Artist: Leyla McCalla
Hometown: New Orleans, Louisiana
Latest album: Vari-Colored Songs: a Tribute to Langston Hughes (reissue)
What’s your favorite memory from being on stage?
My favorite memory from being on stage was at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2019. To be clear, New Orleans shows are always my favorite shows. People LOVE music in New Orleans and the connection you feel with the audience is transcendent. I have played Jazzfest almost every year since 2012, but 2019 was the first year that I got to play the Fais Do-Do stage. I invited Topsy Chapman and her daughters Yolanda and Jolynda to sing with me, which was a total trip, because I had never had background singers on stage with me. I also invited my friend Corey Ledet, the accordion dragon, to play on a couple of songs and the addition of accordion to the sound of my band is something that I continue to long for. We all left that stage flying high.
What other art forms — literature, film, dance, painting, etc. — inform your music?
I am deeply inspired by what I read. Something about reading words on a page and the mindfulness that it takes to absorb that information inspires me to write music. Perhaps it’s the quietness of that activity that helps me to hear music. While I really enjoy biographies, I also love poetry and the rare novel.
What was the first moment that you knew you wanted to be a musician?
I studied classical music very seriously from the age of 12 to 15 and was determined to make a career out of my cello playing. But the moment that planted the seed for the musician that I am today happened when I was 18 years old. I met my teacher and mentor Rufus Cappadocia, a phenomenal cellist who plays a self-designed five-string cello, at a party in Brooklyn. He was playing with a band called the Vodou Drums of Haiti. This experience absolutely blew my mind. Seeing the cello in that context instantly changed the direction of my musical pursuits and gave me a sense of possibility of what cello playing could be outside of the classical context.
What’s the toughest time you ever had writing a song?
The toughest time that I ever had writing a song happened with the song “I Knew I Could Fly.” I had been playing the guitar riff for the song for years, always struggling to figure out what the words, if any, should be to the song. Every path I went down felt insincere and I laid the song to rest several times before bringing it to the Native Daughters session in Breauxbridge, Louisiana. Alli Russell helped me to talk out my idea, which led to a breakthrough and we ended up co-writing the lyrics to the song and recording it the next day. I’ve always been surprised and pleased that of all of the songs on the Songs of Our Native Daughters album, that song ended up with the most plays.
If you had to write a mission statement for your career, what would it be?
I believe in the power of music as a healing force. I use the process of making music to understand the world that we live in and to direct my own healing. I share that process to connect with people and to aid in our collective healing. I am committed to understanding the role that history plays in creating our reality and how music can help us to process our emotions and increase our empathy for each other.
Photo credit: Rush Jagoe