Interviewer : Benjamin Smith
Jon Cleary has made a name for himself playing with the best that New Orleans music has to offer from Dr John and Professor Longhair to Bonnie Raitt and Allen Toussaint. Last year he took home the Grammy award for his album GoGo Juice. His Australian tour starts this week and we took a few moments to pick his brain about all things jazz funk and NoLa.
BS: John Cleary, thanks for taking time to talk with us at Amnplify
JC: Delighted to do it
BS: there’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you for about a decade since I saw you play at a little Jazz club in Melbourne. One of the things about seeing you play is the way you seem to play the piano with your whole body rather than just your hands, there is this sense of joy that comes across when you perform that seems to grip you entirely. Do you still get that same sense of frenetic joy or has it matured into something a little more reasoned as you’ve gotten a bit older?
JC: Um, I don’t know. There are a lot of adjectives you can use to describe the experience of playing music but they never seem to sum up the whole package. For me it’s not necessarily joy, but it is all encompassing, if you’re doing it right I think. Having come up in the city of New Orleans, I won’t say music is something they take seriously, because that would be another wrong adjective, but it is something recognised as very important, that soundtrack to your everyday life.
And so they do it really really well. And to do it really well you’ve got to play with a lot of soul There are so many musicians in New Orleans who play with so much soul that if you don’t you’re going to end up fairly low in the list of contenders. So you learn from an early age you’ve gotta put yourself into it and it envelops every aspect of your consciousness when you’re actually doing it. I think that just increases the older you get and the more that you do it.
BS: I’m also interested in how you translate that all-encompassing sense, that being consumed by the music as you play it on stage into the studio. I think that sense of immediacy comes across in your records and I’m wondering how you recreate that spontaneous kind of thing in the wholly artificial environment of the studio?
JC: Well that’s a good question and I think a lot of musicians who are well practiced in the skill of performing live struggle with the challenges that presents to you. How they try and convey that sense on record is difficult. Traditionally when the recording equipment was more primitive a recording was literally a recording of a performance. A band would play a song in front of one or two microphones or more microphones as the technology got better over the decades and they would just record the performance. Now the technology is at a point where each part is recorded one at a time separately and in that the process becomes a different thing. But New Orleans music is essentially a joyous sound, and so reconciling these to kind of opposing things has been something that has interested me for the last 30 years, really.
I’m very flattered if you think we’ve achieved that because its always the challenge that’s what you try and do. The technology exists and I’m no Luddite, I wouldn’t want to turn back the clock, but I do think that there are situations where I like to record a live performance. The tools we have these days are fantastic. So you can do all sorts of stuff you couldn’t do in a live performance, and a record is a different thing. There is a big distinction between a record and a live performance. A live performance exists as a moment in time and then is lost; its gone. It happens once and no two live performances are the same. if you’re in the same room as a bunch of good musicians you can enjoy something that’s unique, its spontaneous, its inspired and its improvised. And the minute a subsequent note replaces the original note its gone, its history.
When you make a record, however, it is a recording that can be played over and over again and there are different sets of imperatives that come into play then, different criteria. But being from New Orleans you want to have that exciting vibe so it’s a challenge to try and accomplish both and it just means that you have to work really hard at it and spend a lot of time doing it. I think I’ll spend the rest of my time trying to get it just right.
BS: How do you see your place in the greater tradition of New Orleans music? It seems to me a question for any musician who performs music so steeped in history and tradition but how do you personally go about respecting that tradition and sense of place whilst at the same time trying to bring something unique to your interpretation and make, part of it at least, your own?
JC: that’s another good question and I think it’s the thing that’s occupied me the most for the last 20 odd years that I’ve been making records. I think what you do is absorb as much of the tradition as you can and learn from the people that are around you and that went before you which means working very hard at understanding the sum total of everything that everyone has ever done that you have access to. Then you absorb that into your very own personal reference library and then you sit down behind and instrument and then you speak and all that cumulative learning comes out in a way that’s uniquely yours.
