John Boutte interview

Photo by Michael Crook

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Here’s the second interview by my friend Jamie Hailstone – The copyright with this interview sits with Jamie – feel free to link to this interview, but please don’t lift the post – if you want to publish any of Jamie’s interviews, or commission him to do an interview for you, get in touch with me and I’ll put you in contact.
For many years, John Boutte was one of the best-kept secrets in New Orleans. But following his appearance on the 2006 CD by the New Orleans Social Club and the HBO series Treme, the singer is finally getting the success he so richly deserves. Not only does he sing the theme tune to Treme, but he also stars in several of the episodes. This interview was done in December 2009, to promote his ‘Good Neighbour’ album….
“Music is like air, blood, or food,” says singer John Boutte. “After the storm, what else did we have down here? It was mayhem and destruction. I saw it.
“I saw how people were clinging to music, because it’s holy and we needed something familiar, which couldn’t get washed away.”
As a life-long resident of New Orleans, Boutte has seen it all, particularly over the last few years in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. If you want to talk to someone about the history, the people, and most importantly, the spirit of the Big Easy, then he is your man.
Boutte still lives in the French Quarter, just a mile from the house where he grew up. His sister, Lillian was a backing singer for local legends Dr. John, Allen Toussaint and James Booker, among others. While he is popular local singer in his own right, who first came to greater prominence on The New Orleans Social Club CD Sing Me Back Home.

His contribution to the CD, which also featured the likes of Dr. John, Cyril Neville and Henry Butler, was a stunning version of Annie Lennox’s song ‘Why’, that in the aftermath of Katrina became something of an anthem locally.
“I used to do that song thinking about a love relationship and then afterwards, you wonder why,” he explains. “Well that’s life. The longer you live, you more you’ll see, including your friends dying. You have hard times and you have good times.
“I think most New Orleansians just cherish what they have and just try to embrace what they have right now,” he adds.
The New Orleans Social Club, which included one of the founder members of The Meters, George Porter Jnr. also took their album onto Austin City Limits for a memorable live show.
“I remember when we did Austin City Limits, because I drew a blank when I got up there to sing,” Boutte confesses.  “You know when you can’t remember the first lyric? Just before I went on, I was chatting to a guy who said are you nervous? I said no sir. He said he would be if five million people were going to see you. He had me freaked out a little bit.
“I went onstage and looked at George (Porter Jnr.) and thought will somebody give me the first word. The band were like ‘we feel you’ and I’m like ‘will somebody give me the first lyric’.”
“I said to myself this is crazy and thought how am I going to do this? And how was the first word in the song. If anyone looks at that clip you will see the horror in my eyes of not knowing what the lyrics were. It was funny.”
Stage fright or no stage fright, singing is clearly in Boutte’s blood.
“I’ve been singing since I was a baby,” he says. “In elementary school, I used to drive my sisters crazy with all the rhymes they would teach us. I always loved to sing. I stopped for a while, because I didn’t like my voice. It was too high.
“And then Stevie Wonder told me I had a special voice, which was back in the late 80s; I was like screw everybody else! I was a banker at the time and he was getting an honorary degree from my university in New Orleans, and I had the great pleasure of spending a day with him.”
Since that fateful meeting with Stevie Wonder, he has opened shows for the likes of Mel Torme, Lou Rawls and Herbie Hancock. He was also a guest vocalist on Cubanismo’s CD Mardi Gras Mambo, and Boutte has now released a solo CD Good Neighbor on his own Boutte Works label.
The new album features some of the greatest musicians at work in the Big Easy, including Ivan Neville, Troy Andrews and Leroy Jones.
One of the stand-out tracks on Good Neighbor is the powerful ‘Wake Up’, which looks at the US’s involvement in Iraq.
“My co-writer Paul Sanchez gave me that song years ago, before the levies failed,” says Boutte. “When I first read it, it brought me to tears. Paul was like are you ok? The lyrics were so heavy. It was the time they were messing with the Dixie Chicks and I’m a former military officer.”
Despite everything that has happened, Boutte still remains hopeful for the future.
“New Orleanians are just so strong,” he says, “Without the help of the government, we picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off and started all over again. That’s what we basically did, with the help of friends from around the world. We didn’t do it on our own.
“I look on the good side of the fence. I’m still here. We’re still making music and we’re still strong down here in New Orleans.”
JH
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