"That got me thinking about all of the ways that we use violence to create peace and what that says about us as a society" We chat with Leyla McCalla
Classical folk musician Leyla McCalla has been a Carolina Chocolate drop, a solo artist, and a Native Daughter. so far in her career. So far in 2019 she has released her excellent album The Capitalist Blues as well as the astounding Songs Of Our Native Daughters alongside Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah and Allison Russell. We had the chance to talk to her about both of those projects, what inspires her, and her experience in music.
Hey Leyla, hope you’re well. We can start with an easy question, what have you been up to today?
I’ve been in business and creative brainstorming meetings planning an artist residency for a theatrical performance piece that I’ve been developing for the past 3 years.
Tell us something about you, what’s your favourite thing to do when you’ve got time off?
I love cooking for my family and trying out new recipes. It’s very relaxing to me.
Right, onto the music. What can you tell us about your first memory of playing or singing music?
My first memory of playing music was at the piano with my first-grade teacher Mrs. Crow. She would come to my house for private lessons and I remember feeling very safe and loved.
You play a few instruments, which is your favourite, and why?
I can’t answer this question! It changes according to which song I’m working on. I’ve been really enjoying playing my guitar lately because it’s the newest instrument I own. It’s a pelham blue Gibson M-336 with p90 pickups. But I have also been missing my cello.
You released The Capitalist Blues a couple of months ago, what can you tell us about it?
The Capitalist Blues uses New Orleans music to explore the ways that capitalism affects us mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
‘Aleppo’ is a one of my favourite songs from the album, it’s so brooding and vivid. How did you come to write a song about the Syrian conflict?
I wrote ‘Aleppo’ after watching Facebook Live videos of people giving testimonials of their experiences during the siege of Aleppo in the spring of 2016. It was very emotional and heartbreaking. I wrote the lyric, “bombs are falling in the name of peace” and that got me thinking about all of the ways that we use violence to create peace and what that says about us as a society.
The title track is also a really great song, what’s the story behind that?
I started writing the title track years ago but could never figure out what the clincher statement would be. I was thinking about my choice to pursue a life of art making about the conflicts inherent in making money off of music. When Capitalist Blues popped into my head, I knew that would be the title of my next record.
What can you tell me about ‘Oh My Love’?
'Oh My Love' is a song that I wrote with my husband, Dan Tremblay, on the heels of an argument we were having. For me, the song is about crushing the idea that love is less something that happens to us and more something that we have to work to create.
I could ask about all the songs on the album, but this’ll be the last one, what’s the inspiration behind ‘Heavy As Lead’ which another fantastic song.
'Heavy As Lead' is a song I wrote after it was discovered that my daughter had elevated levels of lead in her blood. As I started to navigate the health care system and get advice on how to locate the source of this poisoning and rectify the situation, I realized that the odds of defeating this were stacked up against families with limited financial means and resources. While I’m grateful that we were able to bring my daughter's levels down, I thought about the families in Flint, Michigan who are still fighting for their right to clean lead-free water.
What can you tell us about your Song of our Native Daughters project?
My two songs on the Native Daughters record were inspired by Piedmont blues guitarist Etta Baker and Haitian troubadour legend Althiery Dorval. Though both of those artists are far from household names, they have influenced my work considerably and much of my music lies within those two disparate but related worlds.
It’s very timely in terms of shining a light on the multiple diversity issues challenging the world, was that part of the catalyst for it?
Rhiannon [Giddens] invited us all to collaborate on this album and as we put our heads together, the songs became both more personal and topical. While we set out to discuss the influence of minstrelsy on American music, we ended up speaking and singing about black women as markers and makers of social change in the United States. This is something that all of us have felt and experienced and read about, but not talked about so directly and certainly not through our music.
Personally I love ‘Black Myself’ for its musicality, but the vivid story and simplicity of ‘Mama’s Cryin Long’ leaves the longest lasting impression. Which of the songs on the album resonates with you most?
Man, these kinds of questions are just too hard to answer! Honestly, I think all of the songs on the record depend on each other to make a complete statement and that’s part of understanding this record. Each song tells different stories that connect and play off of each other.
The spoken word sections of ‘Barbados’ are extremely powerful and genuinely got me considering the human price of material things, what are you hoping will come of people hearing songs like that?
I hope that people will consider how their choices affect other peoples’ lives.
Obviously there’s a lot of talk about equality in general at the moment, what’s your experience of being treated differently as a woman in your industry?
I’ve had presenters and promoters underestimate my ability to mother my children and sustain my career. It’s made me realize how far we still have to go to really support mothers who are pursuing careers.
Is your experience of prejudice different based on whether it’s racial or gender prejudice, or are the issues you face similar?
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? ...Seriously, it’s hard to tell. I think that we all have to work to undo our prejudices because they are more subtle than anyone wants to accept and we all carry them with us.
Who, or what, inspires you?
I get inspired by reading. Right now, I am reading the autobiography of Albert Woodfox who spent 40 years in solitary confinement at Angola Prison. His story is devastating and exemplifies how damaging the prison industrial complex can be to the human spirit. The fact that he lived to tell the tale and travels the world talking about his experience is beyond inspiring.
If you could recommend one artist to hear this week, who would it be?
What’s the question we should have asked you today but haven’t?
What’s next for me.
How do you take your coffee?
Cream and sugar.
To find out more about Leyla you should visit her website. You can also check out her socials.