BluesWax Sittin’ In With
Jumpin’ Johnny Sansone
Story and Photo by Mark Goodman
Mark Goodman for BluesWax: In 2008 I was traveling with Tab Benoit for a story and he played at the Democratic National Convention Party. You were there with the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars. What was that like?
Johnny Sansone: Actually, we did the Democratic and Republic Conventions. That was an incredible show and an eye-opening event to take part in, especially the Democratic show. I mean… the people that they had made for an incredible lineup. One of the most beautiful things that I got to do was perform “Louisiana” with Randy Newman. We had Johnny Vidocovich on the drums, George Porter, Jr. on bass, and Anders Osborne on guitar. Waylon Thibodeaux was on fiddle and I played accordion. We got to do that song at the Democratic National Convention; it was special.
We had gone there as a delegation to make our presence known, to explain what we were trying to do. I don’t know how they made that happen. The guys that worked to put everybody’s schedules together, and put us all out on the road at the same time were absolutely amazing. I can’t imagine all the work that went into making it happen. And to be out there with all those guys, I mean, it must’ve been like traveling with the Johnny Otis Show. Oh yeah, and guys standing there with assault rifles pointed right at you when we arrived in Tab’s bus.
BW: Your latest release, The Lord Is Waiting And The Devil Is Too, is full of anguish and anger. Tell me about it.
JS: Well… I was going through a hard time with my wife, so the record is extremely personal. I think what happened was, I had been doing the Tuesday nights at Chickie Wah Wah’s (a club on Canal Street in New Orleans) with Anders Osborne and John Fohl (guitarist for Dr. John). It was kind of a songwriters day and we would bring fresh songs to play for the first time in front of people. It was always packed with those that wanted us to play a song so they could be the first to hear it.
At the time, I was in a fairly deep blues depression. I was carrying some anger and I was writing like that. Anders was so moved by what he was hearing that he went to Reuben Williams and said we need to record Johnny right now. We’ve got to get in the studio right now. I wasn’t prepared to sing these songs, and especially not prepared to record them. It was Anders and Reuben Williams that essentially dragged me out of my house and into the studio.
As we were recording the songs I said, “Anders, you have to let me know if there’s anything here that I shouldn’t be saying.” I needed someone to listen to the lyrics closely enough because I was pretty wounded and didn’t want to say anything that I would regret later. He said, “All I hear is you expressing your pain and passionately showing your soul.” So that’s how the session went down.
BW: I think it’s a powerful record and apparently the nominators for the Blues Music Awards think so, too.
JS: That completely blindsided me. I was hoping that maybe I would be nominated for Player of the Year. This was my first all-harmonica record and I thought maybe there’s a chance that I would get nominated for player of the year or something. I thought maybe there’s a possibility, you know. And it’s funny that was the one thing I didn’t get nominated for. I was shocked when I got all those nominations, completely shocked, you know. I didn’t expect that at all.
I owe so much to Anders [Osborne] because he had the vision for the record. I wrote the songs but it was his idea to go in there with Stanton Moore and those guys. I mean, they essentially did all of the arranging, or almost all of the arranging. And it was Anders’ concept to go without a bass, just drums, guitar, and me. It’s kind of like a Hound Dog Taylor thing, or maybe Black Keys, something like that.
Interestingly, one of the things about this record that I was concerned with, and I don’t know how many people realize this, but Anders didn’t want to put any solos on it. He said, “This is your record. You’re going to play the solos. It’s going to be focused on you. I told him I wasn’t sure people would buy a record that only had harmonica solos. I mean, every song has got harmonica on it. He said, “Trust me! Just play your heart and trust me.” And he was right. I mean, maybe some people were missing guitar solos, and I would’ve loved it if Anders would’ve played some, but this is the way he saw it.
I produced most of my other records, and he co-produced Poor Man’s Paradise, but I had pretty much had the last call on how those records came out. On this one, I just handed everything over to Anders. I just put all my trust in him, and he knocked it out of the park for me.
BW: Do you find it easier, as a musician, to let someone else take the reins in the studio and just focus on playing?
