Melissa MacLeod finds an artistic home as musician Cashavelly Morrison

When she’s not teaching in UNCSA’s Division of Liberal Arts or busy parenting her two young children, Melissa MacLeod is hitting the stage (and recording studio) as Cashavelly Morrison.

Named an “Artist You Need to Know” by Rolling Stone, performing on NPR’s Mountain Stage, and with a third album on the horizon, Cashavelly Morrison is flourishing. And MacLeod, a 1999 high school dance alumna, is no stranger to performance. In fact, her career as a musician is the latest progression in her evolution as an artist — an evolution she’s been exploring for most of her life.

Growing as an artist

MacLeod grew up taking ballet classes in her hometown of Beckley, West Virginia, and heard about UNCSA through one of her fellow dancers. She came to the high school dance program as a sophomore.

“Immediately, it was the most magical place I’d ever been,” she says. “People were open-minded, loving and supportive.”

 
 
 
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Following graduation, she danced with the Fort Worth Dallas Ballet (now Texas Ballet Theater) and then the Richmond Ballet, before a back injury led her to the decision to stop dancing. 

“After that, I joined some of my friends from the School of the Arts in New York City,” she says, where she lived and worked for three years. During her time in New York, she also took acting classes. Eventually, she made her way back to Winston-Salem, which still felt like home in a lot of ways.

She enrolled at Salem College, where she majored in English and Creative Writing, and deepened her relationship with the UNCSA community. “While I was at Salem, I met other School of the Arts students and, in many ways, I became even more immersed in the school.” She met her husband, Ryan MacLeod (BM Music '06), and band member Luke Payne (MM Music '06), studying at the time in the classical guitar studio.

After a stint in Roanoke, Virginia to complete her graduate studies in creative writing at Hollins University, it was back to Winston-Salem, where she’s been ever since.

The role of teaching

MacLeod started teaching freshman English classes in the Division of Liberal Arts as a visiting faculty member shortly after returning to Winston-Salem and has been teaching there for almost a decade. In addition to English, she’s taught several seminars, like one of her recent favorites, “Female Playwrights During the #MeToo Movement.” 

“In that course, we looked back at plays to see how these issues have been reflected in those works,” she says. “The discussion in that classroom was so vibrant, everyone had an opinion … We also talked about men’s roles and norms. It was very balanced and current. And a great way to look at how literature is connected to our personal lives.”

Plus, she adds, her discussions with students often inspire her work as an artist. “What I’m teaching always seems to infuse itself into my music.”

Becoming Cashavelly Morrison

Cashavelly Morrison blends together the passions of self-expression and performance MacLeod has spent much of her life cultivating.

“I had always written songs privately,” she says. “In high school, a friend put chords to one of my songs, and I thought that was the coolest thing.” Still, she didn’t feel like she was actually a musician.

Then, a few years ago, she found herself writing songs all the time, convincing her husband to put them to guitar and attempting to record them at home. When she couldn’t get the sound she wanted, they ended up in the recording studio, where the sound engineer recommended adding more instrumentation. Before she knew it, Cashavelly Morrison had a band — and an album.

“I figured, ‘well, we have this record. I guess we should release it,’” she laughs. Her first album, “The Kingdom Belongs To A Child” was released in 2015. The immediate response, she says, was positive. Her second album, “Hunger,” was released in 2018 and earned her the nod from Rolling Stone.

Cashavelly Morrison also appeared on Mountain Stage in 2019, which broadcasts on NPR stations across the country and features live recordings of seasoned musicians and emerging artists each week.

Current band members include guitarists Luke Payne and Ryan MacLeod, Kevin Beck (BM Music '20), bassist John Daniel Ray (who also studied in UNCSA's School of Music) and drummer Chaisaray. A third album is in the works and tentatively scheduled to be released this year.

In addition to her bandmates, performing as Cashavelly Morrison has given MacLeod the chance to incorporate the UNCSA community in other ways. Many of her music videos feature performances by UNCSA dance students and are filmed with the help of students in the School of Filmmaking.

Cashavelly Morrison music video

The music video for Cashavelly Morrison's "Night Feeding" (above) features the work of several UNCSA students, including: Director Edward Taveras, Producer and Director of Photography James R. Wiley, Grip Jake Wiklacz and Editor Evan Finch. Choreographers and dancers for the video are Gabriela Amy-Moreno, Samantha Joy and Dylan Parton.

Evolution of an artist

For MacLeod, the work of an artist is, at least in part, about the constant search for the truest expression of self. “The medium might change, but what doesn’t change is that you’re looking introspectively all the time,” she says. “That work of trying to find the true expression of yourself is the same.”

That artistic expression crosses the boundaries between various art forms. “I always liked the self-expression of dance,” she says. With acting, she learned to embrace using her voice in addition to her body. “I couldn’t hide as much,” she says, “but I was still playing a role.”

“With music, even though it’s still a performance, I’m using my voice, the songs are personal,” she says. In some ways, the process has been a scary one, but deeply satisfying.

“As an artist, you have to get to a place where you don’t worry so much about approval, you don’t care if someone will think it’s ‘bad,’” she says. “You do it for yourself.”

by Corrine Luthy

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May 19, 2020