For Thanksgiving, A Chain Of Musical Gratitude

Nov 24, 2016
Originally published on November 24, 2016 5:27 pm

For the second year in a row, the annual All Things Considered Thanksgiving music chat is a multi-part conversation. Host Ari Shapiro welcomes four musicians, each of whom was named by one of his or her fellow guests as an artist to be thankful for.

The chain begins with Shapiro's pick: British soul singer-songwriter Laura Mvula. Hear all four interviews at the audio link on this page, and read excerpts below.

Laura Mvula

On the song "Phenomenal Woman": "I was listening to a YouTube clip of Maya Angelou reciting her poem 'Phenomenal Woman,' and even though I had heard the poem many times before, this was the first time that ... I breathed the words in and took them very much to heart and mind. And then this was my response. It's an anthem for women, and I feel like I get to celebrate my grandmother. I get to celebrate my mom, my sister and my own womanhood in that song."

On performing "Cinnamon Tree" with Esperanza Spalding: "I had the pleasure of dueting this song in concert with her in London one time. ... This is off of her record which was a couple of years old, and so I think she said to me, 'Girl, I've forgotten how to play this tune.' ... And then she picked up the bass and just played it like she played it yesterday. I was like, 'Whatever.'"

Esperanza Spalding

On the song "Cinnamon Tree": "I wrote that song for a friend of mine ... We used to hang out a lot, but we would see each other really rarely. And we started to develop these kind of shorthand check-ins, since we had so little time with each other. And one of them became 'Cinnamon Tree.' It was just a phrase to mean, 'I miss you' or 'There you are' or 'I'm happy to see you.' ... We had never described what that term actually meant, so I decided I was going to write a song to describe what we were actually saying. So it's actually a song about gratitude and friendship."

On Corey King: "I first met Corey King when he was known as a trombonist and a part-time arranger, and at that time, Corey was a very, very shy person, but I always felt this twinkle in his eye. He seemed like somebody who's figured out a secret that you're still working on, but he's generous enough that he's not going to reveal it, you know? And I just felt this magnetism to his intellect and his creativity ... His music doesn't sound like anything that I am familiar with."

Corey King

On the song "Midnight Chris": "That song is about my brother, and him kind of struggling with drug abuse in the past. And the ambient sounds of that was my way of soundtracking his experience with those things. ... We grew up on the southeast side of Houston actually, and we weren't really an athletic family — we were more artistic. ... So I think he was just kind of dealing with being himself in the South. And he just kind of succumbed to drugs back in the day and went through a lot."

On Michaela Anne: "Coming from high school and going to college and everything, I was just really, really inside of myself. And Michaela was one of the people who was so loving and generous, and we really became good friends during that time. And we didn't really make much music in college, but when she started making records and when I started hearing her sing, I was really blown away by her poetry and just her presence."

Michaela Anne

On her chosen style of music: "I sang jazz in school, and I love that art form so much, but it never felt true for me delivering it. So I think in my writing, as well as my actual singing voice, that it just lent itself to — although it's a blurry genre these days — to country, Americana, whatever you want to call it."

On the artist she's thankful for: "I don't sing soul music in the way that we think of soul music as the genre, but Otis Redding's singing and music has been, from a young age, a really strong influence and inspiration to me ... I think he has one of the greatest voices we've ever had the pleasure of hearing on this earth, and it conveys so much emotion and love and pain and joy. And as a singer and a songwriter, my goal in life is to be able to convey even a fraction of what I think he does and what I feel when I listen to him."

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

And this Thanksgiving we are returning to a musical tradition. For the second year in a row, we're going to talk about, and talk to, musicians we're thankful for. And I get to kick it off with a British artist who released an album earlier this year, Laura Mvula.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OVERCOME")

LAURA MVULA: (Singing) Take your broken wings and fly.

SHAPIRO: This is her song overcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OVERCOME")

MVULA: (Singing) When your head is hanging low, low, low and the tears, they keep falling...

SHAPIRO: Laura Mvula, welcome to the program, and thank you for helping us to celebrate this American holiday.

MVULA: Hello, and happy Thanksgiving.

