Allen Toussaint, 1996
WITH JEANNE P. NATHAN
Allen Toussaint is a seminal American songwriter, arranger, producer, singer, and pianist whose music is infused with the sensuality, tenacious originality, and funkiness that is New Orleans. He is best known for writing and producing hits over four decades, from Al Hirt’s “Java” and Herb Alpert’s “Whipped Cream,” to ’60s classics such as “Working In the Coalmine,” “Lipstick Traces,” and “Mother-in-Law,” to the ’70s hits “Southern Nights” and “Lady Marmalade.”
A soft-spoken, highly private man, he moves as slowly as New Orleans, yet has a magnetism that has captured the hearts and imaginations of many. As a legendary producer he has worked with everyone from Lee Dorsey, Irma Thomas, and Dr. John to Patti LaBelle, Joe Cocker, and Elvis Costello.
Allen Toussaint continues to offer the musical gems and spirit of New Orleans with Connected, his first full-length album in almost twenty years. And he shares his profoundly philosophical relationship to life with us here today.
(L-R) Dian Wininger, Allen Toussaint, Jeanne Nathan at an Arts Council Awards banquet. Date: July 21, 1989. (Photo by Darlene Olivo, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune archive)
In the early days I was playing with artists others sent to me, or those I had chosen. I would look for uniqueness … not what is better, that doesn’t apply in the art world. But outstandingly unique. Everyone is unique, even if bad. I chose people convinced about what they were doing. People who came across in a good way. When I began to produce things, I was listening and paying attention to the artist, hearing the highlights … vocally and spiritually. As a producer, I hire musicians, do rhythms, songs and words an artist would feel good saying, believable words … so they can believe in it themselves.
I didn’t have much time for the luxury of getting to know them. I needed to hear something about the voice, sheer voice, and not much about the person. But I would get to know the voice when it touches the right place in the ear or the spinal cord. I write for the voice itself.
It’s according to how it comes. Some are totally inspired and stay with you, help you, hug you. Others are a quick plot. Now that the plot has come, you have an assignment to do. Sometimes it’s like listening to what it would say next rather than forcing it … Words are pretty general, been around for thousands of years. It’s the distinction of what the words meant when the inspiration came that is important.
We all have a signature, a spiritual penmanship. We simply are who we are, moving about. I couldn’t imitate me. When someone else describes me, I can recognize me.
However it all translates … I still take in my immediate environment. I take nothing for granted. I ride around in the middle of the night and look at New Orleans, its shotgun houses, streets I haven’t been down before. When a building is missing, I know what was there before, because I took it in. I really care and love it, so it impresses me, and I miss it when it’s gone.
I take in New Orleans all the time. It’s reflected in everything I do. New Orleans is all about charm itself. Old world charm. The pace is slower in every way, getting to the next block … getting to the next decade. There is a price, but if you stay right there in it, you don’t know different. Even our hearts beat a little slower, the pace is so relaxed. The music reflects it, too. It is something so strong that it can’t be destroyed. New Orleans will always influence New Orleans, just as Chicago influences Chicago, and New York, New York.
It’s wonderful. There’s no other way to get what aging gives you. Such as wisdom, seasoning. Enough witnessing to be able to acquiesce in your mind. That is one of the most delightful changes … being able to change your mind about something you thought was another way. You get two chances at that. The first time you come up on something in your planetary walk with the effervescent eyes of children. Then people get into an arrogance and complacency, and need to be hip. They lose the romance and freedom to change their minds. Then, if fate is kind, there is a jolt, a miracle, and they find it again, this time with knowledge. But every age is very special. The point is to make every age of life exciting.
Because of the technology, music serves the country … like the town crier used to. It gives the news, the temperature of things. I love progress, but technology is “trash in, trash out.” If you’re hip, you will do hip things with technology. If you’re jive, you’ll do jive things. If you’re honest, you’ll do honest things with it. The evolution of music is just as much at work today as ever. I think some things are very fresh, and some are relevant to all ages. After all, we all have two legs, so, of course, the new music and the old music are connected. This is a very exciting time. Things are moving at a faster pace, and the whole world can receive the same message at the same time. If there is a price, I’m most concerned with the loss of romance … man and woman … who is hitting on you … just to have someone say hello. Of course, some might prefer the machine to people …
Overwhelming desire of someone’s presence in your heart. Not ears or eyes. Overwhelming desire for someone’s presence, but I don’t mean that they have to be standing there. Things intangible are invisible. Invisibles … that’s where love hangs out. If one is sensitive enough to regard and respect love, even the part that one doesn’t understand, and to feel that someone holds that for you, that is almighty.
So many wonderful things, inspirations, have been given to me that I would feel ungrateful to announce regrets.
Music is intangible. It goes to the heart, It doesn’t stop at a CD. It serves a purpose. Softens the walls, softens the floors, the falls and walks. I really believe that. Record sales, the success of records, making money is not what it is about. Once I was touched by music, fell in love with it, did moves … I found my calling card. I fell in love.
It was a true form of fate that the piano and I came into contact. It was love at first sight.
I notice that I still practice on the piano even though I know the language. I practice original things instead of things from 500 years ago. My association with the piano is a guideline for my life. I still practice because I don’t think that my vocabulary on the piano after all these years couldn’t use some work, refinement, improvement. And I find that applies to my entire life — I can always use more work, improvements, refinement.
What I do is done behind the scenes primarily. It’s a given for me. It’s because of how I am. But when you’re with someone, half the world belongs to them. When you’re all alone, the world belongs to you. When you find yourself alone, somehow things are always entertaining. Even things in your house you’ve seen a million times. If you look at them a different way, you see them for the first time.
Inspiration comes when you find yourself alone … even when you’re in the midst. I take it all in. I see places. I see the moon, and not only when it’s full. Between point A and point B there’s a lot of things along the way. When you’re with other people, however respectful, they have certain things in mind. Your life may be miles away anyway … trying to take things in and be inspired. You’re riding down
the street and see a little balled up red bag, a roof, a tree behind shotgun houses. Big picture … little splash. Music
begins to play to you. A kind of music is on the way.
To accept things beyond me is a very strong thought of my survival. I’m not the author of every event, but loads to do with the perception of it.
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