Q&A: Lucia Micarelli
Violinist Lucia Micarelli established herself in the classical music world before age 21 by serving as concertmaster for Trans-Siberian Orchestra, then Josh Groban. She subsequently toured with Jethro Tull and Chris Botti before being cast in the HBO series Treme, which led to her absorbing an eclectic range of musical styles. Micarelli spoke with Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen about blending classical music and classic rock, and the practice of practicing. She performs at the Smith Center on March 22-23.
How do you maintain your skills at this stage? Do you practice scales when you can, or set aside time when your schedule doesn’t include rehearsing for shows?
Oh, yeah, I set aside time every day. I still … what is it like to practice at this point? It’s still just as hard as it ever was. There’s just endless work to do. You can always refine things and make it better. And also it’s not something where just because you get the information in, it necessarily stays. Every day is different. You’re still doing something physically. It is physical, mostly. It’s a physical craft, so if you skip a day or skip two days, or skip a week, it’s probably the same as if you were an athlete and skipped training for a week. When you come back you don’t have as good of a time, your lungs aren’t working as well (laughs). It’s still a commitment every day, and it’s, uh … it’s my sacred time. I’m pretty crazy about it.
I imagine you can take yourself into some pretty amazing places with all of the musical directions you’ve explored.
(Laughs) That’s very nice of you. I am trying to do the music that I love justice. I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve met so many incredible people and have kind of been exposed to a lot of different styles of things, so therefore have fallen in love with a lot of different styles of music. I’m in no means an expert in any of those areas, so there’s plenty to practice for, you know? Whether it’s working on technique and virtuosity in classical stuff, or just trying to have a more refined interpretation, or more nuance in my sound in jazz stuff, there’s always things that I’m trying to get better at and still try to refine. I do think that part of what keeps it interesting is that I play so many different kinds of music now, so I’ve always got something to practice. And there’s always something that doesn’t sound quite right to me, so …
How do you reel it all in when you’re preparing for a show? What are you bringing to the Smith Center, for example?
A pretty wide variety of stuff. I think my show has sort of evolved into a personal journey of music, of my work so far. And because I’ve met so many people in all these different genres and fallen in love with all this music, the show ends up being this crazy mix of classical music and jazz standards, and Cajun music and folk music, and contemporary classical music and, like, obscure folk songs from Europe (laughs) and a little bit of rock. Just kind of a really wide mix of things. I sing a little bit as well, because I started singing when I worked on this HBO series called Treme, which totally blew my musical world open. My show is full of all these things that I love, and also stories from the time in my life when I discovered that stuff, or why those songs are important to me, or who I met, or how I came in contact with that music and who introduced it to me.
Have you chosen any other rock classics to interpret since you established Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” as part of your repertoire?
No, I do love doing that “Kashmir” though, because I can play Sibelius at the top and it’s just a really fun rock-ist way to end a show (laughs). The whole classic rock thing was very organic when it happened. That was quite a few years ago, but at the time I was pretty young and had been pretty sheltered for quite a long time, and really only listened to classical music forever. I had just discovered classic rock and thought it was so awesome that I had to play some. All of the music that I’ve been drawn to has been sort of like as if I’ve been discovering something and I just think it’s the coolest thing ever.
Have you received feedback from Robert Plant or Brian May?
(Laughs) I wish! No, I haven’t.
Is it hard to keep a band together when you’re not touring and doing more one-off engagements?
I just did a couple of shows, a three-show run in North Carolina. I’m not actively touring now, so this is sort of a one-off but I will be touring in the fall, pretty extensively for me. It’s not tough. Everybody I play with, they’re all based in L.A. We’re all able to rehearse, and because we just did a run of shows just a few weeks ago, everyone is sort of refreshed and we’ll get together and rehearse. I definitely need to practice the most on my own, but everyone has played the show quite a bit, and we all play really well together and are comfortable with each other. It’s not too bad, but I’m a big proponent of … I really love rehearsal, too, and I get really irritated when people don’t want to rehearse. (Laughs)
You’re recognizable to a lot of people as Annie Talarico from Treme. Can you give an overview of your career trajectory in the five years between Treme’s final season and your PBS special from June of last year? (PBS re-aired An Evening with Lucia Micarelli in March.)
