Mike Ragogna: We have Hugh Laurie on the line right now, don’t we?
Hugh Laurie: You certainly do. Greetings listeners.
MR: How are you, sir?
HL: I am very well, thank you. How are you?
MR: I’m doing well. Hugh, you have a new album, Let Them Talk, which is New Orleans blues based. How did you come up with the idea?
HL: Well, that’s always been my first love. I was really responding to an incredible opportunity. A man from a record company came to me and said, “Do you want to do a record and what would you like to do?” My first reaction was, of course, to say, “No, you’re out of your mind. That way lies disaster,” but as I was about to say that I realized that there would quickly come a time in my life when I would not be able to do such a thing, this opportunity wouldn’t come my way twice necessarily. I didn’t want to be the guy who looks back and says, “I could have done that.” I wanted to be able to say, “I did do it, and however it turned out, at least I did do it.” In life, I think we don’t regret the things we do, only the things we don’t do. So, that was my feeling, and I said, “Yes.” I jumped at it.
MR: Beautifully said. Now, the artists that you cover on this album are amazing–Leadbelly, Jelly Roll Morton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, so many more. How did you choose the songs?
HL: That, in a way, was the most enjoyable part. In collaboration with Joe Henry, my guide counselor–well, he’s my producer is what he is–he’s my Obi Wan. We spent months and months trading lists of hundreds of songs that we both loved, and that was really the best part of it. We were able to say, “You’ve never heard this…? You’ve got to hear this…” It was such a wonderful thing to share in someone else’s musical taste, and then share a combination of tastes. Gradually, we whittled those hundreds down to dozens, and from there we went in with about twenty and recorded almost all of them. A couple of them didn’t make it, but we’re keeping them in our hip pocket for next time.
MR: Very nice. And you’re aiming at a next time, aren’t you.
HL: Well, if someone will give me the nod, absolutely, I’ll jump at it. Of course, that’s for the great record buying public to decide, or the record downloading public, however it works out. Yeah, I would absolutely love to do it again. It was the biggest thrill of my life, and this has always meant a lot to me, this music. It was an amazing experience.
MR: Hugh, I want to talk about some of the guests on Let Them Talk. You’ve got Dr. John on “After You’ve Gone,” for instance. Is he a pal, so you just picked up the phone and got him on the project?
HL: Um, he is not a pal…I wish he were a pal. We have a sort of connection. I’ve seen Dr. John many times, but I went to see him in London once, and I actually got to go backstage thanks to my very good friend, George Holland, who was playing with him at the time. It turned out that we actually had something in common. We’d both worked for the Walt Disney Corporation, we both worked on 101 Dalmatians. I was in the movie, and he did the “Cruella de Vil” song, and an absolutely brilliant version it was too. So, that was at least enough to get a conversation going. He’s a piano player I’ve worshipped since I was a kid. The first time I heard him I felt that this man just makes me melt with the way he touches a piano. But he doesn’t play on this, which was a tough thing to do. I’m not even sure if he’s ever done that on a record before–simply to act as a vocalist without playing. So, he stood behind me…I’d have loved to have had him in front of me, so I could see what he was thinking. The whole thing was so quick, like thirty or forty minutes maybe, and it was an amazing experience for me.
MR: You have a couple more guests including one of the most soulful singers ever, Irma Thomas. I’m so happy you got her.
HL: That was just an incredible thing. The Soul Queen of New Orleans, and just an amazing, wonderful, beautiful, regal presence. She was a complete delight. She’d known the producer, Joe Henry. She’d worked on a couple of things with him, so that, I suppose, was our first introduction, through Joe Henry. I just absolutely loved her. She was so generous, so patient with me, and just a complete delight to be with.
MR: She sings on “John Henry” with you, but she also sings on “Baby, Please Make A Change,” which also features Sir Tom Jones.
HL: Sir Tom Jones, exactly. We didn’t actually refer to him as Sir Tom–perhaps we should have done. He was very easy going, and the man is a complete gentleman. He came and sort of blasted the paint off the walls. The power of the man is absolutely undimmed. In fact, if anything, he’s probably in better voice than he’s ever been at any time in his life, and boy, that’s saying something. Again, he was such a generous, gentle presence, and such a lovely man to spend time with.
MR: Yeah, I got to interview him for his Gospel album. He’s an amazing man, and there’s a really good mind in there too.
HL: Yeah, absolutely. I just feel so blessed.
MR: Before we leave the topic of you sharing talents with people, you also have Allen Toussaint, who did the horn arrangements. What a cool regional package this is.
HL: Extraordinary. Absolutely extraordinary. I couldn’t believe it. One of the reasons that I wound up in collaboration with Joe Henry was that I actually met him while he was making a record with Allen and Elvis Costello called, The River In Reverse, which I love. It’s one of my favorite albums of the last decade, and I was lucky enough to be in the control room while they were recording, and then I met Allen. He and Joe go back quite a long way. They have a really good relationship, and Joe sent him a couple of tracks and said, “Are you interested?” I said, “This is crazy. Not in a million years is he going to say yes to this.” But to my amazement, he did. He has a unique flavor and his arrangements are like nobody else’s. He finds such unusual colors and shapes of things. I worship the guy, I worship him.
MR: Yeah, he comes from pure feel, doesn’t he?
MR: I mentioned earlier some of the artists that you’re covering on this album like Leadbelly and Jelly Roll Morton, but there are also Robert Johnson, Louis Armstrong…are any of these artists particularly dearer to you than others?
