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I'm Allison Keyes and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

You may not have heard Meklit Hadero's music before, but once you do, it'll be tough to forget.

(Soundbite of song, "Walk Up")

Ms. MEKLIT HADERO (Musician): (Singing) Soliel, soliel, so, so, soleil, so, so, soleil, soleil. I've been dreaming of the sun, of the lovely, lovely melody. Holy queen of sunshine shining down on me.

KEYES: Hadero's sound is a unique blend there's jazz, there's Ethiopia, there's artsy San Francisco scene and a dollop of visceral poetry that paints pictures in your head as you listen. Hadero's first musical performance was just five years ago and she spent 20 minutes covering other artists' music. Now she writes her own. Her debut album is called "On a Day Like This."

Hadero joins us now from San Francisco. Welcome to the program.

Ms. HADERO: Thank you.

KEYES: I have to say, the song that made me have to talk to you was "Float and Fall."

(Soundbite of song, "Float and Fall")

Ms. HADERO: (Singing) Well, the sound of your step reminded me of the snow that winter before I left for good. And the knock that you knocked had an accidental rhythm. Yeah.

KEYES: Oh my god, it sounded like being in love. It reminded me, anyway, what that was like. Is that what you were writing about?

Ms. HADERO: Actually, I was writing about Brooklyn.

KEYES: Yay.

Ms. HADERO: Yay, Brooklyn. I grew up there, spent my childhood years there but left when I was 12 years old. And I returned in 2008 and it was just this it was this very romantic experience with the city, with the borough, really, you know, walking down the street and having all these memories just be so alive and having - so many things have changed. But yet so many institutions there the same. My elementary school and all of these stores that were the same.

And so there was this kind of sense of falling through time, you know. Someone could've said, oh, it's 1986 or it's 1992, or it's 2008 and time was just all mixed up in there. But yet it was like this feeling of a very present nostalgia and, like, a loving memory.

KEYES: So that's what that song is about.

(Soundbite of song "Float and Fall")

Ms. HADERO: (Singing) Well, a moment of dark, a moment of light, oh, the memories dance so strange and slow. A moment of darkness and of light, I alight, you light. We drift and we float and we fall.

KEYES: It's so interesting that you said time because I was talking before about the lyrics that you write. And one of them in that song was the wrinkles when you smile are like the rings upon a tree. You reminded me of plane rides, baby. And I'm listening, going, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: I think it's interesting 'cause you started out not being in music. You were a political science major, right?

Ms. HADERO: That's right.

KEYES: And how did you make that very cool left turn into artsy?

Ms. HADERO: Well, it's hard to not get a little bit artsy when you move to San Francisco. You know, there's so many there are so many things that point to it here. But I moved to San Francisco in 2004 and really with the intention of beginning to take music more seriously. I didn't really know what that meant. I started taking voice lessons and started doing some songwriting.

And kind of the return on it was just huge. It was like every step I took in that direction was just that effort and energy was returned a hundred-fold. And so I became really embedded in an arts community here in San Francisco in the Mission District. I began curating for a street level arts festival and then began running an interdisciplinary arts and performance space called the Red Poppy Art House.

And once all that happened, you know, my friends were artists and they were really deep in their craft. And it was so inspiring and that kind of momentum carried me along.

KEYES: When you say you didn't know what that meant, do you mean the actual thing of being, okay, I am an artist, I am a singer, I am supporting myself, and therefore you have a different, say, mission, than you would've had as a political scientist?

Ms. HADERO: I feel like there aren't very many role models that we have of people who are artists who are in the world in a kind of real way, right? Because once people become successful there's kind of this fantasy element that comes in. And so it's like when you're trying to plan your life and youre thinking, you know, what is my life going to be like, it doesnt feel real. And again, that's where my community really came in because I did have those people around me. And I also had a real partnership with I think the ideas that I was working with in political science, which were all about social justice and community engagement.

KEYES: Mm-hmm.

