Cécile McLorin Salvant, the precociously brilliant Grammy-winning jazz vocalist, loves the visual arts. She does drawings and embroidery. And now she's making a feature-length animated movie.
"I have zero training in animation," the recipient of a "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation admitted. "I've been drawing for many years. It's just drawing and movement. Animation and music have such a unique connection."
Having created an original chamber opera called "Ogresse" that eventually will evolve into an animated film, Salvant is taking a big step forward this weekend by presenting the work with animation for the first time, at Walker Art Center.
"This is a steppingstone, sort of a hybrid between the live performance of 'Ogresse' and the film," Salvant said from her home in New York. "I'm going to be performing it in front of projected images that are going to be landscapes. You'll be in forest, in the village with us as I'm telling the story."
"Ogresse" is "a completely original story albeit it has influences from all over the place" that Salvant conceived in 2017. She can't explain the darkly humorous story in a nutshell, but she did touch on some of its themes: praising nature and beauty, and questioning deep-seated problems like racism and cruelty.
"It's also a tribute to Hottentot Venus, who was a Black South African woman who was presented in freak shows in London in the 1800s and after she was dead ended up in a museum presented ... for years until the [1970s] as sort of a freak," Salvant continued. "But the story is also a simple love story. I love romance. I love impossible love stories."
Salvant, 33, has presented "Ogresse" as a musical piece at Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and Lincoln Center in New York.
The animation was supposed to premiere at the Walker last winter but COVID-19 postponed the two-night stand, giving Salvant and company more time to work on the painstakingly slow animation process. She will portray all characters in the production and serve as narrator. She will be accompanied by a 13-piece chamber orchestra.
Salvant is working with Belgian animator Lia Bertels and a studio in Paris. She hopes the movie will be completed in 2025.
"There's something about animation that is so fluid. Anything can happen," Salvant said. "Objects can do whatever they want. It's the original special effects."
However, she knows the "extremely playful art form" is tedious work. She finds that slow process very appealing and rewarding. "It's invisible work. I love that."
Salvant has investors and a producer (John Carlin, the founder and CEO of the Red Hot Organization, the AIDS-fighting nonprofit). She's also received commissions from the Walker, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, not to mention a $625,000 MacArthur "genius grant" in 2020. The original "Ogresse" song cycle was commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New Jersey Performing Arts Center and Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
'Joyful kid with wild imagination'
Salvant has always been interested in visual arts, especially textile arts, a long family tradition.
"My great-grandmother was wonderful at textile arts. My mom has been doing embroidery and all kinds of textile arts, she's been making lace. My sister does a lot of plush sculpture, she does crochet, she draws," Salvant rattled off. "It's just been around me my entire life."
As a kid, Salvant was an unusual combination of introvert and extrovert, a social people pleaser who also liked to create art and music on her own.
"I was very expressive," she said. "I had a wild imagination. I loved inventing characters and inventing worlds. I had a Fisher Price recorder, and we'd do a radio show with my cousin. I had Barbies, and I'd play with the Barbies and we'd do all kinds of story lines. Making up stories was a huge part of my childhood. I had an invented language with my cousin for ourselves. We composed songs in our language.
"I was a really joyful kid with a lot of imagination but also interested in psychology and people and wanting to be around whatever the gossip was, trying to understand what the adults were about."
Born in Miami to a Haitian doctor and his French wife, who founded a French immersion school, Salvant took classical piano lessons from age 5 to 18, as well as classical vocal instruction. But she grew up with all kinds of music, including various ethnic folk music and vocal jazz, as well as her older sister's hard rock and grunge, even sporting a mohawk for a time. She also loved the Dave Matthews Band.
At age 17, Salvant moved to France to study law and classical voice at the Darius Milhaud Conservatory. She also got turned on to jazz singing in Europe and formed her first band. Three years later, while still in France, she earned first place in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition in 2010 and never looked back.
Her 2013 album, "WomanChild," captured her first of three Grammys for best jazz album. Garnering rave reviews from around the world, she also collected numerous awards from DownBeat magazine and the Jazz Journalists Association. She tours extensively, and she has played at the Dakota in downtown Minneapolis several times.
When she's on the road, Salvant likes to create big drawings. Because that's not possible on an airplane, she uses fabric with needle and thread instead of paper and ink.
Not only does Salvant sell her embroidery but she also has created cover art for her own albums and records by Melissa Aldana, EarRegulars and others.
The ambitious Salvant isn't afraid to stretch, to be vulnerable and, as she put it, embrace her weirdness.
Her 2022 album, "Ghost Song," was a daring, eclectic song cycle about haunting things, featuring mostly material written by Salvant as well as tunes by Kate Bush, Sting and Brecht/Weill.
The singer also has a new album ready for March 24 — "Mélusine," her first album in French.
"It's the story of a French mythological creature who is half woman and half snake," she said.
Salvant has released a video of one tune, "D'un feu secret," a 1660 piece by Michel Lambert. The video is animated. What else would you expect?
What: Cécile McLorin Salvant's new musical work with animation.
When: 8 p.m. Fri. & Sat.
Where: McGuire Theater, Walker Art Center, 725 Vineland Place, Mpls.
Tickets: $36-$45; walkerart.org.