eMusic Selects: Luke Winslow-King
When eMusic called Luke Winslow-King to talk with him about his music, he was sitting out in the street in his adopted home city of New Orleans, running through some jazz standards with fellow musicians. This is an everyday occurrence for King: roaming out into the warm sun, guitar on shoulder, to while away the afternoon. It’s part of the reason he loves the city and part of the reason he could never seriously consider leaving.
That deep-seated love of the city is all over Old/New Baby, King’s self-described “tribute to New Orleans” (its predecessor was full of light, lovely folk songs). Recorded at the legendary Preservation Hall, Baby is bursting with all the color and revelry of a Mardi Gras parade, And amidst the brass band oom-pahs, clacking washboards and swooping clarinets is King, quietly crooning his songs of love.
eMusic asked King about his love affair with New Orleans, and how a folk musician from Michigan comes to record in the legendary Preservation Hall.
On why first impressions can’t always be trusted:
I first came to New Orleans on a little trip with some friends playing music when I was 19 — I think it was 2001 — and my car got stolen. We had all of our equipment in the car and everything.
We had met a great jazz singer named John Boutte in Michigan when he was on the road touring with Cubanisimo. He’s a bit of a local star in New Orleans, and he’d invited us to come down, and had volunteered to help us find a couple of shows. He was putting us up at the time — he actually said that the place we parked was a “safe spot,” which it turned out not to be. So we got kinda stranded here for a couple of weeks, which was just long enough to fall in love with the place.
We did get the car back a couple of weeks later, but with none of the stuff in it. Eventually, I went and auditioned for the music program at University of New Orleans and ended up going there, and I just kind of stayed here. John Boutte went on to become a great mentor to me — and he cooks a lot of great New Orleans cuisine.
On what it is that keeps him here:
The weather — indoors and outdoors feel the same. The streets can become your home, it’s so comfortable. I love how open people are about music, allowing other people to sit in and play with them, and just to inspire each other. I like that there’s gigs every night, and the music seems to be really free and open. There are so many guys to learn from. It’s more about the music than about business. It’s just a really fertile place.
Besides that, just the colors of the city — the sun-faded colors of the houses — the vegetation and stuff. It’s just so amazing. The people are so relaxed and cordial, too.
On his first exposure to the music of New Orleans:
I didn’t really know much about the music of New Orleans before I got here. I had studied bebop and jazz at school, but I grew up playing folk music — Woody Guthrie, old-time folk music like that. When I found this, it felt like a hybrid of the two. It’s people’s music — for dancing. It’s not too intellectual, you can just enjoy it. And you can really get slamming more than you can with a folk band.
It’s also cool in the city how the legends come about — you meet people and hear stories about places and things that happened. It’s been such a fertile ground for music for so long. With the blues, it has different homes all over the South. It’s cool that one city has its own music.
On his decision to shift away from folk and toward brass bands:
My girlfriend Ji Un Choi, who is also my writing partner, is a great poetess and film writer. We’d both been into Bob Dylan and stuff like that. We had been writing songs together, and there was always this group of tunes that felt inspired by the music down here — whether that was on purpose or not. So we had these tunes where we’d be like, “Oh, these don’t really fit on the other project.”
We gradually started adding a couple more to them, and then it just all fit together, and I started working on the horn arrangements. I didn’t really think of it as being a New Orleans-themed record until I was halfway through it.
I’m always pretty sensitive about [feeling like I'm "appropriating the music"]. But over time, it’s kind of been everyone’s music. It avoids the connotations that the blues has of being, say, “black people’s music.” There have been all kinds of people down here, playing this music for a long time. I don’t ever try to claim New Orleans as my own, I just give back. I’ve been inspired by some amazing music here, and blessed enough to be nurtured by some people who have really embodied the spirit of music from New Orleans. I’m always sensitive about it, but I feel like people down here are cool with this being “everybody’s music.” And the stuff on the album — it’s not like we’re playing trad jazz tunes. It’s definitely just “influenced” by it.
