EDITOR'S NOTE: I had the great pleasure of interviewing Cassandra Wilson for Borders in 2002. It was one of the highlights of my time working there, but unfortunately the piece had not been available online for years. I've gone back through my files and found it, as well as other interviews with musicians that had not seen the light of day for too long, but which I also hope to publish in this space over the next few months. Enjoy.
Blessed with a sensual contralto voice and a gift for seamlessly blending jazz, blues, pop, and other styles, Cassandra Wilson says songs choose her, not the other way around. Wilson, who was born in Jackson, Mississippi, took up guitar and piano at an early age, performing tunes with her musician father. She lived in New Orleans for a time after college, but soon bolted the Big Easy for the Big Apple, landing gigs with saxophonist Steve Coleman and vocalist Abbey Lincoln. Crediting Lincoln for her realization that it's important to write about everyday happenings, Wilson achieved a breakthrough with the 1993 release of the exhilarating Blue Light 'Til Dawn, and she stepped fully into the national spotlight when her New Moon Daughter won the 1997 Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance. Wilson further demonstrated her range with Traveling Miles, adding original lyrics and new arrangements to well known Miles Davis tunes. For her latest, Belly of the Sun, Wilson laid down tracks inside a converted Clarksdale, Mississippi, train station with her dynamic band and guests like vocalist India.Arie and the late pianist Boogaloo Ames.
How long had you considered returning to your roots in the Mississippi Delta?
Cassandra Wilson: Not long. It occurred to me this past summer, and it was really a selfish reason. I wanted to go home for the summer and wanted my friends to join me. I thought it'd be a great idea for all of us to get together in the Delta and make the next record. It's the first time I've been able to really do something like that on location, sort of the way you would do a movie. The Delta is the holy land for this music, American popular music. I looked at this as a pilgrimage. It was a galvanizing experience.
Not long ago, you said that perhaps you'd lost some of your focus. Why do you think that happened, and how did this recording session help you regain it?
CW: That happens all the time living in New York City. It doesn't really have to do with the music; that's a separate issue. It has to do with being away from home for such a long period of time. I've been in New York now for 21 years, and it's always great to go back to reconnect with the source of who I am, the source of what this music is about.
How difficult was it to convert that train station into a recording studio? What was it like to work in Mississippi in the heat of summer?
CW: No one goes to the Mississippi Delta in the middle of August! Most of the people who live there stay indoors. I thought it'd be a great time to test our resolve and experience the hottest point in the calendar year. It's also a good time to go because there aren't a lot of people traveling there. Nothing happens in August except maybe preparation for the harvest. My engineer, Danny Kopleson, is great at adapting spaces, and he had to do a lot of tweaking to get that space in order. But it was well worth it because it had such an incredible ambiance. I really enjoy going into spaces like that and changing them. The chamber of commerce told us we were probably in the space where John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters bought their tickets to leave.
Your father was also a jazz musician. What is the most important lesson he taught you growing up?
CW: I have a favorite thing that my father taught me when I was beginning to perform with him: We used to work together in a group in Jackson, and he said, "Have a good beginning and have a good end. People don't remember what happens in the middle." And I always loved that. He also said to me, "A gig is a gig is a gig." [Laughing.] He was very much a philosopher.
Talk about Mississippi. What about the region might outsiders be missing?
CW: It's the closest we have to Africa outside of maybe the Georgia Sea Islands. There is such an intense relationship with nature. Very rich in terms of the humanity. The people pride themselves on their hospitality; that's what Mississippi is known for. There's a very elaborate system of manners that perhaps people outside of the region are unaware of. I have to go back from time to time to relearn. [Laughing.]
You've said that one reason jazz hasn't achieved its rightful place in American culture might be its origins as an African art form. Would you care to expand on that argument?
CW: I think that American society has for a long time viewed jazz as primitive or derived from the "other," for lack of a better word. There are European influences, but the thing that makes jazz so different and the thing that makes it so powerful is its reliance upon rhythm and the emphasis on improvisation. And I think these are things that were created out of black people's movement from slavery to freedom. I think it's very difficult sometimes for American society to really look at it squarely. Perhaps that's because there is the reminder of that history.
In addition to being a terrific songwriter, you have this ability to make the music of other performers completely your own, Robert Johnson's "Hot Tamales" and Bob Dylan's "Shelter from the Storm" being great examples from the new album. How do you decide to cover tunes like these?
CW: It depends on the song; each one is different. Oftentimes they choose me—they won't go away and they pop into my consciousness. I start to sing them and remember them, and it almost always connects with some sort of experience, some sort of a feeling or emotion that I'm having at the time.
Let's talk about some of the people who played with you on the recording, like Boogaloo Ames, who passed away recently.
CW: When I was in Mississippi, I was searching for older musicians that I could work with, older musicians that I could learn from. And I heard a lot about Boogaloo while I was there. One thing led to another, and I called and asked him if he might like to play on the recording. I was especially fascinated with him because he symbolized a missing link, so to speak, between jazz and blues. He was equally facile in both, and you hear it in what he's playing. In Mississippi, there is sometimes a gray area where jazz and blues meet. I thought he was perfect for "Darkness on the Delta." That was the tune he suggested from his repertoire, a song I'd never heard before.
You're also interested in Brazilian music. What is it about this sound that you particularly enjoy?
CW: The interest has been there a long time. I love the rhythm, the longing that's always inside of it. It's interesting, the relationship between bossa nova and the blues. It's almost as if the blues is painting a sad face on revelatory experiences, while Brazilian music is painting a happy face on melancholy experiences. And it's just brilliant music, always very heartfelt and emotional, very strong and passionate.
Listening to your music, it almost feels as if time is standing still. Is this a conscious attempt on your part to get people to stop and smell the roses?
CW: That's what the music is for, to give you a sense of timelessness, give you a reprieve from your everyday life—a feeling there's time for that.
Photo copyright © by JoAnne Savio.