Ingrid Lucia takes a beat from music and motherhood during a rainy Friday lunch at a Mid City taqueria. It’s been almost two years since the New Orleans songstress lost her father, William David “Poppa Neutrino” Pearlman, at the age of 77, and she’s still processing the “wake-up moment” of his passing. “I guess it’s like, if you’re gonna be here, then why not make it a fun vacation?” she muses.
Poppa’s — and by extension, Lucia’s — “vacation” has been well documented in the national media, from a 2005 New Yorker article and book-length “account” two years later (The Happiest Man in the World) to a 2009 documentary (Random Lunacy) culled from interviews and thousands of hours of videotape shot by the prolific family patriarch, who would mail cassettes to friends around the country.
“There’s a bunch of stuff in our attic I haven’t even been through,” shares Lucia, 42, who after a life spent performing for audiences the globe over with family band The Flying Neutrinos, settled in New Orleans in 1999. “He really would come up with all of these crazy story ideas, so a lot of the tapes had to do with partially finished projects like taking the family dog on a raft across the country, a project he wanted to sell to Disney… It was all of these random [ideas], they don’t make sense on their own.”
Now the married mom of 11-year-old Ava — “she is such a much better singer than I am,” Lucia says — is moving forward with her ninth studio release, Living the Life, and more immediately, a Voodoo Music Experience date with the ladies of Ingrid Lucia Presents New Orleans Female Vocalists, a 19-track compilation disc that debuted in May.
There’s also a crunk-worthy new Saints anthem geared toward the girls (“Ladies Football Nation,” or “NFL backwards” as she explains); signing with Kermit Ruffins’ management; personal memoirs; her production efforts for musical colleagues; a handful of local shows monthly and plans for a tour; growing and marketing a recording catalogue; and an ear toward the next compilation.
Or to hear Lucia tell it, she’s very much her father’s daughter.
Chapter One: Boot Camp and Disneyland
Lucia was one of six siblings — including “adopted, step, half” — and the oldest of the group that traveled (she had a sister, Mandy, 13 years her senior). Though born in San Francisco, Lucia moved to New Orleans with Poppa Neutrino and his second wife, Lucia’s mother Maxine, when she was about 2. “They pretty much used this as a central place to come and go from,” she explains. “Go to Mexico, come back to New Orleans; go to California, come back to New Orleans; go to Russia, come back to New Orleans. So even though we had a kind of gypsy existence, we pretty much spent about five-six months out of the year here every year.”
She was a dancer first. “I was about 4,” Lucia says. “I have a picture of me and my dad and we were doing the jazz hands and he’s got the straw hat and I’m wearing this crazy outfit, and somehow that was always our thing together, to perform and make people laugh … and I think part of this idea for the family band was, ‘Let’s do something to create a vehicle so that Ingrid and [brother] Todd could use their talents and let’s keep all the kids together.’”
She adds of her father, “Of course he was the biggest ham of all. He was the one playing the mannequin leg with a high heel and a drum stick on Jackson Square, and he was the one with the megaphone and the big white glasses or whatever, so it’s hard to keep up with that.”
Lucia was the oldest child to leave her father’s home on wheels, or water, or foot, depending on the day. She was 20, when she says “everybody else was out of there by 12 or 14. They’re thinking, ‘You know, well, I’m making a living playing on the streets, I don’t need you to tell me what to do,’ and my dad was like, ‘Good for you. If you have an eighth grade education [all the kids were homeschooled] and you can paint signs,’ which is how we kinda made money before the music, he’s like, ‘You have my blessing to go do whatever you want to do to pursue your dream.’”
Poppa called it “boot camp,” Lucia says. “All we wanted to do was be normal and his constant statement was, ‘I am gonna kick your ass until you get all the tools that you need to go off in life… I don’t want you looking back on your childhood and presume that you can go back to Disneyland like every other human being wishes they could be a child again. You’re gonna be so glad to get out there and be living like Disneyland in your adult life.”
Looking back, Lucia concedes of the literally sink-or-swim experience, “We had a great childhood and I wouldn’t change it, but it wasn’t a fun childhood.” Throughout the years, her younger siblings came to Lucia one by one, staying with her during her time in New York. Today, they’ve all “kinda streamlined out to the world, left the crazy circus, and live conservative lives now.”
“I think every child has this kind of dream state, at a certain point they usually lose it, they become jaded, they become trapped, but the people that don’t lose it seem crazy,” she adds. “Everybody thought my dad was somewhat crazy at the end but he was still the dreamer, everything was wonderful, everything can be wonderful…” she trails off.
“I started writing kind of memoirs and I’m so happy that I did this,” Lucia says. “I read a couple of the chapters to my dad right before he passed and he was laughing his head off and he said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t let anybody read that until it’s time to go to print and you have an editor come in because the imagery that you’re creating is so crazy.’
