The headlines about the return of Boston Calling naturally involve the big-name acts anchoring the three-day lineup — Nine Inch Nails, the Strokes, Metallica. But one of the prime joys of the summer festival season is the opportunity to encounter for the first time those lesser-known artists you suddenly can’t wait to add to your music library.
The powerhouse singer and guitarist who goes by her first name, Celisse, has yet to release her debut album. But she’s already flooded plenty of radar screens due to her standout appearances on eclectic bills such as last summer’s Newport Folk Festival and the Peach Music Festival in Pennsylvania. At the latter, she traded riffs with Phish’s Trey Anastasio, much to the crowd’s delight.
Like Celisse, the Boston-bred songwriter and bandleader Ali McGuirk plays Saturday afternoon at Boston Calling. The Globe brought together these two distinctive talents over Zoom for a virtual discussion of the benefits of playing the festival circuit, and getting onstage in front of new fans.
Celisse: Ali, where do you live?
Ali McGuirk: I live in Burlington, Vermont.
C: Vermont! Are you a Phish fan?
AM: I am.
C: Uh oh! Vermont and Phish are synonymous. Nice to meet you.
AM: You too. I’m so interested in the many inputs of your musical career and your genre-bending ways. I saw that video [of Celisse and Trey Anastasio], and that’s like a huge check mark for me. I know you were also in the musical “Godspell.” Is that true?
C: Mm hmm.
AM: That’s a huge one for me as well. And Mariah Carey [whom Celisse has supported as a guitarist] is the hugest of all. Those three things — I’m like, who is this human? I need to know!
C: Did you grow up doing theater?
AM: Yeah. I was in “Godspell” in high school.
C: Connecting those three pieces — well, I’ll start by saying I come from a super-musical background. Both my parents are choir teachers and multi-instrumentalists. So there’s never been a time where music wasn’t my life. And the theater thing, in middle school, I think my mom showed my sisters and I “West Side Story.”
AM: Oh, that’s the one.
C: So I was like, “Ooh, I want to do that.” I went right out of high school and started working. My first real job was in the show called “Beach Blanket Babylon” in San Francisco. Myself and Ledisi were the understudies. I have a lot of random pockets in my career!
AM: That’s what I noticed when I started doing the research on you. I saw you play at Newport Folk Fest. That whole Allison Russell set was pretty awesome and inspiring. That was my first time at Newport Folk Fest.
C: Me too!
AM: I’m very new to the folk and Americana scene in general, and it’s pretty cool to see that space kind of reclaimed, I would say, by that set.
C: That was the intent, for sure. I think everybody’s path is different, as we know. I came up in middle school and high school wanting to be on Broadway. I had all this love and passion and interest in theater, [and] I had all this success quite young. My first really big job was touring with the national tour of “Wicked” when it first opened, at 20. I was in the ensemble. But people, when they hear I had a theater career, the assumption is that I was, like, a musician in the pit or something. But this guitar story is quite new.
AM: Yeah, I want to talk to you about your guitar story. Because I play the electric guitar. I’ve had such a journey with it. And I look at players like you, and I know that I’m not the only woman to see you play guitar and be so healed and inspired by your capabilities.
C: Well, I want to say that I’m not doing anything on the guitar that you can’t do. Nothing. I’m telling you this because I started playing electric guitar probably eight years ago. I don’t have, like, a conservatory background. This is not a thing that was cultivated in my home. I came from really Christian, conservative Black people. I played classical piano growing up, but the guitar story is quite new.
AM: That’s amazing.
C: Well, thank you. I hope it encourages you to know that the biggest thing for me, it’s just been about time. It’s been about the hours put in. But in terms of the facility, it’s just in the willingness to go, “OK, I’m going to make my life about learning this thing.” I fell in love, right? So I put in a lot of hours. After “Godspell” I made a decision to go into music full time. I’d gotten to a place where I felt like I had a lot more to say as an artist outside the confinements of someone else’s work. I had time to go, like, every day, “It’s my job. I’m gonna listen to Hendrix records, and learn [chord] changes, and watch YouTube videos.” The beautiful thing about guitar is it really is for everybody. There’s a million ways to come at it. So if you’re inspired by what I do, girl, I’m like — that’s my version. I can’t wait to see what your version is.
