Housebound in New York, singer and composer Arta Jēkabsone leans in to solitude. Alone in her apartment, her natural effervescence stills, but not entirely, and only for the moment.
Like so many emerging artists, Jēkabsone searches for answers at a time when performances have halted, sessions have stopped and creative collaborations, typically a contact sport, have pivoted to socially-distant online exchanges. But her spirit remains buoyant.
The Latvian-born artist has crafted a sound niche reflective of her journeys, both physical and emotional. Hope, wanderlust, and self-reflection emerge as raw materials for carefully sculpted compositions; her lyrics brim with intimacy.
From the quiet of her kitchen, Jēkabsone spoke with the Gallery about melodic tendencies, violin as a voice and her hope for the future of human connection.
The Jazz Gallery: I recently spoke with singer and percussionist Melvis Santa about drawing inspiration from the natural world. You’re also known to tap that world for creative inspiration — particularly on your most recent studio release Light. Can you discuss how nature influences your compositional concepts and broader concepts for an album?
Arta Jēkabsone: That’s a really huge part of me because, as you know, I’m from Latvia and Latvia is more or less a country that is super green—at least 60 percent is the woods. So I grew up in this really small town where I was surrounded by river and trees. I would go out into nature and listen to all the birds that are singing and the water that is doing his own noise—it’s a part of me—listening to what’s happening around me, listening to what’s inside of me and [finding ways to] make all these little sounds into a composition. It’s a very abstract way of how I hear music and how I feel things. And if you listen to my lyrics, there’s a lot of reference to nature, in the Light album and also my recent project that I did with string quartet and jazz quintet that was presented at The Jazz Gallery in May 2019. That concept was more how I feel—life situations happening around me—and also [bringing] the nature aspect into it. There’s a song called “Rain Song.” If I hear the rain pour down, I think about healing—how it washes away all your tough, emotional moments.
TJG: You mentioned the string quartet. So much of your artistry comes from your identity as a violin player. In what ways does violin influence your choices and this unique sound you’ve cultivated as a vocalist?
AJ: When I was a kid, I played violin. And I always sang, but when I really started to study violin, I had really good teachers who would always ask me to listen to the music first and then try to [play] to kind of see what happens. So I did classical violin for 15 years, and then after, when I started focusing on singing, I understood how the violin has helped me to hear the music. It helped me to train my relative pitch. That has helped me, even with singing, tuning with people and other tiny details. I think that’s one of the biggest things violin has given me.
And also, the teachers always would tell me, “When you’re playing, think as though you’re singing.” So afterwards I started to realize, yeah, I think I’m singing the way I play violin and I’m playing the violin as if I’m singing. And you can see, with my music, I don’t view myself as a vocalist who wants to always do everything with lyric. I actually feel more connected doing stuff with instrumental lines. I would often ask somebody to double lines with me, like a guitar player or a saxophone player. I love that. That’s the approach that I really love. And I think that stems from violin.
And doing a lot of violin ensembles and orchestras really taught me to understand that if I go out on stage, I wanna be part of the group, not an individual artist who wants to be the lead. I’ve been talking with a lot of musicians about that. Most of them say, “Yeah, when we’re on stage, we feel like we’re a part of what you’re trying to do. It’s not you alone. You’re kind of inviting us to be with you on this journey.” It’s like a conversation. Sometimes, the more people who join, the more interesting it can get, because you have these different opinions. You end up having this beautiful conversation with so many thoughts, but they’re all speaking about this one thing.
TJG: To spark those conversations, you tend toward using Latvian folkloric melodies and phrases as a point of origin for your written and spontaneous compositions. I know you tap that tendency quite a bit on Light, and I assume it’s found its way into some of your more recent projects.
AJ: I think this started more when I moved to New York. When you’re in your own country, you pay attention to your roots and your folkloric music, but not so much as when you go to other countries and you see, “Oh, I’m lacking in that presence of being a Latvian because I’m not surrounded by these people.” And then I started to look into more of a folkloric approach. When I first got to New York, I saw so many cultures and how much [these artists’] music was inspired by their roots. That got me thinking, “What if I actually take something from me, and allow other people to experience it?”