JS: That’s not a question I can easily answer. When I went into the studio to do The Lord is Waiting, I was kind of in another world. I wasn’t sure what was happening and I just set up my stuff and played; I didn’t second guess anything. I just went and did it. I’ve never made a record like that before. I usually have everything worked out, you know, write a song, might make a couple changes, we rehearse everything. This record was done in one day and night. We just went in and played.
Actually, I could see the energy that these guys had. It was like every time a note was played it was with one hundred percent passion. There was no, “let’s go over the song and see how it sounds.” We just went in there and just nailed everything to the wall. It was a session like I’ve never been on before.
I went over to Dockside [Studios] to just hang around and see if I could be any help to those guys. It was incredible to watch. Anders walked in and he played songs that he’d never done, just nailed them. I mean there was no reason to try and do it again. It’s was one take: Bam! I wish people could see how it’s done. You don’t have to look back; you don’t have to do it again. It was really inspiring.
You know, you see bands do twenty-five takes, you know. They just kept doing it over until it was right. But who’s to say what’s right, you know? I think a lot of musicians would agree with me that you can do as many takes as you want, and usually the first couple takes are gonna be the best.
I was in the studio with The Voice of The Wetlands and we stopped in the middle of a song. Dr. John said, “What’d you stop for?” I don’t remember who it was, but they said there was a glitch or something. Dr. John was like, “Man, sometimes those glitches are the best part. Just let it roll.”
You always looked for mistakes but sometimes they end up making the cut. You know, you’re playing and something happens that you don’t expect. It’s not the way you rehearsed it but the passion of the moment.
BW: What’s next?
JS: Well, I’m at the stage of my career where I’m ready to get out and play. The way I feel today, I would like to play every night until the last night I’m alive. I realize it’s a young man’s game to be out on the road, it’s hard travel. The last ten years or more, I’ve been doing more European tours. They seem to be a lot more doable financially. It’s a whole new game from when I used to tour in the 1980s. I mean, everything is just so hard. You used to call up a guy and say we’re coming out there and he’d say great, let’s do a show. Now you have to go through eighteen people and send eighteen demos just to get considered.
It’s a different world today and it’s been difficult for me to keep the band together and make enough money to have the kind of players that I want and still be able to get out and tour. It’s too difficult. I think things are gonna get a lot better now, and I’m gonna start being able to get out on the road more. It’s been interesting for me to be in front of people that say, “Wow, I didn’t know you sang, or didn’t know you played accordion.” They’ve seen me as a sideman playing with Tab, or any number of people. They didn’t realize I actually have a career that started long before most of these guys were even out on the road.
It was more lucrative for me to stay in New Orleans, especially before all this Enron bullshit happened. You know, there was a lot of corporate money, and those were great gigs. One corporate party would pay you the same amount you’d make touring blues bars out on the road for a week. You could make your money in a few hours, so it was a smarter thing to do. After they got caught wasting all the investors’ money, they just hired solo jazz players.
BW: It took a long time before you would grant me this interview. Why?
JS: [Laughing] You really want me to talk about that?
BW: Well, I was gonna see if you would. They are the competition, you know!
JS: Well… there was an interview done and…. how do I put this? There was an interview done in another publication where at the end of the interview I said, “I look forward to seeing you when you come down to New Orleans for Jazz Fest. I look forward to seeing everybody. Come and say hello.”
Well, the people that did the interview with listed my phone number at the end of the article. I had people calling me and asking what restaurants to go to, where could we meet for drinks, and could I pick them up at the airport. I don’t know how that happened, but yeah, it’s probably not a good idea to give your phone number out in an interview.
BW: I promise not to do that!
While a lot of New Orleans musicians stay close to home because of the cost to tour, Johnny Sansone has been venturing out more and more. With his membership in The Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars, and guest appearances with The Royal Southern Brotherhood, he has been on the road more and more. His latest release is a powerful look at a tortured soul releasing its pain through music. If you’ve never seen a live performance of “The Lord is Waiting,” be prepared. You just might catch a little glimpse of that Devil!
Mark Goodman is a contributing editor at BluesWax.
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