Connecticut’s new state troubadour is not just another “folkie” like those who preceded her. And she is the first African-American solo artist to be chosen for the position.
“I’m a soul singer,” says Nekita Waller, who was appointed by the state’s Office of the Arts in June and began her duties Aug. 1. “But I do have stories, just like a folk singer. A lot of it is from personal experience.”
Waller, who spent the first few years of her life in Birmingham, Alabama, has benefited from that formative, down-home time when she absorbed the sounds of her grandfather playing harmonica, her two uncles playing guitar and her great-aunts singing gospel music.
Shortly after her parents, Edwina and Kenneth Eric Waller, moved the family to Bloomfield, she began to sing, often in front of an appreciative audience.
“I credit my mom,” Waller says. “She put me in all kinds of talent shows at an early age. She encouraged me to go out in the front. She told me, ‘Don’t be shy. I think you’ve got something here.’ ”
Her first big performance came when she was 13, on stage at the fabled Apollo Theater in Harlem. “I had won a talent show at Weaver High School and the top three got to go to the Apollo. I had won $1,000. Oh my gosh!”
Waller was starstruck to see LL Cool J, who was also on the bill at the Apollo. “I remember being backstage in my white dress. I was scared. My knees were knocking. I didn’t know if I was strong enough to be in front of that audience. They can boo you. They can be mean in New York!
“When I went out there, my first notes came out a little awkward. But I ended on a good note. And they didn’t boo me!”
Waller has performed ever since, including at Middletown’s Summer Sounds concerts, at weddings and at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven. On bigger stages, she sang the national anthem for Boston Celtics and UConn basketball games.
Five or so years ago she wrote her own anthem, calling it “Connecticut Anthem.” It’s a celebration of the state and a spirited answer to those in other parts who know nothing about the Nutmeg State or dismiss it as boring.
In the first verse of the song, she announces: “I grew up in Connecticut” and responds to people who ask: “Where’s that at?”
She sings about its country roads and points out: “Here we pick apples in the fall. Believe it or not, we got four seasons / Snow in the spring for no good reason.”
She goes on to reminisce about the places her parents took her when she was a kid: riding the horses at the carousel at Bushnell Park, going to the circus at the Hartford Civic Center, shopping at G. Fox and Sage-Allen when they were prime destinations in downtown Hartford.
“Hey! You can love it or leave it,” she sings. “But it’s a state I believe in. I’m proud to say I’m Connecticut born and Connecticut raised.”
The song, with its accompanying video, helped seal the deal when the Office of the Arts selection panel was considering the 14 applicants for the troubadour job. There have been 16 of them since 1991; the duties include promoting the state in song. Waller is excited to be doing this as No. 17, having succeeded singer-songwriter Kate Callahan.
“I’m looking forward to reaching out to the schools, telling them my story,” she says. “I also want to learn from them. What can they teach me?”
Asked what her message will be to those students, she replies, “Never quit. Never underestimate the power of music and your voice. Also, it takes a team of people to make change.”
This has been an emotional year for Waller. Her father died in March; she recorded her anthem three days later at Horizon Studio in West Haven. She says the song “kind of came back to life as I saw my father go through what he went through with his illness.”
She recalls the deep emotions of that recording session. “I asked myself, ‘What can I do to celebrate him?’ ”
For the past 10 years Waller has lived in Middletown, where we met for this interview. Sitting in a restaurant on Main Street, Waller says, “This town is a comfortable place where you can see the food, the arts and enjoy the scenery. We’ve got everything from Italian food to pie. Some Main Streets are just a long highway.”
For many people in Connecticut, she notes, “It’s small-town living. In the local grocery stores in Bloomfield and Windsor, where I grew up, everyone knows you.”
When I remark it’s not every day you come across somebody with such a positive attitude about our state, she gives me that look and says, “There are some happy people in Connecticut! You have to find the little golden nuggets. I find peace on the water here, at Harbor Park.” The park overlooks the Connecticut River.
Being the state troubadour doesn’t put you on easy street — Waller will receive a stipend of $2,500 for each of the three years she has the position — but she says she is “very excited and grateful for this opportunity. I don’t take any of this for granted. You have to stay humble. It can be given and it can be taken.”
Waller adds, “You have to create your own lane. And that’s what I’m doing.”
For a list of Waller’s upcoming shows, go to nekitawaller.com.