An Honest-to-Goodness, Modern-Day Chanteuse
Meschiya Lake & The Little Big Horns have been playing together as a band since 2009. But their repertoire suggests a much longer, deeper history, dating back to the early part of the last century, when people were buying phonographs and drinking absinthe in its original form.
The group has performed across the U.S. and Europe and cut three albums, which combine jazz standards and songs that vocalist Meschiya Lake wrote. And when Lake sings … it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between the past and the present. She brings an early jazz sensibility to songcraft and presentation that marks her as a top drawer cabaret singer … blues belter … and honest-to-goodness, modern-day chanteuse.
Meschiya Lake says she got her start by winning a singing contest at age nine at the Elk Creek Steakhouse & Lounge in Piedmont, South Dakota. Her version of Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight” wowed the judges and won her a $500 prize — as well as a regular gig singing on weekends.
The Zirkus Comes to Town
In her early twenties, Lake became a member of the Know Nothing Family Zirkus Zideshow, which she says “wasn’t a conventional circus by any means.” The group’s outrageous carnival sideshow-style performances included “a lot of shock value stuff” … not the least of which featured Lake eating glass light bulbs.
“But I’m retired,” she says. “Just for the record, I’m never doing that again.”
Based in New Orleans, Know Nothing toured from May through October — partly to escape their hometown’s brutal summer months. “The circus had a band,” Lake told gonola.com in a 2013 interview. “At night we’d make a fire and sing old New Orleans blues music. That’s how I learned the repertoire.”
Each fall the Know Nothings returned to New Orleans … and one spring Meschiya Lake decided to stay. She began working as a street musician and later joined her first band, The Loose Marbles. In 2009 she became a bandleader herself, forming The Little Big Horns.
We’ve put together a playlist of all the music heard in this hour’s show which you can download and take with you to your local record store.
In the seven years since our first interview, much has happened — in Meschiya Lake’s life and the world in general. So we went to visit Meschiya Lake in her backyard and find out what’s new.
For one thing, she became a mother. Motherhood, Lake says, has changed her and her attitude toward what it means to be a parent:
ML: It made me start taking better care of myself. Made me stop being so critical of my own looks because I didn’t want to pass those things on to my daughter.
GT: Why would you be critical of your looks? You look great.
ML: Well thank you, but I wasn’t necessary taught that as a young woman, as a child. The media is saying you have to look a certain way. You have to act a certain way, or you’re not going to be valued. You have to fit yourself into this cookie cutter thing of what beauty is … So back in that day we didn’t have Lizzo! Lord I wish we did. But back then it was like “stand by your man.” If you talked yourself up you were conceited and that was something that wasn’t a treasured value in a lady.
GT: So what is a habit that you had before that you now sort of break yourself from doing … what do you say to yourself before the words come out. What are the words that might come out of the thought that might come out and how do you stop that habit?
ML: Well, I just think would I want this for Saoirse, or “Scooter Joe,” as we’ve been calling her sometimes. You know names have evolution! Would I want her to think this way of herself? ‘Cause the way you treat yourself is how they think they should be treating themselves. The relationships that you have with other human beings is how they think they are supposed to go, healthy or unhealthy, so that is how I base a lot, all, of my decisions. Of course, nobody is perfect, and you are going to miss some things. The problems I have from my parent’s parenting hopefully won’t be hers. There will be a brand new set that I didn’t even realize I was doing!
A New Album and a Sense of Place
In 2017, Danish saxophonist and bandleader Søren Siegumfeldt asked Meschiya Lake to collaborate on an album. Two years later, This is Meschiya Lake won a 2019 Danish Music Award for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year.
The album features five original songs and some surprising new takes on songs by Nick Cave and Townes van Zandt, among others.
So what’s one of Meschiya Lake’s favorite tracks on the album?
ML: I like “House in Encinitas.” That one came just really easily. Also, I hadn’t, I had only been out of New Orleans at that point for a month, not even, but I was missing it.
GT: “House in Encinitas.” What is Encinitas?
ML: It is just a place in California, a town. I don’t know why, but I was just like I listened to this melody and the rhythm that he had going with it and then two minutes later there was a song. I was kind of like being reminded of this song called, “Flowers on the Wall.” [Sings] I think that is where I got the “she paints flowers on the wall” line, but that is the only similar thing in it. … This vision of a room, a pretty nice room that you’ve made yourself and a nice quiet life going on, but missing somebody and missing something else and just having to give into that urge to go to it.
How Music Fans Can Help During the Pandemic
Absent a global pandemic, Meschiya Lake is a fixture in music clubs all over New Orleans, appearing with a variety of local talent. Regular shows at Chickie Wah Wah, for example, feature Lake with pianist Tom McDermott.
But now all her calendar pages are empty. Like so many other members of the “gig economy,” Meschiya Lake is pondering her next steps. We asked if any of her fans have offered support.
ML: You know, they’ve been doing it. I haven’t put myself out there like some other people bravely have. Putting their Venmo’s or digital tip jars or starting an account. I’ve been lying low and still had some people send PayPal or some Venmo or a really nice woman, a couple people, sent me checks in the mail. It is really lovely. One thing I’ve found during trying times is people being kind and reaching out and it used to be — it’s always been hard, but not as hard as it used to be — to accept a gift. I thank my sister Maya for that.
GT: So it was hard for you in the beginning to accept gifts from people?
ML: Yeah, it can be. I always felt like I had to give something back until my sister… or I didn’t want to take it. Then my sister said, “You know, if you don’t take this gift then you will be hurting my feelings and robbing me of the joy of giving you a gift.” I was like, “Dang, okay, well since you put it that way.” When I give a gift, I don’t give it to get something back. So, it just brings tears to my eyes to think about that warmth and outpouring of love that is there and seeing people come together to support each other to get through this. Practicing self-isolation. Everyone is isolated, but we are all isolated together.
Songs in a Pandemic
We asked Meschiya Lake which songs she’s listening to at this strange moment in history:
ML: In my daily rotation learning on guitar is a song called, “Blackbird,” by an Irish artist named Lisa O’Neill, but also is “Dumb Blonde,” by Dolly Parton! Two complete ends of the spectrum. One is like, [sings] really beautiful and minor key and then there is Dolly talking about “you may think I’m a dumb blonde.”
GT: You mean “Blackbird” the Beatles song?
ML: No [sings the song] I always wanted to play it and couldn’t figure out the chords and what do you know. I’ve had some time to figure them out! So, I’m playing that one and Dolly Parton. I think I would like to end it on positive note for people …