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Description

Caroline Shaw is one of the most original new voices in contemporary music. Yet her latest project sees her turning her ears to, of all things, cover versions.

Transcript

I’m Jim Cotter, and on this episode, the incomparable Caroline Shaw in concert and conversation. Caroline Shaw is one of the most original voices in contemporary music, who’s been cooking up some very fine work indeed across a wide swathe of genres.

Caroline Shaw: I sometimes think of writing music as making a meal for someone. It’s what you would want to eat and see and smell and think about or talk about. But it also needs to be nourishing and healthy and enjoyable for the person that you’re cooking for.

That’s all ahead, on this episode of Articulate.

A violinist turned singer turned in-demand composer, Caroline Shaw is a force of nature. The youngest winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music is an innovator who has collaborated with exceptional artists from a range of genres, from superstar soprano Renee Fleming to hip-hop icon Kanye West. Best known for her work with the contemporary vocal ensemble, Roomful of Teeth, with whom she’s won a Grammy, Shaw is currently focused on completing her PhD at Princeton. Yet despite her own prowess in creating great original music, her thesis is on a subject that many would deride: cover versions.

Caroline Shaw: It tells you everything about the world. No, it tells you a little bit about people and a little bit about songs. And what I love about hearing a cover, whether it’s a great one or a bad one, you learn something, you learn a lot about the person singing the cover, what they hear, what they chose to amplify, or maybe they chose to destroy and reinvent and change. And in making a cover, you’re kind of trying to get at the essence of the song. What is it about, or what is it about for you, it’s your own story that you’re telling.

And in telling her own kind of story, Shaw has revisited some well-established works and turned them into something new like Albert E. Brumley’s 1929 hymn, “I’ll Fly Away.”

(Caroline Shaw singing “I’ll Fly Away”)

Some glad morning when this life is over

I’ll fly away

Shaw: So that melody is great, famous, and it has this upbeat quality. So, mine is ♪ Some bright morning, when this life is over ♪ I’ll fly away ♪ So rather than this confident outlining and up feel, it’s something that kind of turns the thought or the question around. So, I kind of tried to do what I want the song to do in the shape of the melody itself.

(Caroline Shaw singing “I’ll Fly Away”)

Some bright morning when this life is over

I’ll fly away 

To that home on God’s celestial shore

I’ll fly away 

I’ll fly away, oh glory, I’ll fly away

When I die, hallelujah, by and by

I’ll fly away

When the shadows of this life are over 

I’ll fly away

Like a bird from those prison walls, I’ll fly

I’ll fly away

I’ll fly away, oh glory, I’ll fly away

When I die, hallelujah, by and by

I’ll fly away

Oh, how glad and happy

When we meet

I’ll fly away

No more cold iron shackles on your feet

I’ll fly away

Shaw: I don’t think about form, I think I call it pacing, and a feel, and when something has to happen, you have to let it happen when it needs to happen. You have to let music write itself, and I think that listening to what the music needs generates a form that I’m sort of intellectually satisfied with, but you can’t go too long without making it something that I feel in some way, and I can never define that, but you know, emotion, sadness, happiness, joy, love, any of those things, where it’s just a tiny little twitch that you get right here or right there. That is important to me. And like when I’m writing music and I’m imagining it and listening to it, what’s happening here, where did it come from, where is it going to, where am I in my experience of it, and what is this chord, does it need to go to that one, or does it need to go over here, and that pivot of the harmony, to me is like the whole thing. Everything else is structural, architectural decoration and interesting, and supports things, but the seed of it is which chord do you go to at that pivotal point. And that’s something that is personal to everyone, and I just try to do my best to make the sounds that I need to hear in my life. 

AJC: How does a melody show up in your body? Does it appear in your brain as a melody, or does it feel like you’re playing a violin, or does it change?

Shaw: When I think of a melody, there’s a, I don’t always sing it when I’m writing it, I may never have even played or sung any of the things. It just exists here, and then I kind of put it on paper, but if I could describe what a melody feels like to me, it is something that does exist kind of close to this place, so it must be slightly tied to my voice in some way, but there’s a sense of gravity and release and tension, and fall and curve, and knowing where the weight is in the melody, and where it’s light, and what caused that, and what will happen. There’s the sense that it will fall when it needs to fall, and lift when it needs to lift, and leap at just the right place, and curl around where it needs to, but it exists in this kind of weird, funny place. And then there’s, and then you combine that, of course, if you’re writing for orchestra, with strength and power and orchestration in color, and what causes it to surge up, and what causes it to fall down.

Shaw can find inspiration everywhere. Not only in big emotional ideas like love and loss, but also in the mundane, the everyday, even in a humble piece of fruit.

Shaw: I was thinking of the beauty of an orange, or the beauty of these kind of ubiquitous everyday things. A Valencia orange is just one of those, just one of the oranges that you find in the grocery store. It’s not particularly expensive, but it’s a beautiful construction, and every orange that you eat is kind of just as beautiful. Just the architecture of the fruit, if you just look at how it’s made, these tiny, tiny little membranes, like tiny little worlds that form this thing that you just sort of eat. I was thinking of just the texture of it, the way that the juice pops, like these little very musical things so the beginning is all these very high natural harmonics. It was actually quite easy to play. That’s another thing. I wanted it to feel comfortable and easy to play, but anyhow, very sparkly, very high. So, it has this, for me, it’s a very citrus quality. It like sits in a certain place in your mouth, and then there’s the lows which are this other kind of structure, the cello comes in.

