As the PBS special An Evening With Lucia Micarelli airs throughout the month of March on PBS, New York born violinist, singer and actress Lucia Micarelli will be in studio locally to promote the project Tuesday, March 13th at 7:30PM on WTTW TV (channel 11). I spoke with Micarelli about her first PBS special, the importance of music in the classroom and growing as a musician over the course of four seasons in New Orleans portraying Annie on the HBO series Treme...
From a young age, Lucia Micarelli was surrounded by music, picking up the violin at the age of 3 and performing her first concerts at the age of only 6.
Over the years, she's toured with artists like the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Jethro Tull, Josh Groban and Chris Botti.
But even life on the road and a classically trained proficiency on her instrument couldn't fully prepare her for the experience of portraying street musician Annie Talarico over the course of four seasons in New Orleans on the David Simon created HBO program Treme.
Treme told the story of life in post-Katrina New Orleans through the unique people and sounds that characterize it. The frequent inclusion of local residents and musicians, as opposed to solely professional actors and actresses, gave the program a distinct flavor as it reminded viewers that, at that point, almost ten years after the hurricane, the people of New Orleans continued to struggle in a city that still hasn't been fully rebuilt.
As a New Orleans street musician, the role of Annie was one that combined both acting and music. But for Micarelli, the role was her very first acting job.
"You’re acting for the first time and there’s John Goodman and Wendell Pierce and Melissa Leo," Micarelli joked. "I totally thought the challenge would be the acting. Because I don’t’ know how to do that. The music, I thought I could handle... But the music was so much more challenging than I expected."
For a musician familiar with the structure and proficiency required by the classical world, the improvisation that defines the jazz which lives as the backbone of music in New Orleans was difficult for Micarelli in her portrayal of Annie.
"[The music] doesn’t have to be perfect in order to move another person. If you can move another person, or you’ve connected with another person, then you’ve done something. Then music makes sense. We use it to connect," she said. "Being in New Orleans was fantastic for that."
Promoting her very first PBS special Tuesday, March 13th, Micarelli will discuss An Evening With Lucia Micarelli at 7:30PM on WTTW 11 as the special itself continues to air throughout the month. During that special, Micarelli will also announce an upcoming Chicago concert appearance. I spoke with her about public broadcasting, listening and learning on the set of Treme and much more. A lightly edited transcript of that phone conversation follows below.
Q. This is a different type of tour for you, stopping by these PBS stations to promote the new special. What's that been like so far?
Lucia Micarelli: It’s all been kind of surreal. I mean, it’s been great. I still just can’t quite believe that I’m going to be on PBS. I grew up with PBS. I remember so vividly watching so many of my idols. Sitting in front of the TV and watching.
Even when I got the final cut of the show from the video editor to approve, I started watching it and I saw that PBS logo and went, “Oh my God!”
It’s pretty funny. I’ve recorded some short video promos saying things like, “Your donation means so much!” Especially for stations that I grew up watching like WLIW or New York 13, I was like crying.
So, it’s just surreal. It’s been great.
Q. Well, let's talk about the special. What can fans look forward to?
LM: I think it’s pretty unusual. I am a classically trained violinist so that’s pretty much what I do most of the time. So, there’s definitely some classical repertoire in there.
But I’ve kind of just fell into a lot of different things in my career. I just met people and had all these weird experiences and as a result of that... Like I didn’t intend on getting a jazz education in New Orleans for four years but that happened. I didn’t intend to tour or end up with working with some of the artists that I have. I never would’ve imagined that when I was in school. But, as a result, I think it’s really broadened my musical palette.
And with this show, and just with my live shows in general, I’m always trying to program an entire concert of music where I can say, honestly, that I loved every single one of these pieces. So, what ends up happening is it’s a pretty eclectic mix. There’s classical stuff. There’s jazz standards. I’m singing. There’s folk music. There’s fiddling and Cajun fiddling.
