Rebuild Renew, the final track on Volume One, is meant to sum up the moment of rebirth, acceptance and survival. Dan Baum, the author of the book Nine Lives, wrote to me recently that this song could be summed up in the opening line, “Storm’s over!”
The song was meant to be the voice of Ronald Lewis closing out the musical since it was his voice that began the musical.
Honestly, at this point I don’t know how much of the lyrics came out of the book and how much came out of the moment. Writing Nine Lives had taken a year and a half. It was a year and a half of thrilling word play with my pal Colman deKay. Three months in the studio with musicians I trust the most in the world to bring my songs to life and adding to that the most wonderful array of talent from the famous to the street musician, knowing it would all be mixed by yet another artist I have complete confidence in, Mark Bingham.
This track was to feature a lead vocal by another member of the Boutté family, Lillian Boutté. I was thrilled to have her. I have dug Lillian’s voice for a long time as well as her commanding stage presence and it was great to have her spirit and beautiful vocal on Nine Lives.
The track also features the legendary Allen Toussaint on piano. Mr. Toussaint is, in my opinion, the yardstick by which all New Orleans songwriters will be measured and I was and remain truly honored to have him on Nine Lives.
Matt Perrine was so excited at the thought of arranging a track that Mr. Toussaint would be playing on that he was a little beside himself for the first time in the sessions. He arranged everything about the track with the idea of leaving space for an “Allen Toussaint” piano part, even going as far as recording a piano part that he thought sounded like something Mr. Toussaint would play (which he made me promise never to let Mr. Toussaint hear). He wrote the horn parts especially with this in mind. Upon first hearing the track Mr. Toussaint said in that gentle way of his, “Well, I’m going to keep the piano part very simple because whoever arranged this horn part did a wonderful job and I’m a horn man. I like to stay out of the way of a good arrangement.” I thought Matt would faint. He just slid out of the room with the biggest smile ever.
And the band JUST KEPT GROWING!
After three months in the studio, word had gotten out that there was an unusual project going on at Piety with a very cool vibe and musicians had started stopping by the sessions. Sometimes I would be looking for something on a track and ask them to participate. Sometimes folks just dug the scene and would ask if there was anything they could do. On this song, we took idea of “community” literally and if someone showed up, they were on the track.
Here is how it unfolded.
Herman Roscoe Ernest III played drums. The track required a groove and Roscoe sure could groove. Herman was a producer and arranger and he understood how important playing very little can be to a track. He laid down a groove that hits you in the heart and in the hips.
Matt Perrine played acoustic stand up bass and the groove is really written around his bass part. Funky, subtle and very New Orleans, it is a riff with space.
Jason Mingledorff played saxophone and Kevin Clark played trumpet. I had simply started referring to them as Matt’s Horn Line because they had been on so much of the record. Total pros.
Later in the track the Bonerama Horns joined in. Mark Mullins, Craig Klein and Greg Hicks came in toward the end with a fanfare Matt wrote to make the horn arrangement more modern and give the song a lift in the middle. I like this part so much that when I remix the song for the new release I want to re-edit it as well so this fanfare actually kicks the song off.
Shane Theriot was the guitarist on the basic track. Shane is such a professional in the studio, ready to give you any style, sound or groove. Matt really just wanted everyone to leave space for Mr. Toussaint to play whatever he felt so Shane played a version of Matt’s bass riff and laid low.
I am a fan of great guitar players and a few stopped by during the making of this track so I asked them to add to it. Detroit Brooks was recording in the other studio at Piety and he finished early one day. After listening to him play and sing during his sessions, which were going on as we were wrapping up, I was digging everything about Detroit Brooks so I asked him to sing and play on the track. He laid down a simple but exactly correct groove, just chords but hitting them in the right spots, leaving that space Matt had intended without being told to do so. Great natural instincts.
Mem Shannon was hanging out one night as we were having dinner. Mark Bingham is a wonderful cook and once in a while he would make a big meal, invite friends and tell us to take a break and enjoy a meal and a little life. Mem said he heard this was a cool project and to let him know of there was anything he could do. I asked if he could come in the next day to sing and play and he agreed. In listening to the record the last few months I have come to love what Mem sang so much that I want to edit the song there as well and move Mem to the very last line of the song. He sings, “I’m gonna rebuild it for you-hoo.” It’s a bit lost amidst all of the celebration going on in the track and it’s so beautifully sums up the track, the project and the last few years of life in New Orleans that I want that line and his voice to be the last thing you hear on the completed Nine Lives.
Anders Osborne stopped by one day to talk to Mark about a record he is doing is doing at Piety. I have been a fan of Anders as an artist for years. I have found his struggle to overcome life obstacles since the flood, to rebuild and renew his own life, awe inspiring. I asked if he had time to play and sing a bit and he agreed. Again, just as the rebuilding continues in New Orleans as we discover new ways to do so, this song kept (and keeps) evolving. Anders played a gorgeous slide guitar part on the chorus lines, sounding very much like a George Harrison slide guitar part. He hit me right where I live, The Beatles. I wanted this part on every chorus but there were just a few things we ran out of time and money for and this idea was one. When the new version comes out, I will have edited Anders beautiful slide part into the chorus throughout. Anders also sings on the chorus but improved a bit on the lines by adding “When you got nothing left to lose… you rebuild and you renew. You rebuild, babe, and you renew-o-o-, that’s what I did, that’s what I did.,” Knowing how much Anders has overcome, it was an humbling and awesome display of artistry. He did not ask or think about it, he opened his mouth and his life poured out in the space of a few words. I was moved to tears by the honesty and artistry.
