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Cyrille Aimée: Music Flows From Within

Cyrille Aimée: Music Flows From Within

Courtesy Viktor Hlavatovic


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The way I practice being a better singer and artist is by practicing being a better person and by being honest with myself. The music then flows from within. It goes way beyond jazz, it’s the freedom to express what is inside you.
—Cyrille Aimée
Renowned vocalist Cyrille Aimée possesses a wholly unique sound. Certainly, it is based on her voice timbre but also reflects her approach to music. She is equally adept at jazz standards and pop-jazz. She can swing and scat on cue, then shift to high tech sound loops. Songs in English, French and Spanish are delivered with equal expressiveness, the same for Stephen Sondheim and Michael Jackson hits. Most importantly, her songs are joyful, buoyant; even the ballads are uplifting. Aimee's sound is like the fizz in a recent vintage champagne.

This interview took place during Aimee's release tour for her album, à Fleur de Peau (Whirlwind Recordings, 2024). It quickly became clear that Aimée is not only a musical innovator, but a deeply introspective person as well. Below, Aimée explains the creative process behind her latest three albums; the advantages of living in New York City, New Orleans and Costa Rica; how she learned to scat and let go of her fears; how she was once booed off the stage of the Apollo Theater; and why singing is merely a means to a higher goal.

All About Jazz: You're currently touring in support of an album. What does its title, à Fleur de Peau, mean to you?

Cyrille Aimée: It literally means "on the surface of the skin," but it's an expression that we use in French and similarly in Spanish to say when we're super-sensitive to experiences; when the little bittiest thing moves us, and we're touched by the beauty of everything. That's how I felt especially when I was writing this album.

AAJ: This is the first album for which you composed most of the songs. How was that experience?

CA: It's so gratifying, especially now having released it. For a while, it was weighing on me because I've been holding on to these songs for a long time. I was scared because I've built a career singing mostly standards and modern covers that have had the stamp of approval for decades, and I've gotten really good at rearranging music. In comparison, there's an extra level of risk in releasing your own songs. It's much more intimate, like releasing your journal and so a lot scarier. It was like these songs are no longer mine and they belong to everyone now.

AAJ: What's an example of a particularly personal song?

CA: The very first song I recorded for the album, "Inside and Out," was written six years ago. It has an emotional story, which I'm comfortable publicly sharing now. It was back then that I learned I was pregnant right before coming down to Costa Rica for my friend's wedding. I was there in the jungle for a week, with a very difficult decision on my shoulders: what was I going to do when I got back home? Ultimately, I went home and had an abortion, for personal reasons. During this period, this song "Inside and Out" emerged. The chorus says that eventually I will build a house "so steady" that it will be a home to come back to. "I just need a little time." And now, six years later, after the pandemic and everything that's happened since, I live much of the year in a home I have built in the Costa Rican jungle, sharing the peacefulness with friends and other musicians. Looking back six years, I had no vision yet of living in Costa Rica. The song-writing experience taught me that when you're creating, you can never judge what comes out because it might not make sense now. Maybe it'll make sense in six years. Or, maybe it's not even for you; maybe it's meant to touch someone else. So, for me this house is my baby, this album is my baby, these songs are my baby, and this is my birth as a songwriter.

AAJ: Several of your new songs are unusual in terms of the harmonic structure and melody lines you superimpose. The song "again again" is both emotional and features an unusual chord progression, beginning with Cmaj7 / Fmaj7sus2 / F#maj6/9 / Fmaj9. How did you create it?

CA: I wrote that song when I was feeling really depressed. It was after the abortion and a tough breakup with my boyfriend at the time, which was kind of the reason why I moved to New Orleans. I think it's the saddest song I ever wrote. I mainly compose by ear. Some of the recent songs were composed on guitar, like "Inside and Out," "again again," and "Feel Like I Feel." Some were composed on the ukulele, like "Beautiful Way" and "Historia de Amor." I have a guitar laying around and I just place my fingers on the neck and see if I find something that I like. I often don't know the name of the chord. Maybe that's why I come up with weird progressions, because I try to find the easiest movement for the fingers to go somewhere else.

AAJ: à Fleur de Peau is more produced and refined in some sense than earlier releases. It must have benefitted from the involvement of Jake Sherman, a sought-after, eclectic multi-instrumentalist and producer. How did the creative and recording process work?

CA: It was very different from any other album I've recorded. With straight-ahead jazz, especially the way I recorded all the other albums, song production is more "horizontal." I mean the whole band is in the studio and we count off the tune and then we play together. à Fleur de Peau is more "vertical." Jake used his living room as a studio. I was literally in the closet singing tracks. I would come in with a fully fleshed out song, which I would teach him. Jake would spend a lot of time with me discussing the form: how many verses, what's in the bridge, how does the song end, etc. Then we'd lay down a click track, and I would record the guitar or the baritone ukulele. Then he would record the bass, then the keys, sometimes a Rhodes or Moog or Hammond organ. He would next ask me to record a scratch vocal, but these sometimes made it into the completed piece. Next, Jake would say "now, I want you to scat over the whole song." At the end, he'd say "see what you did there? That riff is a horn line, and this other part could be a clarinet or strings." That's his magical skill. He believed in my songs more than I did and knew how to find the best way to treat them. He could spend hours looking for one sound. For example, one downbeat was a sample of me biting down on a cracker! The last thing we did was record the drums, which is unusual. It feels very different to sing a song without hearing the drums first. Abe Rounds and Jamison Ross were the drummers; they brought a whole new dimension to each song.

