Nearly eight years ago, Sarah Quintana, a New Orleans singer-songwriter with a background in jazz and folk music, was splitting time between club gigs in France and street performances here at home. One year later, she played her first (inside) local show at The Spotted Cat. It was there she made a firm decision to become a new thread in the already culturally rich fabric of our music community. Since then, she has developed countless demos, released a debut album in 2012 (The World Has Changed), and was awarded an artist residency at A Studio in the Woods, where she explored the dynamics between water and sound with the multi-media project The Delta Demitasse. Today, she stands at the foot of new goals, riding the wave of her new water-inspired album, Miss River (produced by Mark Bingham and Dave Glasser), into some of New Orleans’ most coveted venues. Armed with a new live band and two major local festival performances on the horizon, she is proof that there is fruit in the seeds of hard work. I was able to catch up with Sarah at The Maze Creative/Rehearsal Space to discuss life within and outside of Miss River.
You just celebrated the release of your second album, Miss River. How did that go?
Sarah Quintana: The celebration of the release was at Preservation Hall and it was pretty magical! We were so honored they would invite us and I’m so happy with the timing of it all—sort of before Jazz Fest and after Mardi Gras, and then leading right into our spring and summer shows nicely.
You’ve played out a lot. Did touring overseas help with the focus in making this record?
It was a lot of development with a lot of different musicians. I did two tours with a band in France and I did a 72 show/3 month contract with a booking agent out of Paris to do Louisiana music in schools and in theaters in the evenings. I learned a lot about the industry. A lot of it I like. A lot of it, I don’t. It was also a moment that I decided to recommit to my goals despite the unknowns.
Where does the concept of Miss River come from?
I think the project started from my artist residency at A Studio in the Woods, where I was exploring cups and bowls and their relationship to water and soundwaves. The Delta Demitasse was a metaphor for New Orleans itself being a bowl and its relationship to the Mississippi River. Basically, the creative process that gave birth to the tunes was kind of different than what you hear now. It was a lot more spacious; a lot more improv and documenting with video and what was possible with audio. The project Miss River is more me sitting down and saying, “OK, I have to make an album of songs. I want it to be catchy and I want to name it something relevant.” Then the exploration became more about female archetypes and seeing the River as a creative and destructive force, but also nurturing and life-giving. I also thought it was an interesting way of responding to “Ol’ Man River,” the American Songbook portrayal of the Mississippi River as an indifferent man. And I know that song is very important culturally, but I also think that we can have a more expansive dialogue with the River. So, it really just started becoming more of a study of the feminine natures and other personalities of the River through songs.
Looking back, was the approach to this album similar to the first one?
Not at all. The first album was a collection of tunes. I was still feeling my way around the scene and there just weren’t a lot of women in jazz. I approached Ingrid Lucia to produce it. She was really th e only female I knew in the industry, locally. There is a lot of magic on that record and the performances are delicious. But as far as the process goes, I feel like I had not arrived yet in my guitar playing or even my voice. It wasn’t until that Studio in the Woods residency that I really sat down and asked myself those important aesthetic questions.
Did you answer those questions on Miss River?
Yes. I feel like I finally found my true creative voice. This new album is more art. But I did have to eventually “fit the form” to make these artistic ideas into songs. Working with Mark Bingham and Dave Glasser, who are total pros and have a great workflow, it became more tunes than water. Which is fine because the tunes stand alone. Also, what a blessing to have the residency and to not only have such skilled players who can come in and do what they do, but who are also respectful of all the other aspects of the creative process. My heart is so happy with how this project grew from a tiny little seed and that everyone who has participated has loved being a part of it.
I’m kind of a sucker for pedal steel guitar. I think it really adds something special to your songs.
It’s so sweet! It’s like the chantilly on top of the cake. Richard Comeaux played on the album and he is a total pro, no-bullshit Nashville guy. I wanted him to play a blues tune with me to the sound of the Mississippi River and we just knew the tune was going to be on time. It sort of ended up being the anthem of the album. For our live band we have a young guy named Duncan Symonds and we are so lucky to have found him before he was scooped up by someone else.
I love the idea of taking something so organic, like water and rain, and being able to resample it (or even play it) as a backdrop to something so structured like a song. Was it difficult to blend the two entities?
