People Who Make NY Special

Dreams, Daggers, and Cécile McLorin Salvant

This young Grammy nominee, powerhouse vocalist, and headliner—interviewed here by WSWD music expert Meera Dugal—is taking the music scene by storm.

Photograph by Mark Fitton

With an adventurous and, at times, subversive repertoire and emotionally riveting delivery, Cécile McLorin Salvant is doing her part to disrupt the jazz scene and breathe life into the genre for new audiences. Her voice spans as many octaves as it does emotions—she is able to live inside the lyrics of a song in a way that is raw, vulnerable, and magnetic. At just 28 years old, the bluesy singer has a Grammy under her belt and just got nominated for another for her third album, Dreams and Daggers, recorded live at the Village Vanguard. Between touring; prepping for her special guest appearance at the Big Easy on the Hudson concert at Symphony Space alongside pianist Aaron Diehl, which took place on December 13; and getting ready to kick off 2018 with a tour in France, What Should We Do?! music expert Meera Dugal had a chance to steal a few moments to discuss Salvant’s new album, the ghosts of the Vanguard, and why you should learn to sing like your grandma.

Meera Dugal: Congrats on your new album, Dreams and Daggers, recorded live at the Village Vanguard! What was the first show you ever attended there?
Cécile McLorin Salvant: 
Thanks! I went to see Fred Hersch play with his trio. It was the first concert I saw in the city. So beautiful.

Dugal: What were you most excited or anxious about while recording a live album in one of New York City’s most historic clubs?
Salvant: What’s strange to me is that the recording part wasn’t as exciting or stressful as the idea of playing in such a legendary club! It felt like there were ghosts there.

Dugal: On this album, you include a few of your original tunes alongside beloved standards. What was your writing process for these songs? Do you have a line you’re particularly in love with?
Salvant: The songs were written as bridges. There is an interplay between my compositions and the standards we play on this record. They’re almost like responses or developments or variations on the songs we played at the club. My favorite place to write is at the piano. I’m in love with none of the lines I write! I tolerate them!

Dugal: Critics often invoke the names of Betty Carter, Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughan when talking about your sound. If you could spend a day in the city with one of your musical influences, who would it be and where would you take them?
Salvant: I would love to spend a day with Babs Gonzales. He was a really eccentric singer and poet. A character. I would ask him to take me to his favorite spot in New York. Which unfortunately might now be a Sephora or Starbucks. We could get matching makeovers or macchiatos there and reminisce.

Dugal: You have such an incredible range, one that spans the grittiest lows and the devastatingly delicate highs. What advice would you give to emerging singers about embracing the raw power of their voices and not always needing to sound “clean and pretty”?
Salvant: Thank you! My advice would be to unlearn everything a vocal teacher has taught you and try to sing like your grandma.

Dugal: Who is one NYC artist you recommend we check out?
Salvant: Johnny O’Neal, for a guaranteed good time.

Dugal: What are your favorite city spots for discovering new music?
Salvant: I follow friends of mine to their spots, where they introduce me to new music. Could be Mezzrow, the Village Vanguard, Rockwood, or someone’s apartment. I also really enjoy (Le) Poisson Rouge and the general vibe of Town Hall

Dugal: In addition to your music, you’re a phenomenal visual artist—what are your favorite museums/galleries in the city?
Salvant: Thank you! I love the Whitney, of course. My favorite sculpture, by Marisol, is there. I like the classics like the Metropolitan Museum and the Frick, and the New Museum has some nice expos quite often.

Dugal: If WSWD planned a day for you in New York City, what would it include?
Salvant: I’ll make it logistically impossible since it’s just a dream! A morning walk in the North Woods in Central Park. A coffee at Konditori in Fort Greene. Some kind of a museum (or Chelsea gallery) situation, with art that is ugly and trying to be challenging. Japonica for lunch. Afternoon nap. Window-shopping at Henrik Vibskov. Afternoon mediocre hot dog. Early movie at Angelika. Check out the late set at the Village Vanguard. Shameful Donut Pub binge very late at night.

Cécile McLorin Salvant’s Faves…in a NY Minute

cécile mclorin salvant

Favorite NYC-themed movie?
Do the Right Thing.

Live music venue?
Village Vanguard.

Brunch spot?
Nom Wah Tea Parlor (for dim sum).

Bookshop?
Housing Works or Books Are Magic.

Place to people-watch?
The subway.

Shop to buy a performance outfit?
Issey Miyake!

Piece of street art?
Anything by Invader.