Calvin Arsenia
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Calvin Arsenia

Kansas City, Missouri, United States | Established. Jan 01, 2015 | INDIE

Kansas City, Missouri, United States | INDIE
Established on Jan, 2015
Duo Folk Singer/Songwriter




"In Conversation—with Calvin Arsenia"

Alternative folk artist Calvin Arsenia is an intensely inventive creator and a truly original mind, mixing genres and instruments (including the Celtic harp) to create vibrant, engaging music. He recently released the single, “Headlights,” from his project-in-process Cantaloupe, a mix of music, art, and performance. In “Headlights” he describes his difficult ascent to the wisdom that happiness isn’t contingent on finding the right person to “complete” you. Recently, Arsenia was kind enough to answer our questions about what brought him to where he is.

What kind of childhood did you have?
My childhood was quite mild. I was the middle child of three boys who were 6 and 7 years apart from me on either side. I spent a lot of time playing with bugs and mud and singing songs to myself about bugs and mud and flowers. I also used to paint a lot. Creativity was a huge part of daily life. And I was often barefoot.

What role did music play in it?
Music was around my house, but not necessarily in the most obvious way. I know so many people who have strong, vivid memories of their parents playing records and introducing their children to “the greats.” For me, singing was just as easy as breathing.

My mother played gospel music on the weekends, and my father played slow jams when he fixed the car or did yard work. At least these are my earliest memories. After that I learned acoustic guitar and played contemporary folk music in church — a lot of four chord songs that could go on for hours and often did.

Were you trained in music or did you teach yourself?
By around 13 or 14 years old I’d found a community of musicians who mentored me in guitar and piano. They were just a bit older. I had great training in school and church choirs alongside that. In college I studied theory and classical voice with some very brilliant professors and loved it!

Who—or what—has been the best influence on you as an artist? As a human being?
It’s becoming clearer that the church has had a lasting affect on the things I hold dear in the place of music and performance. Playing with the influences of unseen intention and ceremony have become such a crucial part of the process of bringing this music to audiences.

I’ve cried to the sounds of technically horrendous musicians who give their whole heart to a performance. The heart is the most important part.

How do your songs come to you?
Normally songs come to me when I’m musing about things or people or events that have affected me emotionally. Usually I’m in motion, walking or otherwise. Usually away from my instruments. It comes to me like cleaning up a spill with a paper towel—I feel I collect the songs from the ether.

What’s the story behind the song “Headlights?”
Jametatone’s J Ashley Miller hosted a private outdoor ambient music event earlier this summer. Another musical guest, Ryan J Lee, invited me up to sing over a loop he’d written. While I was kind o’ cooing nonsensically over the chord progression, J Ashley saw headlights coming down the driveway (latecomers to the event) and said:

“The headlights look the same. Are you in or out?”

This sentence really affected me and the ideas began to flood my mind that many things remain true about ourselves regardless of relationship status. I still have to grocery shop. I still have to pay bills. I still have to cook dinner for me, even if you’re not going to eat it. I have a responsibility to provide for this body that provides for me.

We took a field recording of that happening into the studio and tried to distill it into something that retained and captured all the magic that night. I’m really happy with how the song came together.

Did anything funny or weird happen while you were creating Cantaloupe?
My previous work was all about idealized romance. Then, after, having a couple of — let’s just call them “rough encounters” — I feel my expectations for relationships have changed drastically. I don’t want to say I’m jaded because I still find myself wanting that magic, silly, stupid kind of love, but I know now it’s not the end-all-be-all of life.

Also, I was very surprised by the piece called “Palaces” that we wrote for this album. It speaks about the love of music and creativity. Without the assistance of a coy muse how can I keep creating?

“My callouses are palaces in times of peace and castles in times of war.” This has become a little bit of a mantra for me recently.

The meaning of your lyrics, your arrangements, and the fact that you’ve learned how to play several instruments suggest a richly solitary life. Is this accurate? Do you have a strong need for periods of solitude each day?
Music has always meant community to me. Most of the music I consume is live music from my friends who I support in the different music scenes so I can’t say that I prioritize alone time. That being said, when I’m alone there’s a constant trickle of new sounds, new music, new arrangements that are available to me. Trivial life (emails, paychecks, laundry, etc.) so often upsets this flow, but what can you do?

I hope I get to a place where I can spend more time in solitude creating safe spaces through sound and ceremony.

