Cécile McLorin Salvant, voice of a generation, likes to ‘follow a song’s lead’

Jazz vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant feels that a song "has to bowl me over in some way in order for me to perform it."

Shawn Michael Jones

Opera diva Jessye Norman knew talent when she heard it. And the late soprano definitely heard it in Cécile McLorin Salvant, whom she praised for having “a unique voice supported by an intelligence and full-fledged musicality, which light up every note she sings.”

The recipient of multiple Grammys, plus a MacArthur Fellowship and a Doris Duke Artist grant, Salvant is one of today’s most celebrated and versatile jazz artists. As star trumpeter Wynton Marsalis told the New Yorker for a 2017 profile of Salvant, “You get a singer like this once in a generation or two.”

In addition, Salvant’s 2022 release, “Ghost Song,” was described by the New York Times as “her most revealing and rewarding album yet.”

Ahead of her SCP Jazz concert on June 3 at Symphony Center, her second stop on a new months-long tour, Salvant was kind enough to answer some questions via email.

Almost every artist starts out imitating their favorite artists on the way to establishing their own style. Who filled that role for you? 

Spice Girls, Celine Dion, Judy Kuhn, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Bert Williams, Carmen McRae, Blossom Dearie, Fiona Apple, Abbey Lincoln, Betty Carter, among many, many others.

You’ve said, “I really gravitate toward people with some deep darkness and issues.” Why is that, and how does it impact which songs you sing and how you sing them?

I don’t know when I said that and I’m not sure it’s true! I feel like I gravitate toward people with a great sense of humor and a lot of joy.

As you’ve become more and more successful, how have you avoided being pulled in several directions by people who want you to be what they want you to be — more commercial, say, to bring in a larger audience — instead of the artist you want to be?

I don’t read anything that’s written about me or take in much external input. I also don’t know the first thing about how to be more commercial.

You pepper a lot of your songs with literary references. Any writers who are particularly influential in terms of how you think and pursue your life?

These days, I really love Lydia Davis and Emily Brontë. I don’t know if they’ve changed the way I think or pursue my life. I am just in love with the way they use language, the way they tell stories, what they think about, what they imagine, their sense of humor. Oh, also Carl Jung’s Red Book.

When it comes to performing the work of others, how do you decide what to interpret and how to interpret it?

A song has to bowl me over in some way in order for me to perform it. I don’t necessarily decide how to interpret a song, I think I just sort of intuitively follow its lead. Sometimes it reveals hidden meanings over years.

How did earning a MacArthur Fellowship and a Doris Duke grant impact the way you work and live?

I’m still looking for a room of my own, a studio, where I can make music and art. I haven’t found it yet, but this is one of the ways it will impact my work and life.

Obligatory award question: Where do you keep your Grammys?

Two on my bookshelf in my bedroom, and one at my parents’ house.

You’ve been quoted as saying that you don’t want to sound “clean and pretty.” What does music lose when it’s overproduced and too “perfect,” as nearly all of today’s pop tends to be.

That’s also something I said that I’m not sure I stand behind completely anymore. I want there to be layers and levels and contrast. I want to sound clean and dirty and pretty and ugly and cloying and dry. I want to try to accommodate everything. Try and fail and yet try again. As for things being too “perfect,” I feel a rush of tenderness when I can see a human hand in something, when I can see someone trying and reaching. I actually think this can even come through in things that are “overproduced.”

It may be a cliche to say you’re an old soul at 33, but you do seem to convey experience and wisdom beyond your years. That can’t be solely performative. What’s the key to really inhabiting a piece and the emotions of it?

Hey, hey, hey! I’m not 33 yet! I think I’m old and young in different ways. I think it helps that I am very intentional about the songs I choose, I care about translating the story of that song to the audience. I feel like it’s my duty to really wring out the meaning so everyone can understand. It might be because I started singing songs for an audience that mostly didn’t speak English, an audience that didn’t understand. I’m interested in getting the meaning across at all costs, even if it means I don’t sound good. I get fully involved in it, and it’s more interesting for me, too.