feature: a conversation with cellist and singer leyla mccalla

April 6, 2015

Leyla McCalla, a classically trained multi-instrumentalist and folk singing extraordinaire had a whirlwind year back in 2014. Her debut album Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes cements McCalla’s connection to the past where the artist pays homage to both Renaissance great Langston Hughes and her Haitians roots. And since the release of her freshman feat, she’s gained the attention of industry gatekeepers and everyday people alike. The New York Times gave that album a respectable review and Tavis Smiley sat down with the singer back in April. The artist, deserving of all the attention and praise. McCalla’s voice was made to make known the sounds of folk music. She has a serene delivery that almost seems effortless; embedding hints of melancholic tones throughout her songs. Her brand of music is what some call “niche music” but it’s nonetheless rich in its content, depositing bits of history with pure heart and soul. On an afternoon back in February, Leyla chatted while on a walk with her beautiful daughter Delilah. The artist talked freely about a variety of topics, which ranged from the complexities of motherhood to balancing her busy life.  

By Andrea Dwyer, AFROPUNK Contributor



Andrea: 2014 was a big year for you in so many ways. You released an album back in February, tied the knot, had a baby girl, and you went on tour with your family as well. How did you balance it all?


Leyla McCalla: Well, when I was pregnant I did yoga every morning which really helped center and ground me. It’s kinda like when certain things come in your life, you just figure it out and I think that’s what I did. I never imagined that all of those things would be happening at the same time. I thought, okay, I wanna make a record and I told my mom that I wanted to have a baby but at the time I wasn’t ready to do the latter. From that conversation my mom advised me to focus on the album but those things all happened at the same time [laughs]. I knew that both of those things were right, but I also had a great reference of how I could balance a music career and family. When I was touring with the Carolina Chocolate Drops [Grammy award winning], Rhiannon Giddens traveled with her family. I knew having a child wouldn’t slow me down too much, well, at least it’s slowed me down in all the right ways.



Andrea: So from that experience it was sort of a no brainer to bring your family along with you while touring?


LM: Yeah. It’s a bit complicated figuring out how much I can tour. I’m just trying to figure out how to make it all work within my family. I’m cognizant of my husband’s schedule; he’s an electrician my day, but he’s also a great musician [five string banjo and guitar] and we’ve started playing music together. Playing together has opened up a new chapter for us, which is exciting.

Andrea: I typically don’t delve in too deep about spouses but can you tell us how you two met?


LM: Sure. We actually met at a bar in New Orleans. He walked up to the bar, I heard his voice and we just started talking right away. We’ve pretty much been inseparable ever since. People don’t normally go to bars to meet the love of your life but I did [laughs].


Andrea: What about motherhood? Is it everything you expected it to be?


LM: No [laughs]. I don’t know what I was expecting but I think it’s more complex than I could ever put into words. Caring for another human being twenty-four-seven is a really special thing; I love my daughter so much. She’s six months and I feel like we’re getting really close- she definitely knows who I am. In the beginning I couldn’t even tell if she recognized me as her mother, and so I think that was kinda hard for me at first.


As far as preparing myself, I read up on so much stuff about parenting prior to giving birth but I skipped every chapter on postpartum. I had no idea I was going to feel such a wide range of emotions. It took me a while to catch up to myself. It was really intense but now I feel like the love and bond between her and I is really beautiful.

Andrea: I see. Can you speak a little more about the postpartum period and how truly complex it is for moms?


LM: I think that I tend to be really hard on myself. It was difficult not being able to do things the way I thought they should be done. You know, I thought, I traveled with this baby when I was eight months pregnant and I was fine but I was too hard in those early postpartum period. I never had postpartum depression or anything of that sort but my hormones were going all over the place. I guess the advice I would give other moms is to be easy on yourself. A friend of mine always says the postpartum period is “the shortest, longest time.” It takes time to build confidence as a mom and I’m still learning that. There are so many things in our society preventing women from feeling like confident moms…Even when addressing maternal leave, that period most working mothers have to bond with their child is simply not long enough. I can’t imagine being separated from your child so soon. Our government does very little to make that postpartum period sacred. I’m really lucky to have had that time with my child. I’m her primary caretaker and even though I have a lot to balance, working from home and touring, I’m still very grateful for that period where we really bonded.



