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Play It Forward: Thanksgiving Edition, Pt.1


Every musician hopes their art touches someone else. Maybe it'll inspire someone, console them, make them feel less alone. Well, every Thanksgiving Day on this show for six years running, we've turned that idea into a musical chain of gratitude.


SHAPIRO: We ask an artist to tell us about someone whose music inspires them. Then we go to that person and ask them to do the same. In past years, the rapper Leikeli47 told us about her childhood memories of Chick Corea's jazz piano albums.


LEIKELI47: And I would just sit on that porch, and I would just listen over and over and over and over. And it was just like, yeah, this is what I want to do.

SHAPIRO: Broadway and soul singer Shoshana Bean described how R&B singer Brian McKnight became an inspiration and mentor to her.


SHOSHANA BEAN: You know, he gave me a chance on a huge platform that, you know, not many people would think to give someone like me.

SHAPIRO: And so early this year, we decided to break this holiday tradition out of a Thanksgiving jello mold. And we started a recurring segment called Play It Forward.


SHAPIRO: Each episode had one artist, starting with the DJ-producer Caribou, who told us about a transgender man whose music was lost in obscurity for decades, Beverly Glenn-Copeland.


CARIBOU: It was kind of this guiding light as to, oh, this is - music can do this, and this is how it can do it. It is so captivating, so packed with emotion, so beautiful.


BEVERLY GLENN-COPELAND: (Singing) Welcome the spring and the summer rain, softly turned to sing again.

SHAPIRO: So that was the start of Season 1 back in March. Well, today and tomorrow, we're going to bring you Season 2 in its entirety as a Thanksgiving special. And to kick off the chain, we have a duo that knows something about musical gratitude because they have been making music together since the '80s, the Indigo Girls.


SHAPIRO: Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, the Indigo Girls, welcome to Play It Forward.



RAY: It's good to talk to you.

SALIERS: Yay. We love NPR.

SHAPIRO: Oh, thanks. This whole project is about musical gratitude. And in a few minutes, I'm going to ask you to tell us about a musician you're grateful for. But you two have known each other since elementary school. You've been making music together for more than 30 years. To start off, could you just tell us about what you're grateful for about each other?

SALIERS: A lot of things.

SHAPIRO: Is that Emily?

SALIERS: Yeah, this is Emily. I'm thankful for Amy's integrity as a person, a human being, and I'm thankful for Amy's songwriting and for her musical sensibilities. So those are just a couple of things. There's a million more I could list, but those come to mind.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Amy, what are you grateful for about Emily?

RAY: Can I say the same things?



RAY: I'm grateful for Emily's, I want to say, like, strength and perseverance in this career because I think we've needed that in order to survive for as long and know each other since we were 10, which is 45 years. So I'm thankful for that and her artistry.


INDIGO GIRLS: (Singing) Look long, look long, look long.

RAY: She tends to write a lot of songs that folks can sing along with, which is not the same skill set I have, and I'm lucky that she has that and that it enables us to resonate more I think.


INDIGO GIRLS: (Singing) On the brink of loss we take our last shot.

SHAPIRO: You know, when I was listening to your music in the '90s, I felt like queer identity was just below the surface of a lot of your songs. And on this album, in a song like "Country Radio," it is right there in the lyrics.


INDIGO GIRLS: (Singing) I'm just a gay kid in a small town who loves country radio.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about the difference between the world of music that you were releasing this album into and the one that you were working in earlier in your career.

RAY: Wow.

SALIERS: Amy, do you want to start this one?

RAY: This is Amy. Yeah. We were very lucky because we came along at a time when all these icons like, you know, k.d. lang, Melissa Etheridge, like, gay icons were coming out. And so we were given that ability to be strong and kind of comfortably come out. And, you know, both of us, I think, had a lot of self-hate and internalized homophobia along the way, of course. But our community of listeners kind of grew up with us.


INDIGO GIRLS: (Singing) To turn you on so I can live like that boy. I wanna be that girl. I wanna know what it's like to find love like most of the rest of the world.

SHAPIRO: Emily, you want to weigh in here?

SALIERS: Well, "Country Radio" is really - it's a song about feeling other than because I love country music, I love the songs and I love the voices. I love the stories. But I could not fit my life - I knew that these songs were written by men and women about men and women. It's like our stories don't get told when we're not included. And for me, it turned into an emotional feeling of wistfulness and loneliness. And so the song describes that.

