When singer and composer Arta Jēkabsone moved from Riga, Latvia to study at the New School, she described New York as “definitely a concrete jungle.” But the pace and environment have helped her focus and clarify her musical goals. As she said in a recent phone interview, “I’m thinking all the time.” Jēkabsone has lots of imagery to describe her relationship with sound, looking at music as a broad palette of colors, a spectrum of light and energy, a story we tell. In her music, you can hear warmth, gratitude, and compassion, as well as crystal-clear intention and focus. In 2016, Jēkabsone was awarded first prize in the Shure Jazz Voice Competition at the Montreux Festival in Switzerland, and shortly thereafter released her debut album, Light.
In addition to her duo project with singer Erik Leuthäuser, Arta has assembled a steady quintet of mostly New School students and recent graduates, including pianist Theo Walentiny, guitarist Lucas Kadish, bassist Nick Dunston, and drummer Connor Parks. Jēkabsone has brought her band, what she calls her “New York family” to Latvia and beyond, and will present a version of the band at The Jazz Gallery this week, with drummer Stephen Boegehold subbing for Parks.
The Jazz Gallery: Thanks for making the time to chat, Arta! Where are you calling from?
Arta Jēkabsone: We arrived in Köln today–Erik Leuthäuser and I are on tour at the moment. We played a house concert in what is essentially an old factory called KunstWerk Köln. They have rehearsal spaces you can rent, we had a concert here, and we’re staying here too, because they have couches, a kitchen, a piano, everything. Erik is a vocalist as well, and we have what is basically a duo voice project. We recorded this year and last year, when the project started. We released our album on October 5th, so we’re here in Germany with our album, essentially doing a presentation tour. We’ve been traveling most of the time, taking trains, it’s amazing. By the end of this tour, we will have traveled all of Germany by train. I was in Berlin, then Dresden, today Köln, tomorrow Weimar, then Bremerhaven, Hamburg, and tomorrow back to Dresden, then I’m going to Mannheim for the Enjoy Jazz Festival. It’s been a really nice time.
TJG: You sound quite busy!
AJ: Yes, it has been busy. It’s been a concert every night, basically, ten or eleven shows total.
TJG: Have you felt the music grow and change as you’ve traveled?
AJ: Oh yes. This is an experimental duo—we have some established things already, from the album, but they’re already shifting because everything is open. The music is changing every single night, and we find different inspirations. We spend a lot of time together now, talking about life, which is reflected in the music. Every night on stage, we’re more connected, sharing more ideas, more in sync. The same things are happening for both of us simultaneously on stage, even though things aren’t completely talked out beforehand. It’s kind of cool.
TJG: The band you’re bringing to The Jazz Gallery—it’s similar to the band from your album Light, yes?
AJ: Yes, mainly everybody except for the drummer, Connor Parks, who will be replaced by Stephen Boegehold for this show. Stephen is playing the previous night at the Gallery with Nick Dunston too, so you’ll get to hear the same lovely people a few times.
TJG: Are you excited for the show?
AJ: Oh yes. I’m really happy about it. I go to the Gallery all the time, and I’ve had a dream to perform there. Now it’s finally happening, and I’m really excited. In terms of atmosphere, it has a beautiful, soulful aura. Every person I’ve met there, and the people who work there, it feels like everyone is inside of the music. That’s a nice vibe.
TJG: How might that atmosphere change the way you sing?
AJ: It always helps when you have people around you who care. It helps the music breathe and live. You’re fully dedicated to the moment, willing to share the love that people are giving to you, and you want to give it back: You give and you take. I think it will be nice.
TJG: In the liner notes for your album, Light, I love how you explore feeling the light around you, starlight, moonlight, the light from dreams. Have you been feeling a specific light these days?
AJ: Light is always part of me, a part of every single thing I do. I’m either filled with light, or things around me are like that. It’s weird in a way, to express it like that, but that’s a life guideline for me. I try to be a part of light and to share this light with other people, and to keep it alive in myself as well.
TJG: What was life like growing up in Kandava?
AJ: A lot of nature, surrounded by trees. It’s a small town with a lovely river called Abava. I basically spent my childhood there until I was about fifteen years old. It was peaceful there. When I was fifteen or sixteen, I started going to high school in the capital city, Riga, so most of the time I lived there with my aunt, but most of my family still lives in Kandava. I would maybe travel once a month or so, depending on the stuff I had to do with school and music. Now, I go back to Kandava when I have the urge, the need for space and calmness.
I realized I wanted to do more music when living in Kandava. I was studying at the music school there, playing violin, and always singing. That time for me was about understanding what I want to do with my future. I was performing and traveling a lot throughout Latvia when I was a teenager, and Kandava became the place I could go to develop and be with music and with myself, instead of doing concerts.
TJG: Did you grow up with Latvian folk music in your family or school?
AJ: Nobody in my family is involved with the arts, except for my mom, who is a choreographer. I got more music in kindergarten because my teacher told my mom and dad to send me to music school: Once I was in that environment, folk music was always there. I played violin, which is a big part of these folk songs. Another thing was choir. In Latvia we have a strong choir scene, and most of the time those choirs do folk music, which is really nice. For me, folk music is related to nature, and my mom, in the evenings, would sing me a folk song, usually some kind of lullaby, so I heard folk music a bit from family, from my music school environment, and from the people surrounding me.
TJG: So you moved from Riga to New York to study music and arts management at the New School, where you are now. What was the biggest surprise between your studies in Riga and your transition to New York?
AJ: New York is definitely a concrete jungle for me. There isn’t a lot of nature in the city, and that was hard for me in the beginning. Now, I’m somewhat used to it. Everything is super busy. Riga was busy, but New York is, I don’t know, eight times more busy [laughs]. In Riga, things were calmer, I could say “Today I’m doing this,” and I could focus on only that one thing. In New York, it’s more like, “I have to do this, this, this, this, and this today,” always doing multiple things at once, and it’s not as calm. But the speed, the environment, it’s really motivational. I’m thinking all the time.
TJG: I know you have teachers, albums, and different projects, but do you think New York City itself has changed the way you sound?
AJ: Definitely. The life experience I’ve had there, the people I’ve met, it all comes together, and idea of Light captures all of those elements. I sing a lot about missing home, but not in a bad way. Latvian language is part of my identity, and coming to a new country, I didn’t want to lose where I come from and who I am as a Latvian. On Light, you can feel those ideas coming together as the music develops. Music is a life, a story you want to tell to somebody. It captures the past and the future, and makes predictions, if that makes sense.
TJG: Improvisation puts you in that mindset?
AJ: Oh yes. On this duo album with Erik, the music is mainly improvised. With Light, it was both. The composition process included improvisation, but also the idea of, “I want to try something like this,” and would try to pursue that feeling. But improvisation is a big part of my daily life, in music, and as a human. We really can’t avoid it.
The Arta Jēkabsone Quintet plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, October 25, 2018. The group features Ms. Jēkabsone on voice, Theo Walentiny on piano, Lucas Kadish on guitar, Nick Dunston on bass, and Stephen Boegehold on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.