Because I mean, we would be traveling in a truck and there were chairs in the truck but there were no seatbelts, but he was so safety conscious that he would put ropes around our waist, so we’d be tied to the wall with these chairs, and we’d never think there was anything weird about it.”
Poppa Neutrino died of congestive heart failure on January 23, 2011 in New Orleans. “It was a three-ring circus even to the very end,” Lucia recalls. “The last day before he went into the hospital it was just this frantic, ‘What’s missing, why aren’t we hitting the big time? Maybe it’s YouTube…’ And I was like, ‘Can you just calm down? You’re sick.’”
She adds matter-of-factly, “I admire that, but you have to finish stuff, too.”
He wasn’t always The Happiest Man in the World, either. “My dad was a really mad person for a really long time and when he was this warrior, he would scream where your hair would fly back,” Lucia shares rather quietly. “But he really worked on himself, to not be expectant or frustrated about other people but to be able to walk away and be independent.”
It is clear his daughter has taken a similarly inward path upon his passing.
Chapter Two: The Crossroads of Community
Poppa’s death was not the first crossroads for Lucia.
There was not one but three ill-fated record deals in New York that festered in the mid-to-late ‘90s, before Lucia — a self-admittedly “impatient person” — took it as a cue to return to New Orleans, and be “a master of my own destiny.”
“I said to myself, ‘I’m either gonna quit playing music or do something else or I’m gonna go back to New Orleans and play with people who really enjoy playing, who really made me feel like I was free and I was happy and I was having fun, and that’s the type of person I want to play with.”
There was Katrina. Lucia had just returned from a European tour and didn’t even have a chance to unpack her suitcase before leaving town with husband Dwight and daughter Ava — ball gowns and “no realistic things” in tow — the day after she got back. They relocated to Connecticut, where Dwight is from, for two months.
There were benchmarks of stability, too, the 2002 purchase of their home on Hennessey Street among them. “The most we ever had was the family van, our houseboat was maybe three months,” she says of Neutrino life. “Always trucks, always buses, always take a bus trip, take a train trip, take a walking trip, hitchhike, take a bike trip, take a roller skating trip — whatever it was, it was like, ‘If we haven’t [already] done this, this is the way we’re gonna do it.’
When [Dwight and I] bought this house, I bought it with an advance from one of the labels and as soon as I got that I felt this knot in my neck go away that had been there my whole life. It was realizing that whatever happened, at least I wouldn’t be homeless. Whether I have a career, whether I succeed, at least I know that there will always be a place to sleep… And I never even thought I would feel that way.”
But it was Poppa’s passing that informs the Lucia of today — the one she’ll take to the Voodoo stage October 27, with her collaborators on the New Orleans Female Vocalists anthology.
Lucia says the loss of her father sent her into complete shock, physical sickness, and psychological confusion. It also forced a word she returns to throughout the conversation, “proactive.” She explains: “I was in my head all the time and I was just feeling really, really bad and thought, ‘Well, at a certain point, you know what, you’re either gonna need to go get some help or you’re going to have to do something to change this.’”
Enter New Orleans chanteuse Sarah Quintana, who asked Lucia at a gig one night to produce her record — Lucia had eight studio efforts under her belt. A light went off, and she began approaching her sisters in song: Margie Perez, The Pfister Sisters, Aurora Nealand, Gal Holiday, Lena Prima, Meschiya Lake, Trish Boutte, Linnzi Zaorski, Kristen Diable, et al.
Lucia says she took a diversified approach from the start: “I reached out to people that I admired, and thought were talented, and who inspired me and also tried to make it well rounded with ages, with styles. I wanted people to get a sense that these people are writing their own material.”
The project became more than just about a mutual admiration society. “I always hang out with the guys, the guys are in my band, most people in business are guys,” Lucia explains. “I thought this would be a great opportunity to maybe learn something from other [female] singers and maybe support my community a little bit, and we can all help each other because we all have our own fan bases in all different parts of the world—and again not feeling like a frustrated victim.”
Each act selected three tracks from her respective work for inclusion, from which one tune was chosen. The song lineup is an unsurprisingly hyper-local affair — a torchy ballad here, a swinging boogie there, plaintive waltz or boozy hoochie-coochie blues. Lucia, who contributed strutting opener “Down Home,” “put a nice flow on it so there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end to the storytelling.”
The finished, remastered disc dropped a mere two months later, in April of this year and has “become its own creature,” she shares, referencing the Voodoo revue complete with choreography and a guest appearance by Irma Thomas. Lucia anticipates a second volume by next Jazz Fest.
