Louisiana based musician Peter Novelli talks about Dr. John, Sonny Landreth, Augie Meyers, and NOLA

"Louisiana roots music is special; it has a feel that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Louisiana has so many true legends in music." 

Peter Novelli: Spicy NOLA Gumbo

Guitarist, singer and songwriter Peter Novelli is based in New Orleans. The Peter Novelli Band plays Louisiana roots and blues, a blend of blues-rock-R&B-funk with some zydeco-cajun influences. Novelli’s 2nd CD "Louisiana Roots & Blues" (2012) with his core rhythm section Darryl White, Chris Chew, Joe Krown, and special guests Chubby Carrier, Chris Thomas King , Shamarr Allen, Gordon Minette and Elaine and Lisa Foster on vocals. Novelli’s 2010 debut album, produced by bassist David Hyde, hit the blues/roots charts within a month of release and gathered widespread critical acclaim. His originals, with a few selected covers, made a journey through Louisiana-American blues-roots music. Guests include Dr. John, Paul Barrere, Augie Meyers, Gatemouth Brown’s rhythm section, and top Lousiana musicians.

Novelli started violin at age 6, picked up guitar at 14 after hearing a BB King record. The intensity, passion and raw emotional content of some of the blues masters stuck in his ear and that is what drives him to this day. He likes to combine this feel with harmonic ideas of jazz, the relentless groove of zydeco, and just about any cool and unusual style of music or rhythm that works. Growing up, Novelli played in Syracuse, NY rock, blues and country bands. He hung out, jammed and gigged at the legendary underground Jabberwocky. Some years back, after his band opened for Buckwheat Zydeco, he travelled to SW Louisiana, absorbing more zydeco and cajun influences, sharing stages and jamming with artists like the late Roy Carrier, T. Broussard, Walter Mouton, Steve Riley, Christine Balfa, Wilson Savoy, Cedric Watson, etc. This led to a gig with Louisiana accordionist Sammy Naquin for several years, playing and touring with Sammy and also Cajun fiddle-guitar virtuoso Al Berard. Novelli has shared stages or recorded with some of the “who’s who” of blues, rock, R&B and roots music, including Dr. John, Sammy Kershaw, Olivier Scoazec, Kalani, Greg "Fingers" Taylor, Smoky Greenwell, Waylon Thibodeaux; Irving Bannister; band members of the late R&B legends Ernie K. Doe and Eddie Bo; many New Orleans musical icons, and more. Peter has collaborated and co-written songs with several Grammy-winning songwriters. His newest third release, St Amant Sessions (2015), has 10 original song, with some of his favorite NOLA musicians, including Sonny Landreth and Chubby Carrier. The album was recorded in a small Louisiana town of the same name

 

Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos by Pedro J. Bonilla, Roman Alokhin, Bruce Toulmin / All rights reserved

What do you learn about yourself from the blues, what does the blues mean to you?

You can’t fake the blues; the best blues is “real.” For me, the blues means channeling human emotions and life experience through a guitar.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of culture and music of New Orleans?

Meaning, what are the pathways or links that connect the historical to the present? I believe the carnival and secondline parades have a lot to do with it, the main one being Mardi Gras, there you have the culture and the music – the grooves, if you will, that really form the basis for much of the music (funk, for example). Along with it, the costumes, the food, the drinking, the party atmosphere but most important for me, culturally, is the melting pot of cultures that is New Orleans. Spanish, French, native Indians, Creoles, Cajuns, Africans, and more. And in spite of changes and the digital age that we talked about earlier, I don’t see the parade thing disappearing. The kids start early in school and they march in the parades, playing drums, horns and other things.  And in spite of some of the not-so-good music (sorry) that some people are making nowadays, you have many young people around New Orleans playing in brass bands! Each one sounds different and they’re great! And you don’t even need digital equipment to do what they are doing!

"Blues will always be with us because it is one of the main roots of the tree, you know? A lot of other music, like some of the 'Indie Rock' music I hear, little twigs on the branches that will fall off and go away in time. But not the blues."

Which is the moment that you change your life?

