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Jazz Singer Cécile McLorin Salvant Doesn't Want To Sound 'Clean And Pretty'
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Jazz Singer Cécile McLorin Salvant Doesn't Want To Sound 'Clean And Pretty'

Music Interviews

Jazz Singer Cécile McLorin Salvant Doesn't Want To Sound 'Clean And Pretty'

Jazz Singer Cécile McLorin Salvant Doesn't Want To Sound 'Clean And Pretty'
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McLorin Salvant first studied classical voice, but turned to jazz because it offered her more range. "In jazz, I felt I could sing these deep, husky lows," she says. Originally broadcast Nov. 4, 2015.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Happy new year. Today we conclude our series featuring some of our favorite interviews of 2015 with jazz singer Cecile McLorin Salvant. Her album "For One To Love" won in the vocal category of the 2015 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll. Her previous album won in that same category in 2013. Her repertoire ranges from jazz standards to forgotten old songs, show tunes and originals. In 2013, critic Stephen Holden wrote in The New York Times - if anyone can extend the lineage of the big three - Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald - it's this 23-year-old virtuoso. In 2010, she won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition.

Salvant is now 26. She was exposed to a lot of different music growing up in Miami with a father who's from Haiti and a French mother who was born in Tunisia and lived in several African and Latin American countries. When we spoke in November, we started with a track from "For One To Love." It's an unusual song choice - "Stepsister's Lament" from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Cinderella."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STEPSISTER'S LAMENT")

CECILE MCLORIN SALVANT: (Singing) Why should a fella (ph) want a girl like her, a frail and fluffy beauty? Why can't a fella ever once prefer a solid girl like me? She's a frothy, little bubble with a flimsy kind of air, and with very little trouble, I could pull out all her hair. Oh, oh, why would a fella want a girl like her, a girl who's so unusual? Why can't a fella ever once prefer a usual girl like me? Her cheeks are a pretty shade of pink, but not any pinker than a rose's. Her skin may be delicate and soft, but not any softer than a doe's is. Her neck is no longer than a swan's. She's only as dainty as a daisy. She's only as graceful as a bird, so why is the fella going crazy? Oh, why would a fella want a girl like her?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Cecile McLorin Salvant, welcome to FRESH AIR. I really like that you choose songs in the jazz sound standard repertoire and songs way outside (laughter) of the repertoire, like "Stepsister's Lament." When I heard you sing that live, you said that the first version of that you heard was actually sung by Brandy. Tell us how old you were then and what that song meant to you.

SALVANT: It was actually not sung by Brandy. It was sung by these two actresses who were in the movie with Brandy who played her stepsisters.

GROSS: Oh, I see.

SALVANT: Yeah, so Brandy was Cinderella, and then she had these two awful stepsisters who sing this song.

GROSS: I should've figured that.

(LAUGHTER)

SALVANT: I'll say I was around 10, and I related with it because, you know, it's the point of view of the girl who is often invisible and looked over. And I definitely felt that way and feel that way still a lot in my life. I just didn't feel like I could relate to the beautiful princess or the girl who gets the guy or - you know, I could relate with that yearning and that jealousy and frustration more.

GROSS: What made you think that you could take this song from a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical for children and make it into a really interesting jazz song?

SALVANT: Well, a big part of it is knowing that and trusting that the musicians I sing with would find a sort of groove, a sort of, you know, funky jazz take to it, you know? I knew that if I gave it to the Trio that they would figure out a way to take it out of that realm and make it something that works for us. And sometimes I'll present songs to them, and they'll be like, are you sure you want to - you really want to do this song? I mean, it - we don't know how to - how we're going to make that work for us. So I think that's a big - a big part of it is knowing that the guys - the band - will figure out a way to make it work.

GROSS: Now, I want to compare "Stepsister's Lament" from "Cinderella" - your version of that - with an original song that you wrote that's on your new album. And this is a song called "Look At Me." And the feeling of the song is kind of similar. The lyric includes the line - look at me. Why don't you look at me the way you look at all the other girls you see? Can you talk a little bit about writing that song before we hear it?

