Musician To Musician: Our 5th Annual Thanksgiving Chain Of Gratitude

Nov 28, 2019
Originally published on November 28, 2019 4:03 pm

For the fifth year running, All Things Considered's annual musical gratitude chat is back. This Thanksgiving, NPR's Ari Shapiro speaks with four different artists, each guest having been named as a reason to be thankful by the previous artist.

This year, the chain starts in Canada with A.C. Newman, lead vocalist and guitarist of The New Pornographers. He expresses thanks for rising Cree language dream-pop outfit nêhiyawak, whose frontman, Kris Harper, talks to Ari about Idle No More, a movement of indigenous people speaking up for native interests, and his grandmother's experience with residential school in Canada. From Harper, the chain continues to Virginia-raised rapper Leikeli47 and concludes with legendary pianist Chick Corea.

Listen to Ari's four-part interview in the audio player above, and read on for highlights of his conversations.


A.C. Newman of The New Pornographers

On the imagery of cars on 2019's In the Morse Code of Brake Lights: It happened accidentally. I began to notice it was a recurring theme and I thought, why not just run with it? It made me ask the question: why are there so many songs about cars? Car songs go back so far, like Chuck Berry, Guided By Voices's "Motor Away," or Gary Numan's "Cars." There's every kind of car song and I thought it's obviously a very eternal image in modern culture, in pop culture.

On nêhiyawak: I love that it is this combination of really cool, atmospheric, indie, dream-pop. It draws me in; it's very interesting. But then there are all these other interesting elements, like the drums are all these native, ceremonial drums. "Open Window" is a song I really like. I've always loved strange music that borders on abrasive, but then it just opens up into melody.


Kris Harper

On the meaning and significance of the title of nêhiyawak's debut album, nipiy: The title is nipiy, which in nêhiyawêwin, or Cree language, is "water." For us, this was an incredibly important sentiment that had come out of a lot of the thoughts and ideologies that went along with the Idle No More movement.

The first and last track are called "kisiskâciwanisîpiy": pȇyak, one, and two [nîso]. These two tracks, they flow to the rhythm of the water [of the kisiskâciwanisîpiy, or North Saskatchewan River]. In nêhiyawêwin, the word "kisiskâciwanisîpiy" refers to [the river] flowing at a pace that you walk, and so we wanted to find out what that pace was and to create songs that were at that pace for someone to listen to and consider where they're at.

On Leikeli47: For me, I felt that she wanted to share her experience, and for me to listen and learn from her, on her terms, delivered with her purpose, poise and banging beats ... Something else that she's pointed to — which is, again, what we're talking about when we're making our music about water — is about the safety of women. And these three albums that she's been working on, this trilogy, is all based around the notion of safe spaces for women, which I think is revolutionary work and [with] incredible language.


Leikeli47

On bringing the listener into her world on Acrylic: With Acrylic, there's a saying that I have and that I went in with when making the album. It was, "You know where you are when you smell acrylic." It's very rare you're going to smell acrylic walking down Rodeo Drive, but you will smell acrylic anywhere in Norfolk, Va. and Bed Stuy [Brooklyn, N.Y.] ... You're going to smell acrylic in the places I'm from.

On Chick Corea: Well, a lot of people may not know this about me because they deem me a "rapper," but I'm just a musician, I'm just an all-around artist and human beings like Chick Corea are those great people that helped shape who I am. I can't tell you how much I've listened to "Spain" over and over and over and over ... If I could do with my voice what he does on the keys, who's stopping me?

YouTube


Chick Corea

On his recent and Grammy-nominated album, Antidote: I think all of the various forces possibly came together on the title track, "Antidote." It's one of the brand-new compositions and it's a piece where I actually wrote the lyrics myself. It expresses the fact that we, as musicians and artists, are kind of an antidote to anything negative going on in the world.