I don’t think it was that difficult at all—only because I don’t think we have that many new ideas. And, I know that’s kind of trippy and I struggle with that myself, but I also think that when you look at nature, geometry, math, and art, it’s all pretty much mirroring itself. So, I guess I wasn’t that surprised to find the things I was hearing in the Mississippi River were already rhythms to popular music. When you start talking about the Mississippi Delta regions you’re going to start talking about some of the first work songs, spirituals, Lead Belly, and other innovators of the blues and our original American music. It’s pretty heavy stuff and I don’t want to talk too much about it because it is not my background, but it’s incredibly important to be aware of and have that appreciation for African-American culture and its influence on music today.
How were you able to record the rhythms of the water currents?
I ordered this hydromic off the internet. It’s this military-grade microphone that I think some people use for recording whale songs. I practiced with the hydromic at different depths of the river. The more rhythmic tracks are closer to the banks. The further out you go, you pick up on sounds of boats rumbling and industrial-type stuff. But, it is all still the River.
There is a quote printed in the album, “It doesn’t matter how you got here, as long as you know where you are and where you want to go.” It shows up later in the album. Where does that come from?
Yeah, it’s kind of sneaky. It has a lot to do with hope. When I was in residency at A Studio in the Woods, I had a close relationship with [Studio co-founder] Ms. Lucianne Carmichael that was pretty particular. And one morning as I was getting up to record the birds and raindrops, I saw her in the driveway and she said those words to me. It was sort of random at the moment, but I thought it was such a potent mantra for being in the creative process and struggling. Sometimes, when you’re trying to move forward in a positive direction, things can seem overwhelming—like you’re a tiny hummingbird with a beak of water trying to put out a fire. But there are so many little miracles that happen when you check in on the moment and realize where you are and the direction you want to go.
I feel like you fit in a wide range of genres. How has your music been described back to you?
In one of our reviews we were described as alt-country and jazz. That made sense and I even thought, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
Do you foresee this album getting the vinyl treatment?
I really hope so! I have always heard it as two different sides of a vinyl record. But you know, you give it all you’ve got—and we did. I just don’t have the budget right now. Unless someone wants to take that on themselves, I’m going to have to pay off some credit card debt first. Which is fine. It all ends up coming out in the wash anyway. I’m kind of thankful for that debt, because I know for that short time, I was able to manage some life goals this year and create some things that will last forever.
Having lived inside the Miss River project for some years now—still with all the promotion and tour support still ahead of you—are you ever able to break out of that mode or even think about writing new songs?
Yes, it’s important to do that. I have a few things I’m working on. One is mantra music for yoga and that’s a lot of loops and stuff. I also just want to do some tunes on an acoustic guitar. No big concepts. Just gettin’ it out, ya know? I’ll be producing my first album. It’s a devotional music album being recorded in a church by a woman named Keith Porteous. She does arrangements of traditional Christian hymns. She sings and plays harmonium accompaniment. It’s very haunting.
How do you fill your days outside of writing and performing ?
I have a great lineage in Jivamukti Yoga. The Jivamukti Tribe is closely related to Ashtanga Yoga and has a huge animal rights component. They are the famed vegan yogis. We have a studio, Swan River, here in New Orleans where I started my practice. I also teach voice lessons privately.
You just got back from India. What was the nature of your visit and were you enlightened in any way?
It was life-changing. I just always wanted to go some time in my life—mostly for personal and spiritual reasons. I had just turned 30 and lost a dear friend to suicide this year. A couple of weeks after he passed, I just booked a ticket. I‘ve always been interested in the Krishna religion because it involves vegetarianism and singing and dancing as their main religious practices. That’s really attractive to me. There are some elements that mirror Christianity in ways that I’m not that into, personally. But I’ve come around to appreciating anything that gives me foundational practices like meditation, or rituals for cooking, sharing and feeding people. I guess I was just looking to plug into some of that during my visit. I came back with way more than I could have ever imagined— lifetimes of goodness and gratitude.
You’re staring down two major festival gigs at the end of this month. The timing of this all seems really perfect. How does it feel to be reaping your rewards?
It’s all pretty epic! I mean, to someone who isn’t local, it can seem small, but this is huge for me! This is exactly where I want to be! By not releasing the album in 2015, we were able to take our time and apply for our festivals. We made them the sweetest press kits, tied in ribbons and bows. I really appreciate that they picked us. I have played both French Quarter Fest and Jazz Fest before in different formats—playing with Bobby Lounge and singing with The Moonshiners. But this will be the first time as this band. There is no project I would have rather presented—it’s our sound with all of our friends. It just feels right. It feels like a homecoming.
Sarah Quintana and the Miss River Band will be at French Quarter Festival on Friday, April 8th and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on Friday, April 22nd. For more info, check out sarahquintana.com