How did you discover the importance of loving your true self? How did your life change after that?
Self hatred has dampened the lights of many bright people. I’m always wanting others to shine and to be loved and feel loved and to give love to me and others. and I take very seriously the responsibility of my role in that chain. I love the people who have invested their lives into me. I feel I have to honor their investment by not handing the light they gave me over to self-hatred and depression. Self-love is the only other option. This is very different from narcissism.

How do you regenerate after giving yourself heavily to your art?
I like to cook for my friends. - Voice Magazine

"Interview with Calvin Arsenia – Toxic"

Calvin Arsenia has built a reputation for turning the arts world on its head. While the harp has allowed this Kansas City native to become a man of the world (gaining followings in Paris, Edinburgh, and at the Outlyre festival in Austria), it’s his unique ability to craft a stimulating setting at his live shows that has all eyes fixed on this conspicuous musician and his breathtaking approach to harp music.

His angelic, classically-trained voice soars over audiences, enchanting even the fussiest of fans, beckoning them to join him as he flirts between genres. He dances between indie, jazz, and electronic music while calling upon rare harmonies and arrangements from his team of performers. But the music is just one part of his prodigious performances, for Calvin believes the art is in crafting the perfect moment. His music is best served live, with sensational performances and high fashion from the visually striking performer who stands at well over six feet tall.

In this interview spotlight I chat with Calvin Arsenia about his latest project, challenges, motivations and more.

Full Q&A along with links and music below.

Where are you from and what style of music do you create? (In your own words, not necessarily in marketing terms or by popular genre classifications.)

My name is Calvin Arsenia. I come from a suburb of Kansas City, MO. The music I make is a warm stew of sonic blisses with essences of soul, jazz, classical, and traditional American folk music.

What led you down this path of music and what motivates you to stay the course?

I have been a part of many different kinds of musical experiences – both as an audience member and as a participant on the stage. When a musical experience is done well, everyone involved is permanently changed for the better. Think about concerts you’ve been to that were defining moments; you could see it as a rite of passage – there’s a before and an after. And these moments of transcendence usually happen in no more than 2 or 3 hours of someone’s life. I have witnessed generations of animosity dissolve, people receive miraculous healings, language and cultural barriers nullified, all in a matter of moments when music and intention were purposefully and meticulously stuffed into a room. I have decided to hand myself over to creating safe places with music at the center, to energize, inspire, and fascinate people like me, who could use a little boost to help get through life.

How is “Toxic” different than previous releases? Did you set out to accomplish anything specific?

Toxic is a song I’ve loved for so long and I wanted to take it to a kind of ridiculous place of heightened emotion. This is really fun for me sitting behind a Celtic harp. The irony of mixing this docile and tame instrument with uncontrollable sexual obsession is exciting to me.

Do you face challenges as an indie musician in a digital age? How has technology helped you (assuming it helps)?

Ha! Hm. It definitely helps connect with people quickly.

It also has very much impacted the perceived value of recordings and the performers involved. Consumers of music feel it is their right to have the music they want to listen to and to have it instantly and nearly free. Then it’s the artists privilege to get paid, maybe, if the consumer, already having enjoyed the music, sees fit to support the artist through a direct sell, which is still $.90-$10 an interaction. I am a part of this problem. I am the same! I can’t tell you how many songs I know forwards and backwards that I never purchased myself. But I think this is the culture we live in now.

Because of this, I have strived tirelessly to always design my sets to be one of a kind, tailored to the space and the audience I am presenting to. And in doing so to increase the value of the live performance. I imagine if there is an audience member who just so happened to attend every performance, that they would enjoy the unique nuances of each performance.

Have you ever been around someone who tells the same story over and over again? It gets tiresome after a while so you have to mix up the dynamics, or the comedic timing… small changes that make it fresh. I’m retelling these stories over and over again and I always try to retell them as if I was retelling the story to a close friend.

Where can we connect with you online and discover more music?

Of course. I’m pretty active on instagram.

Anything else before we sign off?

“Be good. Be bad. Be terrible…” (a quote from Caro Bridges) But at least be yourself. - Middle Tennessee Music

"Tim Finn review: Calvin Arsenia"

At the onset of the lavish party he threw Saturday night at the Gem Theater, Calvin Arsenia paused to pay respects to his hometown.

