[Gustavo Escanelle]

NOLA’s Next-Gen Torch Singers

07:00 April 05, 2024
By: Robert Witkowski

Passing the Torch

A new generation of badass female vocalists have emerged in the Crescent City, wooing new audiences with classic jazz ballads.

Three millennial female vocalists, Nayo Jones, Meschiya Lake, and Robin Barnes, each began singing with humble musical beginnings and have cultivated loyal followings, becoming successful successors in the torch song tradition.

With Great Depression-era standards made famous by female jazz icons including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughn, this new generation of women who defy genres are performing jazz standards with powerfully unique vocal stylings, launching them into professional musical careers.

They have residencies with a devout following in New Orleans, and even internationally, by emoting passion, longing, and fun into torch songs for new audiences.

In the Beginnings

All three singers have music in their genes. Nayo Jones' father is a New Orleans jazz musician, raising his family in Arizona. Her professional career began as a corporate bank auditor. Unfulfilled, she knew "God has something else for me."

Nayo Jones at jazz Playhouse [Gustavo Escanelle]

Her dad posed the obvious question, "Was I a singer or a banker who sings?"

Moving to New Orleans knowing no one, it took over five years before she settled into her new career. Seeing Kermit Ruffins perform at Bullets one night, she asked to sing with him. Her rendition of "Summertime" wowed Ruffins, and her trajectory was set. Jones still frequently performs with him, including at Satchmo Fest. "Summertime" has a special resonance for her, as "it was the first jazz standard I learned with my dad."

"'Summertime' is my favorite song to sing," says New Orleans native Robin Barnes, who shares Jones' passion for the 1934 George Gershwin tune. "Music is supposed to be joyous. I love making statements with my music."

Barnes' musical pedigree includes Fats Domino's collaborator Dave Bartholomew. The impact of seeing a performance moving people to tears made a lasting impression on the young Barnes.

Like Jones, Barnes also dipped her toe into the office space. Even though she was professionally trained in opera from the age 6, she earned an MBA in business, but her career as a director of programming lasted only six months.

"I realized I need to make my dreams come true instead of theirs." She returned to New Orleans and her musical passion.

Music was "a family thing" for Meschiya Lake, too. She grew up singing with her mother and aunt's musical group. After capturing a $25 prize singing at the South Dakota Opry when she was 9 years old, Lake "knew I could make a living at it."

Meschiya Laye [Robert Witkowski]

"There wasn't a lot of work for people with face tattoos and piercings." Building on her talent with a four-octave vocal range, she has grown a loyal base of fans in New Orleans and worldwide.

By 2007, Meschiya Lake was working in area kitchens, including Mimi's. She played with several bands, but people started to take notice of her talent while busking on French Quarter streets with the Loose Marbles. Her talent began to eclipse the facial tattoos bias.

Successful at overcoming challenges, Lake likes singing Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady," made famous by Ella Fitzgerald. The song allows her "to stretch myself as a vocalist."

Ballad of Songbirds

Many of the torch ballads were made famous by African American women emoting their struggle to have their voices heard in an era of racial segregation and impoverishment, only having recently been given the right to vote, yet still evoking amazing positivity in their voices. A century later, Jones, Lake, and Barnes find that while the challenges are different, the song remains the same.

Lake admits she was considered "a weird kid back in South Dakota." She recalls her start not being easy, complicated with personal challenges and some abusive relationships. Nonetheless, she felt the need to sing all her life.

Robin Barnes at Peacock Room [Robert Witkowski]

Barnes, too, faced an uphill battle. "I felt adversity as a Black woman, and living in the Lower Ninth Ward, in an industry dominated by men—telling me to change my looks and sound—you just need to pivot when the door shuts," Barnes says.

Jones agrees, asking, "How can you dream this life if you don't have one?" Acknowledging 21st century struggles are different for her, Jones insists personal positivity is always needed, saying, "When you're living the dream, go bigger."

Nayo Jones [Gustavo Escanelle]

Although all three performers split time seasonally, as well as performing internationally to loyal followings, they all have long-established residencies in New Orleans. Nayo Jones performs Friday nights at the Carousel Lounge and Saturdays in the Jazz Playhouse. Robin Barnes has weekly shows at the Peacock Room and Spotted Cat. Meshiya Lake appears regularly with a trio at Chickie Wah Wah and at Spotted Cat with her Little Big Horns band.

While inspired by jazz greats including Ella Fitzgerald, Bessie Smith, and Diana Ross, there are current-day legends with whom each dream to share a stage.

"I would love to sing with Phillip Manuel," says Nayo Jones.

Sharing a country sensibility in her stylings, Lake opts to duet with Willie Nelson, noting the country star's jazz covers. Jones pines to perform with Irma Thomas.

But there are songs they all try to avoid singing.

"Anything vulgar," Nayo Jones says.

"Any modern pop," Meschiya Lake laughs.

Robin Barnes shares many mother's sensibilities, "I never want to sing the Elmo song."

Robin Barnes at Jazz Fest [Gustavo Escanelle]

Sirens' Song

Able to lure fans with voices that are practically ethereal, the singers smile when admitting with which musical mythical creatures—sirens, mermaids, or nymphs—they most identify.

"Oh, a siren," Jones quickly says. "I love seeing my audience as if they're in a trance."

"I'd say I'm a muse," Barnes laughs. "But my husband might say I'm a siren, since we met in a band and now we're together 'til death do us part."

Lake responds, "Why can't I be all three?"

Meschiya Laye [Robert Witkowski]

With these three female vocalists, the song of these sirens is a luring torch that cannot be extinguished.

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