KENSINGTON – For her sixth birthday, Lucy Kalantari got a piano and $30 she used not on toys, but on piano lessons. This year, she received a Grammy for the Best Children’s Album. We talked to Kalantari earlier this week about her life and her music.
Born in New Jersey, she was raised in the Dominican Republic by her mother. As a teenager, she moved back to the United States to live with her father. After graduating college, the next stop was Brooklyn and she has lived here ever since.
“Well, back in the 90s,” she laughed, “this was the hip place to come. A lot of artists live here. I’ve always been a city girl. There’s something about being around a lot of people that I just really enjoy. So, it just felt natural coming to Brooklyn.”
She says she is lucky because her parents encouraged her to follow her passion, music, from an early age.
“It’s funny because I am the sixth of six,” she laughed. “By the time I came along, it was just ‘Keep yourself out of trouble.'”
In the Dominican Republic, her mom signed her up for piano lessons. When Kalantari came to New York to be with her dad, he drove a long way to take her to lessons. And he’d wait outside until she was done to take her home. She is grateful for her parents’ many sacrifices to help her become the musician she is.
“Music is my language. Sometimes it feels like words aren’t enough and so that’s the thing that I feel connected to the most,” she said. “I’m always hearing melodies going through my head.”
Kalantari is the lead singer in a band called Lucy Kalantari & the Jazz Cats. One day, they were doing a Halloween show and she told her bandmates, “Hey, can you be my jazz cats?” And they all dressed up with cat ears. “We just had to be Lucy Kalantari & the Jazz Cats,” she said.
Kalantari’s 6-year-old son has been a huge inspiration for his mother.
When Darius was born, Kalantari wrote a song a week. Every time she played the song on a ukelele, she said she’d notice that his face would brighten up and he’d get very excited – even at three months old. She eventually started playing those songs for a mom group she was in. Their children had the same reactions as Darius, which prompted Kalantari to keep going.
“Playing for children is a lot more fun than everything else I had done before,” she said. “There’s a lot of dancing, there’s a lot of letting go. It’s clearer to me about what I should do and my instincts feel more sound. And it’s just fun.”
Every week, Kalantari does a Spanish singalong for the little ones at LARK Cafe on Church Avenue. She said part of making music is always remembering what the intention is. Kalantari wants to connect with the community and have people feel music in their hearts. Singing in Spanish is very important to her because it reminds her of her roots, and it exposes children to other languages, she said.
“Kids are sponges. They will learn everything you put in front of them,” she said. “I feel like it’s a really important time to expose children to all the wonderful things; everything from language to different foods, to different cultures.”
Watching his mother sing and play instruments, inspired Darius to play them, too.
When Darius was about two-and-a-half-year-old, Kalantari gave him a ukelele. Then he saw someone playing a cello in a youtube video.
“He stated pretending his ukelele was a cello. He’d hold it upright and he’d take his drumstick and pretend it was a bow,” Kalantari said. “He’d ask to watch the music videos over and over again. He’d study the movements of the bow.”
When Kalantari realized Darius was serious about learning to play the cello, she told him that if he was still interested when he hit three years old (which at that time was three months away), then she’d sign him up for cello lessons.
“He started telling everybody, everybody who would listen, ‘When I turn three, I am going to play a real cello.’ And he did. And he still does.”
On the day the Grammy nominations were announced, it was her son’s birthday. The plan was to celebrate at his school with his classmates. Darius had requested banana muffins. Kalantari would bake them fresh in the morning to bring to school later.
When she pulled into the driveway after dropping Darius off at school, Kalantari began getting texts. Without reading them, she called her husband and told him “I think it happened!” Eventually, her publicist called with the good news– Lucy Kalantari & the Jazz Cats were nominated for a Grammy for Best Children’s Album for “All the Sounds.”
“I’m like – this is awesome and I cried and my husband and I hugged,” she said. “And then I’m like, it’s time to make the muffins.”
On February 10, Kalantari, her family, and her bandmates were sitting inside the Staples Center in Los Angeles for the 61st Annual Grammy Awards. Then, the winner for Best Children’s Album was announced.
“I let go. I screamed. I totally screamed,” she said. “I had tried to prepare myself in my head for all the different outcomes. Whether or not we won, it was such an honor to even be nominated.”
But it did not really sink in until she told her mom, who did not know what a Grammy was.
“I called her and told her ‘Look, this is the highest musical honor in the United States.’ She made that sound and I knew she got it. She got excited,” Kalantari said. “When I told my mom, that’s when I realized the weight of it.”
Talking about overcoming obstacles, Kalantari says she’s noticed that the “walls are mostly self-imposed.”
“We put these barriers in terms of limitations to our own imagination,” she said. “I’ve done music my whole life. I stayed with certain things, but I also changed certain styles. I think that’s the barrier. We get stuck in this idea of what we think we want. We should continue exploring and pushing, re-inventing and understanding. Just staying true to ourselves and our work. And then apparently, you win a Grammy sometimes.”
For now, Kalantari is busying herself with interviews and music. She hopes to continue making music and having it resonate in people’s hearts.
“I’ve been making music all my life. All my life, I’ve been feeling music,” she said. “So to continue down this path and suddenly be recognized for the art that I create is really humbling.”
To download or listen to her music, check out her website.