The Cassandra Wilson Interview

I call Cassandra Wilson for a chat. It's daunting calling up a person once described by Time magazine as the greatest singer on the planet. She doesn't disappoint. I'm three minutes early for the chat. "Well, we can start now, although you are three minutes early...but we can start now if you have a question. Sure. You're eager."

Oh boy.

Actually, talking to Cassandra Wilson is lovely. That slightly bumpy start was chuckled over and then chucked away and the voice - down the line, speaking - is as easy to get caught up in, as easy to stand stunned listening to, to feel spellbound by, as it is when you hear it through the speakers on any one of a double handful of recordings from across the past two decades. Wellingtonians will get to hear it - and see her - in the flesh tomorrow night at The Opera House.

It's been a busy time for Wilson, a year of reflection - something that doesn't always happen in a career that seems constantly to be looking forward. And there'll be new material to come ("there's always something new"). But right now it's a look back over the shoulder.

"Well, I've recently reunited with the same band, or most of the same band, from our Blue Light 'til Dawn album. So we're playing a lot of that material and it's amazing to think that record is 20 years old now. In so many ways that was the start of..." she pauses. A Cassandra Wilson pause, in conversation, is much like a pause in a Cassandra Wilson song. You know something dramatic is coming. And then the pause is over: "the start of - all this. All of it."

Blue Light was Wilson's debut for Blue Note but she had worked hard to get to that level - at least half a dozen recordings beforehand, years spent working hard through clubs, as leader, as side-player, shifting cities, learning songs, writing, doing her 10,000 hours.

"I guess Blue Light has been the sound for me - or the start of that sound," Wilson chuckles here. "I mean we're definitely celebrating it this year, it's 20 years old. But life carries on and so someone else had to tell me the record was 20 years old. I've just carried on making records, doing shows. But Blue Light is definitely special. We generally include something from it - or a lot from it - in our shows. And it was the album that put me on the map. I'm forever thankful for that."

Wilson was born in Jackson, Mississippi; she credits this with her lifelong love of the guitar. She agrees that the image of a female singer at the piano, performing in a jazz/ish style, has become something of a cliché. But for her the guitar was always number one.

"I love the piano. But that's a cliché. And I never wanted to be part of that cliché. I play a little but for me it's always been about the guitar - it's portable, and it was always available. Every home I went to growing up, every home I had or visited, there was a guitar. And people shared songs using the guitar. It's been that way for me. Travel with the guitar: write songs, learn songs, share songs."

Also part of the young Cassandra's life - and something she carries with her to this day - is a deep sense of the blues.

"It was just there - growing up. We had the blues music and we had we so many heroes and you don't forget the impact of hearing Nina Simone or Abbey Lincoln or so many others. These are voices that stay with you. And the blues was just always around, all around".

She's known, now, as a jazz singer, a jazz musician; it's a term Wilson understands and never tries to shrug off - she's playing as part of Wellington's Jazz Festival, for example - but at the same time it's a term she's never really agreed with, never felt entirely comfortable with; for her it's been about "doing something with jazz" and doing something "in a jazz way".

"I see everything I do, particularly the songs we cover in our shows and on the albums, as being a case of exercising the jazz discipline. It's a discipline that creates the music, but it goes beyond genre."

That discipline was learnt - later embodied - when Cassandra Wilson moved to New York in the early 1980s. "So many amazing players to see and hear and later to work with, a scene that was inspiring and intimidating and that's when I knew I had taken a step up, had dedicated myself to something. Something big. That was the moment I think when I first knew that I would be doing this - that I was going to give this a go for real." She breaks off to laugh a little.

"Every piece of music is important and that's that discipline from jazz and that's what I learned then. Very much on the job. Playing sets. Learning from others. Working with others. Being inspired to be the best you can be. And that's what we go out and do now every night when we play. That's always the aim. That's a discipline you carry over with you when you've learnt it - it doesn't matter what genre you're working in or working with."

Wilson doesn't so much work with genres as pass through them. She's a song collector. And some of the choices are very interesting; some of them weren't always the sure bet they end up sounding like on the record. Take her version of U2's Love Is Blindness for example.

"Oh, yes, I do love that song but you see I was not convinced - for a long time actually. I thought it was too dark, I thought it was far too dark, even after I'd recorded it - in fact I was frightened of that song then and I wasn't sure it would work. But people seem to like it. And I love the song - it's a beautiful song and the version we made has had a lot of compliments. I even received a note from Bono telling me that he loved it." She adds a chuckle here. "So that was nice. It had got back to him or he had heard it and it was very nice of him to say he liked it."

Wilson wasn't so much of a U2 fan but that song - in the end - felt right; proved itself as the right song for her to sing. Other times she's reimagined songs by heroes, people she's followed her whole life.

Her Harvest Moon - almost her own song, as well as a cover of the Neil Young tune - was chosen, again, because of the power and beauty of the song. But Neil Young is someone Wilson has followed. "He's amazing. I grew up very much with folk music - it was part of adolescence. Again it's the thing with the guitar and learning and so it was music by Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills & Nash and Jackson Browne just as much as it was Muddy Waters and Aretha and Howlin' Wolf and lemme tell ya in the end it's all folk music..."

She trails off and then comes back in laughing, "I don't know that Neil Young actually liked what I did to his song there. I don't think he liked it, he never said but I heard something about him not being so fond of it or maybe that's just how I imagine him being. But that's okay. You can't win 'em all."

But that's almost exactly what Wilson has done over the past two decades, continued to win people over, winning new fans, finding new ways into songs, bowling over critics. It culminated, just over a decade ago, with the aforementioned Time magazine accolade.

"Yes. That's not something that is easy to ignore. When people are praising you to that level - and it was a great honour to have that bestowed on me, to hear that, a great thrill but it's a huge responsibility. And also, at the end of the day, it's just what someone writes or says because it's their job. It's flattering but that doesn't mean it's true. Of course when it's something that nice and that huge you want to believe it and it really did wonders for my career - so I'm always grateful for that - but it's just something that gets said. Someone could just as easily say the opposite."

The trick, Wilson says, and it isn't even that much of a trick is "to keep going, to keep believing you have something, to keep telling stories, keep sharing them and keep believing in yourself".

She believes she's performing as well as she ever has and is excited to be returning to New Zealand.

"It's a long way. I remember you all were very nice last time so we're expecting a lot of old and new fans and we're expecting a great audience. You were great last time. And we're gonna be great. So you all need to be great too. We're gonna do a bunch of things from all across my career so we hope you all enjoy it."

We go from me being three minutes early and almost getting told off for it - to chatting way over time and hearing so many stories about so many songs, about the artistic focus; her passion and commitment so palpable at every step.

I'm really looking forward to tomorrow night's show. I have a good feeling about it. I think it's going to be something special.

Are you going? Or do you wish you were? Are you a fan of Cassandra Wilson? Do you have favourite songs she's written or covered? Favourite albums? Have you seen her perform before?

Postscript: For more on Wellington's Jazz Festival check out my interview with Lucien Johnson over at Off the Tracks.

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