SALVANT: I wrote that - I have a good friend that started sending me poems via email. And I would respond, and we just started writing like that. It had been such a long time since I'd just written poems with, you know, no music. And I was experiencing that friend zone, which is - you know, that's, I guess, the name for being in love with a friend who doesn't love you back. And I was experiencing that, and I felt the need, the urge to write it out, write it down. And I - a couple months later, I started looking at the lyrics and thinking, oh, maybe this could be a song.

GROSS: Well, this is a beautiful ballad. The style of this song is the opposite of "Stepsister's Lament." So let's hear Cecile McLorin Salvant's song "Look At Me" from her new album "For One To Love."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOOK AT ME")

SALVANT: (Singing) Look at me. Why don't you look at me the way you look at all the other girls you see? I'm your friend. I guess I'll always be, but I'm in love with you endlessly. All the time - all of the time I've lost trying to make you come to me at any cost. All I want...

GROSS: That's Cecile McLorin Salvant from her new album, "For One To Love." It's a song she wrote called, "Look At Me." So now that you're onstage and becoming famous within the jazz world, more people are looking at you - I mean, literally. Do you like being the focus of attention when you're onstage?

SALVANT: It's weird. I'll say in a way, I love it. I mean, I do love being onstage. And I've always loved playing a character and being watched doing that. I remember in school - in elementary school - I used to recite poems. We'd have to recite poems. And I would always just, like, roll on the floor, like, just make it such a huge, melodramatic portrayal of whatever it was, you know. But in another sense, I don't like being the focus of attention. It makes me very uncomfortable. And it's part of the reason I never look at videos of myself, or I very rarely listen to my music or even read things that I might've said. It just - there's something repulsive about it to me. Maybe that's a strong word. But yeah, it's just...

GROSS: That's a very strong word.

SALVANT: (Laughter) Yeah, I don't know. I just don't like to be in my own - I'm already myself, so I don't like to be in my own - like, watch myself.

GROSS: Well, we need to talk about your incredible voice. When I listen to you, I hear elements of Sarah Vaughan, Abbey Lincoln, Betty Carter, Billie Holiday. When you started listening to those singers, did you, when you were young, try to copy them to really learn how they did what they did, the way some writers copy paragraphs of favorite writers to better understand the structure and flow of their - of the words in their favorite writers' sentences?

SALVANT: I would say for certain singers, I definitely went through that. I definitely went through that with Sarah Vaughan. As - I think I started really falling in love with her voice when I was about 14. My mother loves Sarah Vaughan, and she always played her music, from as - you know, as long as I can remember. But - yeah, when I was about 14, I started really checking her out for myself - by myself - and thinking, gosh, that voice is incredible. I was - I was really mostly interested in classical singing, but she had - she had something in there that drew me in. She was an absolute virtuoso, and she could have so many colors and textures with her voice.

So it became - when I moved to France and starting singing jazz and studying it really, she was - she was maybe the first person that I would copy. And it became less about sounding unique. I didn't even care about that. I just wanted to sound as much like her as I possibly could. And so I'd spend a lot of time listening to her and seeing how I could make my voice sound like that. And then eventually, it moved on to other singers. Billie Holiday was a big one, where I would pay attention to the way she would pronounce words, the way she - even just her accent. All of that became really interesting to me - and vibrato and all of that. And eventually, I - the more I listened and became obsessed with singers, I feel like the more I realized that I had my own little thing that I could - that I could do. And so this is why I just became obsessed with looking for new singers, unknown singers, people that maybe have been forgotten, and really checking them out and analyzing what they do - and obsessive listening. I think that's the core of my work on music - has been just listening to things and listening to singers.

GROSS: So after listening so obsessively to so many singers, did you ever go through an identity crisis as a singer yourself and wonder, but who am I? I can sound like these people. I love those people, but what is uniquely me?

