In 2020, Cécile McLorin Salvant kept getting calls from an unknown number. Like any self-respecting millennial, she ignored them. “They called me so many times and I didn’t answer because no one answers a number that they don’t know,” she says, speaking by Zoom from her New York apartment.
When she finally picked up the phone, she “freaked out”. It was the MacArthur Foundation calling to tell her she had been chosen as one of its fellows, an honour that comes with a grant of $625,000 (£475,000) paid over five years. Given that Covid-19 meant her tour had been cancelled, it couldn’t have come at a better time. “It felt like a validation that went beyond music,” says the 32-year-old musician. “It felt like a validation of the way that I think. That’s a huge compliment. It’s the greatest honour.”
Although Salvant is known as a jazz musician, her approach to music is defined by her instinct for experimentation. “I’m an interested in bringing things from disparate sources, time periods and techniques,” she says. “I love to go into different sounds and different textures with just my voice alone.” She also makes visual art – colourful figurative works – and approaches her music in a similar vein. “I want my music and my art to feel like you’re opening someone’s diary – there’s an old ticket stub for something, a quote, an idea and frustration and a secret.”
Her music is beloved for rejecting traditional jazz standards, embracing theatre and subverting classics with playful renditions. At 21, Salvant won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. Her 2013 album WomanChild spanned three centuries of American music and introduced her charismatic voice and spirited energy to the world. She won a Grammy award for best jazz vocal album for her 2015 album, For One to Love, which delved into the history of sexual politics and a more intimate history of unrequited love. From 2018, The Window is more stripped back, with Salvant accompanied only by pianist and organist Sullivan Fortner.
Her new album, Ghost Song, combines the sounds she is known for – jazz, folk melodies, blues – and weaves in brand new textures that are less clean. (Her sensibility is reminiscent of Fiona Apple’s on Fetch the Bolt Cutters – both jazz-honed vocalists with an unorthodox approach to their influences.) “Bringing in recorded sources that are not as high fidelity and pristine … moving forward, I want to do that a lot,” says Salvant. “I have always loved field recordings. I’ve been thinking a lot about not trying to drown out the life around us and actually integrating that into the album. We start and end the album with these recordings that are a cappella in a church. You can hear the air.”
The first song is a stunning, ethereal cover of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights; the last, Salvant’s take on English folk song The Unquiet Grave. They’re the key to this conceptual album about love, loss and what it means to be alive. “If you listen to it on a loop, you realise that the first song is connected to the last song,” she reveals. “I wanted to start with somebody being haunted by the past, and to end with a living person haunting a ghost.” Despite writing primarily about love for the past 12 years, recent episodes of pandemic-induced isolation made the need for love more apparent to Salvant. “I think fundamentally, with great periods of loneliness, and fear and chaos, it becomes almost instinctual to want to talk about love, spread love and lament it,” she says.
It’s hard not to imagine more Grammys coming Salvant’s way for Ghost Song – but she has already had the ultimate validation for the album. Her parents “love the album”, she says. “That means the world to me.”
Salvant was born in Miami in 1989 to a French mother, an elementary school teacher, and a Haitian father, a doctor. Her face lights up as she talks about their support. “My parents are very curious people. They value kindness, humility, intelligence, and generosity. Me wanting to pursue music wasn’t somehow lesser than if I had wanted to be a doctor.”
Pursuit is the word for it. She started piano lessons aged five, sang in a children’s choir aged eight, and took classical voice lessons – although interestingly, she initially loathed being made to practise. “I hated piano. I wanted to quit all the time. I didn’t want to do it. I liked singing, but I was really passive,” she says frankly. “I kick myself every day now thinking how little I took advantage of having these private lessons. That is privilege!” She cultivated her own musical training, honing the power of her voice with renditions of Céline Dion’s My Heart Will Go On in her elementary school loos. “The bathroom was resonant and echoing,” she says. “I would just sing super loud. I didn’t even need to go to the bathroom.”
It wasn’t until Salvant briefly diverged from music that she began to take jazz seriously. She moved to France to study law in Grenoble while also studying baroque music and jazz in Aix-en-Provence, where she met teacher Jean-François Bonnel. “He just pushed me every day.” She counts US jazz singer Betty Carter, Aretha Franklin, Caetano Veloso and Bach as formative figures, though she never discounts the influence of the pop icons of her youth: the Backstreet Boys, ’N Sync and the Spice Girls; even Disney soundtracks. “I’ve been thinking more about [all] the cultural things that go into your bloodstream,” she says. “How can that not influence the way that I sing, the way that I write?”
Salvant recorded Ghost Song in the early days of the pandemic. Now, new material is the only thing on her mind. “So much has happened since we started, and since we’ve been finished, that it feels almost foreign,” she says. It’s this forward-thinking mentality, you suspect, that the MacArthur Foundation recognised in Salvant. “A MacArthur is a look to the future,” she says. “That’s the part of it that makes it so exciting because it feels like ‘Here. What’s next? What are you going to do now?’”