That’s easy. I was about 14 when I listened to one of my father’s records, “Singin’ The Blues” by B.B. King. My parents had started me on classical violin when I was 6. Also, me and two of my brothers (I have 7 brothers and sisters) had a little combo playing, I guess, folk music, and our parents would carry us around to do these little gigs. So I was listening to my dad’s records, LPs and even some old, what? 78s!  People like Eddie Condon and George Barnes who were jazz guitarists.  Stan Getz. Then B. B. hit me like a freight train. His guitar tone was raw, it had a lot of emotional content. And his voice! So I dropped the violin, picked up an old Rex guitar that was laying around the house, and taught myself how to play. Pretty quickly it was a cheap electric guitar, dogging some older players around learning from them, then my first band, and gigging by the time I was 15 or 16.

I was down in Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic) last month getting ready for a big CD release, and I wanted to cover a B.B. King song. In part because I am so thankful some of my songs have been played on B.B. King’s Bluesville radio show over the past four years, and for what he did to inspire me. So I went back, on the internet, and found the album “Singin’ The Blues” and I listened to it (when I listen to music I sit down and I really listen to it, it’s not a background thing).  It blew me away just like when I was a kid!  The opening track, “Please Love Me,” his guitar sounds like Elmore James. Back then, B.B. was taking the T-Bone Walker style to another level. His phrasing, the lyrical content of his solos, the double stops. Today, I know that this album was B.B.’s DEBUT released in 1956! Check it out, “Singin’ The Blues” by B.B. King. All you really need to know about blues guitar.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN and SONGWRITER?

I believe it takes a certain amount of life experience to be a really good bluesman and songwriter. You have to be down really low, and also up high, to put the “low” in perspective. I’ve been at the top of the world, and near death, and everything in between, and that helps. Living in New Orleans, there are so many old souls here, so many stories, so many interesting characters, there’s no shortage of ideas.

"You can’t fake the blues; the best blues is 'real.' For me, the blues means channeling human emotions and life experience through a guitar." (Photo: Peter and his band on stage)

How do you describe Peter Novelli sound and music philosophy?

My parents were both musicians and they started me on classical music. Then I grew up listening to Louisiana blues and R&B, Guitar Slim, Swamp blues, Slim Harpo (altho at the time I thought it was from Chicago), along with some Texas blues (Freddie King, Albert Collins, etc) and the British blues (Clapton, Yardbirds, etc). I listened to some of the jazz guitarists (George Barnes, Les Paul) and a lot of country (Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, early country rock like the great James Burton, Clarence White, Burrito Bros) and some jazz horn players that I tried to follow on guitar. Later I got into Southwest Louisiana Zydeco and Cajun music. I mixed up all of that along with my own stuff.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?

Some of those old cats around New Orleans, they don’t have anything to prove, they really tell a story when they play their guitars, and sing.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst? 

The best moment was when Dr. John walked into the studio when I was making my debut CD in 2011, and he laid down two tracks with me – we didn’t know he was actually going to show up.  He had just been inducted into the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame. The worst – when one of my mentors, an old New Orleans R&B guitar legend (no names) punched the drummer in the face onstage and everyone was fired!

What is the “feeling” you miss most nowadays from the “Jabberwocky”?

Back in those times it was a smaller world; people who are superstars now would show up and play for 100 people and a $3 cover. Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Townes Van Zandt, up close and personal.  There were late nite jam sessions. And by the time I was 16, I was gigging there.

"Some of those old cats around New Orleans, they don’t have anything to prove, they really tell a story when they play their guitars, and sing."

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from New York and local scene?

I played an event, I was 16, with 1500 people in an auditorium, my band did just one number, an original tune and I did just one 12 bar solo. All 1500 people were on their feet, applause. Never done that again!

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

Moving to Louisiana and New Orleans, there is nothing like it in the world. There are many different cultures around Louisiana and New Orleans, different kinds of people, all very welcoming to me. It’s also fascinating to me; I learned that my great-great-grandfather was buried in New Orleans about 150 years ago.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past?

