Radio Active

Getting to Know Cécile McLorin Salvant

Our music contributor introduces you to jazz vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant.

As quiet as it may be kept to the mainstream for now, Cécile McLorin Salvant is a powerhouse vocalist whose Grammy-nominated debut album, WomanChild, has captured the jazz community in the palm of her hands—and that is only the beginning of her world domination. The 24-year-old French and Haitian phenom speaks with about early influences, imitation versus inspiration and coming into her own.

On her sound…

“Because I’m in it and I’m making the sound it’s a little difficult to, in a succinct and really effective way, describe it in words. I think the best thing for people to do is to hear it. I would say that I am definitely trying to sing jazz in a way that is very authentic, genuine and very much rooted in the history of the music, but also with my own personal voice and twist on it. It’s really hard to describe that in words rather than just in sound.”

On her influences…

“I’m very much influenced by Sarah Vaughan. The first time I heard her it was just an immediate shock and I absolutely loved her voice; it’s very comforting to me. I would say somebody else that really inspires me as an entertainer would be a singer named Valaida Snow—she’s a singer, trumpet player, composer and band leader who was really popular in the 30s. She was one of those really powerful women who were doing things that a lot of men were doing but not women at that time. I am really inspired by her.”

On some of her earliest musical memories…

“My mom is a huge Sarah Vaughan fan and she probably listened to her when she was pregnant with me, so I think I’ve been in contact with her music for a long time. I definitely remember early childhood memories of hearing her songs over and over again—songs like ‘Misty’ and ‘Lullaby of Birdland.’ It just felt good to hear her and it was a really welcoming feeling of being home when I heard her voice. Then when I got older, maybe in my teens, I started to really listen to her. I was very much into classical singing and classical voice and, in fact, I would say I was really into the human voice as an instrument. Sarah Vaughan was so virtuosic and she could go through so many different sounds with her voice and so many different styles. It was just incredible for me as a young singer to hear someone with so many possibilities vocally that were open to her. I remember being really fascinated with that, really curious in how she did that and trying to imitate her.”

“Misty”- Sarah Vaughan

On the inspiration vs. imitation debate…

“I’m definitely not saying anything new when I say that things are not made out of nothing. As musicians, writers, painters or whoever, you come from a tradition and you come from an experience that really molds and informs what you do. The interesting thing is what you do with that experience and those influences. I think learning a craft through imitation is not always for every artist but there is, for me and from what I’ve seen from other musicians who I’ve worked with and spoken to, that phase of absorbing information, influences, different artwork and different musicians and then using that. For me, the musicians and artists who have inspired me the most are the ones who had a huge wealth of influences—people like Thelonious Monk or Basquiat—who just knew how to take all of their influences and really bump them up to this very personal work.”

On what’s next…

“I’ve been writing more and more and trying to hone that craft and preparing my next recording, which is going to be some time this year. With time I don’t want to say that I changed, but maybe I feel like I know myself better and I’m less afraid of myself and of being myself. I’m more comfortable in my skin and my musical ideas are more clear. I’m really excited on what I’ve been working on and the band that I’ve been working with. I think it’s going to be a fun recording.”

Stream Cécile McLorin Salvant – “Body and Soul (Live)”

About Marissa Wallace

Marissa Wallace

Marissa Wallace is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist who delves into the multifaceted and rich fabric of Black arts and culture. Follow her happenings on Twitter @MarsWall_ for more.