Ms. HADERO: And really being able to merge the two. Like, for example, on my card, you know, when I give people my card, it says singer, musician, cultural activist. And I do a lot of work...

KEYES: Oh, that is so cool.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HADERO: I like that term and I do a lot of work with arts and culture using music and culture to bring people together and to be able to dialogue across boundaries and borders.

KEYES: I know, or at least I've heard a rumor that you brought your guitar with you. So perhaps we can get you to play, and I may mispronounce this, "Abbay Madu?"

Ms. HADERO: "Abbay Mado.

KEYES: "Abbay Mado." It's a traditional Ethiopian song.

Ms. HADERO: Mm-hmm. It is. Yeah. I could play that. Sure.

KEYES: Okay.

(Soundbite of song, "Abbay Mado")

Ms. HADERO: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

KEYES: That was gorgeous. Tell us what it means.

Ms. HADERO: Well, Abbay Mado means beyond the Nile and its the story of a farmer. It's a super traditional song which was made famous by the incredible legendary singer Mahmoud Ahmed. And it talks about the farmer as he calls his ox over the Blue Nile. And, you know, to me its kind of a tribute. Having it on the album was kind of a tribute because, you know, such a huge percentage of the population in Ethiopia lives that life. And so it's sort of open heart nod to the country and to the people there.

KEYES: You were born in Ethiopia and then youve lived everywhere...

Ms. HADERO: Everywhere.

KEYES: ...on the planet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: What did your family think when you said, hey mom and dad, so I'm going to be a singer?

Ms. HADERO: Well, they were like, what?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HADERO: No, the thing is that immigrant culture, it's like you come to this country for a reason and then a lot of it has to do with economics. And so when you choose a career and work where they're like, well, are you going to make any money? You know, it's challenging for them. But I totally understand that. And actually, over time theyve become incredibly supportive. And, you know, my dad, when he comes to my shows he, like, gives me a standing ovation after every song.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HADERO: It's just so adorable.

KEYES: That's my daughter.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HADERO: It's so cute, you know, like, I love it.

KEYES: I'm Allison Keyes and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with singer-songwriter Meklit Hadero about her new album "On A Day Like This."

Talk to me a little bit about the concept of the album. If I understand it, it's the passage of a single day from its beginning to end?

Ms. HADERO: That's right, it is. It begins with the song "Walk Up," and that song has a kind of sense of breakthrough and it's really all about moments of breakthrough.

(Soundbite of song, "Walk Up")

Ms. HADERO: (Singing) Walk up, walk up straight through the roof. Straight through the hole in the ceiling. Take your place in the sky. Oh look around at clouds. They hold you. They hold you.

And the album wanders. It meanders. It's not a straight line. It's the moods and the transitions of a day, but its also very much tied up - the whole album is tied up in that song "Walk Up." I wrote that song about a month before I recorded and it was so much the mood I was in in my life. And the lyric that the song ends with is: And you suddenly think of the kings and the poets in the past and how they must've felt just like this, on a day like this.

(Soundbite of song, "Walk Up")

Ms. HADERO: (Singing) And you suddenly think of the kings and the poets in the past and how they must've felt just like this on a day like this. On a day like this. Oh well...

And it's a kind of trampoline moment into all the rest of the songs and that feeling of that opening outwards moves through all of the songs, and so that lyric ties it together.

KEYES: It's interesting that you said that. I know that the song was inspired by a sculpture. It was a round room that was open to the sky, right?

Ms. HADERO: That's correct. Yes.

KEYES: The lyric that caught me, because I spend a lot of time watching the birds dancing above the river here in D.C. was: the birds surround you and make a tornado in the air.

Ms. HADERO: James Turrell's work is just incredibly inspiring to me. He's an American artist that spends half the year in L.A. and half the year carving a crater in Arizona called the Roden Crater, and he's been doing it for 30 years. It's this total Magnum Opus kind of work. And that sculpture in particular has a sense of lift and you have the sense that youre going up into the sky as well as sinking into yourself at the same time.