During a recent month-long tour of Europe, he said, he was asked about Kansas City regularly. He concurred that the barbecue is great here, but he also reminded people of the city’s great jazz heritage—a history that prompted him to book his CD-release party for his sophomore album, Cantaloupe, in the heart of the 18th and Vine District.

“I want to be part of that history,” Arsenia said. Well, he is now.

For nearly two and a half hours, including an intermission, Arsenia and his large host of guest musicians threw more than just a party.

It was a lavish, grandiose gala, a visual and aural feast, starting with the stage décor: large swaths of pearly white silk suspended from the ceiling; a large Persian rug that became the main perch for Arsenia and his harp; flower petals strewn everywhere; an enormous screen at the back of the stage onto which images were projected; gusts of mood-setting fog; and all of it embellished by a deft, but not distracting, light show.

There were several wardrobe changes, starting with the black T-shirt that read “Thank You Kansas City.” From there, things got much more exotic: capes, long, billowy dresses with garish bows and other floral accessories plus various ornate headpieces.

Arsenia’s music is highly conceptual and genre-elusive, so the show was equal parts opera, symphony, musical theater, rock show, all built around its creator: a charismatic 6-foot-7-inch harpist with natural stage command and knack for gilding gold and painting lilies.

The ensemble behind him was more of an orchestra than a mere band: horn section, string section, backup vocalists, vibraphonist, electric bassist and guitarist, upright bassist, electric keyboardist.

With precision and force, they brought out the shifting dynamics and elaborate colorings of Arsenia’s compositions, which can range from pastoral folk renderings to onslaughts of organized mayhem.

Later in the show, he coaxed the crowd into giving the band two ovations, after expressing his sincere gratitude for their assistance in this project but also for being eminent, dedicated parts of our city’s excellent music community every day of the year.

They would perform Cantaloupe in its entirety, including his deranged and sexually-charged makeover of Britney Spear’s Toxic, which included riveting performances by four pairs of tango dancers. On a night of many highlights, this topped them all.

Several other covers were added to the set list, including Venus as a Boyby Bjork, who is clearly an inspiration. Accompanied only by pianist Charles Williams, Arsenia opened the second half of the show with a splendid cover of Jacques Brel’s Ne Me Quitte Pas, one inspired by a Nina Simone version, he told the crowd.

Then he summoned Kansas City native and fellow music provocateur Krystle Warren to the stage for a duet version of Radiohead’s No Surprises, featuring Arsenia on electric rhythm guitar. Their voices blended perfectly.

He ended the show with the album’s title track, the lone time a banjo made an appearance. Proving there is no excess like too much excess, the 18-piece orchestra was accompanied by a small army of string players who entered through the back of the theater and performed from spots throughout the room. Sometimes more is better.

The song Cantaloupe is a play on words: We can’t elope / As simple as it’d be / Where’s the fun in it if we can’t flaunt a bit?

In other words, why waste a perfect opportunity to throw a spectacular party and celebrate with friends and people who love you? Which is what this ceremonial night was all about.

It would have been the perfect close to a memorable show, but Arsenia wasn’t done yet. After he took his final bow, waving a gold Trident spear, he marshaled everyone out of the theater and into the lobby, where the Marching Pythons drum team awaited. After performing for bit inside, they led the crowd out onto 18th Street in front of the theater, then on a parade around the block.

It was the ultimate and perfect flaunt, an ideal way to end this grand evening, which deserves a place of its own in 18th and Vine’s history. - IN Kansas City


2016 - Catastrophe
2017 - Caviar
2018 - Cantaloupe



Calvin Arsenia, (28 years old) standing 6’6” in flats, his Afro hairdo pulled back and adorned in pink roses, sings Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case of You,’ self-accompanied on a Celtic harp to a sold out listening room in Edinburgh. Born in Florida, raised Evangelical in the suburbs of Kansas, Arsenia elegantly destroys our familiar relationship with an archaic instrument traditionally reserved for funerals and weddings. Pairing his original songs about the nuances of contemporary romance with harp-friendly versions of Britney Spears, Björk, and Lauryn Hill, Calvin Arsenia courts his crowd with heartbreak and humor.
Arsenia’s height, energy, and curated environments fill the often intimate spaces he performs in. Brought in to 9 countries through public and private grants in less than a decade, Arsenia builds a scene for his audience, and for himself, packed with beauty and lasting delight by incorporating flowers, scents, edible, and drinkable musings.

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