As music writer A. Scott Galloway wrote in the liner notes to St Amant Sessions, “Friends, these are some hard ass times in the music bizness. So many wanna-bes cloggin’ up the recording pipeline just because they have a Garage Band app, barely passable skills and a few hundred bucks to press up whatever they can get down on some digital tracks…”

I think one big difference between now and the past is that there is a lot of real sh#t out there now, excuse me for being blunt. I try to respect anyone who makes music of any kind, but in the digital age it is a lot easier to produce music, either in the studio or live.  Some of it, I really try to understand it and find something good in it, and I just can’t. And I could even let go of that, except these same people are going around giving away their “music” and performing basically for free in the clubs and venues. You’ll see 4 or 5 indie bands in one night in a club, nobody is really making any money, they use the social media and bring their friends, etc…but the result is, it devalues music for the serious musicians. And the venues learn that they can get music for free. Over the past several years I’ve been crossing paths on the road with Pete Anderson who played guitar on and produced Dwight Yoakum’s records (the country singer who became an actor too). Over 18 years they sold about 30 million records and some of those songs will live forever. They are undeniable. So is Pete’s guitar work. Anyway, he was touring the country as a solo artist with his rhythm section, playing in bars and clubs just like me. The night I met him, he had, like, 10 people at his show. He was positive and professional and played his ass off for those 10 people. After, we talked about the music today, and he voiced a similar theme, so much really terrible music, out of tune, no melody, little skill, little knowledge of guitar chords, etc. And with everything Pete has done, you know he can speak with authority.

In the past, I think, you had to be somewhat real to book a show or make a record, and you got paid for it. And most of the music, no matter what the genre, had something going for it. The proof? Much of that music is still with us today. Ask yourself, will a lot of what is out there today be around in 10 or 20 or 40 years? Probably not.

"The only way I want to change things is to put out there what I think is real and good, and to tell people about stuff that I think is good, then it’s up to them. C’est la vie!"

What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I really do not fear anything about the future, I know I can always make a living playing good music, even if it’s just me and my guitar and the songs I write. I have no attachment to being a big “star” or getting rich from music. My hope for the future is that I will climb up to the next level, to a place where some of the artists that I really respect have gotten to, artists that some of the critics have been comparing me to.  What one of my early mentors called “being at the top of a small mountain.” Many of the artists that I really enjoy are not well known to the public but in my mind they are successful because they are authentic and their music is real and unique.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I wouldn’t attempt to change anything, it is what it is, and you have to accept and adapt or get left behind. Except for a very few who have what it takes to change the world. For sure, today some the really big stars may have relatively little musical talent, but they have SOMETHING and it’s working for them, so maybe we need to look at that and learn. Things change – like the way the original french-spoken Cajun and zydeco music in Louisiana is disappearing; it is sad but it’s evolution. The only way I want to change things is to put out there what I think is real and good, and to tell people about stuff that I think is good, then it’s up to them. C’est la vie!

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

Learn to read music AND learn to improvise and above all, to LISTEN. Also it’s good to do something else besides just music, because making money in music is a gamble! I was always involved with working on houses and buildings, and construction, and that helped me. It’s also good to use different parts of the brain, I think.

"Moving to Louisiana & New Orleans, there is nothing like it in the world. There are many different cultures around Louisiana & New Orleans, different kinds of people, all very welcoming to me."

Which meetings have been the most important experiences?

I would say, more in the past decade when I have been in New Orleans and I spent a lot of time with some of the older musicians, people who were there from, say late 1940s through the 50s and 60s and later.  When R&B and blues became rock ‘n roll. One in particular, Irving Bannister, now in his 80s, played his first recording session when he was 17, right around 1950. His girlfriend put together for me copies of some of those old tracks, Sugarboy Crawford and others, maybe Smiley Lewis, those guys were there a little before Fats Domino hit it big and they clearly were into rock ‘n roll territory. Taking the loping New Orleans RB grooves into something a little more aggressive, more of a backbeat. Before Bill Haley, before Elvis.

Irving recorded and performed, toured with some of the early artists out of New Orleans who had hit records. Danny White, Ernie K Doe, Lee Dorsey, Fats, Irma Thomas, many more. He was on chitlin’ circuit tours with Jimmy Reed. He was doing sessions in Cosimo Matassa’s legendary J&M studios. He was in the house band at the legendary Dewdrop Inn in New Orleans where he played alongside giants. He related many stories of those days, and I shared many gigs with him, watching his unique guitar style and playing with his band. I’m pretty certain that Jimi Hendrix, while backing Little Richard and others at the Dewdrop, picked up some of his style from Irving, not just guitar but appearance, Irving wearing an african dashiki and a heasdband instead of suit and tie, playing guitar behind his head, behind his back.  Irving told me, “I learned how to play guitar behind my head from Tbone, but behind the back, that’s mine.” And if you listen to Jimi’s rhythm guitar on “Little Wing”, “Wind Cries Mary” and “Axis Bold As Love”  that’s partly Irving Bannister, New Orleans. Check out Irving’s lead/rhythm work on Danny White’s 1963 hit song “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.” The late Earl King was also a big influence on Hendrix and others, Jimi covered “C’mon Baby Let The Good Times Roll.”

