In Dan Baum’s book, Nine Lives, this scene takes place as the city is flooding.
Joann, who started life as John, has her bar, Kajun’s Pub, up and running. Since Joann has spent a lifetime feeling like she didn’t belong and looking for people to accept her, she has made Kajun’s a haven for the castouts of New Orleans. White, black, gay, straight, biker, gutter punk, all are welcome at Joann’s. In fact her only rule in the bar, as Joann herself told me, is “Be nice or get the fuck out.”
Colman and I wrote this as a rock song and Matt Perrine arranged it as such. It’s a solid backing track with Eric Bolivar on drums, Shane Theriot on guitar, John Gros on Hammond B-3 organ and Matt Perrine on bass, all of them cutting loose on a rock track and having a little fun with it.
The background harmonies which Matt arranged were sung by Debbie Davis, Tara Brewer and Arséne deLay and were as beautiful as all of the backing tracks on the record. By now the three women had become their own support group and comedy troupe. Thank goodness I had Susan Cowsill in on a different session to sing her harmonies or we would all still be in the studio laughing.
I wanted some male voices on the track to add a little weight so I got my brother, John Sanchez, and dear, trusty Shoeless. Both of these guys would show up and wait for hours if the schedule had gotten out of whack, sing in tune in just a couple of passes and wouldn’t take money. They were invaluable to me in fleshing out harmonies that I could not have afforded to pay for and wouldn’t have at all without their help.
Along with these folks, the background singers had something extra special on this track. A voice that Matt did not arrange, a voice I did not arrange. It is a voice that can not be arranged by anyone but the voices within herself. We had the voice of Susan Cowsill. I had wanted Susan on the record as a featured singer. She and I traded emails a few times about availability and each time she was out of town for Cowsills gigs or gigs with her own band. We were missing each other by a day or, in one instance, by a few hours. Finally, it was down to the last few days of recording and she finally had some time in her schedule to record.
I had been listening to Joann and though I liked the harmonies Matt and I had added with our singers, I thought they needed a lift of some kind. Susan has sung on six records of mine and always comes up with amazing harmonies that no one else I work with would come up with. Movements, suspended chords that drop into place and resolve in ways that make the heart melt and the ears joyful. The process is simple enough. I send her the track in advance so she can let the music run around inside her head. She toys with melodic ideas for a couple of days and comes to the studio with anywhere from ten to thirty different directions to go and voices to choose from, each of them more breathtakingly unique than the one before. It is quite something to witness if you are a fan, brilliant to watch if you are a singer. Her singing is, in a word, inspirational. She added harmonies until she, not I, was satisfied. Creating a first line that moved around the basic harmonies we had laid down, the first line of movement seeming bare and almost out of place until she began to harmonize with her own voice, a slightly different movement that slid off of and back to the first harmony. I smiled, listened and watched her create something so subtle that maybe only other singers notice how much that movement in a background harmony adds, but it does. I’m glad her voice is a part of Nine Lives. There is only one Susan Cowsill.
There are two featured characters on the track besides Joann.
The voice of “Mitch”, a customer at the bar, is sung by my very good friend, Craig “Craigory” Klein. Craig is someone else that Matt and I very much wanted on the record. Matt wanted him on trombone and I was hoping to have him sing. As it turns out, like many musicians we had wanted to use, Craig was booked solid and became someone else I kept missing by a day. Bonerama was slammed and was out of town for most of the recording of the basic tracks. This kept Craig from playing as much trombone as Matt would have liked. I finally got him because I booked the Bonerama horns for a session and since I had Craig there I asked if he had time to sing a line in this song. Craig had helped me get my life started again after the flood and it means a lot to me that his voice is on this song of survival. When I hear his gentle, heavy New Orleans accent singing the lines, “If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die here. Not dodging the National Guardsmen.” I smile, not a happy smile, a smile of remembering that this voice was a quiet hero to a lot of folks after the flood. I am truly honored to have Craig Klein on Nine Lives.