The collaboration and the network it has fostered — each artist chipping in financially and on promotional duties — harken back to an openness instilled in Lucia as a Neutrino. “I think basically that our upbringing was so healthy but different, it was like we became family with people that weren’t really family and became unified with them because of common interests,” she says.
“And my dad, he always opened up a space for anybody to really come in and participate and I think that that mindset has always been with, especially, me because I think I’ve been more of my father’s daughter.”
Chapter Three: Living the Life after Loss
Along with the New Orleans Female Vocalists disc, Lucia plowed on with her ninth studio recording, Living the Life, an emotional, by turns mournful and triumphant audio narrative that finds her full circle post Poppa.
“This CD is kinda like my epiphany idea, because [with] all the recordings that I’ve done, it’s always been for the song or for the style,” she explains, “but this one is like a three-dimensional story. It’s about a journey of a lifetime.”
“Every life has that joyous Pollyanna moment of childhood and then the loss of that and then, if you’re lucky enough to fall in love, that kind of moment where you’re just wide-eyed at the universe,” she continues, “and then those heartbreak moments and the reality that life is gonna be over and saying goodbye. So I’m trying in my song choices to get that across as a whole experience.”
And an at times admittedly conflicting one. Lucia acknowledges she still struggles with what she refers to as the “suffocating” nature of stability. “When my dad passed, it was a lot of questions like, ‘What am I doing in this house? I grew up traveling and I just want to hit the road, you know?’” she says. “So there’s a lot of back and forth going on and I’m still trying to figure that out right now.”
“I think the death of my dad… it’s universally shocking to the point where you can’t really fight back or defend yourself, but it is what it is. You know, time to grow up a little bit.”
Lucia cites a conscientious recommitment to the now, both in the Crescent City and with her creative endeavors: “That’s one of the things people love about New Orleans is certain things don’t ever change, but that’s part of the suffocating factor, too, is that it has to change.”
“What I’m trying to do here is, you know, build it and they will come, like… have a house, have a compound, do a backyard bash, create vehicles that we can all work together with what we have and really make the best of my time.”
She turns introspective. “What kind of person do you want to be, what kind of image do you want to represent? And of course it’s for Ava but it’s also for — if there’s any legacy that we came from, it’s to be an example.”
Living the Life marks a step in that direction, according to Lucia: “I’ve always tried to pick players that know more than me so I can learn from them.” She credits her bandmates and “musical monsters” John Fohl (guitar/co-writer) and Roland Guerin (bass/co-writer), along with Mark Braud (trumpet), Mark Mullins (trombone), Jason Mingledorff (saxophone), Simon Lott (drums), Davell Crawford (organ and piano), the Craft brothers (strings), and Debbie Davis and Sinead Rudden on backing vocals for “supporting my songwriting and not laughing in my face, to really up the game for them. It’s exciting but terrifying, in a really good way.”
The album, set for release shortly after her Voodoo date, is all part of the next chapter for Lucia, who says she’s always considered herself an entertainer. “Even my dad was like, ‘You will never be a singer, you better stick with dancing,’ and I was like, ‘Oh yes, I will!’,” she recalls.
“Until you experience losing a parent, it’s hard to really understand how your whole world turns to this… nothing. I always said I would never ask what are we doing here. And now I’m questioning everything, there’s like this nothing and all of a sudden you have to make something out of it.”
She shares the story of the closing track on Living The Life, a cover called “I Wave Bye Bye. “I heard this in the studio when I was actually mixing Sarah Quintana’s CD and Allen Toussaint had covered it, and my engineer played it for me,” she says, “and all of a sudden I was falling down crying. I was like, ‘You have to let me cover that song.’ It’s a closing statement, it’s saying goodbye, and it’s knowing that everything’s finite.”
With every anecdote, it is obvious that Lucia is still grieving, still coming to terms with the remarkably true tall tale of her life (“My dad would be like, ‘I love the struggle!’ and I was like, ‘Shut up, I’m so tired of struggling,’ to the very end…”), and the normalcy of her present blessings (“We didn’t have doors, we didn’t have closets, we didn’t a bank account, we didn’t have a refrigerator—so what do you do with all this stuff when it is actually there?”). Still, she looks to the infinite possibility of what’s to come.
“It’s always been about the past story because it’s such a great story, but how do you do something great in the future?” she concludes. “When I used to dance, it was like freedom and my husband’s always like, ‘What do you keep talking about, freedom?’ and I was always like with my dad, ‘Why are you talking about freedom, just go be free?’
It’s not that hard but there’s that moment where you’re just so on fire and you’re so in this dream state that you’ve almost left your body, and it hasn’t happened for a really long time.”Ingrid Lucia presents the New Orleans Nightingales featuring Irma Thomas on the Preservation Hall Stage at 4:45 p.m. Saturday, October 27.