On Paco de Lucía: Paco is one of the musicians that really changed me musically and inspired me when I met him and began to play with him. He grew up in the tradition of flamenco music in Spain [and] quickly became one of the most revered, great flamenco guitarists. I was honored to be invited by him to play the piano on a track called "Zyryab."

NPR's Aubri Juhasz and Christina Cala produced and edited the audio for this story. Mano Sundaresan and Cyrena Touros adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's time for one of my favorite segments all year. This is the fifth Thanksgiving in a row that we have brought you a musical chain of gratitude. And if you're not sure exactly what that means - well, you're about to find out. First, I get to start us off with a group that I love. And this year, that group is The New Pornographers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COLOSSUS OF RHODES")

THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS: (Singing) There is no booze left in the house. There is no air left in the room.

SHAPIRO: They've been around for more than 20 years, and this fall they came out with a new album called "In The Morse Code Of Brake Lights." It has the same combination of exuberant harmonies and rhythms that made me first fall in love with the band. And A.C. Newman joins us now. He is one of the founding members of The New Pornographers. Thanks for being with us, and happy Thanksgiving.

A C NEWMAN: Hey. Happy Thanksgiving.

SHAPIRO: This captures so much of what I love about your music in general, which is that whether the lyrics are about joy or angst, there's often this, like, driving energy - hand claps, layers of vocal harmonies, this kind of propulsive forward motion that I personally feel like I kind of need this time of year when the nights are getting longer. You know?

NEWMAN: That's good. I'd like to think there's a lot of joy and angst. I think both those things drive the music and always have.

SHAPIRO: So often it feels to me like it's a juxtaposition of joyous sounds accompanying angsty lyrics.

NEWMAN: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. I mean, I've always loved pop music for the way it raises you up - you know? - just the sound of it - you know, not necessarily lyrically. You know, like, a lot of great pop music is lyrically pretty dumb...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

NEWMAN: ...Or vapid - you know? So I think I always wanted the music to have the feel of a catchy pop song. But lyrically, I never wanted to do that.

I've always loved music that is kind of over the top to the point of ridiculous. And so I think of that when I'm making records. Like, don't be afraid to put something into your song which you might think is ridiculous because you like ridiculous.

SHAPIRO: Something as simple as hand claps could be very cheesy, you know, executed less artfully. And you're not afraid to put hand claps in your songs.

NEWMAN: No, they're very effective.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FALLING DOWN THE STAIRS OF YOUR SMILE")

THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS: (Singing) Now, now you got what you want. Be full.

SHAPIRO: OK. Well, A.C. Newman of The New Pornographers, you get to move this train forward for us. We've asked you to pick an artist who you are thankful for on this Thanksgiving Day. And I love that you've chosen an indigenous artist, which is kind of in keeping with the theme of the holiday. Tell us about them.

NEWMAN: I chose nehiyawak. And the meanings of the name nehiyawak are Cree people, people of the plains. And it's written with no uppercase letters.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OPEN WINDOW")

nehiyawak: (Singing) There was a scoop that went on where people... (ph)

SHAPIRO: And tell us what you appreciate about their music.

NEWMAN: I love that it is this combination of just really cool, like, atmospheric indie dream pop. Like, it draws me in. Just as songs, it's draws me in. It's very interesting. But then there are all these other interesting elements. Like, the drums are all these native, you know, ceremonial drums.

SHAPIRO: Will you pick a track of theirs that you'd like us to play?

NEWMAN: What's a - "Open Window" is a song I really like.

SHAPIRO: OK. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OPEN WINDOW")

nehiyawak: (Singing) People loved today remember wounded stories with the kids (unintelligible) reflecting all living time (ph).

SHAPIRO: Tell us what we're hearing or what you like about it.

NEWMAN: I've always loved, like, strange music that borders on abrasive but then it just opens up into melody. I think when you're making music that's kind of noisy, it's too easy to descend into noise. But when something is sort of, you know disorienting and then it opens up, then it becomes melodic. It becomes kind of beautiful.

SHAPIRO: It lets you connect with it a little more.

