In the last few years, several locally-based musical artists have forged ahead in somewhat new and unconventional ways to gain not only a national, but an international audience. Aurora Nealand, Helen Gillet, Leyla McCalla, Meschiya Lake, Alynda Lee Segarra (Hurray for the Riff Raff), Sasha Masakowski, Shannon McNally and Sarah Quintana have used crowdfunding and social media to help reach a wide and supportive audience. Before launching her career abroad and returning to New Orleans, Sarah Quintana studied the arts at Benjamin Franklin, New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) and Loyola University. Her extensive family’s Cajun French heritage and her love of jazz, standards and classic singer-songwriters served her well on 2012 release The World Has Changed, on which she performed a stunning rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s love letter to the Crescent City, “New Orleans.” Only Sarah Quintana sang it in French. Her latest effort, Miss River, is the culmination of a confluence of experiences including a residency at A Studio In The Woods, whose stated purpose is “to protect and preserve the Mississippi River bottomland hardwood forest and to provide a tranquil haven where artists can reconnect with universal creative energy and work uninterrupted within this natural sanctuary.” Sarah Quintana explored those possibilities as a songwriter and literally utilized the Mississippi River as a sounding board, incorporating underwater and natural sounds she gathered upon her explorations. With the assistance and guidance of engineer guru Mark Bingham (Piety Street Studio), Miss River came to fruition.
Take us back to your earliest recollection of your musical experiences growing up in New Orleans.
My aunt Hillary is good friends with Deacon John and he used to come over to our house and play guitar for us in our kitchen. He would perform all kinds of songs for us kids, but our favorite was “Constipation Blues,” a novelty tune by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins—which he’d play using a beer bottle as a slide. Deacon is such a charming entertainer—I was mesmerized. I got my first guitar when I was eight years old. It was a classical guitar. My aunt also plays piano—pretty much everyone in my family plays piano. We had one in our home before Hurricane Katrina. We’d play all kinds of music—church hymns, standards, tunes from songbooks, Mariah Carey or Boyz II Men. I was always able to just go up to the piano and play. I didn’t really appreciate the fact that I was raised in a music family here in New Orleans until I moved to France. I was there after Katrina. I fell in love with a sailor in Marseille and stayed there for a second, working as a musician in a band there in my early twenties. I initially busked, but soon thereafter I was invited to play in clubs, contract engagements, tours and several music festivals. It didn’t work out with the French guy but I’m still singing!
A very endearing New Orleans element apparent in your music is your deep, visceral connection with your family. You use personal items such as family mementos, keepsakes, stories, recipes not only as lyrical references but using items such as your grandmother’s porcelain tea cups and silverware to add musical flourishes to your songs.
I love that word, “keepsakes.” One of the objects that I salvaged from our house after Katrina is a porcelain demitasse coffee cup passed down through my grandmother Emily Ardenaux-Quintana from Bayou Goula, just south of Baton Rouge near Donaldsonville. This coffee cup is a cherished item in our family because it was passed down from her mother, who was Cajun and spoke only French—Grandma Annie. Also because it was tiny, all the children grew up drinking out of this particular cup. I grew up on Banks and South Pierce in Mid-City New Orleans near my grandmother. We had a dozen cousins and dozens of children that grew up in a close-knit Catholic family with Cajun roots. This coffee cup is a touchstone to family folklore and became a symbol of New Orleans for me—a way of talking to French audiences, explaining to them that New Orleans is shaped like a bowl, and an image of our strong rituals, French heritage and fragile landscape. I use the cup as a percussion instrument in several of my songs including “Mama Mississippi.” I am very inspired by objects and relics pertaining to the mythology of my Louisiana family, exploring the deeper roots. Especially as we see the disappearance of our coastline, and have so many questions about that, we need to know where we come from and decide best where we want to go. We have so much to think about and so many decisions to make if we want to survive here. So, the coffee cup is a comforting symbol about moving forward, baby steps and daily rituals that remind us who we are. We have conversations around drinking coffee. And yes, some mysteries will never be solved, but we can honor and cherish what we do know.
Many of us left New Orleans after Katrina. You spent time away in France. Describe your experience of returning home and your path upon your return, and how this process influenced and shaped your life, and music.
I was a painter in college, and involved with visual arts, making tiny books and other objects. I lost my portfolio in Katrina. When I moved to France, I felt lost. I felt like I had lost everything, all my connections. I lost my city. I was cut off from many of my family members and most of my friends and lost all of my possessions. Music became a way for me to forge ahead with a newfound purpose and identity; it was more temporal, eternal, and a tangible thing for me at that point, traveling. I didn’t need paint and canvas to show what I could do. Now, I could sing a simple song like “Basin Street Blues” or “St. James Infirmary” and “All Of Me” and all these standards that I just knew because I’m from here, so that just made sense. Or just make up a tune. Initially, I played for my friends in homes and at parties. I was playing guitar and singing, but with no career in mind at the time. But, then I started get asked to play more often, and for money! Eventually, I was doing better as a musician than I was teaching English to French students. I began to perform all over Europe. It was the perfect experience at the time for a 20-year-old. Basically, the songs were my passport.
