The romantic mystique that surrounds New Orleans in literature, music, and pop culture has a way of making folks feel like they know the city, whether they’ve spent much time here or not. For some artistically inclined transplants, that can mean jumping in head first and missing out on key learning opportunities about what New Orleans culture is all about.
When singer and actress Grace Gibson moved to town after graduating from Berklee School of Music, however, the first thing she did was to quiet her voice, open her ears, and really observe the music scene.
“It allowed me to sit still and be inspired, not really be in the business of letting people know who I was or what I was about,” the 25-year-old said in August, reflecting on the experience via cell phone from Los Angeles, where she’d just wrapped a final recording of a session for “All Eyez on Me,” a forthcoming film about Tupac Shakur in which she plays Faith Evans.
“In a year or six months you can really see what’s needed and what’s present.”
Gibson, whose mother, “How To Get Away With Murder” star Lynn Whitfield, grew up in Baton Rouge, had a history with New Orleans, but she made no assumptions about what it meant to live and work here as an artist. Born in Los Angeles, she subsequently lived in regions as far-flung as New York, Europe, Washington, D.C. and Northern California, and hoped starting her career in New Orleans would allow a measure of artistic experimentation that might be less feasible elsewhere.
She also wanted to reestablish a connection with her mother’s family’s roots.
“One of the points I wanted to make was that the city embrace me and that I don’t go around claiming New Orleans without New Orleans claiming me. And so far, New Orleans has been claiming your girl,” she said with a laugh.
Despite the symbiosis, she feels she’s found some answers to the question of “what’s present and what’s needed” in the music scene here.
Acknowledging the “wealth of talent” on the streets and in the clubs, Gibson said “there’s not a lot of emphasis on truly giving people a fully well-rounded show” versus a performance that hinges simply on a set’s worth of “raw talent.”
Then there’s the question of getting musicians paid in a city famous for its brass band-led parades and buskers.
“What I saw was people were used to getting music for free, so much that they don’t even value it the way they should,” she said. “Many of the bars do not pay people the way they should be paid. Many of the people that come to hear music do not tip the musicians.”
She’s still figuring out how her own artistic experimentation, which currently revolves around delving into soulful blues and country music with an eye to rock, might be presented in such a way that could help bridge that gap.
Having grown up in a music family – her grandfather was a composer and a member of a black psych rock band called Black Blood – and studied performance for much of her life, Gibson approaches that goal from a holistic standpoint. She prides herself on her ability to play a role in every aspect of the creative process and is currently demo-ing her favorite songs, five at a time.
“[In New Orleans], I wanted the foundation of the blues, get to know it, fall in love with it, and then revamp and evolve a genre that is the basis for American music, so that’s what I’ve been doing,” she says. “Studying playing the blues, and then pimping it out.”
In the meantime, here’s a little glimpse, 20 Questions-style, of Gibson’s New Orleans.
1. Who is your favorite New Orleanian, dead or alive, real or imagined?
2. What first brought you to New Orleans?
My family and my roots.
3. In your opinion — what’s the best neighborhood in New Orleans?
Can’t pick one, if I was supposed to there wouldn’t be so many great neighborhoods with so many different appeals and vibes.
4. If it’s a beautiful day, where are you going to spend it?
On the levee in Holy Cross.
5. Describe the best meal you’ve eaten in New Orleans.
King crab legs from Cajun Seafood off of Claiborne Avenue.
6. Where’s your favorite brunch spot?
Love Fleur De Lis and Dooky Chase for their buffet!
7.What’s your favorite type of po-boy? Where do you get it?
I love po-boys from Verti Marte. I always get a BLT po-boy with fried shrimp … the bomb.
8. You’ve got friends visiting, and it’s their first time in New Orleans — where are you taking them?
Where am I not taking them is the question!
9. What’s your favorite neighborhood bar?
It used to be Verret’s on a Wednesday until the city stopped allowing live music there.
10. What is your favorite New Orleans cocktail, and where do you go to get it?
Robert at Galatoire’s 33 made me my own signature cocktail. Go there and order “The Grace”!
11. What’s your favorite dessert or sweet treat in the city?
Praline-filled beignets from Lorretta’s!
12. Best spot to see live music?
Verret’s on a Wednesday or One Eyed Jacks.
13. Favorite New Orleans musician or band?
Too many to count, but on the scene now I love Tank and the Bangas and Cool Nasty.
14. Favorite New Orleans festival?
[Too many to pick!]
15. What’s your ideal New Orleans date night?
One with minimal humidity.
16. What are your favorite local shops?
UAL, and I love thrifting all over the city.
17. What is your favorite New Orleans museum?
The New Orleans African American Museum. I wish that it wasn’t closed. It was amazing.
18. Where do you go to watch The Saints play?
19. Describe New Orleans in one word.
20. When was the last time you fell in love with New Orleans, and why?
I fall in love with New Orleans every day. When I wake up to the sound of live music from my bedroom window to when I go to sleep and hear the city still bustling until the sun comes up. New Orleans, its people, and its legacy are one of a kind and will always have my heart and loyalty.