With her music, Cécile McLorin Salvant seeks to reveal our deepest secrets: ‘It’s a bond’
By Brad Barker2023/03/29
Cécile McLorin Salvant’s new album Mélusinefinds her singing in four different languages while exploring many unique musical styles.
The three-time Grammy winner uses a folkloric tale from the 12th century about a shape-shifting maiden — half-serpent, half-woman — to anchor this new recording. Mélusine includes five original songs and nine rearrangements, mostly sung in French along with Occitan, English and Haitian Kreyòl.
Ahead of her performance at Koerner Hall on Thursday night, Salvant joined us to talk about the new record.
I noticed that the title track of the new album, you were actually going to record for your last album Ghost Song, but you hung onto it and saw in this tune a whole other arc of an album. How do those moments come to you? Are they slow and challenging, or is it a bolt of lightning?
It’s a little bit of a bolt of lightning. The process is usually pretty slow, but sometimes you have these eureka moments. A lot of times when I’m working on a project, there’s something in it that’s a seed for the next one. That was the case for Mélusine and that was the case for Ogresse, which is the feature-length animated film that I’m working on. These are really great moments when they do happen, because it feels like you’re working through something that’s challenging and taking a long time, but you also have a window into another world and another creative idea. I really love working that way, because when you work on a new project, you never really have a blank page. You always have a little seed.
It seems like you like the challenging of taking sand and making water from it — to be adaptable. I wonder what artistic courage you need to have to see that sand and say, “I think there’s some water in there.” Can those sometimes lead to dead ends, or can you will yourself to make something out of it?
Well, thanks so much for even paying attention enough to the lyrics to catch that. That’s actually about the thorny devil, which is this lizard that has all these spikes on it and that’s extremely self-reliant. When it’s in a desert, it still finds water in the sand. I think we all do that in our lives. It goes beyond the creative process. We all have dead ends, and certainly in a creative process there are dead ends. I think this is about resilience, self-reliance and adaptability. And [it’s about] this capacity that we all have when confronted with situations that feel like there’s nothing in this for sure — there’s no juice here, there’s no water, there’s no way to survive — to find a way to do it.
You say, “I think what I do is more akin to revealing secrets than telling stories.” Can you expand on that?
I think a lot of times, singers or people who listen to singers like to say, “They’re such a storyteller.” While I love storytelling, I love the intimacy in secret-telling. Revealing secrets is even more intimate than telling a story. There’s something about it that’s illicit. You’re not supposed to reveal a secret. It’s a bond. Once you’ve told someone a secret, you’re bonded together for life. I like to approach my performances like that. I’m trying to capture that level of intimacy. [I like] to reveal secrets about myself, but also to reveal secrets about all of us — reveal our hidden desires, our hidden shame, the things that we don’t like about ourselves as well as the things that are beautiful that we maybe don’t see. The story of Mélusine is the story of a woman with a secret, and when that secret is betrayed, she turns into a dragon and flies out the window. I think secrets are very strong.
As a kid, when somebody told me a secret, it made me feel important.
You explore the past, whether it’s the 12th century on Mélusine or vaudeville, baroque or folk music. It’s not just about illuminating the past — you’re trying to bring people in to connect with something that has more meaning than they think it does. It’s not just show-and-tell or a history lesson; it’s about what your place is in these things.
I think so. I think that’s the case for everything I do. It’s finding my place, and hopefully helping other people find their place in this stuff. There’s a universality to it.
You talk about the power of the gaze, which comes up in this storytelling. That’s also something that’s sometimes unspoken between people. How do you feel about this power of the gaze?
I’ll speak to it from my perspective: I am a person who relishes being invisible, and at the same time I desire to be seen and admired and looked at. I live with this contradiction. I think a lot of people live with that contradiction. If you stretch it out even further, there’s the idea of wanting to have alone time and then when you find yourself alone, you find yourself lonely and frustrated and wondering, “Hey, where is everyone?” The idea of the gaze is the way that someone perceives you, that’s something that we all, at a very young age, have to reckon with. We have a few years as children where we don’t have to think about it, but there’s a moment where that fall from Eden happens and you realize, “Oh, I’m going to school and I’m going out in the world and people are seeing me. How am I presenting myself to the world? Is this OK? Is this not too freakish and weird?” We all deal with that in so many different ways throughout our lives, and then we find ways to wear these masks in our relationships with the outside world. We find ways to normalize ourselves when we’re in interaction with other people. It’s a really fascinating theatre — we’re all actors. As Ru Paul says, we’re all in drag. It’s something that’s really interesting and important — how we create our identities, how we create these characters — and I’ve always been interested in exploring that in music. Even further, from a woman’s perspective, it’s a really strong, heavy load that most women carry. How are they going to see me? My physical beauty is my currency. How much currency do I have? These were all things I wanted to explore, but I also wanted to explore that other side: Not just that idea of being looked at, but that idea of how when someone tells you, “Don’t come snooping around on Saturdays,” you want to snoop around. There’s another side of me that’s interested in curiosity. I’m a very curious person, kind of a voyeuristic person. If I see my neighbours across the street from me and their window’s open, I’m looking in. I want to know what’s going on. I think we also all have that in us, where if something is hidden behind a curtain and someone inadvertently shows it to you, you want to know.
In the original story, the husband isn’t allowed to see his wife on Saturdays because of the curse. Is that a betrayal of her, or is that just him exercising his curiosity?
I think it’s both. On her end, it’s a betrayal. But for him, it’s a deep, powerful curiosity. It’s also maybe a little bit of jealousy. She tells him, “Don’t come bother me on Saturdays.” I think he’s jealous of that day. He wants to know what that is, and he wants to be part of it. If she, God forbid, has this joyous Saturday alone, he’s a little bit jealous of that. He wants to intrude on that. I think that’s something that’s fascinating in relationships — when someone has something for themselves, sometimes we want to come in on that.
Let’s talk about performance. Is being on stage a whole different set of circumstances and ideas, or is it just a natural extension of the things you’re doing with your recordings?
I’m starting to integrate more visual art in my performances, trying to find more ways to show the drawings that go with the album. But it’s very difficult for me to tour an album as it was recorded. First of all, there’s not really a set list that’s set in stone. There are ideas of songs, and then it depends on what the audience is giving, what the atmosphere is in the room. In Toronto, I’ll probably do a mix of everything. There are French speakers in Toronto, which is exciting to me. We’ll just have to see how everything feels.
It seems exciting that each night can be different from the next night.
It’s very exciting. Actually, it’s not even that it can be different, it’s almost that it has to be different. Even if we did the same set list, something would have to change. I think the element of surprise is what I love the most about being in this genre of music and about playing with these musicians. It’s tough because the people in the audience obviously won’t know how different it was from the night before, but things change drastically. Certain songs, we’ll completely change the arrangement. Sometimes we’ll make the song faster or slower, or we’ll do it in a different key. We’ll start from a different section and then we’ll loop back to the beginning — or we won’t do a section of the song at all. I really enjoy all of us being on our toes and thinking, What’s going to happen next? We’re all listening.