Jon Cleary's songwriting is pure New Orleans. The pianist and singer has absorbed every last bit of sound from the Mississippi delta. But here's the thing: Cleary was born and raised in England.
Still, as Cleary tells All Things Considered guest host Tess Vigeland, his music-loving family provided him with a line to the Crescent City from an early age. "My uncle lived in New Orleans when I was a little kid and came back with suitcases full of funky 45s," Cleary says. "My mum loved New Orleans jazz, we had R&B and soul and jazz music in the house ... And so it would have been strange if I'd come up playing anything else, really."
In 1980, when he was 17, Cleary left the U.K. and moved to New Orleans himself. He didn't have much of a plan, but he did have with him a matchbox bearing the phone number of the Maple Leaf Bar, where he almost immediately took up residence.
"Very funky, full of eccentric characters and ne'er-do-wells," Cleary says of the Maple Leaf. "Music every night. It was a combination bar, laundromat and gun shop."
During those first years in New Orleans, Cleary absorbed the music of legendary R&B pianist James Booker, a regular at the Maple Leaf. At a bar across the street, he'd listen to The Meters, The Neville Brothers and Clifton Chenier.
"I felt like I'd died and gone to heaven," Cleary says. "It was just incredible, so funky. Coming from England, which was pretty grim at that time, it was like going from black-and-white to color."
35 years later, Cleary has made New Orleans his home, and he's still reveling in the city and its quirks. Take the title song of his new album, GoGo Juice — what is gogo juice, anyway?
"I wish someone would tell me!" Cleary says with a laugh. "I've got no idea what it is. I collect funny words and funny expressions — as a songwriter, it's a habit you have to get into. And that particular song is comprised entirely out of nonsense lyrics that I jotted down, that I've overheard. And so I don't even know what it is, but it's kind of a metaphor for whatever turns you on, really."
One song on Cleary's new album, "Bringing Back The Home," resonates particularly strongly this month, which marks the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the catastrophic floods that overtook his adopted hometown. Cleary says it's hard for New Orleanians to be reminded of the storm, but that he wanted to celebrate the city and its people, including those who still haven't made it home.
"'The heartbeat and the soul of the people of the city of New Orleans is the home of the greatest gift America gave the world: jazz, funk, rhythm and blues and soul,'" Cleary says, quoting a few lines from "Bringing Back The Home." "The point being, you know, the buildings were damaged, but the real lifeblood of New Orleans ... is its people."
Cleary was on the road touring when Katrina hit, and he says it was a while before he was able to get back to New Orleans. But when he did return, he saw moments of beauty as the city — and everyone in it — began the process of recovery.
"Something that tickled me was being in the checkout line at the grocery store and seeing people recognize one another and exchange their stories of where they'd been and when they got back," Cleary says, "and nearly everybody, unanimously, came around very quickly to the topic of food.
"They all were saying, 'Boy, I was in Texas, and the people were nice, but I couldn't eat that food.' Or 'I was in California, I was really missing my remoulade, my etouffee, and we had to get someone to ship out some D&D sausage so we could make the beans taste right.' Everyone was just talking about food, they were so happy to be back home so they could cook some food that tasted right."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE ON ONE CONDITION")
TESS VIGELAND, HOST:
This is the music of Jon Cleary, and as you can tell, his writing is pure New Orleans. He has absorbed every last bit of sound from the delta. And here's the weird thing. Hey, Jon Cleary, where were you born and raised?
JON CLEARY: I was born in London (laughter).
VIGELAND: Jon Cleary joins us now from our studios in London - and first of all, welcome.
CLEARY: Thank you very much.
VIGELAND: And second, how did you end up falling for this music? You know, every other musician your age was trying to become John, Paul, George or Ringo. You became Fats.
CLEARY: I think it was a funny combination of nature and nurture, really. My uncle lived in New Orleans when I was a little kid and came back with suitcases full of funky 45s. My mum loved New Orleans jazz. We had R&B, soul and jazz music in the house when the extended family - everyone was into music. If they weren't musicians, they were big record collectors. So it would have been strange if I'd come up playing anything else, really.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN YOU GET BACK")
CLEARY: (Singing) I'll get you good. I'll seek you right. Got to be real strong, yeah, got to be all (unintelligible).
VIGELAND: When you moved to New Orleans, it sounds like you pretty much took up residence at the Maple Leaf Bar. That's where you got your musical education. Can you give us a sense of what it looked like? What it felt like - maybe who was there?
CLEARY: Well, I had - all I had was a matchbox with the phone number of the Maple Leaf Bar. I didn't really know where I was going or what I was doing. When you're 17-years-old you think you're indestructible. You're just going to show up and everything will fall into place. And by some miracle it did. And I took a taxi from the airport straight to the Maple Leaf that night, kind of scared to death, 'cause I was only a kid, really, not knowing what to expect on my own. It was a combination bar, laundromat and gun shop...
