From a childhood in West Africa, to studying at a New York City conservatory, to busking on New Orleans streets, Leyla McCalla has been on an unique musical journey. The singer, cellist, and multi-instrumentalist pours her musical experiences into her debut solo album, Vari-Colored Songs.
Lotus concertgoers will get a sneak preview of the soon-to-be-released album, which contain songs McCalla wrote to poems by Langston Hughes, as well as Haitian folk songs and some originals.
McCalla spoke about the album from her home in New Orleans with WFIU’s Adam Schwartz.
Adam Schwartz: You used to play with the old-time string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops and now you’re starting a solo career. Talk about your musical journey.
Leyla McCalla: I was born in New York, in Queens, and I lived there till I was five years old. I grew up in Maplewood, New Jersey, and that’s where I started playing cello, when I was about eight years old, through the public school system. I wasn’t the best. I mean, I really sucked for a while.
But around seventh or eighth grade I had an opportunity to study with a couple of people who really changed my perspective on cello playing and on being a musician. And I got really serious about learning classical music and learning classical cello.
I got to study with a with professor at Julliard named André Emelianoff who really brought my playing to another level. It put me on track for conservatory playing.
When I was in high school my family moved to West Africa, Ghana, and I didn’t play cello for a couple of years. By time I returned I wasn’t ready for those conservatory auditions.
When I moved to New York, I started learning how to play by ear, and learned about improvisation. I was studying with Rufus Cappadocia who does a lot of wild, extended technique on cello, who opened my mind to the possibilities of the the instrument.
I taught myself to play guitar when I was 13 by reading guitar tablature. I always had a very musical ear. By going into that classical world I realized it wasn’t for me. I think the music I make is reflective of that. I’m using a lot of the training I received from that world, but trying to make it so it expresses something that I want to say. I didn’t feel that way about classical music.
Inspired by Hughes
AS: Your upcoming debut album features songs based on the poetry of Langston Hughes. What draws you to Hughes’ poetry?
LM: One thing that’s always drawn me to his poetry is his ability to communicate very simply with relatively simple words. But the meaning has so much depth. Also, I’ve read a couple of his biographies . . . . The Big Sea [is about] how it takes a certain kind of craziness to want to be an artist to and to make your life creating things constantly.
One of his books was called I Wonder as I Wander, and I was just so inspired by his life. He made me want to be an artist. That’s something I’ll carry with me forever.
And also his significance during the Harlem Renaissance and beyond that. He wasn’t just a poet. He wrote for magazines, he wrote libretto . . . . He didn’t set up boundaries for what he could or could not do as an artist. That’s something I admire as well. I think his life is just inspiring.
Five Years Gestating
AS: Talk about some of the songs you’ll be playing at Lotus.
LM: “Search” is one of my favorites. I feel that poem rings so true. It’s such a beautiful poem.
“Heart of Gold” was the first song I had ever worked on. It was a beautiful experience: “Hey, this could work! I could write songs to these poems.”
“Latibonit” is one of the first Haitian songs I ever learned. So it’s an album of a lot of firsts. It’s very personal.
This album [had] about a five-year gestation period of just deciding what the record was going to be. Each song I really thought a lot about. Every song is there for a reason.
AS: Who are some of your musical influences?
LM: There’s a recording I really love that I was inspired by from the 1950s by Lolita Cuevas. It’s just so beautiful, their arrangements of traditional songs.
I’ve been listening to this Canray Fontenot album called Louisiana Hot Sauce Creole Style, which is some of his most amazing recordings.
AS: You used to perform as a street musician. Do you still?
LM: Not as consistently as I used to, but every once in a while I still go out. It’s a great way to connect to people. It’s a great way to connect to my cello after moving [to] New Orleans. And it was a great way to make a living for a while. I think I felt most in control of my life at that point. Because all I had to do was wake up and get on my bicycle and ride into the French Quarter with a chair and sit and play cello.
AS: Riding your bicycle with your cello strapped to your back?
LM: Yeah. Ultimate freedom.
Learn more about Leyla McCalla on Artworks: Lotus at 20.