From the sound of it, there isn't anything Meklit Hadero can't do. With a voice that's equal parts honey and honeybee, the Ethiopia-born singer/songwriter has a rhythm 'n' blues soul, a roundabout jazz pulse, and the beating heart of a poet.
Add to this a wonderfully quirky sense of melody, and a certain fearlessness that keeps her standards up: On the duo album she made with R&B crooner Quinn DeVeaux, she covered Arcade Fire, Talking Heads, Neil Young, Sam Cooke and Stevie Wonder. She also made a "hip hop space opera" with rapper Gabriel Teodros and producer Burntface.
Both projects are great, and great fun, but the money's on Hadero's work as a solo artist. Her 2010 debut, On a Day Like This, is addictive in its sweet, seductive simplicity: That golden vibrato, paired with cello, acoustic guitar, piano, the occasional well-intentioned jazz trumpet.
On a Day Like This is that remarkable record that sounds fresh every time you punch the "play" button. She's Nina Simone gene-spliced with Regina Spektor. She's Fiona Apple with a working brain. Yet, she's so original, it's almost frightening.
The album announced the arrival, said the San Francisco Chronicle, of "an artistic giant in the early stages."
Hadero, who studied political science at Yale, was named a TED Fellow in 2010. She lives in San Francisco, where she has been an artist-in-residence at the DeYoung Museum and the Red Poppy Art House, and has also completed musical commissions for the San Francisco Foundation and for Brava! For Women in the Arts.
She is a founder of the Arba Minch Collective and the Nile Project, a group of East African artists in diaspora devoted to nurturing ties to their homelands through collaborations with traditional and contemporary artists there.
She makes her first Savannah appearance Jan. 21 at Dollhouse productions.
(By the way, her name is pronounced Mek-LEET.)
I like that so many of your melodies are non-linear, which is, I suppose, very like jazz. Although there's form there. What informs most strongly the way you write?
Meklit Hadero: Well, I tend to go with a really intuitive process for writing melodies. You're right that they are non-linear, and it has to do with my songwriting process. Which has a lot of improvisation in it. I generally start with basslines. I'll lay a bassline down with my Midi keyboard in Garage Band, and come up with a rhythmic idea. And then I'll often just improvise over and over and over and over again. And record everything, maybe do 20, 30 or 40 different improvisations. Potentially with lyrics that I feel go with it, or also improvising lyrics.
And from there, it's almost an excavation process. Where you find that certain chunks have a cohesion. So you pick: "I'll takes seconds 34 to 50 from the 20th improvisation." It becomes almost tapestry-like. I don't always write lyrics improvisationally, but I also enjoy that process with lyrics because you surprise yourself! And it's the best way to kind of get yourself out of the part of your intellect that tells you "Oh, no, that's not good." The inner critic that so often can prevent creativity from reaching new places.
In pop culture, and certainly in America, we like to pigeonhole our artists: "Oh, she's like this, or that." Yet looking at your body of recorded work, it's all over the show. "Meklit does THIS, but then she does THAT." Do you see the Quinn album, and the space opera, as side projects to your solo work?
Meklit Hadero: I like to think of myself as a paragraph, rather than a sentence. Ultimately, those projects are side projects, because everybody else in those projects has their own other projects, too. So part of it is just about the fact that in order to do stuff with each other, a lot has to line up with our schedules.
In 2011, I had released On A Day Like This. It was my first solo album, and I was like, "OK, what do I do now?" I was like "You know what? I'm on the 50-year plan. I find so many artists who have a fantastic first album, because they've had their whole lives to write it. And then they have about a year and a half to write their second one." And we wonder why the sophomore album sometimes isn't as powerful. For me, it's nothing to do with the quality of those artists. It's simply a pressure of time. And creativity isn't on a schedule.
And so what I decided to do was, I said "I'm going to keep exploring collaborations and things that are exciting me, things that bring up different parts of my musical history." Because both of those things, indie-rock and art-rock, and hip hop, are musics that I grew up with. I wanted to go deeper into those kinds of places. At some point, probably not in the next couple of years, I'll also release an album that's much, much more Ethiopian-influenced. After that, I want to write another solo album. That's going to let me have the time to mature my songwriting. I was very new to songwriting when I released On a Day Like This.
You were born in Ethiopia, but spend your early years in Brooklyn. Do you consider that home?
Meklit Hadero: I do say that I grew up in New York, but I always say that I have four homes. One is San Francisco, where I've lived for 10 years. One is Seattle, where much of my family who live in this country live. One is Brooklyn, N.Y. where I spent my elementary school years. And one is Adis Ababa, where I was born and in which I was steeped, culturally, in many, many ways.