“Last night I dreamt I was an orphan
Like my father before me”
So begins “Orphan,” the first taste of MyNameIsJohnMichael‘s upcoming album — and after those opening lines draw you in, the song’s loping groove does the rest, buffeting the listener on jazzy keys, syncopated percussion, bursts of stinging guitar, and roiling New Orleans horns. A tale of leaving to return, of turning away to see, it travels from its haunting refrain to a triumphant breakdown that rises over a surging Hammond organ, then leads into a joyous fadeout that piles handclaps and gang vocals on top.
It’s an intoxicating blend, and once I had my first listen — for free, courtesy of the band’s website — I couldn’t stop repeating it. I had to hear more, and I had to find out where all this glorious noise came from. The logical next step was to arrange for a chat with John Michael Rouchell, the JohnMichael in MyNameIsJohnMichael, so we could talk about where the band has been — including its beginning as the somewhat accidental outgrowth of a yearlong experiment in which Rouchell wrote and recorded a song a week — and where it’s going with the new album.
The new record won’t come out until next year, but you can hear “Orphan” and another track, “Elders,” at the band’s site now, and check out their recent Live from Paste set here. I haven’t been able to stop listening to this record for weeks. I think you’ll love it too.
I have to tell you — my five-year-old daughter had a very stern reaction to your band name. She wants you to know that MyNameIsJohnMichael should not be one word.
Well… [laughs] It helps with Google searches.
Was that the reasoning behind it?
Well, I was getting ready to start my 52-song project, and we had to find a website. At the time, JohnMichael.com was taken by everyone’s favorite country singer, John Michael Montgomery. The same day I was spending all this time trying to come up with a URL for the project, I met somebody, and often when I’m introduced to someone, I’ll say “I’m John Michael, nice to meet you,” and they’ll say something like “Oh, hi, John.” And I’ll say “No, no, no — my name is John Michael.” ‘Cause my father is John, and we’re all trying not to be our fathers in some way, you know?
Anyway, it happens all the time. It’s this phrase I’ve said so many times, and I thought it would make a cool site name. We didn’t put much thought into it — it was quick. And then when the band came together, the site was already there, and it wasn’t like I could call the band, I don’t know, the Roosevelts or whatever, and send people to a site with a completely different name. I was really more concerned with the project — the demand of writing and recording a song a week. It was initially just a bedroom project. It was a way of…I didn’t know if I was a songwriter yet.
You decided you were going to write and record a song every week for a year, and you didn’t know if you were a songwriter?
No, I didn’t. Up until then, I was always the guitar player in a band. I mean, I’d written songs, but to me, a songwriter was someone who was constantly writing. Just because you’ve written a song doesn’t necessarily make you a songwriter, you know? There’s a difference between a guy who does something and someone who hones a craft. It’s a craft.
It’s definitely a craft, and I think that 52-song project is illustrative of it in a way you don’t often see anymore. What you did was almost like digital busking — you took your songs and immediately put them out in the world, where they had to fend for themselves. It’s a really effective way of discovering your strengths as a writer and performer.
[Laughs] Exactly. I started thinking about this around the time Radiohead did In Rainbows, and I was in music business studies at Loyola, so everyone around me was freaking out. “What’s going to happen?” It was a really cool time, and digital busking is exactly what it was. You’ve got the music out there as people are passing by, and if they like it, they can toss some money in your hat.
And at that speed, the stakes are low enough that if you don’t get the response you’re looking for, it doesn’t kill you.
Right — and because it was a song a week, the songs were quite random. I could experiment. If one week I’m listening to Lou Reed, I can try something along those lines — try and find my voice that way, and get that feedback. And ultimately, when it came time to cut those songs down to an album, we let people vote on which ones they thought were the best. Fortunately, it turned out that most of their favorites were our favorites, too. And to get back to that earlier point about honing the craft, the 52nd song in the bunch was one of the most popular tracks, and it’s one we still play live all the time today.
