The Many Voices of Cécile McLorin Salvant

Music Features Cecile McLorin Salvant
The Many Voices of Cécile McLorin Salvant

The best singers can fashion a different voice for each song—adjusting attack, attitude and texture to inhabit a tune from start to finish. Cécile McLorin Salvant goes beyond that; she often creates a different voice for each section of a song. It’s a radical approach that makes her the most interesting singer around today—no matter what the genre, no matter what the language.

Earlier this month at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Salvant demonstrated this methodology on “Ghost Song,” the title track from last year’s album. She sang the opening verses a cappella, belting out her complaint that her lover has left her as if the song were a field holler, a protest against an unfair life in the cotton fields.

When her terrific quartet joined her for the chorus, however, she shifted gears to sing, “I’ll dance with the ghost of our love,” in a dreamy croon, as if this were a French cabaret number, and she was luxuriating in fond memories of an affair. When she repeated that same line again and again on the coda, however, her voice shifted again, becoming the crazed, edgy voice of a woman haunted by the song’s ghosts.

It was a remarkable tour de force, not only for her invention of the three voices but even more so for her making them seem like facets of the same song. It worked because the trio of moods were all recognizable aspects of a romantic bust-up: raw anger, lingering affection and unhinged bewilderment. Pablo Picasso was once known as a cubist for incorporating different perspectives into the same painting. Salvant is a cubist singer.

“I really love to orchestrate my voice,” she says over the phone from her Brooklyn home, “to take it through different textures, like an arrangement of a single instrument. I try to honor the story. I go through different energies when I’m talking and that comes out in my singing. It all happens very much in the moment. Yes, there are things I’ve done before, so some of it’s going to be the same. but I like to do something different in every song every night. It could be my voice, my phrasing, but nothing is fixed. That’s what’s exciting about working with these musicians.”

Ghost Song was nominated for a Grammy as Best Jazz Vocal Album, a category she’d won three times already. As far as categories go, jazz is probably the best fit for Salvant. She got her start by winning the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition for Vocalists in 2010, and even today her band is composed of jazz musicians. But her repertoire ranges far and wide.

Last year’s album included Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights,” Sting’s “Until” and the musical setting of a letter from photography Alfred Stieglitz to painter Georgia O’Keeffe. Her set at Big Ears included Tim Hardin’s ’60s folk classic “Reason To Believe,” the Appalachian murder ballad “Omie Wise” and Judy Garland’s “The Trolley Song.”

This year’s album, Mélusine, is mostly sung in French. The selections range from a 12th century troubadour song to mid-century hits by such French chansonniers as Leo Ferre and Charles Trenet as well as a tune from the 1978 French rock opera Starmania. But whatever the origins of her repertoire, Salvant applies the same cubist technique.

On the Bush song, for example, she begins without instruments, her echo-laden high soprano warbling through rapid changes of pitch as if she’s a maddened ghost on Emily Bronte’s moors. When the band comes in, however, she becomes warm-blooded and seductive. On the Sting composition, Salvant begins slowly and quietly, as if in despair that anything could repair her broken love. Once the rhythm section perks up the energy, though, she sings confidently as if reconciliation is imminent. In the end, however, she lapses back into melancholy pessimism. If contradictory feelings can exist in the same person, she implies, why not in the same song?

“There’s a lot of irony in what I do,” Salvant acknowledges. “At the same time, I’m very severe and at the same time, I’m winking. I’m crying and laughing. I can’t let go of the feeling that the whole thing is absurd but it’s also tragic. When I sing Burt Bacharach’s ‘Wives and Lovers,’ I’m saying, ‘Look at this old attitude that doesn’t apply to us—but maybe it does. There’s something very real to that. I’m making fun of that, saying ‘Can you believe that we once did this?’ But I’m also saying, ‘Can you believe that it’s still happening?’”

Her use of irony was most obvious in the two musical theater songs by lyricist Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill that she sang at Big Ears. “The World Is Mean,” included on the Ghost Song album, begins with the chipper chirping of a woman who wants a little gladness in her life. It then shifts into the slow, sober lament, “Sad to say it never has happened yet that things should go the way they ought to go.” Back and forth these two voices alternate, tugged in one direction by Weill’s infectious melodies and in the other by Brecht’s biting commentary.

When Salvant sang Brecht/Weill’s “Barbara Song” at Big Ears, she cheerfully recounted her narrator’s dating history. She would go out with a guy who dressed well and had money, but she would always “tell him, ‘No!’” She sang these early verses with a saucy impertinence, as if she were glad to flout conventional wisdom. In the last two verses, however, she sang of meeting a man with no money, no manners and no nice clothes. Suddenly, her voice shifts to baffled panic as she is overcome by animal attraction and unable to say “No.”

“When I first heard Bea Arthur sing ‘Barbara Song’ in The Three Penny Opera, way before she was in The Golden Girls, I thought it was about rape. But when I learned the story of the show, it changed my whole mind about the song. It was more complex than that. Now I sing it like she’s being punished for being this snobby girl. But it’s also a big ‘fuck you’ to the belief you have to be with this rich, clean guy, a ‘fuck you’ to bourgeois propriety.

