Interview: Cécile McLorin Salvant

The multi-Grammy Award-winning singer Cécile McLorin Salvant tells us about her two International Festival performances and the radical potential of jazz

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 4 minutes
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Courtesy of the artist
Published 25 Jul 2023

"For the last ten years or so, a lot of my audience have come along expecting a straight ahead jazz singer,” says multi-award-winning artist Cécile McLorin Salvant, chatting over the phone while she strolls near her apartment in Brooklyn. "That’s fine of course, but it’s also overlooking a huge part of my interests and maybe denying what jazz really is. Jazz has long been associated with radical ideas, it has a rich feminist history. Jazz is also very gay, historically it’s very queer music!"

Salvant has made a name for herself with her spellbinding cocktail of jazz, blues, folk, vaudeville and musical theatre, with some voodoo, modern feminism, political activism and ancient mythology stirred into the potent mix too. She has won three Grammys and last year’s album Ghost Song, made The New York Times and NPR’s album of the year lists.

She brings two performances to Edinburgh; the first is the UK premiere of her dark fairy-tale musical Ogresse, the second is a solo concert of reimagined jazz standards and rare musical discoveries sung in French, English, Occitan or Haitian Creole, featuring new tracks from her latest album Mélusine.

Ogresse was partly inspired by the true story of Saartje Baartman, a black South African woman exhibited in European ‘freak shows’ during the 19th century, where people paid to look at her large buttocks. Salvant has a Haitian father and French mother and grew up listening to a broad range of music styles from her mother’s travels in Africa, South America and Europe. She incorporated Haitian goddess folklore into Ogresse, with 17 songs drawing from country, folk, baroque and jazz styles.

“Performing Ogresse is tiring, it’s emotionally and physically draining. I almost go into a trance-like state to carry the story, along with the 13-piece band. I’m really in it, believing it, I go somewhere else,” she explains.

Salvant describes her story of a forest dwelling lovesick monster as ‘a heartbreaking tale with black comedy and romance’. “For Ogresse I exaggerated the female character’s blackness and fatness. It deals with the male gaze. It asks questions – like what is female beauty? What is fatphobia? I cry about the issues it touches on, but I have to laugh at them and make light of them too. It’s hard waking up every day and having to deal with sexism and racism and body horror, but we do.”

Mélusine is based on a story written in the 1300s about a beautiful half woman, half snake who is seen skinnydipping in the Fountain of Thirst by a grief stricken man called Raymondin. From there, Salvant weaves in her own songwriting and storytelling with adaptations of jazz songs including ‘Il m’a vue nue’, originally sung by the French entertainer Mistinguett in the 1920s. 

“It’s funny because that song is intensely prudish. Mistinguett is acting coy and pure and innocent because a man has seen her naked, but obviously we’re listening knowing she’s putting on an act. We know she’s been around the block. There’s a power in that performance of femininity. Women still do it – act shy when they are hooking up with a guy. They are protecting their reputation and bamboozling him at the same time. They are being a con and a lot of guys are dupes; some men aren’t interested in female sexuality at all.”

The patriarchy, white supremacy and gender politics will all be explored during Salvant’s two evenings in Edinburgh, where a strong visual aesthetic plays a key role alongside her striking voice. She will perform in costume, with her own vivid, multicoloured artworks projected around the stage.

“For women, of course it’s great to walk into a room and be appreciated for our beauty, maybe to be considered stunning, but we also want to be appreciated for being individual. To know that we are adding something new to the monolith of being a woman.”