SHAPIRO: Well, thank you. I was trying to find the words to describe why I am thankful for your music. And then I realized that someone on this album describes it better than I could.

MVULA: Mhmm.

(LAUGHTER)

MVULA: I think - who is this? Who is this person?

SHAPIRO: I think you can guess.

MVULA: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NAN")

MVULA: (Imitating Nan) Hello?

Hi, Nan.

(Imitating Nan) Hello?

Nan?

(Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NAN")

MVULA: (Imitating Nan) Well, write a song that can lift me spirits.

OK.

Write a song I can jig me foot.

(Laughter) OK, I'll try.

SHAPIRO: Who are we hearing?

MVULA: Well, you're hearing me doing an impression of my grandmother.

SHAPIRO: Oh, that's not actually your grandmother?

MVULA: It's not actually her. And I feel like every time I tell that to somebody, it kind of disappoints listeners who have taken her...

SHAPIRO: It's almost more intriguing this way.

MVULA: Yeah, I think so. And also, it was my way of paying tribute to her. She brought ten children, was raised in St. Kitts in the Caribbean, brought her children over in the '50s to live in Birmingham in the U.K. and has just sort of seen so much in her lifetime. And so I wanted to hear her on the record, you know? And I knew I wasn't going to get her to come in...

SHAPIRO: Why not?

MVULA: ...The studio, so...

SHAPIRO: Why wouldn't she have done that?

MVULA: I don't really feel like my nan is aware too much of what my music is about. I mean, she is there for me in the most simplistic way, which is are you eating well? Are you sleeping well? I remember you in my prayers. Everything else, especially all of this sort of showbizzy things that come with making music these days in the mainstream, she just doesn't - she's not interested.

SHAPIRO: So on this album when you're doing the voice of your nan, she says, make a song I can jig me foot to, I can tap my foot to. What song do you think does that the most for her?

MVULA: Probably "Phenomenal Woman."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PHENOMENAL WOMAN")

MVULA: (Singing) Nobody ever told her she was beauty. One day she realized she was already free.

"Phenomenal Woman" came after a moment when I was listening to a YouTube clip of Maya Angelou reciting her poem "Phenomenal Woman." And even though I'd heard the poem many times before, this was the first time that I felt like it. I breathed the words in and took them very much to heart and mind. And then this was my response.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PHENOMENAL WOMAN")

MVULA: (Singing) Oh, my, my, oh my, she flies. Oh, my, my, oh, my, she flies. mean, Oh, my, my, oh, my...

It's an anthem for women. And I feel like I get to celebrate my grandmother. I get to celebrate my mom, my sister and my - my own womanhood in that song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PHENOMENAL WOMAN")

MVULA: (Singing) She battled trials and every kind of tribulation. She reveled in adventure and imagination. She never listened to no hater, liar, breaking boundaries and chasing fire. Oh, my, my...

SHAPIRO: Now you get to move this chain forward and tell us about an artist that you're feeling thankful for.

MVULA: Well, in order to pass it forward, I need to go back when I met Ms. Esperanza Spalding after a show she'd done at Ronnie Scott's in London.

SHAPIRO: Ronnie Scott's is a famous jazz club in the Soho neighborhood of London.

MVULA: That's right. And you know when you admire someone from afar for a long period of time and then you just hope and pray if you ever get the chance to meet them that they are what they say on the (unintelligible)...

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Yes, I know exactly what you mean.

MVULA: ...You know what I mean? Because sometimes it's not the way. But with Esperanza, she was all that and more and since then has been.

SHAPIRO: For people who aren't familiar, Esperanza Spalding is a jazz bassist who also sings. She's from Portland, Ore., my hometown. And so you've reached across the Atlantic Ocean to choose somebody you feel thankful for. What song would you like us to play of hers?

MVULA: I had the pleasure of dueting this song in concert with her in London one time. This is "Cinnamon Tree."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CINNAMON TREE")

ESPERANZA SPALDING: (Singing) Cinnamon tree, graceful and free. We meet just once in a while, but the spice in your smile is magic to me.

