September 21, 2013

An Interview with Allen Toussaint

Allen Toussaint is an American treasure. One of the seminal musical exponents of New Orleans, he has composed, produced, and arranged some of the most beloved and enduring music of the rock ‘n’ roll era, his works having been covered by the likes of the Rolling Stones, Glen Campbell, and Aaron Neville. In July of this year he received the National Medal of Arts, the highest civilian honor bestowed to artists and patrons of the arts. “It was absolutely wonderful,” says Toussaint, “just a highlight of my life.”

With his new live album, Songbook, Toussaint reclaims his classics. Recorded in 2009 at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan, his home away from home since Hurricane Katrina ravaged much of the Big Easy, he performs a solo set of his most definitive songs—“Southern Nights,” “Get Out My Life, Woman,” “Lipstick Traces,” among dozens of others—all along reflecting the enthusiasm that comes from a lifelong commitment to his craft.

It’s an apprenticeship that for Toussaint began as a young child when a piano was delivered to his family’s home for his older sister to play. He hasn’t stopped since.

Was there ever a moment early on where you said, “I’m not only intrigued by playing music but—all modesty aside—I’m talented?”

Well, I’ve never been vain enough to tell myself that, but I certainly fell in love immediately. As a kid coming up that’s all I ever thought about that I wanted to be—like, “What would you like to be when you grow up?”—I was already doing it. I was going to be with this piano from now on. I felt that throughout my life and I’m still as in love with it as I was when I got started.

So many people have dreams of being a professional musician, but they ultimately realize they don’t have what it takes to reach that level. But you’re good, and you had to have been good—or good enough—in the beginning so that you could continue getting better.

I always just worked diligently at learning new things because this music world is quite a journey. There’s always something new. There’s always a new melody [that] can come after all of these years. You still could write a new tune tomorrow. There’s always music to learn, exercises even to practice. So it’s quite a journey. It’s all about the journey itself. I didn’t really think or know where it would take me, but I do know as I live and breathe, I’ve wanted to be playing music and primarily the piano. And then of course I began writing and arranging and that was another marvelous aspect of the music that I dearly appreciate as well. So it has so many peripheral things in the whole music scene. It just offers so much, and I’m glad that I’m involved in most of it.

What informs your work ethic? You have such a meticulous approach to making music, using horns and strings, etc. It’s like an orchestral approach within a pop-music context.

Yes. Well, it all seems to be whatever the primary plot and subject and song calls for. If it calls for a simple rhythm section, that would be fine. But some songs, when you write them, they seem to have an invisible request that, “It takes more for this. It takes a good horn arrangement to go along with this.” I’m always very much ready for that because I love arranging as well. But, I must say, I don’t try to force what doesn’t fit at the moment, but I do love when a song requires something else added whether that be a full complement of strings or whether [what] it calls for is based on the guitar, I just love the whole thing. Each one is just as important and I consider it dearly and I approach it that way.

Considering that as an instrumentalist you’re primarily a piano player, is there ever a conflict in writing for other instruments on which you’re not as proficient?

That’s a good question, but no, I have no problem there because I love the possibilities that you have when you do what I do. You’re in charge of the whole orchestra, and so even if you don’t play the guitar you can write what you want to hear a guitar play. Like when I'm writing for horns, I don’t play all of those horns but I know what I want to hear them do. No, my piano playing is something that I love dearly—it’s a personal thing—and I’ll probably play the piano part whenever necessary on the tune I’m doing, but when I’m writing any of the other instruments I hear them for who they are and the sound that they have and what they bring to the table and the spirit of it.

One of my favorite songs of yours is “Back in Baby’s Arms.” Did you write that for yourself or for another artist to cut originally?

That was written for me. I wrote that for myself, which is not done a whole lot because I love writing for other artists because I’m inspired by other voices more than I am by my own. But that was for me to sing and no one else. I remember Glen Campbell, when I’d see him at concerts backstage, he is the only other person I’ve heard who’s mentioned that song. You and Glen Campbell, thank you. Thank both of you.

This new album, Songbook, invites some retrospection as its songs have been a part of your life for many years. Are you ever struck by the craftsmanship you displayed on the originals? Are you ever taken by how well they’ve held up over the years?

Well, I’m so glad that they did, but many times if I were to think of such I wouldn’t know why or I couldn’t explain it based on whether they were well-done or what about it; I’m just glad that it happens like that that I have songs that have withstood the time. But I’m always on the way somewhere else. Every day I live it just seems like just a few days later than when I got started. I’m always on the way to the next corner or the next bend or the next mountain.

And you still find the same joy in it as you always did?

Oh, yes indeed. It’s just wonderful that there’s always somewhere else to go musically and spiritually. The world is inspiring in the things you can see and the things you can’t see.