I have such an incredible group of musicians that I play with. I think it’s really interesting and I’m really proud of it. I’m really proud of the people that I play with. They really kind of help to push me forward in terms of trying to get around all these different kinds of styles. I have a lot of help from my band.
Q. You started music so young. What are some early moments where you really started to feel a connection to music beyond having an instrument in your hands at an early age?
LM: I do remember when I was like six or seven, I remember I had a little flurry of concerts. The piece I was playing was the second movement of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. Of course, I couldn’t play the rest of the concerto at that age. But I learned that movement and I was playing that movement in concert a lot.
And I remember at one point my dad said to me, “I don’t really know if it’s good or not because I’m not a musician. But when you play that piece, you look so serious. Your face completely matches the music.”
I don’t know. I was always just so moved by music. And I think everybody is. You listen to a record and it takes you to a place. When you’re sad, you want to listen to sad music and it just makes you even sadder. It’s amazing. It’s just a really human thing.
Q. You studied music in a classroom at Julliard and at Manhattan School of Music. Outside specialty schools like that, music and arts in the classroom is kind of disappearing these days. Do you feel it's important kids have that?
LM: Of course. I was just at a PBS station in Atlanta and I ended up talking to some of the people at the station. I met one woman whose daughter started playing the cello. Her daughter is 12. She was saying that her daughter hadn’t been doing very well in school and had been having some problems concentrating and being motivated. And then she started playing the cello. And she loved playing the cello.
And, over time, this woman was marveled. She said, “My daughter has changed so much in the two years since she started playing. She’s calmer. Her overall energy is calmer. She’s more focused. She’s getting straight A’s in school which she’s never done before.”
Then I was talking yesterday with someone whose daughter is in college studying music education. And I was like, “That’s so incredible.” Because I feel like that’s not something that people think of that much anymore as a career. And it’s so important.
It’s not just that we should teach kids music because they might be musicians one day. We should teach kids music because, through music, you can learn so many other skills. You learn problem solving. Discipline. You learn to listen and focus your energy.
I know, for me, a lot of what I did as a child with the violin really just taught me discipline. I have a very problem solving mind now. And I don’t think that’s natural. I think it’s just that when you practice an instrument, you really just learn to break things down into smaller pieces and move forward slowly. You learn patience.
All of these things, I apply to all the other parts of my life now as an adult. And I often wonder, “If I didn’t do that as a kid, would I be able to sit down and think something through?” I’m not naturally that focused. I’m easily distracted just like anyone else.
It’s not just about music. It’s about life skills. But also, in terms of music, if you take music out of schools, there’s an entire generation of talent that we may never discover. It’s really upsetting.
We all know what an incredible effect it has. Every teacher will tell you that it helps kids do better in school – other classes in school, not just the music classes. It’s good for the brain. We know that this is a good thing. It’s like eating vegetables.
Q. Let's talk about HBO's Treme a bit. What was it like flexing those acting chops kind of for the first time?
LM: Oh my god. I felt ridiculous. You’re acting for the first time and there’s John Goodman and Wendell Pierce and Melissa Leo.
What was interesting about that is when I went into the job, I totally thought the challenge would be the acting. Because I don’t’ know how to do that. The music, I thought I could handle. Getting there, yes, the acting was a challenge. But the music was so much more challenging than I expected.
Because [series creator] David Simon loves New Orleans. He had already been visiting for like ten years before he started Treme. He had all of his favorite bands in town and all of his favorite musicians already in his head. And he wanted to get as many of his musicians and his bands in the show as possible.
And because my character [Annie] was a street musician, my character supposedly was the kind of musician who would just jump in and play with whomever. And it was just constantly throwing me into these musical situations with genres of music that I didn’t even know existed. And having like a week before shooting to get education.
And, luckily, the musicians there were so generous and amazing. People would give me stacks of CDs. People would let me come over to their house and spend like three hours with them while they played stuff for me or showed me how to do things. I couldn’t believe the generosity of those musicians. But I really ended up getting quite a musical education down there.
