Interview with cultural activist, poet and musician Zachary Richard, his songs go beyond the limitations

"People make music (or any art for that matter) to express themselves: their joy, their suffering, their love and their loss of love."

Zachary Richard: J’Aime La Vie

Cultural activist, environmentalist poet and singer-songwriter Zachary Richard’s roots are deeply planted in his native Louisiana. Inspired by the various styles of the region, his songs go beyond the limitations of any particular genre. Zachary’s style is uniquely his own. At his early days in New York that Zachary made a discovery that would influence his art and effect the rest of his life. With the advance money from a record company, he purchased a Cajun accordion. From that moment on, he was swept up by the French language culture of Louisiana. Delving into the Cajun tradition, he formed the first new generation Cajun/Rock band. It would be years, however, before Cajun music became popular outside of rural Louisiana.

Photo by Julien Faugère

In the meantime, Zachary career led him to Canada and France. From 1976 until 1981, Zachary lived in Montreal, recording seven French language albums. Despite critical and commercial success in the French-speaking world, Zachary returned to Louisiana in the early 1980s and began another phase of his career, this time recording in English. Zachary published three volumes of poetry and with his daughter Sarah, Zachary had published three children’s book.

In 1996, Zachary founded Action Cadienne, a volunteer organization dedicated to the promotion of the French language and the Cadien/Cajun culture of Louisiana. Zachary Richard was decorated Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres de la République Française. He has received three honorary doctorates, bestowed by the University of Moncton (New Brunswick), the University of Louisiana (Lafayette) and Ste Anne’s University in Nova Scotia. Zachary Richard has produced and narrated numerous television documentaries. Participating completely in two distinct cultures and creating in his two languages, French and English, Zachary’s artistic experience is unique.  He is the most American of French songwriters, and the most French of the American.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas for songs and poems most frequently?

Human emotion is the source of my creative process. Generally speaking, my songs fall into three categories:

1. Love songs, 2. Historical ballads: either historical figures (Jean Lafitte = Côte Blanche Bay) (Jean Saint Malo). This also includes historical events (storms, natural disasters = Laisse le vent souffler / Crevasse) and finally 3. More frivolous, good time songs (Crawfish, Zydeco Party, Filé Gumbo, etc.). In all cases, it is the emotion that inspires me and it is the emotion that I try to convey. 

What have you learned about yourself from the Cajun and New Orleans culture?

I am not sure how to answer this. Cajun culture is very family oriented. There is also a tradition of “joie de vivre” of taking it “easy”. There is a resilience in the Cajun experience which translates as a love of life: a love of good food and good music. And a desire to celebrate. All of this is very personal. What distinguishes Cajun culture from general American culture is the tradition of celebration both at an individual and a community level. From the Acadian story, I have been inspired by the resistance, tenacity and hope which describe the Deportation, exile and founding of the new home in Louisiana.

How do you describe Zachary Richard sound and progress? What characterize Zachary’s philosophy of life?

I am a singer-songwriter in the American tradition. My path was cleared by Bob Dylan, Neil Young and so many others. My unique situation has allowed me to express myself in French, but the roots of my music lie in the fertile earth of North America. As far as progress, I would hope that my expression has gained in elegance and depth, but what I am hoping to do, much the same as I was 40 years ago when I first began, is to express in song emotion which will move people. 

My philosophy of life is not very original. Others have said it better before: The love you take is equal to the love you make. Life is worth living because it can be shared.

What has been the relationship between music and Beat poetry in your life and writing?

Jack Kerouac was (and still is to an extent) my hero. The freedom and the non-conformity which are at the heart of Beat culture moved me very deeply when I first encountered them in 1968. Coming from a very strict and conservative family in a very traditional community, the Beats offered me a path to self-expression unfettered by the constraints of the conformist social ethos prevalent at the time. The poetry of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Corso, Levertov and others spoke to my soul in a way that still has intense meaning for me 40 years later.  