AJC: And they are also these bursts of melody where the bursts of flavor, and you’re like oh, that’s–

Shaw: Right. When you break it open—

AJC: Yeah.

Shaw: And you open the thing and see the white stuff, the dust that comes out of the peel. Like, what would that sound like? How could I make that into music? And if no one ever hears that, it doesn’t matter. It’s just a really fun way to design music.

(Live performance of Caroline Shaw’s Valencia by the Jasper Quartet)

AJC: Has there been any box-ticking for you, or when you started, was there a way you thought this might happen, and how different has the reality been?

Shaw: I wanted to be a violinist in a string quartet. So, you’ll see the Jasper Quartet, and I go, they are doing my dream job. And then over the years I kind of realized that I may never find the right combination of people. I also like singing, and try to figure out how to make a career, and had no particular plan. I knew I loved to write music. I knew I was not always playing the music that I loved, so I wanted to make something that I loved, and kind of followed that path. And now, strangely, most of what I do is write music and sing, which I never really intended to do. Definitely not solo.

AJC: You are slightly unusual in that most people who sing are not instrumentalists as well. Like most people who have a voice, and you’re a very lovely singer, and a very talented singer, would never, I mean they might play the piano, just because they need to accompany themselves. But you’re really good at both.

Shaw: I do still really identify as a violinist. That’s like, I feel most at home doing that.

AJC: Really?

Shaw: Yeah. And today I’m playing viola, but close. But there’s something of a mask that you can pour your whole self into it, but ultimately the sounds coming out is from something outside of you. Singing is just yourself. So, there is, I mean there’s always a risk of crying at any moment.

AJC: Well it’s a vulnerability.

Shaw: And if anything goes wrong, you hear this crack, and it’s related to language that’s related to communication all those, the stakes are really high, whereas if you flub a note, you miss something, or it’s a little crack, it’s okay. It’s a little disappointing on the violin, but it says something different. But I also love trying to do that with a violin, so you add the cracks, the edges of the language in the playing, I think that’s what makes great players sort of speak.

(Caroline Shaw performs in manus tuas)

Caroline Shaw returns often to the well of sacred music, hopscotching through the centuries to deliver work that resonates today. Her intention is to create profoundly meaningful music, but not to necessarily express any personal philosophies.

Shaw: I think they are kind of deconstructions of my own beliefs, or of the way that those sentiments I saw presented around me, and feeling like there’s something that could be more honest about them. So the probably clearest story of that would be the song “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown.” I’ve seen videos of country bands singing it with literally I think about the sequins on their outfits, the colors, and the glitz, and the lights, and the smiles of like ♪ Will there any be any stars, any stars in my crown ♪ And this like glaze. And I remember writing this new version of “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown,” kind of trying to literally wipe the glaze off the face, and take the sequins off the clothes, and will there be any stars in my crown, the song is sort of saying like, “Oh will I get into heaven? Like, am I gonna make it?” Which is this sense of this, I’m sure there’s a word for it, but it’s the American–

AJC: Will I be saved?

Shaw: Yeah, will I be saved, and it’s a very American thing. If I do this, will I get that? And that’s not really, what if the question is, am I being the best person that I could be in my, am I truly, truly worthy, not a sense of “will I get to that place,” but every time I sing this song I’m actually thinking about different things in my life you know, what am I doing to help or to harm the world, what is my passive role in the world, whether it’s poverty, racism, all the problems that exist. It’s a question of, am I present, am I engaged, am I a good person? Was I kind to my family? Was I kind to my friend? All those things exist in that question of will there be any stars in my crown. And so, I wanted to make a version of that song that is different from the other one. And “I’ll Fly Away” is a similar thing. I also love, I think that I love songs that talk about death and the afterlife, because we don’t really talk about it. It’s not, at least in American culture, it’s not something that you talk about. You don’t address mortality. You don’t think about it. You avoid it. Our whole culture is based on avoiding mortality, and avoiding aging, but that’s actually one of the, that’s a beautiful way to experience life is to think about how brief it is.

(Caroline Shaw singing “Will There Be Any Stars In My Crown?”)

I am thinking today of that beautiful land

I shall reach when the sun goeth down

Went through wonderful grace, by my savior I stand

Will there be any stars in my crown 

Will there be any stars, any stars in my crown

When at evening the sun goeth down

When I wake with the blessed in those mansions of rest

Will there be any stars in my crown

In the strength of the lord, let me labor and pray

Let me watch as a winner of souls

That bright stars may be mine

In that glorious day

Should there be any stars in my crown

Will there be any stars, any stars in my crown

When at evening the sun goeth down

When I wake with the blessed in those mansions of rest

Shaw: I sometimes think of writing music as making a meal for someone, like you’re constructing something that is, an artist, it’s for yourself, it’s what you would want to eat, and see, and smell, and think about, and talk about, but it also needs to be nourishing and healthy and enjoyable for the person that you’re cooking for. And I think sometimes making music as an act of, it’s a service. And it’s something that is, you try to make something that is a gift for people. And that logic can be twisted into like writing a piece that people are gonna like, you know, writing the song that’s gonna be the hit. Writing the orchestra piece that gets people to clap at the end.

AJC: It’s an act of love.

Shaw: I believe it’s a deep act of love. Yeah.

(Caroline Shaw singing “I’ll Fly Away”)

Just a few more weary days and then

I’ll fly away

To a land where joys will never end 

I’ll fly away

I’ll fly away, oh glory, I’ll fly away

When I die, hallelujah, by and by

I’ll fly away