Track By Track: Jon Batiste ‘We Are’

Dean Budnick on May 6, 2021
Track By Track: Jon Batiste ‘We Are’

photo credit: Louis Browne

“There are three prongs to this album,” Jon Batiste says of his new record, We Are. “It’s autobiographical, but it’s also a time stamp of the culture of today as well as the heritage that this music comes from.”

Batiste began work on We Are in September 2019, balancing the songwriting process with his gig as the bandleader and musical director on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. He recalls, “It began in my dressing room at the Ed Sullivan Theater. I started to work with a singer[1]songwriter friend of mine, Autumn Rowe, and a producer who she introduced to me named Kizzo who’s from the Netherlands. We would have creative sessions going on at all times, with food deliveries and instruments coming in. We turned the dressing room into a studio for six days, after which I had a clear vision of what I wanted the album to be. Then I had these great demos that dressed up and cast this movie over the course of eight months from September 2019 to June 2020.”

The film metaphor is apt given’s Batiste role in the Disney/Pixar film Soul to which he contributed music (winning a Golden Globe and later an Oscar for Best Score) as well as his hands, which were used in the animation of the main character, a teacher with aspirations of becoming a full-time jazz pianist.

As for We Are, the recording process spanned an era that included the first wave of the pandemic as well as a series of peaceful protests that Batiste led in New York following the death of George Floyd. These events certainly informed the album, as Batiste observes, “How could they not? All of that is part of me, part of us. It was an eventful eight or nine months.”

He reinforced the autobiographical through line by incorporating the words and performances of friends and family members, including his father and grandfather, along with Mavis Staples, Zadie Smith, Trombone Shorty, PJ Morton, James Gadson, Steve Jordan, Robert Randolph, and the acclaimed St. Augustine High School Marching 100 from Batiste’s New Orleans high school.

Batiste also took particular care in sequencing We Are. He explains, “I refer to the album as a novel or a movie because it’s meant to be heard from top to bottom and absorbed in that way; although, it’s also meant to be cycled. So the way that the album unfolds, it’s like you’re watching something that brings you into a dimension you can revisit multiple times. However, it’s also meant to be experienced from beginning to end at least once. It optimizes the experience to listen to it with that consciousness.”

We Are

“We Are” captures the three prongs that are the basis of the album: the times that we’re in today, the heritage that all the music comes from and my personal narrative. It captures them both narratively and sonically. It’s a real multi-generational narrative[1]based sort of casting with my grandfather on the track, giving a sermon. The marching band on the track is my high-school marching band, which is also a school that a lot of my family went to before I was there. It’s a historically Black high school in New Orleans that produces a lot of very active alumni. My nephews, who are 5 and 11, are on the track as well. It’s kind of a disco meets marching band music meets gospel track that speaks to the scope of what I wanted to achieve in the album, which is the synthesis of narratives and the synthesis of different styles of music. The song captures all that in a way that, when we first made it, I knew it would be the opening track.

“We Are” really came together when Kizzo was experimenting with a sonic frequency. I walked out of the dressing room while he was doing this and, when I came back, the track had a completely different contour and feel. That’s when the whole scope of this track revealed itself to me and everything became complete in my mind. From that point on, I knew not only did it have to have a marching band, but it had to be the Saint Aug. Marching 100 and it had to be captured in New Orleans and it had to be all these things that it turned out to be.

Tell the Truth

“Tell the Truth” is another song that’s based on a narrative and also captures, sonically, the essence of the heritage from which a lot of my music comes. It was recorded at the legendary Sound City recording studios in one take, with the vocals and band all in the same room.

Narratively, the song is about advice that my dad gave me before I flew to New York City to move there at 17 years old. The sound reflects the music that he grew up listening to and playing when he was on the Chitlin’ circuit with King Floyd and all of these different soul and blues singers. That’s something that I wanted to encapsulate within the track, lyrically and sonically.

James Gadson is on the drums—an incredible living legend drummer that I’m always honored to play with. He’s from Louisiana and he played with Bill Withers on all the classics, he played with the Jackson 5 and numerous others. He’s just the real deal of that sound. James and I have been playing together for years but we’ve never documented it. So I wrote this song when I was headed to the recording session at Sound City. I wrote it in the car just after talking to my dad, and then also talking with James, who’s in the generation of my grandfather. James told me what it was like coming up to LA and becoming a session drummer, and all of the things that he had to go through. This was a different time and another world in terms of the music culture. It was normal for him, but he was telling me stories about it. And it all just evoked so much in my mind, going to the studio to record with him—this being our first time documenting our musical relationship. I wanted it to be the perfect record for him as well.

