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Jazz Singer Cécile McLorin Salvant Doesn't Want To Sound 'Clean And Pretty'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Our guest today, jazz singer Cecile McLorin Salvant, is one of this year's recipients of a MacArthur Fellowship. She was cited for, quote, "using manifold powers of interpretation to infuse jazz standards and original compositions with a vibrant, global, Black, feminist sensibility," unquote. Her repertoire ranges from jazz standards to forgotten old songs and includes show tunes and originals.

Salvant was described in The New York Times as the finest jazz singer to emerge in the last decade. In 2013, critic Stephen Holden wrote in The Times, if anyone can extend the lineage of the big three - Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald - it's this 23-year-old virtuoso. Cecile McLorin Salvant was exposed to a lot of different music growing up in Miami. Her father was from Haiti, and her French mother was born in Tunisia and lived in several African and Latin American countries. McLorin Salvant has released several albums, including "The Window," "Dreams And Daggers" and "Woman Child."

When she spoke to Terry Gross in 2015, she had just released the album "For One To Love." They started with a track from it. It's an unusual song choice - "Stepsister's Lament" from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Cinderella."


CECILE MCLORIN SALVANT: (Singing) Why should I fella want a girl like her, a frail and fluffy beauty? Why can't a fella ever once prefer a solid girl like me? She's a frothy little bubble with a flimsy kind of air. And with very little trouble, I could pull out all her hair. Oh. Oh, why would a fella want a girl like her, a girl who's so unusual? Why can't a fella ever once prefer a usual girl like me? Her cheeks are a pretty shade of pink, but not any pinker than roses. Her skin may be delicate and soft, but not any softer than a doe's is. Her neck is no longer than a swan's. She's only as dainty as a daisy. She's only as graceful as a bird. So why is the fella going crazy? Oh, why would a fella want a girl like her...


TERRY GROSS: Cecile McLorin Salvant, welcome to FRESH AIR. I really like that you choose songs in the jazz standard repertoire and songs way outside (laughter) of the repertoire, like "Stepsister's Lament." When I heard you sing that live, you said that the first version of that you heard was actually sung by Brandy. Tell us how old you were then and what that song meant to you.

MCLORIN SALVANT: It was actually not sung by Brandy; it was sung by these two actresses who were in the movie with Brandy who played her stepsisters.

GROSS: Oh, I see.

MCLORIN SALVANT: Yeah. So Brandy was Cinderella, and then she had these two awful stepsisters who sang the song.

GROSS: I should've figured that.


MCLORIN SALVANT: I'll say I was around 10. And I related with it because, you know, it's the point of view of the girl who is often invisible and looked over. And I definitely felt that way and feel that way still a lot in my life. I just didn't feel like I could relate to the beautiful princess or the girl who gets the guy or - you know, I could relate with that yearning and that jealousy and frustration more.

GROSS: Now, I want to compare "Stepsister's Lament" from "Cinderella," your version of that, with an original song that you wrote that's on your new album. And this is a song called "Look At Me." And the feeling of the song is kind of similar. The lyric includes the line, look at me - why don't you look at me the way you look at all the other girls you see? Can you talk a little bit about writing the song before we hear it?

MCLORIN SALVANT: I wrote that - I have a good friend that started sending me poems via email. And I would respond, and we just started writing like that. It had been such a long time since I'd just written poems with, you know, no music. And I was experiencing that friend zone, which is - you know, that's I guess the name for being in love with a friend who doesn't love you back. And I was experiencing that, and I felt the need, the urge to write it out, write it down. And a couple of months later, I started looking at the lyrics and thinking, oh, maybe this could be a song.

GROSS: Well, this is a beautiful ballad. The style of the song is the opposite of "Stepsister's Lament." So let's hear Cecile McLorin Salvant's song "Look At Me" from her new album "For One To Love."


MCLORIN SALVANT: (Singing) Look at me. Why don't you look at me the way you look at all the other girls you see? I'm your friend. I guess I'll always be. But I'm in love with you endlessly. All the time - all of the time I've lost trying to make you come to me at any cost. All I am...

