For her latest album, Sarah Quintana looked to the Mississippi River, literally plunging a microphone into its waves and singing along with its critters.
"I find a lot of music when I'm walking along Lake Pontchartrain or hanging out by the river that's soothing and so full of many of the rhythms I think roots music and particularly music of Louisiana has," she says. "That's what interested me: Is there a link between the landscape and the way we play music, that there's a lot of soul in the music we play and in the landscape and ecosystem we're a part of?"
On Miss River, layered a capella vocals duet with sea birds on the spare opener "Tiny Cellos"; bubbling river sounds recorded with an underwater microphone, sing along with the dreamy lapsteel on the title track; and rain and echoes of an organ lift up the R&B of "New Life," which swings from a big-bodied soul number to free-spirited jazz lit up by a saxophone. Quintana's voice throughout bends from spotlit chanteuse to soul singer.
During Quintana's residency at A Studio in the Woods, she made field recordings of river sounds, birds and raindrops, all forming a sort of collage behind her compositions and transitioning from one song to the next.
"It's easy to really be afraid of water," she says. "Especially if you got severely flooded and ran away from it. ... The feminine aspect of nature that destroys in order to nurture and bring new life, that's a huge part of our culture we don't talk about as much. The Mississippi River and our environment has a lot of soul and a lot of life, a lot of diversity. It's animated, it's independent, it's beautiful. ... We're a part of this place, and we're all in it together."
The album includes familiar New Orleans artists Rex Gregory, Robin Sherman, Mark Bingham, Richard Comeaux, Doug Garrison and Gina Forsyth, all backing Quintana's hypnotic siren sounds, from soft country and folk ballads to traditional and eccentric jazz. (Bingham also recorded the album and Dave Glasser mastered it.)
She also recorded with a tiny coffee cup, a demitasse, that she evacuated with during Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. It belonged to her great-grandmother, and as a small child Quintana drank coffee from it while watching The Oprah Winfrey Show with her grandmother in Mid-City.
"I was obsessed with this cup," she says. "I thought a lot about New Orleans being shaped like a bowl, the fragility of our traditions, how strong they are, how important it is to have a touchstone or relic or connection to your roots, the stories that make your family a part of this culture, looking for some optimism and something creative."
Quintana grew up on Elysian Fields Avenue in Gentilly and attended Benjamin Franklin High School and New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) before studying at Loyola University. She learned to sing, she says, in the bathtub and at church.
"My dad would make hymnals fun by singing in a fake operatic voice and being really silly," she says. "I developed a really nice soprano as a weapon to torture my siblings. I learned how to yodel to embarrass my sister. ... I have a big loud Southern family — whatever you can do to get some attention, you got to do it."
But she was more obsessed with playing guitar.
"That instrument taught me how to sing," she says. "I saw David Mooney play at Plantation Coffeehouse when I was 12 and I was like, 'I want to do that.'"
At NOCCA she studied jazz with Kidd Jordan, Mooney and Hank Mackie, among others. In 2008, she began making frequent trips to France, where she regularly joins saxophonist Raphael Imbert as a side player in his band.
But revisiting the Mississippi as an instrument "recharged me musically," she says.
"[It] taught me so much about syncopation, rhythm, ebb and flow, patience, determination, and a ceaseless singing, just neverending songs."