The words “singer” and “songwriter” are never going to replace “jazz” in definitions of New Orleans’ musical identity, but a funny thing happened on the way to this city’s latest rebirth: making a living as a Crescent City singer-songwriter became possible – not just for a few well-known veterans, but for newcomers, too.
Not only are they feeling a growing sense of community, they’re also finding that audiences are becoming more accepting of non-traditional music forms – and showing up at clubs such as Chickie Wah Wah or Carrollton Station to hear real songcraft, even without a single brass instrument in sight.
“There’s enough different neighborhoods that if you wanted to play in New Orleans exclusively, you could probably get by,” says New Orleans native Andrew Duhon, whose folk-blues album, The Moorings, was a 2014 Grammy nominee for Best Engineered Album – Non-classical – (engineered by Trina Shoemaker and Eric Conn). He notes the proximity of other Gulf Coast towns means artists can play plenty of gigs each month without having to venture far from home or wear out their welcome among faithful New Orleans fans. Blues-rock guitarist Anders Osborne, a 30-year resident, agrees, but adds, “If you’re good.”
For those playing original, non-traditional New Orleans music – i.e., not brass-laden jazz or funk – it might take a little while to make inroads, according to Americana-soul singer Kristin Diable. “But I lived in New York for five years,” she reports, “and within a year of being in New Orleans, I was making 10 times more money than I ever made in New York City.
“You can’t play five nights a week in New York and make any money. Or in Nashville,” she adds. “There’s so many venues in New Orleans and the culture is so dependent on tourism, that people come here to hear music. They might come for some technology conference or for a bachelor party or whatever, but they want to hear music while they’re here. I’ve never been to any city where I’ve met so many working-class musicians. New Orleans is really nurturing in that way; the quality of life is very good. You don’t need a lot to be happy in New Orleans. You can play shows and when you’re starting a career from the ground up, you’re living. You’re not just hustling and paying rent and barely getting by. You can afford to have a beer at the bar and shoot the shit.”
Susan Cowsill moved from Los Angeles to New Orleans when the band she was in, the Continental Drifters, relocated en masse. She subsequently formed the Susan Cowsill Band, which was the first act to plug in again post-Katrina, at Carrollton Station in the Uptown-Carrollton neighborhood.
Duhon still plays Tuesday open mics there whenever he’s in town. He knows some people think it’s strange to do open mics on top of regular gigs, but he notes, “It really is a great place to try out new material and bring those fragile songs, and it still feels like a home base. So I’ll meet up with other songwriter friends and we’ll have some whiskey … it’s still cultivating young, up-and-coming music.”
Other venues offering open mic spots or song-swapping include the all-ages Neutral Ground Coffeehouse, the Hi-Ho Lounge and the Café Istanbul performance art center, as well as Chickie Wah Wah and d.b.a., according to Cowsill and Duhon.
Both musicians and fans are labeling Chickie Wah Wah as their favorite venue because of its intimacy and respect for artists, as well as owner Dale Triguero’s commitment to great sound, clean restrooms and similar details. A New York native with a theater and film background and a self-described blue-collar, no-nonsense attitude, Triguero allows performers to set cover charges and keep 100 percent of the door.
“Here’s a place where you can come and do it,” he says. “I’m not interested in anyone walking in here with an act. When I moved down here 20 years ago from New York, it was all funk bands and brass bands. I was waiting for someone to sing about something.”
Journalist and musician Ben Sandmel, author of Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor Of New Orleans, praises the Mid-City club’s listening-room vibe, reasonable volume and great sightlines, as well as the food and easy parking. Uptown legend Tipitina’s, where Professor Longhair’s bust is rubbed for luck like a Buddha’s belly, is still a draw, Sandmel says, but it’s often filled with chatterboxes.
While Frenchmen Street’s array of clubs has started to attract what Duhon calls “the bead people” – Bourbon Street’s bead-catching tourists – he likes hanging out at d.b.a., the second edition of a New York club founded by beer-loving Raymond Deter. Though Deter – who made his pop-cultural mark with 1979’s “Skylab Protector” shield for falling space station debris – died from a bicycling accident in 2011, his clubs live on.
“Anywhere on Frenchmen is great,” Duhon says. “When I’m not playing a gig, I won’t even check the schedule, I’ll just go out there and see what’s going on, because it’s a two-block concentration of music that’s generally real and authentic.”
But locals who like to avoid bead people are heading to the Bywater neighborhood, where the Hi-Ho Lounge hosts a Monday “Bluegrass Pickin’ Party” and a Tuesday “Songwriters Gumbo.”
John Michael Rouchell, another native, recently started a residency there with his new band, TYSSON. “They’ve been cool enough to let us take over and change the look of the inside for the shows,” he says. “This project’s an R&B-pop thing I’ve been wanting to do for a really long time, using modernity and being okay with that. We take it over and do projection stuff, art installations and things like that, trying to make our own Factory.”
Though a full-on reincarnation of Andy Warhol’s Velvet Underground era is a pipe dream anywhere, Rouchell observes, “The beauty of New Orleans is that there’s many sides to it; it’s not just one thing, even within the songwriter community.
“I’m kind of the resident indie-pop kid. Andrew is the very rootsy Americana guy. Anders is the roots-rock guy. And because there’s not a machine,” he adds, “we’re not all trying to plug into the 3-minute and 30-second country song or the 3-minute and 30-second California pop song.”