She’s the picture of self-possession. It’s Tuesday night and Meschiya Lake is standing to the left of her band, the Little Big Horns, with perfect posture, her hands squarely on her hips. She’s in a trim, vintage black dress with a white lace collar, but her face is hard to read. Is she having fun? Concentrating? Vexed? Is she still or simply composed? It’s not clear, and when the song starts, it doesn’t matter. Her band, the Little Big Horns, swings intensely, so much so that the Treme Brass Band’s “Uncle” Lionel Batiste escorts a dancer out in front of Lake on the Spotted Cat’s limited dance floor.
She’s singing “Miss Otis Regrets,” but the murder ballad has a curious tension. She treats the song’s drama conversationally, much like Ella Fitzgerald did, but the band plays it rowdy and raucous. Later over coffee, Lake points out that she sings the song in normal time while the band plays it in double time.
“It creates this interesting feeling where it’s go go go, but still kind of relaxed,” she says. “The first time I heard that was with Jimmie Lunceford, and his version of it.”
You’re not prepared for Lake to refer to a swing orchestra band leader from the 1930s. Not only is she too young, but her extensive tattooing—on her arms, her chest and face—make her seem at first glance like someone who’d have a deeper knowledge of punk and underground rock than jazz history. But tattoos don’t signify as simply as they once did, and these days vintage finery and ink seem to go hand in hand. When Lake opens her mouth, there’s nothing dilettantish in her performance. She sings with conviction, power (when she needs it) and style, and her emergence is a reminder of the degree to which things are rarely what they seem in New Orleans.
People are watching Lake and the Little Big Horns through the Spotted Cat’s Frenchmen Street window behind the bandstand. More are crowded in the doorway to the right of the band in a constant state of coming and going, and a few emerge from the mill to dance. Others treat the bar as their neighborhood joint and sink into conversation at the bar as if no one was playing, while tourists step in front of the trombone players so a friend can take a picture. With such a churn, you’d think singing any song would be difficult, much less one in a different time from the rest of the band.
“It was challenging in the fact that I thought it would be hard,” Lake says. “But then, when it happens, it’s not hard at all. It’s just finding another rhythm in the song. You just have to relax.”
That would be the hard part, but it’s hard to imagine that much would throw Lake. She first got paid to sing in South Dakota when she won an adult singing contest at the age of nine. “I was a country singer,” she says. “But I quit when I was 13 because, you know, things were happening to me and my body and my mind.” She discovered Bauhaus—the band and the architecture— along with punk rock and skater boys, and suddenly country was passé.
She’d spent much of her young life on the road since her father worked for the Forestry Service and, Lake says proudly, helped to create Smokey the Bear. For her, packing up at 17 to head to Chicago with her fiancé was no big deal, but neither Chicago nor the fiancé would last. That move put Lake back on the road, though, and the next stop was Atlanta, where she was based for two years, during which time she joined and traveled with the Know Nothing Family Zirkus Zideshow and End of the World Circus. The latter was an independent circus; the former had a more underground vibe as it presented rock ’n’ roll versions of classic sideshow stunts. The two groups traveled together, and as part of the Zideshow, Lake ate worms and light bulbs. The trick to eating light bulbs: chew them up into really fine pieces.
She spent two years with the circus touring six months on, six months off, and during a New Orleans stop in 2000, she decided to move here. “I remember seeing gas lamps with fire in them and thinking, ‘That’s it,’” Lake says. “I fell in love.” That doesn’t mean she settled down, though. She continued to live a nomadic life. She hopped boxcars, got jobs in kitchens, even worked as a migrant farm worker—”one of the hardest things I’ve ever done”—and the people she worked with weren’t all the stereotypical undocumented immigrants. “There was a while where I was part of a subculture that works harvests, and gets a few thousand and saves it up and lives off that few thousand for the next few months to enable their freedom. They just bust it out, work real hard, and then they can travel and make art, make music, do what they want, and not have to have a full-time job.”
