It’s a year later and the Neville Brothers still aren’t back in New Orleans. It seems hard to imagine because at least one member of the family has been a part of almost every major pop, funk, R&B and soul scene in the city since the early 1950s. The band has made the city a central part of its identity and the city has taken on some of the band’s identity. Although there’s no reason to think Cyril or Aaron will change their mind any time soon, it still seems strange that they’re not here and don’t have plans to return.
Aaron is, however, returning in sense; he has recorded a new solo album, Bring It On Home: the Soul Classics. On it, he sings some of the most famous soul tunes of the 1960s as standards, in a sense elevating them by treating them as art on par with the works of Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart and the like. He doesn’t radically reinterpret the songs, so Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” remains a song about dealing with how powerful an experience love can be, but Neville’s version of “Ain’t That Peculiar” is a little more serious than Marvin Gaye’s, emphasizing the pain Neville hears in the lyrics.
And he still has no plans to return, not only because he has concerns about his asthma, but because he doesn’t have a house he can live in and, he says, the levees still aren’t safe and he won’t put his family in harm’s way. “Where I’m at, we might have to dodge a tornado,” Neville says. “You can run but you can’t hide. New Orleans will always be in my heart, I love it to death. It will always be a part of me. That Mississippi River water runs through my blood.”
The new record sounds absolutely great. How’s your voice doing?
It’s hanging in. I’ve just got to get the proper rest. Recording this album was a trip, because I was coming off gigging with the Brothers, getting sick in between—asthma. But I say my prayers and the Lord brings me through. I’m ready for the release of the record; I mean, I’ve been singing these songs for years, most of them anyway.
Do you need a certain number of days rest between gigs?
The doctor had put me on bed rest after I got sick in Wichita, Kansas. We checked into this hotel, and they’d sprayed the hotel, I guess to cover up some kind of fungus that night, I don’t know. But that started it. The next night we played in Austin, Texas outside and it was windy and dusty, and the next night I started coughing. I couldn’t stop coughing and had to go to the emergency room. But things will trigger that asthma.
You know, I was born with it, and I was supposed to have outgrown it, but it came back at Jazz Fest 2004, really. We played Tipitina’s one night. It was hot and sticky, and there was smoke and everything you can think of in there. It was like being in a burning house, and every time I’d breathe, it went down my chest. The next day was outdoors and it was cold, and there was a wind tunnel coming up on the stage. The wind went down my throat along with the dust, and two days later I was in the hospital. I’m handling it pretty cool now. I’ve got my medicine.
Is this affecting performances and how many songs you can sing?
No, it’s not. It makes me have to reach back for more breath for a note than I used to have to, but hey man, ain’t nothing for a stepper. You get thrown curves in your life, and you go around them or you punch them out.
I read that you stepped off stage at one point during your performance at Bonnaroo.
I stepped off stage because I think Charles did a song, and whenever I can rest in between, I do. Cyril did a thing—“Foxy Lady”—and I don’t sing on that, so I sat. He’ll go and sit down on stuff that he doesn’t sing on. It’s as simple as that.
On the new album, it seems like there is not as much falsetto as there has been in the past.
The producer [Stewart Levine] wanted more of my natural voice. I love it because I don’t get a chance to sing in that voice that much in those kinds of songs. I love what he did.
What did you think when Stewart said he wanted you to sing more in your natural voice?
He didn’t say that. It just worked out like that. He’d play a song and I’d sing it, and he’d say, “Well no, I don’t think that’s the right key.” He’d make the key a different key, then he’d say, “Yeah, that’s what I want.”
How does it feel to be well known for your falsetto?
I thought I was well known for more than just falsetto. I appreciate whatever anybody feels about it or says, but that comes from me listening to the guys back in the day when I was a teenager—the doo-woppers. You always had the bass singer, you always had the guys doing the harmony, and the guy doing the high part. I can do all of the parts, but not at once.
Are there registers that are more comfortable for you to sing in?
These registers are comfortable. Through my life I’ve had different things happen, and I’ve had to work around it. I’ve had nodules, I’ve had bruised vocal chords. A couple of times I thought, well, maybe I won’t be able to do it. But I’ve been saying my prayers, you know? My earring is St. Jude, the saint of impossible love, so you know, it’s a mix of all of that stuff—of where I come from, what I’ve learned, what I want to do in the future. I plan to be around.
On your duet with Mavis Staples on “Respect Yourself,” how did it feel to be singing some of Pops Staples’ parts?