GROSS: That's Cecile McLorin Salvant from her new album "For One To Love." It's a song she wrote called "Look At Me."

So now that you're onstage and becoming famous within the jazz world, more people are looking at you - I mean, literally. Do you like being the focus of attention when you're onstage?

MCLORIN SALVANT: Oh, it's weird. I'll say, in a way, I love it. I mean, I do love being onstage. And I've always loved playing a character and being watched doing that. I remember in school, in elementary school, I used to recite poems. We'd have to recite poems. And I would always just, like, roll on the - like, just make it such a huge, melodramatic...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCLORIN SALVANT: ...Portrayal of whatever it was, you know. But in another sense, I don't like being the focus of attention. It makes me very uncomfortable. And it's part of the reason I never look at videos of myself or I very rarely listen to my music or even read things that I might have said. It's just - there's something repulsive about it to me. Maybe that's a strong word. But, yeah, it's just...

GROSS: That's a very strong word.

MCLORIN SALVANT: (Laughter) Yeah, I don't know. I just don't like to be in my own - I'm already myself, so I don't like to be in my own - like, watch myself.

GROSS: Well, we need to talk about your incredible voice. When I listen to you, I hear elements of Sarah Vaughan, Abbey Lincoln, Betty Carter, Billie Holiday. When you started listening to those singers, did you, when you were young, try to copy them to really learn how they did what they did, the way some writers copy paragraphs of favorite writers to better understand the structure and flow of the words in their favorite writers' sentences?

MCLORIN SALVANT: I would say, for certain singers, I definitely went through that. I definitely went through that with Sarah Vaughan. As - I think I started really falling in love with her voice when I was about 14. My mother loves Sarah Vaughan. And she always played her music, from as - you know, as long as I can remember. But, yeah, when I was about 14, I started really checking her out for myself, by myself and thinking, gosh, that voice is incredible. I was really mostly interested in classical singing. But she had something in there that drew me in. She was an absolute virtuoso. And she could have so many colors and textures with her voice.

So it became - when I moved to France and starting singing jazz and studying it, really, she was maybe the first person that I would copy. And I - it became less about sounding unique. I didn't even care about that. I just wanted to sound as much like her as I possibly could. And so I'd spend a lot of time listening to her and seeing how I could make my voice sound like that. And then, eventually, it moved on to other singers. Billie Holiday was a big one, where I would pay attention to the way she would pronounce words, the way she - even just her accent. All of that became really interesting to me - and vibrato and all of that.

And eventually, I - the more I listened and became obsessed with singers, I feel like, the more I realized that I had my own little thing that I could do. And so this is why I just became obsessed with looking for new singers, unknown singers, people that maybe have been forgotten, and really checking them out and analyzing what they do - and obsessive listening. I think that's the core of my work on music, has been just listening to things, listening to singers.

GROSS: So after listening so obsessively to so many singers, did you ever go through an identity crisis as a singer yourself and wonder, but who am I? I can sound like these people. I love those people. But what is uniquely me?

MCLORIN SALVANT: Oh, still today (laughter), every day. It's a total identity crisis for me of like, is this even - is there even a point in doing this? Is this even relevant? You know, what am I doing? Who do I sound like? I remember as a child - I still today do not have my own handwriting. I just would copy everyone else's handwriting. And now I have sort of a version of my sister's handwriting. And I feel like sometimes I feel that way for my voice. Like, sometimes I'm doing a patchwork, like a bad quilt (laughter) of all the people that I love. But then I'll - I'm very - I doubt myself a lot. And I'm very, very just overly critical. So I know that it's probably not that.

BIANCULLI: Singer Cecile McLorin Salvant speaking with Terry Gross in 2015. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2015 interview with singer Cecile McLorin Salvant. She is a 2020 MacArthur Fellow.


