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Leyla McCalla Talks New Album From SXSW


We're going to stay in Austin a little longer to bring you some new music.


LEYLA MCCALLA: (Singing) You keep telling me to climb this ladder. I've got to pay my dues. But as I rise, the stakes get higher. I've got the capitalist blues.

MARTIN: That's "The Capitalist Blues" by Leyla McCalla. You might remember her from her stint as the cellist in the Grammy-winning band Carolina Chocolate Drops. We last caught up with her back in 2014, when she was touring in connection with her debut album "Vari-Colored Songs." In that, she set poems by Langston Hughes to her own music. Since then, she's been working hard. She's produced several new human beings as well as new albums. The latest album, "The Capitalist Blues," is out now. And Leyla McCalla is with us from the South by Southwest festival.

Leyla, thanks so much for talking with us. Nice to speak with you again.

MCCALLA: Thanks for making the time.

MARTIN: How has the festival been for you so far?

MCCALLA: It's very interesting because I've heard about this festival for a long time, and it's my first time actually being here, so I'm realizing why it has the reputation that it has (laughter). It's kind of overwhelming. And it's, like, wow. How do you break through all of this noise, you know? But here I am.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of breaking through all this noise, I mean, one of the things about your music has always followed its own path. I mean, you've always kind of said what you wanted to say in the way that you wanted to say it, and you have kind of organized your life in such a way that you could do that. And I was reading an interview about this latest album where you said, how have my previous records not been considered protest albums, you know?

MCCALLA: (Laughter).

MARTIN: So, well, point taken. But you're - I feel like you're making a statement with the title, "Capitalist Blues." Are you?

MCCALLA: Yeah, I think so. I think that it's appropriate. It's been interesting even just being here at South by Southwest and witnessing the inequality that is so prevalent in our society just walking around these streets, you know, here promoting my music. And yet, the words that I'm singing still feel like they ring so true, especially in this sort of context where everyone is literally trying to get ahead and trying to move their careers forward or trying to move their life forward in some way. And then we're right next to this huge homeless population. I've been seeing, like, people nodding out on heroin on the street corners and thinking, how did we all end up here at the same time in this moment? It just makes me feel, like, more sure of my songs (laughter), honestly.

MARTIN: Does it feel a little disorienting, in a way?

MCCALLA: Yeah. It's disorienting because I'm, like, I don't want to believe that there is rampant inequality with - and that it's difficult to see our way through this as a society. I don't want to believe that we're all so callous in some way and that we're all just so self-interested. I'm not absolving myself of that, you know, when I say that. I feel that way about myself sometimes and I'm, like, this is so confusing, you know? Because I'm choosing to be here.

I have an incredible amount of freedom and privilege in certain ways. And yet, you know, I'm a black woman in the folk music world, jazz world, just seeing all of the layers of my identity sort of juxtaposed with this big festival in this big event in this very complex city in this very complex state in this very complex country.


MCCALLA: (Singing) They are telling me how I'm gonna make my little mark in this cold, cold world. It can be such a cold, cold world.

MARTIN: I want to mention that you have Haitian roots, and you continue to honor those roots, which you've been exploring in a couple of albums. You sing in Creole on this album, and I - please say it for me - Lavi Vye Nyeh (ph).

MCCALLA: "Lavi Vye Neg."


MCCALLA: (Singing in Haitian Creole).

MARTIN: Could you tell us about it, for those of us who aren't fluent?

MCCALLA: Absolutely. "Lavi Vye Neg" is a song that I learned from a singer from Haiti who became very famous under the name Coupe Cloue. I became obsessed with these records that he released in the '70s with his group Trio Select.


MCCALLA: (Singing in Haitian Creole).

The song is saying the old man's shoes are as thin as crepes. He's been walking on them so long that they're as thin as crepes. And if the world is round, it's not his fault, which I feel like is such a Haitian way of (laughter) implying the injustice of this poverty that he's been living in. And it says money - (speaking in Haitian Creole) money doesn't fall in the pockets - (speaking in Haitian Creole) in the pockets of poor people. And we do what we have to do to get by every day on this sacred Earth. But at the end of the day, as soon as it comes in, it's gone.

MARTIN: Oh, wow. That's lovely and heartbreaking.

MCCALLA: Yeah. I think Haitian music is always lovely and heartbreaking. That's what I love so much about it.


MCCALLA: (Singing in Haitian Creole).

MARTIN: You're at this festival, I said, well there's so many artists and people who are just starting out and people who are quite far along in their careers. I just wondered if you had any advice to offer because one of the reasons that I was so interested in your story is that you have very much at every stage done things your own way, even when it was difficult. I mean, even when you were busking on the streets of New Orleans - I mean...

MCCALLA: (Laughter).

MARTIN: You moved to New Orleans, and you were busking, you know? And then you worked with a group that was trying to kind of revive and rediscover this roots music and give it a new life. And that was very successful. And then you could have just kept doing that, but then you decided to go out on your own, and you've taken on hard projects at every turn. And I know that - with your first album, I know you had a Kickstarter campaign so that you could produce it the way you wanted to. I wonder, do you feel you have some advice to share with others who think they want to do what you're doing?

MCCALLA: If there's any advice that I could share, it's to really focus on honing your craft and clarifying your vision. And I think that that's something that all artists struggle with and have to reassess at various stages of their career, and that that's sort of the guiding light.

MARTIN: How do you do that, though? There have to be times when it's hard. Do you just have that inner courage that sustains you, or what - how do you stick with it?

MCCALLA: A lot of the time, when I feel overwhelmed, I'm, like, oh, I haven't played cello. I haven't played guitar. I haven't sung a song in like, 10 days. That's the problem. And then I'm, like, oh, OK. I can - I think I can see my way through this next challenge a little bit better. And I think when you're an artist, it's a calling.

And to engage with your art is extremely grounding, especially as your career starts to develop, and you have all these people pulling on you in different directions and wanting things for you that you might want for yourself, but you're not sure if you need that or want that. I think that the creative work is always the most grounding and affirmative action that you can take. And so I'm saying this advice thinking, I need to take my own advice, too. I can't just...


MCCALLA: I can't just say this. But I really feel like that's really it. You know, I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't feel called to do it. And if you feel called to do it, then it's the right thing.


MARTIN: That's Leyla McCalla talking to us from the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. Her latest album, "The Capitalist Blues," is out now.

Leyla, thanks so much for joining us.

MCCALLA: Thank you.


MCCALLA: (Singing) A man with money walks into the store. The boss man shake his hand at the door, called his lads to take down anything - whiskey, cloth, earring and diamond ring. Send it to your home on a motorbike. You can pay the bill whenever you like. And not a soul... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.