Jazz genius Cécile McLorin Salvant: “In times of loneliness and fear, it is instinctive to want to talk about love” | The music
In 2020, Cécile McLorin Salvant kept receiving calls from an unknown number. Like any self-respecting millennial, she ignored them. “They’ve called me so many times and I haven’t answered because no one answers a number they don’t know,” she said, speaking via Zoom from her New York apartment.
When she finally picked up the phone, she “freaked out”. It was the MacArthur Foundation that called to tell her she had been chosen as one of its fellows, an honor that comes with a grant of $625,000 (£475,000) paid over five years. Given that Covid-19 meant her tour was cancelled, it couldn’t have come at a better time. “It was like a validation that went beyond the music,” says the 32-year-old musician. “It was like a validation of my way of thinking. It’s a huge compliment. It’s the biggest honor.”
Although Salvant is known as a jazz musician, her approach to music is defined by her instinct for experimentation. “What interests me is bringing things from disparate sources, eras and techniques,” she says. “I like going into different sounds and different textures with just my voice alone.” She also does visual art – colorful figurative works – and approaches her music in a similar vein. “I want my music and my art to feel like opening someone’s diary – there’s an old ticket stub for something, a quote, an idea and a frustration and a secret.”
His music is praised for rejecting traditional jazz standards, embracing drama and subverting the classics with playful interpretations. At 21, Salvant won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. Her 2013 album WomanChild spanned three centuries of American music and showcased her charismatic voice and fiery energy to the world. She won a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album for her 2015 album, For One to Love, which delved into the history of sexual politics and a more intimate story of unrequited love. As of 2018, The Window is more stripped down, with Salvant accompanied only by pianist and organist Sullivan Fortner.
Her new album, Ghost Song, combines the sounds she’s known for – jazz, folk melodies, blues – and weaves in all-new, less clean textures. (Her sensibility is reminiscent of that of Fiona Apple on Fetch the Bolt Cutters — two jazz singers with an unorthodox approach to their influences.) a lot,” says Salvant. “I’ve always loved field recordings. I thought a lot about not drowning out the life around us and incorporating that into the album. We start and end the album with these recordings that are done a cappella in a church. You can hear the air.
The first song is a superb ethereal cover of Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush; the last, Salvant’s version of the English folk song The Unquiet Grave. They are the key to this concept album about love, loss and what it means to be alive. “If you listen to it on repeat, you realize that the first song is linked to the last,” she reveals. “I wanted to start with someone haunted by the past and end with a living person haunting a ghost.” Although he’s written primarily about love for the past 12 years, recent bouts of pandemic-induced isolation have made Salvant’s need for love more apparent. “I think basically, with great periods of loneliness and fear and chaos, it becomes almost instinctive to want to talk about love, to spread love and to lament it,” she says.
It’s hard not to imagine more Grammys coming Salvant’s way for Ghost Song — but she’s already had the ultimate validation for the album. Her parents “love the album,” she says. “It means the world to me.”
Salvant was born in Miami in 1989 to a French mother, a teacher, and a Haitian father, a doctor. Her face lights up when she talks about their support. “My parents are very curious people. They appreciate kindness, humility, intelligence and generosity. The fact that I wanted to pursue music was no less important than if I had wanted to be a doctor.
Pursuit is the word for it. She started piano lessons at the age of five, sang in a children’s choir at eight and took classical singing lessons – although it’s worth noting that at first she hated be forced to practice. “I hated the piano. I wanted to stop all the time. I didn’t want to do it. I liked to sing, but I was really passive,” she says frankly. “I kick myself every day thinking about how little I benefited from these private lessons. It’s a privilege! She cultivated her own musical training, honing the power of her voice with renditions of Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On in her elementary school bathroom. “The bathroom was ringing and echoing,” she says. “I would just sing really loud. I didn’t even have to go to the bathroom.
It wasn’t until Salvant briefly diverged from music that she began to take jazz seriously. She moved to France to study law in Grenoble while studying baroque music and jazz in Aix-en-Provence, where she met Professor Jean-François Bonnel. “He just pushed me every day.” She counts among the formative figures the American jazz singer Betty Carter, Aretha Franklin, Caetano Veloso and Bach, but she never neglects the influence of the pop icons of her youth: the Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync and the Spice Girls; even the Disney soundtracks. “I thought more about [all] the cultural things that get into your bloodstream,” she says. “How can that not influence the way I sing, the way I write?”
Salvant recorded Ghost Song at the start of the pandemic. Now new hardware is the only thing that comes to mind. “So much has happened since we started, and since we finished, that it almost feels alien,” she says. It is this avant-garde mentality, you can imagine, that the MacArthur Foundation has recognized in Salvant. “A MacArthur is a look into the future,” she says. “That’s the part that makes it so exciting because it’s like, ‘Here. What next? What are you going to do now?'”