Meet Calvin Arsenia, the Tall, Black, Gay Harpist Who Wants to Massage Your Soul

And we bet you've never heard "Toxic" like this before.

Cantaloupe is Calvin Arsenia’s sophomore release. It merges jazz, soul, classical, folk, and pop, giving the listener a deep dive into Calvin’s psyche and sound.

NewNowNext had the opportunity to chat with Calvin about his origins, inspirations, and musical experiences.

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For people just learning about you, tell me a little about the kind of music you make and what you hope people take away from your latest album?

I play harp and sing. I write lots of songs dealing with relationships, and I like to explore all 5 senses to create a ceremonious self-expression of music, life, love, and emotions at my shows. I hope the audience experiences that my shows are a safe place to be extra.

Cantaloupe is such a mix of sounds and genres. Rather than stick to one sound, what inspired you to experiment so much on this album?

My background in music is in the church. I did a lot of contemporary worship music. My mom listened to gospel and my dad listened to Motown. I played acoustic guitar in high school and then got into classical.

I feel like, if you want to be true to yourself, you have to dig deep into what is naturally yourself. Anything else will seem inauthentic. The most powerful work comes from your core. For me, it’s a mix of genres and interests.

You also grew up in Kansas City. What is the music scene like there and has it inspired your music today?

Kansas City is historically known for its jazz music. It’s highly collaborative, highly communal, with lots of venues in town. For a while, it was like I couldn’t find black jeans tight enough.

There isn’t as much of a competitive edge—not like on the coasts. It’s more about how we can explore. In experimenting you don’t have much to lose, so we have the freedom to put on shows and musical experiences.
 

Your music has brought you all over the world in the last year. What has been your favorite part of touring?

It’s really amazing how music has become a vehicle to connect people and I’ve seen that while I was on tour. I got to go play in Sweden this year, Finland in a little festival there, as well as Austria where we gathered about 9 different harpists and played in a little castle on a hill.

I did a few songs that I always do—usually “Tip Toe,” with the message of having to be on edge when you’re walking around someplace that feels like you shouldn’t be because of the history. That feeling is universal, and I’ve been very surprised people have been able to connect with this song, especially.

“Headlights” is the first single off of Cantaloupe. Tell us a little about what you were thinking when you wrote this and how it sets the stage for the record?

For this project, the idea of the record came first. I had been conceptualizing for a while and thinking about relationships and codependency. I wanted this record to represent me. I was also thinking, how do I write a record where the music comes first, then the writing of the song.

For “Headlights,” it was the Ashton Court Festival who invited artists, including Ryan J. Lee, a percussionist who also plays bass. He invited me up on stage to sing and at the same time, someone drove up to the property and we saw the headlights come through the woods. We then took it to the studio. The song is an anthem for people who have been in codependent relationships. It’s about facing the world, being responsible and respecting investment in yourself.
 

And I have to ask about the “Toxic” cover that is absolutely amazing. It’s one of those versatile songs that I’ve heard covered in many ways. Of all songs to cover, how did you land on this Britney Spears classic?

Simon (my percussionist) and I wanted to dispel the idea that the harp is only appropriate in sacred and religious settings—just a docile instrument. I thought, what could I do to bring sexuality to this instrument, something that would be more visceral. “Toxic” was it and the audience has been so amazing in appreciating it.

What other artists are currently on your playlists?

For better of worse, I just discovered Arca—so visceral. I also listen to a lot of podcasts on songwriting, as well as Janelle Monáe and Erykah Badu.

How was the experience of making this album vs. your earlier music and is there anything you’ve learned that you can share with up and coming artists?

I really have fun just exploring and trying out new things—disrupting the dogma around songwriting and performance. At my shows, I always check out the room to get a sense of how people are feeling first.

I think about music as a way to massage the soul. We use tension in music just like pressure with your hands. It can be messy, but the dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling in the music—and the musicality is the payoff for that dissonance. I like that feeling of being relaxed afterwards, more so than how do I make this hook catchy.

What’s in store for you in 2019?

My desire is to tour Cantaloupe and bring the music and experiences to all 50 states. I will be on the road for the majority of the year and I am coming to your town.

I’m hoping people can come and have a very cathartic experience. There’s a lot of Middle America that may not get to see a tall, black, gay harpist.

Jay writes about music and pop culture since us LGBT folks pretty much run these kinds of things.
@theglimmerist