On collaborating with blues guitarist Roberto Louti:
I used to see Roberto playing on the street. I became friends with him and his wife over time. His wife is “Washboard Lisa,” who’s another real legend in New Orleans. I used to watch them every night at the Apple Barrel, which is this tiny blues bar. I was so inspired by his playing, I just watched him for hours and hours. He’s just an amazing presence — he sounds like he’s possessed when he plays. I kind of re-learned the way I play slide guitar after watching him. I’ve never taken a formal lesson with Roberto. He doesn’t want to do that. He wants to just jam. If you ask him for a lesson, he’ll just take out his guitar and play. The blues is so much call and response, so you can kind of just learn by doing. He’s really into “feeling it.” He doesn’t want to talk too intellectually about it. He doesn’t really know chord changes. He just wants to go.
He actually got deported about two weeks before we recorded the album, so I ended up going to his home town in Italy to overdub him. All of his tracks on the album are overdubs.
The rest of the record was recorded at Preservation Hall. My engineer, Earl Scioneaux, he and I studied music theory together at the University of New Orleans. He’s the sound engineer for Preservation Hall, he does all the recording there. We also know Ben Jaffe, the tuba player, who’s also the caretaker. We just called him up and asked if it would be OK, and he gave us some time on a couple of weekdays.
On “Never Tired”:
My girlfriend and I wrote that song in Italy. We were riding in the car when the first line came up — she’d come up with the line, “I’m so tired, I’m so tired,” and then I came up with “tired as a tire, tired as a retiree,” and it just kind of developed from there. We spent the rest of the day writing down volumes of ideas. We ended up cutting a lot of it and still having that many lyrics. For a while, it seemed like it was another song, and I was trying to figure out what song it was. That’s always a good sign, when it feels like an existing song already.
On “April is to May”:
That one I wrote that same week in Rome. I heard the first verse on a weird radio station, on a real small radio in a village where I was staying. It was a kind of reggae, rocksteady song. So I took the first verse and wrote the rest of the song after it. That song is really stark, really sharp shadows. That one came really easily, too — the ones that people like are usually the ones that were easiest to write.
On “The Sun Slamming the Highway”:
My girlfriend wrote all the lyrics to this one. It was inspired by this vision I had one time of being asleep, and there’s both a string quartet and a street band coming down the road — which is something you always get in New Orleans. You’re listening to one kind of music, and then a street band comes along, and it all kind of melds together.
On the other kinds of music he writes:
I have a really good friend and collaborator, a cartoonist named Cosmo Segurson, and I got into doing instrumental music with him. The first thing we did was the Henry James play The Turn of the Screw. We performed it in this abandoned building in the French Quarter. It was really cool — we did like a five-day run. The cast was just my girlfriend and one other actor who was playing five different roles. It ended up being this creepy ghost story with organ and electric guitar.
I also did a production of Wozzeck under the bridge in Strawberry Fields in Central Park with my friend Cesar Alvarez — he’s in a band called the Lisps in NY. I did a small film project called Wanted in Rome. I acted in it; it’s my girlfriend’s script. I wrote the music for that, too.
I’m really excited about the idea of just being able to compose instrumental music for other people to play. I love performing, but I like the idea of doing composition work, too.
On his insatiable urge to travel:
I did a study abroad program in Prague with the University of New Orleans. I was studying classical music at the time, so this was basically an intensive study of Czech classical music. I focused on string quartets a lot when I was there, and I got to hang out in the city a lot. There were these cool orchards there that I hung out in. I did some busking — that was actually kind of the beginning of me developing my love of playing in the street. It was cool, it was like woodshedding. It was nice to be able to have my education be specific to a place, to be learning about a whole culture.
Over the last few years I’ve been to the Czech Republic, to Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, France, Denmark, England, Spain, Belgium… I just go around and play on the street. I’ll go on the internet and book a few gigs ahead of time, and then I just kinda connect the dots, and play on the street when I have time. They’re always “working vacations.” I’m always trying to keep playing in the clubs, making contacts. It would be really cool to spend the summers in Europe, have a good network set up where I could go do tours over there and try to cultivate that over time.
Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time in Rome. I have a bunch of friends there, and we’re working on a couple of projects. I’ve been there, like, four or five times in the last few years. I think I’m going back again this summer. It’s so beautiful — it’s definitely in contention with the beauty of New Orleans. The ancient times seem to live on there because of the architecture. They eat great food — they really know how to live life. My music is a bit of a novelty over there, too, which is cool. I play on the street a lot, I play in hotels. I’ve actually been tempted to move there, but New Orleans keeps calling me back.