CLEARY: ...Those three things combined. And arguably one of the best piano players that ever came out of New Orleans played there and hung out there everyday.
VIGELAND: Who was that?
CLEARY: James Booker -phenomenal. So I got to hear James Booker everyday. It was a bar across the street where The Meters used to sound check and The Neville Brothers used to play and Clifton Chenier - all these amazing artists. And I'd felt like I'd died and gone to heaven. It was just incredible - so funky. And coming from England, which was pretty grim at that time - 1980 - it was like going from black-and-white to color.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO DAMN GOOD")
CLEARY: (Singing) People sometime gotta stoop so low.
VIGELAND: Well, let's get to this new album. It is called "GoGo Juice." And I have to ask what is that?
CLEARY: I wish someone would tell me.
CLEARY: I've got no idea what it is. You know, I collect funny words and funny expressions as a new songwriter. It's a habit you have to get into. And that particular song is comprised entirely out of nonsense lyrics that I've jotted down - I've overheard. And so I don't even know what it is. But it's kind of like a metaphor for whatever turns you on, really.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GO GO JUICE")
CLEARY: (Singing) Get your go-go juice.
VIGELAND: Can you give us a few, and if they need translation, maybe help us with that, too?
CLEARY: I wouldn't do that - me. That's the kind of a think you hear some people in New Orleans say. I don't need the money, just the people I owe. You don't need a license 'til you get caught. It's just full of them, you know? I used to play - I was lucky. I was young enough to get to play with the old boys who invented New Orleans funk. One of them was Earl King. Earl King was a great songwriter. And he told me, man, whenever you hear something funny or that you can use on the song, make sure you write it down, 'cause you think you can remember it, but you never will. And he always had his little notebook and a pencil. Nowadays, I just use my iPhone. So that song is comprised entirely of just funny things that tickled me that I've overheard people say.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GO GO JUICE")
CLEARY: (Singing) Ain't no such thing as life if you still believe it. Don't need a license 'til you get caught. Time cut loose and then (unintelligible) juice.
VIGELAND: We are coming up on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. I wonder if you had a different perspective on that tragedy given that you grew up outside the country, or had you lived there so long that it was just a travesty in your hometown?
CLEARY: Yeah, like I said, I spent most of my life in New Orleans. I'm really from New Orleans at this point. That was rough. This is going to be hard - this next week - because everyone's going to be asking questions and talking about it. I think most New Orleaneans want to go and hibernate for a week until all the fuss is over. They don't want to be reminded of it. It was so horrible. I was out on tour when it happened. There's this song on the record - there's a long run-on sentence which says the heartbeat and the soul of the people of the city of New Orleans is the home of the greatest gift America gave the world.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
CLEARY: (Singing) America gave the world jazz, funk, rhythm and blues and soul.
The point being, you know, the buildings were damaged, but the real lifeblood of New Orleans - the jewel, culturally, is its people. And so many people were displaced. And so many people have not come back yet.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
CLEARY: (Singing) New Orleans, blow your sailboat home like driftwood washed up on shore of a strange and foreign land. Tide broke got nowhere to turn. If nobody minds the store Lord have mercy on the Bible fold. Cold wind blowing through a song.
VIGELAND: Well, given what you said about kind of wanting to not pay attention to all the 10th anniversary coverage, let's go with something positive. What's the most beautiful thing you saw after Katrina?
CLEARY: Boy, that's a tough one. I was out on the road when the storm hit. And it was a while before any of us could get back into New Orleans to assess the damage. But something that tickled me was being in the checkout line at the grocery store and seeing people recognize one another and exchange their stories of where they'd been and when they got back. And nearly everybody unanimously came around very quickly to the topic of food (laughter).
VIGELAND: Of course.
CLEARY: But actually, most musicians take food more seriously than music. They were saying, boy, I was in Texas. And the people were nice, but, boy, I couldn't eat that food. I was really missing my little remoulade with my etouffee. And we had to get someone to ship out some D&D sausage so we could make the beans taste right. So everyone was just talking about food. That's the happiest - they were so happy back home because they could cook some food that tasted right.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BONEYARD")
CLEARY: (Singing) Before I make it to the bone yard, I'm going to have some fun.
VIGELAND: That's Jon Cleary. His new album is called "GoGo Juice" and we still don't know what that means. Jon Cleary, thank you. It's been a pleasure.
CLEARY: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BONEYARD")
CLEARY: (Singing) Before I make it to the boneyard, I'm going to have my fun. Ain't ready for the boneyard, ain't ready for the boneyard.
VIGELAND: And for Sunday, we are dancing at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Tess Vigeland. You can follow us on Twitter @nprwatc and I'm @tessvigeland - that's V-I-G-E-L-A-N-D. We are back next weekend. Thank you so much for listening. And have a fantastic week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.