Cry

“Cry” is a song that relates to how we were feeling collectively in 2020 in this country and across the world. You could see that during the protests that I led back in May and June, and there were protests all around the world. These are things that I feel we have inherited. It’s a subconscious feeling of wanting to cry.

It’s the feeling that you’d get on some days when you’d be strolling down the sidewalk, or you’d just wake up and it would be an uneventful day and nothing bad would have happened per se but, all of a sudden, you’d have this overwhelming feeling of dread.

Sometimes you don’t know why, but all you want to do is cry. A lot of times, I’ve found it’s because of things that are in your heritage or things in the world or your community that you’ve inherited—just ways of being and thinking that have weighed on you without you even being conscious of them.

Sonically, it’s in this folk Americana, almost Southern-rock lens of sound that in my estimation is not attributed enough to the Black sharecroppers and family farmers who were also originators of this sound. I come from four generations of Black family farmers before my family migrated to Louisiana and began the musical lineage that it’s become. So I thought that this song is also a way of reclaiming that tradition, while also speaking to the subconscious inheritance of it.

I Need You

“I Need You” is sort of the other side of the coin of “Cry,” being a yin to its yang. “Cry” is the darker side of that inheritance and “I Need You” is the brighter side. I thought about the jitterbug, and the Lindy Hop of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s. And also that juke-joint Chitlin’-circuit vibe that you would hear Little Richard or Chuck Berry strike up and it would get people to dance. You hear that whole connection to that part of the lineage in rock[1]and-roll, rhythm[1]and-blues. It’s the Black social dance baseline.

I wanted to emphasize the connection to that part of the lineage, with the celebration and catharsis that comes with that sort of social event, and bring it into modern times. You can see that with the music video, where I’m in an art gallery and I’m looking at this image from the 1930/40s era; the people are getting down and they’re releasing all of this tension, and it’s a ritual of connection and love and celebration. Then the image comes to life and I’m doing the Lindy Hop dance mixed with a contemporary hip-hop kind of dance. And sonically, you’ve got the 808 hi-hats mixed with this bassline on the acoustic bass, and the piano playing this sort of juke-joint-shuffle feel. It’s a 12-bar blues, but it’s a pop song at the same time.

WHACHUTALKINBOUT

This one started in the studio. I was on the drums, and then I picked up the bass and the guitar. Then I went to the piano, and this feeling that I was going after by layering all those instruments was made manifest. I started to feel these words and this cadence starting to come out. It was a rapping or a shouting sort of cadence, and I had a vision of moving through life and career as a Black entertainer and a creator.

Every level of success is like a video game. You have an obstacle to overcome or some sort of level boss to master with all these different things that come your way. A lot of times, you just want to focus on the creativity and your art and your family, but then something presents itself. So you have to best it and move to the next level while you continue to create and build.

This vision all just happened in a couple hours. Once I had that rhythm and that sound and that story in my mind, I went in the booth and laid down each of the verses and the chorus. Then I wanted to add the video[1]game reference, the eight-bit thing in my mind that I was seeing. So I called my friend Pomo, who I met from working with Anderson .Paak and the late Mac Miller. I called Pomo and was like, “This is the perfect opportunity for us to collaborate.” So we met and he gave me something that I added to the middle, which is sort of the bridge that you hear. I guess the genre—if you wanted to call it something— would be punk video-game jazz, but I don’t even know what to call that genre. It’s just a vision.

Boyhood

“Boyhood” is the beginning of a three-part suite that becomes kind of the spine of the album. The first songs on the album leading up to “Boyhood” are these kinds of universal themes, even though they’re based on my personal narrative. But “Boyhood” is the first song that speaks directly to my experience, growing up in New Orleans and, sonically, what that sounded like. I wanted to capture elements of that from the perspective of having Troy—Trombone Shorty—who I grew up with, and PJ Morton, another St. Aug’s alum, playing together. We grew up in the same circles and having the sound of music that was on the radio at that time, which was a mix of bounce and hip-hop, blending with the jazz that we were studying.

I produced this with Jahaan Sweet. We met when he was 18 and I was like 22. He was just coming to Juilliard from Florida. He’s gone on to produce for Drake, Eminem and Kehlani. He’s done a lot of great stuff in that realm but, back then, he was just a Southern kid playing piano at Julliard. We met and we made beats in the dorm together. We both grew up in the South making beats, and I wanted to capture that feeling as well, sonically, while telling this story of what it was like growing up.

Movement 11’

The end of “Boyhood” brings us to “Movement 11’,” which is this transition from being this kid—making beats, playing the piano, learning songs, playing video games, playing basketball—to now. It starts when I’m 17 in New York, studying at Julliard in the conservatory environment, and it goes through all the different ways that life transitions you into adulthood.

