Meschiya Lake rocks back on her heels, lifts her chest, and opens her throat like an air raid siren to croon in a thrilling pre-microphone style that…can make you feel by turns as though you were shivering around a campfire in a railroad yard or drinking in a Budapest nightclub in 1938.
(Dan Baum, The New Yorker)
Looking back, it’s no surprise that when a precocious nine year-old Meschiya Lake hit the stage for a singing contest at a Rapid City, South Dakota steakhouse, she already believed that she could hold her own with the best of them. She had been singing around the house, and competing against adults who thought she was “cute” didn’t intimidate her. When she won the contest – which came with $500 prize and a weekly in-house singing gig – it made sense that – in some form or another – the groundwork for a career had been laid, even if she didn’t realize it herself at the time.
For several more years singing for fun and joy continued to trump music as vocation for Lake, but it was only in her early twenties during her stint as a member of the Know Nothing Family Zirkus Zideshow and End of the World Circus – a ragtag traveling troupe that blended traditional circus arts with modern sideshow entertainment – that she ultimately realized exactly what she wanted to do as an adult.
Nights were spent wearing ridiculous costumes, eating bugs, munching glass, and dancing around the stage while twirling flaming nunchucks, Strange, ridiculous, beautiful and life-changing, it was the best job she had ever had. Lake was fascinated by the nomadic lifestyle and loved the camaraderie amongst the players and the connection they’d make to the audiences in small towns that didn’t know these sorts of things were possible.
The circus schedule of six months on, six months off ultimately brought Lake to New Orleans for a prolonged stretch of downtime. After driving alone for an entire day to make it to the city and meet up with her cohorts, Lake stopped in the French Quarter to locate her friends and was struck immediately by an overpowering sense of timelessness. It was her first visit, and just like picking up a microphone for the first time decades earlier, she instantly felt the city’s call to things that are different, slightly odd. Without meaning to, she had come home.
That was more than ten years ago, and New Orleans has been her home ever since. In 2007 she began singing with the Loose Marbles, a traditional jazz outfit on Royal Street; a year later she formed the country-influenced duo Magnolia Beacon with Erika Lewis; in the Spring of 2009 she went on to create The Little Big Horns Jazz Band.
The Little Big Horns’ debut CD, Lucky Devil, features Lake using the full range of vocal and songwriting skills she’s developed over the years, and in 2010, Lucky Devil was honored by David Kunian on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered as one of his favorite albums of the year. Her sophomore effort with the Little Big Horns, Fooler’s Gold, was released in September of 2013 and mixed the extraordinary traditional jazz mastery she demonstrated on Lucky Devil with a bold, contemporary sensibility all her own. And now, with the release of Bad Kids Club, their aptly titled third full-length album, the Little Big Horns find themselves taking their well-earned position as some of New Orleans’s finest ambassadors of slightly twisted trad jazz.
Fronting the Big Horns has taken Lake around the globe with stops at such venerable stages as Lincoln Center and major international festivals in the United States, Brazil, Denmark, the Netherlands, Russia, and the U.K. Along the way Lake and the Little Big Horns have garnered international praise and accolades, including being crowned First Lady of Jazz at the 2013 Sun Valley Jazz Festival. But most importantly, back home in New Orleans, Lake was recognized as Female Performer of the Year three years running at the Big Easy Awards, was named Best Female Singer in Offbeat Magazine’s Best of the Beat poll in 2013 and 2014, and in 2013 the Little Big Horns were honored with the Best of the Beat’s coveted Best Trad Band award. Along the way, Meschiya’s also found time to work in the studio as vocalist with musicians like Alec Ounsworth of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah as well as singing for a gentleman by the name of Tom Waits.
But whether it’s on record or on stage, the Little Big Horns are a force to be reckoned with, a group of seasoned pros led by a fearless force of nature in the person of Ms. Lake. She’s come a long way since her South Dakota talent show and traveling circus days, and she’s got a long way to go yet.