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EXCLUSIVE: Classicalite Q&A with New Orleans Young Lioness Carsie Blanton

By Ian Holubiak i.holubiak@classicalite.com on May 09, 2014 03:59 PM EDT

"They say that it takes 10 years to get your New Orleans passport," laughs jazz singer and guitarist Carsie Blanton.

"Until then, you're just a visitor."

Native or not, if there's one NoLA-based young lion that deserves more than a blip on the Cresent City's jazz radar, Carsie Blanton is it.

I mean, Carsie Blanton is her.

The young lioness has a voice that channels some of the greatest female singers, be they elder stateswomen such as Billie Holiday and Nina Simone or contemporaries like Norah Jones.

And her voice will make you melt, indeed, like the Cajun heat that comes from her adopted hometown: New Orleans, Louisiana.

Classicalite: Let's discuss your new single, "Laziest Gal in Town." It's an old Cole Porter tune. The song was written for a Hitchcock film, but I'm convinced it was written for you. When was the first time you heard it? Did it draw you in immediately?

Carsie Blanton: I first heard the song five or six years ago. I got the Nina Simone record Broadway, Blues and Ballads, and I believe it was on vinyl originally. That's the song that really stuck out to me. I'm a huge Nina Simone fan, and I was going through the archives of her work and that recording is pretty poor quality--like a live recording. But the song, itself, stuck out. I loved the verse about "My poor heart is achin' / To bring home some bacon" it's just very classic Cole Porter. It rhymes perfectly, but it's funny at the same time--an odd choice. That stuck in my mind as a song I'd like to record someday because it isn't a standard. And I think it should be better known.

C: I recently spoke with indie rock band The Revivalists (great guys), who are also from New Orleans. The city seems to have a specific influence on the artists that hail from there. How does this sense of place figure into "Laziest Gal?" And did it color your choice of players on your album Not Old, Not New?

CB: That's definitely what drew me out here; the place has a lot of soul in general, but especially in terms of music. It's a very vibrant music scene that has a lot of appreciation for jazz and blues in a way that you don't find in most other cities. There's also kind of a theme on the album of New Orleans, a kind of feel of the city. There's a lot of sultry songs, and a lot of mentioning of flowers, swamps and blocks closely associated with the city. I think even more than that, it really has the mood of the city. The songs I tailored for the arrangements were really inspired by the city. They are really slow and sultry, something I really associate with New Orleans. All the players, except me, are from New Orleans, and they really influenced the sound. The players really have a sense of how to play low without it sounding like a dirge.

C: What were you brought up listening to? I've read that you were homeschooled. Did your musical upbringing, in that context, affect your listening? Or did it stimulate a musical exploration that's been essential to your present career?

CB: I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. And my parents were both pretty eccentric. You know, really great and interesting people. They listened to lovely folk music from the 1960s and '70s, so a lot of Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and John Prine. Those songwriters were my earliest influences in terms of who was playing in my household while I was growing up. My father had a lot of parties, so we had live music in the house a lot, which I appreciate. Until about 13, that's what I thought was good music: very heavy on the lyrics, kind of folksy songwriting from that era. At 15, my grandpa sent me a Billie Holiday record and that's when jazz became one of my loves. Ever since then, I've just been delving deeper and deeper into the rabbithole of music, especially pre-bop vocal jazz. And in the past few years, it's really focused down into this one era. In the early 1950s, before 1956, there were all these vocal records that came out that had a very similar approach, which was a lot of ballads and very short songs. So they weren't heavy on the improvisation. I feel they showcased the songwriting of that era in a way that I really connect with. That, and the Nat King Cole trio are really my era, my sweet spot I'm interested in right now. Since I was homeschooled, I was able to obsess over things kids in school couldn't. I picked up guitar when I was 13. I started writing songs around the same time. For the next four or five years it became my full-time job. One of the first songs that grabbed me, too, was from a Billie Holliday anthology, and it was "Crazy He Calls Me." That was one of the first songs I learned how to sing and play on guitar. I still record it sometimes. It really stuck with me for a long time.

C: The album, Not Old, Not New, was funded via Kickstarter, which is proving to be a very popular medium for musicians and artists of any stripe to promote and achieve their intended goal--in this case, an album. Did this affect the production of the album, as a whole?

CB: Kickstarter has been huge. The main thing I'm happy about is that I was able to pay the players what I wanted to pay them and what they actually deserved. It's always having to haggle with people and underpay them. Luckily, musicians tend to be very willing to play on music if they like it, whether or not they are getting paid something reasonable. It's not like I had to use second-rate musicians in the past, but it just feels really good to pay someone what they are actually worth--skills and all. And it also allows me to have some pretty high-profile musicians, like Ellis Marsalis plays on a songs on the new record. He's been here for so long and is so well-established--and I don't think he leaves the house unless it's for a very good reason--so Kickstarter was able to give me his reason. We actually did a duet, the one with just me and piano, on the record.

C: You've been a big champion of the Great American Songbook, helping to change the tide of auto-tuned songstresses to soulful and genuine interpretation of classic tunes. What's your take on your latest album and single in regards to popular music? Is any contemporary pop to your taste?

CB: I really love that so many people are invested in the project. At first, it was 1,500 people who sent me a pledge ,and it was scary because I felt so many people wanted something so great from me. But on the other hand, I feel like I'm making something for somebody instead of just for myself. And that really changed my approach and made me work harder. It made me feel like I have something worthwhile for everyone. The way that I came up with the idea for the record was partly born out of feeling sad that so many young people--people in their 20s and 30s and even younger--feel like jazz is this academic, sophisticated music that you have to have some kind of training to understand properly. I think that's tragic. I think jazz is such a huge part of American heritage, perhaps even world heritage. I wanted to make something that felt accessible to people who love jazz and for those who don't--those who also don't feel like they can be a part of it. So, I kind of wanted the record to be a way for people to enter the world of jazz. I really focused on playing in a way that showcased the song. I tried to pick songs that were understandable to anyone of any age. I wanted to keep it in the realm of pop, since pop is a song that anyone can understand in just a few minutes. And I feel that's what jazz used to be in the '40s and '50s. I think that when it became non-pop it lost the potential to appeal to young people on a large scale. I also wanted to bring it back to a time where jazz was pop music and, in doing that, showcased what a great song is--so people can be reminded of that craft, what a great song truly is. I love contemporary pop. I love Bruno Mars and Beyonce, so I'm not the kind of jazz fan that's trying to exclude any other type of music.

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TagsCarsie Blanton, Cole Porter, Not Old Not New, Laziest Gal in Town, John Porter, New Orleans, EXCLUSIVE