Sometimes indie songwriters also write theater pieces. Much rarer are those whose talents are so wide-ranging that they perform in Broadway shows and hit TV sitcoms. Celisse Henderson is in the second category.
When she’s not touring with Godspell or appearing on 30 Rock, Henderson is in the studio, accompanying her strong, rich voice with the many instruments she plays, including guitar, piano, violin, ukulele, bass, and African drums. She has a reputation as a warm and engaging performer (something else that can’t be said of a lot of indie types, who tend toward the introspective), and you’ll find plenty of video evidence of that below.
Henderson’s debut EP, Show & Tell, from 2010, was an impressive introduction to her work. She took the album’s function literally, opening it with a track called “Intro to Me.” (Maybe more artists should do this.) You do get to glimpse all sides of her in this song. The drums demonstrate her love of complex rhythm. Her big vocal range and depth of emotional expression is on display. And the rap section shows three equally important things: 1) She is proud of her African-American heritage and respects all its musical traditions; 2) She wants to use music to tell stories; and 3) This woman is not street, but stage. Her perfect standardized American diction reminds me more of “Witch’s Rap” from Sondheim’s Into the Woods than the work of Snoop Dogg:
Henderson is clearly steeped in many forms of jazz. She’s not afraid to step outside the regular rhythmic patterns expected in pop tunes, as you can hear in the bold guitar phrasing in the song “Baby Blue.” The lyrics employ a conversational style that happens to be sung: “I saw you open a door for an old lady in the street / I saw you give money to a man so he could have something to eat.” The way Henderson chews her words in this song evokes Alanis Morissette:
The EP Nashville Demos is not filled with the country tracks you might expect. The crunching guitar chords opening the first track, “Fool’s Gold,” announce that fact loud and clear. And Henderson can pull a sweet blues solo out of that guitar when she needs it. The vocal style and range say “jazz,” but the discomfiting harmonies say “grunge rock.” Whatever it is, it’s powerful:
It’s unusual for an artist to release a live performance before her first full-length album. But on-stage is where Henderson is most at home, so the 2012 EP Live at Rockwood Music Hall made sense. She offers up the song “Well” like it’s a personal message to members of the audience, as if each of them had asked her how she was feeling after a recent break-up. Even the choice of ukulele rather than guitar brings the scope to a more intimate level:
She shows off bebop-inspired piano chops in the song “Enough,” with its unpredictably accented, dissonant chords. Yet those off-kilter phrases aren’t just influenced by jazz. There’s a new school of Broadway composition – think Pasek & Paul’s Dear Evan Hansen or Jason Robert Brown’s The Bridges of Madison County – that relies on this kind of lonesome melodic wandering, especially in sad love songs.
Henderson’s broken heart turns out to be the theme for the entire EP. Fortunately, we also get to see her recover from it. (And here comes that country music I’d expected earlier.) “I’m Over You” is a bouncy bounce-back song. The lyrics don’t cover any ground a thousand songwriters haven’t trod before, but Henderson is such a skilled singer and she exudes so much enthusiasm that it’s hard not be drawn in:
Although she hasn’t released an EP in a few years, she keeps on writing. She also keeps on gigging (often at the terrific cabaret space, Joe’s Pub, run by the Public Theater in Manhattan), which gives her plenty of chances to try out new material. She’s too hip for the room in this funk-inspired number from 2016, “Crazy,” even if her mugging makes the words hard to understand:
The majority of Henderson’s songs deal with romance, good and bad. But like many American artists, she has recently discovered an urge to use her pen to react to the political landscape. The 2017 song “America” delves more into a pure rock style than is typical for her. Then again, she doesn’t see the situation as typical. “We’re having a breakdown, we’re losing control,” she sings. But she also has hope: