Feufollet: Sunday, May 3, Fais Do-Do Stage, 12:25p
Every once in a while, a band comes along that you think might be really special, a band that makes you wonder what they might be capable of—what might be possible for them. Feufollet (fe-fi-LAY in Cajun French, fe-foo-LAY en Anglais) is one of those bands. Born from the collaboration of fiddler Chris Segura and multi-instrumentalist Chris Stafford roughly 19 years ago—when the former was just 12 and the latter only nine—Feufollet recorded their first full-length CD in 1999 (when Segura and Stafford were 15 and 12, respectively), announcing to the world that a spirited group of young musicians had arrived—Cajun legacy in hand, with youthful energy and a desire for innovation clearly chomping at the bit.
Even the name they chose—a Cajun reference to spectral lights that sometimes appear over swampland caused by the release of gaseous deposits embedded in the muck below—represented a youthful boast with its vernacular translation: crazy fire. Now, sixteen years later, Feufollet is brings its sixth full-length CD into the world, provocatively title Two Universes, a recording with plenty of crazy fire in it, but plenty of accomplishment as well, not to mention a host of inherent but very palpable possibilities.
Two Universes presents listeners with Feufollet’s current state-of-the-art reimagining of Cajun music. Even with seven of 11 tracks vocalized in English, the sound bed of Two Universes is firmly located in Cajun-style honky tonk, an easy swinging dancehall feel. On top of that foundation, chiming guitars, fiddle-based riffs, and accordion-inspired swirls of dense sound washes mix with eerie modulations of indie-rock/Americana harmonies.
The result goes beyond reimagining, actually—Two Universes is a reinvention of Cajun-style honky tonk all done up in youthful, pop energy and decorated with masterful, intriguing, and even occasionally profound songwriting, including seven confident and melodic compositions from newcomer Kelli Jones-Savoy, and three wry, psychedelic pop ruminations from co-founder Chris Stafford. Bass player Philippe Billeaudeaux contributes an evocative swamp-pop tale of the barroom down-and outer, while string-band comrade Caleb Klauder adds the most purely Cajun composition of the whole adventure.
Will the Cajun Cutting Edge Extend Beyond Cajunland?
Given their longstanding tenure, the band really needs no introduction inside the universe of Cajun music, these days an amalgam of purist practitioners, enthusiast fusionists, and a cutting-edge new breed, where Feufollet looks to have the inside track. For example, for 40-plus years now, the worlds of Cajun and Creole culture have gathered together in mid-October in what today has become Les Festivals Acadiens et Créoles, a massive, three-day presentation of local music, regional food, and the best handcrafts … but most of all, lots of local music.
Festival Music Director Barry Jean Ancelet is both a chaired University of Louisiana at Lafayette professor and a kind of reigning elder over what is now a six-decades-old traditional Cajun music revival. You might guess he takes his music very seriously.
“We listen to hours of radio,” Ancelet explains, in describing how the annual festival’s music is programmed. “We go out to local performances and pay close attention to what records are coming out. In real terms, we try with each festival to present the state of the art, where Cajun music and Creole music are at this particular moment.”
And for the past four years in a row, the future of Cajun and Creole music has been placed in the hands of the same headlining group, Feufollet. And asking the band to headline four years in a row has been no afterthought, says Ancelet. “The people who are invited to play at the festival are obviously standing out that year. They’re clearly doing something that genuinely matters.”
And Feufollet? “They’re doin’ real stuff, man, they’re the real deal. And they keep pushing their own boundaries, on their own, just to keep getting better. They’re just amazing.”
But unconditional acceptance within the universe of Cajun and Creole music is one thing—expanding beyond is another thing entirely. There are worlds of listeners and potentially receptive audiences spread across the globe, both in French-speaking countries and in other locations, where an appreciation for what is generally referred to as “world music” has been cultivated.
Maybe a dozen or more Cajun/Creole bands from Louisiana—ranging in musical attitude from conventional to genre-busting—qualify as active contenders in the world-music arena. Roughly half that number are actively employing the basic elements of rock and rock-related sounds to recommodify what the world usually thinks of Louisiana Cajun music.
The first Louisiana band to cross the bridge into straight-rock territory was Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys. Having released three rock-oriented albums since the mid-1990s, they’ve succeeded in elevating their creative standing here in their home state and in foreign markets, but have yet to do much more than dent the domestic world of U.S. indie rock.
Most recently, The Lost Bayou Ramblers intensified their own appreciation of early, primitive Cajun roots music into a punk-sounding rock amalgam, racking up a series of discrete incursions into city-bound indie scenes in hip environs like Austin, the French Quarter, and Brooklyn, but not much more.
A 2010 Breakthrough—Then Life Intervenes
And now it’s Feufollet’s turn to test the waters, with a dramatically reconfigured band lineup, and a new, aggressive approach to releasing their new product without benefit of a major label or a well-established independent label.
