Malcolm “Papa Mali” Welbourne has long been a musician’s musician. Having grown up in Louisiana where he soaked up the music being made around him like the rich soil of the state, Welbourne caught the bug at a young age. Before long he became entrenched in playing guitar, developing a special talent for blues, funk, and even reggae a little later on. He may not have been a household name, but between the time he spent immersed in the musical cultures of Austin and New Orleans, Welbourne made a name for himself amongst fellow musicians and music lovers as a truly gifted guitarist who always got a crowd dancing. It was after launching 7 Walkers with Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, Meters bassist George Porter Jr., and multi-instrumentalist Matt Hubbard in 2009 that a Papa Mali finally caught on with a larger fanbase.
7 Walkers proved to be one of the most successful and well-received Grateful Dead side projects, but busy schedules forced the band to take a hiatus in 2012. Years of substance abuse also caught up with Welbourne, who suddenly found himself laid up in a hospital bed hanging onto life. Somebody up above must’ve really dug his music, because Welbourne managed to emerge from the dark times with a new lease on life, healthier and happier than he had been in years, and determined to keep playing music. On his first solo album since 2007’s Do Your Thing, the aptly titled Music Is Love, Papa Mali is back with full force. The album is oozing with gospel, blues, and swampy Southern rock, all with a psychedelic edge that gives each song a warm vibrancy. Feeling healthy in body and mind, Papa Mali is ready to hit the road with his own band and as a member of the supergroup he’s in with Stanton Moore, Robert Mercurio and John Medeski called M&Ms. Recently, the recharged musician took time from the Mardi Gras festivities taking place outside his home in New Orleans to chat about his new album and share a track with Glide.
You have some big New Orleans names playing on this album. How did you pick out the lineup?
I’ve been watching Johnny Vidacovich play for years, he’s always been one of my favorite drummers. I’ve known him now for about 10 years I guess. The first time I played with him was – him and George Porter Jr. do this ongoing thing called the Trio – when I played with them. After that I just played with him whenever I got a chance. [Bassist] Casandra Faulconer, she and I have been working together for many years too. She toured with me for the first time 8 or 9 years ago and we’ve played together on and off ever since then. Honestly, all of these musicians were brought in with my producer John Chelew. He and I came up with the concept of the record before we ever started even booking studio time or anything like that. We spent nearly a year hanging out together, talking about music, playing records. I have a large vinyl collection and he would come to my house where we’d just sit around picking out records. After a while we started getting the idea that we had a very similar vision for the sound of this record. We knew we wanted to get Mike Dillon and Dave Easley as well. The vocalists – that was kind of a fluke thing that worked out great. I was walking down Frenchman Street one night and heard this amazing doo-wop harmony from these young guys just standing there in a doorway, just like they used to do in the old days, standing in a doorway to get that echo. I started talking to them and realized they were very young and didn’t have much professional experience, but they had the right sound. They were exactly the kind of singers I wanted to work with. As it turns out, they really weren’t interested in pursuing a professional career in being background vocalists, and were basically out there that night singing for fun. So it was hard to get them together, but once we worked up some songs we convinced them to come into the studio. We knew we wanted to do all the vocals live, which a lot of people don’t do anymore. John Chelew really likes to capture the moment.
Is it easier for you to pull in top-notch musicians just being in New Orleans?
Absolutely, New Orleans just has an abundance of first rate musicians.
You touched on coming up with an album concept. Can you explain the concept in your own words?
John Chelew had originally heard me for the first time through my work with 7 Walkers. I had songs I was writing with Robert Hunter and recording with Bill Kreutzmann. It definitely had sort of a West Coast vibe even though my own Southern Louisiana sort of thing was strong enough that it came through in the music. So that was John’s first impression, and he felt that it was a really honest impression that I grew up in Louisiana but always had these leanings towards psychedelic music; both the stuff that was coming out of England during the Sixties and Seventies and from the West Coast. Most people have always tried to put me in one certain bag, and when you’re trying to categorize something it’s easy to say he’s a blues artist or a funk artist or whatever. I’ve always tried to avoid those categories even though I’m very much rooted in both those types of music.
But psychedelic music will always be a part of me too and it really came out strong when I was working with 7 Walkers because Bill encourages that sort of thing. The songs I was writing with Robert Hunter had a little of that thing too, although he was writing songs that he felt I could relate to as somebody from New Orleans. That was kind of the concept all along, to continue that and explore that crosspollination of the psychedelic thing with the New Orleans thing. There were some other influences that really played a part of my musical background; one of them is Jamaican music and dub. The reggae thing we didn’t want to explore so much as we did the sonic textures of dub music, which I did with 7 Walkers as well. I also listen to a lot of cinematic music, like soundtracks, especially from the Sixties. I like Italian soundtracks, Serge Gainsbourg a lot and the ambient pop he was doing, and Ennio Morricone is a big influence as well. John wasn’t coming from that spot so much but he saw that I was, so we started trying to bring those elements in as well. The vibes and the pedal steel really bring a lot of the ambiance and texture to the mix. The gospel and blues thing is prominent as well, so it’s a pretty mixed bag.
That’s interesting that you say that, because on top of it all, the album is named after the David Crosby song “Music Is Love”, which you cover it as well.
That comes from the whole West Coast psychedelic sound. We were sitting at my place one night and John pulls that album (If I Could Only Remember My Name) out and immediately he and I heard a sound we wanted to go for. The recording process on that particular record sounded like a lot of people hanging out together strumming guitars, being spontaneous, a lot of jamming, but within the context of songs and with layered harmonies. We knew we were going to have to approach that with slightly more of a gospel, doo-wop vibe. When we listened to that record together we both knew exactly that it would be a touchstone for us, something that had inspired us when we were younger. Not that we wanted to copy it, but we wanted to pay tribute to the vibe of it, if that makes sense. When we did “Music Is Love” the song we felt like a faithful rendition of it was in order. Most of the time I’ll try to change a song a lot if I’m covering it, but with this particular one we felt it was pretty great the way it was and that maybe it had been overlooked a little bit too. Everybody knows Crosby, Stills and Nash’s catalogue, but a lot of people aren’t too familiar with that song.
Do you think this album is you reflecting on your path in recent years and getting to a better place spiritually and physically?
Definitely. The whole album resonates with that. Anybody that’s followed me at all knows that I went through some pretty rough times. It took a while for me to get it together on a personal level to do this record. I was getting healthy in the spirit, body and mind, and it’s all over this record. If you listen to it from that perspective you can hear it. Definitely the improvement in my health has made a big difference in my whole life, and of course that would reflect in my music.
Give a listen to our exclusive premiere of Papa Mali’s “Bought and Sold (Body and Soul)”…