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On the Right Path

Evilena Protektore

Dancing on the roof, fateful encounters, unplanned recordings, living in the bubble of stress… the adventures of Arta Jēkabsone in New York and beyond.

Evilena Protektore

This summer, our fantastic jazz singer Arta Jēkabsone visited Latvia. She had been living in New York for several years now— initially for studies, but now in the active flow of creativity. In recent years, there have been various novelties, always positive, but the latest one was so impressive that I couldn’t miss the opportunity to catch Arta for a small conversation. How could I not talk about her second album as a duo with a German singer, winning the Lielā Mūzikas Balva award (Grand Music Award), a concert with Aaron Parks, and life in general, far away from us, in foreign lands? I must admit that catching the singer was quite challenging — if she’s not somewhere outside Riga in masterclasses, then she has a concert outside the capital, and even if there is a concert in Riga, there are rehearsals… We managed somehow because sometimes you just want to talk, not constantly create art! So, here’s a review of what has been done in the last three years!

The last time we spoke was when it was still the time of the pandemic, and you were still in New York! You were still a student, and now everything has changed. Did you get that «artist visa» you applied for?

Yes! But now I already need to prepare for the next one! It will be three years in February.

Wow, I feel you…! I believe it’s not the most pleasant process…

I see it this way — it’s a cool way to reflect on the three-year period of what you’ve done, what concerts and projects have been, and what’s next because you also have to show that you have a plan for the next three years.

Okay, then we’ll prepare you for the visa application process — tell me, what has happened in these three years! [laughs] I saw that you had a concert with Aaron Parks!

That story was fascinating! During the pandemic, everything was closed, and there was the Jazz Gallery, where I played quite actively (at least once a year, I played my program). Then, the gallery’s artistic director, Rio Sakairi, came up with the idea of ​​doing «Lockdown Sessions,» where four artists create a 15-minute video concert set. We gathered on Zoom, played it, and had a panel discussion where we talked among ourselves and commented on what we’d watched. I was in the first event with Aaron, saxophonist Dayna Stephens, and pianist Dan Tepfer. I was so unbelievably stressed because it seemed to me — how could it be that they put me together with such people! I don’t know anything at all. Before that, Theo Bleckmann set a high bar, and he sang half-naked in a bathtub, creating acoustic sound with his voice… In other words, in that 15-minute set, you can come up with what you want — it can be free improvisation, and you can add visualizations. I decided to sing one original composition in the first session, then another with the loop station, and also the standard «Somewhere Over The Rainbow» — performing it on the roof seemed cool! You couldn’t go anywhere in lockdown, so I thought it would be nice to do it on the roof! So, I did a free improvisation dance routine. Then there was the folk song «Tumša nakte, zaļa zāle» («Dark Night, Green Grass»). Everyone reacted very positively; my schoolmates who had joined Zoom to support me said, «Wow! Aaron! Enter the comments, and read what he writes about you!» He was so excited and said I was so positive; something like that was needed for a long time… After the project, I wrote him a letter, saying it was very nice to be together in one session and that I hoped our paths would cross when everything was open again. He sent back a very warm and inspiring letter.

Evilena Protektore

After two years, I thought it would be cool to reach out, but there was no courage… Then, last summer, I was in Latvia, and I posted a picture on Instagram saying that I was going back to New York in two days, and he replied, saying: «Hey, when you’re in New York, it would be cool to jam!» My heart just started pounding. Well, then we set a date to meet; I went to his place and spent a whole day with his family, playing music. It was a surreal feeling like it was a dream… It felt like we had known each other for a long time. We played music together for hours; he gave me his songs to sing, and I gave him mine; then we went for a walk in the small town where he lives, and he said he had a vision of how we could collaborate! Then I went on tour, he went on tour, and then he sent me a letter: «Alright! Are you free on January 26th, 27th? Let’s do a concert at Mezzrow Jazz Club!»


Then he gave me the next task — to write lyrics for his songs! So I did…

Yes, that sounds like one hell of an adventure! Will there be more concerts with him?

We stay in touch, so hopefully, there will be!

Super! Congratulations! How is it in America now? I’ve heard many stories about musicians leaving America; what’s happening? It seems like a place where jazz musicians have always wanted to be…

The political situation is very unstable; some things can only be resolved slowly, and everything becomes much more expensive. The quality of life — you’re stressed all the time… That’s what I often hear from colleagues.

It’s strange, people who don’t live there want to move there, but those who already live there leave…

Perhaps the saying that fits well here is «the grass is always greener.» People may be looking for new vibes and new challenges and want to change the environment for a while to grow and better understand themselves. Being abroad often works because you are forced to adapt to new conditions and discover new facets of yourself.

But have you ever considered moving to another state?

You know, I’ve had the opportunity to travel around; I’ve been to Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the Midwest. Of all the places, San Francisco and Chicago are the two places where I consider trying to live. I don’t know why; they just appealed to me energetically. But I still need all the seasons. In a way, New York is similar to Latvia; there are winter, summer, spring, and autumn.

Just very expensive!