NEWMAN: Yeah. And they do that very well. Their songs unfold in a very cool way. Like, it's kind of pop music, but I would not call it pop music. And I'm hesitant to call it rock music either. It feels just like - but to call it atmospheric indie rock also doesn't quite capture it.

SHAPIRO: Well, we are going to go to them next. Is there anything you would like to say to them?

NEWMAN: Keep making music. I really like this. Thank you. Thank you for making this music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OPEN WINDOW")

nehiyawak: (Singing) And I often wonder what...

SHAPIRO: Well, A.C. Newman of The New Pornographers, thank you for helping us celebrate the holiday and continuing this tradition.

NEWMAN: Oh, thank you. Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: And we're joined now by Kris Harper, who is one of the three members of the band nehiyawak. Welcome.

KRIS HARPER: Wow. Thank you so much. I'm speechless. (Speaking non-English language).

SHAPIRO: Well, I would love to hear your reaction to what you just heard from A.C. Newman.

HARPER: I would say it's a little startling. I mean...

(LAUGHTER)

HARPER: ...Since too long, I can remember seeing New Pornographer records. It's just kind of like, you know, unnerving. But it's so cool. Like, wow. Like, I don't know what to say. Thank you, A.C. Wow.

SHAPIRO: Well, let's talk about your music. You just released your debut full-length album last month. Tell us about it - beginning with the title, which is really meaningful.

HARPER: Yes. So the title is "nipiy," which in nehiyawewin - or Cree language - is water. For us, this was an incredibly important sentiment that had come out of a lot of the thoughts and ideologies, perspectives that went along with the Idle No More movement.

SHAPIRO: I want to explain to listeners that the Idle No More movement is a movement of indigenous people who are sort of speaking up for Native interests.

HARPER: Absolutely.

SHAPIRO: Tell me where we hear those ideas in the music on this album. Point to one of the songs for us.

HARPER: Sure. So the first and last track are called "kisiskaciwanisipiy peyak," - one - and two. And these two tracks, they flow to the rhythm of the water. In nehiyawewin, the word kisiskaciwanisipiy refers to it flowing at a pace that you walk. And so we wanted to find out what that pace was and to create songs that were at that pace for someone to listen to and consider where they're at.

(SOUNDBITE OF nehiyawak's "kisiskaciwanisipiy peyak")

SHAPIRO: Are you saying that this track that we're hearing now, the first track on the album, actually the rhythm of the music is the pace, the tempo of the water where you live?

HARPER: Absolutely - at least at springtime (laughter).

SHAPIRO: What is the body of water?

HARPER: It's a river, the one that flows right through amiskwaciy, or - also referred to as Edmonton, is called kisiskaciwanisipiy.

SHAPIRO: As we listen to this track, can you paint a visual picture for us of what this body of water looks like?

HARPER: Yeah. The water is quite green, like a light brown green. The hillsides have a mud that comes out of them in the springtime. There's some hoodoos at times as well as...

SHAPIRO: What are hoodoos?

HARPER: It's almost like if you made a sandcastle with drippy sand on the beach - you know those kind of shapes and it stacks up? It's like that. But they're really hard and old. Really, it's the superhighway of the ancient world.

SHAPIRO: What a beautiful description.

(SOUNDBITE OF nehiyawak's "kisiskaciwanisipiy peyak")

SHAPIRO: We're talking to you as part of this Thanksgiving tradition here on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Will you tell me about how you relate to this holiday?

HARPER: Yeah. I think this was kind of a great moment to include my auntie Linda Young, who is now a kookum, or a grandmother, and her stories about Thanksgiving in residential school. For those who aren't aware, residential school system was a system made for indigenous people with the relative mandate of taking the, quote, unquote, "Indian" out of the child.

SHAPIRO: And she spent her childhood in one of these schools.

HARPER: That's right.

