Calexico Found Truth in A New Orleans Church
These are among the key factors that caused Tucson-based Calexico chose New Orleans to write and record Algiers, their most recent full-length album: Cancer. Cuba. Children. A Cowsill. A church. And a book--with Calexico's guitarist/singer/songwriter Joey Burns, there is often a book.
"We needed to have some fresh perspectives, so John [Convertino, Calexico's drummer and fellow songwriter] and I went to New Orleans to see what kind of songs we could write", explains Burns, noting that they did not go into the studio with any material.
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Events since their 2008 Carried to Dust album and tour compelled the change. First there was Burns himself. "I became a father in 2011, and it was hard for me to devote 10 to 12 hours in the studio," he says. That same year, good friend and long-time producer Craig Schumacher, owner of Tucson's Wavelab Studios where the band records, was diagnosed with throat cancer.
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Before that, there was Cuba. In 2010 Burns and Convertino went to Havana to work with Spanish singer Amparo Sanchez, an artist they had met and backed while touring Europe in the early Aughts. "Walking around Havana, we couldn't help but feel this connection with the vibe and charm of New Orleans," Burns says.
Coincidently, while they prepping for the Cuba trip, Arizona friend and writer Charles Bowden had suggested taking a book -- The World That Made New Orleans, by Ted Sublette. According to Burns, "The book laid out how the connections between Haiti, Cuba and Africa all came together in New Orleans, and led to the birth of Jazz, with really great stories."
Recognizing the need for a galvanizing change of scene in 2012, the band decided that New Orleans was the place to try to write and record new material. As Burns recalls, "I wanted to see what was in left and in the air from that influence, and I went there with a poet's heart."
Tucson-based Burns, Convertino and Schmacher initially made the trip alone. Except for trumpeter and contributing songwriter Jacob Valenzuela, the other regular members of Calexico are scattered between Nashville (crack steel guitarist Paul Neihaus) and Europe (multi-instrumentalist Martin Wenk is German, as is bassist Volker).
They set up residency at The Living Room recording studio, a former church in the Algiers neighborhood. They remade acquaintances with local musician friends who all had stories to share about the city and the effects of Katrina. Among these was Susan Cowsill of The Cowsill's, which dates back to the '60s and served as the model for television's The Partridge Family. Susan, coincidently, is an Algiers resident who fled ahead of the storm. She lost most everything, and a brother who stayed behind drowned.
Steeped in the past and contemporary history of the city, Calexico set to the business of songwriting. As the songs started to form, they pulled Zander in from Berlin so that the rhythm tracks could be recorded. The dynamics of the church definitely influenced the playing.
Convertino, who is noted for his restraint in the studio -- instead focusing on atmosphere and interplay with the singer, stepped up. "John really dug in on songs like 'Para' and 'Epic' because he loved the way his drums resonated in that old church," says Burns. And for the first time, he made major lyrical contributions on "Para" and "The Vanishing Mind."
"John for the first time opened up his journals and wrote Para, a song so personal we weren't sure it should be on the album", reports Burns. The record label insisted on its inclusion, and it has become a fan favorite.
In just shy of two weeks, the songs were basically completed and they returned to the Tucson studio to flesh out the arrangements, pulling the other members in as needed, supplemented occasionally with parts "mailed" in by other contributors. And as on Carried To Dust, where he contributed "Inspiracion," trumpeter Valenzuela wrote an emotional love song, "No Te Vayas."
Burns now draws a number of parallels between Tucson and New Orleans. "There's a symbolic, antenna-like quality that a church has, especially in New Orleans steeped in the history of festivals and saints," explains Burns. "And Tucson is very much in parallel with that."
Perhaps that is why, despite the songs being written and the basic tracks recorded in New Orleans, Algiers retains signature Calexico sound and lyrical themes of struggle, migration and immigration. "Both cities have a perspective that looks to the Southern Hemisphere, with their arms opened to many cultures, steeped in celebration and spirituality", relates Burns. Those themes resonated with as much with him in New Orleans as they do in Tucson.
According to Burns, the album is translating beautifully to the stage. The touring band includes seven musicians, including pianist Sergio Mendoza. And the same elevated presence Convertino exhibited in the studio is on stage, with the drums set up in front on stage left instead of behind the band.
"If we stayed longer or had gone back to record more, maybe more of a New Orleans sound would have crept into the music", he admits. "But in the studio, you never know what you are going to get, and yeah, the intuition and taking the leap turned out great."
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