Sunday, February 28, 2021

Cellist Singer/Songwriters- Sometimes, a Cello is Just Plucked

By Andy Fein, Luthier at Fein Violins and Mikaela Marget 

In orchestra settings, cello sections move fluidly between holding down baselines, playing a rich harmony texture, or jumping to the forefront to play an entrancing melody. In folk music, the cello is used as a chordal, melodic, or even rhythmic instrument (ever heard of "the chop"?). 

Ok, so the cello can play many roles in a variety of traditional contexts, but how does it function as a songwriting partner? Turns out there are Singer-songwriters who utilize the cello as a chordal accompaniment instrument. These musicians may convince you that it is time to ditch the guitar for something deeper... 

Leyla McCalla 

“Her voice is disarmingly natural, and her settings are elegantly succinct…her magnificently transparent music holds tidings of family, memory, solitude and the inexorability of time: weighty thoughts handled with the lightest touch imaginable,” -New York Times 

Leyla McCalla is a multi-talented instrumentalist, singer, and composer based in New Orleans. Her music often features fresh perspectives on historical events. In her debut album Vari-Colored songs from 2013, she sets the poetry of Langston Hughes to original music interspersed with Haitian folk songs. She says about this album: "[it] is a celebration of the complexity of Black culture and identity... This is music of reclamation, imbued with a quiet power that grapples with the immense weight of history.

Leyla is also known for her involvement in the grammy-award winning string band Carolina Chocolate Drops and the Songs of Our Native Daughters project through Smithsonian Folkways

She is currently working on a multi-disciplinary project, Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever, about Radio Haiti-Inter, the first Haitian-Creole language radio station and the assassination of its owner, Jean Dominique. The debut was set to be premiered in March of 2020. 

Learn more about Leyla McCalla on her website:

Ben Sollee 

 “...meticulous, fluent arrangements continually morphed from one thing to another. Appalachian mountain music gave way to the blues, and one song was appended with a fragment from a Bach cello suite, beautifully played.” -New York Times 

Kentucky-born Ben Sollee wears many hats. Not only is he a phenomenal songwriter/cellist, he also is very active in the environmental sustainability scene. He has been invited to speak on sustainability a number of times, and often incorporates these issues into his music. He's a very committed activist, choosing to BIKE instead of use a van on multiple cross-country tours! 

His musical scope is broad too; outside of his songwriting, Ben is a composer and film scorer. The upcoming drama Land features a collaborative score by Ben Sollee and string trio Time for Three

Check out his website for more: 

Mike Block

hailed by Yo- Yo Ma as the "ideal musician of the 21st-Century"

Mike Block is the very definition of a "multi-style cellist".  He is at home in a variety of musical contexts from classical to bluegrass to world fusion. Seriously, check out his website and I guarantee you will find something that tugs at your interest. 

Mike's songwriting style is often joyous and light, he intermingles complex cello lines with simple folk-like melodies. Plus, there's nothing like seeing a cellist bounce around on stage strapped to their cello. Mike is the inventor of the Block Strap which allows you to stand, dance, and walk around as you play! Our staff cellist, Mikaela, can attest that it is quite fun, and makes fitting into a band much easier. He uses his block strap in the video above.

During non-covid-times. Mike runs a few fantastic camps including Mike Block String Camp and the Global Musician Workshop. Mikaela attended the Global Musician Workshop in 2018 and says it is one of "the single greatest things they have done as a musician". They were even lucky enough to be coached by Mike, he is a phenomenal educator! 

Mike has a few new music releases that we love:

Laufey Lin 

"Laufey Lin is somewhat of a newcomer to the songwriting world, but her musical style is deep and rich. We look forward to hearing more from her!!" -Fein Violins

Laufey Lin grew up playing classical cello and piano but has become enamored with songwriting and singing in recent years. She was featured as the youngest ever competitor on The Voice Iceland, where she made it to the semifinals. Laufey is currently in her fourth semester at Berklee College of Music. While she isn't as established (yet) as the other musicians on this list, she is incredibly talented and deserves some recognition! She also has built a very successful following on social media, which she updates regularly with covers and new original tunes. Follow her on Instagram Laufey Lin 

How do you pronounce her name? Laufey is an Icelandic name and I have to admit I (Andy) remember it because it rhymes with ' Oy Vay'!

She is working on an EP soon to be released. Listen to more from Laufey on her website: 

The folks above are playing in a fairly standard playing style. There are also some people that hold the cello sideways like a guitar and fingerpick or strum that way. 

Here are two- 

Yi Mei is a student at New England conservatory. A very good classical cellist, she's also a good songwriter and singer. You can follow her on Instagram Yi Mei Cello

Ken James Kubota is a student at Juilliard who shreds the cello and does some great covers. Follow him on Instagram - KenJamesKubota

And here's Ken James Kubota discovery he's not the only person in the world to play a cello sideways

Twin Cities favorites

Cellist/songwriters aren't as rare as you may think, there are even some in the Twin Cities! Here is a short list of Cellist/composer/songwriters that are close by and worth giving a listen to:

Julia Floberg  

Mikaela Marget (hey, don't they also work at Fein violins...?) 

OK Factor  

Michelle Kinney 

Happy listening!!

Andy's favorite question- What bow is best for this technique?

Need a cello to pluck on? We have them! Fine Cellos from Fein Violins

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