Melissa Laveaux: Interview With the Singer-Songwriter and Guitarist

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Melissa Laveaux-picIf you were to meet Melissa Laveaux on the streets of Paris, you would swear that she’s just like any other girl about town. Sure, she loves to read, argue, dance, solve puzzles, travel, and listen to a ridiculous amount of music. But she records music too. The Montreal-born, Ottawa-raised, and now France-residing singer, and daughter of Haitian parents released her newest album Dying is a Wild Night. It’s her second full-length album on a major record label.

Prior to that, she wasn’t exactly a musical wallflower, opening for Angolan singer Lura at festivals and for alternative artist Meshell Ndegeocello and creating plenty of buzz with her self-released album Camphor & Copper. Following its initial release, and a second version of Camphor & Copper was released by No Format.

Barely a year after she had graduated with a Bachelor of Science from the University of Ottawa, Ms. Laveaux was already high-riding at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. Laveaux’s voice is very complex. It’s like listening to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Dionne Farris all at once.

“The Postman” is the first single off of the Dying is a Wild Night album. Its accompanying video, with its images of forest ballerinas in body paint, has an almost macabre quality to it. “The Postman”—in question—is a mysterious woman dressed in a top hat outfit, but one gets a feeling that she’s not getting ready for a pleasant evening of tap dancing, but for something more sinister. The entire video feels like a prelude during the intermission of a horror film at a decrepit movie theatre house.

“Pretty Girls,” the second single is less frightening. A sarcasm-filled title, for the song isn’t about young ladies at a pageant, or polite and fresh little maidens with sincere smiles, and twirling little umbrellas, but rather about the ruthlessness and aggressiveness of, well, mean girls.

Laveaux’s is the 2nd full-length album and it is released to independent label No Format. It is distributed in France by Universal Classics and around the world (except Canada) by Naive.

Q & A

Can you think back to the first song, and perhaps first album that made this profound, had this profound effect on you as a person?
I think Martha Jean-Claude’s Canciones de Haiti. Her voice, especially its grain, was probably the first voice that ever touched me. I remember listening to her rendition of a classic Haitian lullaby ‘Dodo Titit’, which I covered on my last album. Her life story, her activism before, during and after the dictatorship years have always been fascinating. I recently went back to listen to her album, and this time, the songs that struck me were “Potpourri” which is a medley of very salacious songs – very daring for a woman of her age at that time. And the other was “Angelina” which I later found out, was a poke at an American general’s wife, while on the surface sounding like a harmless childrens’ song. She had guts. She imprisoned – pregnant! And she survived it all. I find her a feminist inspiration to this day.

What was it like growing up Haitian?
It’s like growing up in two different worlds. You’re Haitian at home but then you’re parents make sure you’re Canadian outside of the home. They desperately want you to know your roots, but they also desperately want you to integrate seamlessly into Canadian society and culture. I spoke French at school and at home and spoke English with my friends and my sister. I compartmentalized everything in order to keep things clear in my head. But as I grew up, my “Haitianness” and my “Canadianess” became one fluid [indissoluble] identity.

What can you tell us about this album, this album that seems to have been in you for quite some time now, and that you are finally giving birth to?
It’s called Dying Is a Wild Night, which is an Emily Dickinson quote. The full quote is actually quite positive: “Dying Is a wild night and a new road”. Knowing the full title of the album, one can understand that it isn’t exactly about dying so much as it is about leaving things behind you and moving to something else. Departure is difficult but incredibly rewarding, as was my leaving Canada for France. The album is about the experience of this voyage—mostly in my head—that shook me changed me, changed the way I wrote music, the way I loved people, the way I do everything. I had to grow up when I moved to Paris, and I still have plenty of growing to do. So it’s essentially an album about shedding one’s own skin.
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When was the last time you went to Haiti?
Sixteen years ago was the first and last time I went to Haiti on vacation with my family. It was my first time my mom had been back since she was eighteen—thirty-two years before. It was devastating at first. My parents really noticed how the country had taken a major blow under different [governments]. I remember hanging out with my cousins in Cap Haitien. I remember eating the best food I had eaten thus far in my short life. Seeing the sea for the first time. People begging me to straighten my hair so I “not look like a maid”. Not liking the heat so much—I’m a winter baby. My mother was a different person there than she was in Canada. As I was a different person when I was inside my own home. I understood my parents better.

Do you find yourself inspired by Haitian culture?
Yes, but I think it’s all subliminal. I am a strong believer that culture is not only transmitted through teaching and rearing but also through blood. Haitians, as most islanders have a way of referring to the sea in a lot of their written work, I didn’t even notice I did that until someone else pointed it out to me. I like Haitian humor and over-the-top drama – it’s totally harsh but it really nourishes my writing without me even noticing it. I love Creole because as a contextual language, you can say so much with so little: this economy of words I try to keep in mind when I write songs.

In terms of studying music formally—do you think that is a necessity to being a success in the musical world?
I would recommend some form of formal training just because it provides one with a larger set of skills. Versatility is the only way to achieve longevity in the music industry. I would love to compose for film in the future, but I think I will have to take up a bit of specific training for that. I find myself limited in terms of what I can do in terms of arrangements. I was very grateful to have the producers I had on this album. But if all you want to do is write songs, then listen to good music. That’s my training. I try to develop my music palette and taste level by listening to music constantly and I try to read novels as well as non-fiction as often as a can.

Turns out that you write a lot of your own songs. Every performer-songwriter’s process is different. What’s yours like?
I try to keep a guitar within reach when I am at home. I let creative juices flow by listening to a lot of music or reading a lot of books that I think will inspire me. Edwidge Danticat is a big one for me. And recently Alejo Carpentier. A song will come to me because a melody will find its way into my ear and I can’t stop humming or singing a few bars until I reach a pen and paper. Sometimes I’ll be playing a cover of an old tune I like and the mistake of a misplaced finger will give me ideas for a new chord structure. I try to avoid writing as a 9 to 5 sort of gig. Those songs rarely ever make it onto an album.
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Do you ever co-write with other songwriters? How does that usually work out?
I share composition responsibilities with my producers – The Jazz Basterds—Vincent Taurelle, Vincent Taeger and Ludovic Bruni—on three songs of the album because they changed the structure of the song or changed some of the chords. Other than that, I write alone. My songs are very personal and it would be weird to have someone else write something that hadn’t affected them at all. I don’t know if I see myself writing with someone else in the future, but I’m open to trying new things!

What entertainers and performers you look up to?
The aforementioned Martha Jean-Claude, Wildbirds and Peacedrums, My Brightest Diamond, Camille, Aretha Franklin, Tune-Yards, Feist.

What do your parents and other family members think of your being a musical artist?
I’m not sure they like the music… But I think they’re all very happy whenever they see me on TV or hear me on the radio. They’re happy to see I’ve made a viable career out of my craft and that I’m not broke and alone in another country.

Who would you like to collaborate with musically in the future?
Santigold? Wildbirds & Peacedrums? Valgeir Sigurdsson? Flying Lotus? Little Dragon? Devendra Banhardt? Timber Timbre? I know, that’s a lot of a bands. I couldn’t pick just one. All these people are incredibly talented. I would love to have a song in a [Quintin] Tarentino film! Or an old Kathryn Bigelow film. I’m a big fan of her Strange Days and Point Break period.

What’s next for you?
Preparing the live show: we have a residency coming up to work on sound and lights and stage presence. Promoting the album is a crazy exhausting rush. I’m doing a lot of interviews right now. I’m currently answering these questions at 5 a.m. on a Sunday morning [Paris time].

Photo Credit: Jean-Baptiste Millot, Emma Pick

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