Without music, how many would never have fallen in love? Without love, how many songs would have never been written? And yet two musicians in an intimate relationship sounds like romantic chaos. Not so for respected local low-end specialist (sousaphone/bass) Matt Perrine and wife Debbie Davis, best known for her interpretations of songs by the Boswell Sisters and Andrews Sisters as a member of the internationally renowned Pfister Sisters. Together and apart, Perrine and/or Davis perform almost daily, playing everywhere from Late Night with David Letterman to the New Orleans Public Library. Their fairy-tale musical journey together begins at Jazz Fest 1997, but perhaps really takes off during one of the couple’s first serious collaborations at the now- defunct Warehouse District bar, the Mermaid Lounge.
“Debbie, I, and Davis Rogan did the music from Tommy live, one night only during Jazz Fest,” Perrine recalls, “with very minimal staging, and with Davis Rogan as the Pinball Wizard. It was ferocious. In the movie Tommy, the mother throws a champagne bottle into the television and out come these baked beans and chocolate, and Ann Margaret has a psychedelic freak-out, rolling around in all this on the bearskin rug. When it got to that point in our show, Debbie actually stepped down off stage into this kiddie pool. The band is riffing and Debbie’s rolling around in the beans and the chocolate. That was the end of the first act.”
“I then had to go out back and get hosed off,” Davis interjects. “And now I am nominated for OffBeat’s Female Vocalist of 2010.”
But let’s first return to that fairytale Jazz Fest.
1997 saw Davis living in New Jersey, singing in classic rock cover bands and the occasional wedding jazz band. Near the tail end of a horrible break-up, she agreed upon a road trip to help a friend move out of Jersey. “Since it was convenient,” she says, “we drove 700 to 800 miles out of our way to New Orleans. We found out it was Jazz Fest the day before we got there. We had no hotel but by the grace of God found everything we needed. We go to the fest to look for a friend who was playing there. We stop at the Economy Hall tent and there this was this amazing clarinetist, and he had this bassist with him in a dark suit and sunglasses. I turned to my friend and said, ‘That one. I want that one,’ pointing at Matt. The next day we spotted that same guy playing an upright bass so we went to investigate.”
“Electric bass,” Matt corrects.
Perrine learned to play all bass instruments because bass players are most employable. “I didn’t know any professional musicians growing up in Sacramento,” he says. “But I started at 12 years old on piano, then trombone, then the first instrument I loved was the tuba. Around then, I knew music was going to be my living. I started playing electric bass too, so I could play in like a Dixieland band. Then I started playing upright bass to play jazz.” He had a plan: “I liked many styles of music and didn’t want the instrument I played to limit me to one style. I wanted to give myself every possibility to make a living.”
“You wanted to have all your basses covered,” Debbie adds.
The groaning dies and Davis continues her Jazz Fest remembrance, “We met Matt that day, then went to see him play tuba the next day. I went back to Jersey and we started writing letters—on paper, like people used to do.” She still has the letters. “On the second day of my first post-Jazz Fest visit, we talked about me moving here. I moved down in September ’97, and we were engaged before Christmas. Much to many people’s shock and horror.”
Perrine had known Davis was a singer. “But I hadn’t heard her sing throughout our courtship at all,” he says. “Until I went up to Jersey to meet her parents, help her pack, and move her to New Orleans. She had a gig with one of the classic rock bands, singing Hendrix and Zeppelin. That was when I realized she was actually a serious musician—which I was intrigued by, but a little concerned by. Because now as we proceeded, we were a couple of musicians. It occurred to me that my life would be simpler if she couldn’t sing so well. Both of my parents had been home every night, so I had no idea how to reconcile that lifestyle where we’d both be out doing gigs. But I will also say that I didn’t really want her to move to New Orleans because we were falling in love.”
“Oh,” says Davis. “Thanks.”
“No, in the end, even if we weren’t falling in love and we didn’t work out,” Perrine says, “I just suspected there was a place for her in the New Orleans music scene.”
Davis had no qualms. This was what she’d grown up with. “My parents were both opera singers,” she says. “Both traveled a lot, together and separately. I didn’t even attend a full year of school till fourth grade because we’d be touring everywhere. So there was never a doubt in my mind that two musicians could work and have a family. It’s easier than one musician and one civilian, actually, because we both know what’s at stake and what sacrifices have to be made. We both understand when one of us can’t come home. And kids—kids get used to what you get them used to.
Perrine and Davis admit to feeling a lot more stable now in every regard as a couple of musicians with two children, boys Ben, 7, and Henry, 3. “We went into this marriage both wanting kids and wanting music careers,” says Perrine. The couple has a secret weapon that basically allows them to gig and keep the family together: His mom moved from Sacramento to New Orleans to babysit. Prior to that, he says, “It took a long time to get to where living like this is a possibility. We’ve had to see each other stuck in situations for very long stretches of time. But in the end, it’s really working out well. Debbie also has amazing instincts of what the kids need exactly when they need it.”
Instincts that served Davis well during a recent six-week cabaret show in Berlin. The kids came with, written off as a business expense. “I had to bring them to work. And the kids flew great and traveled great and lived in the hotel great,” Debbie gushes. “It was just an interesting thing for them to do that summer, like we went to Disney World.” With the extra bonus of your kids thinking you’re a badass musician? She laughs, “Ha, no. They don’t think I am a badass. They think I’m a huge dork. Even when they saw pictures of me in Berlin, posters and billboards at the zoo, on the subway, there’s a picture of your mom and they’re complaining, “Ugh, your picture’s everywhere.”
