THE terrific Calvin Arsenia...
has been letting me into his world and his creative process. I learn about his new album, Cantaloupe, and the sort of themes that inspired it; how he came into music and a few albums that mean an awful lot to him.
I ask whether there are any goals to achieve before the end of the year and which rising artists we should look out for; how it feels being on the stage and delivering to the people and whether he gets time to unwind away from music – the talented songwriter chooses an interesting song to end things on.
Hi, Calvin. How are you? How has your week been?
Hello! My week has been stellar! I just spent the weekend in sunny Miami playing The Dark Lord in a sexy cabaret, Samsara, at the Faena Theater. Then, I returned to a beautiful snowy Kansas City. No complaints here.
For those new to your music; can you introduce yourself, please?
Sure! My name is Calvin Arsenia. I am a classically trained singer and electric Celtic harpist steeped in a soup of Soul, Jazz; Folk, and Electronic roots, strung together by heart-on-my-sleeve narrations, served with a delicate garnish of cheeky humor on the tippy top.
Cantaloupe is your latest album. What sort of themes and stories inspired the album?
Cantaloupe has many themes. Sensual, Sonic; cynic and cinematic. I produced this record with two of my best friends who just so happen to be my heroes as well, J. Ashley Miller and Simon Huntley. Together, we share a deep passion for existing in beautiful spaces.
In the sensual sense, I wanted the music to feel the emotions on the most visceral level possible. The album also contains found sounds designed to get an ASMR response including a lot of non-musical elements. The desire for body response also spoke to how I would deliver the vocal on the recording. I’m constantly thinking about the narrative of the words I am saying. The allegiance to state of being that caused me to write a piece far outweighs the importance of diction or pitch, much to the chagrin of a former version of me. Grunts, growls; hoops and howls are all fair game. How do we marry elegance with our inner-animal? In the compositions, it was our goal to have the whole album be a continuous non-repeating movement, which was a challenge within the verses-chorus-verse-chorus Pop music model.
The shows that we produce here in Kansas City, MO are very involved. In the face of an MP3 generation, I feel it is very important to increase the value of being in the room with me. I want people to feel like they could literally lift off their seats when they hear the music, see the lights; taste the drinks and feel the beat and the lace, satins and velvet. I want them to believe that they are free to feel and be and do whatever they want and be fully loved and not only accepted but embraced. In some way, we tried to pull these elements from the live setting and smash them into these tracks - musically and otherwise. Yes. That was a challenge.
The cynic. I kind of enjoy the irony of being a harp player who is a little down or irreverent. In some of the lyrical content, you can tell I am a bit jaded. That just happens around your Saturn Return, right? It’s normal, right? Ha! Ultimately, it’s about finding a deeper place to set the anchor of myself rather than the views and opinions of others. I think we have all suffered from cases of limerence that turn in to self-loathing because the desired result didn’t come to fruition. This behavior is ENCOURAGED by our society. It’s time to write a new story - to be a new society.
Cinematically. Each moment was designed to exist in a space, in a place and a location. It was a lot of fun for us to come up with the ‘set’ locations of the each of the pieces. Scouting in our imaginations. All of it was crafted digitally.
How did you come into music? Were you raised on a lot of different genres?
I’ve been singing constantly, obnoxiously and improvising songs about the things I was feeling or seeing since I was a wee tot (which I guess didn’t last long as I am now quite tall). I remember singing to my baby brother a lot. He was born when I was six. Around the house, my mother would play Gospel music - singers with huge voices! Larnelle Harris and Yolanda Adams. My father really loved slow jams like the Isley Brothers and Luther Vandross. My older brother introduced me to Neo-Soul. He was a huge fan of Boyz II Men and D’Angelo.
The radio in my father's 1978 Pontiac Grand Prix played Mariah Carey’s Always Be My Baby over and over and I could not get enough! MTV and VH1 showed me great artists like Nelly Furtado…I think she actually was the musician who lured me into more alternative vocalists. I wound my way around to classically inspired singers like Josh Groban and Andrea Bocelli and into the long lineage of Folk musicians ranging from Joni Mitchell to Damien Rice. Fortunately, I was also surrounded by musicians that I admired personally, through church or otherwise.
Ultimately, I’m drawn to people and stories. The categorization is really only important if you are in a music shop….and even then. I don’t know. I find the conversation of genre to be a little bit of a sore subject. My work has been described as genre-elusive and it feels to me like I get punished for it a lot - for not playing by the rules or something. I have only every tried to put the elements and sounds and vocal techniques that I have found and loved and collected in my short life. I have to remain true to my story and not try to tell anyone else’s. I want to be inclusive and included. I am doing my best.