SALVANT: Oh, still today (laughter) - every day. It's a total identity crisis for me of, like, is this even - is there even a point in doing this? Is this even relevant? You know, what am I doing? Who do I sound like? I remember as a child - I still today do not have my own handwriting. I just would copy everyone else's handwriting, and now I have sort of a version of my sister's handwriting. And I feel like - sometimes I feel that way for my voice. Like, sometimes I'm doing a patchwork, like a bad quilt (laughter) of all the people that I love, but then I'll - I'm very - I doubt myself a lot. And I'm very, very just overly critical, so I know that it's probably not that.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is singer Cecile McLorin Salvant. She has a new album called "For One To Love." Let's take a short break, then we'll hear some music - some more music - and talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOW I LAY ME DOWN TO SLEEP")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is singer Cecile McLorin Salvant. She has a new album called "For One To Love."

You have such an amazing instrument. I mean, you have such an amazing voice, and you use it with such emotional and tonal and notey (ph) range.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So I also think that, like, writing your own songs is probably helping you find, like, your own musical identity.

SALVANT: Sure - writing my own songs and also the time and care I take in choosing the repertoire. It takes me a lot of time, and it's almost frustrating for the guys sometimes because they're waiting for a new song. And I - it's just so important for me to get the perfect, exact, right song.

GROSS: One of the things I really like about your repertoire is that you go back to early jazz, and you find music from the early 19th century - early 20th century, I mean - and from the 1920s and '30s. And how did you decide to go back that far? Because a lot of singers don't.

SALVANT: I think I'm fascinated with history and - just in general. And I'm always interested in how did - how did this come to be? Why is this the way it is? And even singing classical voice, I quickly became more and more interested with early music, baroque voice. And that became an obsession to me - just figuring out how - who are the ancestors of whatever it is.

For jazz, I started checking out people's influences - people that I liked. Who influenced them, and then, who influenced those people? And I was very lucky in that my teacher in France - he's a saxophone player. His name is Jean-Francois Bonnel. He knew a lot of this earlier music, and he shared it with me. And every week, he would bring a huge stack stack of CDs and tell me to listen to it. And I discovered Bessie Smith with him. I had no idea who she was. And I discovered Big Bill Broonzy and Valaida Snow and Blanche Calloway. And he definitely stressed the importance of going back and checking out 1920s jazz, 19-teens jazz. And eventually, I became so obsessed with that that I started thinking about vaudeville and minstrel shows and coon songs and all of that. And that's really fascinating. That part of the history of American pop music and entertainment is really so interesting - so, so interesting.

GROSS: I'm glad you said that 'cause the song - next song I want to play is a Bert Williams song. He's part of, like, the minstrel era, and he is an African-American man who sang in blackface. And I think because of that, until recently he was pretty much ignored. I think his work was considered an embarrassment, but you do what is probably his most famous song, which is called "Nobody." You did that on your previous album, "WomanChild." So I'd like you to tell us why you chose that song and how you thought it would work for you - like, what you did with it that you thought would suit, like, your voice and your personality.

SALVANT: I didn't know about Bert Williams until I read this book. I didn't even know really what blackface and minstrel shows were, let alone that black people actually were blackface performers, as well, and how much that even influenced all of American entertainment afterwards. So just reading that - just reading that a person can be black and still perform in blackface, making fun of black people for a living, and at the same time be a genius and be an incredible entertainer and at the same time be extremely conflicted and feel like - just feel terrible for doing that, essentially, which is what Bert Williams felt, from what I gather, from what I read - all of that just made - was so incredible to me. Just reading that was - I just thought that was so fascinating. And it - I felt like I could see it in other places, like today, in music today and in film today. I felt like it was just - it just made so much sense.

And so I just looked up the song "Nobody," which is the hit song that he wrote, and it was so amazing. He's talking over music, and then he starts singing the chorus. And it was very funny, of course, because he's - you know, it's like just the pathetic guy who gets no respect, but it was also heartbreaking. And that's something about - in a song that I love - is when you can find those two elements - just - you want to - you don't know whether you want to laugh or cry.

And it took me some time to have the courage to actually sing it. I'd thought, well, this is a vaudeville song. I don't know how we're going to approach it. I don't even know, you know, if it - if it'll work. But eventually, I was just - I was just listening to it so much, and I was so touched and moved by the story and by the song itself that figured I should just try. And so I gave it to the band. I don't - I think I was in France still when I - when I first started performing it. And I - it just became clear that it worked.