I also got to hang out and play with people like L’il Buck Sinegal (guitarist for Clifton Chenier), the late zydeco King Roy Carrier, Dr. John, Deacon John Moore, James Johnson/Rudy Richard/Jesse Kinchen (Slim Harpo’s original band), Ernie Vincent, Jerry Jumonville (sax), Freddie Staehle (Dr John’s earlier drummer), “Tricky Dick” Dixon (bassist for Fats Domino, Lee Dorsey, Snooks Eaglin etc), B.J. Harvey (bass, Irma Thomas), so many more. Meeting David Hyde, Louisiana bassist who produced my first CD, was an education in music. From him I learned how to make a good record. And HIS connections were enormous, and he shared them with me. David Farrell, who engineered and coproduced my 2nd CD. He’s worked with SO many great ones, can’t even begin to list them. So much knowledge there. So, yeah, meetings with Irving and other older cats, I believe it’s important to know where you came from in order to know where you’re going.

Are there any memories from recording time with Paul Barrere, and Augie Meyers, which you’d like to share with us?

Augie Meyers (photo) is a Texas legend and his music has some connections to Louisiana swamp pop.  He played on the early Sir Douglas Quintet rock-n-roll “She’s About A Mover.” He was just the nicest, most down-to-earth, easygoing guy.  He brought an old Vox Continental organ with him and I borrowed a blackface Fender Super Reverb amp for him. We worked on about 4 songs then we all went out to a Chinese buffet for dinner.

Paul (Barrere) was all business, his band Little Feat was in town for a show; he plugged in his Strat and ripped off an incredible slide guitar piece on Delbert McClinton’s “Lie No Better.”

Why did you think that Louisiana roots blues scene continues to generate such a devoted following?

Louisiana roots music is special; it has a feel that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Louisiana has so many true legends in music.

What characterize Louisiana’s Music and which is the deference from NY scene?

NY music, to me, doesn’t have its own identity, its own signature sound (except maybe back in the 1940’s to 1960’s, the New York City jazz scene with Charlie Parker, Miles, etc). Louisiana music has its own, actually many (R&B, Blues, Swamp Pop, Zydeco, Cajun, Funk, Brass bands) signature sounds. For me, the truly great artists are more accessible in Louisiana; you can meet them and work with them. I connected with legendary people like Bruce Flett because I was in Louisiana, and others.

Tell me a few things about your meet with Dr. John, which memory from him makes you smile?

Mac (Rebennack) (photo) staggered into the studio walking with a cane, he’d been in hospital with pneumonia, and he was not feeling well. He put his head down on the piano. When the music started, he picked up and played his ass off. He spent a lot of time talking with me about the destruction of Louisiana wetlands and other things; he was very human, very real. I felt like we had a good connection.

"Learn to read music AND learn to improvise and above all, to LISTEN. Also it’s good to do something else besides just music, because making money in music is a gamble!" 

Are there any memories from "St Amant Sessions" sessions which you’d like to share with us?

There are only good memories from St Amant Sessions, and lots of them. My drummer and engineer/coproducer Brian Brignac grew up there, it’s a small rural Cajun town in Louisiana about an hour west of New Orleans. I think Brian has over 100 cousins around St Amant, you know? The vibe out there is quiet and friendly, like a big family, and it seems like everybody there grows up with music.

I stayed in an empty double-wide trailer owned by a friend of Brian’s, it was set way back from a country road in the woods by a swamp. So that was a great setting to work on the songs when I wasn’t in the studio. My life is so busy, traveling, meeting deadlines, and it was like a big relaxation to go over there and record and just chill out. We used to take breaks from the studio and walk out around the pond. Chubby Carrier, Sammy Naquin, Bob Henderson, Elaine Foster all came over to do their parts and it was just like friends getting together. The wonderful songwriter Billy Henderson passed by oe day and we ended up cowriting a song. Sonny Landreth recorded slide guitar on my song “Louisiana Sunrise” just after he finished his new CD “Bound By The Blues” and before doing tracks on Robben Ford’s new CD “Into The Sun.” So those were like bookends to my project.