I don’t know what I expected. Now, looking back, I’m like, “How could you have thought that would be easy?” I think I thought, “Oh, they’re gonna give me music and it’ll be like, ‘Learn this piece.’” But, no. It was like, “Now you’re going to play with this band. Go figure it out.”
And I’d go try to understand that music and try to understand the improvisational nature of that music. And then come up with something to play.
It was great. I’m so grateful to David for that.
Q. A big component of so much of the different music that comes out of New Orleans is jazz and obviously a big part of jazz is the improvisation. How did working in a city like New Orleans, and sitting in with musicians like that, in much less structured settings, push you musically or help you develop as an artist?
LM: It just made me realize I was really uptight. (laughs)
Because it’s so different in a place like that. People just breathe music. They do it with their families. They do it with their friends. They do it when they’re drunk. They do it in the morning. They do it in the evening. It’s just like, “This is what we do. When we’re eating! This is what we do when we’re waiting for the food to cook. This is what we do when we’re happy and we’re celebrating.”
I come from this classical world where it’s like, “This is what we do after we practice very hard and we feel that we’re ready to present it to people because it’s the most perfect it could possibly be.” So, it’s a very different mindset.
It was incredible. I think it helped me in so many experiences. I feel like I keep learning the same lesson over and over and over. Which is, “What is the point?” What is the point of music? What is that essential thing about music that makes it something that still exists. Like, why do we need it? It doesn’t save people’s lives. We don’t need it to live every day. But it’s still around and it’s essential for a lot of people.
And it’s because it moves us. Or because it helps us celebrate something – memories or history. And kind of relearning that lesson over and over again about what is the point – what is the point? – has really helped me.
Because it helps me to hone in on, “Am I just executing a bunch of notes right now or do I have a message? And am I conveying that message?” Am I doing something or am I like a gymnast standing here doing all these flips to get judged for a high score?
Am I saying something of value? Something that resonates with other people. It doesn’t have to be perfect in order to move another person. If you can move another person, or you’ve connected with another person, then you’ve done something. Then music makes sense. We use it to connect.
So, yeah, being in New Orleans was fantastic for that. I realized I needed to chill out a little bit and focus on sharing – really focus on connecting.
Q. I spoke with Irma Thomas in 2015. And she did a few episodes of Treme. And, aside from being grateful to Treme for helping to expose and employ local musicians, she was also really thankful, as a local living in that city, for the fact that it showed viewers the New Orleans that lies outside Bourbon Street. The show really exposed the fact that even - at that point it was ten years later - the city was far from having been rebuilt. It made viewers aware that people living in that city were still struggling even ten years later. Because people forgot. Was that something you guys were aware of or conscious of getting across during filming too?
LM: Oh yeah. I mean, David is a mastermind. He’s incredible. He’s so great at what he does. He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met in my life. It’s really kind of intimidating.
But we were very aware when we were down there. Because that was his intention. His intention was to tell the truth - he felt like it hadn’t been told – and to shine a light on this city that he felt was such a unique and also uniquely American city. The people and the culture, it’s just really one of a kind.
And he wanted people to see it the way that he, over ten years of visiting, had come to see it and come to love it.
And we were very aware. Because we shot on location all the time. And, as I said earlier, not only did David use so many local musicians but just so many local people. We were very, very, very much a part of the community. So, we knew all the time. Because people would come up to us and tell us.
We’d be shooting in the street, and people would be watching, and they’d come over and say, “Thank you for telling and showing the real story of our city. Thank you for not glossing it over. Thank you for presenting the tough stuff that maybe isn’t the most watchable television but is real.” That’s part of what made it such an incredible experience.
And that’s part of why I will always be grateful to David for having me be involved in that project. Because it was so personal to the city and because we felt like we really got to know the community and the people – and that we were doing something right. It felt like we were doing it right. To have their blessing was really beautiful.
- Jim Ryan ( @RadioJimRyan )
An Evening With Lucia Micarelli
PBS special airs throughout March
Lucia Micarelli in studio at WTTW TV
7:30PM, Tuesday, March 13, 2018