GROSS: So let's hear "Nobody." And my guest is Cecile McLorin Salvant. She has a new album called "For One To Love," but this version of the Bert Williams song "Nobody" is from her previous album, which is called "WomanChild."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOBODY")

SALVANT: (Singing) When winter comes with snow and sleet, and me with hunger and cold feet, who says, here's 25 cents - go on - get something to eat? Nobody. I ain't never done nothing to nobody. I never get nothing from nobody, no time. And until I get something from somebody, I...

GROSS: My guest is Cecile McLorin Salvant. After we take a short break, she'll tell us about one of the most sexist song she knows and why she sings it on her latest album. The album is called "For One To Love." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOBODY")

SALVANT: (Singing) And until I get something from somebody, I will never do nothing for nobody, no time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with jazz singer Cecile McLorin Salvant. She has a new album called "For One To Love." Her repertoire ranges from jazz standards to forgotten old songs, show tunes and originals. When we left off, we heard her version of the song "Nobody," which was the song most associated with Bert Williams, one of the most popular African-American performers of the early 1900s. He performed in blackface.

I'm glad that you decided to go back to the early 20th century and do that song and to not be put off by the politics of blackface and to just find what is musically interesting in that and what is musically interesting and humanly interesting about Bert Williams, in spite of how he had to compromise himself with - by wearing blackface.

SALVANT: Yeah, I think it's just really - it's just the idea of blackface itself is just so - it's not just a terrible thing, I think. There is also the idea of, like, these people are reclaiming, in some sense, something that has been taken from them. There's - I don't know if I'm allowed to say this word on the air, but there's a song called "Run, [expletive], Run" that I first heard a couple years ago. And it was by a band called The Skillet Lickers, and it's a white fiddle band. And I was just flabbergasted by how racist it was and how scary it was, but I still found myself, like, kind of enjoying it. And I looked up the history of that song, and that happens to be a song that slaves used to sing amongst themselves, like, literally telling each other that they should run. And it had been transformed. And I think - I think when black performers performed in blackface, they were kind of taking back these slave songs, but it was still a little bit iffy because they were performing, a lot of times, for white audiences who found it hilarious.

GROSS: American music is so complicated in terms of its ancestry (laughter).

SALVANT: Yeah, it really is.

GROSS: Yeah, it just goes back and forth, which is great. I mean, you know, it's that kind of, like, cross-breeding of musical styles that makes it - makes it so rich. You've also gone back and looked for songs by women composers. Like, you do...

SALVANT: Yep.

GROSS: ...A song by Blanche Calloway, Cab Callaway's sister, on your new album. You do some Clarence Williams songs from, I guess, the 1930s. And in addition to finding a lot of old songs, I think you're trying to turn recent songs - some recent songs, or at least one recent song - on its head (laughter)...

SALVANT: Oh.

GROSS: ...And kind of reinterpret it. And I'm thinking of "Wives And Lovers," which is just one of the all-time, like, sexist songs. It was a 1963 hit by Jack Jones - music by Burt Bacharach and lyric by Hal David. And they're such a fabulous song-writing team, and I don't know...

SALVANT: Yeah.

GROSS: ...How this particular song happened.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: But why in the world would you sing a song that - why don't you recite the lyric?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WIVES AND LOVERS")

SALVANT: (Singing) Hey, little girl, comb your hair, fix your makeup. Soon he will open the door. Don't think because there's a ring on your finger, you needn't try anymore (laughter), for wives should always be lovers, too. Run to his arms the moment he comes home to you. I'm warning you.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Why? Why?

(LAUGHTER)

SALVANT: I just - sometimes I get - I just find things so funny because they're so absurd to me. And I find the humor in it, and I think it's going to be funny. And I don't even think of it, like, as a politically charged thing. But that particular song, I found, actually, because I was looking up sexist songs. I have a really good friend who - I'm a feminist. She knows I'm a feminist. She's like, why aren't you, you know, singing more feminist songs? And I thought, gee, that's true. So I started trying to do some research, trying to find some songs in the American popular song history - even folk songs or whatever it may be - that had feminist themes to them. And it was very hard (laughter). It was very difficult to find, and so I decided - let me just check to see - let me just check out if there are any sexist songs, and, of course, that was a lot easier.

