A few short years ago, music was just a hobby for neo-soul singer Carolyn Malachi. But this Sunday night, the D.C. native will find herself up against the likes of Janelle Monae and Cee-Lo as a Grammy nominee for Best Urban/Alternative Performance for the ethereal song “Orion,” of off her breakout EP, “Lions, Fires & Squares.”

The great-granddaughter of noted D.C. jazz pianist John Malachi, the vocalist got her start singing in college, becoming a fixture in the city’s R&B scene for her eclectic blend of hip-hop, spoken word and soul. She self-produced her first disc last year, and “Orion” quickly took off as a single, without any major-label backing or promotion.

Ahead of her red-carpet debut Sunday, Express spoke with Malachi about mermaids, Barbara Streisand and the bright side of layoffs.

What did you do after finding out you’d been nominated for a Grammy?
I cried like a big baby. I was actually getting ready to go onstage at LIV nightclub on U Street. I just fell to my knees and started crying. My stylist and manager were with me. We were celebrating and crying. When I announced the nomination to the audience, everyone’s eyes got really big.

What’s the story behind “Orion?”
I wrote “Orion” just thinking about the distance between the person I was talking to and myself, feeling like a mermaid trying to reach an astronaut. I was trying to express that feeling of, “Wow, I really feel like it’s just too hard to talk to you.”

Who are you most excited to see at the Grammys?
I really want to meet Barbara Streisand. I just want to pick her brain. She’s established her career and created a legacy just by being who she is. You have to be yourself because that’s what’s going to make you shine. Her example has definitely taught me that.

If you win, who will you thank in your acceptance speech?
I would definitely thank James McKinney, my producer. He’s more than my producer, he’s my big brother by now. I’d also thank the other artists in my category. I think it’s really cool to be among these talented artists. Just as much as I study my influences, I study my contemporaries.

You released your first two albums while you still had a full-time day job at the National Harbor. What made you take the leap into making music full-time?
In 2009, it got pretty tough for everybody. The Gaylord Hotel, just like a lot of companies in the area, had to cut their workforce. My position was one of the positions that was eliminated. The day I got the news, a friend of mine said “Congratulations, now you have the time to do what you want.”

» 53rd Grammy Awards air Sun. Feb. 13 at 8 pm on CBS

Written by Express contributor Kristina Gray
Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post