GROSS: You have such an amazing instrument. I mean, you have such an amazing voice. And you use it with such emotional and tonal and notey (ph) range.


GROSS: So I also think that, like, writing your own songs is probably helping you find, like, your own musical identity.

MCLORIN SALVANT: Sure, writing my own songs and also the time and care I take in choosing the repertoire. It takes me a lot of time. And it's almost frustrating for the guys sometimes because they're waiting for a new song. And I - it's just so important for me to get the perfect, exact, right song (laughter).

GROSS: One of the things I really like about your repertoire is that you go back to early jazz, and you find music from the early 19th century - early 20th century, I mean - and from the 1920s and '30s. And how did you decide to go back that far? - because a lot of singers don't.

MCLORIN SALVANT: I think I'm fascinated with history and just - in general. And I'm always interested in how did this come to be? Why is this the way it is? And even singing classical voice, I quickly became more and more interested with early music, baroque voice. And that became an obsession to me, just figuring out how - who were the ancestors of whatever it is. For jazz, I started checking out people's influences. People that I liked, who influenced them? And then, who influenced those people?

And I was very lucky in that my teacher in France, he's a saxophone player. His name is Jean-Francois Bonnel. He knew a lot of this earlier music. And he shared it with me. And every week, he would bring a huge stack of CDs and tell me to listen to it. And I discovered Bessie Smith with him. I had no idea who she was. And I discovered Big Bill Broonzy and Valaida Snow and Blanche Calloway. And - and he definitely stressed the importance of going back and checking out 1920s jazz, 19-teens jazz. And eventually, I became so obsessed with that that I started thinking about vaudeville and minstrel shows and coon songs and all of that. And that's really fascinating. That part of the history of American pop music and entertainment is really so interesting - so, so interesting.

GROSS: I'm glad you said that because the song - next song I want to play is a Bert Williams song. And he's part of, like, the minstrel era. And he is an African American man who sang in blackface. And I think because of that, until recently he was pretty much ignored. I think his work was considered an embarrassment. But you do what is probably his most famous song, which is called "Nobody." You did that on your previous album, "WomanChild." So I'd like you to tell us why you chose that song and how you thought it would work for you - like, what you did with it that you thought would suit, like, your voice and your personality.

MCLORIN SALVANT: I didn't know about Bert Williams until I read this book. I didn't even know, really, what blackface and minstrel shows were, let alone that Black people actually were blackface performers as well and how much that even influenced all of American entertainment afterwards. So just reading that, just reading that a person can be Black and still perform in blackface, making fun of Black people for a living and at the same time be a genius and be an incredible entertainer, and at the same time be extremely conflicted and feel like - just feel terrible for doing that, essentially, which is what Bert Williams felt, from what I gather from what I read - all of that just made - was so incredible to me.

Just reading that was - I just thought that was so fascinating. And it - I felt like I could see it in other places, like today, in music today, in film today. I felt like it was just - it just made so much sense. And so I just looked up the song "Nobody," which is the hit song that he wrote. And it was so amazing. He's talking over music. And then he starts singing the chorus. And it was very funny, of course, because he's - you know, it's like just the pathetic guy who gets no respect. But it was also heartbreaking.

And that's something about - in a song that I love, is when you can find those two elements - just you want to - you don't know whether you want to laugh or cry. And it took me some time to have the courage to actually sing it. I'd thought, well, this is a vaudeville song. I don't know how we're going to approach it. I don't even know, you know, if it'll work.

But eventually, I was just listening to it so much, and I was so touched and moved by the story and by the song itself that figured I should just try. And so I gave it to the band. I don't - I think I was in France still when I first started performing it. And I - it just became clear that it worked.

GROSS: So let's hear "Nobody." And my guest is Cecile McLorin Salvant. She has a new album called "For One To Love." But this version of the Bert Williams song "Nobody" is from her previous album, which is called "WomanChild."


