Mélissa Laveaux: The WL Interview

Purveyors of: Electric Afro-Caribbean indie/funk/soul

File next to: Sandra Nkaké, Alela Diane

Playing: Wavelength Winter Festival Night 1, Friday Feb. 15 @ The Garrison. Get tickets here!

Mélissa Laveaux is a Haitian-Canadian singer/songwriter who relocated to Paris in 2008 after the French label No Format offered to release her music. Laveaux’s joyous-sounding music incorporates funky Haitian kompa guitar with calypso, soca, indie, and soul influences. Her third album, 2018’s Radyo Siwel, was inspired by a 2016 visit she took to Haiti, where she learned more about its songwriting tradition as well as some of the buried injustices of the island nation’s past. Wavelength’s Jonny Dovercourt chatted with Mélissa in advance of her solo set on the Friday night of our upcoming Winter Fest, presented in partnership with the Cultural Office of the French Embassy in Canada.

Hi Mélissa, nice to meet you! Whereabouts in the world are you right now, and what are you up to?

In my kitchen, cleaning out my flat before heading out on tour alone tomorrow.

Your latest album Radyo Siwèl was inspired by a visit to your parents’ birthplace of Haiti. What was the experience like of returning there for the first time since you were 12 years old?

Well at 31 you can drink alcohol and check out the nightlife and its varieties of music. At 12, you are mostly stuck visiting aunties, eating, more eating, and checking out the sea. I finally got to meet amazing writers, activists, painters to get an idea of how people from the cultural sector resist. My family (in Haiti) is full of teachers, nurses and mostly farmers — not exactly musical or artistically-minded folk. The overall difference was my exposure to art, artists, and the grace and grind of their artistry.

It’s fascinating to learn more about Haitian history through your music. What drew you to the songs and stories of the US occupation era of the first half of the 20th century?

Over 100 countries that were former colonies have US military on their soil. No foreign military has a base on US soil. When I play these songs, people coming from all over can relate. I felt it was the right time to record — people are tuning in that things aren’t as they seem and it’s becoming more critical to get our voices heard before it’s too late.

I really wanted to include [Toronto’s] Drew Gonsalves, but we are both way too busy, so I invited him to perform on every single track on the album. It’s the subliminal connection between Trinidad and Tobago and Haiti — each island with its own songs poking fun at American soldiers. I was even tempted to add “Rum and Coca Cola” to the roster, but we ran out of studio time, being limited to five days of taping.

Radyo Siwèl was inspired by the legendary Haitian singer Martha Jean-Claude. Where would you recommend someone new to her music should start out (a particular song or album, for example), and why?

I would start with Canciones de Haiti, which is the only record you can find on iTunes. The vinyl version is tricky to find. I have two. 🙂 And there are no CDs of her. This is one of her albums recorded with her Cuban band and the fusion between Cuban and Haitian music is gorgeous and infectious.

Is there a significance to the title, Radyo Siwèl?

“Radyo” because I wanted there to be the idea of a broken transmission, a radio desperately trying to connect while being lost at sea. Some things come back from memory, some things are brought back from books and some things are a little wonky so I get cheeky Haitian elders correct me at the end of shows.

“Siwèl” refers to the Bann Siwèl bands that would perform some of these songs – think Mariachi bands or griots in Northern Haiti. It’s a homage to their work that was mostly passed down aurally.

You’ve been said to “drape” these traditional (and traditionally inspired) songs “in an indie-rock aesthetic.” How do you go about conceptualizing these particular arrangements?

I didn’t think I could play exactly the way Martha Jean-Claude’s musicians could. Even though I grew up with her music, I knew I could never do it justice. I preferred doing what I do best — indie rock infused with electric Afro-Carib guitar stylings. I listened to different records for a sound that resembled where I wanted to go and settled on Congolese bands like Mbongwana Star and Konono No. 1 as well as Chilean songwriter and wicked guitarist Juana Molina. The idea was to play the length of pop and indie but to get the vibe of long Haitian songs where musician set the groove over the course of 10 minutes and really hold it.

There’s some incredible percussion work on Radyo Siwèl. Can you tell us a bit about how you chose these instruments?

It’s really most drums. But everything drum and percussion-related came from Vincent Taeger (one of the three musicians who produced Radyo Siwèl and Dying is a Wild Night). Vincent can play anything and I was excited to make him listen to Haitian musician from the 1930s to inspire him. Haven’t had such an amazing experience working with him, Vincent Taurelle and Ludovic Bruni on my last album, I couldn’t imagine working without them for the next. They get me musically — especially my weird bits.

Favourite venue to play anywhere in the world?

This underground venue in Hamburg called the Mojo Club where the ground literally opens up. Every one of my favorite bands has played there. The sound was great. My favorite show was still opening for Bobby Womack in Glasgow in a philharmonic hall. Before my set, he sent me off proclaiming “see you at church” (thinking it might be his last). I was supposed to open for his London show a few months later – he never made it there.

And what would be your dream line-up to be a part of?

I once opened for Suzanne Vega and that was incredible. Today, in terms of my contemporaries, I’d love to be in a band with Brittani Howard as a guitarist and vocalist, Flying Lotus for sound design and keys, Kendrick Lamar producing, Thundercat on bass and this insane Cuban drummer I met in Havana called Yissy.

What can we expect from your upcoming solo show at Wavelength?

Solo vocals and electric guitar. A very chatty set where I set the tone of what the US military put Haiti through during its occupation in the 1920s and 30s, with lots of jokes about growing up Haitian that most people can relate to if they’re coming from an immigrant family.