And I think speaking is a good metaphor because it’s like speaking. When you talk, you’re utilising a lexicon of phrases and language but you express a sentiment and it comes out fairly unbidden and spontaneously and it’s your unique voice. It’s pointless I think, in the grand scheme of things, just to imitate or emulate really good stuff that has come before and just to leave it at that. It’s essential to learn how to emulate things that have come before but with a view to informing your own particular set of musical sensibilities.
So that’s what you do, you learn the old stuff and then you go out and you write new songs, and you hope in the process something new comes out. Whether it’s of any value is for other people to decide at some point in the future. You can’t worry too much about that you just hope you’re doing as well as you can.
BS: On the subject of learning from those who have gone before and absorbing the traditions, can you speak to your experience working with Allen Toussaint? I know his music and his personality cast a shadow over everything that comes from New Orleans, musically, but can you speak to your own experience of him as man and as a musician?
JC: Well I don’t want to overstate anything, I didn’t know him very well. We weren’t great friends but obviously I have a huge respect for him. I think from his respective I was just one of many New Orleans musicians who he knew what they were doing. But certainly as somebody and a songwriter and an arranger, I think it was obvious to me very early on that this was somebody that I could learn a lot from and I think I did learn a lot from him. I’d like to say that we were friends, we toured together a little bit with both his band and my band. He was important for me because he was able to corral the raw talent and shape the raw talent of New Orleans musicians into something productive.
New Orleans musicians are notoriously disorganised rough diamonds, a lot of them. But it takes an Allen Toussaint to get the record made. Before Allen Toussaint was around there was a guy named Dave Bartholomew, who was the arranger for a lot of New Orleans music in the 40s and the 50s. Then in the 70s there are another cat called Wardell Quezergue. All three of those guys I’m lucky enough to have met and I learned a lot. So I’m primarily a piano player and a singer but I’m a songwriter too and I’m a band leader and arranger too and to get a group of musicians together and say, you know this is how it goes and organising the thing while respecting the talent and at the same time being firm sometimes, is a challenging process. He had a lot of experience in that world and to a certain extent he was somebody I knew I could learn a great deal from so I was always happy to be anywhere where I knew I could be around him.
BS: What about the music outside the world of New Orleans funk and blues and jazz. I read once that you’d said you were influenced early on in your career by the British punk bands you were going to see and the intensity they brought to their performances. DO you still keep abreast of what’s happening in music outside your immediate sphere?
JC: Not really. No. I mean there is so much music out there. There are so many people around the world that have been beavering away with 12 notes and four beats in a bar that there’s not enough time in my life to listen to and fully absorb the music that I know I like, let alone go out and explore stuff that might be out there that I could develop a taste for. I like soulful music, and that doesn’t necessarily mean soul music but might include classical music and jazz and Latin music from around the place. I don’t sit down and listen to a lot of radio because I’m usually working on my own music.
My friends, people around me, will often introduce me to music, some of it like, some I don’t, some I could develop a taste for if I worked hard at it. Stuff sort of comes to you in different ways at different times in your life. When I was 15 years old there wasn’t a lot of live music I could go and see except for what was played at home. But punk was sort of happening then and when all your mates from school were digging in and liking and its sort of the soundtrack to your adolescence and its great fun. I find it very hard to listen to any of that now; its dreadful most of it. It’s fun when you’re 15 years old, but my thing, I know what I like and I moved halfway around the world so I could be immersed in the sounds of the city of New Orleans
BS: I know that you’re working on a new album that you’re crowdfunding. First can you tell us why you’ve got the crowdfunding route? I would have thought that being a Grammy-award winning artist meant that there were studios breaking down your door to offer you big bags of money to make records with?
