Leyla McCalla, formerly of The Carolina Chocolate Drops, had an ambitious idea for her solo debut as a musician. She wanted to take poems by Harlem Renaissance legend Langston Hughes and put them to song. But McCalla told Tell Me More's host Michel Martin that she wasn't overwhelmed by the challenge.
"I think it would have been more intimidating if he was a musician and I was trying to cover his actual songs."
Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes reimagines eight of Hughes' poems. McCalla also features a number of Haitian folk songs on the album along with a few original compositions.
Fans of McCalla's work with The Carolina Chocolate Drops will find familiar ground in music landscapes with banjo driven rhythms, guitar melodies, and McCalla's own delicate pizzicato plucks of the cello. Still, she hopes that the instrumentation takes a backseat to Langston Hughes' poetry.
According to McCalla, "I think a big, important thing for me in creating these songs was to have the words be at the forefront."
On being inspired by Langston Hughes
I grew up knowing about Langston Hughes. I think when I was about 16 or 17 my dad bought me a book of his poetry and actually wrote me a poem in the front of the book. And I loved his poems so much ... and I just started to feel rhythmic connection to some of the poems and I just fell in love with his words.
On including Haitian folk songs on her album
A lot of these songs are just stories about peoples lives that I really feel like frame the culture in Haiti, in a way that we don't experience through normal media, or normal stories that we hear about Haiti.
On funding her album through Kickstarter
I didn't really know what I was getting myself into, to tell you the truth, and so I asked for $5,000 and the people at Kickstarter were fans of my video and fans of my project, so they put me on their newsletter. So I went from, "Who's going to be my 200th backer?" to having over 530 backers in about 48 hours.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Finally today, we'd like to remember a legend through a fresh voice. Saturday, February 1, is the birthday of the poet Langston Hughes. He would have been 102 years old this year. And as you probably know, he was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance - a writer of novels, plays, and stories, and a pioneering poetic voice. His work has inspired generations of artists.
And among them, most recently, is Leyla McCalla. If you don't know her name, you might know her sound. She's been performing as a cellist with the folk group Carolina Chocolate Drops. But then she got the itch to do something on her own, and she has just delivered her debut solo album. It is called "Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes." It also includes her take on Haitian folk songs and original compositions. Let's listen to her take on the poem "Heart of Gold."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEART OF GOLD")
MARTIN: It cracks me up every time I hear it. And Leyla McCalla is with us now. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us. Congratulations on the album.
LEYLA MCCALLA: Thank you so much.
MARTIN: So where did you get the idea for this? I mean, I can see where it could be a little intimidating to try to cover Langston Hughes, you know, since he's such a renowned figure.
MCCALLA: Right. I think it would've been more intimidating if he was a musician and I was trying to cover his actual songs. But I grew up, you know, knowing about Langston Hughes. I think when I was about 16 or 17 my dad bought me a book of his poetry and actually wrote me a poem in the front of the book. And I loved his poems so much. And then I think a few years later when I was in college I bought the anthology of Langston Hughes' poetry. And I just started to feel rhythmic connection to some of the poems and I just fell in love with his words and, you know, it was something that I think was really a very intuitive process, you know. I didn't really know exactly what I was doing when I started out. It was more just a creative impulse.
MARTIN: Well, you know, speaking of words, let's hear another one of the songs based on one of Langston Hughes' poems. This is "Love Again Blues." And then I'd kind of love it if we could talk a little bit about how these compositions came to you. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE AGAIN BLUES")
MARTIN: So do you mind if I ask how you went about it? Did you just kind of read the poems and just walk around with it in your head? Or how - do you mind if I ask how you started to develop these ideas?
MCCALLA: Yeah, not at all. I felt a really strong rhythmic connection to the poems that I worked with. And I think the first poem that I ever worked on was actually "Search."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEARCH")
MCCALLA: I wrote most of the songs on guitar, some of them on cello, but that kind of helped me to flesh out some of the ideas surrounding the music. And I think a big important thing for me in creating these songs was to have the words be at the forefront.