MVULA: What was funny when she did this in London because it - this is off of her record which is a couple of years old. And so I think she said to me, girl, I've forgotten how to play this jingle. We were playing with orchestra. And you know when you think, oh, great she's human. And then she picked up the bass and just played it like she played it yesterday.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MVULA: I was like, whatever.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: We're going to speak to her as soon as we're done with you. What would you like to tell her on this Thanksgiving Day?

MVULA: Baby girl, honey queen, thank you for being who you are. Thank you for teaching me and so many others and keep on keepin' on. I love you.

SHAPIRO: Laura Mvula, what a pleasure. Thank you so much.

MVULA: You're welcome. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CINNAMON TREE")

SPALDING: (Singing) Times I'm weak and need someone to turn to, you share your flavor, ease my misery.

SHAPIRO: And we're joined now by Esperanza Spalding on the line from Brooklyn. Welcome and happy Thanksgiving.

SPALDING: Happy Thanksgiving. Oh, my goodness. You just floored me. I have no words or sounds or thoughts. I'm so filled with gratitude hearing those generous, kind, loving words from my dear sister Laura Mvula. Oh, my goodness.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell us a little bit about the song that she chose, "Cinnamon Tree?" It's from your 2012 album "Radio Music Society."

SPALDING: Yeah. I wrote that song for a friend of mine named Bettina Chin (ph), who's this super brilliant, supremely intelligent, creative soul. And we used to hang out a lot, but we would see each other really rarely. And we started to, like, develop these kind of short-hand check-ins since we had so little time with each other. And one of them became cinnamon tree.

It was just, like, a phrase to mean I miss you or there you are or I'm happy to see you. And I decided that I was going to write a song for her about a cinnamon tree and I was going to unpackaged it, you know? We had never described what that term actually meant, so I decided I was going to write a song to describe what we were actually saying. So it's actually a song about gratitude and friendship.

SHAPIRO: How appropriate.

SPALDING: How appropriate.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CINNAMON TREE")

SPALDING: (Singing) Oh, you give all that you are and just keep on growing. Your fragrance lives in all who love you, cinnamon tree.

SHAPIRO: You came out with a new album this year called "Emily's D+Evolution." And it sounds very different from what we just heard.

SPALDING: Yeah, it does. I was working for Emily. My job on that record, I felt, was to really bring to life the sound and the energy and the movement of this character named Emily that was moving through me.

SHAPIRO: Which is also your middle name.

SPALDING: It is, exactly. And it was my middle game being this character in her way of engaging on the stage with her fellow musicians and with the fellow characters that she meets in this story, this D-plus evolution that she goes through throughout the course of the live performance.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD LAVA")

SPALDING: (Singing) See this pretty girl. Watch this pretty girl flow.

SHAPIRO: When you know that an audience has fallen in love with the way you do the color red, is it at all scary to suddenly do the color blue and wonder if the audience will still love the different color you're doing now?

SPALDING: It's always scary but not because you're afraid people won't like your color blue - I mean, as opposed to your color red. I didn't identify enough, I guess, with being a red-color painter personally. I always knew I had access to all the colors in the rainbow.

I suppose it's really just a matter of inviting audiences or inviting fellow musicians into the other colors. You know, if it feels like a - like it's fun, let's go play and run around outside.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

SPALDING: We know what's in this room. Like, let's go explore the other rooms in the mansion. So it feels more like that rather than, like, oh, I hope you won't be upset if I've only shown you the library and there's also, like, a game room, you know?

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Well, Esperanza Spalding, it is your turn to keep this train moving down the tracks.

SPALDING: Wooo...

SHAPIRO: Tell us who you are grateful for. Name a musician.

SPALDING: The musician I would like to speak about is Corey King.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IBARAKI")

COREY KING: (Singing) Leaning on the settling mound impeached by the hums of sweltering mouths that label.

SHAPIRO: OK, tell us about Corey King.

SPALDING: I first met Corey King when he was known as a trombonist and a part-time arranger. And at that time, Corey was a very, very shy person. But I always felt this twinkle in his eye. Like - he seemed like somebody who's figured out a secret that you're still working on. But he's, like, generous enough that he's not going to reveal it, you know? And I - I just felt like this magnetism to his intellect and his creativity. And I - I just knew there was something huge going on there, you know? His music doesn't sound like anything that I am familiar with. And I know it takes a lot of courage, particularly knowing how shy he is, to keep showing up every day making his own sound. And it's so - it's been so inspiring watching him over the last two years just carve away at this phenomenal record called "Lashes."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IBARAKI")

KING: (Singing) You and I and all that's around, the feast for the lust and sentenced somehow. We're the same old chained song.