It was soon after that I began to get serious about music and realize that there were opportunities available for me to pursue. There were personal, creative desires that I could fulfill with music. I could paint pictures with stories, and images, and sound. I could transmute my pain. When I was lonely I just went outside and started singing. That loneliness became a dinner party because I made all my friends, everything I have now through music. I’m still friends with people that saw me on the street when I was 19 or 20. The people of France were so kind to me. I was feeling down and out and they welcomed me into their homes, gave me comfort, and friendship and gigs. So music became my home away from home—my new social network, and eventually, a way to come back to New Orleans with purposeful intentions. Upon my return, I joined the New Orleans Moonshiners, and started singing with swing bands. I started working on my chart book. Musicians like Charlie Fardella, Matt Lemmler, Joe Cabral, Jonathan Freilich, John Bradley and many others took me under their wings. I grew up watching Davy Mooney play at Plantation Coffee House in Lakeview, and he and I started playing together. Although singing is my talent, I’ve always identified myself as a guitar player going back to my days at NOCCA. It was around this time that I began to seek out more established guitarists and take private lessons with them.
You also seem to have several eclectic, kindred spirits here that you’ve performed with such as Helen Gillet, Leyla McCalla and Aurora Nealand. How have those particular bonds influenced the direction of your music?
First of all, if I hadn’t seen women on the stage, whether as leaders or side musicians, I wouldn’t have thought it was possible for me to one day do the same. It’s always been extremely important to me to have chops and know how to play well in an ensemble setting, to know the jazz code if you will. Seeing Shaye Cohn with Tuba Skinny and Aurora Nealand, and working with them and Helen Gillet, who has invited me to play in several French settings. It’s meant a lot to me to see women play jazz and creative, original music, as well as do so in the capacity of a leader. They are part of the reason that I continue to compose original music and improve my skills as a guitarist. These women have truly inspired the shit out of me. Not only do I have the fortune to go to dinner with them, we share life experiences, I babysit for them, record with them, perform with them, tour with them, and learn from them. As a creative being I admire them, and they showed me that anything was possible.
Since Katrina there have been several interesting venues that have opened up that seem very different from the pre-Katrina landscape. They vary from outdoor venues such as Bacchanal to the Marigny Opera House, a re-purposed church that often features acoustic performances without any amplification whatsoever. What they have in common is a more communal approach to music. What’s your take on this?
It’s totally magical. I’ve played in all of these newer venues and even performed in yoga festivals, which is something different entirely, and an increasingly promising avenue for me. Of course, I still do a lot of house concerts, and still love traditional venues such as Preservation Hall, and playing on a riverboat.
Another commonality you share with these particular musicians is savvy when it comes to funding dream projects and tapping into the online community as a source of revenue, exposure and support. I imagine it also played a part in dreaming big after seeing their successful efforts to having such an ambition enterprise as Miss River come to fruition, which must have been challenging considering all the outdoor and environmental challenges of such an elaborate venture.
Totally. Miss River was a tremendous undertaking that required the collaborative efforts of so many incredible musicians and of course, it was made possible by the generosity of my friends and fans and Kickstarter. First of all, I was very lucky to meet Mark Bingham, who is not only a brilliant engineer, producer and musician but a feminist! In turn, I’ve had the pleasure of being able to offer my support to other musicians in kind. For instance, Davy Mooney has a new recording called Hope Of Home featuring Brian Blade coming out and I’m helping him with online fundraising and a promotional campaign. I’m also producing my first album with help from with Rex Gregory and Mark Bingham. I’ve found that we all share and participate in our musical community.
Debbie Davis, who I often babysit for, puts it this way: “If I put money in your tip jar it will eventually find its way into mine.” It’s a sharing economy in a way. We uplift each other, and our dreams. We uplift the Gulf of Mexico, social change, social justice prison reform, it’s all connected. Yes! The whole world is looking to New Orleans and Louisiana for answers. We share the responsibilities to be stewards not only of our cultural heritage but to the land and rich habitats around us.
You’ve written songs dealing with issues of social justice. How does that issue work its way into your music?