JC: Well it costs lots of money to make a record. Studios invest an enormous amount of money in their equipment and they make it back by renting out their time. Record companies make their money from selling records and the record business has died and the kind of music that I play is kind of niche and sounds nothing like most of the music that you hear on the radio. Nevertheless there are lots of people around the world that dig the kind of stuff that I do and the technology that exists now enables me to go to other people and get them to contribute to the cost of making a record. And it’s expensive, especially if you’re using top calibre musicians that come in and devote their time to doing what they do. So it’s an expensive process and its fantastic that you can go to your fans now, rather than the old model where you used to go to your record company who then in the interest of protecting their investment felt inclined to offer advice on what you’re doing. I’d like to say that no one tells me what to do and that I can play whatever I want, but…
We’re actually still in the crowdfunding process. It’s underway still, on my website, but we’ve already started on the record; we’re more than halfway through. It’s good time funky music and the ideas just come to you and you try to get them down. I try to make music that I think would appeal to me if I heard it on the radio or if someone handed me a record and said here check this out.
BS: Jon I think we’re out of time, but good luck with the tour. We’ll be at the Canberra show, which I think is kicking off the tour, and we wish you the best of luck with it.
JC: thank you.
Working alongside Grammy Award-winning producer John Porter (Elvis Costello, Carlos Santana, B. B. King) Cleary says “Funk is the ethnic folk music of New Orleans, and I wanted to infuse ‘GoGo Juice’ with a sound that was true to the city I love.”
Thoroughly steeped in the classic New Orleans keyboard canon – from Jelly Roll Morton to Fats Domino to Art Neville, James Booker, and beyond – Cleary uses that century’s worth of pianistic brilliance as a point of departure to forge his own unique and eclectic style. As heard in the widely varied grooves and textures of GoGo Juice, Cleary’s sound incorporates such far-flung influences as ‘70s soul, gospel music, funk, Afro-Caribbean (and especially Afro-Cuban) rhythms and more. “I love New Orleans R&B, “ Cleary explains. “I’m a student of it – and a fan, first and foremost. But there’s little point in just going back and re-recording the old songs – although on my live solo shows, especially in New Orleans, I make a point of trying to keep the fast- disappearing tradition of the R&B pianist/singer alive by playing the old songs that are in danger of being forgotten. As for recording, however, I think the greatest New Orleans R&B records are the ones that built on what went before but also added something new. By writing new songs you get to channel all the music you absorb through your own individual set of filters – and the fun is in seeing what emerges.”
Born in Kent, England to a musical family, Jon Cleary epitomizes the fanaticism and inherent single mindedness of a musician who decides that he simply wasn’t born where he was supposed to be. Like Dylan to New York, infatuated with the music of New Orleans throughout his entire childhood, as soon as he was old enough to leave school, Cleary took off for the Crescent City. When his flight touched down he had the taxi take him straight to the Maple Leaf, a funky uptown bar which then featured such New Orleans piano legends as Roosevelt Sykes and James Booker. 35 years and 8 albums later – he’s now a defining part of New Orleans musical heritage.
Catch Jon Cleary when he brings a piece of New Orleans, a Grammy Award winning new album and his incredible Absolute Monster Gentlemen to a stage near you this November:
Nov 3rd @ Wangaratta Festival, Wangaratta VIC
Nov 4th @ Wangaratta Festival, Wangaratta VIC
Nov 5th @ Heritage Hotel, Bulli NSW
Nov 7th @ Brass Monkey, Cronulla NSW
Nov 8th @ Canberra Theatre, Canberra ACT
Nov 9th @ Lizottes, Newcastle NSW
Nov 10th @ The Basement, Sydney NSW
Nov 11th @ The Basement, Sydney NSW
Nov 12th @ The Basement, Sydney NSW
Nov 14th @ Birds Basement, Melbourne VIC
Nov 15th @ Birds Basement, Melbourne VIC
Nov 16th @ Birds Basement, Melbourne VIC
Nov 17th @ The Zoo, Brisbane QLD
Nov 18th @ Mullum Music Festival, Mullumbimby NSW
Nov 19th @ Mullum Music Festival, Mullumbimby NSW
Nov 21st @ Fly By Night, Fremantle WA
Nov 22nd @ Ellingtons, Perth WA
Nov 23rd @ Ellingtons, Perth WA
Nov 24th @ The Gov, Adelaide SA
Nov 25th @ Queenscliff Festival, Queenscliff VIC
Nov 26th @ Queenscliff Festival, Queenscliff VIC
AMNPLIFY – DB