GROSS: Yeah, I'll say.

(LAUGHTER)

SALVANT: And that song happens to be - it just happens to be so catchy, and it's - I love that song, and I think it's hilarious. And it actually - I remember playing it for a few friends. And we had this big debate on whether feminism was still appropriate, whether it was a real thing, whether, you know - and we started talking about gender and all these things that are really important to me. And I thought, well, that's wonderful, that's - I'm glad that we could talk about these things just from listening to this particular song.

GROSS: OK (laughter), so we should hear a little bit of you singing it. So this is "Wives And Lovers" from Cecile McLorin Salvant's new album "For One To Love." So as you listen, go comb your hair and fix your makeup. Here we go.

SALVANT: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WIVES AND LOVERS")

SALVANT: (Singing) Hey, little girl, comb your hair, fix your makeup. Soon he will open the door. Don't think because there's a ring on your finger, you needn't try anymore, for wives should always be lovers, too. Run to his arms the moment he comes home to you. I'm warning you. Day after day...

GROSS: That's Cecile McLorin Salvant from her new album, "For One To Love." I feel like there should be, like, giant quotation marks around that song when you sing it...

SALVANT: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...'Cause you're singing it straight, like, I - you know, if you just played that for me, I wouldn't know that you thought, like, that's like an incredibly sexist but very catchy song.

SALVANT: (Laughter) Yeah.

GROSS: Of course it's catchy. I mean, Burt Bacharach wrote the music. Like...

SALVANT: Yeah, of course. But, I mean, you would still - you wouldn't - I feel like today - hearing that song today, you wouldn't be, like, OK, I need to go fix myself up and, you know, wax and...

GROSS: (Laughter) no.

SALVANT: And when I sing it live, I - there's a line about curlers - about not leaving your husband with your hair still in curlers. And I don't have hair, really. My hair's really short, so I think that kind of let's people know that I don't really...

GROSS: So I'm just wondering, when you look for sexist songs, what are some of the ones that came up that you decided not to do?

SALVANT: Not to do yet as a song...

(LAUGHTER)

SALVANT: "...He Hit Me And It Felt Like A Kiss." That one was...

GROSS: Right, Phil Spector produced that one.

SALVANT: Yeah, that one...

GROSS: And that's more of a girl group - like, a...

SALVANT: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Rock and roll girl group song.

SALVANT: Yeah, and I don't - yeah, that one is - that one definitely stays with me, and I'm thinking that maybe it'll come up. There's other songs that are - I don't know if I would say that they're completely sexist, but kind of - you know, there's "When I'm Housekeeping For You" or "I'm Cooking Breakfast For The One I Love." That's not super sexist, but...

GROSS: Oh, that's Fanny Brice.

SALVANT: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: I kind of like that song.

SALVANT: I kind of like it, too.

GROSS: My baby likes bacon, and that's what I'm making (laughter). I'm cooking breakfast for the one love.

SALVANT: Yeah, (singing) so that's what I'm making. Yeah. Yeah, that's not really - it's sexist in the context that it was written, but a man could sing that to me. I'd be very happy to hear it.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So my guest is singer Cecile McLorin Salvant. She has a new album called "For One To Love." Let's take a short break, then we'll hear some music and talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWING VALSE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is jazz singer Cecile McLorin Salvant. Let's hear her interpretation of another song. This is "Something's Coming" from the musical "West Side Story." It's on her latest album, "For One To Love."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMETHING'S COMING")

SALVANT: (Singing) Could be. Who knows? There's something due any day. I will know right away, soon as it shows. It may come cannon-ballin' down from the sky, gleam in its eye, bright as a rose. Who knows? It's only just out of reach, down the block, on a beach, under a tree. I got a feeling there's a miracle due - got to come true - coming to me. Could it be? Yes, it could. Something's coming - something good, if I can wait. Something's coming. I don't know what it is, but it is going to be great. With a click, with a shock, phone will jingle, door will knock. Open the latch. Something's coming. Don't know when, but it's soon. Catch the moon - one-handed catch. Around the corner, a-whistling down the river. Come on, deliver to me, to me.

