Any musician who plays in crowded New Orleans bars gets used to people coming up to them between sets and saying how much they sound like their favorite artist. Just ask New Orleans’ folk/soul/hip-hop musician Andre Lovett, whose band plays out five nights a week at the Bourbon Street Drinkery, the Apple Barrel, and the upscale Pontchartrain Hotel. “I get so many people telling me how much I remind them of different artists, that it’s hard to pick just one,” he says. “The ones I get most are Charles Bradley and Tracy Chapman.”
Traces of both artists are discernible on Andre Lovett and his band’s soulful debut soulful debut album Heartbreak and Cocaine, which is currently being mixed and mastered for release this coming January. But Lovett and his bandmates (Nat Lawrence on keys; Fernando Lima on drums; and Matt Gibson on bass) have a sound that’s not easily pinned down—thus the variety of comparisons, which can sometimes come out of nowhere.
“I got James Brown once, and I’m like, ‘Okayyyy,” laughs the musician. “Don’t get me wrong, I’ll always take a compliment. But I think it was just because I’m a black guy in a suit.”
It’s no secret that many of the best R&B, blues and pop artists grew up singing gospel music in church. Lovett did, too, just not in the kind you’re thinking of.
The singer, whose father was in the Air Force, spent his early teens in Colorado Springs, where he sang in the choir at New Life, an evangelical megachurch that would later make headlines when founding Pastor Ted Haggard was cast out for scandalous behavior.
“When you’re young, you’re doing whatever your parents are doing, so we were going to New Life,” recalls Lovett. “My dad was in the praise team, and my brother and I were in the youth choir. It was fun.”
Outside the confines of the church, Lovett says his voice was more attuned to the smooth ’90s R&B of acts like Boyz II Men and Usher, both of whom he listened to while growing up. Today, his voice is deeper and more rough around the edges, like a contemporary take on classic Southern soul mixed with indie, folk, and hip-hop influences.
“As you get older, your voice obviously changes and evolves,” he says, “and that’s especially the case when you live in a city where you’re drinking all the time. But as long as I can still hit my notes, I’m fine with it.”
The musician does all that and more with Heartbreak and Cocaine’s instantly memorable title track. An achingly beautiful 3 a.m. ballad, it’s the perfect showcase for Lovett’s talents as a singer and songwriter, his soulful, quavering voice complemented by an accompanying vocalist, with a minimalist arrangement of near-liturgical organ and piano playing.
In the decade between his choir days in Colorado Springs and his life in the considerably less conservative Crescent City, Lovett went to college in Florida and then set out to Seattle to pursue a career in music. He spent five years there, performing in small clubs and on the street. In the Amazon Prime documentary Find Your Way: A Busker’s Documentary, you can catch a fleeting glimpse of him playing on the street, just long enough for him to earn his place in the closing credits as “Andre Lovett II: Cold Busker.” It’s easy to see why he’d want to move to a warmer climate and culture.
“New Orleans has a tight-knit musical community where everybody’s very welcoming,” says Lovett, who rapidly made the transition from busker to front man. “When I first moved here, James Andrews was like, ‘Want to come in and sing a song?’ and I was like, ‘Wait, what?’ It’s nice to be able to walk into somewhere and they’re like ‘Hey, Andre Lovett’s here, bring him up.’ Or if I see one of my homies walking by, I’m like, ‘You want to play drums? You’ve got 30 minutes until your gig, you might as well sit in with us.’
Like many of their peers, Lovett and his band know how to rearrange other artists’ material in ways that can sound better than the original. The front man has also learned how to read a crowd. “If a bachelorette party walks in, I’m going to play Sam Smith mashed up with a bunch of hip-hop. If it’s middle-aged couples, we’ll go for Tom Petty.”
Yet even when Lovett trades his jeans and t-shirt for the sharp suit he wears at the comparatively straightlaced Pontchartrain Hotel, he’s been surprised by the free reign he’s given.
“It’s a really nice hotel, but they just encourage us to be ourselves,” he says. “And it’s fun because, like, when we do hip-hop covers with a lot of ‘fucks’ in them, you’d think they’d take you aside and be like, ‘All right, there’s children in here, you need to cut down on that.’ But they don’t. I’ll be standing on tables and they’re like, ‘Go for it, it’s New Orleans, we want that kind of vibe.’ There’s no way you’re going to walk into a nice hotel bar in New York City or Chicago and see the performer standing up on a table. That’s not going to happen.” O
Andre Lovett and his band play Monday and Wednesday nights at the Apple Barrel on Frenchmen Street, Saturdays and Sundays at the Bourbon Street Drinkery, and Friday nights at the Pontchartrain