One thing about being a musician and a writer is that you are a witness. You can play a song that has a deep meaning and conveys a feeling and can make a personal connection. People of any color or any side of the political spectrum will come up to you and tell me how much they were impacted and moved by my performance. Being from New Orleans, you have to at some point begin to grapple with the difficult issues we face here. I’ve developed my own feelings, my own perspective in regards to issues of race, social injustice, privilege, poverty, and other issues we face and too often ignore here. I went to Loyola, which is a Catholic social justice institution, and met Sister Helen Prejean there my freshman year, and of course, she had strong opinions in regard to the death penalty and she had a tremendous impact on me.
Going to France was illuminating and confrontational in that regard, because it made me realize just how difficult things are here. It also made me realize that we as musicians pretty much owe everything to black culture. If it wasn’t for Louis Armstrong and many others, I wouldn’t be here singing any songs! Why can’t we live harmoniously, celebrate life, and uplift each other? People do want to help and be a part of making things better in the world.
The social justice aspect of my career happened because of my relationship with Herman Wallace, one of the Angola 3 who spent over four decades in solitary confinement, who I was pen-pals with for five years. I met Herman through my yoga teacher Jackie Sumell at Swan River Yoga. She’s kind of the radical social justice yogi in this area, known to quote Angela Davis in her classes. She is also the star of the documentary The House That Herman Built, which shows her amazing work. And that’s how I got involved. The day Herman was released I wrote “Almost Free.” Herman’s voice lives through that song. The positive feedback and support I get from a song like that becomes a positive cycle when people ask me to play that song at funerals and other situations, or I receive royalties from it which encourages me and allows me to continue to write new songs addressing social concerns. Everything is about planting a seed and building a network. How can this moment be honest and open enough to create another beautiful moment and opportunity?
Music is one of the few mediums that’s able to transcend politics no matter one’s affiliation.
There are certain situations where one can simply feel like they don’t belong for various reasons, be it gender, religion, sexual orientation—whatever. I lost my home in Katrina and sometimes still feel I’m wandering. I know what it feels like to not belong and I don’t want anyone to feel this way. Music definitely makes me feel like I belong. I feel safe there.
Tell us about your involvement with environmental concerns. You did a residency at Studio in the Woods and as always your connection with the land and the water that surrounds us and that delicate relationship has had a tremendous influence on you. How did the whole concept of Miss River develop?
The map of Louisiana looks very different now than it did when I was in grade school. It’s gone from looking like a boot to more like a worn down sneaker. I saw how that water devastated so many communities. Even areas that weren’t traditionally considered vulnerable. We need to explore more options besides simply waiting for the apocalypse. Its hard work and we need to get to the business of doing it. We can imagine a world that we want to see. I also believe that nature is divine and holy whether it’s a meadow or a bayou, and the same quality that can be found in a masterpiece painting in the Louvre is also manifested by our creator in the form of a mountain, a beautiful tree, and the bounty of nature that surrounds us here in Louisiana. We need to cherish and protect Mother Nature. For me, it’s like being part of an ever-flowing stream to be connected to this source of inspiration. I have had a variety of experiences and as an artist it’s important to explore. Miss River in a way is the culmination of my experiences and my attempt to give voice to the water, if you will.
Elaborate on your process and perspective as a musical artist.
As a musician, we are looking for eternity in the interval. We are looking for the perfect solo, the perfect poem or lyric, or just to be present and do the work in case the muse shows up. Writing is a spiritual exercise and improvising is an instant form of composing. I am constantly recording myself and sometimes those fragments later get structured and shaped into songs. For me, the most precious gem—and I hope that everyone can get the opportunity to experience this in some way—is the blissful free space where you are one with your soul and your source. Music is the eternal refuge, it’s art, beauty, and it’s available to everyone. It’s available in so many ways and people find it differently. It’s important to find your inspiration and hang out there. For me, the sweet spot seems to be balancing discipline with creating new possibilities of personal and artistic growth. Living in New Orleans, it’s easy to get caught up in a comfort zone. Traveling challenges you to discover the world and your place in it. Traveling creates a new orbit. When I was in France, everything felt equal. I felt safe in any neighborhood and didn’t fear gun violence and crime for instance. Everyone has access to health care and just knowing that was a comforting thought, but it also got me thinking about important social issues back home. That perspective was illuminating. Travel really improves every element of life and that includes a higher vibration, clearer thinking, writing from a more interesting perspective, as well as simply making my heart happier.
What are you up to next?
Keith Porteous’ album that I co-produced, Sound Refuge, comes out on October 16. My next project will be a solo covers recording of some of my favorite songs, ranging from Joni Mitchell to Stevie Wonder. I’m also very excited about a new project which is an interactive song blog where people write in to me and I respond by creating a music video. That project is in development. Also, very excited and honored to be performing in French at the Blackpot Festival in Lafayette on October 29. I’m also booking 2017 in France now, which is super exciting! Also, I’ve just recently begun working with the Ocean Conservancy which is very exciting as well.