SHAPIRO: Esperanza Spalding, thank you for joining us on this journey and happy Thanksgiving.

SHAPIRO: Thank you, Ari. Happy Thanksgiving.

(SOUNDBITE OF COREY KING SONG, "IBARAKI")

SHAPIRO: And now Corey King is on the line with us. Corey, welcome to the program.

KING: Hey.

SHAPIRO: So I've got to ask how you felt hearing what Esperanza just said.

KING: Wow. Esperanza always - she just always brings something out of me. And to hear that, wow, it's really inspiring and thankful and just feel blessed.

SHAPIRO: I wonder if you recognize the Corey King that she was describing there - shy, determined not to be put in a box. You know, she said you wouldn't let yourself be squashed. Does that sound to you like the kind of musician you see yourself as?

KING: Yeah, it does (laughter). Well, for me, I kind of just grab from all the things that I'm really inspired by. I feel like I just kind of just put it all together. I wasn't - I guess I was just trying to express myself and just write stuff that kind of made sense to me, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF COREY KING SONG, "MIDNIGHT CHRIS")

KING: There's an interlude track on there. It's called "Midnight Chris." That song is about my brother and him kind of struggling with, you know, drug abuse in the past. And just the ambient sounds of that was my way of sound-tracking his experience, you know, with those things.

(SOUNDBITE OF COREY KING SONG, "MIDNIGHT CHRIS")

SHAPIRO: If it's not too personal, can you tell us a little bit about your brother Chris?

KING: Yeah. My brother, he's a very intelligent human being and really inspiring and has a really big heart. We grew up on the southeast side of Houston, actually. And weren't really, like, an athletic family. We were more artistic.

My mom - my mother's - she's a singer, and she played a lot of classical piano when she was younger. So I think he was just kind of dealing with just, you know, being himself in the South. And he just kind of you know succumb to drugs back in that day and went through a lot, you know?

SHAPIRO: Is he sober now?

KING: Yeah, he is.

SHAPIRO: What did your brother say when you played that for him?

KING: I don't think he's heard it yet (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Really?

KING: Yeah, I haven't really had a chance to get down - get back to Houston and play that for him.

SHAPIRO: Well, he might've just heard it. Happy Thanksgiving, Chris.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Well, Corey King, it's time for you to tell us who you are thankful for this Thanksgiving. Which musician do you want to tap to be next in the chain?

KING: I choose Michaela Neller.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRIGHT LIGHTS AND THE FAME")

MICHAELA ANNE: (Singing) You struck me as the type of man I'd love and lose alone, a rambling man with a beat-up plan, dreams of hitting gold.

SHAPIRO: I love that you've chosen her because she is so different from you. Tell us about her.

KING: I met Michaela when I was about 19 or 20 at The New School for jazz contemporary music.

SHAPIRO: In New York.

KING: In New York, yeah. At that age when you go on in a conservatory and stuff, you really kind of inward coming from high school and, you know, going to college and everything. You know, I was just really, really inside of myself. And Michaela was one of the people who was so loving and generous, man, and we really became good friends during that time.

And we didn't really make much music in college. But when she started making records and when I started hearing her sing, I was really blown away by her poetry and just her presence. You know, in jazz school, a lot of people are, like, practicing and trying to get all this information and just to kind of push it out to the world. But I saw something that's different in her. She was really, really just making music and aware of her surroundings, and she was really using that stuff. And she's become a really inspiring storyteller and singer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF ONLY")

ANNE: (Singing) It doesn't feel like we've never touched. When I think of you, my skin heats up.

KING: Michaela, I'm really thankful for you. I'm blessed to be able to call you a friend. And please just keep being the pure, generous, loving person that you are and continue to influence people and inspire people through your story and your writing, you know, and just being you.

SHAPIRO: Well, Corey King, thank you for spending part of this Thanksgiving with us. It's been great talking to you.

