In Conversation—with Calvin Arsenia

Alternative folk artist Calvin Arsenia is an intensely inventive creator and a truly original mind, mixing genres and instruments (including the Celtic harp) to create vibrant, engaging music.  He recently released the single, “Headlights,” from his project-in-process Cantaloupe, a mix of music, art, and performance.  In “Headlights” he describes his difficult ascent to the wisdom that happiness isn’t contingent on finding the right person to “complete” you.  Recently, Arsenia was kind enough to answer our questions about what brought him to where he is.

What kind of childhood did you have?

My childhood was quite mild.  I was the middle child of three boys who were 6 and 7 years apart from me on either side.  I spent a lot of time playing with bugs and mud and singing songs to myself about bugs and mud and flowers.  I also used to paint a lot.  Creativity was a huge part of daily life.  And I was often barefoot.

What role did music play in it?

Music was around my house, but not necessarily in the most obvious way.  I know so many people who have strong, vivid memories of their parents playing records and introducing their children to “the greats.” For me, singing was just as easy as breathing.

My mother played gospel music on the weekends, and my father played slow jams when he fixed the car or did yard work.  At least these are my earliest memories.  After that I learned acoustic guitar and played contemporary folk music in church — a lot of four chord songs that could go on for hours and often did.

Were you trained in music or did you teach yourself?

By around 13 or 14 years old I’d found a community of musicians who mentored me in guitar and piano.  They were just a bit older.  I had great training in school and church choirs alongside that.  In college I studied theory and classical voice with some very brilliant professors and loved it!

Who—or what—has been the best influence on you as an artist? As a human being?

It’s becoming clearer that the church has had a lasting affect on the things I hold dear in the place of music and performance.  Playing with the influences of unseen intention and ceremony have become such a crucial part of the process of bringing this music to audiences.

I’ve cried to the sounds of technically horrendous musicians who give their whole heart to a performance.  The heart is the most important part.

How do your songs come to you?

Normally songs come to me when I’m musing about things or people or events that have affected me emotionally.  Usually I’m in motion, walking or otherwise.  Usually away from my instruments.  It comes to me like cleaning up a spill with a paper towel—I feel I collect the songs from the ether.

What’s the story behind the song “Headlights?”

Jametatone’s J Ashley Miller hosted a private outdoor ambient music event earlier this summer.  Another musical guest, Ryan J Lee, invited me up to sing over a loop he’d written.  While I was kind o’ cooing nonsensically over the chord progression,  J Ashley saw headlights coming down the driveway (latecomers to the event) and said:

“The headlights look the same.  Are you in or out?”

This sentence really affected me and the ideas began to flood my mind that many things remain true about ourselves regardless of relationship status.  I still have to grocery shop.  I still have to pay bills.  I still have to cook dinner for me, even if you’re not going to eat it.  I have a responsibility to provide for this body that provides for me.

We took a field recording of that happening into the studio and tried to distill it into something that retained and captured all the magic that night.  I’m really happy with how the song came together.

Did anything funny or weird happen while you were creating Cantaloupe?

My previous work was all about idealized romance.  Then, after, having a couple of — let’s just call them “rough encounters” — I feel my expectations for relationships have changed drastically.  I don’t want to say I’m jaded because I still find myself wanting that magic, silly, stupid kind of love, but I know now it’s not the end-all-be-all of life.

Also, I was very surprised by the piece called “Palaces” that we wrote for this album.  It speaks about the love of music and creativity.  Without the assistance of a coy muse how can I keep creating?

“My callouses are palaces in times of peace and castles in times of war.” This has become a little bit of a mantra for me recently.

The meaning of your lyrics, your arrangements, and the fact that you’ve learned how to play several instruments suggest a richly solitary life.  Is this accurate? Do you have a strong need for periods of solitude each day?

Music has always meant community to me.  Most of the music I consume is live music from my friends who I support in the different music scenes so I can’t say that I prioritize alone time.  That being said, when I’m alone there’s a constant trickle of new sounds, new music, new arrangements that are available to me.  Trivial life (emails, paychecks, laundry, etc.) so often upsets this flow, but what can you do?

I hope I get to a place where I can spend more time in solitude creating safe spaces through sound and ceremony.

How did you discover the importance of loving your true self? How did your life change after that?

Self hatred has dampened the lights of many bright people.  I’m always wanting others to shine and to be loved and feel loved and to give love to me and others.  and I take very seriously the responsibility of my role in that chain.  I love the people who have invested their lives into me.  I feel I have to honor their investment by not handing the light they gave me over to self-hatred and depression.  Self-love is the only other option.  This is very different from narcissism.

How do you regenerate after giving yourself heavily to your art?

I like to cook for my friends.  🙂

What conditions do you need in your life to maintain your creative flow?

New spaces to adorn with sound, smells, food, and light.  It’s always exciting to present music in a way that’s tailored and in respect of the physical space.  This is a big part of my creative process.  Really energizes me.

Also, thinking about things that have been left unsaid.  As a lyricist, I’m always hunting for ways to reassign meanings to familiar phrases or ways to have the listener do an aural-doubletake.  Little Easter eggs make the process really fun and interesting for me.

Are there any books, albums, or films that have influenced your work?

Letters to a Young Poet by Maria Rainer Rilke

Do you follow a spiritual path that informs your art?

The Christian upbringing ultimately still influences my spirituality, however I feel the modern church and the vision that Jesus had for the church are at odds with each other.  I try to treat people fairly and as individuals, take responsibility that there are lasting ramifications for my words and actions, and create space for transcendence in my life and others around me.

If you had an artistic mission statement, what would it be?

Creating moments of transcendence, one pluck at a time.

What’s next for you?

I’m ready to start composing more.  This process has been very energizing to me.