I guess the memory would be how happy everyone was, joyous really, a lot of positive energy and I think that came through on the record. Chris Senac (bass) and Brian are a couple of fun but wickedly talented cats. Many good ideas coming out, no egos, no drama, and everyone who came into the sessions seemed to pick up on that vibe. And they all played their asses off.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

Some jams are great, and some are terrible. Earlier this year, I was playing a set at a jam in a neighborhood tavern in New Orleans and Dr John walked in with Deacon John Moore (probably New Orleans’ greatest swing blues guitarist). They jammed for about an hour with 15 people in the bar.

What is the best advice a bluesman ever gave you?

Play from the inside, not “outside” to the crowd.

"I believe it takes a certain amount of life experience to be a really good bluesman and songwriter." 

What the difference and similarity between the BLUES, CAJUN, and ROCK feeling?

That’s an interesting question. Usually I say that most American music came from the blues (but I believe the blues first came from gospel music). Rock came from blues. But interestingly, I don’t think Cajun came from the blues. It was its own thing in France long before America existed. It traveled to Nova Scotia, then to Louisiana. I was in France on Bastille Day in 2003. They were playing ancient French music with accordion and fiddle, and it sounded like Cajun music.  Of course, over time, Louisiana Cajun music has picked up some blues, country and even rock!

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the music circuits?

Laughing, recently, I was playing a show at a nightclub on Bourbon Street during Jazz Festival.  Ernie, the manager got up to sing a set. Unrehearsed, he cued the band perfectly, all the while working the crowd with a big grin on his face. He was actually a better vocalist and bandleader than some others I’ve backed up, including one “jazz” singer who called himself an ‘international award-winner” and didn’t even know what key he was in, couldn’t start or end a song, or cue a bridge or a solo. Anyway, Ernie was a total pro and cracked us all up, cause he had put on a ridiculous “afro” wig, and by the way he’s black.

Emotionally, last week I was invited onstage at the annual Blues Allstar Jam in Baton Rouge, birthplace of an important branch of American blues. We’re talking Slim Harpo and songs that were covered by the Stones, Kinks and other British rockers, we’re talking the home of Buddy Guy. Henry Gray was on piano dapperly dressed up in suit, tie and hat and playing flawlessly – he’s 90 YEARS OLD. Lovely man.  And James Johnson, his health suffering, he played guitar on Slim Harpo’s hit song Baby Scratch My Back, was an influence on Buddy Guy himself and many others. Kenny Neal, Luther Kent were there.  People young and old, black and white, rich and poor, all there for the love of the blues. Beautiful and touching.

Tell me a few things about the story of second album “Louisiana Roots & Blues”, how that came about?

I was writing some new songs, my drummer Darryl White encouraged me to produce my 2nd CD and keep the music coming out. As it turned out, Darryl co-produced the CD with me (and Louisiana legendary engineer David Farrell) and Darryl also co-wrote some of the songs. Darryl had a lot to do with the whole project. Anyone would be fortunate to have Darryl working on their project; he is much more than a great drummer. I’m really glad we did it, and the CD had done very well.

"My dream would be for my music to be appreciated by people who understand where my music is coming from, and I think that is happening. For me, happiness equals health and health equals happiness, and I wish that for everyone."

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES

Blues will always be with us because it is one of the main roots of the tree, you know? A lot of other music, like some of the “Indie Rock” music I hear, little twigs on the branches that will fall off and go away in time. But not the blues.

How do you describe your contact to people when you are on stage?

I’m a rather shy person, I’m not a great entertainer, and I try to be real and play and sing something meaningful. But I’m getting to be more comfortable relating to people.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

Some blues cats might want to go way back to the delta, Robert Johnson and Son House. I’m not that hard core. I would like to be at the Dewdrop Inn in New Orleans in the 1950s, with New Orleans artists like Guitar Slim, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Earl King, Fats Domino, my old friend Irving Bannister, and traveling acts like Ray Charles, Charles Brown, Little Richard. I would actually need the whole day, because I heard that the Dewdrop was open 24 hours.

Which things do you prefer to do in your free time? What is your music DREAM? Happiness is…

If I had some free time, which I don’t, I Iike to hunt and fish, cook food, visit with good people. My dream would be for my music to be appreciated by people who understand where my music is coming from, and I think that is happening. For me, happiness equals health and health equals happiness, and I wish that for everyone.

Peter Novelli - Official website

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