Jeremy Lyons on New Orleans, Boston & Learning to Love Both
Interview by Brittany Joy Cooper of PledgeMusic.com
When folk rocker Jeremy Lyons and his family evacuated their New Orleans home in the panic of Hurricane Katrina, they had no idea just how far from home they would end up and just how long they would stay. After relocating permanently to Boston, Lyons says it took years for him to finally adapt, to fit into a new culture and learn to make peace with his surroundings.
Now, almost a decade after that original move, he’s releasing a new album called “Make It Better,” which centers on that theme. We got to chat with him for a bit to hear more about his life in that decade, his musical loves and where to get the best fish and chips in Boston.
Q: A big theme on your campaign and your new record is the fact that you moved from New Orleans to Cambridge, Massachusetts after Hurricane Katrina. Can you tell us a bit about that move?
A: I lived in New Orleans from late ’92 till late August 2005. Katrina was headed straight for New Orleans. Saturday night, my (now ex-) wife, our daughter and I evacuated to Baton Rouge – about an hour drive – where we stayed with my grandmother and uncle. Sadly, both my grandma and uncle have since passed on. Baton Rouge got a lot of wind damage, but no flooding. The storm made landfall on Monday, August 29, and news trickled in slowly.
At first everyone said New Orleans had “dodged the bullet,” as the storm veered East at the last minute and did not directly hit our city. But Tuesday we learned of multiple levee breaches from the storm surge causing massive flooding and damage; much of New Orleans was in ruins, and it would be weeks before we’d be allowed to return. We made a quick decision to move to the Boston area, where my parents and other family members live.
On Wednesday or Thursday we waited on line for gas and drove to Atlanta, where my wife had family. We passed hundreds of felled trees in Mississippi and military convoys heading in the opposite direction. We booked flights for Valery and Luci, and I drove the old Suburban up North to meet them. By the time I got there, my daughter was already enrolled in school.
Thinking we might be stranded in Baton Rouge for a couple weeks, I had evacuated with enough musical equipment to be able to work. That was fortunate. I went back in October to salvage what was left in our apartment; at least three feet of water had sat in the house for weeks before it receded, and we lost a ton of stuff – instruments and equipment, personal effects, photographs and videos. But all-in-all we fared better than thousands of others, as we did not own our house, and we had a place to go with family and friends to help us.
My music career began in New Orleans, and when I left I wasn’t sure it would continue. A few people helped get the word out for me, and people across the music community around Boston and the Northeast were very generous with gigs and offers of help. I really can’t complain. But adjusting to the transition was difficult. I struggled with anger and depression for years after.
Q: How would you say your physical location affects the sounds and themes you try to capture on a record?
A: That’s a tricky one. I grew up with folk music in Central New York, so I sort of associate folk music with the Northeast. One of the things that struck me right off the bat when I moved was that crowds in New England tend to be a lot more reserved. New Orleans tends to be about the groove, the funk, horns, drums, parading, partying and so on. So on the one hand, it’s harder to get Northerners dancing and whooping it up, but on the other hand, people up here tend to listen quietly, so that gives you opportunities to pull off different kinds of stuff.
I had just finished a songwriter-type record before the move, so I had some good material for it. There’s also a taste for acoustic stringed instruments, with the long history of folk music in the Boston area, and the Irish thing as well. Some of the songs refer to the transition, about how Boston was kind of hard to adjust to, about a sense of being out of place. But I hope this new record represents how I’ve made peace with it. That’s why I call it “Make It Better” – I had to learn to make the best of it and appreciate where I am. And I really do. I like where I’m at now.
Q: Specifically, how is “Make It Better” different because you were living in New England rather than New Orleans when you completed it?
A: Most of my original songs on the record were written since the move. The record was recorded in New England and mixed and mastered in New Orleans, because I have people I like working with down there, and because I’ve made a conscious effort to keep some skin in the game.
The decision not to go back was the right one for my family, but to not be part of the rebuilding of the city I love broke my heart. So I like to spend money in New Orleans whenever I can, to sort of make up for it a little. But I also wanted the record to be a bit of a tribute to my new home; there are some great local musicians on this record who have influenced the sound.
Q: You say you’ve always wanted to make a folk record. What is it about that genre that appeals to you? What folk artists create music you love?