AAJ: Let's talk about your Stephen Sondheim tribute album from 2019, called Move On -A Sondheim Adventure (Mack Avenue Records). Our readers will recall that Sondheim was the genius Broadway composer and lyricist who passed away in 2021. You were nominated for a Grammy for the song "Marry Me A Little." The arrangements for that album seem so fresh. For example, from the Broadway show Company, the down-tempo, emotional climax from the number "Being Alive" has been reworked with a salsa feel. And, you're enunciating crisply, with a dry tone, more like Miles Davis with a Harmon mute than a full-throated Broadway singer.

CA: I discovered Sondheim late in my life because there's not a lot of musical theater in France, especially not Broadway shows in English. I was cast in an Encores! special at New York City Center in a tribute to Sondheim called A Bed and a Chair: a New York Love Affair. It was with Wynton Marsalis' Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. There were two male singers and two female singers —the Broadway star Bernadette Peters and me. That's how I got introduced to Sondheim. I fell in love with his lyrics first because, having sung jazz standards for a while, that can get old. The typical standards lyrics are a little corny and about the same old romantic thing. The Sondheim lyrics open a whole new window of possibilities.

AAJ: What happened next?

CA: After the performance, I bought the four volumes of sheet music for Sondheim's compositions and lyrics. I read them all like a book because I don't read music, so I was focused on the lyrics. Every time there were lyrics that I felt connected to, I put a mark on the page. Then I took those that I marked and I listened quickly to see if there was some vibe that I liked. I ended up with 14 songs. I purposefully did not want to know which show they came from or the context. Next, I worked on the arrangements while absorbing the lyrics because I knew I wanted to change everything except the words. I'd experiment by letting the songs sing out of me in different ways.

AAJ: Give us an example.

CA: I remember with the song "So Little To Be Sure Of," I was on my bike one day thinking about different treatments. At that time, I was working with this great music director, Assaf Gleizner. He was translating my ideas to written arrangements. I sent him a WhatsApp message saying I wanted to do "So Little to be Sure Of" like a samba with guitar. Before that album, I had a band that did four albums together. While we did a lot of different songs including Michael Jackson and Sting covers, the group had a consistent sound. For the Sondheim album, I wanted the opposite effect: drawing from a single composer, but with the songs being arranged as individual vignettes. When we performed on this tour, I let the lyrics hit me anew every night, like it was the first time I had heard them as I sang.

AAJ: Did Sondheim ever hear this project?

CA: When I performed this at Birdland, Sondheim was sitting in the front row. At the end, he was crying. Assaf Gleizner and I went to sit at his table. He took my hand and said, "you made me feel like a composer for the first time."

AAJ: Wow. Another album we should mention is Petite Fleur (Storyville Records, 2021) with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO) and Adonis Rose as leader and drummer. It sounds like one big musical celebration. How did you put together that album?

CA: It was funny; I was at trumpeter Nicholas Payton's house rehearsing for a duo gig and for some reason I mentioned that I would love to sit in with NOJO. Nicholas is a New Orleans native. He said, "let me send a text to Adonis." Adonis immediately called me and said, "hey, let's make a record." I had just wanted to sit in on one performance! So, we started brainstorming about repertoire. I really wanted to sing in French and sing pieces that were all new to me. I dug into the standards of New Orleans and polished my composition about moving to that city. We recorded right before the pandemic in this beautiful, gigantic space called Esplanade Studios.

AAJ: In addition to Costa Rica and New Orleans (NOLA), you also have lived in New York City. What attracts you to each place?

CA: I lived almost 12 years in New York and got what I wanted out of it. It's a great city. You've got to hustle, so the level of musicianship is really strong, but at some point, I felt like life was so hard there. It's so much about paying the rent or becoming well-known that musicians forget why they originally were doing it.

AAJ: What about NOLA?

CA: I grew up with Gypsies. In that culture, making music has no hidden agenda; it's just because it feels good. That's what I felt when I came to New Orleans. It's that music is so rooted in the culture that it's just necessary, like the air you breathe. It's not experienced only by playing or listening to it but there's also so much dancing. My mother is from the Dominican Republic, so, the very first relationship I had with music was through dancing. Similarly, in New Orleans people dance all the time. NOLA felt like a pair of pants that fits well because there's the French culture as well as the Caribbean culture. It's an ideal mix for me.

AAJ: You had a couple of notable albums and tours with guitarists Diego Figueiredo and Michael Valeanu. What do you like about the guitar?