What do you hope to achieve by the end of 2018?
Wow. Well that’s coming up really fast! Hmmm...I really need a workout routine! Maybe I can sort that out in the next couple months
Do you already have plans for 2019?
More of the beautiful-same. Creating beautiful sensory spaces of love and understanding with beautiful diverse musicians in beautiful diverse spaces where we hope to reveal more of the beauty in the spaces and all the people involved by the time we leave than what we were aware of we entered. This year, I’d like to bring some of this to places around the U.S. I think we really need it here. I will be spending some time in Europe as my heart is there, but I’m specifically looking for places in U.S. to create magic in 2019.
Have you got a favourite memory from your time in music so far – the one that sticks in the mind?
A friend of mine is a massage therapist. She makes soaps and bath bubbles for gifts. She and her daughter bonded making soaps using the rose petals her daughter had collected from one of my performances. There was a sparkle in her eye as she told me this.
I was stopped on the street a few weeks back by a woman wearing Coke bottle glasses and long silver hair. She pulled out her phone to show me that she, too, had given another life to roses I used at a show she had attended. (I prefer roses that are red or pink. I prefer them damaged. I prefer them everywhere.) She had collected some from the set and proceeded to make a romantic display for her and her husband on their bed that evening. They’ve been together for decades.
The audiences, my friends take the flame of the intention of my music and integrate the spirit and rituals of love and appreciation into their daily live.
I have played in front of thousands and thousands of people. I have received hundreds of standing ovations. Those don’t mean near as much to me as what happens after the festival has cleared out and the music, the message; the love, the wonder; the fascination and the energy has gone on to live in other expressions. Where did it end up? Who is tending to it now?
Which three albums mean the most to you would you say (and why)?
Vespertine - Björk
Illinois - Sufjan Stevens
Channel Orange - Frank Ocean
Vespertine really ignited my ears to all the layers of sound that could happen in a single recording. It also was my first introduction to harps in the context of Electronic music where they were displayed in a real delicate and interesting way. I like that the natural sounds and electronics are seamless bound throughout the listening experience. Also; full of layers and layers of unconventional beauty.
As the years go by, Illinois still reveals itself to me in new ways. I love the moving lines of Sufjan’s compositions and the all the stories that he leads the listener through - like a guide through a museum of childhood.
Channel Orange came to me at a time in my life when I needed it most. This album is incredibly human to me. It’s very cinematic. It’s very forward-thinking. Unapologetic. So human. So raw. It the glistening iridescence of spilled oil. The product of tragedies and still irresistible to look at. It’s clever without being kitschy.
As Christmas is coming up; if you had to ask for one present what would it be?
WORLD PEACE. But, if I can’t have that….I’d love if Delta by Salvi would make a carbon fiber harp to tour with.
If you could support any musician alive today, and choose your own rider, what would that entail?
I used to have this answer close by but I think my desires are changing. I’m pretty focused on the feelings and the depth of understanding and love and connection to not only other humans but also earth and the stars and the moon. If I toured with a yoga instructor or a poet or a potter who was just as focused on this mission, it would be an honor.
The rider…? Local flowers. Local food. Vegetarian preference; vegan when we can. Fish if it’s fresh.
What advice would you give to new artists coming through?
Focus on what your unique perspective is. Collect the memories and the faces of people who have supported you and what were the feelings you gave them? What did you make them feel like that compelled them to give you appreciation? I believe music is about connecting with other people. Think about the artists you listen to over and over and imagine someone doing that with your music. If you have this platform, what are you going to say with it?
Do you have tour dates coming up? Where can we catch you play?
Where would you like to see me play? When? Send me an email. I’ll be there.
How does it feel being on stage and connecting with an audience? Do you love performing live?
I love performing live. It feels dangerous. It feels safe. It feels cathartic. It feels naughty. It’s all the feels and I have given up so much to find myself safe in the arms of an audience again and again.
IN THIS PHOTO: Cera Impala
Do you get much time to chill away from music? How do you unwind?
I used to watch cooking T.V. and knit. Now...I don’t know. Probably just looking for and eating delicious food.
Finally, and for being a good sport; you can choose a song and I’ll play it here (not any of your music - I will do that).
Pilentze Pee from Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares by the Bulgarian State Television Female Choir. You’re going to LOVE this…
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