Q&A: Meklit Hadero
By Nevin Martell on June 21, 2010
Meklit Hadero has led an impressively nomadic life. Born in Ethiopia, she then moved on to Germany, D.C., Iowa, Brooklyn, Connecticut, Florida, Miami, London, and Seattle, until finally landing in San Francisco–for now, anyway. It was in the Bay Area that Hadero transformed from a wandering gypsy into a singer/songwriter. Her impressive debut, On A Day Like This… [Porto Franco Records], is influenced by the many places she has called home, combining N.Y. jazz with West Coast folk and African flourishes, all bound together by Hadero’s beguiling voice, which is part sunshine and part cloudy day. The songs range from the elevational anthem “Walk Up” to the shake-what-your-Mama-gave-you rhythmic swing of “Soleil Soleil” and the smoky, soothing ballad “Walls.”
Hadero chatted over lunch with FILTER during a recent tour stop in the nation’s capital about the first album she ever memorized, the inspirational power of art and what she learned from covering “Feeling Good.”
Was Ethiopian music a part of your childhood or was that something that you had to connect with later in life?
My parents would play Ethiopian music and my mom’s a great singer, but I was more into listening to the radio. By the time I was four, I knew all the words to Thriller.
What does your family make of your career as a musician?
It was tough for them at first. Immigrants come to this country so their children can be financially successful, but I chose a career that pretty much promises poverty. It was definitely a scary thing for them at first, but in the last couple of years they’ve become enormously supportive, which is so awesome. It’s so, so wonderful. My dad was just at my CD release party and I brought him up on stage to dance to [the traditional Ethiopian song] “Abbay Mado,” which was a beautiful moment. And I have to say that the whole Ethiopian community is so supportive. Every time any press comes out about me, I get waves of e-mails from everywhere, “You’re representing us in a way that we have never been represented before. We’re proud of you. Keep doing what you’re doing.”
So when did you begin your career as a songwriter?
When I started organizing shows for the Mission Arts & Performance Project (MAPP) in San Francisco, I suddenly met so many artists who were so deep into what they were doing. Then I started running shows at the MAPP’s the Red Poppy Art House, where I’d see even more great musicians every week from all different traditions.
But how did you make the leap from being the girl who sang to the radio and was organizing the shows to the young woman who picks up the guitar and is writing her own songs?
When you’re immersed in a huge community of artists, the wave carries you along. Since everybody’s doing it around you, you get caught up in their momentum. I started taking singing lessons in 2004 and I found that every single bit of effort that I put towards music was giving me huge returns. I found all these new sounds and textures that I could make vocally, and I realized that I actually had a really big range. About six months after I started taking lessons, I just randomly found this young musicians scholarship program at the Blue Bear School of Music, which I got, so they gave me money to take classes there for a year. Inmid-2006 I started playing the guitar and a month later, I wrote my first song on it, which was “Walls” and that ended up on A Day Like This...
You wrote the opening song to On A Day Like This…, “Walk Up,” during an artistic residency at the de Young Museum in 2009. What inspired you there?
The song was inspired by a sculpture there by James Turrell. He’s from LA, but spends half his year in this crater in Arizona called the Roden Crater, where he’s carving all these different chambers that are related to observing the stars and their movement, and the seasons. But he also has this sculpture at the de Young that’s a sky-scape, but if you look at it from the outside it looks just like a hill. You go through this tunnel and inside of that hill is a room opened to the sky. It has amazing acoustics, so I would give spontaneous acoustic concerts there. You can just sit watching the sky, the birds, the clouds, and the fog. I would sit in there and watch people change, as they would come into this space. They would just settle in – really sink down – and you would start to see this sense of wonder and openness come over them. “Walk Up” is about watching that wonder unfold.
So many people have covered “Feeling Good” since it was first written, so what do you feel that you brought to it that hadn’t been done before?
When we were recording it, I was absolutely not committed to having it on the album at all. Because if you don’t contribute to the song, just don’t do it. But ultimately, I felt that the album needed a song that had a darker feel to pivot around. And when I’m singing a cover, I can let go of what I’m trying to communicate with the lyrics and it becomes more about sound, which is really freeing. I love the poetry of songs, but you can sometimes get caught up in making sure people understand what you’re saying. The lyrical content can be a ceiling that doesn’t exist when I sing “Feeling Good,” so I felt like it earned its right to be on the album.
Speaking of that idea of communicating through the sound rather than the words, is that what you were hoping to do with your cover of “Abbay Mado?”
It’s a folk song made famous by Mahmoud Ahmed, who is really a legend of Ethiopian music. It’s interesting, because Ethiopian music is one of those African music styles that has stayed pretty niche. But his version of the song is on Ethiopiques Volume 7 and I just got completely obsessed with it. I would sing it over and over and over and over. And it would be in my head in my head in my head; it was one of those songs that had been in my head for years and years on end – I could not get it to go away. I had to learn it syllable by syllable, because I don’t really speak Amharic. So I got my friend to translate it and I learned it, but to double check, I’d call my mom to ask, “All right, how am I doing?” And she’d laugh and say, “Oh, you cannot say that word right.” But I got it down pretty good in the end.
Why did the phrase On A Day Like This… seem to perfectly encapsulate the album?
It’s from a lyric in “Walk Up,” “And you suddenly think of the kings and the poets in the past and how they must've felt just like this, on a day like this.” And then this tympani chimes in and that’s what I felt was going on in my life. It was a trampoline moment into something completely unknown. F