Jazz vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant is dazzlingly theatrical and emotional during her live performances, as well as on her records. Now that she’s released her third LP, For One to Love, Cécile is pursuing another of her passions: drawing.
I recently talked to the 26-year-old singer about doodling, her path as a musician and visual artist, and some of her favorite jazz musicians—a list that doubles as a beginner’s guide to the genre.
BRITTANY SPANOS: How long have you been drawing?
CÉCILE MCLORIN SALVANT: I had the good fortune of being [raised] in a house where everyone had some type of visual-art talent. My dad sketches really well, even though he doesn’t do it that often now. My mother does oil painting and carpentry. My sister sculpts. [My mother and sister] sew and design clothes. They’re always doing something with their hands: embroidery, crochet, everything. I was always intimidated by that, because I thought everyone was so talented—I didn’t even want to try. Eventually in middle school and high school, I’d doodle around my notes. I would purposefully try to draw shocking things so the teacher might send me to the counselor, but it never worked. I had this idea in my head that I was some kind of rebel, and that they would soon freak out about me.
When I went on to do music, I let doodling go. I had nothing really to doodle on, and didn’t really think about it. While on tour, I realized that there’s a lot of waiting time. You spend maybe an hour-and-a-half singing and doing what you love, but the rest of the time is waiting. Even though it’s exciting to travel, it can get boring. You have to fill up that time. I started drawing again while I was in Japan. I got into watercolors, and [using] calligraphy pens and Japanese inks. It is now a major part of my day.
Is the way you approach visual art similar to the way you approach singing?
Sometimes, I feel more motivated by painting and illustration. There’s something very elusive about music, something very intangible about it. It just disappears into the air. A drawing or a painting is something you can touch, look at, hold, and keep. There’s something about those elements that I really love. I think I’ve always been more of a visual person than anything else. With music, I stumbled upon it, luckily, and realized I love it. There’s something about visual art that, at the very least, for now, is easier for me to do than writing a song. It flows more easily.
Does jazz influence your visual art?
For me, jazz and drawing are two separate beings. For my drawings, I’m more influenced by stories that I read, other visual artists and illustrators, and by different women. My favorite thing to draw is nude women–sometimes without faces.
When did you start performing?
My mom always thought I could sing, and for a while I didn’t know if it was just a mother’s love or if it was something more. She’d invite friends over and tell me to sing for them. I also started playing the piano at three. I grew to like [singing] and enjoyed trying things with my voice. I heard Charlotte Church perform on TV. She was 12, and making people cry while singing in front of an orchestra. I thought, That’s so awesome. I want to make people cry with my voice.
I started to study opera [when I was] 13 or 14, and got into the classical side of singing. I moved to France, and my teacher and a lot of young musicians encouraged me to pursue jazz. I started doing concerts and traveling. It grew from there, little by little. I didn’t think that a musician’s career was for me. There is no loneliness like the loneliness of an artist. I didn’t know if I could handle that. I thought I would need to have a job where I could be with people. I didn’t want to be in my own head, alone, and that self-disciplined. It freaked me out! It took me three or four years to finally say, “Let me just try this for a little bit and see how it goes.”
What’s it like, as a person in their twenties, to perform jazz?
The problem is not the amount of young jazz musicians; there are so many who are talented. There is no young jazz audience. It’s very rare to find young people in the audience. I have nothing against an older audience, but sometimes I do feel frustrated [when I don’t] see somebody in the audience who looks like me! It’s a predominantly older, white audience. But there are so many young musicians who are interested in jazz and its history.
What would your beginner’s guide to jazz consist of?
It really depends on the person, their style, and what they’re into. There’s so much variety to choose from! It’s endless. If you’re somebody who is more into folk music, you can listen to early Jelly Roll Morton. I always warn people that it’s going to sound old. Don’t mind the sound! It’s not going to sound as clean as the [most recent] stuff, but it’s pure folk. If you’re more into singers, then Sarah Vaughan or Shirley Horn are great. It’s amazing to cook with [Shirley’s] records on–also great for painting your nails! She’s really soothing. But, if you’re a headbang-y, punk-y person, [listening to] Coltrane is a good idea. If you like intensity in music, Coltrane or Mingus are for you. Jazz is really, really vast.
I also highly recommend Louis Armstrong, but his early stuff not his later stuff. There is so much joy, humor, and laughter in his tracks from the ’20s and early ’30s. If you’re into hip-hop, check out Robert Glasper. I feel like he must be influenced by someone like Thelonious Monk, who is a great person to listen to if you’re into abstract art. You don’t have to listen to stuff that comes out now, necessarily, even though you should. It’s good to support people who are still living! But don’t hesitate to listen to stuff that was recorded in 1915, 1920, or 1925. I also highly recommend the blues–especially if you’re into rock or any kind of pop music today. The blues is the foundation. ♦