MCLORIN SALVANT: (Singing) When winter comes with snow and sleet, and me with hunger and cold feet, who says, here's 25 cents; go on, get something to eat? Nobody. I ain't never done nothing to nobody. I ain't never got nothing from nobody, no time. And until I get something from somebody, I ain't never got nothing from nobody, no time. And until I get something from somebody, I will never do nothing for nobody, no time.

BIANCULLI: Singer Cecile McLorin Salvant recorded in 2015. We'll hear more of her interview with Terry after a break. I'm David Bianculli. And this is FRESH AIR.


MCLORIN SALVANT: (Singing) I'm only one step ahead of heartbreak, one step ahead of misery. One step is all I have to take backwards to be the same old fool for you I used to be. I'm only one step ahead of your arms, one kiss away from your sweet lips. I know I can't afford to stop...


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. We're back with Terry's interview with jazz singer Cecile McLorin Salvant recorded in 2015. She is a 2020 MacArthur Fellow. Her repertoire ranges from jazz standards to forgotten old songs and from show tunes to originals. When we left off, we heard her version of the song "Nobody," which was the song most associated with Bert Williams, one of the most popular African American performers of the early 1900s. He performed in blackface.


GROSS: I'm glad that you decided to go back to the early 20th century and do that song and to not be put off by the politics of blackface and to just find what is musically interesting in that and what is musically interesting and humanly interesting about Bert Williams, in spite of how he had to compromise himself with - by wearing blackface.

MCLORIN SALVANT: Yeah. I think it's just really - just the idea of blackface itself is just so - it's not just a terrible thing, I think. There is also the idea of, like, these people are reclaiming in some sense something that has been taken from them. There's - I don't know if I'm allowed to say this word on the air, but there's a song called "Run, Nigger, Run" that I first heard a couple years ago, and it was by a band called The Skillet Lickers. And it's a white fiddle band, and I was just flabbergasted by how racist it was and how scary it was. But I still found myself, like, kind of enjoying it.

And I looked up the history of that song, and that happens to be a song that slaves used to sing amongst themselves, like, literally telling each other that they should run. And it had been transformed. And I think when Black performers performed in blackface, they were kind of taking back these slave songs. But it was still a little bit iffy because they were performing a lot of times for white audiences who found it hilarious.

GROSS: American music is so complicated in terms of its ancestry (laughter).

MCLORIN SALVANT: Yeah, it really is.

GROSS: Yeah, it just goes back and forth, which is great. I mean, you know, it's that kind of, like, crossbreeding of musical styles that makes it so rich. You've also gone back and looked for songs by women composers.


GROSS: Like, you do a song by Blanche Calloway, Cab Calloway's sister, on your new album. You do some Clarence Williams songs from, I guess, the 1930s. And in addition to finding a lot of old songs, I think you're trying to turn recent songs, some recent songs or at least one recent song, on its head (laughter) and kind of reinterpret it. And I'm thinking of "Wives And Lovers," which is just one of the all-time, like, sexist songs. It was a 1963 hit by Jack Jones, music by Burt Bacharach and lyric by Hal David. And they are such a fabulous songwriting team.


GROSS: And I don't know this particular song happened.


GROSS: But why in the world would you sing a song that - why don't you recite the lyric?

MCLORIN SALVANT: (Singing) Hey, little girl, comb your hair, fix your makeup. Soon he will open the door. Don't think because there's a ring on your finger you needn't try anymore (laughter). For wives should always be lovers, too. Run to his arms the moment he comes home to you. I'm warning you.


GROSS: Why? Why?


MCLORIN SALVANT: I just - sometimes I get - I just find things so funny because they're so absurd to me. And I find the humor in it, and I think it's going to be funny, and I don't even think of it, like, as a politically charged thing. But that particular song I found, actually, because I was looking up sexist songs. I have a really good friend who - I'm a feminist. She knows I'm a feminist. She's like, why aren't you, you know, singing more feminist songs? And I thought, gee, that's true.

