We have been lucky enough to get some time with incredible performer Meklit to find out more about her and her beautiful music!
Please introduce yourself to our readers.
I’m an Ethiopian-born, Brooklyn-raised, San Francisco based singer-songwriter. I like to mention all those places when I introduce myself because each of them is like a sonic homeland. I’m always returning to the places that shaped me.
Being Ethiopian born, do you think your native country has a huge influence on your music? Why?
Yes my Ethiopian heritage certainly is a huge influence on my music. There are things you reach for and things that are just there. So for example, there is a kind of emotive vibrato that has always been in my voice and which is very much found in Ethiopian music. More recently, I have been studying the scales, phrasings and song structures of the tradition and slowly bringing them into the live show. We also play re-arrangements and interpretations of classic Ethiopian songs, like Kemekem for example, which we interpreted for We Are Alive. But there are also touches of soul, jazz and pop on the record. I live on both sides of the hyphen line: Ethiopian-American.
When did you decide that you wanted to be a singer?
I always wanted to be a singer. My mother tells me I sang before I spoke, and would perform for people in elevators and on buses at three years old. But there was a moment in April 2007 when the dream went from a hazy vision in the distance to a sharp, focused reality. Until then I had been performing occasionally in San Francisco, and my shows were mostly friends and family. That day, however, there was a line around the block and I didn’t know anyone in the audience. I knew right then I could really do this. I haven’t looked back since.
We Are Alive is fantastically relaxing to listen to, whilst being lively at the same time – was this intentional?
Yes absolutely! We wanted to shape the music into an arc of feelings, so that a listener would sense the complexity and even the contradictions of life, lovingly presented as a whole experience.
What inspired We Are Alive?
This was a slow unfolding of songs that I collected for almost three years. I’ve always believed that music should accompany beauty and tragedy, internal reflection and the celebratory peaks that we all go through. So I wrote an album that hugged the road of ups and downs, and was held together with that three word anthemic sentence: We Are Alive.
The video is incredibly unique and captivating, how did you come up with the idea?
Yes! The video was inspired by The Mystery of Picasso, a film made in 1956 featuring the great artist painting on glass. I had seen excerpts years before, and I became obsessed with interpreting the idea. It says so much! There is surprise, illusion, visual candy that distorted glass creates. And my friend the filmmaker Kevin Gordon (of Sub64 films) and I had great fun completing the concept together.
Do you have any hobbies?
Honestly there are so many ways that I want to learn and grow in music, that that’s really what I do in my free time. And also I’m busy with cultural initiatives like the Nile Project, which I co-founded with Egyptian ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis. May 2nd we’re finishing up a four month tour of the US. I’m also on the board of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Basically I love making space for other artists to thrive. I find that any work you put into your own community of creativity comes back to you very quickly. It’s my fundamental philosophy.
What was the last book you read?
Well I’m always in the middle of a few… At the moment, I’m reading a book on the British painter Turner (as part of my work on the Artist Council of the de Young Museum). But the last book I finished was Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone, which my mother has been wanting me to read forever. It’s set in the revolutionary era Ethiopia, and describes Addis Ababa much as it was when my family left for the United States. It was beautiful and deeply emotional. I loved it!
If you could work with any artist – alive or dead – who would it be and why?
Wow! Such a hard question. I have to include two people. First, the Godfather of Ethio-Jazz Mulatu Astatke. What a mind! He has always been a hero of mine in terms of how he innovated the fusing of two of my favorite styles of music. It doesn’t get more classic than that. And two – Stevie Wonder. I think there’s a sense that his music truly uplifts people, while not looking away from the social or personal challenges of life. I would love for my music to reach that balance.
What is next for you?
I’m currently hard at work on my next body of music, which I received a grant to compose from the New York based MAP Fund. It’s much more focused on Ethio-Jazz as a launching point. I’m learning to play krar, a six string lyre from Ethiopia, for the project. I’ve always wanted to and it’s finally happening!
You can see Meklit here –
LONDON – SOUTHBANK CENTRE
Thursday 7th May
Box Office: 0844 875 0073
NORWICH – NORFOLK & NORWICH FESTIVAL
Sunday 10th May
Box Office: 01603 766 400
MANCHESTER – BAND ON THE WALL
Monday 11th – Friday 15th May
Box Office: 0845 2500 500