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Let’s talk about how the whole process changed your approach as a songwriter.
Well, during the project, there was a major focus on quantity, obviously. The whole thing was kind of like basketball practice — a lot of free-throw drills to develop that skill so it can be called upon when it’s needed. It was a healthy experience, because it taught me that I can sit down to write a song, and that I don’t necessarily have to release it. I scrapped an entire album last year.
Now, I want to focus on quality. How do I make things more personal and more special, instead of just writing a song for the sake of writing a song?
It seems like it would be useful not only from the standpoint of helping you develop the skill of writing on a deadline, but also helping learn the art of getting out of your own way as a writer. That’s a problem for almost everyone I know. It’s hard to find the balance between striving to do your best work and simply being overly precious about your art.
Absolutely. I mean, I can’t believe every single song Bob Dylan wrote during his peak period was as amazing as the ones we heard. If they were, then we should all hang it up and start selling insurance. I’ve got to believe there’s a ton of stuff where he was just like, “Eh.”
There’s a great, possibly apocryphal story about Billy Joel meeting Stevie Wonder for the first time, and Stevie giving him his famous greeting, “Hi, I’m Stevie Wonder. I write a song a day.” And obviously, Billy Joel is at the other end of that spectrum — writing is a much more belabored process for him. You went from putting out 52 songs in 52 weeks to recording and tossing away an entire record, so it seems like you’re still struggling to strike that balance between when to let go and when to really apply yourself to the craft.
Right, and I think that’s what being an artist is all about. You know, you watch the documentary about Springsteen making Darkness on the Edge of Town, and you see he had all these songs, and he had to whittle them down to 10. He had all those great sounding boards, but ultimately, he was the guy. And that’s what it is — you create, create, create, and then you peel away everything that doesn’t matter. And then you repeat the process. When people tell me I’m an artist, I have to disagree — I’m more like a guy who makes jeans, you know? It’s more of a craft than an art, if that makes any sense.
It does, and I think it’s interesting that your music is so rooted in the traditional sounds of New Orleans, because I think, more than most music, it’s a pure expression of the tension between craft and release.
Yeah, I think you’re right. Aside from Dr. John and a couple of other names, like Allen Toussaint, New Orleans has never really been known as a “storytelling songwriter” sort of town. People come to hear the Funky Meters and artists like that — to hear the horns and the revelry. They aren’t necessarily hearing any narrative in the songs. After I scrapped that album last summer, I had to get out of town for awhile — I asked my girlfriend to watch my dog and I just hit the road. And the only DVD I had with me was The Last Picture Show. I watched it four, five, six times on the trip.
I don’t know a thing about West Texas, but that movie still felt so alive to me — it’s a really identifiable coming-of-age story. And it made me want to record a coming-of-age story for New Orleans, and set it to this musical landscape. That was the idea. Hopefully we achieved it.
So the new record is sort of a New Orleans concept album.
I guess. That phrase, “concept album”…[Laughter] It freaks me out. This isn’t that. But there are a lot of great stories here, and nobody is telling them. After Katrina, a lot of people wrote songs about that, and to me, it felt kind of like salt in the wound. But there are a lot of things about the town — a lot of times I feel like we’re all partying on the outside, but on the inside, there’s a sadness and a hurt. A kind of questioning — “Why am I still here? Am I stuck, or am I choosing to be here? What is the meaning in all these things?” Everyone has a great pride in this city, but there’s also confusion, to a certain degree. And I thought that was an album. I thought I could write a record around that.
I mentioned Allen Toussaint earlier, and that’s one of the greatest things about his music, is the way he’d tell stories about life here that anyone who’s from here could relate to. “Working in the Coalmine”? “Mother-in-Law”? People here understand that. And that’s the same tradition I was reaching for. There’s a song on the new album called “No Work” where we took a sort of Neville Brothers, Caribbean thing, and mixed it with kind of a Clash vibe, and it’s all about not being able to get a job. But then there are also sentimental tracks. I don’t know, man, I’m really proud of it. I think this is some of my best writing.
