I've been fortunate enough in the past couple of years to have had the opportunity to interview a number of fascinating people involved in the creation of music or literature. In some cases it's been the very formal, "you've got twenty minutes to talk to X starting now ", and I've been forced to follow a script that promotes whatever it is the person has just released or is touring. Under those circumstances I count myself as being especially lucky if I can sneak in a question or two about what makes them tick and motivates them to do what it is they do.
I usually find those types of interviews fairly unsatisfactory as they really don't tell you anything about the person behind the mask of "musician" or "author". So I try to avoid that format whenever possible by sending the subject of the interview my questions through e-mail and letting them answer at their leisure. The result is usually detailed answers for me and for the interviewee the assurance that the chances of them being misquoted are kept to a minimum. (The obvious drawback is that I have to rely on subject of the interview to answer the questions and return them, but so far I'm only waiting on two individuals for responses, and they both have pretty good excuses.)
Of course there are exceptions to every rule and in this case it's been the two times I've interviewed Willy DeVille over the phone. Both times we've talked for two hours plus in what have turned out to be free ranging discussions covering everything from how he got into music, some of the people he's played with, and his experience at the Oscars. The last time we talked it was with instructions that we make certain to talk about his forthcoming mini tour of Europe (beginning in Belgium on February 13th/08) and his latest recording Pistola.
For reasons that continue to escape me Willy DeVille has never achieved the level of success in North America that he has obtained in Europe. He's not been without his moments in North America, what with being nominated for an Academy Award for his song "Storybook Love" from the movie The Princess Bride, but it's never approached the level of acclaim he's achieved over seas. In fact, although Pistola is being released in Europe on Tuesday February 5th/08, there are currently no plans for a North American release date at all, although you should be able to buy it through his web site at some point.
Whatever the reasons are for Pistola not being released over here, it's a real shame, because it's a perfect example of Willy DeVille diversity as a performer. As one would expect from the man with the self-professed love for old Rock 'n' Roll and the Blues the disc's opening song, "So Sir Real" is a Blues tinged Rock number. The play on words in the title becomes obvious when you listen to the song's lyrics as they are a commentary on how so much of what's happening today is simply beyond belief.
I don't know if this was deliberate or not, although I suspect it would be if Willy had anything to do with it, but Pistola is being released on the opening day of Mardi Gras in New Orleans is very appropriate. Willy lived off and on in New Orleans for a number of years, and has had a love affair with the music and the style of the city for ages. "Been There, Done That", the second cut on the disc, is his first nod in that musical direction. With its heavy bottom end it sounds somewhat like a reggae tune, but there is sharpness to the energy that distinguishes it from that more laid back sound.
The fifth song on the disc is Willy's tribute to New Orleans. "The Band Played On" opens with horns playing the familiar strains of a funeral parade as would be performed by one of the city's famous brass bands. From those beginnings one would expect that Willy is going to be singing about the demise of the city, and giving her the last rites. Yet even through the mournful sound of the horns, and in spite of his personal dismay at having seen places he knew and loved under water, he sees coming through the mists the spirit of the city rising. "New Orleans maybe on her knees" he sings, "but she will rise again".
It seems that Willy might have a point, because in spite of the politicians and developers who want to turn the city into a plastic imitation of her old self, grass roots fund-raising campaigns are doing their best to rebuild the city for the people who used to live there. New Orleans has a long history of going its own way, from long before she was even part of the United States, and just maybe there's enough of the old buccaneer spirit alive still to bring her up off her knees and escape the grasp of the greed heads and profiteers who seek to profit from the misfortune of others.
The one song on Pistola that's a cover is by a singer song writer named Paul Seibel who released two studio albums of beautiful country/folk back in the late sixties, Jack-Knife Gypsy and Woodsmoke & Oranges. "Louise" is the type of song that in the wrong hands could turn into sentimental garbage, but Willy's version is bang on. His rough-hewn voice adds just the right amount of character to the song to give it the harsh edge it needs for the emotion to be real instead of manipulated.
One of the most powerful songs on the record is actually one that he wrote back in 1980 when he was in Paris to record his album Le Chat Blue,"Stars That Speak". Instead of singing the lyrics, Willy recites them, as he would poetry, to the music. There's something incredibly haunting listening to him narrating the tale of an artist coming upon a piece of sculpture that he had made when he was a younger man. Choosing to recite the lyric instead of singing it, gives the piece the understatement it needs to be effective.
The final song on the disc is another recitation, but it's as different from the first as night from day. "Mountains Of Manhattan" opens with the haunting sounds of a Native American cedar flute played by Willy, which is joined by the sound of a drum throbbing a steady heartbeat sound like the big drum does at a Native Pow-Wow. In many ways this is probably the most personal song on the disc as it's Willy's first song that acknowledges his native ancestry. Like many people of his generation who are part Native it was considered a dirty secret by the family that needed to be hidden away.
The vision of Manhattan he offers as an urban forest emphasizes what was lost when a way of life and a people were eliminated by the coming of "civilization", as well as the sense of displacement felt by anybody who all of sudden discovers that they aren't who they've been told they are for years and years. It's a powerful piece, made all the more potent for it's highly personal nature, and Willy's ability to deliver it with honest passion.
Pistola is not the type of album you'd expect from as established a performer as Willy DeVille. Most people at his stage in their careers wouldn't be taking the risk of including pieces as unconventional as "Mountains Of Manhattan" and "Stars That Speak", but Willy has always marched to the beat of his own drummer. It's that willingness to take risks that keeps his music fresh and alive, and the ten songs on Pistola are no exception.
While ten doesn't sound like a lot of music in this digital age where CDs can be crammed with as many as twenty songs, it's a question of quality versus quantity. I know that I'd rather listen to these ten songs over twenty songs by most other people any day of the week.
(Originally posted February 2008)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.