I have to be thankful for one of my closest friends in New York, Carolina Mama Gonzalez. She’s an Argentinian singer and cuatro player, and she kind of encouraged me to look more into it. And even teachers at The New School would say, “Why can’t you show us something from your Latvian [roots]?” One particular teacher and mentor to me was Jane Ira Bloom. She pushed me into this direction, to look more into my own roots. And somehow I think it just started from having people around who were interested in finding something out about my roots—and just trying to understand, “Who am I? Who am I in this Latvian folkloric music, and how can I take something from it and put that inside my music so it has a unique signature?”
Another thing was the Latvian communities that I started to engage with. When I first came here, they allowed me to do concerts for them; for some of the songs, I would actually take Latvian folk songs and I would arrange them how I wanted, with jazz chords or different rhythmic things. I would take the melodies from them and turn them into something a little bit different but keeping the Latvianinity, how I say [laughs].
TJG: Can you talk about some of those folkloric characteristics that are unique to Latvian music traditions?
AJ: Yeah, it’s hard to say because we don’t have specific scales that we’re using. A lot of Latvian folksongs that are in minor keys, they would always be in the natural minor. We’re not using a lot of melodic or harmonic minor—we don’t have that naturally in our music. In general, there’s a lot of open strings—violins, also kokle, which is a Latvian instrument similar to I think the Lithuanian kanklė. It’s like a triangle-shaped instrument—or other various shapes—and in the middle it has a hole, and all the strings run diagonally from one side to another side. I don’t know how to play it myself, but know some people who are already trying to apply that on the jazz scene, which is very rare and cool.
TJG: I know everything’s on hold right now, but I’m sure our readers are still curious about the projects keeping you busy these days.
AJ: One of the biggest projects was “Letters to Home,” which was supposed to be premiered at The Jazz Gallery on the 26th of March, but because of the coronavirus it’s been postponed. That’s the biggest major project I was working because it was self-produced. It’s basically a multidisciplinary bilingual music performance tied together with storytelling and visuals that are based on letters that people wrote to each other across time.
TJG: Bilingual storytelling.
AJ: Yeah. In Latvian and in English.
TJG: I always like to ask multilingual artists about lyric writing in different languages. Do you find one influencing the other as your write lyrics, or do you tend to keep them separate in your mind as you’re creating?
AJ: That’s very interesting. I think it depends on the tune that I’m writing. For a while, writing in English, it was easier for me than to write something in Latvian. I don’t know why. But working with this project, I realized I’m able to write in Latvian as well. I didn’t think I had the capability of writing in Latvian, because sometimes—I don’t know—in English, it seems you have different ways you can go with something, but with Latvian, if you write something, it means [only what you wrote.]
TJG: You’re saying there’s a little more room for interpretation in English than in Latvian lyrics?
AJ: I feel like that, yeah. And maybe because English is my second language, I feel like I can experiment more than with my first language, which is Latvian, where I know, for example, “Okay this will sound super dumb if I say this specific thing” [laughs]. I don’t know. I think it’s something with the mindset.
TJG: Jumping back to our present state of global affairs. What’s your hope for the immediate future, as you observe so many of your fellow emerging artists having to adapt to this new, exclusively virtual scene?
AJ: It’s a hard topic. This is also kind of the first week that I’m home, home. I’ve had a lot of time to think about things and imagine how it will happen. At the moment, I’m still in this weird place trying to understand where it’s going to shift. I’m happy that, in general, artists, people are coming together trying to find solutions. Creating these livestream concerts, I think it’s a nice idea because people need something that [gives] them hope, but then, if we’re going completely livestream—livestreaming concerts and stuff—I’m concerned people will start taking it for granted, like what happened with Spotify. I’m wondering how it will shift. Right now, people are experimenting with that, but we never know the outcome — where it can go. It can be super positive, but then it also can be super negative.
Artists are in this very weird position because, in a way, they’re like puppets. They’re in the middle. When somebody’s pulling you in this direction, because everyone is going in that direction, you have to go. You’re somewhere in the middle and you’re trying to understand, “What can I do so I can still keep on doing my thing but, at the same time, how can I actually make money from what I’m doing?”
A couple days ago, I saw the article with [David] Crosby where he was literally saying how touring has been his income, and how it will change and that he doesn’t know what the future will hold. That’s one of the things that is stressing me out, because that’s how I imagined my life to be, more as a touring musician. But I think now, you kind of understand how fragile we are—how one virus can affect everything that you do. Having these livestream concerts, I’m hoping that it will never replace the actual communication between people—the experience you actually get in going to a concert and meeting people. And I think now, more people are realizing how important it is to have this human connection in one room.