Talking to me about their new album of eclectic music, Meklit Hadero and Quinn DeVeaux keep using the word "we." As in, "We're lyrics freaks." And, "We love the poetry of songs." They sound like one of those couples that have been together for years -- you know, the kind where each partner finish each other's sentences -- but Hadero and DeVeaux are relative newcomers to each other's lives, and that's what makes their musical collaboration even more impressive.
Released this week, their album -- titled, appropriately enough, Meklit & Quinn -- is a seamless journey through a genre-defying lineup of songs. A smattering of their own tunes are there, but it's mostly reinterpretations of other artists' work, highlighted by Neil Young's "Music Arcade," Stevie Wonder's "I Was Made to Love Her," the Talking Heads' "This Must Be the Place," and Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home to Me." Throughout the album, DeVeaux punctuates songs with steady guitar work and a soothing, resonant voice. Hadero offers a voice that's mellifluous and malleable, a sonic gift that's capable of sounding jazzy, bluesy, folk-rocky, and any other style she wants to inhabit. Their singing styles are entirely complementary, with DeVeaux the yin to Hadero's yang.
Based in the Bay Area (DeVeaux in Oakland, Hadero in San Francisco), the singer-songwriters are in the middle of a nationwide tour that stops on Sunday, September 23, at the Monterey Jazz Festival, and Tuesday, September 25, at Yoshi's Oakland.
"When it comes to sensibility, we both really trust each other," Hadero says. "We started the process (of Meklit & Quinn ) by bringing each other songs, and then both of us would go off and make super low-fi garage-band arrangements, where we recorded from microphones on our computers, and we built from there."
Their overlapping backgrounds made it easier. Hadero and DeVeaux both have CVs that stretch across America and American music. DeVeaux, who was raised in Indiana and went to college in Washington State, embraces multiple genres of music, especially blues, soul and gospel. Hadero, who was born in Ethiopia and raised in New York, Iowa, and Florida before attending college in New Haven, Conn., can sound at home in everything from hip-hop to straight-ahead jazz. On a song like "I Was Made to Love Her," Hadero and Deveaux slow down the original version and apply a swanky veneer, giving the song a new, stylish mojo that makes you want to move Soul Train-style through a dance corridor. Other songs, like "Neighborhoods #1 (Tunnels)," which Arcade Fire initially did, are slower and more soul-stirring. My favorite number is "Look at What the Light Did Now," a version of a tune by Bay Area singer Kyle Field that's a moving tribute to a moment of transformation. Meklit & Quinn features 21 other singers and musicians who provide accompaniment, everything from washboard to tuba, so the album is a collective effort. Its roots go back to May of 2010, when Hadero and DeVeaux performed on the same marquee at Bimbo's 365 Club and did an impromptu on-stage encore of Cooke's iconic, "Bring It on Home to Me." That song ends their new album.
"That's a song that both of us have lived with, and that's a song that's inside of both of us," says Hadero. Seconds later, DeVeaux articulates a similar sentiment: "That's a song I grew up with. When you hear it, it immediately has a place in your life. I started off doing the harmony, and Meklit did the melody, and it came together."
Though performing for several years, and with several albums already released before Meklit & Quinn, Hadero and DeVeaux are really at the first stages of their careers, when they are still new to many people who hear them on radio, or hear about them from word-of-mouth.
"Our collaboration happened really, really naturally," says Hadero. "Collaboration is such a key aspect to your artistic growth. Everybody brings out something different in you. You see that in friendships. You see that in work relationships. Everywhere that interaction happens, a different part of you comes out. The Arcade Fire song, for example, I've been thinking about since 2004. And I wanted to do it in my set, but I never could. I never could. And I realized it was because of the tenderness that's in that song. And the thing that I wanted to bring out only made sense as a duet. So, when Quinn and I started working on the song, I felt like it completed my idea of what I wanted to do with that song."