GROSS: That's Cecile McLorin Salvant. Let's get back to my interview with her.

So you're a jazz singer, but you studied classical voice for many years - many years. I mean, you're only 26 so...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So how many years you could have studied it.

SALVANT: (Laughter).

GROSS: But you started - you started when you were - when you were really young, so were you listening to a lot of classical music when you were young?

SALVANT: Actually, I wasn't listening to that much classical music - not much more than anything else. We - I was really lucky to have parents who loved all kinds of music. So we'd listen to a lot of different kinds of music - folk music from all over the world, from South America, African music - and classical music was just a part of that. So, no, I would say it wasn't, like, the main thing that I listened to, but I loved the drama of it. I loved the character - having to work on a character. And I loved how, you know, you're pushing your voice to the limits of what it can do, really. It's kind of like ballet for the voice. So...

GROSS: You're talking about opera here?

SALVANT: Yeah, opera. Yeah, so that's what really fascinated me.

GROSS: Were you preparing to do opera roles onstage?

SALVANT: I was just studying technique and hoping that maybe one day I'd be able to do something (laughter). And eventually when I started singing baroque voice - that's when it started becoming more of an idea - like, maybe I want to do this professionally. And jazz sort of took over. I was touring. I was performing. And so I kind of had to let it go - let that idea go for now - but it still - it still kind of circles around my brain that I want to - I would love to sing baroque.

GROSS: I want to talk about the period when you were in Paris, and this is when you were studying voice in college - was this a college or conservatory after college?

SALVANT: It was a conservatory at the same time as I was in college...

GROSS: I see. OK.

SALVANT: ...In Aix-en-Provence.

GROSS: So while you were in France, you studied with and played with a saxophonist and clarinetist named Jean-Francois Bonnel. And you were saying that he introduced you to a lot of early jazz. I want to pay a song from your first recording that you made in - I think it was 2009...

SALVANT: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: ...With Jean-Francois Bonnel. And I want to play the first track of the album. It's "After You've Gone." So just tell us about where you were in your life as a person and as a singer when you recorded this.

SALVANT: Oh, I was about 18 years old, I think, or 19. And I was just starting to sing jazz and get into the repertoire and listen to - listen to different singers and listen to instrumental music. I was really just starting out, it felt like. And I suppose that album was a compilation of my favorite songs at the time. There was no other thought process behind it. It was just - I love these songs. I'll sing them.

GROSS: And why did you choose "After You've Gone"?

SALVANT: It's just one of - it's just one of the songs that I - that I loved at the time. I had heard it by Bessie Smith, and I just really enjoyed that song. There was no other - there was no other thought behind it. It was just - I love this. Let me sing it.

GROSS: OK. Well, this is great. This is amazing. This is Cecile McLorin Salvant in her late teens.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFTER YOU'VE GONE")

SALVANT: (Singing) Now, listen, honey, while I say, now that you're telling me you're going away, don't say that we must part. Don't break my aching heart. You know I loved you true for many years - loved you night and day. How could you leave me? Can't you see my tears? Now, listen, while I say, after you've gone and left me crying, after you've gone, there's no denying, you'll feel sad. You'll feel blue. You'll miss the dearest pal that you've ever had. After the years...

GROSS: That's Cecile McLorin Salvant - her first recording, made in her late teens when she was studying in France. And being in France probably made a lot of sense for you because you spoke French when you were growing up. And explain the reason for that.

SALVANT: My mother is French, and my father is Haitian. And it was my language. My parents wanted us - both my sister and I - to speak French, and that was the way to do it. We lived in Miami. And I went to a French elementary, middle and high school with a French program, but really the best way to make sure that we were bilingual was to get us to speak French and only French at home.

GROSS: Did your parents speak English?

SALVANT: They do speak English, but they didn't - for a while, they just didn't speak English to us. Like, they would just refuse to speak English to us at home.

GROSS: So when you were making the transition from being a classical singer to being a jazz singer, what did you change about your voice?