AM: I picked up the electric in the last three or four years. And especially in the pandemic, I’ve started to really consider myself a guitar player. And that has been the first step for me, just taking on the identity of it. It’s really interesting to me, the gender line. It’s been really healing to do it myself, and to see other women out there who are shredding it to bits. It’s kind of a relief to know that you weren’t, like, in guitar lessons as a child.
C: No! Over the pandemic, I started taking lessons. But even saying that, I think I had like four or five one-hour lessons. I don’t have some big old history.
Are you an Albert King fan? Albert King is on record, this interview some years ago, talking about — his tuning is super-weird, kind of all over the place, and he played backwards — well, he was left-handed, so he played weird and [upside-down]. So this interviewer was like, “Can you tell me about your tuning?” Thinking that there was going to be some huge, intellectual answer. And he said when he first picked up the guitar, those were the notes those strings were tuned to. He had no concept of the fact that the guitar was out of tune. And I bring this up to say Albert King was arguably, maybe inarguably, in some ways the most influential guitarist. When you think about Jimi Hendrix — these players that always get quoted as the big influences, all of these guys were influenced by Albert King. And Albert King had no technique. He had five notes, six notes he played. But he’s the reason we have bending of strings. That was an Albert King thing. I think the people that really move us forward are people who come at it from left of center, you know?
AM: Yep. A hundred percent.
C: So what’s your music like, Ali? The worst question! I hate when people ask that!
AM: I know! I was gonna ask you that. No, obviously, genre is such a loaded construct. For most of my life and development, my answer would be soul and R&B, blues, jazz. But I’ve definitely always carried other influences. I’ve loved musicals, I love pretty much all the songwriters from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Lately I’ve been dipping my toe more in the Americana scene, which is partly why I was interested in talking with you, because you’ve got a toe in that scene, in multiple genres. There’s so much that goes said and unsaid when you talk about genres.
C: I’ve actually been very focused and intentional about what I’ve done. When I left theater, it wasn’t as though I didn’t love theater anymore, and quite frankly I have every intention of going back some time. Unfortunately there’s this thing in the industry, I feel, with the exception if you’re an actor who was in “Hamilton” or “Rent” or whatever, there’s almost a negative connotation in coming from theater and trying to do music.
AM: Even though Janelle Monae did it!
C: You’re not wrong, but think of any well-known theater actor who made that transition into having a really robust music career. People would hear that I’d done “Wicked” or whatever, and all of a sudden there was this negative thing. So now to be at a place in my career where more people have these associations with me — with Lizzo, Mariah Carey, whomever — it’s good in some ways. It’s complicated.
AM: I can definitely relate to that. I mean, I’m obviously still building. I’m still in the very early phases. But I have been playing around Boston and New England for a long, long time and was really only considered a soul singer until recently. And then I started playing with an Americana group and having some of my more Americana songs get out. Any opportunity for there to be an expansive moment. Any opportunity to break people’s expectations.
C: I really love festivals for those reasons. You go to an Americana fest and what falls under that umbrella is so wide and so vast. It’s because the lines are more and more blurred. It really does open the door for people to experience maybe something different than they’ve ever experienced before. Speaking on a personal level, if I have to give an elevator pitch and say the things in 60 seconds or less, I can classify myself in particular ways. But I don’t think it would begin to scratch the surface for me, or with most artists.
AM: Yeah. Every artist has that struggle. Trying to find a genre through-line for Boston Calling is difficult.
C: When people ask me what my music is like, I say, “It’s very good.” If I think about myself as a patron, I don’t go to a festival because it’s going to be this specific kind of music. I go to a festival because I think the music, the experience is going to be good. If you’re thinking about coming to the festival because you want to experience something new and exciting and unique, then you’ve come to the right place.
Interview was edited and condensed. E-mail James Sullivan at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.