Well, yes. [laughs] But you have to learn to live differently, think about what you eat, how much you sleep, which projects to say yes to, learn to say no. Many people are also tired of the perpetual hustle; you’re constantly working, working, working. As soon as you leave New York, it’s a bit more peaceful, especially somewhere in nature. I also don’t plan to stay in New York forever; the environment is very active, but there are times when you need peace. The city doesn’t provide peace; you are constantly in the bubble. It’s great for a young person, but the question is — for how long? At the same time, New York has the advantage — you can walk everywhere on foot! In other cities, you need a car.

Yes, I noticed that in Houston — there aren’t even sidewalks anywhere!

That’s dangerous! In that sense, New York is cool; there’s the subway, you can go everywhere, and everything is perfectly arranged!

Evilena Protektore

Well, you had another big event — the Great Music Award!


How did you find out that you were nominated?

Anna Veismane sent me a message on Facebook congratulating me! I thought — what, how? I was very surprised. Later, emails followed. I hadn’t counted on being considered for such things, but it was also interesting — in the category where I was (the young artist of the year), there were also students from the Riga Dome Choir School, which is a group of many people, then a trio. I thought it was interesting to put us together…

Well, probably it’s not about the artist as a person but about an «artistic unit.»

It is an entirely different world. But you know, it’s interesting. I also hadn’t planned to go to Latvia because March was quite busy, but then I got a message from «Latvijas Koncerti» that it would be very nice if I came and performed at the ceremony. I really appreciate that they covered travel expenses and helped organize everything. Then, both I and Matīss Čudars flew over.

Yes, it’s interesting that neither of you lives in Latvia!

Although I don’t live in Latvia, in any competition or project I participate in, I present myself as a Latvian; it’s my identity. But it’s interesting that when you leave, people start to be more interested in you, although we also carry the name of Latvia in the world. We do our thing, not for the sake of awards but because we like what we do, and it’s nice when someone sees it.

Indeed. Did it give you more motivation to do something else? Inspiration?

Of course! This nomination doesn’t mean you’ve reached your goal, and don’t go further! In New York, no one cares; you constantly have to improve yourself. But it gives a stimulus — yes, I’m on the right path! And yes, I started to focus more on myself and what I need as an artist because, in that constant hustle, you’re always trying to develop your projects. Still, there are always some hurdles, let’s say financial, or suddenly a band member moves somewhere else — how not to break and keep moving forward. There’s always the question for yourself — are you in the right place? Then, such nominations or successes in competitions confirm that I’m on the right trajectory and must not slack off now. I have to go and continue! An artist needs some kind of goal.

Creatively, things are also happening for you — another album with Erik [Leuthäuser]!

Yes! It was a product of the pandemic! With Erik, it’s an eternal flight; you never know when and what will happen! It was the same with the first album — I didn’t realize we would release it! It just happened! It’s the same now — in 2020, before the pandemic, I was in Germany. There was a festival where I performed, and I met Erik. He said — we need to record something! It would be nice just to meet and sing! We booked a studio for four hours; in that time, three new songs were created with Dean Wilson’s poetry! Then his colleague mixed and mastered it, and then Erik said: «You know, everything is ready; I’ll just send it to Dean to show that we like his poetry, let him see that someone is using it.» We sent it to him, and three weeks later, a letter arrived — thanks for this gift! Then he said he would be happy if we recorded an album with his poetry. Then, his publicist, who was also a videographer, got involved. He was making a movie about Dean and asked if he could use our compositions in the movie! All three compositions were used in the movie, and people reacted positively to the music! Then, an independent record label, «Irregular Patterns,» took us under their wing, and during the pandemic, Erik was in New York, and we recorded the remaining part.

That sounds like a game of Tetris, where figures appear randomly, and you have to quickly figure out where to place them for everything to work out…

Exactly! And with Erik, it’s like that all the time! He always has some ideas; we do it because it’s fun, we want something fresh, and with Erik, it is always fresh. The best part was that we also performed that program at the Jazz Gallery! It was challenging because we couldn’t play this music as a duo; there were like fifty layers in one song! Okay, not fifty, but so many that it just can’t be done with a loop station. So we invited a fantastic pianist who also works with various electronics, Kengchakaj, a fantastic and versatile musician… How he listens, how he feels! It was the best way this music could sound; he elevated that music to another level!

By the way, you have a master’s degree in the music business; it means you organize everything yourself? Do you actually use what you learned in school?

I write to festivals, book concerts for myself, and deal with video things; the only thing that doesn’t work for me is posters, but this summer, Krists Saržants did wonderful designs for our concerts. Grant application writing — education helps with that. I see myself as a small business; that’s how I operate.

Isn’t it overwhelming that you have to divide your time between artistic and administrative work?

It’s difficult sometimes, spending a lot of time at the computer, writing projects. It breaks my heart sometimes that it consumes so much time, and I can’t devote myself properly to training. But someday, it will be easier.

So, what are your plans for the next three years?

Finally, I must tackle my albums because the first one was in 2017. It’s time for another!

Evilena Protektore