Oh, that was cool. That’s my boy. We met them a long time ago. Pops was cool, man. And Mavis, she’s always been down to earth. She’s got that soul.
Did you cut your parts together in the studio?
No, we didn’t. I did my part right out of Nashville. See my wife had cancer. She’s doing all right now, but she had cancer in 2004 so I try to spend as much time home as possible. They wanted me to be in California for a month but I said no.
How’s your wife doing?
She’s doing pretty well. She’s in California with my sister-in-law and niece out there. She went up with my sister, who had to go back home for a job. The doctor gave her three months back in 2004, and she’s still here, so, like I said, prayers.
Do you think about the musical decisions that artists like Bill Withers made when you do their songs?
No, we used to do it just like him back in the day. Cyril and me had a group called the Soul Machine, and we used to do all of Bill’s stuff. I’d do it just like him because I loved his voice and the way he did them, but this is a new take.
I think Bill Withers is one of the most underrated soul singers.
Most definitely. I can get his stuff and just put it on on the airplane, and he’ll take me wherever I’m going.
What do you like about him?
His soul, man. It’s coming from his heart, it’s coming from true stuff. Everything he sings, you can tell he lived it. So he makes you feel it, you know? He was writing his life.
One choice that surprised me was doing Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t that Peculiar” because the original was so playful.
Well that was Cyril’s idea to do that. I never met Marvin, but I feel I know him. I would say he was the guy with a tear in his voice. You could hear his pain and whatever he was going through.
It’s the most New Orleans groove on the record.
Well, Dr. John and my brother Art are playing on that, so it’s definitely New Orleans that way.
Did it feel strange to miss Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest this year?
Yeah it was. But Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest weren’t the same as they had been over the years. They were trying to make it right and all, but it wasn’t like…
I haven’t been back since the storm, but my son [Ivan] has been down there, and he tells me about it. “You’d have to see it yourself,” he says. I said no I don’t want to see it. I’ve got a memory; I want to leave it like that. That’s my stomping grounds. I grew up, born and raised there. I’ve got a picture in my head of New Orleans, and I don’t want it to go away.
Has somebody cleaned out your house?
Yeah, we’re selling it. Me and four of my kids lost our houses, and my brother Cyril lost his, and my sister lost hers.
Do you foresee a day when you return to New Orleans?
I couldn’t say.
How did it feel to play benefits, like the one in New York, so soon after the hurricane?
To see all those people supporting, that wanted to help New Orleans, it was a great feeling. I got to sing “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” with Simon and Garfunkel and it was cool.
Were there mixed feelings at all, not knowing the state of your house?
No, because when I did the Larry King thing [CNN’s Larry King Live on Sept. 8, 2005], they were showing pictures of people in the water. I couldn’t think about any house because that’s material. I’m thinking about all the people that got caught in that water and got washed away, and the ones that didn’t have anything from jump street that made up a big part of New Orleans. The poor people, a lot of them, couldn’t get out. I was thinking about the friends I might never see again, I don’t know if they’re living or dead unless I run across them in towns they’re in because they’re scattered all over the United States. That’s what I was thinking about; I wasn’t thinking about my house.
Where were you when the hurricane came?
I was on the road with the Neville Brothers. My brothers and me were in New York and told my family to go to Memphis. We got a hotel set up for them and we met them there. We stayed there for a few weeks, then we moved up to Nashville to this hotel for a while. Then we got these comfort suites and we stayed in the suites for maybe a couple of months. I went out to look for a house, and the insurance people took care of me. I had just bought a brand new Corvette, it was in the garage, but they gave me a new one. We were looking for a house and we found something, and we’re there and made it a home. I don’t know what the future holds.
It’s strange to realize that Charmaine and Art are the only Nevilles living in town.
My sister is living in a trailer on her job. My daughter, she works for the civil sheriff, she’s across the river. One of my sons, he’s talking about coming back down there because his wife got her job back.
Before and during Jazz Fest, people were asking if the Nevilles were really going to miss their gig closing the festival.
It was a let down for us too. But then again, the Meters were there and nobody said anything about them in the paper or on the TV. The Meters were there, Ivan was there with Dumpstaphunk. They mentioned everybody from away from New Orleans. I said that’s strange. Every TV thing, every newspaper that came out of New Orleans—or CNN—showed Bruce Springsteen and whoever else was there. They did not mention the Meters or Ivan Neville. Makes you wonder.