I’d never been to Louisiana, never seen New Orleans, never been out on the Bayou. It was May of 2021 and here I was driving in the middle of the night to a town called Breaux Bridge, out past Baton Rouge, deep in the middle of rural Louisiana farmlands—what they call “Cajun country.” I arrived at a big, rundown house and was greeted by Mark, the producer of my new record (released Feb 11 2022 on Dream Puppy Records). We had only communicated by email and text up til this point and now here he was—grinning, talking a mile-a-minute, introducing me to the semi-stray cats, describing the armadillos that would come around if he left the cat food out over night in the garage: “nasty fuckers.”
Listen to the album while reading the text.
I surveyed the place. The control room was awe-inspiring: high ceilings, sweet guitars, ancient drum machines, one of those old school mixing boards, stuffed animals used as sound dampeners, everywhere the colorful bric-a-brac accumulated by someone who’s been making records for 50 years. The laundry room was an isolation booth for two different guitar amps (legendary Nola and NYC gig posters papering the walls). Just outside of that was a room with patchy linoleum flooring, a makeshift vocal booth with a window facing the control room. A long narrow—and somewhat grimy—kitchen led into the rest of the house and the living room contained a baby grand piano and a drum kit once belonging to Alex Chilton, set up in front of an unused fireplace. Jerry Lewis and Ralph Records posters were hung crooked on the walls. I needed to crash. I knew I wouldn’t be sleeping much on this trip. I get too excited when I’m in the studio recording my music and this was going to be days and days of it in a row—an extravagance I’d never afforded myself or my songs.
The next morning I met Chris, the soft-spoken engineer who’d be working tirelessly at the mixing board for us all week. And soon the musicians who would be shaping the songs in the studio with me started rolling in: Bryan, then Kirkland, then Tif. I liked them all right away. And we had real musical chemistry. We sat together in the control room and I’d play one of my songs on my unplugged guitar and, right away, they’d get ideas for how to shape the groove, thinking up parts that fit in and around my guitar and vocals seamlessly. The song we started with was “Life Our Own Way,” which wound up being the album’s title track. I had been waffling on whether to sing this song on my own or whether it should be a duet. After we got the drum, bass, and basic guitar parts down, I felt clear. So I asked Tif if she’d sing it with me. “Sure, let me get some tea.”
We got into the vocal room, facing each other behind our mics, and we both began singing the words I wrote, “Something happens between the hours of midnight and dawn. A deeper frequency no one but me and she can be on.” I coached her through some of the trickier melodies and rhythms, but clarified, “I want you to make it your own. I don’t want to be too dictatorial or control what you do.” She looked at me blankly. “That’s literally impossible. That would never happen, even if you wanted it to.” That answer thrilled me. A friendship was born on the spot. Who was this woman? Over the coming days, I’d find out. We’d wind up staying up late, playing each other songs and telling pieces of our life stories (she grew up the daughter of two pastors in a Christian cult and had a fairly insane life on the way to a brush with indie pop stardom in her 20s).
Tif wound up rescuing a stray kitten with a lame paw who was trapped under Mark’s porch and I caught some of their first moments together on video. We did some vocal sessions in New Orleans at Marigny Studios where she works as an engineer, joined by her best friend (and “Jelly Sisters” bandmate) Julie Odell and local legend “folk rock diva” Lilli Lewis. Having the three of them sing backing vocals on my songs really elevated them into the stratosphere.
But I think the most memorable part of that week was getting a window into Tif’s life as a working New Orleans musician. Meeting her and Julie at a local dive bar, hearing gossip and stories about the bartender and the various patrons—the coke dealer hanging at the bar with his two teenage daughters, the gypsy jazz guitarist who called the bar his “office,” all the joyful, sad, salty regulars. We fed coins into the jukebox, shot bad pool, laughed til our stomachs hurt. Later I’d meet them at their gigs, Tif on drums with a country blues quintet in the French Quarter one night, then the next night in Freret, backing Julie and her band with vocals and shakers. I felt like I had a guide to the Underworld and I didn’t want to leave. By chance, the rain came and my flight was delayed and then canceled two nights in a row so I got my wish. I checked out of my AirbnB and stayed with Bryan at Pogues-founding member Spider Stacy’s house. (That place was really fucking rock n roll). When I wasn’t hanging out in this new city that I now loved, I was writing new songs and demoing them in Spider’s living room. When I finally left to return to my life in Queens, I brought back a half dozen new tunes with me. The music had seeped in through my pores. I was full.
It was tough landing back in my real life—my two teenage kids struggling with the effects of a year of “home schooling” which sapped their souls and leveled their social lives, and my wife who had been holding down the fort so I could go on this musical adventure, now completely depleted and ready to collapse. It took about a month to find my footing. And I spent the next four months working on an animated music video for “Life Our Own Way.” I obsessively drew over a thousand drawings to make it come to life. It was a good place to channel all the joy and longing and energy crackling inside me. When you make a song in the studio, you’re trying to capture lightning in a bottle—a moment, a document of a performance, a story. I’m so glad I have this song and this video to remind me of where I’ve been and what I’ve seen, a memento for that specific week and how I felt when I first met my new friend.