This is the musical representation of that period of life for me. It’s got this classical feel obviously, but the way that we get into “Adulthood” both sonically and literally, is it kind of clicks in—in the same way that, in real life, you wake up one day and realize all of a sudden, ‘Man, I’m 33 years old. I’m an adult; I’ve matured in all these ways. Now I’m thinking about these different kinds of things. When did that happen? It seems like it just happens overnight. And, all of a sudden, it’s “Adulthood” and that’s the way that those tracks kind of lead into each other.

Adulthood

“Adulthood” is a song about relationships and family and how you’re dealing with and balancing all of that as an adult. That’s why those three songs are a suite because they connect and shift the tone of the record. By the time you get to “Adulthood,” the tone of the record is now in a different phase, similar to the way that your life shifts into a different phase.

So it’s a tonal allegory showing that “I’m an adult now.” It’s an amalgamation of the things that I experienced when I was a kid. I have the Hot 8 Brass Band here because having the brass band on “Boyhood” would have been too on the nose but, here, it represents the sweep of being an adult now and that becomes a celebration. It becomes the second-line of triumph, like we’ve experienced all of this and made it through. Life is beautiful. Let’s second line.

Mavis

I was speaking with Mavis [Staples] on the phone during the pandemic, which is something that we do in a social way, not for any sort of project. But she said something while I was figuring out a sequencing question. After “Adulthood,” I felt like I needed something to get us back into the album on the other side of that suite. She said a quote about freedom and I literally stopped her and asked her to repeat it. Then I asked if I could record her because that was what I needed, knowing that I wanted “Freedom” to be in the next run of tracks. It was in the back of my mind that I needed something and she happened to say the quote that’s on the album. It just clicked for me, and she was gracious enough to allow me to put it on the album.

Freedom

This is a mix of a social and sexual revolution song. A lot of times, when people think about Mavis or James Brown, they think about what these people are fighting for. Well, they’re also fighting for our liberation to be human and to relate to each other in our sexuality as well.

“When I move my body just like this/ I don’t know why/ But I feel like freedom.” It’s like when Elvis was shaking his hips on the Ed Sullivan Theater stage and people were flipping out. It’s just the whole aspect of fighting for people’s rights and their freedom, and not just so that we could drink out of the same water fountain or go to the same bathroom. It’s also so that we could love who we want and be how we want. Sexuality is such a big part of that. You see James Brown dancing in a certain way and it makes you want to be free, and it makes you open up your identity and not fit into the mold of what society wants to give you. Mavis is somebody who represented that, and all of the Freedom Fighters represented that. I wanted to make a song that explicitly speaks to the sexual and social revolution that happened through that music, and is still happening today.

Show Me the Way

“Show Me the Way” is a playlist song. It’s the way that you connect with other musicians or other creatives. You can sit down and have a conversation about “What do you want to listen to?” That’s also how you can connect with your significant other, or you’re trying to connect in the process of courtship, creating mixtapes and giving them to each other, which is something we did when I was a kid.

I put this song together with Zadie Smith singing because we would do that in a certain capacity during our pandemic jam sessions over Zoom. She’s a closet singer. She doesn’t let people know that she actually sings, but she does and I’d play a thing and we’d talk about records we were listening to. So that was also a slice of my life that I wanted to put in there. It’s a song where you can hear some music recommendations from me. That’s a great thing you can sometimes figure out in a song, where it can be narrative-driven and it can also be practical. [Laughs.]

Sing

“Sing” is the closing credits song of the album. Whenever I’m at a point where I feel like I’m thinking too much, I sing and I play. I think that really encapsulates the theme of catharsis that’s moving through the album— the theme of release and evolution. And when we’re talking about my personal story, the way that I’ve come into my own—from being an introvert and becoming a performer—it was by singing in front of people and not overthinking it. I believe a lot of folks can relate to that message, especially in these times where everything can get squirrely.

Until

“Until” brings you back to the beginning of the album. “Until” is sort of the answer to “We Are,” except it’s not an answer. Until could mean a lot of different things— “until what?” or “until who?” It’s really up to us. “Until” is a song that has hope in it, but it has nostalgia in it. It gives you this sort of closure to the experience, but it also doesn’t close the loop. You can decide what happens when you hear it—whether you want to delve back into the question of “We Are” and listen again, or you can decide, “I’m gonna let this process for a little bit.”

It was really hard to name this piece because I wanted it to be something that felt like it was vacillating every time you hear it. Sometimes you hear it and it could make you want to cry. Other times, it could soothe you. And “until” is a word that I feel changes from time to time, depending on what’s going on in your life.

“Sing” is a typical closer that leaves everybody on a positive note, but there’s more to be gained with this album if it leaves on that note of question.