The last time the young Cajun band went into the studio, what resulted probably surpassed all their expectations. En Couleurs, released in 2010, today sounds pretty tame, but at the time, it was definitely cutting edge for state-of-the-art Cajun music — rocking rather than two-stepping — and a concept album to boot, filled with musical interludes and intros keyed to primary colors of the prismatic spectrum.
For traditional Cajun music fans that might have begun to admire the young band’s remarkable ability to play just like their elders only with a fresh, updated perspective, En Couleurs might have been confusing and disappointing.
But to the new, young audience beginning to coalesce at home and to the band’s musical peers, En Couleurs was a breath of fresh, day lit air. Better yet, by way of connection through local swamp pop veterans Li’l Band o’ Gold, the album found its way into the hands of English rock star Elvis Costello, who was mightily impressed, and said so in a fairly visible interview in the British music press.
What followed were unexpected bookings in England and Europe, capped off with an unexpected Grammy nomination back home. Best of all, when the band decided to actually attend the Grammy ceremony, who do they run into but their old buddy Elvis Costello! And who’s he hanging with? One of the band’s great musical heroes, Neil Young!
Fast-forward five years. What happened? Why didn’t Feufollet grab the momentum their last CD created and use it to catapult to national prominence?
It’s not a simple answer. Yes, in part, life intervened. But the real answer is that Feufollet is beyond all doubt a Lafayette-centric band, like their counterparts Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys, The Pine Leaf Boys, The Lost Bayou Ramblers, Cedric Watson & Bijou Creole, the all-female group Bonsoir Catin, Corey Ledet & His Zydeco Band, Roddie Romero & The Hub City All-Stars, and the Yvette Landry Band, all members of a growing cohort of bands and fans currently engaged in a new resurgence of time-tested Cajun music traditions.
And for these bands, and their indie rock cousins—Brass Bed and GIVERS—it’s the music that matters.
Fame and success are good, and always considered a viable goal, but having the music, and forming the kind of genuine camaraderie that actually gives birth to the music, is considered essential.
She Ran Away to Join the Circus??!!
Perhaps the greatest disruption to life-as-they-knew it for Feufollet was the departure of long-time female vocalist Anna Laura Edmiston, a free-spirited multi-instrumentalist who brought a sense of both passion and playfulness to the band’s colorful stage presence. As Feufollet was in the process of organically developing a clearly new sound, Edmiston received an offer she felt she couldn’t refuse – to join Cavalia, a Montreal-based, equestrian-oriented, traveling extravaganza. Basically, she ran away to join the circus. A hard exit to top, and not an easy act to follow.
Fortunately, a viable replacement was not far away. Kelli Jones-Savoy, a North Carolina immigrant raised in the old-time country music tradition had become a good friend of the band during her years spent in Louisiana since 2006 absorbing the Cajun heritage. “All the members of Feufollet, including Anna Laura, have been good friends of mine since I moved here,” Jones-Savoy explains.
“They are a great group of people and are a big part of the wonderfully talented and supportive community that I fell in love with when I came to this part of the country. I do have to say, though, that when they asked me to be in the band I was nervous as well as honored. They had such a great band vibe, a real connection with each other, and a fairly extensive repertoire with Anna Laura, so adding a new member meant adjusting all that, and that can be a very delicate situation.”
In fact, Feufollet’s new female vocalist, who is also proficient on guitar and fiddle, has become a significant catalyst in helping determine and focus the band’s new sound, bringing a wealth of new musical references and writing a plethora of strong new compositions that have become central components of the band’s current repertoire. And she’s not the only new addition to the band’s lineup, which also includes Chris Stafford’s brother Michael on drums (a member since he was eight years old and enlisted to play on the band’s first CD) and Philippe Billeaudeaux on bass (who joined seven years ago, after a stint with indie rockers Brass Bed).
Feufollet has also recently added keyboardist Andrew Toups to the mix full-time (also from Brass Bed). Toups, like Jones-Savoy, adds a super-sensitive ear and the ability to overlap textures, extending especially Chris Stafford’s accordion swirls into deep-background swells of electronically elastic, harmonic chording. With the band’s new English-language compositions and a decided tendency all-around to favor the recent trend among young bands toward adopting Cajun honky-tonk funk and swing, Feufollet now finds itself calling the recent market category of Americana, if not home, at least familiar territory.
Thoughtfully Sequenced; Visiting Another Culture
Perhaps most importantly, though, there’s a knowing quality, a kind of masterfully achieved sly humor (Cajun humor?) that pervades Two Universes, doubling up on its youthfully conceived psychedelic indie-pop sound. The proceedings begin straightforwardly enough, with Kelli Jones-Savoy’s upbeat “Tired of Your Tears,” a twangy, high-octane two-step based in accordion but glossed up with Hammond B-3 organ and soaring pedal-steel guitar.