SHAPIRO: So you've brought us this sort of oral history about her experience growing up in this place where native children were forced to cut their hair, speak English, abandon so many of their cultural traditions. In many cases, there was abuse that happened in these facilities. And ultimately, the Canadian government apologized for the decades of mistreatment. Let's listen to what she had to say here.

LINDA YOUNG: My first Thanksgiving experience was in residential school in the '50s. The sisters/nuns were to plan a school Thanksgiving play for us to perform onstage. We wore paper headbands with feathers attached, and our skirts and pants had fringes. We carried tomahawks and danced around in a circle, yipping with our hands over our mouths and bending our heads and shoulders up and down to the rhythm and beat of a tom-tom - for real.

At either side of the stage were Thanksgiving horns of plenty filled to the brim with vegetables and fruit. We wanted to eat them, but we weren't allowed. It was just for show - for whomever had the courage to come and watch us preform. One of the other plays would include girls dressed as pilgrims having a taffy pull. We did not have a turkey dinner, just the play.

As a mom, kookum, grandmother, I have come to appreciate Thanksgiving as an excuse to bring our families together. Despite my shaky and weird introduction to Thanksgiving, I am comfortable with blending our traditions that make up our nehiyaw, Cree, English, Scottish, Norwegian and Polish ancestral roots. I am truly thankful for the family Thanksgiving meals we have had together. (Speaking non-English language).

SHAPIRO: Kris Harper, that is such a powerful story. Thank you for bringing that to us.

HARPER: Thank you to my auntie Linda Young. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Well, it is time for you to keep moving this train of gratitude forward. So we have asked you to choose somebody who you are thankful for - a fellow musician. Who have you chosen?

HARPER: We chose on Leikeli47. For me, I felt that she wanted to share her experience and for me to listen and learn from her on her terms delivered with her purpose, poise and banging beats.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) For listeners who are not familiar with Leikeli47, is there a track of hers that you'd like us to play?

HARPER: Well, we were thinking "Attitude."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ATTITUDE")

LEIKELI47: (Singing) So what I got a attitude? I got a attitude - attitude, attitude, attitude, attitude...

SHAPIRO: I just love that this music could not sound more different from yours. And yet, the appreciation you feel is so evident.

HARPER: Absolutely. I mean, I just think something else that she's pointed to, which is about the safety of women. And these three albums that she's been working on - this trilogy is all based around the notion of safe spaces for women, which I think is kind of just revolutionary work.

SHAPIRO: Well, as we are about to go to Leikeli47, is there anything that you would like to say to her?

HARPER: Thank you so much. We're listening, and we're so honored that your voice is present in our world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ATTITUDE")

LEIKELI47: (Singing) Attitude, attitude, attitude, attitude...

SHAPIRO: That was Kris Harper of nehiyawak. And we are joined now by Leikeli47, who's at our studios at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Thanks for being with us today.

LEIKELI47: Thank you for having me. I am, like, speechless right now.

(LAUGHTER)

LEIKELI47: I am speechless. And I just want to say thank you.

SHAPIRO: I mean, one of the things that Kris Harper mentioned was the through line in your music about safety for women and safe spaces for women. Talk about why that's important for you.

LEIKELI47: I just set out to just create and have some fun and really invite people into my world just as a woman and as a black woman. So it's so crazy that that's exactly - you know, like, he just hit the nail on the head with that.

SHAPIRO: Well, as you talk about creating this music to invite people into your world, point us to a song that takes us to one of those places in your world that we get to visit by listening to it.

LEIKELI47: Absolutely. Actually, it's the title track off of my second album, "Acrylic."

SHAPIRO: We're going into a nail salon.

LEIKELI47: Yeah, yeah. Walk in, and smell the acrylic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ACRYLIC")

LEIKELI47: (Singing) Walk in, and smell the acrylic. Walk in, and smell the acrylic. Me and my crew counting digits. Me and my crew counting digits.

