Jon Cleary Plays Real New Orleans Music Real Good (INTERVIEW)

Jon Cleary is the kind of quintessential New Orleans musician most people associate with the city. As an artist he has long succeeded in striking a perfect balance of class, swagger and soul that captures what New Orleans music has always been about, whether you’re talking about Allen Toussaint, Ernie K-Doe, or Dr. John. Though he was raised in England, Cleary caught the New Orleans bug at a young age and made his way there as soon as he could. Trained as a guitarist, Cleary took a job painting signs at the famous Maple Leaf Bar in exchange for cheap drinks and a meager wage, plus the chance to be close to the music that brought him to the city in the first place. Inspired by the notorious piano legend James Booker, who played frequently at the Maple Leaf, Cleary started spending more time on the piano and has never looked back. Twenty years later he is a renowned musician and singer who lives and breathes the music of the Crescent City, embracing funk, soul, jazz, and everything in between.

A lot has changed in New Orleans in the ten years since Hurricane Katrina. Many residents have not returned and entire neighborhoods still sit vacant, yet the city has also experienced tremendous growth as it finally seems to be joining the rest of the country in the 21st century, for better or worse. Few in New Orleans would argue that the city has always been badly in need of repairs both socially and economically, and an influx of new people and companies means jobs. However, this comes at a cost, and these days you’ll hear plenty of people talking about the threat posed by gentrification on the city’s deep culturally legacy, especially its music. This matter should not be taken lightly, but one listen to Jon Cleary’s new album GoGo Juice and anyone doubting that New Orleans music is very much alive and well will be quickly silenced. GoGo Juice plays out like a cross-section of the styles the city is best known for. Cleary himself sums up the album’s sound as well as his optimistic attitude towards the future of New Orleans in “Bring Back The Home” when – backed by a loose parade of horns and gospel-like harmonies – he sings “Jazz, funk, rhythm and blues and soul/rim-shot back beat second line city street/sound of a big bass drum”. The song is as much a plea for people to return to the city as it is a personal love letter, and it is Cleary’s way of saying that even if things change, it would be impossible for so much powerful music to just go away. This sentiment is pumped into every note and lyric of GoGo Juice, and it’s a must listen for anyone who knows what it means to miss New Orleans. Recently Jon Cleary took some time from his busy touring schedule to talk with us about the album and the future of New Orleans music.

Can you talk about some of the New Orleans musicians on this album and how you decided to bring them into the mix?

I’d been asked to contribute to Terence Higgins’ Swampgrease record and wrote lyrics for a tune. He’d been working with New Orleans bassist Calvin Turner and a recent arrival in town, Nigel Hall. I dug their aesthetic and we worked well together, so I decided to use that team as the nucleus of the band for my new record. I brought in Big D from my band, The Monster Gents, and Shane Theriot, the main session guitarist in town, to handle the six-string department, and flew down a percussionist from New York that I used to work with called Danny Sadownick, a great studio cat and someone that contributes to the intensity I like to feel when I’m playing.

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How much of the material was pre-arranged and ready to go when you went into the studio, and did working with so much talent shape the process differently?

I knew the budget wouldn’t allow for rehearsal time so I worked hard on the arrangements, keys, tempos, etc. and demoed up all the songs so the musicians could get familiar with them in advance. I played all the instruments on the demos and recorded and mixed them at my home studio. I asked them to learn all the parts so that we’d all be on the same page as we started, and then asked them to take the raw material, put it through their own unique set of filters, and simply make it better.

Allen Toussaint helped you out with a bunch of the horn arrangements on this album. Was it tough to get him in, and what’s your chemistry like with Allen?

I’ve admired Allen’s songwriting and arranging as any devotee of New Orleans music does. I’d made a record of my versions of his songs a few years previous, and when it was time to consider horns for the album it was a no-brainer to see if he wanted to get involved. We got the message back that he dug the material and took it from there. I think his parts put a certain stamp on the songs, which New Orleans R&B fans will dig.

What’s your touring lineup like these days?

Cornell Williams on bass, Jamison Ross on drums and Big D on guitar, The Absolute Monster Gentlemen.

Do you still paint these days?

I’m too busy touring and working in my studio to do anything much more than music right now.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the future of post-Katrina New Orleans and some of the things that have went away that have resulted in a decline in the culture of the city. Where do you see things going culturally for New Orleans?

You’re right when you say there’s a lot of talk. Thing is, it’s all speculation and I’m reluctant to add to the noise on that one.

I heard an interview with you recently where you said the big thing everyone was talking about when they got back to NOLA after the storm was the food. Do you remember what the first thing you ate was when you got back?

There were no stores open after the storm. I remember a Red Cross truck pulling up outside the house and handing out MRE’s (meals ready to eat). I don’t think I actually ate it. I think the meal was microwaved, canned red beans with hot dog sausage in a Styrofoam plate. 

What’s your favorite room to play in NOLA?

The Maple Leaf.

GoGo Juice is out now on Thirty Tigers. For tour dates and music check out joncleary.com.

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