Cécile McLorin Salvant: Records that changed my life

BY Annie Dabb

5th Jul 2023 Music

Cécile McLorin Salvant: Records that changed my life

Ahead of her performance at Edinburgh International Festival this August, we interviewed MacArthur fellow, singer and composer Cécile McLorin Salvant to find out which records changed her life 

Exploring European folklore and feminine spirit, particularly in her most recent album, Mélusine, the Florida born singer and composer aims to bring a historical perspective to her music, alongside a renewed sense of drama, enlightened musical understanding and of course, feminism.

Without further ado, here are four records which changed her life. 

Brazilian Romance by Sarah Vaughan (1987)

Brazilian Romance by Sarah Vaughan

Despite having had a self-confessed punk phase growing up, even sporting a mohawk and being into that "radical feminist punk stuff", Cécile described Brazilian Romance as "one of the records that reminds me most of my childhood". 

"One of the records that reminds me most of my childhood"

Perhaps the inspiration for Cécile's transition to more jazz-rooted, soulful genres in her own music, Vaughan accompanies the likes of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald in the top echelon of 20th century jazz singers

I was interested whether Cécile found jazz to be a more suitable genre than punk for the issues she wants to address in her music. 

"I don't think any genre is more or less appropriate for anything. I think when you start really listening to music widely, you begin to notice the links between all genres, the fact that genre is not what decides whether something is political or apolitical...I think above all I am more interested in power dynamics, in social issues, issues of identity, of perception. These issues do have links to the political but not only [that]. 

I do think it's interesting that certain types of jazz, particularly straight-ahead vocal jazz, for most people, have slowly become dissociated with activism, radical thought and identity. In short, I don't think about genre when I choose what songs to sing. And I don't even necessarily think about particular issues. It's far more instinctual than that." 

La Leyenda Del Tiempo by Camaron de la Isla (1979) 

La Leyenda del Tiempo by Camaron De La Isla

"An album that felt like a new discovery for me. [I] started really listening in November, then realised it was also an album that was playing in my childhood home; pure art, experimentation, deep roots and tradition, playfulness, and extremely deep." 

"It was an album that was playing in my childhood home; pure art, experimentation, deep roots and tradition, playfulness, and extremely deep"

Cécile continues to draw on eclectic themes and memories from her childhood in her own music, most recently with her 2023 album Mélusine, written completely in French—her first language. She told me that she wanted to make a French album in order to "think and deal with ancestry and tradition in my music that I hadn't before". 

Tosca with Maria Callas (1953 EMI Recording) 

Tosca by Victor de Sabata with Maria Callas

Given the Vaudeville themes in Cécile's music, it was little surprise when she revealed that she has "always wanted to play characters, to get to be someone else for a moment, or a heightened version." 

She went on to explain: "I also have loved sharing these really vulnerable moments with people because, when it's right, I believe them to be cathartic for both audience and performers." 

Hence her love for the 1953 EMI recording of Giacomo Puccini's Tosca, conducted by Victor de Sabata and featuring Maria Callas as the protagonist. Cécile described this album as "one of the best opera performances I've ever heard, everyone (the singers, orchestra and conductor) is great in this". 

I asked Cécile how she felt during her own performances, ahead of her concert as part of the Edinburgh International Festival on August 7, 2023. 

"I feel many different ways depending on the night, the band, the venue, the audience, the songs. There are so many moving parts. But I do feel extremely present, and like I'm distilled to one thing. In my daily life I often can feel scattered. But performing brings you to that one moment.

I think live performance is my favourite way to express my music, if it's a good night! But sometimes it's a terrible night and you feel awful and ashamed about what you've done in front of a bunch of people". 

Spiceworld by Spice Girls (1997) 

Spicegirls by the Spice Girls Cécile's fourth record that changed her life is an iconic Nineties classic by renowned girl group Spice Girls. She describes it as "an album that when it came out felt like it was mine, not my mom's or my sister's—a fantasy world that I could play in."

"When it came out it felt like it was mine, not my mom's or my sister's—a fantasy world that I could play in"

Now, Cécile continues to spice up her life, not just with her empowering and daring music and performance, but also through her strong and vibrant aesthetic appearance. Sharing evidence of her textile talents on her Instagram, I'm eager to know more about what inspires Cécile to create. 

"I embroider not to present or construct an image, I embroider and draw because I love being in the image world. I love making and collecting images, and sharing them. I don't think I'm alone in this, I think this is a fundamental human desire that we all have, and that many of us lose touch with. Images, colours, visual expression are [all] extremely healing." 

Banner credit: Karolis Kaminskas

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