After singing “St. James Infirmary,” Alec Ounsworth walked off Tipitina’s stage slightly shaken. He thought he knew the lyrics until he got into the second verse, when he realized he wasn’t sure about them and crossed them up. The mistake wasn’t obvious from the front of the room, but backstage, the singer for indie rock band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah confessed his error to John Boutté. “He said he was probably the only one who’d know,” Ounsworth says.
The Philadelphia native was in New Orleans last fall for one of Air Traffic Control’s activism retreats, and the show was the benefit for Sweet Home New Orleans that ends each retreat. Other musicians on the bill included Fleet Foxes’ J. Tillman, the Bomb Squad’s Hank Shocklee, Nicole Adkins and Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin. “Steve said we should do a record together,” Ounsworth says. In the last-day-of-summer-camp vibe of the moment, he said yes not expecting anything to come of it, but Berlin stayed in touch, and this spring the two met at Piety Street Recording in the Bywater to cut Mo Beauty. For it, Berlin assembled a local band that included Stanton Moore, George Porter, Jr. and Robert Walter. “The New Orleans record was a much different record than the other three I’ve made in so far as I had real, heavyweight musicians with me who have much more experience than anybody I ever worked with,” Ounsworth says.
Many of the songs were ones that he had already recorded for an album that he shelved because he wasn’t satisfied with it. He brought in demos, but Porter admits that they didn’t shape his playing much. “One of the things the producer mentioned to me is that they wanted to play with the grooves and make them feel New Orleans,” Porter says. “That threw a different spin on what I was listening to. I was just listening for the changes and didn’t put my fingers on it too much because it was hard for me to formulate what I was going to do until I knew what the drums were doing.” In some cases, the grooves aren’t obvious, but “Idiots in the Rain” features the ghost of a second line beat, and Moore’s so far behind the beat in “South Philadelphia (Drug Days)” that it’s funky whether intentionally or not.
“I’ve had a couple interviews in the past and people have said, ‘Is this some sort of jazzy, groovy, funky kind of record?’ Just because Stan and George and Robert have done certain projects—have certain tendencies that people categorize—that doesn’t mean that they can’t do whatever the hell they want,” Ounsworth says. “After we’d play a song seven or eight times, when it finally gelled and started to make sense, it captured everybody’s individual instincts collectively. And then you have something.”
There were some musicians Ounsworth knew he intended to work with, including Boutte and Al “Carnival Time” Johnson. Piety Street’s Mark Bingham tipped him to other musicians he might want to check out. Ounsworth and guitarist Matt Sutton saw Washboard Chaz and thought, “’Oh my god, that would be great to get.’ “You see all these great musicians in New Orleans, you’re making a record down there and you imagine working with them. That’s a nice fantasy to have, but it’s real. You can actually bring people over, and they’re usually happy to play and easy to work with.”
Not only is he reluctant to call Mo Beauty a New Orleans album, but Ounsworth’s reluctant to call “Holy, Holy, Holy Moses (for New Orleans)” a song about New Orleans. In it, he asks, “How can I claim New Orleans?” conscious of the risks of adopting someone else’s cataclysmic experience. Still, he concedes that there are ways where it is shaped by the city. “I was having this conversation with Steve as we worked on it,” Ounsworth says. “We both agree. There’s a certain quality in the songs that reflected our take on the city, and how it’s pulling itself back up. Maybe that’s just the way I’ve always written, where my mind’s often in a constant perpetual state of pulling itself together, but it seemed to really fit the character of the city. It’s got this hardness to it, but at the same time, there’s this beautiful, kind of crumbling quality.