And so I started to sit there and imagine myself a mile in the air, and in that place, the birds were just coming, you know, and it was like a moment of relationship with the birds. And at the time, I was also living on a hilltop in San Francisco where I was really at the level of the birds. And there was a lot of that both sound influence and sort of the feeling that the birds give you that was in my mind.

KEYES: Speaking of feeling good, wow, you covered Nina Simone. That's something else.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: Was that scary?

Ms. HADERO: Completely. Completely frightening. And all the way up until the end I wasnt sure if I would put it on the album. Back when I was first starting to play music in 2005, I was doing a lot of duo gigs with this bass player and nay player called Eliyahu Sills. She's an amazing musician. And we used to do this version of "Feeling Good" that would start with his nay. You know, the nay is a Middle Eastern reed flute.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. HADERO: So I kind of wanted to gather all of these first years in San Francisco into the album. So I was like, you know, I really loved playing that with Eliyahu. Let's give it a try. And so we did, but really did it with no expectation that it would be, you know, basically good enough...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HADERO: ...by the end of it because Nina Simone, man, she is just something else and she's so powerful. And if you can't add something to the song, its hard to feel like you should do it. But in the end I felt like it was something worth sharing.

(Soundbite of song, "Feeling Good")

Ms. HADERO: (Singing) Birds flying high you know how I feel. Sun in the sky, you know how I feel. Breeze drifting on by, you know how I feel. It's a new dawn. It's a new day. It's a new life for me. It's a new dawn. It's a new day. It's a new life for me. Ooh. And I'm feeling good.

KEYES: Your voice has been compared to hers. It's a very strong unique kind of sound. I mean, how much of an influence has she been on your career?

Ms. HADERO: Huge. Huge influence.

(Soundbite of song, "Feeling Good")

Ms. HADERO: (Singing) Fish in the sea, you know how I feel. A river's running free, you know how I feel.

You know, she's not relying on tricks. She's not relying on anything but the feeling and its tone. It's like tone and emotion, those are her tools. And its so direct and so impactful and there's nobody else like her. I would just listen to her over and over and over. For years and years and years, she was one of the first albums that I would play when I would get home, you know, at the end of the day and all that, so she's been an enormous influence on me.

KEYES: Even listening to you talk is kind of poetic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: When you write is it like youre writing poetry or are you writing the music first and then the lyric?

Ms. HADERO: It really depends on the song. But it is poetry, you know, lyrics are poetry. But I've never been tempted to write poetry without music. For me, you know, just in terms of my artistic process its all kind of one in the same thing. But yeah, it is poetry. It's a different understanding coming forward.

KEYES: Meklit, thanks for taking us on such a beautiful journey.

Ms. HADERO: Thank you. Thank you.

KEYES: Meklit Hadero is a singer-songwriter. Her new album is called On A Day Like This. She joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. To find out more about Meklit and to hear more of her songs, please go to the program page of NPR.org and select TELL ME MORE.

I wonder what song you think we should go out on today?

Ms. HADERO: Well, I would love to go out by playing "Walk Up For You."

(Soundbite of song, "Walk Up For You")

Ms. HADERO: (Singing) Walk up, walk up straight through the roof. Straight through the hole in the ceiling. Take your place in the sky. Oh, look around at the clouds. They hold you. They hold you. And the birds surround you. The birds surround you. They circle you and make a tornado from the air. Oh, it feels just like you dreamed. Just like you dreamed. Oh, your shoulders are clear. They have given up the weights and they're not so weights, the weights, the weights. Who knew this would be easy. When you let it go, ooh it would be easy. And you suddenly think of the kings and the poets from the past and how they must've felt just like this on a day like this. On a day like this. Oh, oh.

KEYES: That's our program for today. I'm Allison Keyes and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Lets talk more tomorrow.

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