When we get the opportunity to speak to artists making a mark in the world and discover the new music they are creating, we can be enriched in many ways. Listen Up! recently had the chance to catch up with Calvin Arsenia, a Kansas City-based international touring artist, whose initial release, the 2017 "Catastrophe," met critical acclaim. After releasing his second LP "Cantaloupe," Arsenia traveled to Los Angeles, assembled an amazing group of musicians and recorded his latest LP “L.A. Sessions."
Listen Up! caught up with Arsenia to talk about his work, his influences and the experiences of his musical journey.
Listen Up!: I’ve read and have seen from some of your live performance footage online that you can play a lot of different instruments — guitar, bass, piano and banjo — but you are thought of as the harp being your primary instrument. Can you tell us what first drew you to the harp and at what age you started playing it?
Calvin Arsenia: I started playing the harp at 20. I searched Kansas City for someone to play the harp for the songs I was creating and could not find any one. Most harpists do not jam and are classically trained. It is also costly to hire and tour with a harp and an additional member of the band, so I learned to play the harp. Really, any instrument I can get behind and sing is really where my interest is.
L.U: Who are some of your musical influences?
C.A.: Bjork, Joanna Newsome and Florence and the Machine. When Florence and the Machine first started touring more she had a harpist on tour with her.
L.U: You mentioned some challenges in bringing a harp on tour. How do you tour with a harp?
C.A.: I play a Delta electric harp, it is smaller and I stand while I play it. Think of it more like the difference between a piano and a keyboard. I do cross my fingers when I board a plane with it.
L.U: In doing some research, I found that your live shows are not only full of music but you also add visual components to you concerts.
C.A.: I try to make my shows a total sensory experience. I have a background in teaching and education, so I do all that I can to make sure every person that comes in the room is stimulated in a way that stimulates them. Not everyone is stimulated by music or sound alone so visual is a huge component to what I do.
L.U: You play both large venues and intimate venues. How do you approach each show with the variety of size in the spaces you play?
C.A.: I approach every show differently and every show is different. I consider the main collaborator for each show the space itself. Not every room requires pomp and circumstance, some are very intimate. When I can’t decorate a space, I decorate myself.
L.U: Where does your commitment to the performance and the audience experience come from?
C.A.: I think about my work very seriously and know that not everyone can come to shows all the time, maybe one or two times a year. Whether it is due to obligations or ticket price, so when they make the time to spend a couple of hours with me I make it my job to do everything I can to honor that space. We all have concerts we have gone to that have changed our lives and have impacted us. If you have that potential to be part of the fabric of someone’s life, why not do it in a way that honors their time and their life?
L.U: How do you approach your song writing?
C.A.: Most of the time, songs come to me. I talk a lot and feel a lot about the muses, and how a song is looking for a place to be birthed out of. It's a feeling and an emotional place, those feelings, words and instruments and how you put them all together is some kind of alchemy. It is a picture and a potion, a way to express an emotion. To deal with it and to get things off your chest.
L.U: Do you have a favorite song off your new LP “L.A. Sessions”?
C.A.: While I enjoyed performing them all, I enjoyed covering “Don’t Explain.” It is a song done by Billy Holiday and also covered by Nina Simone. Exploring that headspace and fully embodying that song has been really cathartic.
L.U: Your latest album "LA Sessions" features some of America’s finest jazz and blues players. These guys have played with everyone from Jimmy Hendrix to Stevie Wonder to the Neville Brothers. How was it working with those guys? Was it at all daunting?
C.A.: The album producer assembled a “dream team.” My label Center Cut Records asked me about what I wanted to do next. I mentioned that I wanted to work with different musicians and create something special. It was a pleasure and an honor to work with them. I was not as much star struck as I just felt like I was in really great company. I was looking at these musicians and thinking they do what I do, they follow the muses and looking for the groove. We took the ego away and looked for the place where the song needs to live and exist.
L.U: So what’s next?
C.A.: I haven’t written a lot recently. I feel the inspiration is gushing inside my heart. Stay tuned for some new music.
The songs created during Arsenia's time in Los Angeles have found a solid place to exist on "L.A. Sessions." Listen Up! to Calvin Arsenia and hopefully catch him live for a multi-sensory stimulating experience. For more information see calvinarsenia.com and you can follow Arsenia on all social media platforms.