Kansas City folk harpist Calvin Arsenia on his love of his instrument
Calvin Arsenia found his music mojo in the unlikeliest of places: the loud, crowded pubs of Scotland.
Arsenia lived in Edinburgh, Scotland, for two years starting in 2012, while on a music mission. He left Kansas City feeling uncertain about his place in its music scene.
“I’d become very insecure about everything in Kansas City: my art, my voice, my work,” he said. “I wasn’t confident I fit into the Kansas City music scene, and I was unsure what awaited me in Edinburgh. I hoped they would embrace my style. And they did.”
Arsenia, a folk harpist and singer/songwriter, would perform more than 300 times during his stay in Scotland. With each show, he discovered what inspired him most and what restored his confidence in his music and himself.
“I learned that embracing vulnerability and the human experience mattered most, not playing the perfect notes or performing exactly how you rehearsed it,” he said. “It’s about the connection to the audience.”
Since he returned to Kansas City in 2014, many places and many fellow performers and musicians have embraced Arsenia, from folk singers and jazz players to Quixotic, the performance art collective. On Thursday, Arsenia left for a summer tour that will take him to both U.S. coasts and back to Scotland, the place that resurrected his spirit.
“I eventually realized if I could sing a cappella songs and silence a roomful of drunken old men in a pub in Edinburgh,” he said, “I could probably find a place in Kansas City that appreciated my story and the way I performed.”
He has even written a song called “Kansas City, Baby.”
“Kansas City, what could I do? I’m heartsick when I’m leaving it, but I’m coming home soon.”
Discovering his voice
Arsenia, 28, attracts attention naturally. He’s 6-foot-6, long and lean, with an impressive mane of hair — not the stature you’d normally associate with someone lacking in confidence. But his height affected his personality.
“Hiding was not my strong suit,” he said. “I had to accept my biological identity, which meant that I was going to be seen and noticed and to be mindful of that. In my everyday life my height can make me appear more imposing or abrasive, so that can contribute to my shyness as a way to counter those appearances.”
Arsenia was born in Orlando, Fla. By the time he was in middle school, his family had moved to Olathe, where he graduated from Olathe South High. He is the middle of three brothers, six years older than the younger, seven years younger than the older. “We’re kind of three only children in the same family,” he said.
His family influenced him musically. His mother listened to gospel music; his father loved Motown and ’70s slow jams, like Luther Vandross; his older brother favored ’90s hip-hop, R&B and neo-soul. He has roots from Native America, Africa and Britain, he said.
Calvin started taking piano lessons in middle school. About the same time, a friend gave him an acoustic guitar she’d given up trying to play. Not long after that, he started writing songs. And then people started noticing his voice.
“In eighth grade, my best friend at the time heard me singing at the back of the school bus,” he said. “We were sharing this Discman, and I was singing to Mariah Carey. My friend was in choir, so she took me to her choir teacher and made me sing to her. I was very shy, but she would grind it out of me. I started getting over my stage fright in the school hallways.”
He sang in school choirs and church choirs and performed at Bible studies for years. After graduating from high school in 2008, he enrolled in an audio engineering program at Johnson County Community College. That’s about the time he started performing his own material around Kansas City and about the time he decided he wanted something different in his music: the sound of a harp.
“A lot of my favorite singers and musicians played the harp to accompany their voices, like Bjork on her album ‘Vespertine,’ Joanna Newsome and Florence and the Machine,” he said.
His lust for the harp posed a few problems, however: He didn’t own a harp; he didn’t know how to play the harp; and he couldn’t afford to hire a harpist.
“I looked all over Kansas City to find one who could play by ear and write and compose their own parts and be available to play my shows,” he said. “And also do it all for free. I couldn’t find that. I discovered a lot of amazing people who I’m still friends with but realized I’d have to do it myself if that’s what I wanted to do.”
So he rented a harp and took some tutorials on YouTube, relied on some of his guitar and piano skills and worked arduously to play at least competently, realizing he was behind the normal trajectory.
“Harp players typically start when they’re 8 or 9 years old,” he said. “I started at 20, and I was teaching myself, primarily, at the time.
“Reading chord charts for a piano is transferable to the harp. That made things like composing and performing less of a challenge to navigate.”
“The hardest part about learning was getting the technique in the hands and feeling confident it would develop into something useful as a performer, because the learning curve is pretty rough, especially without peers to watch or compare myself to, which meant I essentially for a while dedicated myself to being embarrassed in front of audiences.”