With "Acrylic," there's a saying that I have and that I went it with making the album. And it was, you know where you are when you smell acrylic. So when you smell acrylic, you are in places that I am from.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ACRYLIC")

LEIKELI47: (Singing) Brown gel, spades game - tax time, they all claim - up in my hood, proud to say it did me good.

It's very rare you're going to smell acrylic walking down, you know, a Rodeo Drive or you know...

(LAUGHTER)

LEIKELI47: But you will smell acrylic anywhere in Norfolk (laughter) - pretty much - in Bed-Stuy. You're talking about Brooklyn; Richmond, Va. Yeah yeah. You're going to smell acrylic in the places where I'm from. That's all of Virginia. That's Richmond. That's Portsmouth. That's Virginia Beach. Did you move around the state when you were a kid? Absolutely. Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I lived from the citiest of the city-like Virginia to the countriest of the country in Virginia. So sometimes it was living with Great-Grandma. Sometimes it was living with Grandma. Sometimes it was living with Mom. But we did what we had to do, and that's my make-up.

SHAPIRO: I'm curious. Your songs bring us into your world. At the same time, you perform under a stage name, Leikeli47. And when you perform, you wear a mask. Sometimes it's a balaclava; sometimes it's a bandana with holes for the eyes and the mouth. So tell me about that tension between, on the one hand, these very personal insights into your world and, on the other hand, the kind of masks that you wear with a stage name and the literal mask.

LEIKELI47: (Laughter) Well, it's crazy. When you really think about it, that's how I know I'm definitely doing what I'm destined to do and what I'm purposed to do - because I'm an extremely shy person.

SHAPIRO: Are you saying that, as a shy person, wearing this mask and using the stage name allows you to open up and be more vulnerable than you would if it were, like, really you? (Laughter).

LEIKELI47: Absolutely. Absolutely. This is definitely my Superman cape. It's me being Batman. (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: I love that. All right. Well, we have reached the moment when you get to tell us about an artist who you are thankful for. So Leikeli47, who do you want us to go to next?

LEIKELI47: Oh, man - Chick Corea.

SHAPIRO: Oh, yeah.

LEIKELI47: Chick Corea, Chick Corea.

SHAPIRO: OK. Tell us why you chose him.

LEIKELI47: Well, a lot of people may not know this about me because, you know, they deem me, quote, unquote, "rapper"...

(LAUGHTER)

LEIKELI47: ...But I'm just a musician. I'm just an all-around artist. And people - and human beings like Chick Corea are those great people that helped shape who I am. I can't tell you how much I've listened to "Spain" over and over and over and over. I always said if I could sing like Chick Corea, I'd be that girl (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Oh, I love that. I was like - wait a minute - Chick Corea is not a singer. But you mean if you could do with your voice what he does on the keys.

LEIKELI47: On the keys - yes, yes, yes. If I could do with my voice what he does on the keys, who's stopping me? And "Spain," it was just something that was just always on repeat - and still is - for myself.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "SPAIN")

LEIKELI47: Mmm - you hear that?

SHAPIRO: Tell us what effect this is having on you right now.

LEIKELI47: Oh, my God. I can't describe the feeling of my heart right now. I just can't. I just can't - every time I hear it, every time I hear him. My great-grandparents had this, like, L-shaped couch that sat right next to the front door. And there was, like, a CD player in the inside of it. It was so weird now that I think about it - Jesus.

SHAPIRO: Couch and CD player all in one.

LEIKELI47: So old school. Like, yeah, it was like this little console thing. So with the screen door open, you can just press play. And my great-grandmother - I remember she had a stroke, so she would be in the back room. And I would be in the front. And - so what I would do, I would ask if I - you know, is it OK if I go on the porch? You know, she would nap or whatever. And then that's when I would hit play. And I would just sit on that porch, and I would just listen over and over and over and over. And it was just like - yeah, this is what I want to do.

SHAPIRO: Have you ever met Chick Corea?

LEIKELI47: No (laughter). No.

SHAPIRO: Well, what would you like to say to him now?

