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VMP connected with acclaimed composer, singer, visual artist and MacArthur Genius Grant winner Cécile McLorin Salvant to answer your questions about her career, her body of work and her most recent album, Ghost Song.
Last month in our newsletter and our social media channels, we invited the VMP community to send Cécile McLorin Salvant any question you have, and she took the time to respond to a selection of the questions below. All question submissions were entered to win VMP’s exclusive pressing of Ghost Song. Congratulations to our winners: Esther P., Robert E., Will S., Alex M. and Anthony C.
Thank you to everyone who submitted such thoughtful questions, and to Cécile for her responses and for connecting with our community!
How has your vision of what your art is changed over time? How did you envision your art at 13 vs. how you see it now?
Cécile McLorin Salvant: When I was 13 I wasn’t really making art, I was mostly interested in what was happening at school and with friends. I doodled in class, I sang in my after-school lessons, I played piano for my teacher, but I was mostly just doing as I was told. I think now I have a lot more intention around what I do, I am more active and involved. I see how energizing it is for me, and the potential it has to ignite others.
What’s your suggested way to listen to Ghost Song? Tea and vinyl, long walk with headphones, etc.
Any way you’d like, and not necessarily all the way through in one sitting!
Many artists, after winning prestigious cash awards, fail to produce albums which match their talents. You, on the other hand, delivered one of the best albums of 2022. What was your strategy to remain centered and true to your creative self?
This is very kind of you to say! I don’t know that I am centered! I feel very scattered. But, I try to stay focused on the task at hand. I never thought of albums as a means to an end. I try to dig into the process of making it. And I look to the great artists I admire, across mediums, who are compelled to make art through the ups and downs of their lives.
What led you to reinterpret “Wuthering Heights”? If not that one, what is your favorite Kate Bush song?
The truth is, my intuition led me to it. I had finished reading the book by Emily Brontë, which I had fallen in love with. I wanted to stay in that book. I started watching film adaptations of the book. I remembered the Kate Bush song, which my sister had introduced me to when I was 16 years old. I still remember the moment I heard the song for the first time, how I was feeling that summer, how many possibilities hung in the air. This song [is] about a ghost haunting her lover at the window, at the time I didn’t know she was a ghost, she just seemed like someone full of yearning, which I felt so much at that age.
Who are some newer artists that inspire you?
Robyn O’Neil and Georgia Anne Muldrow.
What leads you to choose visual art over music to express yourself (and vice versa)?
Visual art is introspective, internal, dream-like, playful, completely intuitive. It’s like digging up a world within me that I don’t understand. Music is extremely social. It’s communication, dialogue, reaction.
A favorite [song] of mine is the almost trance-like interlude of track six, "I Lost My Mind." Is there anything you can share about the track, possible inspiration or what you were experiencing that contributed to the song and Ghost Song as a whole?
I don’t know that I can point to a specific inspiration for the song. “I Lost My Mind” is a song that I have probably been carrying with me, unknowingly, for years.
There aren’t specific inspirations to point to; if I did, it would probably be wrong, or incomplete. It’s everything in life that I encounter, that moves me. It’s memories, and family and my sense of humor that are in the album, but also much more. There’s something from every musician that plays on it. It’s layers and layers of different influences and ideas from all of us.
How did growing up in Miami influence your approach to art and music?
I grew up around mostly people whose parents were first generation immigrants. We navigated through different languages and cultures, we translated, we code-switched. There were lots of different textures around me all the time. But there was also suburban life, the car, the television, no real feeling of a city. Everything was sprawling, and I couldn’t wait to live somewhere else.
Do you have any musical influence within your family that was an inspiration for your taste in music?
My family’s taste in music greatly influenced me. My mom’s really eclectic mix of music from all over the world, my sister’s pop, ’90s R&B, grunge and reggae collection, my father’s Haitian and Cuban music in the car. My grandparents and aunt’s travels through Africa and South America were also influential.
Does the language in which you perform certain songs change your song or do you think the lyrics and music transcend spoken language?
I don’t think lyrics and music transcend spoken language at all. I think music is intrinsically linked to spoken language. To me this is why folk music sounds different in different places, the music comes from the context in which it is made, and natural sounds, spoken language, even accents, are a huge part of that context.
Ghost Song seems to be your fist album where your wonderful original songs heavily outweigh fantastic interpretations, so is that a new direction you've chosen, or just by happenstance? Also, and more importantly, what is behind the motivation of choosing individual songs that you pay tribute to on each of your albums? Is the theme or vibe for each album chosen first or do you just follow your heart and then package them accordingly?
I try not to make a difference between originals and covers. To me they are songs, and it’s important to approach them the same way.
The album ultimately decides what its vibe will be, whether I make an initial plan or not.
This is why I think it’s best to not get in the way and follow my instincts.
If you could make a mixtape for someone you had a crush on, what songs would you put on it to impress them?
Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You (Big Thief album)