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New Orleans Persona: Meschiya Lake

MARY LOU UTTERMOHLEN PHOTOGRAPH

Meschiya Lake is funny, wise and, Ultimately, businesslike, as she had to take a phone call from a booking agent in England during our conversation. I was tempted to observe a musician switch from the role that I usually see them in into something I perceive as being a total opposite of their public persona. On stage, Lake is totally in sync, inhabiting the music she performs: a melding of two of her favorite vocalists – the jazz stylings of Bessie Smith and Annette Hanshaw – combined with the showmanship of Maria Callas and the bad-ass attitude of Wendy O. Williams. Yes, she puts on a hell of a show. And, on the flip-side (as I said), if I were a musician, I would want Lake managing me, too.

Born in Oregon, she moved to South Dakota when she was 8. It wasn’t soon after that, at age 9, that she entered a singing contest and won. Besides winning $500, she also got a regular gig. Her vocals were mainly focused in country music, but as she got older things changed. “I was always in bands, but I stopped at 13. I was getting into punk rock in high school. I was very rebellious,” she says.

The next phase of her performance career was as a member of the Know Nothing Family Zideshow and End of the World Circus – a troupe that blended traditional circus acts with a sideshow edge. Lake performed the art of glass eating (and insects, too), as well as fire dancing. They wintered in New Orleans and toured during the summer – Lake was 20 when she landed in New Orleans, with the city’s charms beguiling her. She put down roots and, at 23, started singing again with jazz, the city’s native music, as her focus and inspiration. She performed on the streets in the French Quarter – “busking” is the old-fashioned word she used – learning jazz by ear. Lake joined the Loose Marbles, a group that regularly could be found on Royal Street performing vintage jazz swing. She also became busy with a side project, the Magnolia Beacon, for which she started learning guitar, banjo and piano. Lake also rediscovered her love for old-school country music. “There’s a link between traditional jazz and country music, like that of Loretta Lynn,” she says. A sojourn of commuting between here and Berlin, Germany – which is like “a second home to me,” she says – as well as performing in Europe, further cemented her performance skills and her skills as a businessperson, because she often had to be her own manager and booking agent, which she still is.

In 2009, she founded the Little Big Horns, with whom she still regularly performs. Soon, after spending years saving up enough money, she went on to produce her first album, Lucky Devil, adorned with an image of Lake styled like the E.J. Bellocq photograph of a Storyville prostitute with striped stockings. She is currently working on her second album, and recorded some of it live this past March with Tom McDermott at Chickie Wah Wah.

You can regularly see Lake perform around town at clubs – be it herself, with McDermott, with the Little Big Horns or with other bands. It is commitment but, as she says, “At the time I started in New Orleans, I thought it was unattainable – it was a dream back then to make a living at music,” she says. “But, I knew this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

For information on Lake and her performing schedule, visit MeschiyaLake.com.

What is your vocal range? I have a three-and-a-half-octave range; four when I’m training with a vocal coach. A person doesn’t typically have full range unless you’ve learned technique.

Did you have any formal musical training? I’ve learned music all by ear. Learning how to play piano is teaching me how to read music.

So you have no manager or U.S. booking agent – how did you get into the business side? I started by busking – passing the hat. I didn’t have the pressure of booking shows, making sure the band shows up. Now, as a bandleader, I’ve had to do that – learn the basics, including sending out contracts, on my own. I wasn’t prepared, and some club owners can be less than honest. The music industry is often “what can I get from you” – I’ve learned some hard lessons.

Anyone in particular with whom you’d like to perform? I would love to do a duet with Willie Nelson!

What’s so fun about your shows are watching the dancers, which from what I understand are part of the experience. The New Orleans dance renaissance largely started here about five years ago, but has expanded greatly over the last three. The traditional jazz dance revival began in the late 1980s and has continued growing from there. It is vast and worldwide, with organizations and groups in nearly every major city, and many small ones, globally, from San Francisco, to Vilius, Lithuania, and Sydney, Australia. Herräng Dance Camp is the largest, in rural Sweden, and lasts six weeks (most usually run for a weekend). It plays host to thousands of dancers and musicians, all early jazz enthusiasts.

Do you know how to dance? I’m working on learning the Lindy hop.

When is your new album coming out? I’m currently working on a new album with the Little Big Horns and the Magnolia Beacon, as well as Tom McDermott.

I’d like to have an album out every year, but due to a hectic schedule and some health problems of Little Big Horn members, our new one will be out by October.

Any indulgences you’ve allowed yourself? I have my hair done by a stylist. I can buy new clothes; not everything is from a thrift store. My appearance is more polished. I get to eat delicious food! Remember, though, I was rich when I was poor.

True confession: I started kindergarten three days after my 4th birthday, and nearly got kicked out for pretending to be a cat. I really wanted to be a cat, not a person. I fancied I learned “kitty speak,” and could communicate with them. I would get on top of my desk on all fours and meow, and when the teacher would ask me if I was going to stop, I would reply with a meow. I was saying yes, but she couldn’t speak my language. My report card was filled with frowny faces.

At a Glance

Age: 32
Profession: Vocalist; bandleader
Resides: Bywater
Born/raised: Born in Grants Pass, Ore., moved around southern Oregon until the age of 8, then raised in southwest South Dakota until 17.
Family: Mom, Jennifer Fry, née Lake and “Pops,” Scott Fry, in Arizona. Father, John Kelly and Darlene Gibson Kelly, in Ottawa, Canada; sister, Maya Lake Lowder, brother-in-law, Ashley Lowder and niece, Jane VanDonkelaar, in Greenville, S.C. At home in Bywater: boyfriend, Russell Welch, dog, Ichabod! and kitty, Brown.
Education: High school, the open road, the stage
Favorite book: The Rosy Crucifixion Trilogy (Sexus, Plexus, Nexus) by Henry Miller, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov; Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet; And the Ass Saw the Angel by Nick Cave.
Favorite Movie: Black Cat White Cat, Emir Kusturica
Favorite TV show: “The Simpsons”
Favorite Food: Salty black liquorice
Favorite Restaurant: Depends on what I’m in the mood for Hobby: Learning, traveling

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