Camiele’s 2017 SXSW Experience: Chantae Cann – The Elephant Room
As SXSW came to a close this year, I was truly blessed. On the penultimate night of performances I got the chance to see an artist I’d loved for years but was never truly able to experience in all her glory.
Before the festival had started, I’d been contacted by organizers about opting in to an email ring of artists who would invite me to their events, affording media the chance to come to their showcases and meet them. I’d been interested in quite a few, but the only one I absolutely jumped on was a meeting with Ms. Chantae Cann, a jazz vocalist who has redefined what it meant to be a proponent of the genre. Her voice is a delight and a privilege for anyone lucky enough to get caught up in its beauty.
This was the only showcase I attended without the company of the Soutby Crew, a group of us who stick together pretty much for the entirety of the festival. I know that most of them aren’t as big of fans of jazz as I am, which is totally fine. But there was no way I was going to pass up the opportunity to get up close and personal with a woman who both inspired and lifted me.
Prior to the showcase, I’d been emailing back and forth with Chantae’s manager, ensuring her I’d be showing up, then making sure she knew I’d finally arrived. When I first enter the Elephant Room, I email her one last time. The evening begins in splendor. A jazz band fronted by trumpeter Jeff Lofton is already playing their set as I try to find a seat close enough to the stage to bask in the beauty of the music. When I tell you they had my mind and spirit set right for what was to come…! This band is everything classic jazz is: spontaneous, technical, electrifying. Before I manage to find a seat near the back I’m already immersed in the spirit of the place. As their set comes to an end, more people begin to leave, or at least abandon their seats long enough where I feel comfortable occupying them. Ever few seconds I inch closer and closer to the stage until finally a table at the very front opens up. I grab it without hesitation and settle in for an evening of absolute wonder.
When the band leave the stage, followed closely by a group of adoring fans, I begin to fidget in anticipation. Moments before Chantae takes the stage, her manager emails me again and wonders where I am. When I’d first emailed her I was closer toward the door than the stage, so it’s no wonder she’d missed me. But when we finally do meet it’s all smiles and hugs. She welcomes me and tells me to make sure I get a chance to talk to Chantae after her set. I happily agree, then take my seat. Just as I get resituated, Cann’s band begins to prep. After another minute or so, she takes the stage, and my smile doesn’t leave from the moment she steps foot on to her platform. She takes her shoes off, letting her dress tickle the tops of her feet as she sways from side to side.
Chantae welcomes us all, thanking us for joining her for tonight. “We’re gonna do this nice and loose and just see what happens,” she proclaims. Spontaneous. She opens her mouth and I swear the entire room fades into blue and gold colors, the space around me taking on a comfortable warmth. The music she creates is… uplifting seems too simple a word. There’s something inherently spiritual about the way she delivers a song. We’re given music from her current album, Journey to Golden, songs that I’d let wash over me as I worked, cleaned, or just needed a moment for myself to elevate my soul.
Hers is a voice that’s as elegant as it is masterful. Chantae has a vocal control that is to die for yet in that same breath gives the most luminous aspects of life. Technical. She weaves in and out of notes effortlessly, simply breathing into her music, letting the songs overtake her and guide her in whichever way it wills. She’s one of those singers that just takes you to a different dimension. Her tone is light, as I’d always heard it on record or in video clips. But up close… it’s like a balm over any scar with how soft its touch is to the skin. With that being said, her lack of affectation means she can easily explore a song, roam its streets and alleyways, find shortcuts through fields or dance in the flowers of it, as if even the composition and lyrics are more guidelines than set rules about how music is supposed to be.
Each song she sings, starting with the love sounds of Bill Withers classic Lovely Day, moving effortlessly into track Beauty Speaks, reaffirms for us all that she is indeed an enchantress. It’s as if she’s read our minds, because we are all convinced that this is nothing more than pure beauty. When she slips in an homage to Sade classic Ordinary Love, I’m sure I’ve been jettisoned into another dimension, where everything is riddled with stars, shimmering and magical. She puts so much of her heart into every single note of that song, going from the sensual sway of the foundation Sade Adu laid out so perfectly for anyone willing to get lost in the groove, to a rambling jam with her stellar band backing her up, following her lead and trusting her to take them on this journey. Electrifying.
We get into the call and response of her song Free Your Dreams, each of us joined as a collective soul. The song takes twists and turns, and she implores us to follow her as the band does, singing the words “It’s all right” with a lilting cadence that unites us as one spirit, one consciousness.
Cann is ethereal in her simplicity, natural on stage as if she’s lived there all her life. And in those moments when she opens her heart to us, head back and eyes closed, we as an audience are invited into the very soul of Chantae Cann, wrapped in her grace and abundant light.
At the end of the night I was also gifted the opportunity to speak to the vocalist. I’m actually pretty awful at speaking to people whom I admire as much as I do Ms. Cann. But just as the nature of her performance, she’s open, accepting. She smiles easily and gives her time, though judiciously, without hesitation. I didn’t linger too long as the night was creeping toward such hours where most people seek refuge from the temptations of the deep dark. But I was certainly grateful for the few moments we did share, an extension of the light and beauty that had suffused her showcase.
There’s something about the purity in a talent, the unfettered, untampered-with beauty in what an artist can do that fascinates me and leaves me awed. Cann is such an artist. Walking away from the Elephant Room and basking in the easy breeze of the late-night hours, I am sure this is one of the more memorable nights I’d had at SXSW.