[10 May 2009]
PopMatters Senior Editor
Poet and singer-songwriter Zachary Richard’s roots go deep in his native Louisiana. The music and stories of Cajun people spice his life’s work – music, environmental activism, cultural preservation – and much more. While living in Montreal, he recorded seven French language albums including two gold albums, Mardi Gras Mambo and Migration. Richard released his first English language album in nearly 15 years, Last Kiss, on 28 April.
“The best songs are those which express common emotion uncommonly,” he tells PopMatters 20 Questions. Language is a human limitation. Richard’s music speaks to the heart. Let that sound get in your ear and you’ll be out of your chair and on your feet before you can say Laissez le bon temps rouler!
Listen and dansé, people.
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
I am a Cajun marshmallow and cry often enough to embarrass all of my fishing buddies. However, it is unusual for me to cry over a book, unless the binding is made from toxic material.
I recently saw Dances with Wolves again and had a hard time when the soldiers shot the wolf.
2. The fictional character most like you?
Dean Moriarty from On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Actually I resemble Kerouac more than the fictional character he created. Most Americans don’t know that Kerouac’s first language was French and he never spoke to his mother in English.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, thousands of French Canadians immigrated to the mill towns of New England in search of work. “Little Canadas” were present in Lowell Massachusetts, and Woonsocket. Rhone Island. As with all immigrant communities, the Québecois brought with them significant aspects of culture and attempted to maintain the links with the mother country.
Kerouac’s father, Leo, was the publisher of a French language newspaper and was at the forefront of the Franco-American movement. Kerouac grew up speaking the angular patois typical of the French Canadian working class. I believe that part of his ability to create a free flowing style of writing had as much to do with his Franco-American heritage as with his love of jazz music.
The French experience of North America is an underlying theme of movement. In the 18th century, young French men from the Saint Laurence Valley took to the rivers and streams rather than stay on the farm. The life of the coureur de bois was one of freedom of movement and adventure, two themes which resonate fully in Kerouac’s writing.
The plight of the French Canadian immigrant in New England as well as the Cajun immigrant to Texas searching for a better life for themselves speaks of another reality: déracinement literally “uprootedness”. Whether by choice or by obligation, itinerance has been a constant theme in the lives of the French speakers of North America. I strongly feel that I’m a part of this.
3. The greatest album, ever?
Wow, No comment. But if I was on a desert island with one Long Playing vinyl 33 and 1/3 album, it would more than likely be Hard Again by Muddy Waters. Every time I hear Johnny Winter scream out in the background, I have to jump up and scream out, too.
The early Delta blues and the subsequent Chicago urban blues were rooted in the African tradition of plaintive song. The mule skinners who built the levees along the Mississippi sang to their mule teams, a solo song filled with the anguish of their lives. Of all of the music which is native to Louisiana, Cajun, Zydeco, Jazz, New Orleans R&B, it is the Blues that has rocked me the hardest and in which the sound and feel of Africa is the most evident.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Beam me up, Scotty.
5. Your ideal brain food?
I begin the day with green tea, Japanese sen-cha or guen mai. I don’t usually have a Japanese traditional breakfast, but I will on occasion, especially when it is available on the road (which is not very often). Miso soup, rice, pickled vegetables and grilled fish is a great way to begin a day.
It is told that Duke Ellington would have a steak for breakfast while on the road, never knowing when he would have another good meal. For me it would be grilled fish and miso.
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
I am still married. Why? Because my wife is very forgiving. Very.
7. You want to be remembered for…?
Compassion. Helping people in need. Doing things in spite of my egotistical self-centered nature.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
I am a musician playing in the profoundest of traditions, the melting pot of Afro-Frano-Hispano-Americano South Louisiana. My heroes are: Clifton Chenier, Ira Lejeune, Henry Roland Byrd (aka Professor Longhair), Felix Richard. I am still very close to the music of Louisiana even though stylistically I am perhaps closer to Neil Young than Ali Young (Balfa Brothers).
What is important to me, however, is the communication of humanity. I have recorded six English language albums and ten French ones. The language, though naturally a fundamental aspect of my songwriting, is secondary to the story. The best songs are those which express common emotion uncommonly. I could be writing in Chinese, but if I can make somebody feel the same passion that I felt in writing the song, then I am satisfied.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
Symphony #9 by Antonin Dvořák. Last year I had the immense pleasure of performing that symphony under the direction of Luc Boivin in Québec City. The orchestra was made up of traditional musicians from around the world: Peruvian flute players, Bosnian gypsy accordion players, Japanese taiko drummers, percussionists from Africa and the Antilles, Vietnamese Dan Bau, Flameco guitarists, Haitian singers and me playing harmonica. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.
10. Your hidden talents…?
I’m not sure that I have any talents beyond the ordinary. I’m a poet and songwriter. I love to sing. I love to cook, but my wife is much better at cooking and usually will not let me near the kitchen.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
Give your heart to something and it will take care of you.
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
Which one? Bought: 1957 Gibson J-45. Stolen: My baby’s heart. Borrowed: LP copy of the Doors album, Strange Days
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?
Depends on the gig. I am a fashion chameleon that way. I do find that it is hard to ride the tractor in a suit, however.
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
My wife and best friend (that’s the same person).
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
Backwards. Acadian Deportation of 1755. Battle of Mansfield 1864 (Civil War). I am intrigued by the humanity of catastrophe. How people coped with apparently insurmountable challenge. Especially events that were historical watersheds.
Acadian people are very concerned with the past. It is as though we have lost a part of ourselves that we are ever attempting to restore. I’d go back to 1641, on the voyage of my first ancestor from Western France to North America.
Actually anything that happened before: the apple hitting Newton on the head. The beheading of Louis XIV. Where I put my keys last night. And /or the personal history of my family.
My mother told me recently that for the first few months after she and my father were married, he would get up and dance around the bed every morning. I am not sure I would have liked to see that, but I would have liked to see the gleam in his eye.
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
Spa vacation in Italy. Italian style is absolutely charming.
We once stayed in Montecatini after having played a festival in Tuscany. You get the feeling that you have stepped into a time warp. Left over from the era when it was fashionable to “take the waters”, most of the people in town are quite old. The fashion quotient is quite low. No night life, no hip scene, the only thing to do is “take the waters” with all of the old folks. We had a ball.
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?
Coffee, espresso à l’Italiano.
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
Country. South Louisiana. South of France. South of anywhere.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
I am working on behaving myself and developing my compassion toward all beings.