by Jacob Uitti
San Francisco-based singer, Meklit Hadero, considers Seattle a second home — or a third home, or maybe a fourth. For the soulful, jazzy singer-songwriter, who was born in Ethiopia and raised in the United States, the Emerald City is a place where she can reconnect with family and with a part of the world in which she lived for more than a year. And Hadero will do just that on Nov. 30 at the Columbia City Theater, when she graces the stage to perform songs from her immaculate and expansive catalogue. To preview the gig, we caught up with the songwriter to ask her about her beginnings as an artist, how she honed her writing style and what she looks to, when the world can seem too much.
When did you decide that you would be a professional singer?
I always wanted to be a professional singer, I just didn’t really understand what that meant or how one goes about doing that. When I was younger growing up, I saw two paths. One was an academic path that seemed to be very strict and punishment-oriented that didn’t seem to have a lot of joy. The other was a cult of fame and I wasn’t into that, either. I always wanted to be a singer but I just didn’t really identify with either one of those paths. But when I moved to San Francisco, I saw a different path. All these artists that were making music and visual art, installation, photography and film that were all relevant to the world around them. And I said, “Oh, that’s how I can do it!” As soon as I found that framework, I gave myself the permission to do what I’d always wanted to do.
How did you develop your signature vibrato?
Oh, I don’t know! That was just always there. It’s like there are some things that you reach for and other things are just there for you. It’s a way of singing that’s found in a lot of Ethiopian music. I guess it was just in the way my vocal folds are made.
What do you enjoy most about showcasing so many different cultural styles?
Well, I think that what I enjoy about it is that it reflects my life and who I am. I was born in Ethiopia and grew up in Brooklyn and I’ve been in the Bay for the past 14 years. I like to call those places masonic homelands. And by bringing so many different styles together, I get to express the fullness of who I am. Also, when we allow complexity for ourselves, we allow others to be complex. So, by bringing in multiple styles of music, I am also making a statement about multiple ways of thinking and multiple perspectives. I think it’s really important for us to be able to grow into that multiplicity. For example, one of the things that I gained growing up in so many places was a very early understanding that nobody has the whole answer. We can only begin to approximate “the truth” when we bring multiple perspectives together.
Your music often represents a bridge to multiple histories and styles. What are the joys and difficulties of being a connective tissue?
Well, you know, you always feel constantly misunderstood. But doesn’t everybody feel that? Maybe that’s a place we can also connect. I think that I feel that the joys of being a connective tissue are about potentiality and I think a lot about the question of who do we mean when we say the word “we.” I also think that the connective tissue is moving beyond “the other,” moving beyond the idea of othering and instead moving into the idea of celebrating difference. Not just celebrating in an abstract way, but being like, “Wait, we can dance to this!” We don’t only have to understand with our intellect, it’s also about the hips, the heart and the head.
Language is obviously very important to you, both in the lyrics you choose and the language in which you sing them. What do you like about language?
As a musician, there’s this thing whereby singing in other languages makes you immediately sing differently because the different language doesn’t just have different sounds, but they exist differently in the mouth and in the throat. For example, French is really back in the throat. English is a bit nasal. Amharic is kind of all over the place. As a singer, it’s fun to sing in different languages because it will bring out different parts of your voice without having to do any other training. That’s really fascinating to me.
Language is really important. The part of me that is a singer-songwriter is the part that very much takes story seriously. When it comes to poetry and fitting poetry into rhythm, you also find that that’s a place where jazz becomes very alive, as well. It’s all about phrasing and how you make the words fit or stretch. How are you going to bring this poem to life today? You have to do it differently show to show, you have to make it live. Lyrics are deeply important and language is deeply important, but I also just like to talk. Storytelling is a big part of my shows, I like to invite the audience into the stories of the songs.
The 2018 video for your 2017 song, “Supernova,” is particularly beautiful and lush. Do you have a favorite memory from making it?
Oh, lord, that video was so much fun to make. So, so, so, so, so fun to make. I mean, part of me wants to say the fun part was dreaming it up because I like making something out of nothing. But in the end of the video, there’s that scene where the dancers are all in white and they’re outside and then I walk out and we pan up into the spinning nebula, which was done with CGI. But what was great about that moment is we all had to imagine it and in that moment connect to that and be in that looking upwards experience. And that was really special even though it was freezing outside. We shot it in February and in between all the takes we were just jumping around and, like, making up little dance routines so that we could stay warm.
How was the batch of songs on your latest LP, When the People Move, the Music Moves Too, different than prior works?
I feel like I finally understood what I was trying to do, finally understood how to do what I’ve been trying to do for 10 years, which is bring together Ethiopian music with jazz and singer-songwriter. In the past, I’ve been able to that by having one song be more singer-songwriter, one song being more jazz, one song more Ethiopian, but I finally figured out how to bring them all together. That’s been a 10-year struggle, wrestling with the music.
Along with being a singer, you are a TED Fellow. And one of your talks, which is about how silence doesn’t really exist has over 150,000 views on YouTube. What did you learn about your relationship to sound as you researched it?
Oh, I learned a ton! It was funny, that talk came from — it was like I strung together these moments of insight that I’d had over the past 10 years. I remember it was 2009 and I was reading all of Jason Moran’s work around language and music. I just spent a week listening and listening and I was so blown away. I would just file that away as something meaningful. And the whole talk was kind of like that — little bits and pieces that I had found that moved me so deeply that I couldn’t look away from them for a period of time.
Writing that talk, stringing those moments, that’s very much similar to my creative process in songs. I’ll get an idea of a melody and I’ll record it into my phone. I always like to say that creativity is a mix of discipline and mystery. And part of that is that you catch melodies, they don’t come from you. It’s like Leonard Cohen said, “If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often.” So, I’ll just have banks of hundreds of melodies and only later do I put them together and say, “Okay, this is a bass line, this is the horns, this is the main melody, this is the bridge.” It’s almost like curating these things that hit you with a force on their own. And the discipline process of fitting them all together and making it work, that’s exactly how it was writing that talk.
Your music is often intentionally uplifting. What do you find yourself looking to when you’re feeling down or discouraged?
I think first absolutely it’s the pure and simple act of singing. Just for me, the pure and simple act of singing — it doesn’t have to be with anybody or to anybody or for anybody — but the simple act of making vocal sounds — it doesn’t even have to be lyrics or a poem — just singing notes and improvisations in my studio on my own will lift my mood immediately. I think that for me a lot of that has to do with the world being so cacophonous right now. And sometimes in order to find the light and joy, we have to find a way to come back to ourselves and immediacy and remembering all the relationships we could ever want are all right in front of us. Also, I just get off social media. That will do the opposite, social media pushes you into the ultimate outward facing thing. But I also don’t see music as a retreat from the world. I see it as a place where we can gather our strengths for what lies ahead.
Featured Photo: Meklit Hadero performs at WOMAD. (Courtesy Photo)