Maryland singer Eva Cassidy died of cancer in 1996 at the age of 33. A new album, "I Can Only Be Me," showcases her voice backed by the London Symphony Orchestra. (Matthew Dols)
4 min

Eva Cassidy — a Maryland singer possessed with a voice of crystalline beauty — walked in many gardens before her death of cancer in 1996 at the age of 33. It fell to Christopher Willis to plant one more.

Willis, a British composer and arranger, was asked by Cassidy’s record company to create orchestral arrangements for vocal tracks Cassidy made during her life. He began the project during the quietude of the coronavirus pandemic, sitting alone at an upright Yamaha piano in the music room of his Pasadena, Calif., home.

From the speakers poured something almost indescribable: Cassidy’s voice.

“You hear one song somewhere — and everyone I think shares that feeling of being captivated and finding her voice so haunting — then you hear another and another,” said Willis, 44. “There doesn’t seem to be any vanity there at all. She doesn’t seem to be singing for any of the vainglorious reasons.”

Twenty-five years after her death, Eva Cassidy’s music is as timeless as ever

Willis started with “You’ve Changed,” the Carl Fischer/Bill Carey classic that Cassidy recorded live with her band at Blues Alley in January 1996.

“It’s as though she’s just behind me,” Willis said of his process. “What I’m trying to do is figure out how I’m going to match the contours of what she did.”

He followed the dynamics in Cassidy’s delivery, using Cassidy’s performance as a guide, imagining the rise and fall of strings while sketching out an arrangement.

When we spoke, Willis used an apt metaphor: “There’s a house in the middle and I’m building a garden around the house.”

It’s a sonic garden no one was sure should even be built.

“I knew it would be easy to screw it up,” said Bill Straw, head of Blix Street Records in Gig Harbor, Wash. The label has been releasing Cassidy’s music since just after her death, dipping into her finite number of recordings and packaging them in different iterations.

Willis said he had similar reservations. “We were rather nervous about the whole project,” he said. “We had a fear of gilding the lily. Knowing that her songs work so beautifully we just didn’t really know if it would be helpful to reinvent them. The guiding thought was: This is something that she deserved.”

Singers like Ella Fitzgerald were just as comfortable singing with a big band as a small trio. Cancer denied Eva Cassidy that opportunity. No one who worked with Cassidy doubted she would have been able to hold her own in such a setting.

If the project was an artistic challenge for Willis, it was a technical challenge for Dan Weinberg, the engineer tasked with isolating Cassidy’s vocals. The source material came from various places, both studio recordings and live performances.

“We’re very lucky in that at least some of Eva’s [live] recordings were done on multitrack tape,” Willis said. “Even though she’s singing live in a jazz club, each mic onstage is going to a different channel. It’s just good practice by Eva and her band. They were great musicians and they knew what they were doing.”

Even so, on some songs Cassidy’s microphone picked up other instruments or the clink of glassware. To remove this, Weinberg used artificial intelligence software pioneered by filmmaker Peter Jackson in his “Get Back” Beatles documentary. The computer was able to strip away anything that wasn’t Cassidy.

It was her voice that members of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) heard in their headphones over two days in December of 2021 as they gathered in St. Luke’s, the 18th-century church that is the group’s recording studio.

The result is “I Can Only Be Me,” a nine-track album released on March 3. It was produced by Straw and Tom Norrell. Besides Cassidy’s orchestrally-enrobed takes on songs such as “You’ve Changed,” “Time After Time” and “Ain’t No Sunshine,” it includes a version of “Autumn Leaves,” with an arrangement by William Ross and Jochem van der Saag.

Eva Cassidy could have sung the phone book a cappella and brought you to tears. Straw and Willis hope the new album will bring new audiences to her work — and allow old audiences to enjoy her in a new way.

“The nature of working with a symphony orchestra is things are going to be more plural, things are going to be more wide,” said Willis. “What I found was, when it was successful, it was like she was carried along. There was this feeling of sympathy. If she’s singing a sad song, it’s slightly less sad or sad in a different way. You sense this big group around her.”

That big group is the 60 or so members of the LSO, but perhaps it’s also the countless fans who can’t get enough of Eva Cassidy.