As a young singer-songwriter playing coffee shops in Kansas City, Calvin Arsenia had big plans. He pictured himself backed by an eclectic band that included, among other instruments, a harp.
“I have always been a bit more ambitious than I ought to be,” Arsenia says. “I was trying to put a little orchestra together inside of Starbucks. And obviously, harpists are quite rare, and the instruments are expensive and hard to move. That didn’t quite work out as I planned.”
His harp dreams got a second wind when he realized he could rent one himself and be the harpist. This was the better option because Arsenia wanted to experiment with how the harp sounded and not just create angelic overtones.
“I’ve always had a vast appreciation for different styles of music. I remember being a 13-year-old boy and downloading yodeling tutorials,” Arsenia says. “I’ve always had a deep love for different ways that people express themselves.”
In an unexpected twist, Arsenia became an accomplished harpist. He was sent to Scotland, where the harp is the national instrument, for missionary work by the controversial evangelical Christian church International House of Prayer. The freedom he experienced there helped him find himself and move away from the church. He met the principal harpist for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, who agreed to mentor him. When he moved back to the U.S., he prioritized writing and performing his own music.
“The harp has been a bit of a Trojan horse for me,” he says. “As a singer-songwriter, there’s a lot of people who play guitar or piano, and I wanted to do something a little bit different. I like to pull the harp into places that it isn’t normally invited. I want to have it be a very sexy instrument, to be able to express romance and Eros. And I want to be able to express anger and frustration and sadness. And not just like this very idealistic sweetness. I want it to feel dangerous.”
A critical moment for him came with the release of Cantaloupe in 2018 with producer Ashley Miller. He envisioned an album that would blend elements of Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange and the work of Sufjan Stevens, with his voice smooth as John Legend. But he also wanted to completely reimagine how he could blend acoustic and electronic elements, both sonically and thematically.
“We as individuals are living in this kind of hybrid, bionic time where we need our cell phones to exist and to be a part of society, and we need computers and technology to receive and send out information. It is how we communicate it, and yet we still have to eat and grow food in our gardens,” Arsenia says. “We are hybrid individuals, and I wanted to reflect on those ideas on the record.”
He has a new record planned for early 2022, and will perform some of these songs when he comes to Lille Aeske this week. He also will be bringing his recently published book Every Good Boy Does Fine to the venue, and will be reading excerpts at the gig.
“The album is very much inspired by revelations that I had in 2020, particularly around the origins of America and what my narrative is in the middle of that.”
He has a song called “Scars and Stripes,” which was inspired by reading an article about one of his ancestors who was born into slavery in 1859. He says he wanted to answer the question, “What does that mean for me in 2021? And looking around at the Black Lives Matter movement and singing about these things on the harp. It’s a little bit awkward, but at the same time, it feels good to get it out. This is the truth. And this is my story.”
Calvin Arsenia performs at 8pm on Saturday, Oct. 16 at Lille Aeske Arthouse, 13160 Hwy 9 Boulder Creek. $30. 831-703-4183.