HL: Well, I think they all are dear to my heart, but for very different reasons. They all come from different times in my life, different experiences, and different phases of my life. It would be so hard for me to pick one above all others because that’s why they’re there, because I love them all. I could listen to Jelly Roll Morton at any time of the day or night. There was an extraordinary feel for the song and the piano, and I just love everything he does.
MR: Fats Waller is another artist you cover, and I’m afraid that Fats Waller is among a group of musicians that is fading from the public’s consciousness, unless you’re well studied in his genre of jazz. This might be because the brain can only hold so much information, and, obviously, there’s so much American Idol to be watching.
HL: (laughs) That’s so true. We have many pressures on our time.
MR: I guess my question is, did you feel while you were making this album that you were doing a bit of preservation?
HL: Well, I don’t sort of feel a responsibility to be a museum curator or archivist. The most important thing to me is that these songs are alive, and as alive as if they were written an hour ago. I don’t have a particular sense of them belonging only in cabinets somewhere. To me, they’re completely fresh, completely new, and completely alive. I don’t really think of them as historical pieces. Now, that may be because we’re all in the thrall of the internet now, where we have all of human history laid out sort of horizontally rather than vertically. We can pick from ’31 or ’81 without even moving down a shelf. We have no sense of time, and in some ways, that’s peculiar, and it’s hard to imagine, in some ways, how culture is ever going to advance now because of that. There is a corresponding sense of freedom, though, that one is able to move through time and experience ideas, songs, sounds, and personalities from a hundred years that were just not available to us only a decade ago, really. This is all so new and so peculiar.
MR: True. How did you got into music.
HL: I was driven to music at the point of a sharp stick by my mother. A lot of parents have this idea that their children should learn an instrument, and I absolutely hated it when I was young. I hated classical music, and I hated piano lessons. I still can’t read music–I don’t say that with any pride, I just can’t. So, I left it alone for a long time, and then I suppose I must have heard someone like Otis Spann playing with Muddy Waters. I just thought, “Oh my God, I’d give anything to do that.” I just loved hearing it, but even more I wanted to be able to make that sound, and dive into that sound.
MR: And as far as singing?
HL: Singing is pretty new to me. I just closed my eyes and imagined that I was in my own bath. That’s something that was very new to me, and takes a lot of nerve. I mean, American Idol–I’ve got a lot of admiration for those guys, I really do.
MR: That brings us to do you have any advice for new artists?
HL: The only advice that I can give for this absurd entertainment business is completely useless, and that is to be lucky. I can’t think of any other way of doing it. Be lucky and be patient because you think that your life is being decided hour by hour, but in actual fact, things look very different a year later, they look very different a month later, and sometimes, they even look very different a week later. If you’re just patient and you hang in and plug away, things happen. I was lucky enough to have it happen to me, but I think patience is one of the most important qualities you can have in this business.
MR: Beautiful. While we’re talking about New Orleans, I don’t mean to put you on the spot, but what was your reaction to the disaster when it happened?
HL: Well, my reaction, I suspect, was no different than anyone else who looked with horror at these pictures and read with horror these stories of terrible suffering, and particularly the suffering that appeared to be avoidable. That was probably the most painful part, to see avoidable suffering. I don’t think I had a reaction that was any different from anybody else’s. I can’t claim to have known the city better than anyone else, but I certainly did love it. I have always loved that city, long before I went there even. To me, it was Jerusalem. It was, in my mind, as sort of this golden city, and that quality it still has. I suppose the nation, if not the world, as much as we could, felt their suffering and prayed for their survival. But if anyone is going to survive, I think they will, and they certainly have. It is a city of amazing spirit, vitality, courage, and it has all those good things that a city needs to thrive. It’s just brimming with those qualities.
MR: Yeah. You know, there’s a song by Randy Newman, “Louisiana 1927,” that already was so touching, but after the disaster, it became even more heart wrenching. The whole deal was just terrible. Remember when they were moving everyone into the stadium for safety how Barbara Bush remarked something like, “Oh, they’re living in better conditions than they lived in before.”
HL: Yes, yes that was unfortunate. That was unfortunate to put it mildly.
MR: Anyway, I would imagine you’ll be touring at some point, or at least playing some gigs. Do you think you’re going to kick it off in New Orleans?
HL: Well, we actually did play a gig with Irma, Tom, and Alan, but I would absolutely love to go back. I’ve just done a small number of dates in Europe because the record came out in Europe a few months ago and we played about a dozen dates over there. I just had the time of my life. Not only did I love it, I think we got better. By the end of it, I felt, “God, this is a pretty damn good show. I think I would enjoy watching this.” I hope the band felt the same way. We had a wonderful group of musicians and we had an absolute blast. It was a wonderful time, and a time that I would do anything to recreate over here.
MR: Nice. And of course, with Let Them Talk II you’ll be doing Chicago blues, right?
HL: That’s possible. I mean, Muddy Waters was one of the biggest figures in my life. Absolutely, electric Chicago blues would be fine with me.
MR: That would be great. I guess my final question would be, how does House feel about New Orleans blues?
HL: I think he would be a fan. He’s a man of eclectic tastes, and I think there’s something about the spirit of that city. It kept striking me that it’s a city that has looked death in the face on several occasions, and has found a way of getting by with humor, irony, and good feeling. I sometimes feel that in Los Angeles, everyone is absolutely terrified of death, but New Orleans just seems to have a more robust attitude, and I think House would enjoy that.
MR: Beautiful. This has been fabulous, and I really do appreciate your time. Congratulations on your album, Let Them Talk, it really was a terrific surprise.
HL: Well, thank you. I really appreciate that.
MR: Any time, and do come back for Let Them Talk II.
HL: Alright, I’d love to.