Lake’s experience has made her sensitive to issues regarding those leading lives outside the mainstream. “When those kids died in the fire in the warehouse, one of them, Sammy [Samuel Thompson], was born and raised here and worked at Coop’s,” she says. The fire in a Bywater warehouse on December 28 claimed the lives of eight people ranging in ages from 17 to 27.
“But ‘Oh they’re gutter punks,’” Lake says, parroting the common narrative. “’They’re trash, they’re barely even people.’ That really upsets me. I was one of them. If I wasn’t on a gig in Oregon, I would’ve been there.
“I think that’s a very healthy thing to do, to put your life in a backpack and hit the road and see the world and experience things. That’s how a lot of people ended up here. Traveling around, seeing the world, and then ‘Wow! New Orleans! I’m going to stick around.’ It’s kind of a natural thing. When you get older, you settle down. Not everybody [does this]. I have friends that are in their 40s and still doing it, but when I get older, I want to focus on my art and have a comfortable home, and do things that make me and my mama proud.”
Lake gets similarly riled at the mention of a clash between the police and the Krewe of Eris on Bacchus Sunday during this year’s Mardi Gras, and the suggestion that it was nothing but a bunch of gutter punks causing trouble. “They’re business owners, they’re restaurant workers, they’re people from every walk of life,” she says. “Yeah, there are gutter punks. There are also traveling kids who are very respectful, who don’t beg for money. They live on the fringes of society, but they’re not bad people.”
Another common narrative in New Orleans is that of jazz being taught by the masters to their acolytes, that it’s a secret shared only with the worthy. “The first traditional New Orleans jazz songs that I learned were around campfires in a backyard on Chartres Street” in the Bywater, Lake says. The notion of jazz as a private art is only one conception; another is that it’s a social act, a way people entertain each other when you don’t have televisions. Acoustic instruments fit into nomadic lives. One of the women who died in the warehouse fire, Nikki Pack from Pittsburgh, played the washboard and had been on an album.
Singing around the campfire was how Lake connected with the Loose Marbles in 2007. Then a street band busking on Royal Street in New Orleans and Washington Square Park in New York City, the band included nomads as well as more traditionally educated players, including Ben Polcer and Mike Magro. A day spent performing on streets is an artistic act, but it’s a social one too, and a way to pass the day with friends. For Lake, it was also a step closer to realizing a goal. “I was [singing] the whole time, working kitchens or doing harvests, hopping trains or singing around campfires,” she says. “I knew that that’s what I wanted to do, but didn’t know how to go about it. It was like this unattainable thing. I was playing gigs, but they were the kind of gigs where it was $5 for four bands, and you can’t live off of that.”
Writer Dan Baum was a fan of Lake and the Loose Marbles and wrote about them in 2007 for The New Yorker: “If you’re lucky, you’ll catch the Loose Marbles performing with their singer, Meschiya Lake, who rocks back on her heels, lifts her chest, and opens her throat like an air-raid siren to croon in a thrilling, pre-microphone style that is easily audible above the band.”
His rave write-up helped draw attention to the band, and its performances on Royal Street spawned numerous YouTube videos that helped its reputation. It made more money busking than you’d expect, and Lake found that honesty brought in the tips.
“People can tell when it’s false,” she says. “When I’m really feeling it, it shows in the numbers. It’s not something I can fake. When I channel the emotion into the music, that really affects people. Those are the perfect moments, when I’m getting something out. I feel like something’s going through me and then out to the audience.”
Baum documented the payoff for a good day in his column: “I’ve seen days here in New Orleans where they have a stack of bills that’s so thick it can’t be held in one hand, and that contains a lot of portraits of Hamilton and Jackson.”
