Parting Shots: Aaron Neville

Mike Greenhaus on December 1, 2016

In honor of Aaron Neville’s 80 birthday on Sunday, we revisit this conversation from the time of his 75th birthday.

Though Aaron Neville has steadily recorded over the years, Apache is a welcome return to the classic R&B, soul and funk sounds that earned him a reputation as the sweetest voice in New Orleans’ first family. It also marks the first time that Neville has composed the majority of an album himself, co-writing with Rustic Overtones’ Dave Gutter and Soulive/Lettuce’s Eric Krasno, who served as Apache’s producer and contributed bass and guitar. Krasno stacked the sessions at Brooklyn, N.Y.’s Studio G with musicians from his inner circle, including his Lettuce bandmates Eric Bloom, Adam Deitch, Nigel Hall, Adam Smirnoff and yan Zoidis, Sharon Jones & The DapKings horn players Cochemea Gastelum and David Guy, Gregg Allman keyboardist and jam-scene mainstay Peter Levin and Deitch’s Break Science/Pretty Lights collaborator Borahm Lee.

Neville also recently celebrated two milestones— his 75th birthday and the 50th anniversary of his breakthrough song “Tell It Like It Is”—with a cross-generational show at New York’s Brooklyn Bowl that drew in his son Ivan as well as Krasno, Dr. John and The Meters’ George Porter Jr. “It was a homecoming; it was New Orleans,” Neville says. “Dr. John and I are the same age and grew up together. The first time I was ever in the studio, when I was 16, he asked me to sing backup vocals. And Ivan is one of a kind on the piano—he takes a little from my brother Art, a little from James Booker and is just a crackerjack musician.”

Neville has been on a steady writing kick since releasing a book of poetry, I Am a Song, in 2014, and that inspired process carried over into his new album. Two of Aaron’s new songs, “Orchid in the Storm” and “Sarah Ann,” are love letters to his photographer wife Sarah Ann Friedman, who met Aaron when she shot The Neville Brothers for People in 2008. “This is the first time I’ve used most of my own writing,” he says of the 10 Apache songs he wrote or co-wrote, after deep dives into doo-wop, gospel and more polished duets on his previous albums. “This is stuff I have been working on for a while.”

Apache marks the first time that you’ve released an album of your own compositions. Did your collection of poetry spur this creative output?

I write with my iPhone so I have hundreds of poems on there. I’m always writing, whether it’s for music or not—that’s how I get through tough times. But I have to be inspired by something to write and, lately, I have been inspired by what’s happening in the world. They say there is no global warming, but the seas are rising and the icecaps are melting. Look what just happened in Baton Rouge. Let’s pray that there is never another Katrina. New Orleans is a bowl surrounded by water on all sides.

Your new album is both a return to your funky, New Orleans roots and something of your “New York record,” crafted with the help of Eric Krasno and his collaborators. How did you enter their orbit?

I was hip to Soulive’s music— my son Ivan has played with them a lot—and hooked up with them at one of their jam sessions through Marc Allan, my manager. I started sending Eric and Dave some of my poetry, and they’d send me back some ideas. I’d tell them if I liked a groove or part of a song—say “yay” or “nay.” The Dap-Kings, Sharon Jones’ band, added a lot of fire to the pot, too. If you listen to Apache, you can’t really tell that those musicians aren’t from New Orleans. They have that feel.

The Neville Brothers reunited for a hometown concert around Jazz Fest last year. Are there any plans for more “farewell shows?”

We did the last Neville Brothers last year. I need time for myself now—that’s the bottom line for that. We did 40 years with the Brothers, and they were great years. I gave 300 percent every night, and now I have to give 300 percent to this. I have a long way to go and a short time to make it in—that makes it simple. I have to do some stuff before I get out of here—before the Lord comes and says, “Aaron, bring it up, son.” I want to do a blues album—I’ve never done one, but I used to do the blues all the time with The Hawketts in the ‘50s. I’ve been doing shows as a duo with a piano, and I’ve been doing quintet shows, with my brother Charles on saxophone, and I love both of them.

You were forced to flee New Orleans during Katrina. Did you ever plan to move back?

A lot of people couldn’t go back after Katrina because their places were completely destroyed. My house was destroyed, but I was, luckily, able to sell it. My wife Joel was dying of cancer at the time and she passed away in Nashville in ‘07. I’ve been in New York since I met Sarah. We have a farm in Pawling, N.Y. Sarah’s a great photographer but wanted to farm. I call her a “gangsta farmer.” She did the irrigation here and has all sorts of stuff growing. We have chickens. I don’t have neighbors that close, so I don’t bother nobody if I’m singing loud. I can hit whatever notes I want. The only ones that are gonna hear me are the chickens, and they don’t mind. It’s very peaceful. I call it Freville Farm.

Your longtime friend and collaborator Allen Toussaint passed away earlier this year. Do you remember your first encounter?

We went to school together— he was a couple of years ahead of me with Art and Charles— and we got together for the first time around 1960. He had The Flamingos with Snooks Eaglin, and we used to have a battle of the bands. We might be related, because he used to write under his mother’s maiden name, Naomi Neville. He wrote and recorded “Over You” for my first record. [Ed Note: Neville calls “Over You” the “OJ song” because of its subject matter. He wrote the single’s B side, “Every Day” while in jail.] It was a novelty song back in those days—you couldn’t play that music today. A couple of years ago, he took some of my poetry and put it to music which was nice. I’m thinking about trying to put that out with some overdubs for him. He played a big part in my life. He was a great guy and a great musician.