Ghost Song

Cécile McLorin Salvant

Ghost Song

“I wanted this album to have the causal intimacy and lack of a defined concept that a diary might have,” Cécile McLorin Salvant tells Apple Music. “It is about capturing the moments I was living in and reflecting their nuances.” Grammy winner and MacArthur Fellow Salvant has released five albums since her 2010 debut that have marked her as one of the foremost voices and minds in contemporary jazz. Her sixth release, Ghost Song, is no less considered. Taking a diaristic approach to recording her time in the coronavirus lockdowns, Salvant produces 12 tracks that encompass everything from startling versions of Kate Bush, Kurt Weill, and Gregory Porter songs to originals that effortlessly switch her voice from soft balladry to metallic precision and chromatic fragmentations. “People think that I sing love songs, but more and more I’m realizing that I sing about yearning and the imagination that comes from wanting something and not having it. That’s really when we’re at our most creative,” Salvant says. Here, she talks through all of Ghost Song’s tracks. “Wuthering Heights” “My first period of deep obsession with Kate Bush was when I was about 16 and my big sister showed me ‘Wuthering Heights.’ During the pandemic, I started listening to it again and it suddenly occurred to me that I could do a version of the song. At the same time, I was listening to all kinds of ornamental vocal music, and this Irish song—‘Cúirt Bhaile Nua’ by Treasa Ni Mhiollain—that was sung in the Sean-nós a cappella style was on repeat on my phone. ‘Wuthering Heights,’ therefore, came out as a mash-up of these two things that I was obsessing over.” “Optimistic Voices”/“No Love Dying” “This was my pianist Sullivan Fortner’s idea, because the end of the Wizard of Oz song ‘Optimistic Voices’ sounds like the beginning of Gregory Porter’s ‘No Love Dying.’ He thought it would work well together, musically, and then I also realized how they are both incredibly hopeful songs. They are sung at the end of someone’s rope, when there’s absolutely no reason to be hopeful and then, suddenly, you have a flash of optimism. I’ve also always wanted to sing a Gregory Porter song, since he is an incredible songwriter. ‘No Love Dying’ is such an effective song, and it’s so moving in its underpinning of melancholy.” “Ghost Song” “The starting point of the album was ‘Ghost Song,’ which I wrote two or three years ago. It felt like a song that I already knew and that I was remembering. I didn’t intend for the album to touch so frequently on death, but this track is a denial of it. It’s the idea that nothing dies, since there are always things that linger. It’s piggybacking on ‘No Love Dying,’ since we’re continuing the motif that nothing can vanish.” “Obligation” “This is inspired by my friend Robyn O’Neil, who I discovered through a podcast she makes called Me Reading Stuff. She has the best taste in poetry and literature that I’ve ever encountered, and she also ends with a statement, which is that ‘expectations are premeditated resentments.’ That statement is a great mantra to go through life with. It had been going through my head for a long time and this song came out of it.” “Until” “‘Until’ is also something that Sullivan Fortner suggested to me, since he had heard the song while watching the rom-com Kate & Leopold, starring Meg Ryan and Hugh Jackman, and Sting wrote ‘Until’ for the credits. Sullivan knew I would love it, and so he made this great arrangement for it. I love how evocative Sting is in talking about time in a way that doesn’t feel clichéd. The idea of catching the world in an hourglass is beautiful, and then it inspired the imagery for the next song, ‘I Lost My Mind.’” “I Lost My Mind” “‘I Lost My Mind’ feels like catharsis because it’s really nice to be able to say, ‘I feel like I’m losing my mind.’ It’s a great disclaimer when you’re making anything to say that if you don’t like it, don’t worry, I don’t know where my mind is anyway—can you help me find it? There’s almost something exciting about that feeling where you’re slipping away from yourself. It’s extremely scary, but it also feels good not having to explain things through reason and logic.” “Moon Song” “This song heralds the rest of the album, which is not mind-based. It’s based on a place that I don’t understand. A lot of songwriting comes from that place and it’s what I gravitate towards—the tug-of-war between wanting to be completely clear and understood but also not understanding your own self. It’s a sister song to ‘Ghost Song’ because it’s about the wanting of the thing, not what happens once you have it. It is a love song to the moon. You’ll never get it, but you can gaze at it, and you can imagine what it’s like to be on it.” “Trail Mix” “I was messing around on the piano and Sullivan Fortner heard me and said, ‘You should record that.’ It was a green light from one of my favorite musicians, and even though I’ve never recorded a song where I’m just playing the piano, it ended up being fun and it lightened the record up a little bit. It is me pushing myself to do something that I’ve never done before, and if this album is a diary, then it would not be complete without ‘Trail Mix’ in it.” “The World Is Mean” “I am a Kurt Weill obsessive. I love his music and The Threepenny Opera. His sense of humor matches mine totally. ‘The World Is Mean’ is making fun of its own cynicism, and I love the duality of singing two characters—one who’s asking for some joy and the other who is saying that the world is mean and it can’t be helped. I still have fun singing this song, and I’ll never tire of it, since it’s so strange-sounding.” “Dead Poplar” “This is a love letter that Alfred Stieglitz wrote to Georgia O’Keeffe, and I set it to music, mainly because I wanted to remember it and I feel like songs are the best way to memorize anything. I had these quotes from Alfred Stieglitz stuck on my piano for weeks and eventually I started hearing music with them. I love Georgia O’Keeffe and I like the idea of joining him in serenading her. He is spot-on in distilling what it feels like to be in a relationship with someone, and then he ends it with the image of this dead poplar against a dark sky. It’s pure poetry.” “Thunderclouds” “I was trying to be grateful for everything that was happening to me and saying thank you to even the horrible stuff when I wrote ‘Thunderclouds.’ I was at a place where I was finding gratitude even in things that I was complaining about. The pandemic was a rough period for all of us, and that’s ‘Thunderclouds’ in a nutshell. The thundercloud itself is such a beautiful thing, but it’s also an announcer of doom—I wanted to capture that.” “Unquiet Grave” “‘Unquiet Grave’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’ are one track that we split up, and they mirror each other. ‘Wuthering Heights’ is a song about a ghost that comes to visit at the window and haunts the living, while ‘Unquiet Grave’ is about a person who was alive and who goes to haunt the dead in the graveyard. I like the idea of bothering the ghost and the ghost is telling you to go live your life. ‘Don’t stay here in the past in your nostalgia,’ it says. It was really important to end the album on that note.”

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