It’s a good night at the Spotted Cat despite it being the middle of summer, but Lake’s had better. Summer’s notoriously slow for business, but one night last June was her best night ever. When she sings “You Tell Me Your Dream,” Uncle Lionel gestures and Lake hands him the mic so he can sing a verse, after which he mimics a trombone solo, miming a horn’s slide with his cane on his shoulder. It’s a spontaneous moment that he recreates “pretty often,” Lake says. “He just jumps up there and takes over. What, are you going to say no to Uncle Lionel? He paved the way, and he’s still doing it!”
On the band’s debut album, Lucky Devil, there’s a hint of amber, as if the music’s being played on a Victrola. That hint of antiquity partially comes from the cover, a recreation of one of E.J. Bellocq’s famed photos of Storyville prostitutes. The idea came from her tattoo artist and dance instructor—“He specializes in the West Coast Balboa, the kind of dance where people are in threes and their feet are going all crazy”—who had the idea of superimposing her face on one of the photos. Lake thought that likely wouldn’t look right, so she decided to recreate one of his photos instead. “That [cover] photograph (by Babs Evangelista) was taken in the same room that we recorded the record at 511 Royal, where Jack my sousaphonist lives and his girlfriend is the granddaughter of Larry Borenstein,” she says. “I didn’t know until after we’d taken the pictures that her grandfather is the one that discovered those prints.”
Tonight, the songs and the notes are the same as on Lucky Devil, but Lake’s singing is stylized without being mannered. The band is playing jazz with rock ‘n’ roll’s blithe sense of ownership, and there is nothing retro about it beyond the vintage wardrobe. “Traditional jazz is the foundation for rock ‘n’ roll and blues and everything,” she says. “Doing it in a fun way with the vitality that happened at its birth makes it more accessible to a younger audience.”
The Little Big Horns have traveled, but not like she has, and they’re more conventionally trained. Sousaphonist Jack Jurzak’s father was a bandleader who impressed on him the importance of learning a number of instruments. Trombonist Charlie Halloran got his Masters degree in St. Louis. Trumpeter Ben Polcer’s father is New York jazz cornet player Ed Polcer, and drummer Mike Voelker “has played with just about everybody.”
Meschiya Lake has pursued her freedom, but she has a strong work ethic. She’s acutely aware of being the band leader and takes it seriously. “If I’m not conscious of the club, the breaks can go on too long,” she says. “On top of delivering a good show, I want to be a good employee. I appreciate the work that we get, and I want to deliver things on time and not take advantage.”
She’s also feeling the world of possibilities in front of her. She’s largely a Frenchmen Street/Bywater phenomenon right now—”You know what it would take to get me to cross Canal Street? A gig.”—but she’s also testing as many of her musical muscles as she can. She sings backing vocals in R. Scully’s Rough Seven, with whom she recently met Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner, who’s recording a single for them. “I waited until the end of the session and I was like, ‘Thank you for that song. That helped me through high school.’” She’s in Ratty Scurvics’ Black Market Butchers—”a big, crazy, operatic project”—and Magnolia Beacon. On the Friday morning of the Satchmo Club Strut, she was at WWL’s studio at 6 a.m. for an in-studio performance with Tom McDermott.
She’s becoming more conscious of her impact. After seeing a clip of herself performing a blue, drunken version of “Whining Boy Blues” on YouTube, she asked the person who posted it to take it down. “It got so dirty,” Lake says. “I was like, ‘Dude, my 13-year-old niece watches this. My grandma watches this. I know you think it’s awesome and I appreciate your sentiment, but can you please take this down because I don’t need to be influencing my young niece this way.’”
While her voice is a powerful instrument, she’s thinking of the long haul and protecting it. No matter how well she projects, it’s not enough to be heard over the band and the din of the Spotted Cat, no matter how respectful the crowd. Tonight she’s experimenting with a new PA and monitor small enough to fit in the basket on her bike. But she still sings unamplified when the time is right.
“It was Trixie Minx’s birthday party,” Lake says. “I performed a couple of songs and the mic kept feeding back. I was struggling, and it was just me and my guitar. I stepped out into the center of the room, and once I started singing, the room was quiet. I was bowled over. That was an intense feeling.”