So I started trying to do some research, trying to find some songs in the American popular song history, even folk songs or whatever it may be, that had feminist themes to them. And it was very hard (laughter). It was very difficult to find. And so I decided, let me just check to see - let me just check out if there are any sexist songs. And, of course, that was a lot easier.

GROSS: Yeah, I'll say.


MCLORIN SALVANT: And that song happens to - it just - it happens to be so catchy. And it's - I love that song, and I think it's hilarious. And it actually - I remember playing it for a few friends, and we had this big debate on whether feminism was still appropriate, whether it was a real thing, whether - you know, and we started talking about gender and all these things that are really important to me. And I thought, well, that's wonderful. That's - I'm glad that we could talk about these things just from listening to this particular song.

GROSS: OK, so (laughter) we should hear a little bit of you singing it. So this is "Wives And Lovers" from Cecile McLorin Salvant's new album "For One To Love." So as you listen, go comb your hair and fix your makeup. Here we go.



MCLORIN SALVANT: (Singing) Hey, little girl. Comb your hair. Fix your makeup. Soon he will open the door. Don't think because there's a ring on your finger you needn't try any more. For wives should always be lovers, too. Run to his arms the moment he comes home to you. I'm warning you.

GROSS: That's Cecile McLorin Salvant from her new album "For One To Love."

I feel like there should be, like, giant quotation marks around that song when you sing it.


GROSS: Because you're singing it straight. Like, you know, if you just played that for me, I wouldn't know that you thought...


GROSS: ...Like, that's, like, an incredibly sexist but very catchy song.


GROSS: Of course, it's catchy. I mean, Burt Bacharach wrote the music. Like...

MCLORIN SALVANT: Yeah, of course. But, I mean, you would still - you wouldn't - I feel like today, hearing that song today, you wouldn't be like, OK, I need to go fix myself up and, you know, wax and...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCLORIN SALVANT: And when I sing it live, I - there's a line about curlers, about not leaving your husband with your hair still in curlers. And I don't have hair really (laughter). My hair's really short. So I think that kind of lets people know that I don't really...

GROSS: So I'm just wondering, when you look for sexist songs, what are some of the ones that came up that you decided not to do?

MCLORIN SALVANT: Not to do yet is a song...


MCLORIN SALVANT: "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)" - that one is...

GROSS: Right. Phil Spector produced that one.

MCLORIN SALVANT: Yeah. That one...

GROSS: And that's more of a girl group, like, a rock 'n' roll girl group song.

MCLORIN SALVANT: Yeah. Yeah. And I don't - yeah, that one is - that one definitely stays with me. And I'm thinking that maybe it'll come up. There's other songs that are - I don't know if I would say that they're completely sexist. But kind of - you know, there's - "When I'm Housekeeping For You or "I'm Cooking Breakfast For The One I Love" (ph). That's not super sexist, but...

GROSS: Oh, that's Fanny Brice.


GROSS: I kind of like that song.

MCLORIN SALVANT: I kind of like it, too, you know. And...

GROSS: My baby likes bacon, and that's what I'm making.

MCLORIN SALVANT: Yeah. (Singing) So that's I'm making.

GROSS: So I'm cooking breakfast for the one I love (laughter).

MCLORIN SALVANT: Yeah. Yeah, I - that's not really - it's sexist in the context that it was written. But a man could sing that to me. I'd be very happy to hear it.

GROSS: Right.

BIANCULLI: Singer Cecile McLorin Salvant speaking with Terry Gross in 2015. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2015 interview with singer Cecile McLorin Salvant. She is a 2020 MacArthur Fellow.


MCLORIN SALVANT: So you're a jazz singer, but you studied classical voice for many years. Many years - I mean, you're only 26.


GROSS: So I meant how many years you could have studied it.


GROSS: But you started when you were really young. So were you listening to a lot of classical music when you were young?