The couple also relies on New Orleans, especially on its vast network of bohemian babysitters. It’s said that “It takes a village,” and New Orleans is one of the only big-city villages in the country. “It’s also great to live in a city where a musician can make something resembling a living in town,” says Perrine. “I can have a job almost all the time here. But if I had to be touring on the road all the time, away from the kids, that would be harder. I enjoy traveling, but I am much happier being home with the kids.”
In other cities in America, musicians over 28 who are still in bands are often made to feel that they should grow up. “I have never taken anyone who thinks like that seriously,” says Perrine, who reaps the benefits of New Orleans, where musicians are—at least socially if not economically—held in high regard. Neither Perrine nor Davis has ever encountered anyone who didn’t understand his or her musical destiny. “I’ve never dated a non-musician,” she says. “Never dated anyone who wasn’t on the front lines of that and didn’t understand. Even the guitar players.”
“Not the drummers though,” Davis jokes. “I said musicians. But seriously….”
“My heart breaks for my friends in New Jersey who had to give up their instruments to get jobs,” she says. “They were as good as anyone, in some cases better. And they put aside all of that for something they didn’t really want. New Orleans helps make this life possible for us, no doubt.”
When asked about the downsides of being a musical couple, Perrine says immediately, “It never occurred to me to think about the hard parts, really, when I’m so overwhelmed with all the great parts about it.” The couple has begun working on many projects together, from Christmas songs with Paul Sanchez, for Putamayo’s Putumayo Presents: A Family Christmas, to many regular gigs together with friends at the new Three Muses on Frenchmen Street. This year will also hopefully see the anxiously awaited (by the couple) debut of their unnamed ukulele and tuba duo, which they’ve taken so seriously they’ve yet to unveil it. “We may have to bring in the bagpipes if this doesn’t get their attention,” jokes Debbie. “But as cute as the idea is, in order for anyone to take it seriously, it has to be perfect. And even on a ukulele, that’s harder than one would think. Spike Jones, novelty that he was, wouldn’t have been nearly as potent if everything wasn’t perfect.” The duo’s catalog will include everything from Fats Waller to the Kinks, Led Zeppelin, Amy Winehouse, Irving Berlin and Alex McMurray tunes. “It reminds me of the Tin Men,” says Perrine of his band with McMurray and Washboard Chaz, “in that no one knows what to expect, and it’s not a big band so we’re flexible. We’ll have a blank slate to play rock ’n’ roll all night, or rock steady all night, or jazz, whatever has us excited to play.”
But their most intense collaboration has been together with Paul Sanchez, working out Sanchez’s musical interpretation of the Dan Baum Katrina non-fiction book Nine Lives. With a grant from Pepsi and Threadhead Records (with whom Davis and Perrine are both deep conspirators) Perrine recorded the music of Nine Lives at Piety Street Studios, to be shopped to investors. “At first Paul made me a demo with guitar and vocals,” Perrine explains. “As the arranger, I would take his composition—the melody, harmony, rhythm and lyric—and I might write an intro or an outro or change keys in the middle of a song, or add horns. Part of what made it so fun was that every song was presented in a New Orleans genre. Then Paul and I had a few meetings. I discussed the size of the ensembles I wanted to put over the music. We were under a strict deadline and after we were finished arranging, we had to record immediately. Paul gave me quite a bit of trust, and leash, and he seems to be happy with what came out of it.”
Perrine got to record many other greats, including his wife, on the Nine Lives recording. “One of the tunes was hypothetically written for Irma Thomas to sing, and I arranged it as if she was going to sing it. Then she showed up at Piety Street and sang the song! Another song I worked out to have an Allen Toussaint piano part, hoping it would encourage him to show up and play piano on it. In the end, he did.”
“Lately, from nine o’clock in the morning, I write until the kids get home.” says Perrine, whose at-home time ebbs and flows. “A lot of times my life is like other 9 to 5 dads. I’m just in my house doing it. Sometimes I’m here recording for days. At those times, my life feels very traditional.” Currently he is spending his days writing and arranging four songs for the Dukes of Dixieland to use for their pops concerts—compositions that will first be performed in Boston, with the Boston Pops playing Perrine’s arrangements into existence. “Then, coming up during Mardi Gras, I will be out every night, like all the other musicians.” Perrine continuously gigs with the Tin Men and other Alex McMurray concoctions, plus the New Orleans Nightcrawlers, the Midnight Disturbers, various collaborations with Paul Sanchez and his own band, Sunflower City.
Davis has gotten the green light to record a solo album for Threadhead Records, featuring original music by Alex McMurray and Paul Sanchez, plus obscure standards and “more standard standards,” she says.
As for their kids: “Our oldest son has minimal interest in learning an instrument, but he does want to be Robert Plant,” says Davis. “He’s obsessed with Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. So of course we’re very proud. And his grandparents are opera singers, so he’s got this really dramatic rock voice that he uses, an operatic cross between Maria Callas and Freddy Mercury.”
“He’s not spending the time like I did, tinkering on the piano all the time,” says Perrine, proudly. “But he spends a lot of time working on his moves. I should have probably spent a little more time on my moves and less time practicing.”