Cécile McLorin Salvant arrives to a Manhattan photo studio wrapped in a jacket by Henrik Vibskov, her unblemished face intentionally scrubbed free of any makeup. Pink umbrella earrings playfully bounce alongside her face as she speaks, a feathered fascinator floats above her tightly cropped hair.
“I like things that are bold,” proclaims the singer-songwriter, who cites Erykah Badu and Björk as her personal style influences. “I like people who take fashion as an opportunity to be outrageous and really embrace strangeness.”
But McLorin Salvant, currently in the midst of a world tour, takes a subdued approach to her on-stage wardrobe, which consists “almost exclusively [of] Issey Miyake.” Born in Miami to a French mother and Haitian father, the 28-year-old has always been musically inclined, but jazz, the genre in which she’s up for best vocal album at the Grammy Awards on Sunday, was not always the plan. Her velvety voice has been compared to the likes of Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn, but the singer admits she “just fell into” jazz after encouragement from a voice teacher.
“I wanted to be a classical baroque singer and I still kind of do,” reveals McLorin Salvant, whose 2015 album “For One to Love” won best jazz vocal album at last year’s ceremony. “Visual arts, music, theater — that’s my passion. I want to do Broadway, I want to do movies, I want to get an Oscar. This whole singing thing is sort of an excuse for me to act through songs.”
Gazing through a pair of cotton candy pink Emmanuelle Khanh prescription frames, the entertainer speaks with an assuredness that masks the insecurities she admits to facing as both a woman and an artist.
“There are moments when I think maybe I shouldn’t be this outrageous,” she explains of her vibrant persona. “I feel like I subdue a lot of that when I’m on stage, but my sense of humor can get me in trouble.”
Beauty and its subjectivity have long fascinated McLorin Salvant. The notion of “monstrous women” in folklore — “Medusa and ogresses” — serves as inspiration for her current writing, a fairytale-like story of interconnected songs.
“The whole Beyoncé ‘I woke up like this’ [idea] is a very interesting way to approach being a woman,” she says. “The opposite is also equally interesting and important: a celebration of monstrosity, flaws, ugliness, a celebration of the grotesque.
“A lot of women pride themselves on ‘doing it all,’” she continues. “But I think there’s something also empowering about leaning in to nastiness and the fact that not everyone is perfect.”
On her latest release, “Dreams and Daggers,” McLorin Salvant chose to cover Barbra Streisand’s “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty” from “Funny Girl,” with lyrics that suggest a woman’s opportunities depend on physical beauty. Stepping onto a photo set, the singer opts to keep her face void of makeup save for a bold red lip. “I’m very much about presenting who I am and what I actually look like,” she explains.
The singer, whose vocal talent has for several years appeared in Chanel’s “Chance” ad campaign, shifts conversation to her fascination with music’s role in American history. She notes how the racist minstrel shows of the 19th and early 20th centuries would sometimes feature black performers, like Vaudeville-era entertainer Bert Williams, who donned dark makeup to mock black culture.
“How painful, but also how insane and absurd it must have been to be making fun of your own people,” she explains. “But at the same time a lot of those blackface performers had abolitionist messages.” It’s an understanding of this history that allowed McLorin Salvant to developed a greater appreciation of the musical genre that essentially found her.
“The dignity of jazz [in its early years] came from that humiliation,” she continues. “We’ve sort of forgotten about the dignity of jazz and that very put-together, elegant persona. It’s such an American problem and rooted in slavery and our whole messed up history. [It’s] also with American entertainment — it’s so layered.”
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