A: For some reason, even when I was playing in bands in New Orleans, I always pictured myself eventually touring solo, partly for economic reasons, partly for the romance of it, partly because I love the genre. People like Paul Geremia and Roy Book Binder – great acoustic blues guitar players who’ve been on the road for decades – I love that stuff.
My teacher when I was 19 was English guitarist Martin Simpson, who lived in my hometown of Ithaca, New York for a few years, and I loved seeing him playing solo best. I grew up listening to Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, Josh White, Woody and Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez. I love that stuff. And of course Dylan. And one of the guys who really inspired me since moving to New England is Spider John Koerner, who was an early influence on Dylan. Koerner crossed over from blues to folk and really puts his stamp on everything. He plays in the Boston area a couple times a year, and he’s a national treasure.
A few of the songs on the record were tunes I’d been playing for years but didn’t fit in with the music I was playing down South. In Ithaca I attended what’s now called the Lehman Alternative Community School, a tiny 6-12 school with Dave Lehman as the principal at the time. We’d have a fall retreat and end of the year camping trips and Dr. Dave and others would play guitars and we’d all sing songs by the campfire. Dave wrote “Do You Ever,” one of my favorite songs on the new album. And “Three Score and Ten,” another great song on the record, was written by my high school buddy Jeremy Strichartz when he was about 16.
Q: You’ve written and performed a good bit of children’s music in the past as well. How did you come to start writing in that genre? Do you find it’s a totally different outlet for you than your other work?
A: I don’t write much in the genre – I see it rather as an opportunity to introduce great old folk songs to kids. A friend of a friend owned Stellabella Toys in Cambridge. They have a singalong for kids every Saturday morning, and I got to sub for the regular singer a few times; when she left the job I got the call and I’ve been doing it for years now. At first it was just a chance to play, but the kids helped bring me out of my funk. The challenge has been to be a parent-friendly kids performer. I try not to get too corny or patronizing; I’m not trying to teach the kids anything or make it into a morality lesson or something.
Playing totally acoustic in the morning reminds me of when I played on the street in New Orleans. It is a pure experience – no microphones or amps. I throw in some obscure blues here or there. I started playing some ukulele on top of guitar and six-string banjo, and I’ve found kids to be a great audience. They’re kind of like little drunk people, but better behaved.
Sometimes I’m playing a song that’s 150 years old and I look at a kid and know I’m the first person they heard sing it. They may not remember me when they grow up, but they’ll remember the song, and I put it there. Now I’m appearing regularly at some pre-schools and libraries around the area, and it makes up a good portion of my living. When I play farmers markets I’m pretty good at sucking the kids in. We’re kind of on the same level. And it compliments the other gigs I do very well – I’d hate to do the same kind of thing all the time.
Q: For this new record, you’re inviting fans behind the scenes through a PledgeMusic campaign. What made you decide to take this route?
A: It took me a while to decide to try it, but I like PledgeMusic because the format’s designed specifically for music projects. I mostly like connecting with an audience from the stage, and I tend to be a bit reticent on social media, which can be a problem in this day and age. I usually assume nobody really cares much what I’m up to, but that’s a self-fulfilling kind of thing.
Running this campaign is helping me get better at communicating with the folks who support the music, and the feedback of seeing that people really are interested is a shot in the arm. The last record I made in New Orleans was not promoted at all, and by the time it came out I had already moved so it didn’t sell. If this campaign works out well I may try another one to put that one out on vinyl.
Q: What’s one dish you miss when you’re not in Massachusetts and one you miss when you’re not in New Orleans? Best spots to get each?
A: Ah, now we get to the important stuff!
There’s no particular Boston dish that’s become a staple for me, but they do have great fish and chips and Guinness at The Druid in Inman Square in Cambridge. When I lived in New Orleans I really missed the apples from the Northeast; they don’t have great apples down there, but you can get them at farmers markets up here.
I occasionally miss being able to get a good cup of seafood gumbo with okra at the Gumbo Shop, or a fried shrimp po-boy from Frady’s or The Parkway Tavern. And I love to go to Felix’s for a dozen raw oysters. But what I really miss in New Orleans is people on the street making eye contact and greeting you cheerfully. (“Hey, Baby!” “Where y’at?” “Alright.”) And there’s so much great music down there, it literally spills out onto the street.