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

Cécile McLorin Salvant's repertoire includes jazz standards, forgotten old songs, show tunes and originals.
Mark Fitton
Courtesy of the artist
Cécile McLorin Salvant's repertoire includes jazz standards, forgotten old songs, show tunes and originals.

Growing up in Miami as the child of a Haitian father and a French mother, singer Cécile McLorin Salvant heard a wide range of music, including that of jazz singer Sarah Vaughan.

"I think I started really falling in love with [Vaughan's] voice when I was about 14," McLorin Salvant tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

By that time, McLorin Salvant had already begun training in classical voice. But as she listened to Vaughan, she says, she was drawn to a singing style that felt less constrained than the classical style she'd been studying. Eventually, she shifted her attention to jazz.

"I never wanted to sound clean and pretty," she says. "In jazz, I felt I could sing these deep, husky lows if I want, and then these really tiny, laser highs if I want, as well."

In 2010, when she was just 21, McLorin Salvant showcased her highs and lows at the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition, where she was awarded first place. Her 2013 album, WomanChild, was named one of the year's 10 best in the 2013 NPR Jazz Critics Poll, and won the award for jazz album of the year in the 2014 DownBeat Critics Poll. Her new record is For One to Love.

Interview Highlights

On the influence of Sarah Vaughan

I was really mostly interested in classical singing, but she had something in there that drew me in, coming from being interested in classical singing. She was an absolute virtuoso, and she could have so many colors and textures with her voice. When I moved to France and started singing jazz and studying it, she was maybe the first person that I would copy. And 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. So I'd spend a lot of time listening to her and seeing how I could make my voice sound like that.

Eventually, I 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 even just her accent — all of that became really interesting to me, and vibrato and all of that. Eventually, 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. 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. ... I think the core of my work on music has been just listening to things, listening to singers.

On performing a song by Bert Williams, a black man who performed in blackface in the early 1900s

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 terrible for doing that, essentially which is what Bert Williams felt, from what I gather, from what I read, all of that was so incredible to me. Just reading that, I just thought was so fascinating. ... 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 just the pathetic guy that gets no respect. But it was also heartbreaking, and that's something about a song that I love — is when you can find those two elements. You don't know if you want to laugh or cry. It took me some time to have the courage to actually sing it.

On why she recorded the culturally retro 1963 song "Wives and Lovers"

That particular song I found actually because I was looking up sexist songs. I have a really good friend who knows I'm a feminist, [and] she's like, "Why aren't you 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. It was very difficult to find. So I decided, "Let me just check out if there are any sexist songs," and of course that was a lot easier. And that song happens to be so catchy, and I love that song, and I think it's hilarious.

On becoming a jazz singer after years of training to sing classical music

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. 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 blues singers and sort of try to go more towards that.

I had a hole in my voice. I still do. We call it a hole, but it's an area in the voice where it's air. 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 the middle area, it was really hard. There was like a passage. But I realized that in jazz, I could take advantage of that.

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