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GoNOLA Jazz Fest Interview: John Michael Rouchell

In this Jazz Fest interview with John Michael Rouchell, the New Orleans musician discusses his new solo project and why Jazz Fest is so unique.

John Michael Rouchell is a New Orleans-based singer-songwriter and is founder of the band MyNameIsJohnMichael. Rouchell recently released tracks from his new solo project. John Michael discussed recording in Galactic’s studio, his love of Prince and what makes Jazz Fest so unique. See John Michael play at Jazz Fest on Saturday, April 27 on the Acura Stage at 12:15 p.m. Get to know some of the other awesome New Orleans artists playing this year in our other Jazz Fest Interviews and learn more about John Michael in his My New Orleans interview!

McClain: What made you decide to step back from the MyNameIsJohnMichael project?

new orleans musician
John Michael Rouchell

John Michael Rouchell: I wanted to do something brand new. It’s not so much a stepping away thing. I just wanted to do something different. It was a big band. It was that moment where what I was listening to and what I liked was different than what we were doing. I kind of just wanted to explore again and be a little freer to do different things. I wanted to explore and make mistakes. When I started MyNameIsJohnMichael, it was a web project. It was about trying different things. At some point, it became a thing. It kind of bothered me. I felt like I was writing within the constructs of something, rather than writing for myself, writing for what I wanted to do, recording for what I wanted to do. It felt like I was doing “a thing.”

M: Sure. Different songs and different sounds lend themselves to different situations.

JMR: Yeah, exactly. I was fortunate enough that the Galactic guys went out of town, went out on the road. I’ve been writing songs for them.

M: You wrote “Out in the Street” on their last album. That was great.

JMR: Thanks, I appreciate it. Cyril sang the crap out of it. It was a real honor.

M: That must have been something else, to hear one of your songs sung by one of the masters of New Orleans R&B.

JMR: Yeah. I’ve listened to that “Yellow Moon” record so much. Cyril’s voice is the first one that you hear on that record. It was really cool, knowing that he was going to sing it, kind of writing something for him. Galactic was cool enough to let me use their studio while they were gone, and the toys that were there and my toys. It was cool, man. I’m going to do three EPs this year. It was good to get in there and explore. I just called some people and did what it is I wanted to do at that point. As opposed to writing for a thing. It wasn’t applied science. It was just pure creativity. That felt really good. I’m lucky in that regard, that I could try something in it and feel really good about it. I didn’t fall back on the sameness of what I’d been doing. I love all those guys. They are tremendous. I wanted to explore something different.

M: Did you approach writing these songs differently?

JMR: Well, no, not really. It was just me sitting with a piano or a guitar. I got back to what I wanted to hear. It was nice. It wasn’t too different, I don’t think. It didn’t feel different. It was just fun. It was light and exploratory, rather than doing what I’d been doing. It was what I wanted to do.

M: Who have you been working with on this project?

JMR: My friend, Simon Lott, came and played some drums. He did a lot of drum programming. I talked him up a lot. My friend, Joe Dyson, came and played some drums. They are both great. Joe is just fabulous. We’d been talking about playing together for a long time. It felt really good. He’s a really great dude, an incredible talent. Simon was tremendous. He came in not knowing what the hell he was getting into. He just showed up and really performed. He did some really great things. My friend, Joe Shirley, came and played some of the more difficult key things I played the simpleton key stuff. I left the hard stuff for him.

M: He’s a beast on the keys.

JMR: He very much is. He’s a sweetheart. He’s a brilliant musician and arranger. He does a lot of film scoring. He’s really great with regard to arrangement stuff. He can really step back and look at something like that, as opposed to a guy sitting at an instrument and going, “Where do I fit in?” He can listen first, which is hard sometimes. I played damn near everything else. My friend, Chris, played some pedal steel on one tune. Ben Ellman played sax on one song, but otherwise, I played pretty much everything. I played bass, guitar, keys, sang harmonies. It was really nice to do things a different way. There’s no such thing as a mistake. It was just finding a universe and committing to it. I wanted to make the things that I really liked on my favorite records.

M: What have you been listening to lately?

JMR: I’ve always been an insane Prince fanatic, to a fault. He’s one of my heroes. The Berlin Bowie period. I really like “Heroes” and “Low.” Even into “Young Americans” before that and “Scary Monsters” after that. A lot of hip-hop too, because that’s what I grew up listening to. I didn’t grow up listening to rock music. The chopping up of drums came from hip-hop. Late-’70s Bowie and Prince, and hip-hop stuff. I’m really liking that Kendrick Lamar record and Frank Ocean, too. The things I really like, I just kind of wanted to do that.

jazz fest
MyNameIsJohnMichael performing at Jazz Fest 2012 (Photo courtesy of nojazzfest.com)

M: Are you going to be playing a lot of shows behind it?

JMR: We’re trying to make it something real. We’ve done a couple of shows, just small things, to figure out what we are doing. It starts with Jazz Fest. The live thing has always been more inherent to me than making records. I just trust that, you know?

M: Yeah. You guys know how to put on a good live show. It’s built into you.

JMR: I think that’s a very New Orleans thing, the entertainment thing.

M: If you’re from NOLA, you have to bring the heat live.

JMR: Yeah, I think so.

M: That will be fun, starting out at Jazz Fest. What do you love about Jazz Fest?

JMR: First and foremost, I’m thankful that they are letting me try something different. They are putting me on Acura, which is really sweet of them. That shows a lot of faith and love. It doesn’t go unnoticed by me. I really appreciate it. It’s kind of a perfect boiler plate of what it is to live in New Orleans, in a very condensed means. We’re going to put great food, sweatiness, good music and a laissez-faire attitude all in this one space for this high, condensed period of time. In a lot of ways, it’s good that they’ve done that. It feels like something that is very indigenous, but done on steroids.

M: They take all of this NOLAness and condense it down. They concentrate it.

JMR: Yeah. It’s like with soups, you can condense it down to the thickest consistency. It kind of feels like that. It’s just boiled down to exactly what it is, for better or worse, to live here. Places like Voodoo Fest are another side of it. It’s a different perspective, but it’s similar in that regard. BUKU is another side of New Orleans. I think what’s nice about New Orleans festivals is that they always have an indigenous nature to them.

M: Even if they have a different slant on top, the NOLAness is always there.

JMR: Yeah. BUKU feels, to me, like hanging out at the Dragon’s Den late at night and seeing Quickie Mart spin, on steroids. Voodoo Fest feels like being at One Eyed Jack’s on a Friday or Saturday night, done to the most. Jazz Fest feels like hanging out at Tipitina’s or the Maple Leaf. Those all feel like different sides of the same coin. I’ve always appreciated that. Essence feels like a completely other side. It’s like going to see Irma Thomas.

M: You feel like, between all of them, every side of NOLA is touched.

JMR: I dig that. I think that’s cool. Some festivals, it can be anywhere. It doesn’t matter.

M: I think Jazz Fest wrapping up so early in the day, that’s the indicator of “Get out there! Go around town.” If your festival is wrapping at 7 p.m., go home, power nap and then get out and smash it.

JMR: Yeah, absolutely. It’s advantageous to New Orleans as a whole.

M: It’s cool that they know how to tap into that fact that NOLA doesn’t stop.

JMR: It can be a sleepless venture. I’ve seen the sun come up out of many a venue during that time.

Check out the video for John Michael Rouchell’s new single “Holler” below!

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