Serenading The Senses, Kansas City Harpist Calvin Arsenia Seeks Transcendence

Aug 30, 2016

It was a rainy night in April in Lawrence, Kansas. 

Liberty Hall was hosting the twelfth stop on Jónsi Birgisson’s solo live experience tour of 2010. During Sigur Ros’ indefinite hiatus, lead singer Birgisson set out to craft an experience all his own.

Inspired by a burned down taxidermy shop, the set featured melted windows and feathered costumes. And sitting cross-legged on the floor before the stage was 20-year-old musician Calvin Arsenia, watching and listening in awe.

“For me to have walked into secular setting and have an experience so spiritual, was mind-blowing, and almost offensive,” he told KCUR’s Hannah Copeland in the most recent installment of Ghost Notes, a Kansas City-based podcast.

On his way out of Liberty Hall, Arsenia says he walked slowly, violently shaking his head.

"I was like, ‘I came to see a show, I came to watch a guy on the stage over there, and he invaded my heart with his music,’” he remembers. “It felt like he was changing things, he was in my business.”

And things were indeed changed. Now, that’s the standard Arsenia strives for with his own music. The same standard he learned to expect growing up  immersed in gospel music at his church.

Arsenia was born in Orlando, Florida, but spent most of his youth in Olathe, Kansas. He regularly attended the nondenominational Life Mission Church, playing guitar and piano for his congregation as well as other churches in Kansas.

Gospel music taught him at an early age that music has the power to lift you out of your body. By its nature, the experience is communal.

“The point of church music as a musician is to get out of the way, to facilitate a moment for other people,” Arsenia says.

But Arsenia identified as a musician long before his preteen years. His first instrument was his voice — he started singing at four years old. Then at 18, he began studying classical voice at Johnson County Community College.

I've heard my relatives say, 'He plays white music' when they are talking amongst themselves during my show ... I make the music that feels natural to me. It is not an issue of race or class.

“It was imperative,” he says. “My teacher taught me that learning the fundamentals would allow me to use my voice as an instrument.”

Two years later, an opportunity arose for Arsenia at Mosaic Church in Edinburgh, Scotland, which he had previously visited with his youth group at Life Mission Church. The church reached out to him with a job.

“They asked me to come and live among the artists and musicians and just be myself,” Arsenia says. “To love people and encourage them in their walk and dreams in life.”

He laughs now at the job description, and the opportunity that turned out to be formative for him. While in Scotland, he found a harp teacher on Craigslist. The traditional folk instrument has become his primary instrument in what he calls his neo-classical urban folk music.

“I can’t run away from my classical training, and I don’t think I need to,” Arsenia says. “I embrace and identify with that, but I’m presenting it in a new and different context.”

He says it’s difficult to concretely define his music — he can’t separate his folk, storytelling style from the soul and R&B of his upbringing.

His parents are from rural Virginia, and he knows they would love to see him do something more conventional. There was an expectation that he would become a soul musician or a gospel singer, wearing a suit on the stage of a church.

“I’ve heard my relatives say, ‘He plays white music’ when they’re talking amongst themselves during my show,” Arsenia says. “I try not to resent that but it’s weird. I make the music that feels natural to me. It’s not an issue of race or class. I want to be myself and love myself.”

Personal expression was absent from his classical and church music background. When he started writing songs, he learned to tell his own story through his music.

“It was just such a process for me to allow myself to be broken and vulnerable on the stage,” Arsenia says. 

I embarrass myself and break myself on the stage, so that the people in the audience have the courage to do so in their own life.

In his performances, he feels a calling to "go to the end of himself."

“To almost embarrass myself and break myself on the stage, so that the people in the audience have the courage to do so in their own life,” he says. “We’re broken. It’s in the cracks and crevices that the light comes out.”

“I feel a great responsibility to provide a context for healing,” he adds.

When he performs, Arsenia is constantly assessing the feel, the temperature, the energy level of the room. When he begins to see people halting their conversations, swiveling on their barstools to watch him, he visualizes question marks popping up over their heads, signaling engagement and stimulation. That’s when he knows he’s got them; that’s when his work begins.

Andrea Tudhope is a freelance reporter and producer for KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @adtudhope.