SHAPIRO: OK, now it is your turn to tell us about an artist that you are thankful for, somebody whose music you appreciate. Who do you want to introduce us to?

RAY: There's a poet, spoken word artist, writer, performer who I just, like, got turned on to her. And this happened when we were in the studio making "Look Long." And John Reynolds said, our producer, have you heard of Kate Tempest (ph)? And I was like, no. And then he played something. And I was just shocked. It was so amazingly good and riveting.


KAE TEMPEST: (Rapping) Eyes full of morning spent without sleeping. Grew up in a city where it's hard to be heard and nothing really has much meaning.

RAY: A true poet like the greats, like the most literary class you can take, you know, and you don't even need to hear it. You can just read it and feel that way.


TEMPEST: (Rapping) Becky clears up from the lunch rush, crushed by the blank eyes, impolite customers thrusting their damp fives into her palms. She thinks, there ain't no harm in being civil though, is there?

SALIERS: She brings these big ideas down to something so human that each one of us experiences.

RAY: The willingness for her to love humanity through the darkness makes me hopeful.


TEMPEST: (Rapping) But will it be this way forever? These are lonely days. What if she could be the one that makes it better? He looks away, can't hold her gaze. But will it be this way forever?

SHAPIRO: Well, we are going to go to Kate Tempest next. So what would you like to say to her?

RAY: (Laughter).

SALIERS: Thank you.

RAY: Yeah, and gosh, carry on, please. Carry on.

SHAPIRO: Emily Saliers and Amy Ray, the Indigo Girls, thank you so much for talking with us about your music and someone who you're grateful for.

RAY: Thanks, Ari.

SALIERS: It was great talking to you, really appreciate it.

SHAPIRO: Their new album is called "Look Long."


SHAPIRO: We recorded that conversation with the Indigo Girls a while ago, and since then, Kate Tempest put out a statement saying they are going by the name Kae now and using they/them pronouns. Their publicist checked and said we were fine to air both of these interviews as they were recorded.


SHAPIRO: And Kate Tempest joins us now from London. Thank you for being here. Welcome to Play It Forward.

TEMPEST: Thanks for having me. I'm really happy to be here.

SHAPIRO: Well, what's your reaction to what we just heard from the Indigo Girls to start?

TEMPEST: I feel honored that people are paying such close attention to my work. I feel - you know, what can I say? Feels - I feel lucky.


TEMPEST: (Rapping) I came to under a red moon, thirsty for water.

SHAPIRO: They specifically mentioned your willingness to love humanity through the darkness. Does that come naturally to you or do you have to work at finding that love in spite of the darkness?

TEMPEST: I think that it is - it's hard work. It's a process, and it's a practice. It demands a certain amount of a kind of willingness to defeat the parts of you that want to go first to despair or want to go first to hurt or distrust to actually try and override that. It's not easy for sure when you get (unintelligible) of people (laughter).

SHAPIRO: I mean, like, what does the practice involve?

TEMPEST: It's about looking again. It's basically allowing yourself or in fact demanding that you notice and feel and tune into the idea that every single other person is existing as ferocious a frequency as you are. Empathy is about hearing other people's stories before telling your own and just having an awareness of that at all times.


TEMPEST: (Rapping) But it's so hard. We got our heads down and our hackles up, our backs against the wall. I can feel your heart racing. None of this was written in stone. The current's fast, but the river moves slow, and I can feel things changing even when I'm weak.

For me personally, it's about noticing particular attention. And as soon as I pay particular attention to anything, like a really mundane household object suddenly becomes something that's extremely beautiful and is full of life and has a lot to teach me. I mean, I say that because I'm looking at a coffee pot (laughter). So I'm like, can I feel that about this? I think it has to be a living thing. I just heard myself say that. I was like, oh, I'm - that's - I'm going a bit far there. It has to be a person at least.

SHAPIRO: I mean, it reminds me of the lyrics of the song "People's Faces." I mean, the last line is I love people's faces. And it speaks directly to what you're describing right now.


TEMPEST: I love people's faces.

Yeah, that's it, for sure. That's, like, the truest line. It's a mad thing because I spent my entire life putting words together and then I feel like that particular line is just the closest I've ever come to telling just the clearest truth that I could. That is it. I love people's faces. That's pretty much it.

SHAPIRO: Well, Kate Tempest, it's your turn to play it forward. Who would you like to tell us about? A musician who you appreciate, who you feel grateful for.

TEMPEST: I would like to appreciate and show my gratitude to Lianne La Havas.


LIANNE LA HAVAS: (Singing) It seems that I won't be warned.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about her. Why did you choose her?

TEMPEST: There is something that happens when I hear her sing, which is so uplifting.


LA HAVAS: (Singing) I raged like a woman scorned. But something about you got me gone. You're pulling me back and now I'm going under.

TEMPEST: I feel like the way that she selects melody and the way that she embodies those melodies, her guitar playing, the placement of the breath in the lines that she sings, I just find it extremely uplifting and healing. And I think she's one of these people - they have put all of this effort into making it appear effortless.

SHAPIRO: What song of hers can we play to introduce listeners to that beauty that you're describing?

TEMPEST: You know what? I was lucky enough to be at the Albert Hall when she did a gig, like, a kind of homecoming gig in London. And she did a cover version just with her on the guitar singing Aretha Franklin's "Say A Little Prayer."


LA HAVAS: Here it goes.

TEMPEST: I mean, that's a challenging song to cover, right? Like, I was - it was such a beautiful moment.


LA HAVAS: (Singing) The moment I wake up, before I put on my makeup, I say a little prayer for.

SHAPIRO: Well, we're going to go to Lianne La Havas next, what would you like to say to her?

TEMPEST: I'd like to say thank you for making me feel less alone in the world...


LA HAVAS: (Singing) I say a little prayer for you.

TEMPEST: ...And for putting your heart into everything you sing and play. And I'd like to say thanks for all your music.


LA HAVAS: (Singing) And ever. We never will part.

SHAPIRO: Kate Tempest's most recent album is called "The Book Of Traps And Lessons." Thank you so much for talking with us. It's really been a pleasure.

TEMPEST: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thank you so much. And thanks to the Indigo Girls.

SHAPIRO: And Lianne La Havas joins us now from a car in London. Thank you for being here. Welcome.

LA HAVAS: Oh, my God. What a lovely way to start a conversation (laughter) with somebody...

SHAPIRO: What's your reaction to what you've just heard from Kate Tempest?

LA HAVAS: Somebody, as you know, insightful and deep as Kate saying something like that about me - and I just think I'm a kind of goofball.


LA HAVAS: It's like - yeah, I'm really, really touched.

SHAPIRO: Well, you've just released this new self-titled, full-length album, and I'd love to listen to one of the tracks from it. How about "Paper Thin"?

LA HAVAS: Go for it.


LA HAVAS: (Singing) Paper thin - God only knows the pain you're in. The future's bright. You've got God on your side. He's listening.

SHAPIRO: You've said that this track sparked the album. What did you mean by that?

LA HAVAS: I remember playing the demo to a very dear, close friend of mine. She was like, this just sounds like you. And no one had said that to me before. I was like, oh, my God, that's what I need. I want something to sound like me.


LA HAVAS: (Singing) You'll never win. It's your life, but you're not the only who's suffering.

SHAPIRO: Where you end up at the end of the album is where we begin the album. I mean, the track that I have been playing over and over again is the bookend song "Bittersweet." And I feel like everyone is kind of trying to do their best to just keep it together. And when the chorus of this track hits, it's like you're not even pretending anymore. Like, the mask drops and it just feels very real.


LA HAVAS: (Singing) Bittersweet summer rain. I'm born again. Oh, no more hanging around.

SHAPIRO: Will you tell us what you're singing about here?

LA HAVAS: Yeah. The verses, I think, are very literal. That is, like, about my relationship and, like, how I needed to get out of it and kind of get to know myself again. And so then the chorus is a bit more, like, metaphorical, you know, using the analogy of being cleansed by the rain of a new season. You know, that was perhaps me entering a new phase of my own life and, you know, making a big change. And no matter how painful it was, that's where the bittersweet thing comes in. It was the right thing to do.


LA HAVAS: (Singing) Bittersweet summer rain, I'm born again. All my broken pieces - bittersweet summer rain, I'm born again.

I'm very proud of this vocal.


