June 14, 2024

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Interview with Melissa Lesnie: I’m not a trained singer …

Interview with vocalist Melissa Lesnie. An interview by email in writing.

JazzBluesNews.com: – First, let’s start out with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music. How exactly did your adventure take off? When did you realize that this was a passion you could make a living out of?

Melissa Lesnie: – I grew up in Sydney, which is a lovely place to grow up, but where no one ever tells you that you can make a living out of any art form. Australia is a very sports-oriented country, so I felt like an outsider as a young classical pianist singing in choirs and composing my own music. I began to explore my voice at the age of 8 after seeing Björk sing It’s Oh So Quiet on MTV.

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Music always seemed like the answer to everything; my family wasn’t particularly musical but they saw I gravitated towards it and bought a piano. We also discovered early on that I have perfect pitch, and this has made many things much easier as a musician (and some things more difficult).

JBN: – How exactly did your adventure take off? When did you realize that this was a passion you could make a living out of?

ML: – I always listened to Billie Holiday and Nina Simone as a child, but it never occured to me to sing jazz. I sang all kinds of things. In 2013 I moved to Paris and worked for Warner Music, then for the French national radio. At the radio, there was a pivotal conversation in which my superiors informed me that I would not have the right to speak in English on the premises. Distraught, I began to search for ways to express myself in English, and by total chance stumbled into one of the many jams in Paris. I soon became addicted and began preparing standards to perform at a different jam every night: this was my only training in jazz, but perhaps the most effective and a fast-track to performing in Paris. It was only in the Covid period when I lost my job at Radio France that I decided to pursue a professional career in music – the kind where I actually made music myself.

JBN: – How has your sound evolved over time? What have you been doing to find and develop your own sound?

ML: – The most powerful resonance in jazz for me has been with the repertoire of Billie Holiday, particularly her early career, and I’ve come to be seen as a specialist in her music in Paris – although I’ve never sought to imitate her, I relate so strongly to her emotionally that I’ve found my own style while interpreting her songs. The sound I developed singing music associated with Billie is the one that informs my approach in all other styles of jazz – and of music in general (I also sing rockabilly and early 1950s music). My vocal sound and technique has always been in service to the storytelling and emotional reach of the lyrics, especially living in Paris where so few of the French singers are deeply invested in the English text.

JBN: – What routine practices or exercises have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical proficiency, in terms of both rhythm and harmony?

ML: – I’m not a trained singer, in the sense that I never had a singing lesson. But all the techniques I learned singing Bach Cantatas in a choir in Sydney have served me in jazz, especially in terms of phrasing, diction and investing the text with emotion and truth. It was then a question of ‘loosening’ the choirgirl approach and finding my swing. Technically, most of my daily exercises relate to breathing and lung capacity. I do pranayama and yoga to keep my voice in optimal condition. I sing while I cycle, and while I run! It ensures that even when I think I should have run out of breath in a concert, I still have some mysterious secret reserve.

JBN: – Have you changed through the years? Any charges or overall evolution? And if so why?

ML: – As I didn’t study jazz formally, I took quite some time to feel legitimate in the scene. Most of the changes are to do less with vocal technique and more with confidence, believing myself, finding my place in jazz in Paris, and the next challenge is taking more risks musically.

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JBN: – In your opinion, what’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

ML: – Because of my training as a musicologist, I tend to approach everything in a very methodical and efficient way. But that certainly wouldn’t be enough to create something, musically speaking. It’s definitely my love for the music and my desire to let it express everything inside of myself that lights the spark that’s necessary to make music meaningfully.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; are you okay with delivering people the emotion they long for?

ML: – I used to be very shy in front of a crowd, but that has been displaced by a desperate need to get all that emotion out to an audience! Members of the audience sometimes come up after a concert and tell me how direct and natural that connection is, I’m grateful to them for letting me get all that off my chest.

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of standard tunes are half a century old?

ML: – I grew up feeling a little out of step with the modern world, and especially modern pop music. It’s hard to imagine anyone beating the perfection of a Cole Porter song, which to me is tantamount to Shakespeare. In Paris, we are seeing a huge revival in interest thanks to Gatsby and prohibition-themed parties, and also to the ever growing swing dancing and lindy hop scene here. I think bands like Post Modern Jukebox have also paved the way for discovery at all ages. Very little of what I sing post-dates 1940, but it’s been an incredible experience to interpret new compositions by J.C. Hopkins, which recall a more romantic, slower-paced world and complement a set of older standards perfectly.

JBN: – John Coltrane once said that music was his spirit. How do you perceive the spirit and the meaning of life?

ML: – I’m still figuring all that out – ask me another down the track!

JBN: – If you could change one single thing in the musical world and that would become reality, what would that be?

ML: – Having worked in the music industry for a long time before becoming a professional musician, I would love to see more opportunities for musicians who clearly have talent and are so committed to music that they feel a bit lost when it comes to marketing themselves. More opportunities for them to get a foothold in a system like streaming in which there’s a minimal chance of getting picked up by an influential playlist. More opportunities to believe in oneself so that fewer musicians give up before they realize their full potential.

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JBN: – Whom do you find yourself listening to these days?

ML: – I’m a huge fan of Laura Anglade, and of course Samara Joy for jazz, but also music from further afield like Arooj Aftab and Abdullah Miniawy. I’m fascinated by Eastern and Middle Eastern vocal techniques and would love to hear more of it in jazz singing.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine: where and why would you really want to go?

ML: – It would probably to post-WWI Paris to hang out with the likes of Josephine Baker, Boris Vian, Jimmy Davis etc. It seems to have been a vibrant and open-minded place, probably more so than today.

JBN: – Do You like our questions?

ML: – It’s not very often I get to talk about myself so much! I feel a little intimidated by some of the meaning-of-life questions but it’s been good to start thinking about it!

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Interview by Simon Sarg

Ten Cents a Dance - Melissa Lesnie and Duved Dunayevsky (7/8) - YouTube

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