Camila Meza is a singer, guitar player, and composer from Santiago, Chile, based in Brooklyn, NY. Not long ago she released her album Traces (Sunnyside, 2016), which features Shai Maestro on piano and keys, Matt Penman on bass, and Kendrick Scott on drums. Her upcoming project, Ambar, with the Nectar Orchestra, is getting ready to record next month and wrapping up a kickstarter campaign (check it out: http://kck.st/2pOTdP1). The group includes Camila Meza (voice, guitar), Noam Wiesenberg (bass, string arrangements), Eden Ladin (keys), Keita Ogawa (percussion), and a string quartet with Tomoko Omura (violin), Fung Chern Hwei (violin), Benjamin von Gutzeit (viola), and Adam Fisher (cello). They will have their last performance before heading to the studio at The Jazz Gallery on May 30.
We had a nice long chat in Camila’s Prospect-Lefferts Gardens neighborhood coffee shop, where every few minutes someone stopped by to give her a hug and tell the camera what a great person she is. You can find out more about the Nectar Orchestra in this JG original video, and read on further below to learn about Camila’s family, early music experiences, and compositional process.
The Jazz Gallery: Tell us about your family.
Camila Meza: My family is a family of musicians. But I think that I’m the first generation of professional musicians. My dad studied music, but then diverted to other roads, and he became a journalist, a philosopher. But I think the musical blood comes from that part of my family. He’s a classical piano player and composer. My brother is a drummer, so he also was a very important figure in my development, early years. He’s a very disciplined person. I remember him having this little notebook with how many hours a day he had practiced, and it was anything from twelve, fourteen. And so I was like, “Uh I really need to practice.” He was obsessed. He was a good role model. He lives in Canada and performs. He’s also a painter and artist, one of the most creative people I know. And then my older sister, she’s also a singer-songwriter. When I was growing up she was studying bass, so the only instrument missing was a guitar. “Ok I’ll play the guitar! I want to be part of it!” And then my younger sister, she’s playing now, bass. She’s a designer but very musical, still. Music was all around. And my mom loves music. So she was the one that really supported us. It was important for her to get us to do things outside from school. She would encourage us to do drama and music, and pay for private lessons at home, so that was very important.
TJG: Do you remember what music you were listening to at home when you were a child?
CM: When I was growing up, there was so much music around. Coming from my dad—a lot of classical music. He’s the kind of person that would put a symphony driving in the car, and sing the whole thing. Through my siblings—my older brother was listening a lot to fusion, experimental music too, and rock, and the jazz artists that were sort of mixing up the style with, for that time, modern styles, like Chick Corea, Pat Metheny. They were huge in Chile. Scofield, Allan Holdsworth. I remember my older sister and my brother—they would get these VHS recordings, clinics of these super virtuosic musicians. And they would name all these people—for me at that age—I was maybe thirteen or something—it was all this mysterious thing going on between them, and I really wanted to learn to be able to talk “yeah have you heard Chick Corea?” and I was like, “Who’s that?” So my siblings’ hang definitely influenced me to start discovering new music. On my own, though, I feel like I have a personal path at the same time. I started digging a lot of rock music. I started digging Led Zeppelin and Jimmy Hendrix. With Jimi Hendrix, I was like, “Whaaat is going on? I want to be that!”
TJG: What was it about Hendrix?
CM: I think in my adolescent years, I was very connected to the feeling and the experience that rock music gives you. Sort of this rebellious attitude against the status quo of society. I mean, it’s a normal thing we do. I still have a little bit of that, though (laughs). So Jimi Hendrix. I was playing guitar, and I found him, and for some reason he opened up a new thing for me. I was listening to Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, and he had a different thing. I would be, “I really dig his chords, I really dig his sound, what is it?” He basically was expanding harmony, you know, and sort of becoming a little bit of a segue to jazz sounds, you know the extensions of the chords. And I also loved his honesty in the music, and his irreverence, and the power, so much power in his music. The whole thing became a really great refuge for me in those years, discovering music and playing with bands and learning music. But then I started looking for more sounds. I feel like always wanted to find a place where I could improvise, you know? I didn’t necessarily know what jazz was or anything, but I was trying to look for something that finally I discovered in that music.
TJG: What was it like growing up in Santiago?
CM: I made my first rock band with a friend from school, but we looked for musicians on the Internet, you know, on like a rock site. “We’re looking for a drummer and a bass player.” That kinds of vibe. So we met two people from totally different backgrounds, and we created our first band, that I took super seriously. I started writing music for this band when I was fifteen, and it was super fun.
TJG: What was the name of the band?