Andrea: You’re of Haitian decent. Can you tell us more about your background?

LM: Sure. Both of my parents immigrated to the States in the sixties during the Duvalier era. My mom immigrated when she was five years old and my father when he was thirteen. My grandfather actually ran a Haitian socialist newspaper called Haiti Progress; my parents actually met because of the newspaper. My father went on to become an executive director of a Haitian human rights organization called The National Coalition For Haitian Rights and my mother went on to become a founder of a Haitian human rights organization called Dwa Famn. I’ve been surrounded by some really liberal, progressive thinking, all my life. Through my parents I learned so much history about Haiti. My family, we never really spoke Haitian Creole exclusively at home but I did spend a summer with my grandmother when I was ten in La Plain which is a neighborhood in Port Au Prince. I came back from that trip being fluent in Creole but I’ve since lost a lot of my connection to the language. It wasn’t until I moved to New Orleans in 2010 while learning about the history of the Louisiana Creole people that I started to feel really connected again to my Haitian roots. I was learning about these different forms of music: troubadour, banjo tradition in Haiti in the 1700 and 1800’s. There was this huge migration of Haitians from Saint Domingue, now Haiti, that came to Louisiana and I was so intrigued by that history. That’s really where my heart is in so many ways, and it became a part of the record. I did a lot of research on Langston Hughes and wrote a lot of music to his poetry–I knew that would be an album one day. The more I worked on the Langston tribute, the more I felt I was coming into my creative spirit and that’s what Vari-Colored Songs is all about–learning how to express my creativity and finding my voice.


Andrea: You touched on my next question. The making of the album was quite a process for you. Take us through that process–from inception to completion.


LM: I knew that I wanted to make an album for a while, around the time I moved to New Orleans in 2010.  I had a collections of songs that I thought were pretty good but I was a little unsure how to go about making the album happen. That’s when I met Tim Duffy from the Music Maker Relief Foundation. He had met my sister and decided to approach me in the streets, back when I was playing in the French Quarter. When he met me, he kept saying that he really felt like there was something special about me, I later told him about my Langston Hughes project. To make a long story short, I recorded some demos when I was in New York, which I sent to Tim. He thought it was amazing stuff. He later became my manager and got me connected with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who I began touring with. The constructive criticism that was given by Tim and Rhiannon from the Carolina Chocolate Drops was great but I needed to do some work, particularly on my voice. After touring with the Chocolate Drops for a few years, I knew the album needed to happen so I started a Kickstarter campaign. I thought I knew all the expenses related to making an album so my fundraising goal was initially 5,000. I basically raised the 5,000 within the first two or three days and I also applied for a grant with the Louisiana State Arts Council, which I got. The Kickstarter video really painted a perfect picture of where I was coming from and what I wanted to do with my project. After I met my Kickstarter goal, the folks at Kickstarter really believed in my project so they posted my video on their weekly newsletter, which went out to about a million people. I had so many supporters from all corners of the earth; New Zealand, Spain, Ireland, you name it. This made the process so much more exciting. I knew then that making my album was meant to be. The campaign ran for thirty days, I then hired a publicist and there was this real team behind my project. Also, it was such a great learning process for me. I learned so much about financing and the amount of work it takes to put something out into the world. I’m really proud of how it came out and I’m also looking forward to making another one.


Andrea: You spoke earlier about playing your music in the streets. What was your reasoning behind wanting to do that?


LM: I did it partially out of survival and a big part of it was needing to play my cello more often than when I was in New York. When I was in New York I had so much going on, I wasn’t practicing my cello everyday. I was bar tending, teaching, playing forty different projects that I wasn’t all that excited about. I felt New Orleans gave me the opportunity to slow down a little bit and hear the music I wanted to make. After years of studying classical music, I felt like I wanted to learn the music better and so it was great in that way. I memorized a lot of the Bach Cello Suites from that experience. It also really connected me with my instrument and the New Orleans musical community at a time when I really needed that. It was definitely the right thing to do at that time.