SALVANT: I did everything I could to not bring in any of the - any of the technical things I got from classical into jazz. And I did everything to really base it on my speaking voice and to just not try to make it sound pretty. That's - that was the thing. Like, I never wanted to sound clean and pretty. I always wanted to have kind of a certain natural quality to my voice, and I wish it were more rough than it is. But I would listen to a lot of - I'd listen to blues singers and sort of try to go more towards that, rather than look back at this classical technique that I was - that I had.

But I had a hole in my voice. I still do. We call it a hole, but it's an area in the voice where it's air. It's just - there's no - it's just very airy. And my classical teachers were just so frustrated with me because I would have these deep, low notes that were really strong, and the higher register was strong, but right in that middle area, it was really hard. It was like a passage. And many singers go through this and work it out. But I realized in jazz, I could just take advantage of that and take advantage of having a voice that was very different in different areas. Classical singing - everything had to be homogenous, and it had to just feel like one continuous flow from top to bottom, bottom to top. And in jazz, I felt like, oh, well, I can sing these deep, husky lows if I want and then sing these really, like, tiny, laser highs if I want, as well. And I have - I have no obligation to make it sound like it's just one continuous flow.

GROSS: My guest is Cecile McLorin Salvant. Her latest album is called "For One To Love." We'll talk more and hear more music after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is jazz singer Cecile McLorin Salvant. Her latest album is called "For One To Love."

Well, I'd like to end with one more song. And I was thinking of "The Trolley Song" from your new album, which is a song that Martin and Blaine wrote for "Meet Me In St. Louis" - for the movie starring Judy Garland who sings this in a great scene in the movie. Why did you choose this song?

SALVANT: I - this is one of those where I just became obsessed with the song itself, and there was no other reasoning behind it. I saw the scene in question, and it became my life (laughter). It was - I would watch it maybe six, eight times a day, maybe more. Anytime I had a moment, I would sit down, find it on YouTube and watch it. And it just became clear that I needed to sing it. Like, I needed to - there was some reason I needed to get to that - to the inside of that song. And, yeah, man, that scene is so amazing. I love it. I'm going to watch it in a few minutes, I think.

GROSS: (Laughter) And this is the same movie that "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" was written for.

SALVANT: Yeah. Oh, gosh. Oh, my goodness.

GROSS: Cecile McLorin Salvant, it's just been wonderful to talk with you. Thank you so much, and I look forward to hearing much more of your singing.

SALVANT: Thank you. It's been a pleasure and honor, and I'm an absolute crazy fan.

GROSS: Well, thank you. And I'm a big fan of your singing, so great to have you on the show. And here's Cecile McLorin Salvant singing "The Trolley Song."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE TROLLEY SONG")

SALVANT: (Singing) Clang, clang, clang went the trolley. Ding, ding, ding went the bell. Zing, zing, zing went my heartstrings. From the moment I saw him, I fell. Chug, chug, chug went the motor. Bump, bump, bump went the brakes. Thump, thump, thump went my heartstrings. When he smiled, I could feel the car shake. He tipped his hat and took a seat. He said he hoped he hadn't stepped upon my feet. He asked my name, I held my breath. I couldn't speak because he scared me half to death. Buzz, buzz, buzz went the buzzer. Plop, plop, plop went the wheels. Stop, stop, stop went my heartstrings. When he started to go, then I started to know how it feels when the universe reels. Buzz, buzz, buzz went the buzzer. Plop, plop, plop went the wheels. Stop, stop, stop went my heartstrings. When he started to leave, I took hold of his sleeve with my hand. And as if it were planned, he stayed on with me, and it was grand just to stand with his hand holding mine to the end of the line.

GROSS: Cecile McLorin Salvant's latest album is called "For One To Love." Our interview was first broadcast in November. Monday on FRESH AIR, inside the world's largest refugee camp. The Dadaab complex in Northern Kenya opened 25 years ago as temporary shelter for Somalis fleeing civil war. Now it's home to nearly a half a million people living in desperate poverty. We'll talk with Ben Rawlence, who tells some of their stories in his new book "City Of Thorns." I hope you'll join us.

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