CM: Contrabanda (laughs). I was playing guitar and singing background vocals. That was the time when I didn’t really think that I was a singer. I started on guitar. The whole becoming a singer thing came years later. When I actually went to music school, that’s when I started, thank to a teacher, actually. He was like, “Hey you should take your voice seriously, because you have potential.” He was my ear training teacher so he would hear me sing, and he thought that I had a good ear, so he was like, “Maybe think about it.” I ended up learning some jazz tunes. He was a jazz piano player, and he said, “OK, let’s play them.” And then he said, “OK, you’re coming to play with me.” He had a hotel gig or something, you know. That was my first jazz gig. And I started playing there every week so it kind of nurtured that thing. It was my first real school in that sense. He would tell me things after the gig, “Here you should do this,” or, “I think you’re rushing here,” you know, stuff like that.
TJG: Did it feel like a major transition, changing from guitar to voice?
CM: It was strange. Because I never necessarily saw myself a “jazz singer.” And in that particular moment, when I was eighteen, I got into these gigs where I wasn’t even playing guitar, you know, I was just singing. So it was a double musical life kind of vibe. I’m being this rock guitar player at nights, or something, and then I’m doing this other gig where I’m like, “La la la.” But also at the same time I was starting to get a little restless, with the whole approach of the rock/soul/funk bands that I was in. I was like, “This is the tenth or fifteenth or whatever gig and we’re playing exactly the same thing.” I need a different approach. I need it to feel fresh every time. I want to be able to communicate that more. So this whole new world that was opening, this jazz world, was like, “Finally.” I had so much fun. Singing these tunes felt so natural to me. So I tried to bring the guitar to that level too. The process in the guitar for me was way slower, I think for obvious reasons. Voice is so intuitive—thought and reaction immediately. But on the guitar you need to figure out more stuff. Maybe after two years, I started making my own “jazz bands,” playing and singing at the same time. And that was when this new thing started, and since then it has developed in a million ways.
TJG: Could you talk about how your voice has changed over the years? What journey has it made since you’ve started singing?
CM: My vocal journey, I would say, has taken a conscious path in a way. Since I started singing “professionally” or “taking it seriously,” I’ve put awareness into the development of the instrument. I think it was important for the early years to really put so much attention to great singers, to really listen over and over again ‘how when what,’ to really be aware of detail, you know? That was the beginning part. Particularly in jazz it’s very difficult to move from the imitation to the personal expression. And I guess for every style and instrument, music starts as an oral tradition, it starts as copying and trying to say the words correctly, and then eventually get your own meaning. Experience will give you that. It’s funny because I listen to my early records, and like “Ugh.” I embrace the journey in a way, but I can totally see myself trying to do something. I was in the “trying to sound like…” phase. And slowly, it’s just a matter of keep doing it, and be aware, and being very critical, being your own teacher—“OK, you’ve been there, and what’s next? What’s your ultimate goal?” And I very soon realized that I wanted to reveal what was connecting me to whatever I was singing, you know. And that’s when I started peeling the onion, you know. Simplifying. Taking out all the makeup. I feel like I’m still on that journey, just—singing, you know, sing what you feel. It’s vulnerable so it can get scary sometimes. Sometimes it’s tempting to hide in the, in Spanish, “fanfaria.” But then suddenly you let go and you’re singing the story, you’re actually singing what your soul and your own experiences talk. So in that sense, I guess I’m talking less of a technical journey, it’s more of a personal growth.
TJG: Does this also relate to your songwriting?
CM: My last record was a really great process for this. I started writing songs more regularly. The record, “Traces,” was kind of a therapy to go over some of things that I needed to talk, with myself. First of all, the idea of liberation, the idea that you can accept yourself, that you can get to know yourself and accept yourself the way you are, and celebrate it, you know? Celebrate who you are. I think the big theme of that record is this space of freedom, you know? Personal growth and personal encounter, in a way. But I think that record also celebrates real relationships with people, that being an ex-lover that you’re still connected with, because that love has shifted but you still love each other as people, or the relationships I have through distance with my family and friends that I still keep so close, even if I don’t see them. I feel connected also to talking about social things. Maybe it comes from the history of my own country where music was a way to liberate yourself from oppression, or to bring a message of hope, bring a message of justice, bring a message of caring about your environment, al these things that I feel are important for our society today. All this stuff is part of the new record, too, the idea of healing.
I’ve discovered that I have this relationship with songs where I sort of use them a prayer or mantra. Because I understand the power of sound for instance, you know? And I understand the power of repetition, and I understand the power of words. So when you’re aware of this and you realize that you’re repeating a song over and over and over again, and those vibrations just go around your environment and you yourself. And whatever you’re saying, it’s so important, Because it will literally change your reality. So when I’m going through a problem and in my songs I solve it, then I’m actually working toward that solution.
Camila Meza and the Nectar Orchestra play The Jazz Gallery on Tuesday, May 30th, 2017. The group features Ms. Meza on voice & guitar, Noam Wiesenberg on bass, Eden Ladin on keyboards, Keita Ogawa on percusison, Tomoko Omura & Fung Chern Hwei on violin, Benjamin von Gutzeit on viola, and Adam Fisher on cello. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.