Andrea: So I started listening to your music around spring of last year. There are so many tracks that I love but I especially connected to Mesi Bondye. What’s been the typical reaction to your music?



LM: I think people really like it. The feedback has been really positive from the shows I’ve done locally as well as while on tour. I think people enjoy the songs and enjoy learning more about Haitian folk music. There aren’t a lot of people in the folk world who are out there talking about Haitian folk music, or, at least if they are I don’t know about them. I feel like there’s a soul revival going on. You watch MTV and you can see people playing acoustic guitars and banjos, which was not the case around five/ ten years ago. Talking about Haiti and Louisiana offers more of a history of that music, people are interested in that. You know, it’s kinda funny my mom sort of jokes about me doing more mainstream music but that’s not the goal- my music is more of a niche. The Haitian people who come to my shows are very grateful and proud, so that’s been very motivational for me. On the other end, I’ve felt self-conscious at times; after all I did grow up in suburban New Jersey and went to NYU. I’m not trying to be the Haitian anything or the New Orleans anything. I’m just really passionate about this history and sharing my music so that feedback feels really good. That’s what I focus on; creating the most honest work that I can make. It would be weird to write an album full of love songs and try to be mainstream. I don’t think I could do that. Maybe I could, but I wouldn’t feel right doing it. 


Andrea: “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” is one of your favorite albums. What did the album do for you at the time and what does it do for you now?


LM: Well that’s another kind of point of pride for me because Lauryn Hill went to the same high school as I went to, Columbia High School, so everyone in my town sort of claims her, she our homegirl. Also, just the fact that she was in The Fugees and what they did to sort of elevate the consciousness about immigration and those sorts of things. Lauryn is amazing, her voice is magical. Not a lot of people can be super fierce and super vulnerable at the same time. That’s one of the things I love so much about that album–there’s this full spectrum of emotions in her music and in her songs–you can feel it. Also, she shared some really powerful messages for people in the black community. There weren’t a lot of female artists spearheading causes at the time. I know there’s a lot of back story about that album, her relationship with Wyclef. I think that was really brave of her to put that all down. I wanna hear more from her. Yeah, I love that album, it’s so special. Do you know the year that album came out?


Andrea: Not the specific year off the top of my head but I was in middle school, so 98/99.


LM: Yeah. I feel like it’s been ten years at least. The album still sounds super fresh and packs the punch that it did then. You listen to some music from back in the day and it doesn’t sound as fresh, it’s so out dated but not that album at all.

Andrea: In five years, you’d love to be doing what as it pertains to your career?


LM: I’ll be relaxing on a beach somewhere, no, just kidding. I think five years from now I hope to have released at least two more albums. I might have another kid, I figure Delilah will need someone to play with, even though that sounds totally overwhelming to say out loud. My hope is that by then I’ll have greater resources available to me, so I hope to still be traveling and creating more music. I hope I get my music out to more people; more support, because I think that’s what most artists need. I do have a lot of support, a lot of the right people believe and are interested in what I’m doing but more support nonetheless. I hope my tours are bigger and better, you know, having a better balance of home and life on the road. Hopefully, a visit to Haiti. That’s something I hope to make happen when Delilah gets older.


 Andrea: What’s next for you as far as projects and touring goes?


LM: I want to collaborate on creative projects that are musically satisfying. I’m in the planning stages of a second album. I’m excited to figure out who’ll be collaborating with me on the project but I have options; there are a lot of really interesting Louisiana artists who are involved in Haitian music. I know now that making an album is possible so I’m just trying to figure out what the best route is to do that. There are a lot of question marks there, but I feel like I’m at a good place.





*  Andrea Dwyer is a lover of her very Jamaican family. She’s a writer at Super.Selected and you can follow her on Twitter @musingandrea.