KING: Thank you. You too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF ONLY")

ANNE: (Singing) What could have been would have been if only, ooh, ooh.

SHAPIRO: And Michaela Anne joins us now from Nashville. Welcome to the program and happy Thanksgiving.

ANNE: Thank you so much. Happy Thanksgiving.

SHAPIRO: And we should explain, your real last name is Neller, which is why Corey referred to you as Michaela Neller. But you perform as Michaela Anne. First, how do you react to what you just heard him say?

ANNE: You know, as a musician, you're - you're often so insular and you're not always aware of any impact or influence that you have. So it's a really nice moment when you get to hear, especially from a friend, how what you do impacts them.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell us a little about the song that we were just listening to?

ANNE: Yeah, that's a song called "If Only." And as a songwriter, we all - we have wild imaginations (laughter). And I'm a big daydreamer. And so I often always think of just different scenarios and what could have happened and what didn't happen and if something was different.

And my dad was in the military, so I grew up moving all the time, so I was constantly leaving friends and people in my life. So I especially wondered in so many different situations, well, what would have happened if I had spoken up or if so-and-so had spoken up or if I hadn't left or if we had more time? So that song is - is about that scenario and kind of wondering if you missed a chance with somebody.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF ONLY")

ANNE: (Singing) And I think I know you in your soul, like we met many lives ago. Too many false starts and ends, second-guessing every time we talked.

SHAPIRO: Was there a moment that you decided to be a country musician? Did you try on different hats and see what fit?

ANNE: I sang jazz in school, and I just - I love that artform so much. But I never felt - it never felt true for me delivering it. So I think - in my writing as well as my actual singing voice that it just lent itself to the kind of - although it's a blurry genre these days of country, Americana, whatever you want to call it.

SHAPIRO: Well, Michaela Anne, we've reached the end of this Thanksgiving musical chain of gratitude. And before we say goodbye, will you just leave us with a musician that you are thankful for this year?

ANNE: So I actually chose someone who is no longer with us. And I chose the first person that popped into my head when I was asked to please choose a singer or musician, and I'm choosing Otis Redding.

SHAPIRO: What do you want us to play of his?

ANNE: And I'm going to ask to play "A Change Is Gonna Come."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CHANGE IS GONNA COME")

OTIS REDDING: (Singing) I was born by the river in this little old little tent. And, oh, just like this river I've been running ever since.

SHAPIRO: Why was this the name that popped into your head?

ANNE: One, he's very different from me. I don't sing soul music in the way that we think of soul music as the genre. But Otis Redding's singing and music has been, from a young age, a really strong influence and inspiration to me on what I want to be able to convey as a singer and a musician. I think he has one of the greatest voices we've ever had the pleasure of hearing on this earth, and it conveys so much emotion and love and pain and joy. And as a singer and a songwriter, I just - my goal in life is to be able to convey even a fraction of what - what I think he does and what I feel when I listen to him. I hope somebody sometime feels something akin to that when they hear what I do.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CHANGE IS GONNA COME")

REDDING: (Singing) I said brother, brother, I'm down on my knees. It's been a time that I thought the darkness could last very long, oh, now, oh...

SHAPIRO: Well, Michaela Anne, if you could speak to the late Otis Redding on this Thanksgiving, what would you say to him?

ANNE: I would say, Otis Redding, thank you so much for existing, for - for sharing your music, for leaving us with such a mass of wonderful songs and recordings in such a short time because he died so young. And thank you for being your authentic, real, vulnerable voice for all of us listeners. And it's a - it's a timeless incredible thing that I am forever grateful for.

SHAPIRO: Michaela Anne's latest album is called "Bright Lights And The Fame." Thank you for spending part of your Thanksgiving with us.

ANNE: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CHANGE IS GONNA COME")

REDDING: (Singing) Long time coming but I know, but I know a change is gonna come. It's been so long...

SHAPIRO: OK, now it's your turn. Which artist are you grateful for this year? Pick a song and tell us why you're thankful in a brief message. We are on Twitter - @npratc, on Facebook, at NPR All Things Considered or you can email us at nprcrowdsource@npr.org. Please put gratitude in the subject line. Happy Thanksgiving. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.