When you’re 6-foot-6 and you sing as theatrically and operatically as Arsenia does, you can usually command a room quickly. Add a harp to the mix and you can imagine why he can quell a noisy Scottish pub. Or hush a crowd of about 500 in the Folly Theater, as he did recently during a performance with Quixotic. Or draw a crowd of fellow musicians into the hallways or rooms of a downtown hotel, as he did during this year’s Folk Alliance International, where he collaborated with Egyptian folk singer Ramy Essam, a political activist who was imprisoned during the Arab Spring uprising.
“That was an amazing encounter,” Arsenia said. “He came into the green room, and I was in there with the harp. He watched me play the harp and seemed intrigued. Then I started playing a bass line with my left hand and he played a melody with his right. From there, it progressed. He started playing his songs, and I played mine. It was very spontaneous.”
Kansas City fans
Arsenia, who now owns two harps, has no trouble finding collaborators these days. Earlier this year, he performed four separate shows in two nights with four Kansas City musicians: Beau Bledsoe, Fritz Hutchison, Mark Southerland and Seth Jones.
Before the show, Bledsoe told The Star, “Describe his music? It’s his own thing. He has such a unique voice I hesitate to say he sounds like anyone. He’s super-unique.
“He can improvise really well. He has the classical background, and he really understands form. He’s an extremely strong artist. He has unbelievable vocal chops an virtuosity on his instrument. He’s just a fantastic performer.”
Earlier this month, Arsenia collaborated with singer/songwriter Sara Swenson during at show at the RecordBar.
“He played harp and banjo and sang harmonies, all of which were perfect for my songs,” Swenson said. “It was a joy to make music with him. He’s got such incredible instincts and really knows his stuff technically. He’s such an incredibly talented singer and instrumentalist. We are incredibly lucky to have him in our scene.”
Arsenia also has been performing more regularly with Quixotic; his current tour includes two Quixotic performances.
“I’ve always had a crush on Cirque du Soleil,” Arsenia said. “I’d always wanted to perform with them but I never thought it would happen. I was just a kid from Olathe. Surely there’s no room for me in that crew.”
In June, Arsenia performed with Quixotic as part of “Firebird,” a tribute to Radiohead. He played harp on several songs and sang vocals on “Fake Plastic Trees.”
“Calvin has the voice of an angel, and he happens to play the harp,” said Shane Borth, violinist for Quixotic. “After he played a New Year’s Eve show, I knew we needed him for the ‘Firebird’ show — initially for his harp skills … but even more for his voice and personality. He did a beautiful job. He really communicates when he performs, and with passion.”
Anthony Magliano, Quixotic’s founder and creative director, said Arsenia is a natural fit for the troupe’s broad creative vision.
“Calvin’s full range of artistry has captured the hearts of our team at Quixotic,” he said. “He brings so much creativity and musicality to the stage and is an inspiration on so many levels.”
Arsenia is touring on “Catastrophe,” the album he released in February. The album represents where Arsenia was artistically and emotionally as he went into the studio. A conversation with a friend guided him.
“I asked her, ‘What do I do? What direction do I take?’ and she said, ‘What do you want to do?’ ” he said.
“I said, ‘I want to sing. I want my voice to be the focus of my music. I don’t want to be defined by genre or by instruments. I want to incorporate theatrical elements into my live performances and I want to entertain all five senses.’ And she said, ‘Then do that. Be yourself.’ ”
It was sound advice but something he’d already learned in Scotland
Humanity on display
Arsenia’s initial trip to Scotland was as a performer in the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, a trip arranged by a worship team at his Olathe church. That’s when the pastor of an Edinburgh church offered him the position as an arts/music liaison between the church and the city.
“My job was to play music and meet musicians and play with them and love them and build a community,” he said.
For two years, he did that and more. Since his return to Kansas City, he has done much of the same, especially within the music community he thought had no place for him. All it took was nurturing faith in himself and his art.
“In Scotland, my humanity became the point, what I was supposed to put on display,” he said. “It took a while for me to trust that or feel confident in that. It was a big shift.
“When I perform my music, I bury myself into myself and try to reconnect with what possessed me to write these songs. For the audience it means they can go with me into those places and not be scared to have those emotions or be human, too. And that’s why I do what I do.”