Let’s talk about your decision to start promoting the new album by releasing a pair of tracks, “Orphan” and “Elders,” for free.
Yeah, well, it’s been kind of a long time since we released anything. And there’s a concept down here called lagniappe, and it’s akin to going to a restaurant and getting an amuse bouche — you know, a little bite before the meal. It’s basically the idea of giving away the extra. You know, you order a sandwich, and it comes with this great roll you cut down the middle, and in go the fried shrimp, and the lettuce, and everything else, and at the end there’s all this extra fried stuff. Well, just take it — that’s lagniappe. It’s the idea that we’ll give you something for coming to us. You’ll get the bite, and you’ll want the meal.
It was also somewhat inspired by being out on the road this year, and watching our crowds grow, and hearing them sing along. Getting those songs out there was a way of validating the record, and also of giving people a way of bringing the music to their friends — of giving them the ability to say, “Have you heard this?” instead of just touring in a bubble.
You mentioned studying the music business in school, and you’ve obviously given a lot of thought to the ways in which emerging technologies can help you promote your music. This is the way forward for a lot of artists, but it also poses the question of how you strike a balance between being creative and being an entrepreneur.
Whoo, yeah. That’s even more difficult than the writing balance. When I was writing for the new album, we kind of let some business things slip, because that had to be my focus. I don’t think I could have made this album if I hadn’t been able to turn my attention completely toward the music. Now we’re building a team for the new record, and I have this routine where I wake up at 7 and I write, because I figure no one on the business end is going to be awake at that hour. [Laughs] At this point, if my life can be theoretically divided into leisure, business, and writing…I’m kind of cutting out the leisure part. I’m kind of a hermit.
It’s tough, man. We’re working on two videos right now, so we have to meet with the director. There’s PR stuff. And on and on. It’ll eat you alive. Luckily, a lot of people have responded to the music and helped us out. What I’ve learned is that it’s important to make friends first before you start hitting people super-heavy on the PR side. Let people figure out their emotional stake in your music before you start asking them to put energy into it. We need stakeholders, as my professor and dear friend George Howard says.
I think a lot of times, artists don’t create enough of a stakeholder base before they get out there and start trying to make it in the world. That’s where a lot of people fail — they don’t have enough people they can call for help, or for advice. Those are the people that are really going to matter down the line.
Let’s talk a little about how the new album came together in the studio.
The band now is basically a touring band, and when we came together to make the record, it was basically my drummer, Neilson Bernard, my bass player, Joe Bourgeois, and me. We didn’t flesh out the band we had — I knew Raymond Richards was going to produce, and he’s done some stuff I really love. He played some amazing pedal steel for Mojave 3 — if you haven’t heard their song “Running With Your Eyes Closed,” you really need to. It’s just fuckin’ pop gold.
So we did the basic tracking and then we started calling some friends. Like Brian Coogan and Phil Breen, who are both incredible keyboard players — Coogan played on four songs and then Phil played on the rest, and ended up joining the touring band. On the horns, we were lucky enough to get guys like Craig Klein, who’s played trombone for Harry Connick, Jr. and is in a band called Bonerama — he’s a genius. And Gregory Davis from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band came in and played trumpet. Just a ton of people, like Theresa Andersson, who does this looping stuff that’s just mind-blowing. Just insane. You need to look her up on YouTube and hear it. We had a whole cast of characters.
I’d love to hear what you could do with the Dirty Dozen.
Those guys are sweethearts, and we do shows with them quite a bit. They’re statesmen, and it’s been a privilege to be able to play with them. Gregory — or “Blodie,” as he’s normally called — came into the studio the night before we were supposed to record and said, “Let me hear what you’re doin’.” You know, in his really refined Southern gentleman’s voice. So we played him some songs, and he said, “So it’s kind of like Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan in New Orleans. I can dig it. Let’s do it!”
That’s high praise!
I know — those are my two heroes. I’ll take it.
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