“Close to the end of the set, she sang a Bessie Smith blues with the line, ‘I’m as good as any woman in your town.’ In New Orleans music, that’s a bold statement – but she is, and better, too.” -Alison Fensterstock, New Orleans Times-Picayune
Being the best in town is nothing new for Meschiya Lake.
Even more than two decades ago at the age of nine when both the town and Lake were much smaller.
Looking back, it’s no surprise that when a precocious nine year old Lake hit the stage for a singing contest at a Rapid City, South Dakota, steakhouse, she already believed that she belonged.
“It was a serious contest. They were all grown-ups and people wanting to make it.”
“The other contestants thought it was cute that the kid wanted to participate. I’d always loved singing and I was always doing it around the house, so it made sense to try,” Lake said.
And when she won the contest, the $500 prize, and the weekly in- house singing gig that came along with it, it made sense that – in some form or another – the groundwork for a career had been laid. Even if she didn’t realize it herself at the time.
“I loved doing it, but I didn’t really know it’s what I wanted to do all the time,” she said. “It made my mom proud, but I really wanted to be a primatologist. I was into science from a young age, so that’s really what I saw myself doing for the rest of my life.”
“Now, I realize that playing music and singing is something that I have to do in order to be mentally healthy. Back then, though, I was a kid and it was just something I did that was fun.”
For several more years singing for fun and joy continued to trump music as vocation for Lake. Eventually though got back to performing—albeit in a non-traditional outlet.
It was only during her stint as a member of the Know Nothing Family Zirkus Zideshow and End of the World Circus – a ragtag troupe that blended traditional circus arts with modern sideshow varieties – that she ultimately realized exactly what she wanted to do as an adult. “I remember sometimes I would look down at a ridiculous costume that I was wearing and I’d think, ‘OK, this is my job!’” she said, recalling nights when she’d eat bugs, munch glass, and dance around the stage while twirling flaming nunchucks. “You just had to laugh at the ridiculousness.”
“But at the same time, I was fascinated by the nomadic lifestyle. I felt akin to it. I loved traveling and doing it from place to place, even with those amenities.”
While the show flitted from outpost to outpost, Lake, by then in her early twenties, derived particular joy in reaching the sorts of small- town, misfit youngster that she’d been while growing up in Rapid City, South Dakota— far away from the big cities and big stages that Lake and her voice would later inhabit.
The chance to make those connections with audience members even trumped the taste of her unusual stage snacks.
“I realized the uncharted nature of it was what I was proud of,” she said. “My favorite things were to play those small towns and reach audiences that didn’t know these sorts of things were possible.
“I was just like those kids. I got bullied. I had those similar situations. And I was letting them know that they didn’t have to love the prescribed routine of college, life in the suburbs, and 2.5 kids. It was my job to show these kids that they could do anything they wanted to do.”
One particular interaction stands out.
“There was this one kid in San Francisco who was seriously questioning the track he was on,” she said. “He was joining the military and about to be shipping out, but he was seriously reconsidering what he wanted to do with his life. I don’t know what happened to him, but I hope it was good.”
As for her, fate again intervened when work life slowed.
The circus schedule of six months on, six months off ultimately brought Lake to New Orleans for a prolonged stretch of downtime. It was her first visit, and just like picking up a microphone for the first time decades earlier she instantly felt the city’s pull.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” she said. “I was driving in to meet the circus. I’d been driving alone for about eight hours, and I stopped in the French Quarter to use a phone to find out where I was supposed to go to meet everyone.”
“I looked around and noticed the gas lamps and the classic, Old World feel, just this feeling of timelessness. And I eventually learned that it’s a very nurturing place to things that are different. They’re supported. They’re celebrated. And I knew immediately that this was where I belonged.”
That was more than ten years ago.
And except for a one-year exodus to Milwaukee, it’s been home ever since.
Now 33, Lake has long since ditched the circus gimmicks and instead focuses entirely on her voice, which she uses as a powerful instrument most nights a week in gigs throughout the city.
In 2007 she began singing with the Loose Marbles, a traditional jazz outfit on Royal Street; a year later she formed the Magnolia Beacon with Erika Lewis; in the Spring of 2009 she went on to create The Little Big Horns Jazz Band.
The latter affiliation has taken her around the globe with stops at such venerable stages as Lincoln Center and major international festivals in the United States, Brazil, Denmark, the Netherlands, Russia, and the U.K. Along the way Lake and the Little Big Horns have garnered such praise as “one of the most entertaining bands on the planet,” from the venerable British rock magazine R2. Back home in New Orleans, Lake has been recognized as Female Performer of the Year three years running by the Big Easy Awards.
Their first CD, Lucky Devil, features a top-of-her-game Lake using the full range of vocal and songwriting skills she’s developed through lessons, experience, and hard work since first hitting that South Dakota stage. On the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in 2010, Lucky Devil was honored by David Kunian on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered as one of his four favorite albums of the year.
As U.K. reviewer Allan Wilkinson wrote of the album, “a couple of self-penned numbers from Lake…just go to prove, along with the rest of this gem of a record, that no flood nor new century can subdue the spirit of New Orleans.”
Her sophomore effort with the Little Big Horns, Foolers Gold is due to be released in September of 2013 (link to sample tracks). It mixes the extraordinary traditional jazz mastery she demonstrated on Lucky Devil with a bold, contemporary sensibility all her own. Foolers Gold promises to once again evoke the words of Dan Baum when he wrote in the New Yorker:
“Meschiya Lake rocks back on her heels, lifts her chest, and opens her throat like an air raid siren to croon in a thrilling pre-microphone style that…can make you feel by turns as though you were shivering around a campfire in a railroad yard or drinking in a Budapest nightclub in 1938.”