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Calvin Arsenia On His Dancehall-Inspired 'Honeydew' EP & Covering Britney Spears | Up Close & Personal
Kansas City native Calvin Arsenia's ethereal, emotional music dances across genres without being tied down in any one place. With his 2018 debut album Cantaloupe and its dancefloor-ready reimaging with the Honeydew EP, the multi-instrumentalist singer/songwriter is a shimmering force to be reckoned with.
The Recording Academy caught up with the "Headlights" singer to learn more about the inspiration behind the two albums and what it was like bringing new life to Britney Spears' GRAMMY-winning classic "Toxic." We also find out who his biggest creative influences are, from late designer Alexander McQueen to GRAMMY winner Frank Ocean.
You can watch part of the conversation above and read the full interview below. You can also visit on our YouTube page to watch a longer version of the video, as well as for other recent episodes of our Up Close & Personal series.
This summer, you released your Honeydew EP, which is really fun and more of an experimental, electronic-led sound. How did making this project feel for you?
Honeydew was a follow-up to Cantaloupe, and we took some of the songs from Cantaloupe and decided to do them in a dancehall kind of remix. We were inspired because we—myself and my two producers—got booked to do a show for New Year's Eve, and the music from Cantaloupe tends to be kind of introverted and really introspective, and I want it to be able to reimagine those same songs in a dancehall kind of scenario. So we added a lot of percussion and kind of dismantled things and put them back together, but everything that's on there is a new recording. It's not just a remix, but it's brand new imaginings of those songs.
I love that dance music gets to get people moving. And the rooms that I play in are so varied. I play in bars and I play in concert halls and I play in really big performing arts centers or I play in dance clubs, and the music needs to shift based on what the room is. I didn't have a good solid set of music for dancing to, for festivals or for celebrations like New Year's yet, and Honeydew was birthed out of that need.
That's so cool. So the New Year's party is coming, or it happened?
It happened. We wrote and recorded and did all this stuff for New Year's last year, and then we had another festival in mid-summer. So we retooled and then recorded everything.
Can you give us a little bit of the backstory on Cantaloupe's title track?
So "Cantaloupe," I wrote really intentionally, the whole album and in particular that song. I like using humor as a mechanism to understand the world and as a way to not be afraid of things that are sometimes scary. And in particular, I grew up in a very conservative place in the Bible belt of America, in Kansas City, and I was always really afraid of my homosexual tendencies and really afraid to be ostracized by my community. I always thought that I would never be able to have an open or free love or relationship.
So "Cantaloupe" is not that we can't elope because it's wrong or because it's illegal. In fact, it's very legal and it's very not wrong, but we can't elope because we want to invite everyone to come and see this party that we're having. We want to be able to invite them into our lives, and if we have a reason to have a party, then we should just have the party. So that's what that song is about. It was written out of a desire for that, rather than something that I was actually dealing with.
The wordplay in it is so fun.
And the fruit itself is so light and airy, bright and refreshing, I wanted the music and the imagery to be full of those bright colors, that's warm and soft. I know that I like to wear black but, but I wanted the imagery and the feeling of it, the context, the world around this record to be very effervescent and sparkly. [Laughs.]
What did it feel like when you released the album?
It's really interesting to watch an album grow outside of you or to see it go off to school for the first day or to see it experience its own life outside of you. The process of recording Cantaloupe was really fun. There was myself and two of my friends, J. Ashley Miller and Simon Huntley, and we spent a lot of time in the studio and we spent a lot of time experimenting and playing with things. Some of the inspirations that we had for the record were how do we make an album that is completely non-repeating and it's something that we've heard. One of the inspirations was Frank Ocean's Channel Orange, where every time the chorus comes around it's a little bit different, so even if it is something that is a repeated part, it's presented in a new way.
So I really wanted that to be one of the main themes of the album. I wanted it to span EDM and folk music and everything in between. I wanted it to have a very theatrical piece in the midst of it, which is "Palaces." I wanted it to sound like my shows feel when I'm performing live, which is lots of dancers and musicians and people coming in from all over the room and, and lights and I wanted to make sure that the album represented that kind of immersive feeling. Because of that, we also introduced the ideas of ASMR into the recording process as well. So we tried to have in each track something that was just textural and really close and soft. So depending on how you listen to it or how loud the volume is or if it's on vinyl or in MP3 format, you're going to experience different layers in the recording as well.
Also on the album, you cover Britney Spears' "Toxic," which takes on a spooky vibe with the harp. Why did you choose to cover "Toxic?"
