New Orleans-based singer Michaela Harrison set to release new CD
Singing is like breathing for me. I do it all the time, whether I’m conscious of it or not; and I experience life as one extended musical where there’s always a melody, a harmony, a rhythm, a message to tune into to. The healing power that is available through music is more than the emotional release or uplift that happens when one is listening or creating; it is an actual vibrational force that can mend bodies, transforms minds, save the world. And that force, that frequency—that Source—is what I’m always reaching for, striving to access and bring forth when I sing, so that I can both share it with others and keep it channeling continuously through my being.
by Lovell Beaulieu
Michaela Harrison came to New Orleans for the first time in the late 1990s to visit a friend who was attending the University of New Orleans. The exact year was 1999, and six months later she would return to experience her first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Her friend lived in Tremé near Governor Nichols and St. Claude (now Henriette Delille), a stone’s throw from the French Quarter and right in the heartbeat of the city’s musical scene.
Harrison would come back to New Orleans for the Essence Music Festival, and in one year came to the city a total of four times. She was beginning to catch what so many before her and since have experienced, soaking in the lifeblood of a city expressed passionately through its music and its musicians.
Eventually, making the city her home just seemed right. “New Orleans was the most logical next step,” Harrison says.
A native of Washington, D.C., and well-traveled, Harrison graduated with a degree in Africana Studies from New York University. Her interest in what she describes as a “diaspora culture,” something she says New Orleans is rich in, led her to this point–braced to release a new CD. Until, that project is available, anyone wanting a proper introduction to Harrison can visit her website to hear songs from her first release, Love’s Divine, which in addition to the title tracks includes a few great covers, including a superb nod to the Bill Withers’ “Just the Two of Us” and the Bobby Hebb classic “Sunny.” Despite it being one of the most recorded and covered songs ever, Harrison’s delivery has a way of making you feel as if you are hearing for the first time.
As New Orleans goes through the annual articulation of its musical heritage through events like Jazz Fest and the more locally centered French Quarter Festival, which was started by the late Mayor Ernest N. Morial, Harrison reflects on what inspired her connection to the city. It is what sets New Orleans apart.
“For me, one of the very pointed things that I noticed is there is a community of musicians,” she says. “The culture really supports music here. You can survive as a musician here. Live music is something they feel they need to have. They treat each other like family. In other places, there is a very strong energy of competitiveness.”
Not that Harrison couldn’t compete. Her voice is simultaneously sultry and sensitive, a healing force in words and sound. It is what distinguishes her from so many others in a city where African-American female vocalists run deep.
One reviewer had this to say about Harrison’s styling back in 2012:
“Of all the musicians I listened to on my recent trip to New Orleans, Michaela Harrison kept me coming back time and again to bask, not just in her gorgeous voice, but the universal call behind it. Harrison considers herself a healer by profession, and she brings that gift of healing and transformation to her listeners. Blessed with a four-octave voice that ranges from a hushed whisper, to one that can bring down the house and take the roof off too, it seemed everywhere I went, I came upon Harrison singing.”
Harrison is no stranger to success in music. She has wooed audiences at the Ju Ju Bag on Franklin Avenue as well as at Cafe Istanbul, two independent venues that do not rely on the tourist dollar as much as establishments in the French Quarter or on Bourbon Street. And Sweet Lorraine’s on St. Claude was one of the first to showcase Harrison and her fellow musicians.
In fact, Harrison, despite her wide range of talents and her distinct voice, hasn’t been a fixture on the local festival scene’s big stages. And yet, mention her name and people know who you’re talking about.
Recording on her new CD has wrapped up; and these days, Harrison can be found at Miss Jean’s Corner Court Yard on Esplanade across from the old U.S. Mint.
“We need more venues that support musicians in general,” Harrison says. “I can honestly say that I don’t know if I would have a career if it weren’t for the Black-owned venues.”
There is a strong gospel component to Harrison’s music, accentuated by the fact she started singing in the church when she was four years old.
Along the way, Harrison has performed as a street musician as well as at small intimate gatherings among friends. It is those environments that have defined a lot of who Harrison radiates as a singer, and how she’s been able to bring that healing quality to her music and to those who follow her.
In fact, healing through music is important to her. In an interview with BrassyBrown.com, Harrison says: “My music is definitely about bringing the healing, for individuals and for communities, for people and all beings, for New Orleans and beyond. In New Orleans specifically, I am very intentional about passing on this idea of music as a powerful tool for healing and change, and by working with children and teaching them the songs that have been handed down to me. My desire is to give them something they can use to counteract the violence, hatred and disregard for human life to which so many of them are subjected constantly. What NOLA needs now is love sweet love.”
Despite the innate and effortless connection between music and New Orleans, Harrison says she has seen some changes. “There’s been a shift in the musical culture,” she says, “even on the street.”
Since Hurricane Katrina, the “shift” has been exacerbated by an influx of people from other places, Before Katrina, the French Quarter was alive with street musicians who were mostly from New Orleans and many of them African-American. Now, on some weekends, the Quarter could pass for Knoxville and the Grand Old Opry.
But she doesn’t worry about the sordid scenes of the commercial music industry, or the treatment some local musicians feel. She just keeps performing, keeps singing, keeps healing.
And she remembers her roots—whether it is the church she grew up singing in or listening to, working with and being influenced by Sweet Honey In The Rock, the internationally-acclaimed, Grammy Award-winning, all-Black female performance ensemble based in Washington, D.C., whose performances are rooted in African American history and culture.
Harrison had the opportunity to work with Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock, documenting and archiving the musical legacy African-Americans have in spirituals and freedom songs, she has said.
“Just the fact of witnessing six Black women onstage together—looking so regal, producing such beautiful harmonies and expressing such a commitment to social justice and the upliftment of women and all oppressed people— changed my whole perspective on what music could do and how it could be used, and I immediately knew that I wanted to move people with my music the way I was being moved by theirs,” she has said.
Even as a city changes and the culture often seems threatened, Harrison remains upbeat.
“The beauty of this place,” Harrison adds, “is that there’s room for everybody to do something.”
Lovell Beaulieu is a journalist.