After Treme … what did I do? I went on tour with Barbra Streisand for a minute, and went back and played with Chris Botti a little bit, but I was really itching to do something, synthesize something with the new musical worlds I had discovered while doing Treme. Treme was so wild because I think going into it I was like, “This is going to be really different because I’ve never acted before.” (Laughs) and I get there and David (Simon, Treme’s executive producer) just had me jumping into as many musical situations as possible. I think I may have even felt like “New Orleans music” was a category (laughs) or like a genre. Then I get there and there’s jazz and trad jazz, there’s Cajun fiddle and bounce and there’s … endless. There’s so much. And David Simon just had me jumping in all the time with everybody, and it was just like this barrage of information. It was David pushing my character to collaborate, but also what was really big for me with Treme was meeting Steve Earle and becoming friends with him. We had a weird life-imitating-art sort of relationship whereas (Earle’s character) Harley was always encouraging Annie to sort of step up and sing more, and write more, Steve was doing that with me in real life, where Steve was like, “You should sing more. You should write a song.” I had never written a song before that. I had never sung before that, then Steve pushed me to write a song, or try to, and the first song I ever tried to write, I wrote the melody and Steve wrote the lyrics, and Steve wound up putting (“After Mardi Gras”) on his next record. I worked on a record for a really long time, which is finally done and will be coming out later this year. And just putting a show together. I knew I wanted to do a solo show and I knew it was going to be kind of weird. I’ve never really seen a show like the one I was imagining and never really heard programming in a concert, especially like a violin concert, like the programming I was imagining. That took some time and a lot of brainstorming, and working with arrangers, including my husband (Neel Hammond), who is also a violinist. Just us playing around with things and trying to come up with the sound we wanted, the instrumentation we would want in doing live shows and how plausible I would be. Obviously, we would all love to play with a symphony orchestra all the time, wouldn’t we? (Laughs)
Did you get married after Treme?
I got married during Treme. I met him right before I started Treme, actually. We met through a friend who’s going to be coming with me to Vegas, this wonderful cellist named Vanessa Freebairn-Smith, who now plays with me all the time. I met Vanessa when I was on tour with Josh Groban. She and I were both on tour with Josh, I was living in New York at the time and we were on the road. She was in a string quartet with my future husband. They came to L.A. to play a show, and her string quartet came to the show, and that’s when I met him. … It’s such an awesome group, too. I’ve just been so lucky that I get to play with these people. My pianist Robert Thies won the Prokofiev Competition (in 1995), which is so badass. He’s an amazing classical player but he’s also a great jazz player and just the sweetest guy. Totally pushes me. Everybody who I play with does. I want to play with people who inspire me and maybe intimidate me a little bit, and teach me stuff and make me better.
There is a fabled third album you’ve completed. I think you’ve mentioned exploring the music of Arvo Pärt and Ennio Morricone, as well as revisiting Treme.
I’ve got a Pärt piece on the record and a Morricone piece. I’ll be playing those live, actually. Most of the stuff I’ll be playing in Vegas is on the new album, is on the PBS special, on the PBS accompanying live album. Arvo Pärt is just pretty … pretty weird.
Your 2007 album Interludes contrasted with your debut, kind of experimental with spoken word tracks.
I’ve gotten some messages from people when they’ve heard that second record, like: “What is this? Just make a second record like your first one!” And I get it. If you like the first record, the second record is really weird. Then there’s a lot of people who don’t like the first record at all and love the second record, but I don’t even think I came into my own until this record. I’m really excited about this record and the PBS special because everything is my choice and my programming, and my voice and my idea executed from start to finish. I can really stand behind this and say, “Yes, this was thought out and planned, and done the way I wanted it to be done.”
You had accomplished quite a lot before Treme showrunner David Simon put out the call for a violinist. How do you go from leaving music school before graduation to becoming choirmaster for TSO at age 20?
(Laughs) I don’t know. Everything just happened. Things just happen. I went to Julliard when I was 11. I think by the time I got to college I was like, “Man, I’ve already been in conservatory for 11 years. It was also like, when I got to college is when I finally left home, and so I stopped having that sheltered … violin in the practice room, staring out the window at the other kids.
Did you feel like you missed out on other aspects of life and wanted to catch up?
What I really wanted to do was catch up musically. I had this overwhelming feeling that, even though I was well-trained in this one specific thing, I wasn’t a well-rounded musician. I had this experience when I was like, 18. Basically I left home and when I was in college I really just wanted to play other kinds of music. I was always asking people, “How do I get to play with a band?” or “How do I play jazz?” I had a friend who would throw me these $50 gigs. … I was like, “Oh, my God, I’ve been playing violin since I was 3, but if somebody doesn’t put music in front of me or tell me what to play, I don’t know what to do.”
Annie’s character was drawn in part from your life experiences. Do you think her career path would have followed your own in the years since the series ended?
I don’t know! I have no idea. That’s a David Simon question. He knew those characters better than any of us did.