MCLORIN SALVANT: Actually, I wasn't listening to that much classical music, not much more than anything else. We - I was really lucky to have parents who loved all kinds of music. So we'd listen to a lot of different kinds of music - folk music from all over the world, from South America, African music. And classical music was just a part of that. So, no, I would say it wasn't, like, the main thing that I listened to. But I loved the drama of it. I loved the character, having to work on a character. And I loved how, you know, you're pushing your voice to the limits of what it can do, really. It's kind of like ballet for the voice. So...

GROSS: You're talking about opera here?

MCLORIN SALVANT: Yeah, opera. Yeah. So that's what really fascinated me.

GROSS: So when you were making the transition from being a classical singer to being a jazz singer, what did you change about your voice?

MCLORIN SALVANT: I did everything I could to not bring in any of the technical things I got from classical into jazz. And I did everything to really base it on my speaking voice and to just not try to make it sound pretty. That's - that was the thing. Like, I never wanted to sound clean and pretty. I always wanted to have kind of a certain natural quality to my voice. And I wish it were more rough than it is. But I would listen to a lot of - I'd listen to blues singers and sort of try to go more towards that rather than look back at this classical technique that I was - that I had.

But I had a hole in my voice. I still do. It - we call it a hole, but it's an area in the voice where it's air. It's just - there's no - it's just very airy. And my classical teachers were just so frustrated with me because I would have these deep, low notes that were really strong, and the higher register was strong, but right in that middle area, it was really hard. There's, like, a passage. And many singers go through this and work it out. But I realized in jazz I could just take advantage of that and take advantage of having a voice that was very different in different areas.

Classical singing, you - everything had to be homogenous, and it had to just feel like one continuous flow from top to bottom, bottom to top. And in jazz, I felt like, oh, well, I can sing these deep, husky lows if I want and then sing these really, like, tiny, laser highs if I want as well. And I have no obligation to make it sound like it's just one continuous flow.

GROSS: Well, I'd like to end with one more song, and I was thinking of "The Trolley Song" from your new album, which is a song that Martin and Blane wrote for "Meet Me In St. Louis," for the movie starring Judy Garland, who sings this in a great scene in the movie. Why did you choose this song?

MCLORIN SALVANT: I - this is one of those where I just became obsessed with the song itself, and there was no other reasoning behind it. I saw the scene in question, and it became my life (laughter). It was - I would watch it maybe six, eight times a day, maybe more. Any time I had a moment, I would sit down, find it on YouTube and watch it. And it just became clear that I needed to sing it. Like, I needed to - there was some reason I needed to get to that - to the inside of that song. And, yeah, man, that scene is so amazing. I love it. I'm going to watch it in a few minutes, I think.


GROSS: And this is the same movie that "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" was written for.


GROSS: (Laughter).

MCLORIN SALVANT: Oh, my goodness.

GROSS: Cecile McLorin Salvant, it's just been wonderful to talk with you. Thank you so much. And I look forward to hearing much more of your singing.

MCLORIN SALVANT: Thank you. It's been a pleasure and an honor. And I'm an absolute crazy fan.

GROSS: (Laughter) Well, thank you. And I'm a big fan of your singing. So great to have you on the show. And here's Cecile McLorin Salvant singing "The Trolley Song."


MCLORIN SALVANT: (Singing) Clang, clang, clang went the trolley. Ding, ding, ding went the bell. Zing, zing, zing went my heartstrings. From the moment I saw him, I fell. Chug, chug, chug went the motor. Bump, bump, bump went the brakes. Thump, thump, thump went my heartstrings. When he smiled, I could hear the car shake. He tipped his hat and took a seat. He said he hoped he hadn't stepped upon my feet. He asked my name. I held my breath. I couldn't speak because he scared me half to death. Buzz, buzz, buzz went the buzzer. Plop, plop, plop went the wheels. Stop, stop, stop went my heartstrings. When he started to go, then I started to know how it feels when the universe reels.

BIANCULLI: Cecile McLorin Salvant recorded in 2015. She is a 2020 MacArthur Fellow. Coming up, we remember dancer and choreographer Marge Champion, who died two weeks ago at age 101. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.