LA HAVAS: (Singing) No more hanging around.

I feel like I was able to sing in a way that I felt like I could inside of me. I knew that that was there somewhere, but I don't think I'd ever got it on record before.

SHAPIRO: Well, Lianne La Havas, it is your turn to keep this chain moving forward and tell us about somebody whose music you are grateful for. Who would you like to introduce us to?

LA HAVAS: I want to introduce you to - not that he needs any introduction, but this person is one of the greatest musicians ever. His name is Nick Hakim.


NICK HAKIM: (Singing) Oh, we have fallen.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about a song of his that we can play to give us a sense of what his music is like.

LA HAVAS: I have picked a song from his latest album. This song is called "Qadir."


HAKIM: (Singing) Into a sunken space with glass surrounding the powers that are pounding in the temple in the mind. There seems to be a complexity to being kind.

LA HAVAS: My heart is, like - it makes my heart beat faster. It's just pure pleasure, basically.

SHAPIRO: Well, we're going to go to Nick Hakim next. What would you like to say to him?

LA HAVAS: I would like to say that I just really appreciate your music and your talent and your craft. The sound of your voice is heavenly, and the sound of your world takes me to a place that can only be described as witchcraft (laughter). It's spellbinding.

SHAPIRO: Lianne La Havas, congratulations on your new third album, and thank you so much for talking with us.

LA HAVAS: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: And Nick Hakim joins us now. Welcome to Play It Forward.

HAKIM: Hey. Hello. Wow, that was really, really, really, really - I did not expect to hear all that right now.

SHAPIRO: Well, what's your reaction to what we just heard from Lianne La Havas?

HAKIM: Well, a lot of those feelings are - you know, I feel the same way. And I also was - you know, I've known about Lianne's music and been a fan of hers for - since she started putting stuff out in, like, 2000 - like, '09 or 2010 or something. And, like, I just - you know, it's been so amazing to be able to create a friendship with her and to collaborate with her. And that's really sweet to hear.

SHAPIRO: On your new album, "Will This Make Me Good," there is a song that has just three words layered and repeated - let it out.


HAKIM: (Singing) Let it out. Let it out. Let it out. Let it out. Let it out. Let it out. Let it out. Let it out.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about how you craft a song out of a phrase as simple as that.

HAKIM: I think that song took the shortest amount of time to finish because it's so - it's pretty bare. It's a loop of something that I've - that - I don't even know. It was, like, in my little - my little library of stuff that I have. And then I added a keyboard on top of it. And then, yeah, I just sang let it out and - I don't know. It's kind of hard to explain. It just happened in, like, 20 minutes.


HAKIM: (Singing) Let it out. Let it out. Let it out. Let it out.

SHAPIRO: When you write a track like this, is there any little voice in the back of your head that says, no, you got to get a chorus and a verse...

HAKIM: No. No.

SHAPIRO: ...And a bridge and a hook - no, not at all?

HAKIM: No, no. Because songwriting isn't - it's not about that. It's like, who can tell you what a song is, you know? A song can be anything. If you say it's complete, then it's complete.


SHAPIRO: Even though the album deals with serious themes, you never seem to take yourself too seriously. Like, you filmed a Tiny Desk (Home) Concert for our friends at NPR Music. And after each track, you played an applause sound effect.


SHAPIRO: It's just like - it really kind of punctuates the moment.


HAKIM: Thank you. Yeah. I hope everybody's doing all right.


HAKIM: Yeah. You know, I like to create a little world, and it was really strange, like, releasing music and not being able to play for people. So I have this little thing that I bought at - I don't know - maybe like CVS or something. And it has all these, like, applause and, like, sound effects. And there's like a boo - like (booing) or these like - it's really funny. So we all kind of hide behind something (laughter).

SHAPIRO: You're hiding behind a little thing from CVS that plays applause and boo sounds.

HAKIM: (Laughter) Yeah, maybe not hide, but we all, like, you know - I think we all try to find fun ways to make light of something that might be really serious, you know?


HAKIM: (Singing) Rip it all apart and carefully dissect your mess.

SHAPIRO: And you can hear who Nick Hakim is thankful for tomorrow when we bring you the rest of Season 2 of Play It Forward.


HAKIM: (Singing) Reorganize and try to find your self-love that you've suppressed. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.