One of the biggest stories of Jazz Fest 2013 was Aaron Neville’s solo show. The legendary R&B artist, who recently released a doo wop album, My True Story, with the help of Don Was and Keith Richards, spoke to me over a crackly connection. Now based in New York City, Neville has no doubts about leaving his family band, the Neville Brothers, and pursuing his own projects. During our interview, he explains the importance of doo wop and asks his millennial interviewer what she thinks of his new album.
Are you in New York right now?
Yeah, where are you?
I’m in the CBD in New Orleans.
Around what street?
Poeyfarre, right by Tchoupitoulas. I wanted to talk to you a little bit about your connection with New Orleans during the doo-wop era. Your memories of that era happened in places that no longer exist — the Calliope projects.
Parts of it are still there, but where I lived, they tore it down.
Can you describe the atmosphere of those neighborhoods when you were growing up?
When I was growing in the Callope project, we had an oval parkway. Pavement ran around this whole thing. We’d skate or ride bicycles. There were benches and trees out there. It was paradise to us. They finished building it the same year I was born.
The only brother of yours that lives in New Orleans is your brother Art–
Cyril lives in Slidell (a town close to New Orleans).
How many times do you come home?
As much as I can. I’m on the road though.
What’s the first thing you eat when you come back?
Probably some gumbo or somethin’ like that. An oyster.
You’re very fortunate in that you were able to break out of the New Orleans music circuit and have a successful national career. Now you’re in New York. How do you stay connected to New Orleans now that you live in New York?
It’s in my blood. It’s in my heart, you know? I stay connected. I talk to Art, I talk to Cyril, I talk to my kids.
Does Jazz Fest mean something different to you than it did when you lived here?
Yeah. It’s one of the greatest festivals in the world. New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest is the best all-around…It’s an honor to be closing it. Gentilly stage with my quintet. Coming out with my new CD My True Story.
Let’s talk about that CD, if you have some time. How did the idea of doing a doo wop album come about?
It’s been there since the Calliope Projects. [laughs] That’s been my love. Everything I’ve ever recorded has some kind of doo wop link to it, some kind of whatever. An ending on the song.
How did you pitch it? Did it take convincing?
Don Was is a friend of mine, we’ve done projects together over the years. He’s worked with Keith Richards. He says he was rooming above Keith when they were doing the Stones’ Voodoo Lounge album and Keith had a doo wop thing on loop, over and over and over. He called Keith and Keith said, “What took you so long?”
This album comes out fairly soon after you’ve found love again. Doo Wop is pretty romantic music. Did your recent marriage influence you to make this album?
Yes, it did. When I met Sarah, I was going through a lot of changes. I had lost Joelle… Sarah brought new life back to me and new meaning to my life. I write a lot of poetry about her. I’m a poet, I’ve got a poetry book. This CD is like it’s dedicated to her. She’s my gypsy woman.
You recorded this album in only five days. Those must have been quite the sessions. Can you describe the atmosphere in the recording studio?
If you listen to the CD, you can hear all the musicians smiling and having a ball. We were like kids. Keith Richards was sayin’ every time he went in the studio it felt like he was back in the 50s. It brought us back to those days.
I’ve read Keith’s memoir and he talks a bit about his childhood. Y’all are from very different places, but you were listening to the same songs growing up. You connect with those songs at the same level.
Right. It’s like with Paul Simon. It’s like we grew up in the same block listening to the same music.
Let’s talk about the Jazz Fest 2013 poster. You’ve seen it, obviously.
Yeah. I saw the original. It was like eight feet tall.
What was it like seeing yourself eight feet tall?
[Laughs] It was spectacular, that’s all I can say. He caught my soul. He could see. I could jump into the poster. I felt kin to it.
With the doves, and the cemetery, and tambourines–
Yeah, and it was like I was singing something special, you know?
What do you think you’d be singing?
Oh I don’t know. “Amazing Grace”, maybe.
So you’ve been given 15 extra minutes in your Jazz Fest cube. What are you going to do with those 15 minutes?
Oh, I could fill a three hour set. [laughs] Fifteen minutes. We’re gonna give them a great show. We’re playing the night before in Biloxi. We’ve been doing different shows and festivals. I’ve been bringing all the music from over the years. Something old, something new. I mix it all up.
Are you going to have any special guests with you?
I don’t know. I’m just looking forward to doing the Aaron Neville thing.
How did you tell your brothers than you wanted to do it solo this year?
Well, this is something’ I been thinking about before Joelle died. I wanted to do my own thing. She’d see me come home and I wasn’t happy. I was stifled. I was on the stage for three or four songs and beating the cowbell and singing background. I just needed to be doing more than that. The time came for me to step out. You never know how much time you have left. I wanted to make sure I got to do the stuff I wanted to do before I got out of here, you know?
This interview is for a national audience, some of whom may be unfamiliar with Jazz Fest. Could you explain what it means to close Jazz Fest and how much it means to New Orleanians?
It’s a special festival. It’s my hometown. To be closing out the stage at the fest I love doin’– it’s very special. I’ve done it with the Nevilles. Now it’s my turn. I’m looking forward to it big-time.
What’s your favorite Jazz Fest that you’ve been to?
Oh, a bunch of them. I remember when we first started goin’ Jazz Fest, we could walk around and not even bump into anybody. There was a smaller amount of people in there.
This is going to be a memorable Jazz Fest for you.
No doubt. Especially with the poster and all. I’m geeked up. I feel like a kid.
Are you nervous?
Aw, no. No. I’m not nervous. I’m anxious. I’m watching the weather. It’s rainin’ today, eh?
The sun just came out.
It knows I’m coming. [laughs]
I know you were told this would only take five minutes, but before you go, I just want to compliment you on your Facebook account. It looks great.
Oh. Thank you. What do you think about the CD?
The CD? It’s great. I was born in the 1980s, so I missed the doo wop era. I just read the Keith Richards book again–
You read it?
Yeah, I’ve read it twice. I love that thing.
It’s a great book.
He talks about your son in there.
Yeah, the Xpensive Winos.
I laugh the whole time I’m reading it. It’s so funny. I forget where I was going with that. I’m really impressed with it because it’s better than a lot of musicians who I interview who are in their 20s or 30s. Do you do it yourself?
[caught] No, Sarah does it. [laughs]
I knew there was something fishy in there. Anyway, the CD. I discovered the “Little Bitty Pretty One” song on that CD. I’ve heard it around my whole life but never knew what track it was, and I enjoyed your voice on it. It was cool to hear music that I wouldn’t consider contemporary but I’m still able to connect to.
I think that music needs to come back. It was the innocent music back in 50s. You could put it on with a grandmother and a granddaughter and nobody was offended.
I played “Work With Me Annie” for my roommate, Annie. She’s going to be hearing that a lot.
That’s the only one they wouldn’t play on the radio back in the day. They called that a rager song. They said it was too suggestive. But the stuff they put on the radio today is ridiculous– that was a tame song.
It’s interesting because– I cover a lot of electronic music, EDM, and there’s no harmonies. They completely blot it out.
Well, that’s what the doo wop era was. A lot of harmonies and stuff, you know.
You’re going to be playing songs from My True Story at Jazz Fest, right?
Will you play “Littly Bitty Pretty One”?
Yeah, we’ll play that too.