Meschiya Lake

From jelly-wrestling to jazz

Meschiya Lake is talking about one of her former jobs and how she’s glad she avoided its long-term side effects. It seems that eating light bulbs can strip the enamel off your teeth – you don’t say – and that, however precarious the life of a self-employed jazz and blues singer can be, it’s preferable by far to returning light bulb glass to its original form, sand, for the public’s entertainment.

Lake, who was one of the surprise hits of Celtic Connections 2012 and returns to Scotland with her Little Big Horns band and lindy dancers for her first tour here this week, has had innumerable jobs, ranging from fork lift driver to wrestling in jello. But it’s as one of the leading lights of the younger generation who are keeping the jazz tradition alive on New Orleans’ streets, as well as in the pubs and clubs, that’s she’s found her true calling.

“I don’t always know how big the next pay cheque’s going to be and back when I was busking on the streets, before I had proper paying gigs, there would be days when I couldn’t go to work because you can’t sing outside during a New Orleans downpour,” she says. “But I found out then, and I feel the same way still, that I can be both poor and happy doing what I like doing.”

The Oregon-born Lake has been singing professionally since she was nine. The local steakhouse in South Dakota, where the family had moved and where her mother sang country music, ran a talent contest ostensibly for adults. Young Meschiya entered and won the $500 dollar prize, and to prove that this miniature Kitty Wells had won on merit, the steakhouse gave her her first professional engagement, singing country music, like her mum, in a residency.

“I did that until I was thirteen when I decided that country music wasn’t cool any more,” she says. She then joined a punk rock band and although the romantic angle in some biographies written about her has it that she became a run-away as well as a tear-away, she actually waited until she’d passed her final exams at school before leaving home. Some friends had discovered the romance and practicality of train hopping, so she joined them on their travels.

Soon, however, she was getting around all fifty states, with the exception of Alaska and Hawaii, with a purpose, performing with first the Know Nothing Family Zirkus Zideshow, then the End of the World Circus, a troupe that performed traditional circus arts alongside modern additions to the repertoire. It was here that Lake learned the arts of glass and insect eating as well as fire dancing – twirling around onstage with flaming nunchucks or sticks joined by a length of chain – and wrestling variously in oil and vats of jelly. It was, by turns, dangerous and messy, she says, but fun.

The End of the World Circus wintered in New Orleans and during a stop-over in 2001 Lake decided to settle in the Crescent City.

“There were budding jazz musicians among the circus troupe and we’d sit round the camp fire and sing and play these great old songs,” she says. “Being an old punk rocker I could sense a similar rebellion in singers like Bessie Smith, who sang in Young Woman Blues about how she was never going to marry and that she was going to sleep with whoever she wanted to. For a black woman in the late 1920s, this was bold and provocative stuff, especially as she lived the life she sang about. So I decided that I wanted to sing these songs that were catchy and that people could dance to but were in their own way really quite eloquent.”
To support her rekindled singing career, Lake took whatever jobs she could find in her new home town, eventually becoming a cook at Mimi’s, in the Marigny district, where nowadays on a Monday, if she’s not out on tour, she works on the stage rather than in the kitchen.

“I started out busking for pennies with some friends,” she says, “because that’s a great way to learn how to reach people with your singing. It’s simple: if you’re making a sound that pleases them, they’ll stop and listen, and if they really like what you’re doing, they’ll drop some money in your basket. I was happy doing that and it helped that there was a whole new generation of performers coming up who had an interest in this great old  music. Then, in 2007, I joined a band called the Loose Marbles, who had dancers and played on the streets, and we started getting proper offers of work and tours to Europe. I was having to change shifts in the kitchen and take leave and probably beginning to mess my boss around, so I decided to concentrate on music.”

She formed her own band, the Little Big Horns, in 2009 and through saving money earned from busking and with another musical venture, vocal harmony duo The Magnolia Beacon, she self-financed her first album, Lucky Devil. Its impact was States-wide, with plays all across America’s National Public Radio network, and word of this young band that was carrying on the New Orleans street band sound reached as far as France, Germany, Latvia and the UK, where even celebrity chefs the Hairy Bikers, who filmed Lake at work in her regular Tuesday spot at New Orleans’ The Spotted Cat for their latest series, have become fans.

“I wanted a band that paid homage to the sound of old New Orleans and played old jazz and blues in an authentic manner and with real spirit,” says Lake. “And I think that’s what we’ve achieved. We employed those particular instruments – including trumpet and tuba [hence Little Big Horns] - and a particular way of playing, and I sing honest songs because the old jazz and blues singers sang what they felt. They were singing about their lives but it wasn’t all about some downtrodden existence. There are funny songs, really witty songs, too and we celebrate the whole spectrum of emotions. We want people to feel like they’ve been hit by something that’ll leave them with a smile on their face and feeling aroused and satisfied at the same time.”

From The Herald, August 30, 2012.

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