Background singers were plentiful. Tara Brewer, Arséne DeLay and Debbie Davis who had become our cast chorus at this point, sang the parts Matt had written that go through most of the track. The Bonerama guys, Craig, Mark and Greg, sang in the middle where their horn part began. Keng Harvey and Vance Vaucresson stopped by Piety when Teedy Boutté was recording on an earlier session and I invited them to sing a part that comes in toward the end.
Shamarr Allen does a lot of work teaching young kids how to play music. He mentors a young band called Upset and Shamarr asked if I could find a place for them on the record. Since this track was becoming more and more about community I decided they should play on Rebuild Renew. Shamarr was working on other stuff for the record at his POME studio and asked if he could work on this as well. Each of the guys – Hunter Burgamy, Axel Rice, Khalid Allen, John Michael Bradford and Elijah Scarlett – takes a solo. Shamarr made sure they each got to play a little something on this track full of New Orleans greats. He sent it back and said he hoped it was cool but he had his son Jarell add a rap part. Jarrell is 9 years old and the part is inspiring, heart warming and perfect. Shamarr had also added the fellows in Upset chanting with him the lines, “Rebuild, renew ’cause that’s what people do”.
By this time in the project, Michael Cerveris, who sang the part of Joann and had actual stage work waiting for him back in NYC, had stuck around to watch the project wrap. Since he was playing a major character I asked if he would sing on Rebuild Renew. He agreed and I wrote a couple of lines. Michael, who has lived a few different places, added the lines, “212, 213, it’s all about 504 for me, yeah you right, dahlin'”. He is becoming more of a local with each visit and will live here one day, I know it.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu had been kind enough to stop by Piety to talk to the documentary film crew that Pepsi had sent to film the sessions about his efforts to revitalize the New Orleans music scene. He sat at the piano during the interview playing and singing a bit and I was struck by what a good voice he had. As Mayor Landrieu was leaving he looked out into the studio with a big smile and I could tell he really liked being there, around music, so I asked if he would come back to sing on Rebuild Renew. He smiled and said yes but I thought perhaps he was being polite. I got an email the next day asking if I would send lyrics and a demo of the melody he was to sing. I thought it would be wonderful to have the actual mayor of New Orleans on Nine Lives. After all, how many other mayors can sing well enough to be on a track with Allen Toussaint? And I also remembered how happy he looked being in the studio. When somebody loves music that much and can sing that well it makes you feel good to invite them to be a part of your music. He came in and knocked it out of the park in two takes.
John Boutté stopped by to congratulate me on wrapping up the record and I asked him to sing a few lines toward the end of the song. He smiled and kidded me saying, “Baby, I knew if I came here you would put me to work, ” but he sang his part beautifully all the same.
It was a lot of stuff but I wanted Frank Minyard’s voice, my voice, on the finale so I simply added the the words, “That’s what we do” after the kids sang their line.
On the day that Allen Toussaint came to record at Piety the buzz was palpable. Colman and I wore suits because we knew that Mr. Toussaint would be in a suit. Every musician who could squeeze into the control booth was there. Mayor Landrieu had just finished recording his vocal and stayed to watch a legend as just another music fan like me. Jacques Morial had come to record the voice of his father, Mayor Morial, that day and stuck around because he is a big music fan as well. I had invited Jacque’s sister, Judge Monique Morial, to watch her brother record and she was happy to have a chance to see Mr. Toussaint in the studio, too. My wife Shelly, who has seen way too may studios in our 18 years together and almost never stops by “the office” was there, excitedly waiting for Mr. Toussaint like everyone else.
The place was packed and more folks kept “showing up.” It looked a bit like the scene from the Marx Brothers movie, A Night At The Opera, where a bunch of people pile into Groucho’s room. Mr. Toussaint was totally cool and non-plussed by the people and the press of faces near the window of the room he recorded in. On the first take he played a brilliant, elegant and flawless part that not only went with but fleshed out Matt Perrine’s arrangement. We were knocked out and told him so but, in that very gentle voice of his, he thanked us politely and said there was just one thing he would like to change because he so liked the horn arrangement that he wanted to lay back just a bit more in this one part. The second take, as heavenly as the first, did indeed allow for the space in that one part and he was absolutely right about the part enhancing the arrangement. Of course.
In truth, I could have used a couple of more days of editing to refine the song a bit and I have already begun to do that for the final version. Mark Bingham said it was like mixing in the Grand Canyon. Detroit has added the voice of Ronald Lewis to Lillian’s harmony part so the original melody is back as well as the spirit of Ronald. I am moving parts around and editing the length of the song a bit. The rebuilding effort in New Orleans is ongoing. The making of Nine Lives as a record is nearly complete but ongoing. The wonderful journey that Nine Lives has become for me, I have a feeling, is just beginning.
This track features 35 performers which says everything about the spirit of this project. Nine Lives, the book, and the musical are ultimately about community and how that sense of community makes the good times sweeter and sustains us in the worst of times. I have been asked many times if I thought folks outside of New Orleans would could relate to a musical about a hurricane. I have always answered that it isn’t about a hurricane at all, it is about community. I think folks in the northeast found that out with Tropical Storm Lee. As we have recovered in the last six years, folks around the country and around the world have faced their own moment of collapse from natural disasters. From earthquakes, tornadoes, wild fires to man-made disasters on Wall Street, Fannie, Freddie and Federal Reserves being held in reserve amidst threats of government shutdowns. And in that moment of collapse, when the system has failed you, it is your own strength and the willingness of people to come together to help each other when help is most needed that sees us through.
Not everyone is good with a hammer. I’m not. For my whole life, what I have had to offer folks when they feel down is my songs.
Colman deKay had this crazy idea to write a musical and we wrote and wrote and wrote.
It is Dan Baum’s story. It is the story of New Orleans. It is our story, your story and, I know now, it is my story.
I hope you dig it.
~ Paul Sanchez, September 29, 2011