I decided to start playing "Toxic" because I wanted to do a song on the harp that was very sexy. And the harp is normally associated with angels and death, or birth or babies and very sweet and gentle, docile lullabies. I wanted to find something to perform that would just take it out of there. Britney Spears' "Toxic" is a great song. I mean the original, it can never be replaced or redone, but it was also really fun to introduce it to this instrument and kind of have it find a new, visceral life there.
I think by slowing it down and putting it in six-eight time, it really allowed it to breathe a little more and for the words to kind of illuminate some more, and then also to really climax into this very, almost terrified place. You feel like you're going to die when you're so overcome with adoration or lust or whatever for that other party.
In the context of writing the record and placing the song in the midst of it, I just wanted that just kind of manic feeling to exist somewhere in the record. I've associated that feeling of being overwhelmed or overcome with love or with needing to obey, with how I interact with the muses and just the creative process. Sometimes I can talk myself out of being irrational, but when it comes to creativity and to the songwriting process and to the music making process, I am such a slave to that.
What songs have been your favorite to play live?
I think one of my favorite songs to play live is "Tip Toe." Although it's always terrifying to play it, because it's such petty admission to feel like I'm not welcomed in certain spaces because of a past relationship, when in reality nobody else is really thinking that, or I'm projecting a lot of insecurity on other people. At the same time, it's an honest feeling, and I feel that when we are honest and vulnerable is when we create the best bridges between people and communities.
One thing I try to think about a lot is how do we build bridges of empathy between people that look like they're very different, but actually we experience a lot of the same emotional things? And if we can understand how we experience that emotionally, then all the culture, what your money looks like, what your language is, all of those things kind of disappear.
How we move through life emotionally is really universal. I'm always terrified to talk about "Tip Toe" and, but I've played it in nine different countries, and the reception is always the same because people have felt like their past follows them and that it affects how they interact with the world around them. And they feel insecure and they feel like they don't belong or that they're not welcome. But if we can talk about it, we can manage it. So I've seen a lot of people break out of that with me.
As you mentioned, you grew up in Kansas City, and live there now. How do you feel that it influences and inspires your art?
Kansas City's a really magical place. There are lots of artists and a very prolific arts scene there, and a lot of funding that's put into it. Imagine the lowest place in the valley, and all of the weirdos trickle down into Kansas City from the Midwest, so we have a little safe haven there. Also, it doesn't hurt that we can afford to live and work there and you know, we're not working three or four jobs to keep our little studio apartment and not be making art. For that, I love it there and I want to continue to keep my bed there and keep traveling out of there.
But also collaboration and having the ability to work with multiple people and to not feel like you can only be exclusive to one band or project. The ability to explore is really exciting. There are a lot of people that are a part of lots of different projects, and every time I perform in Kansas City, I always use a different conglomerate of musicians because for me it's fun to see what the different energy is going to feel like or how different artists are going to bring a new flavor to these songs, and as the songs meld genre.
I just like the chameleon nature of music and that every time it's a brand new experience and that if people have seen me once or twice or 300 times, everything's always different. For them, I feel like I owe them a new experience because it's the new day and it's a new room or a new space or a new me, even. So Kansas City has allowed for me to be able to explore in that way where I feel that other cities wouldn't have let me do that.
What's your biggest hope that someone gets from either going to your show or listening to your music?
I really hope that people who listen to my music or come to the shows, I hope they feel permission to explore every emotion that happens in their heart and mind. That it is not shameful to feel jealousy. It's not shameful to feel angry. It's not shameful to feel insecure. That all of these are natural parts of the human experience, and that if we don't talk about them, then we can't manage them. But having them out in the open and celebrating the prism that is existence allows us to be, I think, ultimately more healthy individuals. So that's what I want people to take from my music.
Who are your biggest style and musical influences?
It feels cliché, but I really love [Alexander] McQueen's work. He's been a huge inspiration. I have not worn anything closely, remotely or at all stuff that he produced, but I saw the McQueen exhibit when it was at the Met in New York and I just wept the whole way through. I'd never had fashion cause me to cry before, but there was just so much emotion in that work.
As far as music, I have had my same top four musicians for the past 10 years. I love Björk. I love Sufjan Stevens. I love Joanna Newsom, and the Dirty Projectors, a great band from Brooklyn. I'm also really into Lana Del Rey's new record [Norman F***ing Rockwell!] because it sounds awesome. Frank Ocean, another big, big love. Moses Sumney, Serpentwithfeet. Amos Lee was a huge influence growing up when I was doing a lot more acoustic guitar things. I'm not afraid of folk and country, that's kinda where I started. There's a lot of influences. Mariah Carey. Love her.