Calvin Arsenia recorded his new EP with legendary LA studio musicians
You can’t put Calvin Arsenia in a box.
Arsenia is the current darling of Kansas City’s music scene, perhaps exactly for that reason: He’s a singer-songwriter, of course, but also a classically trained harpist whose music drifts easily into pop, soul and electronica. His debut full-length album, 2017’s Cantaloupe, was a moody, fantastical, genre-defying experiment.
Arsenia’s new album, LA Sessions, is a departure. His trademark harp has faded from the front of the mix. Instead, this six-song EP showcases Arsenia’s voice: an immensely powerful engine of emotion with a three-and-a-half vocal range. There’s something familiar about LA Sessions — and it’s not just the handful of covers. It’s a timeless blend of soul, jazz and magic, bolstered by an all-star backing ensemble, and it showcases yet another side of Arsenia the chameleon.
We chatted with Arsenia ahead of his release show at RecordBar on Sept. 19.
Let’s talk about the LA Sessions EP. It was recorded over a three-day span in Los Angeles. Why did you choose to make an album that way?
The album was kind of birthed out of curiosity to play with musicians that I wasn’t familiar with. [Kansas City-based] Center Cut Records approached me and asked me what I would like to do that I couldn’t do myself, I told them I wanted to go to L.A. and play with legendary players and get out of my comfort zone.
The process was really different for me. I didn’t have the luxury or the crutch, really, of being able to go back in and remix or re-record little bits and bobs. We recorded everything live in the studio together, all playing at the same time, and that’s what we got. They weren’t one-take tracks: We did maybe an hour of talking through each song and what we’re going to do with it and did about three takes each. The backing vocals were added after the fact, and cello on one song and harp on another, but the main rhythm section and vocals were all recorded live.
You’ve got some heavy-hitters. Guitarist Paul Brown worked with Aretha Franklin, keyboard player Mike Finnigan sessioned with Etta James, bassist Freddie Washington sat in with B.B. King and Elton John, and pianist David Garfield recorded with Smokey Robinson and Cher. How did you select these players?
Actually, I was connected to a producer by the name of Tony Braunagel, and he was the one who put together the band. I didn’t know who was going to be in the session until a couple days before. I got to know them throughout the process — Mike Finnigan is actually originally from Lawrence, Kansas, and we bonded over that. He’s a legend in KC and has worked with some of the greats. I mean, he recorded on one of Jimi Hendrix’s records.
So we’re all in this studio, talking and joking around, and I’m in the midst of legendary people. I think more than just their track records — and their track records are all immense — what I loved the most was that for these men, it was all about the music and serving the song. These are people who have every right in the world to shine and be in the front, and they instead elevated me and my work and respected me and heard me.
This album is a mix of original songs and covers, all rearranged. What was the story you wanted to tell with this collection?
In the records that I’ve produced up to this point, I’ve had a really big hand in how the sound is going to be and what could be featured, and there are times when I get pretty indulgent in scenery and making a cinematic record with sound. For this one, the goal was to have it feel like you’re in the room with me. It’s really clean and classic. Going in, I was like, “How do I make a record that sounds like a Nina Simone record or a Billie Holiday record? How do I show my voice and years of work in a way that’s not being masked by production?”
It was also something a lot of fans had requested of me because when I’m playing a live show, I don’t have the bells and whistles with me, and people want to be able to take that [sound] home. So this is the album that they’ve been wanting for a while.
Is there a particular song on this album that is special to you?
I really am grateful for the way that “Don’t Explain” turned out. That song was a pick by the producer, and he showed me the version that was done by Nina Simone, and I also listened to the version by Billie Holiday. There’s so much subtext in the delivery of that piece, and it was really fun to embody and try to fill that emotional space that is saying, “I love you despite your betrayal, and let’s try to move forward without making fools of ourselves.” I think there’s so much depth and complication to that in comparison to a lot of the [modern] songs that deal with hardships in romantic relationships that are like, “I just hate you.” It just seems more like real life and more like a real relationship, which is never black and white.
Tell me about the experience you want listeners to have when they hear this album and these songs.
I want people to feel permission to explore and sit in every single emotion that we get to have, equally and without fear of being judged or being hurried off to move on to the next feeling. It’s been something that I’ve kept as a personal theme in my life. I’ve felt a lot of freedom in giving time and space to this human experience, and I hope that this record will also be able to encourage people to feel every feeling — the whole spectrum — and not be afraid of sadness or joy or love or heartbreak.
GO: Calvin Arsenia will mark the release of LA Sessions at RecordBar, 1520 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 8 pm. Tickets from $20. calvinarsenia.com.
Jazz & Classical Picks:
1.Pianist Gerald Clayton grew up steeped in jazz: His father is lauded composer and bass player John Clayton, and his uncle, Jeff Clayton, is an alto saxophonist. Hear the Grammy-nominated pianist and composer as he explores modern jazz expression at the Lied Center’s Just Friends Jazz Series. Monday-Tuesday, Sept. 23-24. Lied Center, 1600 Stewart Drive, Lawrence, Kan. 7:30 pm. $19-$35. lied.ku.edu.
2. Saxophonist, composer, bandleader and record label owner Branford Marsalis’ three Grammy’s prove the depths of his musical talent. He kicks off the 37th annual Folly Jazz Series, which hosts a new musician every month through the spring. Friday, Oct. 4. The Folly, 300 W. 12th St., Kansas City, Mo. 8 pm. $20-$55. follytheater.org.
3. Michael Stern is kicking off his 15th season as Kansas City Symphony’s music director with a bang. The celebratory opening program, Finlandia and Schumann’s Piano Concerto, features Sibelius’ rousing tone poem Finlandia and German Romantic composer Robert Schumann’s only Piano Concerto. Friday-Sunday, Oct. 4-6. Kauffman Center, 1601 Broadway Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 8 pm Friday and Saturday, 2 pm Sunday. $25-$85. kauffmancenter.org.
4. Innovative banjo player, percussionist and bassist, Béla Fleck, Zakir Hussain and Edgar Meyer, collaborated in the 1980s, and the rest is history. The trio brings bluegrass and classical-style sounds to the Kauffman Center Presents series. Wednesday, Oct. 9. Kauffman Center, 1601 Broadway Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 7 pm. $29-$89. kauffmancenter.org.
5. With Kansas City Jazz Orchestra Presents: Cotton Club Revisited, the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra pays homage to legendary NYC nightclub Cotton Club and the artists that launched their careers there in the 1920s and ’30s. Revel in the sounds of Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong. Friday, Oct. 11. Kauffman Center, 1601 Broadway Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 8 pm. $32-$67. kauffmancenter.org.
6. Just in time for Halloween, renowned organist Dorothy Papadakos will take a seat at the Julia Irene Kauffman Casavant Organ to improvise the soundtrack for the creepy classic Phantom of the Opera. At Silent Film + Live Organ: The Phantom of the Opera, enjoy this chilling 1929 silent film in all its glory on the Kauffman’s enormous projection screen. Tuesday, Oct. 29. Kauffman Center, 1601 Broadway Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 8 pm. kauffmancenter.org.