MARTIN: Well, here's another I'd like to play where the words are definitely heard and are sometimes hard to hear. And it's "Song For a Dark Girl."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SONG FOR A DARK GIRL")
MARTIN: That is the whole poem. And it's a very - why don't you just tell me what struck you and, if you don't mind, I'll tell you what struck me.
MCCALLA: Sure, you know, it's pretty clear what the poem is about. The poem presents a story but it also is like, you know, what is love? And he answers that question saying love is a naked shadow on a gnarled and naked tree. And there's just so much tragedy and history and pain in that simple statement. And I felt it deserved to be heard.
MARTIN: Why did you want to include this one?
MCCALLA: You know, it's funny I played this song at a show in Indiana once and a man came up to me at the end and said that was a great show but don't play "Song For a Dark Girl." And I remember thinking this is why I included this on the record. You know, it's not about browbeating anyone or isolating anyone. It's about acknowledging our past. And we're all a part of it in some way, whether or not you realize how we're a part of it, you know? And I think the figurative language in the poem kind of reflects that it is a translatable story to so many other scenarios throughout the world, not just the United States.
And it also, you know, particularly this poem, reminded me of - I read Langston Hughes's autobiography called "The Big Sea." And he talks about his first tour that he did in the South, and he couldn't stay in hotels. You know, the amount of coordinating that goes into touring is already difficult, but to imagine feeling so unsafe in a place where you're really, you know - he really went out there and shared his work and, you know, it's the same I guess sort of thing with this poem. Maybe I didn't have to include it on the album but it felt important to do.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Leyla McCalla. We are talking about her debut solo album, "Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes." I mentioned earlier, and you were talking earlier, about roots and this album also includes Haitian folk songs. And your parents are originally from Haiti, right?
MARTIN: And I was just - were these songs that you heard growing up? Did they play them for you or sing them for you?
MCCALLA: No, actually I had never heard these songs. I found these songs after I had moved to New Orleans and I was learning about the banjo tradition in New Orleans Jazz. And I just - I fell in love with these certain songs and then I shared them with my family and everyone knew the songs.
MARTIN: Did you get a little annoyed? Like, excuse me, you could've been playing these for me, hello.
MCCALLA: You know, it's just funny. I think that people are, in some ways, just now starting to get back into American folk music, you know? And so I think that's just how time works and how generations work.
MARTIN: Let's play "Manman Mwen." What does it mean?
MCCALLA: It means my mother.
MARTIN: Of course. OK. All right, let's play a little bit and then maybe you'll translate and tell us a little bit more about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MANMAN MWEN")
MARTIN: So tell us what it's about.
MCCALLA: Well, this is another story. It's about a girl who gets sent to the river by her mother to go catch crawfish. And throughout the song the crawfish is used as a metaphor for catching a man. And so the first verse is my mother sent me to the river to catch a crawfish and I told her, but mom, I'm too young to catch a crawfish. And then the second verse is and he was so handsome I told him that he gave me to crawfish that God would repay him for his kindness. And then the next verse is and they told me, like, that sounds kind of sketchy. And I keep wondering, I keep wondering, who got me in this situation, my mother, my mother - how did I get here, my mother, my mother.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MANMAN MWEN")
MCCALLA: My dad helped me with the translations and I just fell in love with the melody and the feeling of the song. And the story was just so weird and interesting. But I think also very...
MARTIN: Does it end well? It doesn't sound like it ends well.
MCCALLA: No, I mean, it doesn't really end in a way. It's just kind of this story that's happened. But I think that it, you know, beyond it being like a weird story about a girl who's kind of put in this awkward situation by her mother, I think it's a story of survival, of people in poverty. You know, I think it's more - I think it's more like finding opportunities through that kind of way. There's another song on the album, "Kamen Sa W Fe?" - which means, Carmen, what are you going to do? And I got it from a recording from the Alan Lomax "Haiti" box set.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "Kamen Sa W Fe?")
