CALVIN ARSENIA – LA SESSIONS

Calvin Arsenia has always been known for conjuring his own cathartic soundscapes. His golden voice and magnetic presence form a genre-defying alchemy that is part performance artist/part elevated soulster, joyfully aligning with the muses he serves via his classically trained vocal power and a 3 1/2 octave range.  An accomplished harpist/multi-instrumentalist/singer-songwriter, it’s his innate ability to uniquely inhabit a song that makes the beautifully rendered LA Sessions (Center Cut Records) one of the most sensually rewarding releases of the year. 

Calvin gathers some of music’s most sought out collaborators/session musicians to passionately re-sculpt his past gems and deliver two new offerings on the album – a smoldering cover of Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain,” and a brand new classic, “Falling Over,” which breezily soars over trickling flares of piano and organ with Calvin’s emotive vocal taking the listener on a head-first tumble-of-love. The enlivened batch of six songs, recorded in only two days, is ample proof that Calvin’s gorgeous vocal gift is on par with any singer working today a la soul, rock, jazz, or pop pedigree. The subtly reimagined songs include two tracks from his most recent album, Cantaloupe – the playful “Poseidon,” and the achingly beautiful “Back To You,” which stands out as the first single from LA Sessions.  Other shadings include the gospel tinged “Dying,” steeped in organ swoops and sax swirls and fiery background singers stoking the embers of Calvin’s love-struck testimonial, and the jazzy R&B pomp of “Smoke And Mirrors.” 

Produced by Tony Braunagel (he also delivers exquisite percussion on LA Sessions) the album also features Paul Brown on guitar, Mike Finnigan on keyboards, Freddie Washington on bass, and David Garfield on piano.  Between them, the five musicians have worked with some of music’s most iconic names, including Jimi Hendrix, George Benson, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Leonard Cohen, Bonnie Raitt, Chuck Loeb, Rickie Lee Jones, Buddy Guy, The Neville Brothers, and so many others. 

“It was a thrill for me to work with such legendary players,” says Calvin. “Not only were they incredibly talented, but I got off a plane straight from Australia, hit the studio, and they were more than ready to get to that place where you honor the songs, leaving their egos at the door and honoring what the muses tell them. It was one of the best recording experiences I ever had.”

You can hear their natural rapport in every note, with the assembled all-stars embracing Calvin’s unconventional nature and tailoring the edges with sumptuous grooves. The inspired musicianship burnishes Calvin’s honeyed tones, giving the album a replenishing currency on songs such as “Dying” and “Falling Over” which Calvin says was written by a friend during his stay in Edinburgh, Scotland.  “There was a popular club over there where I used to go, that had live music happening every night of the week. The owner introduced me to a songwriter/engineer there – Cameron Phair – who wrote the song but felt it was out of his range and envisioned what it might sound like with my voice.  He sang it for me, and I loved it on the spot.  It’s so beautiful I’m glad it came full circle like this.  I rearranged it a bit and am thrilled with how it came out.”   

Calvin’s production M.O. on previous recordings was to piece together songs “like pieces of a puzzle” and “layer them over several sessions.” He believes the immediacy of the LA Sessions, and having the instrumentation all happening in the “same emotional space together as a band,” powerfully served the intimacy of the album, particularly on the reflective “Back To You.” 

“It’s one of the most vulnerable songs on the album, and it always plays that way in my live set, and the guys were able to help me capture that,” he says.  “The song is a very heartfelt admission of guilt, I think. But it’s done in a way people usually don’t want to talk about.  Breakup songs are usually angry and lashing out and this is a very sober-minded take on it. It’s not something we usually want to admit, surrendering or admitting defeat in a relationship, because everyone thinks you’re always going to make it through, and this is saying ‘no we didn’t…but it’s OK.’” He credits Tony Braunagel’s sensitive production and the collective experience of the LA Session bandmembers for sustaining that kind of emotional awareness in the room and being conscious of the creative arc that Calvin always strives for in his work.  “Every time I put an album together or a live show I’m thinking of the storyline or environment in which it lives.  Having these sessions happen in a single studio definitely made the songs more cohesive.  I never like to do ballads back to back or have all upbeat songs.  I want to bring my audience through a process that tells a story and this album achieves that in many ways.”

Calvin adds that reworking previously released gems, like the fanciful “Poseidon,” created an opportunity to “put some new outfits on these songs,” he says. “I didn’t want to divorce this record from other parts of my career.  ‘Poseidon’ has this deep groove in that it wants to lean into a soulful feel – a very classic feel, and I relished the opportunity to bring it into this new setting and see what that new outfit looked like.”

Which brings us to the album’s classic cover song. It takes a bold and confident vocalist to be willing to step into Billie Holiday’s shoes like Calvin does on “Don’t Explain.” “That was Tony’s idea,” he says. “Before I came out to L.A., he was thinking of another cover for me to do and then he presented me with ‘Don’t Explain.’ Obviously, there’s the genius of Billie Holiday, but I was also struck by the complex turmoil from her voice and how the point of the view of the song is really a different take on unrequited love. Accepting unacceptable behavior and loving them anyway. I love the conflict of that story.”

Calvin’s ability to mine compelling themes from elaborate and intimate subject matter has been a hallmark of his career since he began writing and performing music. NPR has credited him with ‘finding the most direct line of expression to inform our common struggles…’   

Born in Orlando, Florida, his creative journey really began when he moved to the Kansas City suburb of Olathe, teaching himself the guitar, and eventually the harp. He learned his signature instrument at the age of 20 after he couldn’t find a harpist as determined as him to meld folk, rock, classical, rap and R&B into the irresistible fusion which has become his calling card in the Kansas City music scene and beyond.

His passion for stretching the boundaries of musical expression saw him transform a trip to Edinburgh, Scotland’s Fringe Festival early in his career into a life-changing music mission, with an Edinburgh church offering him a role as musical liaison between the church and the city that would change his life.

Two years and 300 shows later, Calvin returned to Kansas City reborn as a humanistic songwriter/performer whose impassioned and conceptual stage shows (regularly sold-out in Kansas City, currently catching fire on the West Coast with a diverse following across Europe),  are collaborative, costumed-culture-bridging spectacles which In Kansas City Magazine has hailed as ‘equal parts opera, symphony, musical theatre, rock show, all built around its creator: a charismatic 6-foot-7-inch harpist with a natural stage command and knack for gilding gold and painting lilies.’   

Calvin’s 2018 national debut, Cantaloupe (Center Cut Records), has been acclaimed for melding diverse textures into an alluring signature sound for the adventurous artist. Most recently, Calvin performed live at L.A.’s fabled club The Mint, showcasing the songs on LA Sessions with the acclaimed group of celebrated musicians who collaborated with him on the album. Says Calvin: “It’s such a special experience to play with them.  To be able to perform these songs in front of an audience and do this for a living – to have made a career out of something I love is so amazing – it is an honor that I never take for granted.”

7/19                                                                 ########

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