Inside New Orleans’ Singer-Songwriter Scene

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Videos by American Songwriter

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(Andrew Duhon)

Like Austin, New Orleans’ music scene manages to survive without the infrastructure one finds in New York, Nashville or Los Angeles, where publishers, songwriting stables and label reps exist to find or feed the next big thing.

“We get to have the best of both worlds,” says Rouchell. “We can go get in the machine when we want to get in the machine, and then get out of the machine when we want to get out.”

His last band, MyNameIsJohnMichael, grew out of his 2008 writing and recording project, for which he produced a song a week and posted it online for feedback. The goal with TYSSON is to create “modern, great music. Modern, great songs.” Songs that elevate New Orleans songwriters to a level comparable to its renowned players, but whose CDs, as Duhon says, won’t be found “in the pamphlet rack next to the crocodile tours” because they’re not just writing about gumbo; they have more to say.

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“A lot of people call it a music town,” Rouchell explains. “I think musician town is the better way of putting it, because we are creating music that’s based upon musicianship. Not necessarily upon song.”

“New Orleans will always be primarily a jazz-blues kind of a town,” says Cowsill. “However, we really have managed through the 21 years I’ve been here to be a very welcoming environment to music of all kinds. The singer-songwriter climate right now is in a good spot.”

Most of these artists say they’re noticing a surge of interest in original music and lyrical content. Katrina is one likely reason. It’s often noted that tragedies draw out artistic creativity, and after the disaster, the music community had much to say. Their voices were amplified by HBO’s Treme, which shined a light on the city’s struggles to recover – and its resilience. Cowsill and her band played two of her songs in the series; one of them, “Crescent City Sneaux,” was regarded as a post-Katrina anthem of sorts. She co-wrote it with her husband, drummer Russ Broussard, while they were displaced in Nashville. Osborne and Diable also were among the many NOLA artists whose music was featured; Baton Rouge native Diable also had a song placement in another Louisiana-set HBO series, True Blood.

Treme’s certainly been a boon to all the musicans here. I know a lot more homeowner musicians now than I used to,” Diable says with a laugh. Cowsill calls it “a big boost on every level for our city and for the music scene, and especially for heartfelt stories in songs.”

Adds Duhon, “That’s what’s drawing people here; they’re recognizing the soul and the fire, the celebration that is so genuine from the people who were here and experienced that thing.”

Whether Treme contributed directly to Cowsill’s current level of activity, she can only guess. But she observes, “I’m playing more. People are saying ‘Hey, do you wanna?’ I’m getting called by clubs as opposed to calling them. That’s a telling sign.”

Diable has noticed more bands and modern songwriters making waves nationally, which draws attention to others as well; she hopes it will result in nurturing more of that infrastructure.

While Duhon says the notion of co-writing sessions is starting to take hold, a happy development, the city is already facing gentrification issues, and the music community is trying to stave off a controversial noise ordinance that could seriously impact the scene. There’s also the fear that global warming will wipe New Orleans off the map for good, Diable says, which makes everyone appreciate the city’s specialness even more.

But Cowsill, who gained pop-star fame as a child in her family’s band, remains optimistic – about the music, at least.

“You’ve got a best bet here because of the open nature to all kinds of music,” she says. “As fond as we are about our jazz, our blues, our brass bands, it really is a welcoming city. Otherwise, I couldn’t have stayed here, as a Cowsill. Just start there.

“You don’t get tagged here; you’re an artist. It doesn’t mean you’re gonna be a big hit and you’re gonna make a bunch of money, but you are welcome to show your wares and see how it rolls. And that’s about all you can ask, really. I certainly wouldn’t want to live anywhere else and do what I do, that’s for sure.”

This article appears in our March/April issue. Buy it here, or download it here.

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