LEIKELI47: Sir, there's a lot that I could say to you, but nothing beats thank you at this moment right now. You have helped shape a little black girl from Virginia - you know, her mind, her mental - her creativity, her musical palette. Thank you for being an awesome teacher. From your student, Leikeli47.

SHAPIRO: What a beautiful sentiment. Leikeli47, thank you. And happy Thanksgiving.

LEIKELI47: Happy Thanksgiving, and thank you so much for having me. And thank you, Kris.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "SPAIN")

SHAPIRO: And we are joined now by the musical legend himself. Chick Corea, welcome to the program.

CHICK COREA: Thank you very much. That was really beautiful.

SHAPIRO: I mean, what's it like to hear a young artist working in a totally different genre from you, from a completely different background, a different generation reaching across all those differences and speaking to the connection that your music has made with her?

COREA: It's deeply satisfying, really. And it's a testament to all of us as artists, that we're able to connect like that - that we're able to connect on a wavelength of creativity. And you know, I don't see the differences in the forms of music so much.

SHAPIRO: Leikeli47 talked about how inspired she was by one of your early works, "Spain." Would you pick a track from your latest album, "Antidote," which you recorded with The Spanish Heart band - and which was just nominated for a Grammy. By the way, congratulations.

COREA: Yes, thank you.

SHAPIRO: And tell us about one of the tracks on this album.

COREA: I think all of the various forces possibly came together on the title track, "Antidote," and it expresses the fact that we as musicians and artists are kind of an antidote to anything negative going on in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA AND THE SPANISH HEART BAND'S "ANTIDOTE")

SHAPIRO: Well, Chick Corea, you get to conclude this chain of gratitude for us by choosing a musician that you're thankful for. And because this is the end of the chain, it can be somebody living or dead, somebody we would never be able to book for an interview, somebody who you find deeply inspiring. Who would you like us to go out on?

COREA: You know, because of the fact that one of the pieces on "Antidote" is called "The Yellow Nimbus," which is my composition dedicated Paco de Lucia, I thought Paco would be the one.

SHAPIRO: Tell us more about Paco de Lucia.

COREA: Paco is one of the musicians that really changed me musically and inspired me when I met him and began to play with him. He grew up in the tradition of flamenco music in Spain, quickly became one of the most revered great flamenco guitarists.

SHAPIRO: Could you point us to one of his recordings that you often find yourself reaching for? I was honored to be invited by him to play the piano on a track of a recording that he made called "Zyryab," and he presented me with this very sketchy sheet of penciled music that actually I found it hard to read. We laid it down, and it was thrilling to be able to play with Paco in the studio. I think the track came out pretty good.

(SOUNDBITE OF PACO DE LUCIA AND CHICK COREA'S "ZYRYAB")

SHAPIRO: Paco de Lucia died in 2014 - five years ago - and it's clear that he's still very much on your mind. What would you like people to know about him beyond the music that we can all listen to that he's left behind?

COREA: You know, he spoke a bit of English - not a lot - and I spoke almost no Spanish. But we communicated beautifully. And the fact that there was a language barrier there made the relationship even better because really our communication was all done on aesthetic level. And when we played together, that's where it all showed because there was this mutual admiration that went on that was just palpable.

SHAPIRO: Well, Chick Corea, happy Thanksgiving. Thank you for helping us to celebrate. It's been wonderful talking with you.

COREA: Yeah, same here. OK, man. Happy Thanksgiving to all.

(SOUNDBITE OF PACO DE LUCIA AND CHICK COREA'S "ZYRYAB")

SHAPIRO: We also want to thank LeiKeli47, nehiyawak and The New Pornographers for helping us to celebrate this holiday tradition. And now it's your turn. Tell us the music that you are thankful for this year, and we might feature it on the show tomorrow. Send us a Facebook message, or tweet the show @npratc. I'm @arishapiro.

(SOUNDBITE OF PACO DE LUCIA AND CHICK COREA'S "ZYRYAB") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.