A Gibson across her lap, Camila Meza sits opposite a young student who closes his eyes and begins to sing over a two-chord progression. “We started singing, and he didn’t even know he had this in him,” she says.
“We were talking about improvisation and the idea of connecting your own ideas and your own melodies to your solos, getting rid of the idea of playing by memory—playing lines that you’ve already learned, stuff like that. He started singing over a certain chord these beautiful melodies, a great progression of intervals, and we ended up literally making a song. His improvisation became a song.”
For the Chilean-born singer, guitarist, composer and bilingual lyricist, encouraging students to develop their own sound by releasing preexisting musical concepts comes as naturally as an inhale—and reflects an essential quality of her own expression. “My approach always sort of gravitates to what feels natural,” she says, “what feels good to the body, what feels good to sing to. I would never force something to be just because, intellectually, I want it to be.”
Naturally inquisitive, curiosity gripped Meza from an early age, and has pervaded her sound ever since. As a child playing her father’s record collection, melody would haunt her.
“I feel like I’ve always, in a way, been really, really curious about the world that lies underneath the melody,” says Meza. “[That world] can somehow change the whole universe of a melody, and the whole way we perceive that statement. [Even as a child,] I immediately sensed that there was something really deep in how you would build that world beneath the melody, and how that could influence the whole thing.”
As she listened to other people’s music more intently, and began developing a sound of her own, Meza began noticing colors. She wanted to be able to choose the specific extensions and manipulate voicings that would allow her melodies to “shine” in a particular way. “I started to realize that changing the structure of what lies beneath the melody could make you feel emotions in a very different way, when it comes to the melody,” she says.
“A chord, and also the bass movement, can literally change your whole perception of what the intervallic movement of the melody is. And that’s when I started experimenting with it. I would take a song and keep the melody and mess around with the harmony like crazy. I realized I had so much control of the emotional concept of the melody just by surfing underneath it. That’s when I started doing arrangements and having so much fun reharmonizing stuff and sort of playing around with that aspect of music”
Exploring different harmonies, Meza also discovered a way to keep herself grounded. A soloist inspired by spontaneity of the moment, she found being able to sing every note she played helped her stay true to her musical—and emotional—ideas.
“There’s some sort of really essential connection with the voice,” she says. “It’s our first instrument. Even if you’re not a singer, that’s the way you’re going to enunciate any musical idea—or by tapping it but, eventually, if it’s a melodic idea, you will first go through your vocal instrument. I experienced, through working this connection between my instrumental world and my vocal world, how paying attention to what my voice wanted to do, would immediately give my instrumental world a higher emotional concept. It would enhance the hidden message of notes, in a way.
“I’ve personally made it a big part of my sound and my approach to music because I’ve felt that it has gotten me closer to what I actually want to say as a musician. I don’t think that everybody has to do it, but it’s a great practice. Even if you’re not going to do it live, it’s a great practice to connect your ideas to, I call it your ‘inner ear.’”
Hearing Meza perform her compositions live, listeners not only will hear a pure and nimble voice singing in unison with each virtuosic guitar line; they likely will hear layers of rhythmic patterns, stacked, many times, on top of one another or overlapping each other. And while she admits to experimenting with odd meter as an academic exercise when she was studying at The New School, Meza now views these apparent departures from a signature or groove—at times, comingling of multiple signatures—as a natural response to what the melody line wants to do.
“Ultimately, I realized odd signatures and sort of irregular passages in my songs and my arrangements, most of the time, had to do with a way more natural aspect of music,” says Meza, “just following the melodic line, as so many folk traditions have. If you’re in 4/4, but you have a [bar of] 2/4, it’s basically accompanying the singer because the singer decided to keep going after the next phrase. And that makes so much sense to me because all these ‘irregular’ things are a more natural aspect of music in this context. So, when it comes to odd signatures and all that, in its majority, it’s allowing a certain melody to be put out there in the best way possible—in a very natural way.”
As with any folk tradition, the musical lineage from which Meza draws inspiration for her current repertoire of arrangements and originals has been handed down from those who came before her. And she encourages students and younger players to absorb that lineage in a deliberate way.
“First, listen to a lot of music,” she says. “In oral traditions, music—and the music that we play—it’s extremely necessary for you to be constantly ‘reading from great books,’ so basically listening to great music. Then, all of that information, by osmosis, sort of filters through you and becomes a new thing, through your perception of all these things. Then [the challenge becomes connecting] your own vision by allowing yourself to listen to yourself, as well.”
As a songwriter and lyricist, Meza has the unique challenge of communicating her vision through harmony, melodic lines, rhythmic patterns and, ultimately, words. A Spanish-speaking artist who became fluent in English long after her formative development years, Meza finds experimenting with bilingual lyric writing challenging, but fun. “Both languages have their own beauty and their own challenge, and I love the idea of having both worlds to play with,” she says.
“You could say that, innately, my Spanish lyrics come more easily, but actually—maybe because I’ve listened to so much music in English—I feel that English lyrics, at this point, come pretty naturally, too. And I like it because there are certain songs that call for a certain language. I couldn’t explain why, but some of my songs that are in English, I felt them in English. There are certain things that, if you say them in Spanish, they would sound a little bit clichéd, or a little too simple, but when you say them in English, they totally work. So there’s that flexibility I get through [having access to] both languages to propose a certain concept. I like it. I really enjoy being able to do both.”
After the successful release of Traces (2016), and in the midst of releasing her first album with The Nectar Orchestra, Meza feels as though she’s at a pivotal point with her music. Her upcoming gig at Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, presented by The Jazz Gallery, features bassist Noam Wiesenberg and drummer/percussionist Keito Ogawa, both members of Meza’s Nectar Orchestra. “Maybe I should call it The Nectar Trio!” she says.
“It’s interesting because I feel like I’m transitioning from the Traces album to the Nectar album that’s going to come out next year. So this gig could be that transitional gig; we’re going to be playing some of the Traces repertoire and some of the Nectar’s.” And though both projects have different agendas and instrumental configurations, Meza’s gravitational pull toward a natural development of expression remains a constant force in whatever musical landscape she crosses.
The Jazz Gallery presents Camila Meza at Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning (JCAL) on December 14th, 2017. The group features Ms. Meza on guitar and vocals, Noam Wiesenberg on bass and Keita Ogawa on drums and percussion. One set at 8 P.M.; admission is a $10 suggested donation.