embarking on a new journey? Nina Simone recorded her version of "Feeling Good," which was originally written for the musical "The Roar Of The Greasepaint — The Smell Of The Crowd," on her 1965 album I Put A Spell On You. While artists such as Michael Bublé, John Coltrane, George Michael, and Muse subsequently covered it, no alternative is quite as powerful — or soulful — as Simone's.

7. Sting, "Brand New Day"

Sting's "Brand New Day" has a lesson for inspiring motivation to start the New Year with fresh eyes: "Turn the clock to zero, buddy/Don't wanna be no fuddy-duddy/We started up a brand new day." The bright, catchy pop tune and its namesake 1999 album resonated with fans, landing it at No. 9 on the Billboard 200. The track (and album) earned Sting GRAMMYs — Best Male Pop Vocal Performance and Best Pop Album — at the 42nd GRAMMY Awards.

What's Your New Year's Music Resolution?

Apple Music Exclusive: Watch Classic GRAMMY Performances

Whitney Houston, 29th GRAMMY Awards

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Apple Music Exclusive: Watch Classic GRAMMY Performances

The Recording Academy teams with Apple Music to offer historical GRAMMY performances by Miles Davis, Marvin Gaye, Whitney Houston, Shania Twain, Kendrick Lamar, and more

GRAMMYs/Nov 24, 2017 - 07:00 pm

To celebrate the GRAMMY Awards' 60th anniversary and the show's return to New York for the first time in 15 years, the Recording Academy and Apple Music are bringing fans a special video collection of exclusive GRAMMY performances and playlists that represent the illustrious history of Music's Biggest Night.

Available exclusively via Apple Music in a dedicated GRAMMYs section, the celebratory collection features 60-plus memorable performances specifically curated across six genres: pop, rap, country, rock, R&B, and jazz. 

The artist performances featured in the collection include Marvin Gaye, "Sexual Healing" (25th GRAMMY Awards, 1983); Whitney Houston, "Greatest Love Of All" (29th GRAMMY Awards, 1987); Run DMC, "Tougher Than Leather" (30th GRAMMY Awards, 1988); Miles Davis, "Hannibal" (32nd GRAMMY Awards, 1990); Shania Twain, "Man, I Feel Like A Woman" (41st GRAMMY Awards, 1999); Dixie Chicks, "Landslide" (45th GRAMMY Awards, 2003); Bruno Mars and Sting, "Locked Out Of Heaven" and "Walking On The Moon" (55th GRAMMY Awards, 2013); and Kendrick Lamar, "The Blacker The Berry" (58th GRAMMY Awards, 2016).

The 60th GRAMMY Awards will take place at New York City's Madison Square Garden on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018. The telecast will be broadcast live on CBS at 7:30–11 p.m. ET/4:30–8 p.m. PT. 

Carrie Underwood, John Legend To Host "GRAMMYs Greatest Stories"

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Jazz In The Present Tense

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 04:22 am

This year has been a stellar year for jazz music. The boundaries of jazz have been pushed ever since cornetist Charles Joseph "Buddy" Bolden laid down his first improvisational lick back in the late 1800s. So, who is continuing this trend today in the second decade of the new millennium?

Houston-born pianist Robert Glasper's star continued to rise this year with the release of Black Radio. The album made an indelible impression on young people (and the not so young) around the world. Over the years, Glasper has collaborated with the likes of Bilal, Terence Blanchard, Q-Tip, Meshell Ndegeocello, Jaleel Shaw, and Kanye West.

Best New Artist GRAMMY winner Esperanza Spalding continued to cast her spell on unsuspecting music fans this year with the release of Radio Music Society. Whether it is straight-ahead jazz or classical- and R&B-infused songs, Spalding delivered again in 2012.

Vijay Iyer's Accelerando, Christian Scott's Christian aTunde Adjuah, Tia Fuller's Angelic Warrior, Orrin Evans' Flip The Script, Euge Groove's House Of Groove, and Gregory Porter's Be Good are just a sample of the different styles and passions that made listening to jazz exciting for me this year.

On the digital home front, the venerable jazz label Blue Note Records broke new ground with an amazing Spotify app. Imagine being able to access the entire Blue Note catalog dating back to 1939. You can explore the label's music either through an interactive timeline or via an immersive experience within specific styles, artists, instruments and more. The coolest part of the app is called Blue Break Beats, where the app identifies the original source of all those samples you've heard but couldn't quite place.

On a somber note, the jazz community has lost legends and talented musicians such as Von Freeman, Bob French, David S. Ware, Byard Lancaster, Shimrit Shoshan, and Pete La Roca. Los Angeles-born pianist Austin Peralta, 22, died during the week of Thanksgiving. He was considered by many to be a talent beyond the "prodigy" label that was bestowed on him years ago.

But, to end the year in review on a high note, the 55th GRAMMY Awards will be the perfect place to see the very best in music — especially in jazz. I cannot wait to be in Los Angeles in February 2013 so I can share all of the excitement and surprises with everyone.

Stay for the ride — the best is yet to come.

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Summer Is For Jazz Festivals

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 04:22 am

Do you want to hear some great jazz? Conventional wisdom would suggest that you need to visit New York to see jazz in all of its glory. But, if you want to see live jazz and get the biggest bang for your hard-earned buck, you should check out a jazz festival. It doesn't matter where you're located or how big (or small) your budget is, there is likely a cool jazz event happening in a town or city near you.

The 36th Annual Atlanta Jazz Festival will kick off during Memorial Day weekend, May 25–27, in Piedmont Park. Fans will be able to enjoy the music of BWB (a super group comprising Rick Braun and GRAMMY winners Kirk Whalum and Norman Brown featuring special guest GRAMMY winner Chrisette Michele), bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, saxist Tia Fuller, and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire's quintet. The festival will also highlight up-and-coming artists such as vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant and pianist/composer Aaron Diehl with his quartet.

Over on the West Coast you can find more live music to savor at the 15th Annual Healdsburg Jazz Festival in Sonoma County in California. This year's 10-day schedule (May 31–June 9) includes a two-day tribute to 2013 Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Charlie Haden, featuring performances by multi-instrumentalist/composer Carla Bley, Haden's Quartet West with special guest GRAMMY nominee Ravi Coltrane, alto saxist Lee Konitz, guitarist Bill Frisell, and pianist Geri Allen, among others. Additional artists scheduled to perform during the festival include GRAMMY-nominated African-American a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey In The Rock, saxist/flautist Charles Lloyd and pianist Jason Moran, the Sylvia Cuenca Trio, and the Marcus Shelby Orchestra and HJF Freedom Jazz Choir.

If you are north of the U.S. border, don't worry. On June 28 Canada residents will enjoy the beginning of the International Jazz Festival in Montreal. Through July 7, the festival will feature an array of legendary musical talent, including GRAMMY winners Aretha Franklin, George Benson, Wynton Marsalis, and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, among others.

The following event should not be missed: saxist/composer and multi-GRAMMY winner Wayne Shorter will celebrate his 80th birthday during the Montreal jazz festival with a star-studded performance with Danilo Perez, John Patitucci, Brian Blade, Joe Lovano, and the Dave Douglas Quintet. Also set to perform are ACS: Allen, Carrington, Spalding, which will feature pianist Geri Allen and GRAMMY winners drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and bassist Esperanza Spalding.

If you decide to fit a jazz festival into your summer plans this year, you are sure to hear fantastic music, meet cool people and enjoy great food, too.