Kerouac has a very special place in my pantheon of influences. It was many years after reading ON THE ROAD for the first time that I discovered that Jack Kerouac was a native French speaker and that he had grown up in “Little Canada” “Le Québec d’en bas” in Lowell, Mass. It was then that I understood that what was apparently a rebellion against the stagnant values of conformist social behavior, had a much deeper and convoluted dynamic. Kerouac was an immigrant’s son. His native French culture had a profound effect on his world view and his creativity. The French-Canadian tradition of moving through space (les coureurs des bois), of unattachment and more sadly of dislocation are all elements that were not evident to me until I fully understood his family background and the French-Canadian society from which he came (My song: Massachusetts)

"The artist’s path is strewn with pitfalls and hazards. It’s a rough and cut-throat business replete with long road trips, bad hotels and worst food. But when it’s happening, it’s worth every bit of dues that we gotta pay." 

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

It is difficult to resist feeling nostalgic about the “good old days”. I have been very fortunate to have had a little success and a whole lot of fun pursuing my dream and doing pretty much whatever I wanted. My first recording in New York, my discovery of Cajun music (late… I was 21). My first shows in France in 1973, my first trip to Québec in 1974 and finding a cultural and musical effervescence and a profound resonance of resistance in French North American culture.  My first gold record (1977), My return to the USA in 1981. Fifteen years of non-stop touring before ultimately returning to French language recording after the Congrès Mondial Acadien of 1994. Cap Enragé, double platinum.  And on and on. I have played in front of 250,000 people at the Place de la Concorde for the first Fête de la Musique. And I have played honky tonks in Louisiana for wild swamp people. So many memories and so many great players whom I have had the pleasure and privilege to play with. Breaking down on the Mississippi River bridge on the way to my first New Orleans Jazz Festival in 1981 only to be rescued by a devoted fan. Hard to say what was the best moment. It’s all been great. As far as the “worst” moment, it’s never ever been easy. The artist’s path is strewn with pitfalls and hazards. It’s a rough and cut-throat business replete with long road trips, bad hotels and worst food. But when it’s happening, it’s worth every bit of dues that we gotta pay. 

What's the legacy of New Orleans in the world culture? Why did you think continues to generate art and culture?

First of all Jazz Music. New Orleans is the clearing house for some of the world’s most important musical culture. From Buddy Bolden through Louis Armstrong and down Trombone Shorty, New Orleans music has enriched and entertained generations of fans throughout the world. It was the sacred ground where Africa came to America, where Europe and Africa made love and created music that will forever enrich the world.

"The freedom and the non-conformity which are at the heart of Beat culture moved me very deeply when I first encountered them in 1968. Coming from a very strict and conservative family in a very traditional community, the Beats offered me a path to self-expression unfettered by the constraints of the conformist social ethos prevalent at the time."

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? Which memory makes you smile?

I used to follow Clifton Chenier around on the odd chance that he would actually talk to me. Finally after I had established myself, I was able to visit with Clif backstage at the Grant Street Dance Hall in Lafayette Louisiana. I guess that he felt like sharing some of his experience of the music business.

            “You gotta have a song on the juke box,” was what he told me.

            Clifton was the King. He had a regal presence. And he could play. Marathons. Four hours without taking a break. I wonder how he went so long without peeing.

Are there any memories from recording and show time which you’d like to share with us?

My second album (Bayou des Mystères) in three days at the Studio in the Country in Bogalusa Louisiana. In those days we would record the rhythm section and finish up with the vocals (Since 1996 I have started  my recordings with vocals, accompanying myself with a guitar and filling everything else in afterwards). On that early recording I was singing all the time to help the rhythm section get the groove. By the third day I was exhausted and had lost my voice.  Somebody called Doctor Feelgood who came over and shot me up with cortisone. I was able to finish the record after an all night session but couldn’t talk for weeks after. I have really been very fortunate to play with some exceptional musicians. I am very nostalgic about the recordings. What I remember most are the people, the musicians, and the good times we had.  It was a lot of work, but it was also a lot of fun. 

