Interview: MyNameIsJohnMichael (New Orleans)

Ever since autumn, two friends have been gradually leaving traces of info about NOLA (New Orleans, Lousiana) and the state itself. Just like giving limited edition tidbits that are soon pulled away before given back, a general buzz has been building through their-and I quote-“subliminal messaging” in that culturally rich southern state. Coincidentally or part of a larger conspiracy to bring me there, bands began popping up on my radar left and right in such a short amount of time with the majority originating from NOLA. One such was MyNameIsJohnMichael, a group that originally started out as a solo project provoked by a dare to create one song each and every week in 2008, and has since flourished into festivals such as Bonnaroo and sharing stages with world class musicians. Just before it starts, get a taste with a live vid from SXSW 2011 of “Orphan” off his upcoming album. I had a chance to speak with John about his upcoming sophomore album, the city, and growing up in such a rich scene.

Check out MyNameIsJohnMichael playing before Trombone Shorty and The Strokes on Saturday, May 7th, at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

How does it feel to have just finished your second album?

John Michael: It feels amazing. I had a lot of worries regarding it. As a matter of fact, I scrapped what was to be the second album in order to write this one. When the idea and the stories dawned on me after watching Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show“, I realized that I wanted to write songs and stories about my coming of age in New Orleans. I really wanted to marry story-based songs with the sounds and rhythms of New Orleans, and I think we accomplished that. I’m excited.

The Music Shed is a gorgeous studio. Why’d you choose there to record? Did Raymond Richards (Local Natives) bring anything unexpected at the helm of the sound boards?

The Shed is absolutely an amazing place. We chose it for two reasons. The first was our dear friend, Ben Lorio, is an engineer there. He worked with us on the 52 project and The People That Come and Go (iTunes). He’s a real asset to our camp and knows me and my musical brain better than almost anyone. The second was because the Music Shed is my favorite place to work in New Orleans. Raymond and I established that we wanted to make the record in NOLA instead of at his place, Red Rockets Glare, because we wanted the record to really feel like New Orleans; the heat, humidity, sounds, performers, the whole thing. It was a very natural choice. Raymond is an unbelievably generous and patient human being. He expedited the process in order for us to not get bogged down. He really bought into our vision of music. He’s got a great ear for performance and truth. I don’t think we would have embraced the indigenous aspects of the record without an outsider present. He and I decided to not rely on modern trickery, but rather use very classic forms of getting sounds. Plus, he put up with my demanding nature.

What’s one piece of this album you’re most excited to show people?

The songwriting and arrangements. I’m really proud of the core tunes on this record. I know everyone says this, but I’m really growing as a songwriter. I am really excited about the stories and being able to delve into horn arrangements in the way that we did. 

You’re on the heels of opening for Trombone Shorty and The Strokes, just after SXSW this year. Did you ever envision you’d be at this point?

It is definitely a real honor. Troy (Trombone Shorty) and I have been good friends for a while. He’s a true talent and generous human being. We’ve been working together on a few musical projects and ideas, so it feels very natural but quite special. If you would have told me when I was in high school that I’d be sharing the stage with the band that put out “Is This It?”, I would have doubted your sanity. They are icons at this point. I just hope they all enjoy our show as we will theirs.

Moving to John Michael himself. You’re the son of a lawyer and a CPA, an unlikely combination, yet you seem to have found a crossroads in studying music business. Where did this creativity come from? Do your parents have any artistic outlets?

My father has played the guitar for leisure since he was in high school. My mother is obsessed with creating stained glass windows and the like. I learned from a young age the therapeutic nature of creativity. That’s where it started for me. The music business education stemmed from seeing the people who nurtured my skills in music not be where they wanted to be fiscally. I wanted to try to deduce why. It was not because of a lack of talent. It was a question that I’m still trying to answer. 

How has your studies helped your musical pursuits?

If I didn’t go to Loyola New Orleans, I would not have done the 52 project, started this band, or learn how to do what we are doing. By no means, have I figured it out. Nonetheless, I would not be on this journey. I’m forever indebted to a few of my professors there.

NOLA (New Orleans, Louisiana) seems to be the next place to burst from the seams on the national music scene. To you, what makes the NOLA scene so special?

I think New Orleanians look at music differently than most. We like to entertain. Our local economy is based in tourism. I think the bands down here really know how to put on a show. I am hoping that the scene down here will embrace its roots and tell the story of this great city and not chase national trends. This scene is special because it is truly unlike any other place. 

If you had to compose a mixtape of your life growing up in New Orleans, who would be on it and what would it’s title be? 

Wow. That’s a great question. I wouldn’t know what to call it. Maybe “Songs from the City that Care Forgot” or something like that. I was never good at titling mix tapes. I know that it would definitely have a great deal of New Orleans R&B from the late 50s, 60s and 70s: Lee Dorsey, Jessie Hill, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, The Dixie Cups, The Meters, Shirley Ellis, those sorts of people. Also, it would have to have a great deal of Bounce and late 90s Hip Hop: DJ Jubilee, Partners N Crime, Mystikal, Big Freedia, all the Cash Money stuff that Mannie Fresh did, a lot of Bounce and HipHop. I’d throw in some brass bands and Mardi Gras Indian tracks for good measure. I think that would be a pretty good tape. 

For anyone who may be visiting NOLA for the first time, where would you suggest they go?

New Orleans folks pride themselves on being tour guides. We often want to show people the mystical places within this wacky town. My four favorite restaurants are Cochon, Patois, Boucherie and Sylvain. They’re all out of this world. My favorite poboy is “The Joan” at Radosta’s Grocery near where I grew up. My favorite record store is Domino Sound because it’s right by my house. I love going to catch shows at One Eyed Jacks and Tipitina’s. I’m often sipping bourbon in Pal’s Lounge. There are too many places to name. You should ask Raymond. He got the full tour.

The 52 song project came off of the crazy idea of a dare, and then you ran with it. If you had to choose one ambitious, out-there idea and go with it now, what would it be?

I think my focus is now directed more toward quality than quantity. I am trying to create several EPs in the next year and a half that will be a bit more experimental with regard to sounds. I don’t know if I am as concerned these days with the grand nature of an ambitious project but I’m rather focused on the quality. If I come up with one, you’ll be the first to know.

Thoughts?

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