“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. When I give everything, I won’t have much more to lose.”
—Leyla McCalla, “The Capitalist Blues”
Leyla McCalla ponders the discordant state of the United States in her third album, The Capitalist Blues. It’s a vast and thorny topic, but McCalla’s world-weary humor lightens the burden. Released January 25, The Capitalist Blues debuted at number 14 on the Billboard jazz albums chart and number 5 on Billboard’s contemporary jazz albums chart.
Despite the album’s jazz-chart placements, it’s another of McCalla’s diverse projects. A singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, she aligns her thoughtful lyrics with traditional New Orleans–style jazz, zydeco, calypso, vintage New Orleans rhythm and blues and the music of her parents’ homeland, Haiti.
Jimmy Horn, leader of the New Orleans rhythm and blues torchbearers King James and the Special Men, produced The Capitalist Blues. Veteran engineer Andrew “Goat” Gilchrist (Maceo Parker, the Meters, the Neville Brothers) recorded the project, which took flight after Horn invited McCalla to record a new version of the local standard “Eh La Bas” with the Special Men. Horn’s Special Man Industries label will release “Eh La Bas” March 1 as a digital single and a limited-edition vinyl 45.
“I’m grateful to Leyla for trusting me with her songs,” Horn said of his production work for The Capitalist Blues. “It’s an album only she could create and only here in New Orleans could it happen. Leyla is a singular artist with a remarkable vision. I feel blessed to have witnessed the magic up close.”
A classically trained cellist from New York City, McCalla moved to New Orleans in 2010. After Tim Duffy, a manager of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, spotted her playing Bach’s cello suites on Royal Street, she joined the Grammy-winning African-American string band co-founded by Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons. McCalla’s solo album debut, Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes, appeared in 2013. A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey followed in 2016.
In addition to her solo career, McCalla is a member of Native Daughters. In February, the group—featuring former Carolina Chocolate Drop Giddens, Amythyst Kiah and Allison Russell—released its album debut, Songs of Our Native Daughters.
Though McCalla composes songs about heavy subjects she punctuated a recent conversation at St. Coffee on St. Claude with chuckles.
What inspired your Capitalist Blues songs?
The inspiration came from this feeling of swimming upstream. And we’re all swimming upstream together. The system isn’t working for everyone in the same way. For a small number of people, it’s working great. For the vast majority, it’s not.
So, you get a lot of ideas from current events?
I listen to NPR. I follow the news. And now you can share information so quickly through social media. It’s hard to not know what’s going on if you’re on those platforms. Reading is big for me, too. I’m equally inspired by really old folk songs. Those old songs carry the themes that we’re still grappling with in our society today. There’s still conflict around poverty and inequality. That’s what this collection of songs [The Capitalist Blues] is about. It questions why we have rampant inequality in our society and why we don’t recognize that collectively.
Do you think the struggle you’re speaking of applies especially to your generation?
You’re told to go to college and get an education. But I know so many people with master’s degrees and PhDs who are still teaching violin at a nonprofit. They can’t find a ‘real job.’ They’re just doing their best to navigate society and try to make something out of their lives.
Were your parents, who’re from Haiti, socially conscious and political in their thinking?
Compared to a lot of families, definitely. But my parents were never pushy about getting me to think in a certain way. They just wanted me to be a critical thinker. That’s worked a little too well.
And your parents had good taste in music?
They had folk-pop taste. Names like Paul Simon, James Taylor, Rod Stewart. My parents also listened to Buena Vista Social Club and Haitian music. My dad turned me on to Tropicália music from Brazil. And when I was 15, I turned my dad onto Ani DiFranco. Now he’s a bigger fan than I am.
Of course, Ani DiFranco lives in New Orleans, too. Are you friends?
No. But I worked with her for Zoë Boekbinder’s prison music project. Ani DiFranco is producing it. So, I got to meet her that way and that was really cool. Sometimes I see her Uptown at the school where our children go, but I’m a little too shy to say, ‘Hey, remember me? I was at your house.’
