Violinist and ‘Treme’ star Lucia Micarelli serves up a musical gumbo at The Broad Stage Friday
By Bliss Bowen
There seems never to have been any serious doubt that Lucia Micarelli would be a musician — only some initial question as to which instrument she might play. When her 3-year-old fingers were deemed too small for piano lessons at a local Suzuki school, Micarelli embraced the violin so whole-heartedly that by age 6, she won a competition that gave her the chance to perform with the Honolulu Orchestra. The violin has effectively been her passport through life since, from classical training at Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music through world tours accompanying trumpeter Chris Botti, Josh Groban, and Jethro Tull.
It’s also what prompted the call that would take her life and career in unexpected directions.
The Highland Park resident had already released two albums, 2004’s “Music From a Farther Room” and 2007’s “Interlude,” by the time she got called to portray street-busking violinist Annie on writer-producer David Simon’s acclaimed HBO series “Treme” (which aired from 2010 to 2013). Set in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, the show introduced Micarelli not only to a far broader audience, but also to the Crescent City’s myriad streams of roots music.
“Working on that show was like an explosion,” she recalls, “just because I honestly didn’t know what kind of music is represented down there. I think I was just like, ‘Oh, New Orleans jazz,’ like that’s the genre. Then I got down there and there’s trad jazz and Cajun and Creole and zydeco … so much stuff.”
Simon, an avid music lover who had himself been schooled on New Orleans music by actor Wendell Pierce, promptly thrust the overwhelmed Micarelli into situations where she was expected to jam with local musicians. Jazz improvisation felt like a foreign language to the classically trained musician, but she gamely dove in despite feeling “extremely uncomfortable,” and musicians responded supportively.
“I had no choice but to jump in,” she says. “Now I look back, and every time I talk to David, I say thank you. The work was cool and I’d never acted before, but musically — wow. I got really into Americana. That’s how I met Steve Earle, and the way that his character Harley was for Annie in the show, [her mentor], he became that for me in real life.”
The outspoken Grammy-winning artist did more than just educate Micarelli on Americana music. Earle also urged her to sing, front her own band, and write her own songs. Claiming “I can’t write lyrics to save my life,” she nonetheless took him a chord progression and melody.
“He ended up recording it on his next album, so the first song I ever wrote became a co-write with Steve Earle,” she marvels. “Unbelievable.”
The music opportunities that “Treme” opened for Micarelli spurred new questions: Who was she as an artist? What, exactly, did she want to do?
“I only played my first solo show a few years ago,” she observes. “There was this one booker who really loved ‘Treme’ who called my management out of the blue and was like, ‘I love Lucia, and I’d like her to come and play a show.’ Even my manager was like, ‘What do you want her to do?’”
Realizing that a 90-minute violin recital “wouldn’t feel right at all,” Micarelli gradually pulled together strands of the diverse music she loves — classical, jazz, Americana, rock, chamber music — and began polishing her show on the road.
“It’s a show that makes sense to me — possibly only to me,” she says. “I felt the need to represent myself authentically. I think that’s also a reaction to the fact that I have worked with so many people, and I have been a sideman or a guest in so many contexts. Even though I had a great time doing that, I felt like those situations only represented one facet of me. I wanted people to come and get a sense of who I really am.”
In March PBS aired “An Evening With Lucia Micarelli,” which features polished renditions of Earle’s “This City” and the Ella Fitzgerald standard “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” both of which Micarelli performed on “Treme.” They’re interspersed with the traditional fiddle tune “Ladies Fancy,” a stormy performance of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” and classical pieces by Barber, Ravel, and Saint-Saens. Micarelli’s currently promoting a DVD and album from the PBS special, and plans to mix selections from that with new material during her Friday concert at The Broad Stage, accompanied by violinist husband Neel Hammond, violist Zach Dellinger, cellist Vanessa Freebairn-Smith, pianist Robert Thiess, and bassist Ian Walker.
Asked what she might want to do next, Micarelli offers few specifics — “I only have things in the back of my mind” — but mentions that she’s sitting on a studio album she finished last year, and is waiting for an appropriate time to release it. She still reads scripts — joking that Simon’s first-rate writing spoiled her — but music remains her priority.
“I’ve never really planned anything out,” she says. “I’ve tried and failed so miserably. You just never know, especially the way the music industry is. You can’t make a plan. Right now I’m just excited to be having such a good time playing music I really love with people I really love, and I am blown away that people are coming and want to share in that. That’s a lot to ask of an audience — to commit to an evening when they don’t really know what they’re coming to see. I can’t even get some of my best friends to commit to a dinner date.”
Lucia Micarelli performs at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 26, at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. $40 to $70. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit thebroadstage.org,