MCCALLA: It's about a woman who gets broken up with and she thinks she's going to marry this guy from a higher social status, and he breaks up with her and the song is saying, you know, this future that you thought you were going to have isn't going to happen.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "Kamen Sa W Fe?")
MCCALLA: And that's the tragedy of that song. But, you know, a lot of these songs are just stories about people's lives that I really feel like frame the culture in Haiti in a way that we don't experience through normal media or normal stories that we hear about Haiti. You know, I tell people I'm from Haiti and people are like, how is everything down there? It's almost kind of the same like if you go somewhere and say, you know, I live in New Orleans and everyone asks how's New Orleans? And it's kind of like...
MARTIN: They look at your face searchingly.
MCCALLA: That's such a complicated question, you know. It's way beyond the earthquake, it's beyond Katrina.
MARTIN: Your story of how this album came together is so interesting. You raised money for this album online and it was part of a Kickstarter campaign, correct?
MARTIN: Yeah. And why did you decide to go that route? And do you feel that it influenced the art in any way?
MCCALLA: You know, I think that it definitely influenced the process of - there's so many levels of artistry I feel like, that go into making an album from preproduction to post-production to promoting it. I didn't really know what I was getting myself into to tell you the truth. And so I asked for $5,000 and the people at Kickstarter were fans of my video and fans of my project. And so they put me on their newsletter. And so I went from, you know, who's going to be my 200th backer, to having over 530 backers in about 48 hours.
MARTIN: Well, you winded up with way more than that. I mean, let me just say you wound up with more than 700 backers and a way more than $5,000. And it's interesting how many writers who we know, who've been on the program, participated in the campaign. It's just - I know that Edwidge Danticat is somebody that - I think is a name that a lot of people know who contributed to the campaign. And you said that, you know, this will allow me - one of the things that you said that I really liked - this will allow me not to rush.
MARTIN: What does that mean?
MCCALLA: Well, I guess, you know, when you're in the studio and you have to make decisions, sometimes you make poor decisions because you're afraid that you're going to run out of money or that you're not going to have enough time. You know, one thing you just don't know how you're going to feel when you get in there. You don't know how things are going to sound. I was surprised. I wasn't used to really the sound of my own voice still. I'm still a pretty new singer and so that was weird to me. And I kept on thinking, oh, this is horrible, this is horrible. And so I had to be assured that it wasn't horrible. You know, I had the time to be able to...
MARTIN: Work it out.
MCCALLA: Really assimilate all those experiences and really have room for the magic moments of things that you can't predict or can't necessarily write into the schedule that just happen naturally.
MARTIN: Well, congratulations.
MCCALLA: Thank you.
MARTIN: Are you proud of it? Are you happy with it?
MCCALLA: I definitely, definitely am proud of it, and I'm very happy with it. I think the further and further I get away from it, the more and more it makes sense.
MCCALLA: Yeah. I think you can be so inside something that you can't really see it for what it is. And so, you know, the more that I talk about it and the more that I sort of just get it out there, the more that I feel like I know why I made this, on so many levels - personal and professional and - it's exciting.
MARTIN: We talked about so many things - as we say goodbye for now, what should we play?
MCCALLA: I'm going to say a song called "Changing Tide." It's one of the only original songs on the record. And it's a song that I wrote as a love song to New Orleans.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHANGING TIDE")
MARTIN: Leyla McCalla's debut solo album is "Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes." It hits stores tomorrow. And Leyla McCalla was kind enough to join us from member station WWNO in New Orleans. We're going to go out on "Changing Tide," which is from a "Vari-Colored Songs." Leyla McCalla, thank you so much for speaking with us.
MCCALLA: Thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHANGING TIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.