The Capitalist Blues is being tagged as a protest album.
I’m fine with that. But my other albums also have protest songs. Langston Hughes’ poetry became protest music on my first album. Even some of the traditional Haitian folk songs became protest songs because of the concept behind the album. But, yeah, I’ll be a protest singer.
How did Jimmy Horn become your new album’s producer?
He invited me to record ‘Eh La Bas.’ It was a fun project. I researched all these different versions of ‘Eh La Bas.’ There are so many verses that nobody sings. I found a version that had Creole verses. I wrote down the words and sang them in the studio.
And later you thought you’d like Horn to produce your album?
I produced my first two records myself, but I wanted to move in other directions—sonically, creatively, spiritually. I’d been shopping for a producer, but nothing was working. So, I played my song, ‘Heavy As Lead,’ for Jimmy and Goat in the studio. Jimmy was like, ‘I want to do this! This would be so great.’ The studio is a five-minute bike ride from my house. And I could get a bunch of New Orleans musicians to be guests on the record. What we have here is so special and so strong. So that became a part of the record.
What was working with Horn as your producer like?
People know Jimmy for doing Monday nights at the Saturn Bar with the Special Men. But he has such a deep spiritual and musical understanding of pan-African music. That’s where we connected, because so much of my music addresses that. We loved working together. We had so much fun. And it was so great to be like, ‘Yes, New Orleans is enough.’ New Orleans is where this music should happen. It’s where the message in this album should come from.
In addition to members of the Special Men, your guests for the album include Louis Michot from the Lost Bayou Ramblers; zydeco musician Corey Ledet; Preservation Hall and Palm Court Café drummer Shannon Powell; Sun Ra and Preservation Hall guitarist and banjo player Carl LeBlanc; and vocalist Topsy Chapman and her daughters, Jolynda and Yolanda.
They’re not as well-known to people outside of New Orleans, but here they’re legendary. For me, the story of this record is not just the political and social messages. It’s also an entirely different soundscape. That’s one of my proudest achievements, expanding what my artistry signifies. My artistry was very connected to my cello playing and being with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. But this album asserts that I’ve got a lot more to say and it’s not tied to one instrument or one facet of me as an artist.
Why isn’t cello, your principal instrument, the instrument you formally studied, on the album?
That was not intentional. It was about what’s best for the song. We wanted to be true to each song and subgenre. But I am by no means not a cellist. Cello playing is how I think, it’s how I relate to music.
Why did you move to New Orleans in 2010?
I was looking for my creative voice. And I was trying to find out if I could make a living as a musician, if I should even be a musician. I knew that I could make money playing music on the street—I rode my bike with my cello on my back to Royal Street and played every day. I’d be out there five out of seven days. I did great. Sometimes I’m like, ‘Man, I should get back on the street.’ A lot of people—Tuba Skinny and Doreen Ketchens—are still out there.
You have lived in New Orleans for nearly a decade. Is it home now?
My husband is from Quebec. I sometimes think about moving to Montreal. Other times I’m like, ‘There’s no way. I would freeze. I’d be miserable.’
But you lived in New York City during the winter.
I hated winter. I don’t even like winter here. And there’s something so special about being here in New Orleans. I’m so inspired by the city. I have an amazing community of friends and support. My aunt lives here now. My sister moved here. My mom lives here part-time and in Haiti part-time. I grew some strong roots. I got married here. My children are New Orleanians.
You visited Haiti many times during your childhood. When you first visited New Orleans, did the city remind you of Haiti?
Yes. From the first time I ever walked around, especially in the French Quarter and the Bywater. The architecture is so similar. And when I went to Cap-Haïtien in northern Haiti, I thought, ‘This New Orleans.’ And since I’ve gotten here, especially the past couple of years, there’s been more and more conversation about the connections between Haiti and New Orleans. It’s so special to be a part of that.