I meet John Boutté outside at the Morning Call in City Park on a picturesque spring day. As we talk, he’s prone to laughing in his gravelly yet high-pitched voice over something that pops into his head, or following the band that’s set up outside with some humming or air-playing. Like the narrator in his “Treme Song,” the track from Jambalaya that reignited interest in his music both locally and worldwide after being used as the theme song of that HBO series, Boutté seems in his element outdoors, taking in the sights and sounds of everything around him.
You can catch Boutté and his band at their regular Saturday night gig at d.b.a., and he’s performing at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on Sat., April 27.
You live in the same neighborhood where you grew up. How has it changed?
I’m living next door to my childhood home, but I don’t know for how much longer. It’s a lot the same – in fact I can tell you they still have potholes on the street that were there pre-Katrina.
Abandoned buildings that were going for $5,000 are going for $50,000, and people are foolish enough to buy them. It’s all speculation, but I think there’s some good stuff going on in the neighborhood; there’s some revitalization.
I still love the neighborhood because I can sit in my backyard on a good day, in the fall, and hear the bands at Joseph S. Clark, (McDonogh) 35, St. Aug and John McDonogh; the cacophony of the sounds, just sitting in my backyard; the drumbeats, the horns in the distance. It just makes me smile because I was in a band since I was 8 years old. Was in all the marching bands in school until I had to grow up and go to college and put music on the side … “music, man. Get a real job!” People always say this, I think it’s so stupid: “You have to have something to fall back on.” If you’re falling back you’re heading in the wrong direction. Be like a fish, baby. Just keep moving forward like a shark. You can’t go back.
What was the “real” job you ended up getting?
I got a degree in business, I was an army commander in Korea … then I was a – oh gosh, I’ve had so many jobs – I worked as a janitor. My last 9-5 was as a banker. I was VP of a bank.
When did you take on music full time?
I think it was in (19)86 or ’87 … A friend of mine who I went to school with asked to borrow my GX7, which was an electric piano. Yamaha at that time was the thing. I knew he didn’t play it, and I said, “Man, this is no toy.” He said, “I know it’s no toy, just let me use it” and I said “sure.” He told me to bring it up to him, and I was like “Really? Ha, you’re kidding me.” He said “trust me, bring it to me.” I was really kind of pissed with him. But lo and behold it was for Stevie Wonder – I didn’t know that. Two days later he calls and says, “Come pick up your piano.” “Pick it up? Oh no, you gotta be kidding me. Really?” So I storm up there and went to bang on the door and I heard somebody playing the blues, and it was so distinctively Stevie’s style.
Go figure, because you think the blues is the blues is the blues, but no. Anyway, I spent a day with him and some other really beautiful people, and at the end of the day I asked him if he would take me on tour with him, because he said I have something special, that I had a signature voice – it was the first time I heard that term. In college, they put me in speech pathology classes because they didn’t like my voice. They thought I was faking this. For a long time I had a problem with hearing my own voice, but then I just got over it. But I could always sing.
Back to Stevie. When he told me I had a signature voice, I said “Take me with you.” I asked him three times, he said “Nope.” I said “Man, what do I have to do?” and he said, “Have patience and determination.”
After Stevie told me I could sing and I quit my banking job the next day. As I remember it, I had forgotten to shave and my boss came in and told me to go home and shave. I went home and basically called him back and said, “two weeks notice.”
On touring: When “Treme” came around, they couldn’t get me out of this city, man. They were so upset. So many rumors, you know. Oh, he’s afraid to fly. You name it, there was a litany of all kind of stuff as to why as wasn’t touring. I wasn’t touring because I didn’t have to. I wanted to sleep in my own bed. Besides, I toured before and after Katrina so much that I couldn’t catch my breath. While people were recovering, I’m on the road, trying to make a living, and I’m watching things pass me by – I was like oh hell no. Especially after 9/11, touring was no fun.
Too much security. Too much a hassle. Add a little fear factor in there. What used to be easy became extremely difficult, and not to mention when you start touring with a band … there’s just so much stuff, and it’s costly because if you got an extra bag they charge you. They didn’t make it easy, so like a good economist, I weighed the pros and cons and said you know what? I’m staying home to try to get my shit together here.
I got an audience here at home, which is amazing, man. Touched by TV. Or, we coined another term: touched by “Treme.” After that, everyone started coming here. … Though, I’m going on the road again this year, just to prove to guys that I’m not afraid to fly, etcetera, etcetera. So if any shit goes down, they’ll say “Ah! They pushed him out!” I’m doing Jazz Aspen Snowmass Festival in June with Trombone Shorty – I’m going to be his guest star. I’m going to a Helsinki Festival and Tonder Festival in Denmark in August.
What do you like to do besides music? I love fishing, golf. I love gardening – I kid you not. I like planting things and watching them grow. I like tending to them and nurturing them. I like golf because of the greenery and the big space and it’s an individual sport, so if you hit the ball wrong you got nobody to blame but you. I love fishing because you’re in the outdoors, and I love the water and getting up early and watching the sun rise and … that it brings you back to being less sophisticated. We’re so sophisticated now we just order the food. We’re lucky we don’t have someone spoon-feeding it to us. I love the fact that I have to go out there and the challenge of catching it, cleaning it, preparing it and eating is a whole day event.
I love riding my bike; lately I’ve gotten into walking again because walking is a man’s best medicine. I stopped walking and running when I got out of the military because I did so much of that. Walking and running and marching and left, right, left, right. I love cooking, too.
True confession: I always spit on a broom every time I use it. It’s a compulsive, crazy thing … I’m superstitious.
At a Glance
Born/raised: 7th Ward, New Orleans
Education: Graduated from Joseph S. Clark in 1976 and Xavier University of New Orleans in 1980 then was commissioned as an officer in The U.S. Army
Favorite movie: Babette’s Feast
Favorite TV shows: “Real Time With Bill Maher” and “The Lawrence Welk Show”
Favorite restaurants: Dooky Chase, Lucky Rooster and Café Degas
Favorite vacation spots: Waiheke Island, New Zealand; Vancouver and Northwest Canada