The second featured voice is “Phoebe” who is sung by a friend from my early sad-poet-boy songwriter days living in New York: Michelle Shocked. Michelle and I met in the 80’s when we were both living in New York and playing in the East Village. There was no money to be made but the air was electric with creativity. Performance artists, poets and songwriters, we all hung out together. We watched each other perform and influenced each other a little in life and in music. Michelle has always thrown herself at the world with her music and politics. I admire her in so many ways for the career she has made for herself but mostly I admire her for what I have always admired her for: Her songs. Michelle Shocked is one of the best songwriters I ever heard, honest lyrics that alternate between leaving me laughing, leaving me breathless or both in the same song. She is the brave little sister who had to leave home but always comes back around to say hello. Armed with just a guitar, her songs and her stories she has traveled the world many times over. Playing her songs, spinning tales, she has lived every troubadours dream.
Michelle happened to be passing through town and offered to sing. I told her about this song, Joann’s “hero” song. It was a natural match. I think she was too pressed for time to meet Joann but I know that Michelle, who has spent a lifetime standing up for people, would dig Joann and Joann, who likes a fighter, would dig her. I’ll introduce them one day.
Michelle sang this in just a couple of passes. What was truly astounding to everyone in the room was how she adjusted, not just her phrasing but the emotions of each take. Changing, in very subtle ways, the emotion of the moment with an inflection or slight alteration in the volume of her singing. Friends who had come to watch the session teared up on the second take which I knew would be a keeper though like most great singers, Michelle pushed herself a little further until she met her own standard for the session and with a quick hug was out the door and off to Dr. John’s birthday party.
Some time back, I had introduced Michelle to Bethany Bultman who runs the New Orleans Musicians Clinic. Michelle is always looking to put her name and work behind a cause in the towns she plays around the country and I thought she and Bethany would connect. Bethany is a very impressive woman, she is strong, works incredibly hard for the NOMC and at the bottom of it all is a real fan of the music which is why she loves the musicians so much. As I turned back to the console and watched Michelle skip out of the doors of Piety to hang with Mac I thought, “Well, it’s a fair trade. Michelle gets to go to Dr. John’s birthday party and I get the voice of Michelle Shocked on Nine Lives. Everybody wins.” I got back to work.
The voice of Joann was again sung by Michael Cerveris and there is not enough I can say about what a brilliant talent, wonderful friend and truly humble fellow Michael is.
He did his first pass on the song and his voice was just knock-you-down gorgeous and his control was a thing of beauty. Colman came up to me after the take, a little nervous, and said it sounded great musically but that Michael was singing it too tough, being too much of a man. He said that Joann had spent a lifetime becoming a woman and that even in this moment, protecting her customers from the elements with a shotgun in her hands, Joann would have remained a woman and not become John again. He asked me to talked to Michael, worrying how Michael would take it. He needn’t have worried. I explained it to Michael just as Colman had put it to me, that in this moment of crisis Joann would, more than ever, defiantly remain Joann. The actor in him got it instantly, (They don’t give out Tony Awards to just anyone in New York), and he was excited about making the adjustments. Again, when you watch someone work who is not just great but absolutely brilliant at what they do, it is an unforgettable experience. The adjustments were not major, just very subtle shifts, in emphasis, in phrasing, in nuanced ways that suggest that this moment is her defining moment. She stands up for her bar, her customers and herself as a strong, powerful woman and Michael brings that spirit to life in the song.
Of course, there is his singing. Control that has taken a lifetime to learn make singing, for Michael, appear to be as easy as breathing is for most people. He did an improv on the line “I’m glad I’m not John anymore” hanging the line “anymore” out for an extra couple of beats which made him miss his entrance to the next line. We stopped the take and Michael apologized. “Are you kidding me?” I asked, “I’m only letting you catch your breath. I am definitely using that line.” He finished singing and headed to the control room for a listen. By the time he walked in the control room, the engineer Wes Fontenot had taken the gorgeous hang over line and slid it into a spot near the end of the song where I thought it might give a dramatic lift to the final line. It sounded like Michael had simply repeated the last line for emphasis. He smiled and said he was glad I could use his mistake. I laughed and told him if my mistakes were that beautiful, I would make an entire album of them. With a voice like Michael Cerveris, even the “mistakes” can make your heart skip a beat and my heart skips, dances and soars when I hear Michael sing the song, JoAnn.
~ Paul Sanchez – August 2, 2011