Odder still for those of us who fondly remember him as Blackadder III’s thick Prince Regent, or as PG Wodehouse’s bumbling toff Bertie Wooster, Laurie also metamorphosed into a middle-aged object of desire for legions of American fans. But becoming an unexpected heartthrob wasn’t Laurie’s only remarkable midlife feat of reinvention.
He is now a musician, too. A successful one at that. In 2011 Laurie released his first album. Let Them Talk was a collection of blues standards such as St James Infirmary and John Henry, with Laurie applying a careworn voice, decent piano-playing skills and a lifelong passion for the genre to a set of vintage songs, many of them originating in the Mississippi delta. It sold a million copies worldwide and Laurie and his Copper Bottom Band undertook an international tour in support of it, spending six months on the road in Europe, America, South America and Russia.
Now, exactly one year since Dr House finally put away his stethoscope and walking stick – the series had run its course, and Laurie had had his fill of fronting such a massive TV show – Laurie is launching a second blues album, Didn’t It Rain, with a concert aboard the Queen Mary.
For the new album he gave himself a fresh mission statement: ‘I have resolved to forge on, deeper into the forest of American music that has enchanted me since I was a small boy.’
But he insists that he is as surprised as anyone that he is being allowed to do this again. Tell him that his debut made him a Top 40 recording artist in 20 different countries worldwide and his eyebrows give a positively Wodehousian waggle. ‘Is that what I did? I didn’t even know that. Bloody hell. See, I didn’t know what releasing a record was like. I didn’t know what was supposed to happen. When people say, “You’ve done 12,000 this week in the Netherlands,” I don’t know what that means. I felt like we were doing some good live shows, and I was very proud of the record. But I didn’t really know what people would make of it. And still don’t know what people make of it…’
In front of a small audience of invited guests and lucky fans, Laurie presents songs from Let Them Talk and Didn’t It Rain. He is dressed in ruffled peach shirt and naval cap, like a rather louche 1970s sailor. Or, as he jokes, like a character from The Poseidon Adventure. He is backed by a small band, a three-piece horn section and two female backing vocalists. For well over an hour, Laurie plays piano with grimacing gusto, strums acoustic guitar in a blissful reverie, sings with throaty conviction and dances a giddy tango with one of the singers, Gaby Moreno, who’s rather like a Guatemalan Edith Piaf.
‘This is emotional for me,’ he says at one point, explaining that in 1975 a personal hero, the late New Orleans singer and pianist Professor Longhair, played in this very room at a party thrown by Paul McCartney and Wings. The resulting album, Live on the Queen Mary, had a profound impact on the 19-year-old Laurie. ‘It changed everything for me.’
And now, here he is, playing the same room, with some stellar musicians, singin’ the blues. ‘I feel like a Saudi Arabian playboy who’s been given the keys to a Ferrari he’s had no training in.’ He grins. ‘But I’m loving it.’
The next morning, Laurie is to be found in a light-filled suite in a beachfront hotel in Santa Monica. Since House finished last year he has, he ‘supposes’, relocated back to London, although he recorded Didn’t It Rain, like its predecessor, in LA. ‘The strange thing – and this is one of the advantages of being incredibly shallow and superficial – is that wherever I am, that’s sort of home,’ he says.
‘I get back to Heathrow and within 10 minutes of going along the M4 I feel like I’ve never left England. I get here and within 10 minutes of going along La Cienega, I feel like I’ve never been away. But that, as I say, is because I’m very shallow.’
Laurie has just finished a meeting with a man from BBC Radio 2, with whom he’s making a series about the various highways and byways travelled by American blues. He also filmed an ITV documentary, Perspectives, about the recording of Didn’t It Rain. He faces three whole days of back-to-back interviews with reporters from almost every corner of the globe. If only he had sold fewer units in fewer territories, I tell him in the language of this new business in which he finds himself, he and his wife, Jo (a textiles and fabric designer), might have made it back to London and their three children (aged 19, 22 and 24) in time for the Easter weekend.
‘Yeah, I had to go and…’ Laurie begins with a rueful smile. ‘See, everything brings its own punishment and reward.’ He pauses while he pours a cup of coffee, then sits down, frowning. ‘That’s miserable, isn’t it, substituting “units” for “records” and “territories” for “countries”. Why, why, why?’ he laments, only half-joking. ‘Somebody wrote to me the other day, saying I had to write liner [sleeve] notes for the Deluxe Package [version of Didn’t It Rain],’ he continues. ‘I said, “Oh, please, I don’t even know what you’re talking about. But whatever it is, can we not refer to it as a Deluxe Package?” I don’t want to have anything to do with a Deluxe Package.’
Laurie’s speaking style can be ponderous, often Eeyore-ishly so. As often as he curls out a wonderfully loquacious paragraph, he also fails to complete sentences. But he seems especially rusty this morning. Perhaps it’s the hangover, from both the stress of the first public performance of songs from Didn’t It Rain, and from the patently potent Guatemalan rum he was merrily imbibing on stage. ‘——- hell, that stuff!’ he exclaims. ‘Halfway through that glass I thought, either I’m not used to rum or I’m actually having a minor stroke here. Delicious, obviously. Not unpleasant as strokes go.’ A pause, and a fleeting look of panic as he realises what he has just said. ‘That’s terrible, don’t, don’t…’ he grimaces, the sentence again hanging unfinished.
I saw Laurie’s first public concert, in New Orleans’ French Quarter, in March 2011. I saw him at London’s Union Chapel a few months later, then at a tiny LA club a few months after that. I spoke with him on all three occasions, and I know how tense he is before and after performances. I ask him now: is there yet sufficient distance from last night’s premiere for him to have enjoyed the show? ‘No,’ he says flatly. ‘I woke up about every hour of the night, shuddering at the memory of some stupid thing I said or did, or some clanger I played on the piano. Which I’ve compressed into a sort of negative Director’s Cut.’