“I love that Brecht-Weill stuff; I feel a definite kinship with them. But even when I’m singing Rodgers and Hammerstein, I’m doing the same thing. Everything I do reflects my sense of humor, my sense of irony. Nothing is accidental, nothing is random. Everything I do, or most of it, has a left turn.”

That left turn is just as important to her new album, Mélusine. Because her family has roots in Haiti, Guadeloupe and France, she had a bunch of songs in French and related dialects that she wanted to record. But how could she tie them together?

Then she found a 14th century French folktale about Raymondin, who stumbles upon Mélusine, a beautiful woman bathing in a forest pond. Raymondin is totally enraptured, and Mélusine agrees to marry him and make him rich, but only if he promises never to see her on Saturdays. If human beings were entirely rational, they would gladly accept being rich and happy six days a week, but of course they’re not. Overcome by suspicions, Raymondin carves a hole in Mélusine’s door and discovers that she has turned into a snake below the waist. Mélusine reacts to this betrayal by turning into a dragon and flying out the window.

“The first thing I connected with in that story,” Salvant says, “was that alone time, that Room of One’s Own, as Virginia Woolf put it, and how difficult it is to find that and protect it. A lot of women don’t have that room, that Saturday. If they do, they’ve had to carve it out, to negotiate with a male partner. Having a little moment for yourself outside of marriage, outside of motherhood or fatherhood, is necessary.

“There’s something about solitude, a place where you can really find yourself and be true to yourself. Being in the body, being okay in that body without being judged, without being praised or reviled. But there’s more to it than that. If you’re part of a couple, you don’t want your partner to have a world outside the relationship. I totally resonate with this man who’s dying to know what’s going. Tell me not to look at something, and that’s the first place I’m going to go. As I worked on the piece, I identified with Raymondin more and more.”

Mélusine is not a traditional opera or musical theater piece where each song advances the main narrative. Instead each song reflects the emotional temperature of each stage in the story: the wandering lost in the woods (“En Route Enchantée”), the initial infatuation (“Il M’a Vue Nue”), romantic insecurity (“Dites Moi Que Je Suis Belle”) and the strangeness of children (Petite Musique Terrienne”). Only on the title track, written by Salvant herself, does she spell out the core story.

“This record is about a lot of things,” she says. “The first thing I think about is secrets, and how powerful they can be. A lot of people say singers are like storytellers, but I think of myself as a secret-teller. I like the deep trust required to tell a secret, because there’s something illicit about them, like you shouldn’t be telling them. In this story, this woman’s secret, it’s hard to tell if it’s a thing of shame or a treasure. The secret is the nugget at the center of something. The snake is the truth, and that brings chaos.”

Though she sings mostly in French on this album, she also sings in English, jazz scat syllables, the endangered Mediterranean language of Occitan, and Creole, the Haitian adaptation of French. This mix of languages not only adds to the otherworldliness of the story but also reflects Salvant’s personal history.

“I don’t actually speak Occitan or Creole,” she confesses, “but it’s a way of connecting to a heritage that is my family’s, even if it’s also strange and exotic. My grandmother is from the southwest of France, an hour north of Toulouse. They speak Occitan in that village, but it’s a dying language, though there’s a will to keep it going. Some streets have signs in both French and Occitan. Creole is my dad’s language; it’s the language his mother spoke in Haiti.”

Salvant was born and raised in Miami. Her house was filled with music from Haiti, Cuba and France, as well as such American musics as jazz, hip hop, soul and rock. She started out as a classical singer, but when she moved to France at age 18 to study law and music, she discovered jazz. She quickly recognized that this genre was flexible enough to accommodate all her other musical interests and her evolving cubist approach to singing.

“In classical training,” she recalls, “they try to lighten your low notes and darken your high notes, so it sounds like one voice from bottom to top. I’ve been told I have dark low notes, airy high notes, and not a lot of sound in the mid-range. For years I was trying to balance it out, but as time went by, I became more interested in exaggerating the differences. Can I sound like a child up there? Can I sound like a man down there?”

When she moved to New York after winning the Monk Competition, she felt as if she belonged both nowhere and everywhere. “When I visit Haiti,” she says, “I feel like I’m Haitian but also that I’m a tourist and don’t belong. That’s the experience of many first- or second-generation immigrants: that feeling of in-betweenness, like you don’t belong in the old country or the new. In America, you’re considered something else, and in the other country, you’re considered American. And that’s not a bad thing. There’s a richness in that; it’s a blessing. A lot of great art and culture come out of that in-betweenness.”

When Salvant performed at Big Ears, her freely rendered illustration of Mélusine turning into a dragon was projected onto the backdrop. Her eye-catching visual flair was just as obvious in her stage outfit: a sparkly, cinnamon pillbox hat tilted on her close-cropped hair; a puffy pink dress that bulged in every direction; black-and-white-striped pantaloons, and green-satin platform shoes with matching green-frame glasses.

“I am trying desperately to approach my music with the same playfulness I have when I draw,” she says. “I love putting colors and shapes together when I dress, and that’s a part of it too. I’m self-taught, so it’s completely intuitive. There’s something wild about my visual art, like a child’s, and I want that in my music. I still feel I’m very tame compared to what’s in my head.”

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