CA: I grew up in the village, Samois-sur-Seine, where guitarist Django Reinhardt used to live. Every year there's a festival in his honor. Gypsies come from across Europe in their caravans by the hundreds to pay homage to Django and set up camp in the fields. When I was little, I became friends with the Gypsies and that's how I discovered improvised music and started singing with guitarists. I love that you can take the guitar anywhere and play in nature. The band that I was talking about earlier, with whom I made four albums, was a two-guitar band, with one gypsy guitar and one electric guitar. Finally, there are many possibilities for guitar/voice duos. You don't have a "leader;" instead, both musicians can take each other to new places. I have a special bond with Diego and with Michael, a trust that I can follow wherever they take me.

AAJ: Where is your music heading?

CA: My focus now is mostly on writing songs and also digging deeper into the Latin repertoire. That's something that I haven't done so much, even though I have very strong Latin roots. I haven't thought specifically about a project yet, but if I were to make a Latin tribute album, I would think about honoring Juan Luis Guerra. He's Dominican. There are also many up-and-coming singer-songwriters, including El David Aguilar, Sylvia Pérez Cruz, Natalia Lafourcade and Jorge Drexler, who inspire me.

AAJ: Let's go back in time. What music did you listen to early on?

CA: Our family played a lot of salsa and bachata styles, and my sister and I would dance to those. Michael Jackson also was popular in our house, as were French singers like Julien Clerc. As a teenager, I liked Snoop Dogg, Radiohead and many others. The first jazz that excited me was gypsy music from Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli. When I started singing, someone gave me a 4-CD box set of Ella Fitzgerald, which was life-changing. I later moved from France to the Dominican Republic and then to the US to study in the jazz program at SUNY Purchase (State University of NY-Purchase College).

AAJ: How was your first musical experience in the US?

CA: My goal was to learn the American songbook and the jazz tradition. The first assignment at the university was to listen to Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, which knocked my socks off. I was the only singer in the program that year, so I was exposed to a lot of instrumental phrasing and arranging through groups like those of Thelonious Monk and Horace Silver and swinging piano trios like the Ahmad Jamal trio and Oscar Peterson trio.

AAJ: When did you develop your scat sound? It has a lot of interesting combinations of consonants and vowels and sophisticated phrasing.

CA: I'm still experimenting with scatting. When I got the CD set of Ella Fitzgerald, I learned all her solos, but they didn't fit my mouth the way she was singing them. Scat started to confuse me. I was wondering "what am I supposed to say here? Dooby-doo or shoo-wa?" Then, one year at the local Django Reinhardt festival, I was looking for my mom and wandered down to the river and saw the most ridiculous thing: a guitarist was scatting but the noises he made were by vibrating his lips—like blowing into a tuba, or "lip trills" as vocalists call them. In that moment, I realized that he didn't practice scat exercises; instead, he just improvised what felt right. That opened me up to just having fun with it—experimenting all the time.

AAJ: Do you teach technique to aspiring vocalists?

CA: I didn't know that I loved to teach until the pandemic happened; now I do considerable teaching. Most of the time, the students will ask me for exercises to learn certain techniques. One thing I tell them is that the best way to get better at improvising is simply to improvise. If I go shopping and Justin Bieber is playing in the background, I'll improvise to Justin Bieber. By the way, I don't really teach voice technique; instead, I focus with students on getting control of their fear, of experimenting, and persisting. Singing is very different than playing an instrument; with singing you're in direct connection with the source, so it's about how you're feeling overall, and freeing yourself from demons to fully express yourself. A teaching session with a student can feel like therapy.

AAJ: It sounds as if you're an advocate for taking risks with music.

CA: I try to push the limits of my comfort zone, even on stage. That inspires me. I'm willing to achieve new experiences even at the risk of sometimes falling flat on my face, though that fortunately happens less and less.

AAJ: How big are the stakes?

CA: You realize I did a lot of voice competitions, and you can see all the ones I won in my bio, but you can't see where I lost. I once did Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and got booed off the stage. After being there from 3 PM to 8 PM doing sound check with the house band, seeing the competition, handling interviews, doing my makeup, the MC appears and says, "All right, everybody, we're here at the Apollo night and you know the story: be good or be gone!" I had prepared an arrangement that was going to start with just bass and voice, then I was going to beatbox, and then I was going to scat... Man, I didn't even make it through the first verse! I started singing and then some people started booing. Then it felt like 1,500 people were booing; I could see many of them in front of me. But it isn't over until the judge rings the alarm and someone beats you off the stage with an actual stick. It was confusing because other parts of the audience were cheering, trying to drown out the boos. I was still singing for what felt like an eternity, but it was probably just one minute, until the buzzer rang and I was escorted offstage. I thought, "ok, nothing worse can ever happen to me." Six months later I went back and I won.

AAJ: How do you feel you are developing as a person, beyond simply being a musician?

CA: My voice is just a tool, that's all it is. The music is just a tool to express something much deeper. Billie Holiday didn't have an amazing natural instrument with her voice, but she made beautiful art. For me now, it's not essential how good I sound technically. The way I practice being a better singer and artist is by practicing being a better person and by being honest with myself. The music then flows from within. It goes way beyond jazz, it's the freedom to express what's inside you.



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