Lyrically, Calvin Arsenia has been described by NPR as “finding the most direct line of expression to inform our common struggles.” Musically, the singer/songwriter/harpist has been nicknamed “Arsenia the chameleon” by hometown Kansas City (Kansas) publication 435 Magazine. Both talents are prominently displayed on the powerful breakup ballad “Back to You,” whose video premieres on Billboard today (Oct. 24).
Directed by Alison Claire Peck and Johanna Brooks, the video features guitarist Paul Brown’s mix of “Back to You.” The track also doubles as the first single from Arsenia’s latest album, LA Sessions. Released in September via Center Cut Records/AMPED Distribution, the Tony Braunagel-produced set finds the 6-foot, 7-inch Arsenia weaving his 3 ½ -octave range within a tapestry whose threads include gospel, jazz, R&B/soul, rock, classical and folk. In addition to guitarist Brown and percussionist Braunagel, the LA Sessions bandmates include bassist Freddie Washington, keyboardist Mike Finnigan and pianist David Garfield. Collectively, the quintet has worked with such legends as Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Leonard Cohen and Bonnie Raitt.
Below, Arsenia talks about the “difficult breakup” that inspired “Back to You,” his creative evolution from 2018 debut album Cantaloupe and his work with LGBTQ students.
What prompted you to pen this calmer—but no less emotional—take on heartbreak?
I wrote “Back to You” after going through a rather difficult breakup with someone I had deeply trusted and loved. He was the first relationship I was able to be somewhat public about with my friends… he liberated me. A few days before I was getting ready to go on an extended tour, though, I broke it off with him. Thinking about whatever future I had envisioned for myself and whether or not our heart cries were compatible, it became pretty clear that we were fueled by different motives. I couldn’t find any fault in him for the way he was made or moved through life, how he coped with traumas from before me or how he chose to deal with them. I felt it was an act of kindness to not have him waiting for me for months and months when in my heart of hearts, I’d already watched us fall apart over and over in my mind.
The lyrics talk about places I visited on that tour and loneliness; the “hole in my shoe” represents the faults I brought into that relationship and the wounds I carry around with every step. Every person, every experience, adds to the complex beings that we are today. The irony of this song is that the lyrics state, “hardly now do I ever think of you” and probably because of this song, I think about him every day: the laughter, tears, kisses, the whiskey and the late nights on the front porch hearing gun shots in the distance.
Why was filming the video in Kansas City a necessary part of the narrative?
I love Kansas City and am grateful to have grown up here. It not only has a vibrant and caring arts community but also a rich music history— from Charlie Parker to Big Joe Turner. We shot the video there not just because it’s home but because it’s true to my own experience. My love interest that prompted me to write the song was from Kansas City and the subsequent breakup took place in Kansas City. So many times, songs talk about having to move away from someone (in miles). But the reality is that most of us break up with someone from our own towns, or at least where we live, and we have to learn how to navigate those friend circles with them in the periphery. Kansas City continues to provide a safe place for me to explore and generate new and provocative art. Despite it being relatively unknown to most of the planet, the canvas of the city is gorgeous.
However, a weird thing happened when we shot the scene overlooking the city skyline: I noticed my ex’s name scribbled on the side of a trash can. It isn’t a common name and it had obviously been there a while, much more faded than some of the other graffiti. In the throes of love, I had written his name on my heart. It was hard to look at it there —worn, precarious, displaced and staring.
How does LA Sessions differ from your 2018 debut album Cantaloupe?
I wanted the opportunity to do a more acoustic-sounding album with seasoned jazz/R&B musicians and was given the chance with a wonderful group of legends. Inspired by artists like Sufjan Stevens and Björk, I have often enjoyed producing music where there are textures and layers and layers of sounds that are stitched together. It’s common for songs like this to take days, months, even years to get the sounds just right on these kinds of tracks, so much of my recorded music sounds more like that. When I perform live though, it’s usually me and my harp or me, my harp and my percussionist Simon. But my audiences know my sound to be much more intimate and natural from the stage. For LA Sessions, Tony and I were interested in creating something that felt more like a live recording, something I had never done before. This kind of sound is sort of timeless, ageless and trendless, and that excited me. Tony selected the band. When he told me who would be in the studio with us, I was gobsmacked.
What’s next on your work calendar?
I have an array of performance dates and events throughout the Kansas City area over the upcoming weeks including performing in Quixotic’s Sensatia Cirque Cabaret. I will also be speaking with LGBTQ students within the tri-state area about celebration over tolerance, inclusion over separation and using the arts to create bridges of empathy through storytelling. Then we head into rehearsals in December in advance of a national tour in 2020. As always, I’m looking forward to writing and composing new works again.