Chris Stafford’s “Know What’s Next” follows, and like all three of his compositions here operates on several levels: as simple love song, philosophical inquiry, and wisely turned piece of wisdom. There’s whimsy here, too: Is the band saying that it knows what’s next? The narrator sure doesn’t. He keeps asking, in the chorus, to “Wake me, shake me when it’s real; don’t you let me feel that I know what’s next.”
After presenting the two sides of Feufollet’s musical point of view, the track listing reverts, as the whole CD often does, to basics: “Hole in My Heart,” a whole-heartedly Cajun tune confusingly given an English-language title.
Next comes the CD’s title tune, “Two Universes,” a mission statement of sorts, delivered at a stately waltz tempo. Rendered in Chris Stafford’s fetchingly reverbed vocal, the lyrics directly and cagily take on the phenomenon of two (cultural?) universes colliding: they will always remain as two, the narrator concludes, learning “what was given and what was taken away.”
But then comes the chorus: “And everything in this old world returns to how it should be, and every singer will sing about broken hearts, and every river will flow to the sea.” The music will always be the music, the songwriter seems to be reminding us, and regardless of category, style, or cultural context, you’ll more than likely find the singer singing about broken hearts, the seedbed, perhaps, of all music that seems to matter.
As with most CDs that, in the end, do matter, Two Universes is thoughtfully programmed and sequenced, its overcoat of swirling and finely modulated layers of harmonic accompaniment cementing the whole. And as it should be, the CD seems to get better and better the longer one listens. One of my favorite tunes comes halfway down the song list, Kelli Savoy-Jones’ precociously knowing break-up song, “(Something You Said,) When You Said Goodbye,” which manages to elicit a smile and break your heart all in the same moment, promising to become the next hit for some clever country star or well-established pop crooner.
The singer-instrumentalist-songwriter also brings a sharply defined country sound to the band with vocals that the gently but firmly cut through the dense harmonics, vocals reminiscent, perhaps, of a Loretta Lynn or even Dolly Parton. In addition, she helped me best understand where Two Universes belongs in our understanding of genre music. Rather than lowering standards to increase audience share, this new creation functions more as an invitation to visit a new world.
I understood this when I asked Kelli if it was difficult transitioning from Appalachian mountain music to Cajun culture. “Learning another genre of music is very similar to learning another language,” she told me. “The ‘vocabulary’ of common melodies and chord changes within the songs, which were all very new and different when I started trying to play Cajun music, but become more predictable and easier to understand as I played it more and more.
“Learning more about Cajun music and culture has helped me learn not just the music, but about music and culture in general.”
And this, finally, is the invitation Two Universes extends to listeners who are ready to learn a little something about a different cultural universe.
Leasing Music-Industry Services; Breaking Barriers
With their shift toward an English-language, more-Americana-based sound, the band sincerely hoped to snag the services and resources of a serious record label—if not a major label, then one of several major independent labels marketing Americana-oriented music.
Trying their hand to no avail, the band decided to embark on new, state-of-the-art strategy drawing on an alliance with a company called Thirty Tigers, which offers a full menu of à-la-carte, record-company services ranging from distribution, promotion, and publicity all the way to artist management combined with the increasingly popular Internet practice of crowd funding: for packaging and promoting Two Universes, the band successfully completed a $30,000 round of funding on IndieGoGo.
Created in Austin with up-and-coming indie producer Danny Reisch, Two Universes clearly breaks new ground on several levels, both aesthetic and commercial.
In their own promotional literature Feufollet describe themselves as “a band deeply rooted in the Francophone soil of Louisiana and pushing boldly into unexplored yet utterly natural varieties of Cajun experience.”
With a new, more-accomplished and more-flexible lineup, new material, a new attitude toward their music in general but English-language numbers in particular, and adding the dynamic component of deep-industry wisdom and resources, it’s impossible to tell just how far Feufollet is prepared to go, although all indications it will be farther, perhaps much farther, than after their last CD release.
Will they considerably expand their standing in Cajun and world-music circles, or will they make the leap into mainstream Americana listening territory? Will they become the first of the young Cajun bands to break the French/English-language market barrier?
It’s clear they’ve succeeded in “pushing boldly into unexplored yet utterly natural varieties of Cajun experience” musically. Will they now be able to do what no band before them has done and “push boldly into unexplored yet utterly natural varieties of Cajun experience” commercially?
If they do, it may well be a victory not just for the band itself but for the entire vanguard Cajun rockers as well, and that would be totally in keeping with the communal instincts of Cajun tradition, calling for a change in status of a decade-long new wave of a several-decades-long Cajun music revival.