‘Hugh is always self-deprecating,’ says Joe Henry, the American producer, singer, songwriter and blues aficionado who has shepherded both of Laurie’s albums. ‘That’s the way he processes his artistry about anything he’s taking on. Because he wants it to be great. That’s all he wants.’
Laurie’s first exposure to the blues came when he was aged 11 or 12. Willie Dixon’s I Can’t Quit You Baby ‘made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up’. He was hooked. The first album he bought was Muddy Waters’s Live (At Mr Kelly’s), soon followed by that Professor Longhair Queen Mary recording. He grew up in a middle-class household in Oxford, the Eton-educated youngest of four (his father was a GP, his mother a housewife).
At Cambridge University his passion for music metamorphosed into skilled comic performances – he was a Footlights contemporary of his future professional partner Stephen Fry and his one-time girlfriend Emma Thompson. But even though this was the latter days of punk and the early days of alternative comedy, it was an older, more distant musical form that captivated Laurie.
He acknowledged the surreal oddness – the sacrilege, even – of his taking on the blues in a note on his website before the release of Let Them Talk. ‘I was not born in Alabama in the 1890s,’ Laurie wrote. ‘You may as well know this now. I’ve never eaten grits, cropped a share, or ridden a boxcar. No gipsy woman said anything to my mother when I was born and there’s no hellhound on my trail, as far as I can judge. Let this record show that I am a white, middle-class Englishman, openly trespassing on the music and myth of the American south.’ As pre-emptive strikes go against those who might accuse him of dilettantism, it was a good one.
In adulthood, in his first career, Laurie remained musical and impassioned, but only tangentially. He wrote comic songs for him and his friend and collaborator Stephen Fry to perform. In fact, as he tells the audience aboard the Queen Mary, the theme tune to A Bit of Fry & Laurie was Professor Longhair’s Mardi Gras in New Orleans. But it was in music that Laurie sought refuge off-screen, playing the piano daily, listening to his old vinyl religiously. Explaining what the blues does for him, he says, ‘There is something soothing about explaining away the troubles of the day.’ Still, it would take Dr Gregory House’s occasional musings on the piano to catalyse Laurie’s rebirth as a proper musician.
Conrad Withey, the London-based president of Warner Music Entertainment and a House fan, spotted Laurie’s onscreen proficiency on the keys. Learning of Laurie’s love of the blues, in 2010 Withey made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: the chance to record his own album. Joe Henry (who also assembled Laurie’s band) was among the first to experience how much this opportunity meant to Laurie.
‘It was clear that Hugh was dedicated to making music that was alive and could stand on its own,’ he says of their initial meeting at Henry’s LA home. He was not interested in it being a vanity project… And by the way,’ Henry adds, ‘not a single one of the musicians regarded him as anything other than a great and fellow musician. Nobody thinks of him as this poseur movie star making a record. His devotion and his craft are authentic.’ In fact, he says, ‘Hugh has a much more broad comprehensive knowledge of historic blues recordings than I do. And I’ve been listening to that music like a religious zealot since I was 14 or 15.’
Repeat any of that approbation to Laurie and he’d probably implode in mortified gratitude. But what he will admit to is getting supreme satisfaction from playing music. More so than from acting? ‘I get much more direct, immediate, sensual pleasure out of doing it,’ he says, nodding. ‘I mean, it has similarities [to acting] – and sometimes even worse technical aspects to it, where you think, “Oh God, I wanted to do this but I didn’t execute it right.”’
In that regard, House was the gift that kept on taking: a dream role, but one that came with a price. Playing a character mired in bleakness for eight years couldn’t help but hang heavy on Laurie – not least because he has previous experience of depression (he underwent psychotherapy in the mid-1990s) and especially because his family had for the most part stayed in Britain while he was based in LA for nine months each year. ‘I didn’t really realise that at the time,’ he says. ‘But it was having an effect. There was something dark and tortured and painful and lonely about that character. And maybe I’m a little bit less of those things now that I’m not representing it every day.’
Laurie has by no means given up on acting. He was due to take the lead in Crossbones, an American drama about pirates, until the filming dates clashed with the touring plans for Didn’t It Rain. He is filming Tomorrowland this summer, a dystopian sci-fi epic directed by Brad Bird (The Incredibles) playing a baddie opposite George Clooney. This year will also see him complete work on The Canterville Ghost, a British animation that features Stephen Fry. Later in the year, meanwhile, should see the release of Mr Pip, an adaptation of the best-selling 2006 novel by Lloyd Jones that Laurie shot in Papua New Guinea shortly before filming the last season of House. ‘My favourite thing about the shoot,’ its director Andrew Adamson remembers, ‘was that the [daily] call-sheet said, “Hugh Laurie: own transportation”. That’s because Hugh canoed to set.’
For all his fame, accomplishments and polymathic talents, Hugh Laurie’s got the blues, inside him and around him. No wonder he is, against type and against the odds, rather good at it. ‘The physical pleasure of actually making sounds, hearing other people make sounds, responding to the sound they’re making – there’s just nothing like it,’ he sighs. On Didn’t It Rain he takes the occasional vocal back seat to the singers Moreno and ‘Sista’ Jean McClain. ‘To sit back at the end of The Weed Smoker’s Dream,’ he says of the 1930s tune covered on the album, ‘and watch Gaby finish that last verse and let that last note tail away…’ Laurie beams with pleasure. ‘That’s exquisite for me. Actually,’ he offers, ‘I realised last night that my goal might be to be standing in the back, watching it. It’s probably more fun doing that than playing it. So maybe that’s my dream,’ he says, chuckling, ‘to do a show but not be in it.’