There was one particularly tough stretch. We played the Nyon folk festival in Switzerland in 1978. I had two guitarists and a horn section. Which did not appeal to the folk crowd.  We were nearly booed off the stage, but hit hard. My manager (who became my wife) urged me to rock out. And so we played “Johnny B. Goode”, The crowd loved it and we were able to turn a bad situation around.  We drove all night to Paris and took a plane to Montreal, then drove 8 hours to a little town called Notre Dame du Nord. In the middle of the show, the light truss fell, smashing onstage. The drums were reduced to match sticks, one of the guitarists was crushed, landing on top of his Les Paul. Otherwise we were a little rattled, but unharmed.  We gave the guitar player the rest of the night off, found a drum kit somewhere and finished the gig. 

"My hope for the future is that independent artists like myself will have more access to a fan base and that music will evolve in a positive creative direction." Photo: Zachary Richard and the "Bayou des mystères" in Paris, 1976

What do you miss most nowadays from the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future?

The music industry had become very formatted and much too compartmentalized. I regret the 70s. Disc jockeys could play just about anything they wanted from classical to folk rock. It was a very exciting time. Musically speaking it was the most interesting period in rock and roll just because there was so much going on and radio was open to just about anything. Now everything is determined by machines. Software programs decide what gets played on the radio. For all of its faults (unlimited unpaid file sharing) the internet has at least allowed access to an audience regardless of what style of music one is playing. Mass media still controls the business, but internet has allowed the possibility of getting around the formatting and reaching an international audience. 

My hope for the future is that independent artists like myself will have more access to a fan base and that music will evolve in a positive creative direction.

What is the best advice ever given you and what advice would you give to new generation?

Follow your heart, be true to yourself, do not confuse sales with artistic success.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you?

I have just released and album of songs composed with my 10 year old grandson Émile (entitled J’AIME LA VIE: I love life) I have never enjoyed a project as much. Émile is neuro-motor handicapped, but as he says “just a little bit.” The songs are written from the point of view of a child and so express the wonder of life. I have been laughing the whole time. And crying too. I have never done anything as meaningful.

"My philosophy of life is not very original. Others have said it better before: The love you take is equal to the love you make. Life is worth living because it can be shared." Photo: Zachary and Émile

You are also known for several charitable and cultural projects. What is the relation between music and activism?

I am a songwriter, but I am also a citizen. I live in society and I have a government that controls many aspects of my life. In that regard, I am no different from a plumber or a carpenter or a bus driver. We all live together and we all (at the the sane ones) want to make our society the best it can be. I don’t consider myself to be particularly generous or particularly committed socially. There are things that I love and things that I feel strongly about, and I live in a country that allows me to express my opinion. And to work for the betterment of society. 

Many of my songs have a “message”. No French no more, Sunset on Louisiane, Réveille, Le Fou, Ô Jésus, just to name a few. Although I am proud of these songs and of the positive impact that they might have had on social discourse, I have never put my songs at the service of a cause regardless of how worthy. I write songs to express my humanity. What is foremost for me is the emotion. The message comes second if at all. I have never sat down to writ a song in order to influence social conscious. What is important is the emotion. But sometimes, the things that I feel do have a social-political component. That’s just who I am. When a song does have an influence on the way that people think or the way that they act, I am pleased. But that is not the purpose of the song. I don’t write songs to get people to vote a certain way or to do a certain thing. I write songs to make people feel. 

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Folk, Soul and continue to Cajun, Zydeco and beyond?

Folk music is music of the people. The styles and the contexts change but the fundamental impetus of creation stays the same. People make music (or any art for that matter) to express themselves: their joy, their suffering, their love and their loss of love. My songs are stories, short little films that last 3 minutes. If the songs do what I intend, then people will be transported, they will enter the magical space deep in the music and forget their troubles and experience the simply ecstasy of life. 

Where would you wanna go and what from your memorabilia (books, records, etc.) would you put in time machine?

I try to be happy wherever I am, so I don’t need to go anywhere. As far as the time machine, I would put my last two albums LE FOU and J’AIME LA VIE. 

Zachary Richard - Official website

Photo by Julien Faugère

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