In celebration of Calvin's upcoming performance on Saturday, June 13, @ 7pm at Santa Fe Commons Park, we're posting his feature from earlier this year. Calvin Arsenia is a mainstay in the Kansas City music scene. A multi-instrumentalist who is equally at ease behind a harp or guitar, Arsenia is a powerful songwriter and performer. Read on to learn more about Calvin's approach to his craft, his recommendations from the Johnson County Library catalog and, perhaps most important, listen to some of his music.
Please introduce yourself. How long have you been a musician and songwriter?
My name is Calvin Arsenia. I've been singing for as long as I can remember. When my brother was an infant, I sang this song to him about how cool his name was in comparison to mine. His name is Reuben meaning "behold the son," and my name means "bald" as in lacking hair. You can imagine how six-year-old me felt gypped in the name potency department.
It wasn't until my preteen years that singing became a focus of mine. Then, at 13 I started playing piano and guitar. I'd write songs from time to time but in 2010, I released the EP "Hands" and have released a few recordings since then.
Describe your songwriting process. Who or what inspires you the most?
Most of the time the writing process comes very naturally. I do a lot of car-singing. I'm not sure if I should be so open about that. Maybe it's perfectly normal! Rather than listening to music, I use car rides to deal with whatever emotion is prevailing at the time and that means singing. Music and lyrics always come at the same time and if I can remember it later on I assume it's good enough to work with. I'll let a phrase rattle around in my head for a couple weeks before I build chords around the melody.
A couple of artists who inspire me are Bjork and Sufjan Stevens. The music that these artists make is unapologetically honest and thoroughly their own. I really respect that. Because of this perceived sincerity, it required a few listens before I started to really enjoy the music. It's more like a fine cooked meal than fast food. I aspire for that in my own music.
You are a multi-instrumentalist and singer, in addition to performer, songwriter, poet and lyricist. Did all of these talents evolve naturally? What do you struggle with the most creatively and how do you break through that struggle?
I forget that these things exist as separate entities. For me, they sort of flow into one another. What I'm about to say could be a bit controversial, but I believe music is so fundamental in the human experience that it is only as good as its ability to communicate a message to another person. That's not to say it all must be easy to listen to - some emotions are so full of distortion and dissonance that in staying true to that emotion, its hard work to hear. Whether its hard rock, blues, classical, or pop, sincerity in music speaks to a foundational humanness and that should be guarded at all costs.
In my own progression as an artist and songwriter, conveying musical ideas has been a journey. It's very easy to clutter up a sound space, leaving no room to breathe, but I have to remember to keep it simple and only include what is required. This means a lot of trimming, letting it grow some, and trimming it again.
Something else that has been a slow but rewarding process is the role as a performer. Again, I believe sincerity wins here. I have a background in classical music and church music. These types of music in particular are such that the performer is the vessel the music is coming through; the composer or the deity is to take center stage. In my own music, being able to convey emotion and revisit the headspace that compelled me to write a song in the first place is always the struggle. These are my stories. Hopefully, in being able to address them head on, others might be able to do the same in their own lives.
You released an EP last year (“Prose”) and also have two other EPs available. Where do you record your music? What advice do you have for others who want to do the same?
"Prose" was recorded in Edinburgh, Scotland, with a group of musicians called Calvin Arsenia and the Earls of Grey. A friend of mine, who also played cello in my band, used the album for his university project studying audio engineering. I also have recorded with producer Warren Jurgens of Meridian Sound and Sam Shurling, a local electronic musician. Both are local and incredibly talented. (There have been others, but these are the people responsible for the EPs you've referenced here.)
Where are you favorite KC metro venues to perform?
I regularly play at a locally owned restaurant and second hand shop in Olathe called Simply Reinspired. The food is great and the people there are so amazing. I've also played a few shows at The Tank Room in the Crossroads district. I love playing there. The staff is so supportive and connected me with other artists in Kansas City. They have a late night open mic on Thursdays and have local and national acts just about every weekend.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.
I must admit I saw the movie first, but I was so inspired by the theme of human connectivity and the idea that our choices effect people even generations after us that I had to read the words.
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
This book was given to me by a songwriter friend of mine. In the letters, you read Rilke's advice to an aspiring poet that can be applied to anyone working in the arts. It's a quick and easy read that is unexpectedly very applicable. Enjoy!
This movie won the Cannes Film Festival Award in 2001. Lars Von Trier does an immaculate job of depicting an immigrant's story and a series of situational dilemmas you'd hope to never be in. It's compelling, unique, suspenseful, fun, and a film you will never forget. Spoiler alert: It stars one of my musical inspirations - the one and only Bjork.