It’s been 15 years since New Orleans was left for dead after Hurricane Katrina. Officials from the lowest to the highest level of government looted what was left of the city while its population was being shipped all over the United States. Social media as we know it today did not exist; there was no way for violently separated families to find information about each other, no means to return unless you had money. It was so bad that if you didn’t live through it yourself you probably can’t even believe what happened. People talk of how the city remade itself, but the truth is that the city, the state, the federal government and the law enforcement establishment completely botched the recovery. Whatever happened to save New Orleans took place on an individual basis. It was thousands of acts of will by people who stood up and played the greatest role of their lives. Of course, there was an unusually large number of artists leading the way, because New Orleans is a city where most art thrives in public and is not commodified. One of the artists whose transformation helped the city refresh its soul was Paul Sanchez.
The dreams I had were fun but they were dreams meant for the young
I had to start anew so I could grow
I had to learn to breathe had to learn to believe in myself
I had to learn to let it go
—Paul Sanchez, “I’m A Song, I’m A Story, I’m A Ghost.”
Before Katrina, Sanchez was an overshadowed sidekick to the voluble front man Fred LeBlanc in Cowboy Mouth. Sanchez likened his time in that band to being in a dysfunctional family. When he lost everything he owned in the flood that followed Katrina, Sanchez threw caution to the wind and quit the Mouth.
Sanchez drew the Death card from the Tarot deck. But as any street corner card reader will tell you, the Death card is also about rebirth, about transformation, and Sanchez rose from its ashes like a phoenix. He recorded a remarkable series of albums. He wrote the score to a musical adaption of the book Nine Lives and assembled a who’s who of New Orleans musicians to perform it and record it as an album. He put together the Rolling Road Show, a kind of musician’s self-help organization that included dozens of talented local players and became a staple at Jazz Fest. He took part along with Jim McCormick, Alex McMurray and the late Spencer Bohren in the wonderful songwriting project The Write Brothers, whose debut album was a classic piece of New Orleans music.
I have gotten used to getting a call from Sanchez saying that he was readying his latest album. His post-Katrina workload—Exit To Mystery Street, Farewell To Storyville, Stew Called New Orleans, Red Beans And Ricely Yours, Bridging The Gap, Nine Lives, Everything That Ends Begins Again, Heart Renovations, Life Is A Ride, One More Trip Around The Sun—has been astonishing. So you can imagine my surprise when Paul Sanchez called to inform me that he was getting ready to release his last album, I’m a Song, I’m a Story, I’m a Ghost. When pressed, he admitted that he was retiring.
This is your last album?
Well, you know there are no such things as albums anymore. Albums collect music on a disc and in my generation albums as art really became something. The Beatles really turned it into art. CDs came along and the album concept survived but I don’t think the additional music added anything. I think there was something perfect about those Beatles albums being 35 minutes long. You’d get together with friends, crack the record open, and then in the pause you took to turn the record over you could talk about side one before you listened to side two. It was a very communal thing.
But now I just feel done. I feel like the way I used to do things is over. Then I got really sick, and I definitely couldn’t do anything at that point. It was time for me to figure out what was next. I haven’t written since I finished this album. Normally I would write several songs a week but I’ve come to a stop. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’ve considered just writing stories for a while. I did a little remembrance of Dr. John when he died and Tom Piazza contacted me and suggested I should do some writing.
What happened to you?
I had some shoulder pain last year. I thought I’d pulled a muscle. I kept driving through the summer and the muscle kept getting worse. I had to drive right-handed because the pain was so bad. It got so bad I could hardly play. The whole time I was also developing a vocal problem, my voice wasn’t functioning properly, and that was really bizarre. I was fine singing but I couldn’t speak. When I got home I had to cancel my gigs, I was in such pain, I couldn’t even lay down, I had to sleep in a chair with my chin on my chest. I couldn’t speak; I couldn’t play the guitar so I felt the universe was speaking loud and clear. Then I got an abscessed tooth infection that was so severe I couldn’t open my mouth. My dentist put me on antibiotics and three days later I woke up with my neck swollen out to here and I was unable to breathe. I went to the emergency room where they said I had something called Ludwig Angina, a rare condition where the abscess in your tooth goes to your sinus cavity, then your heart, and it kills you. They had to do emergency surgery.
Luckily the surgery worked and when I came out of the surgery within three days I was playing guitar again. But the speech thing persisted. I went to see a speech pathologist and a throat specialist. I had two endoscopies. I went to a brain specialist and had a brain scan. I did psychic cleansing, a spiritual reading, acupuncture. I went to a psychiatrist and began hypnotherapy. That has yielded some results, dealing with childhood trauma. But I feel I have had so much to say in the last 14 years since Katrina, I’ve been blessed. It feels right to step away and accept the changes in technology and the changes in my age and the changes in what the audience expects.
What was your childhood trauma?
I always thought my father was an orphan, but when he died I found out he had three brothers and three sisters and he wasn’t born in Delacroix, he was born in White Castle, Louisiana. His mother was a Creole woman and she had an affair with a white man here in New Orleans and he got her pregnant, and then dumped her because he was married. My grandfather was from the Canary Islands and he was dark-skinned, he married and they had six kids. His wife died in the flu epidemic of 1917 and he became a drunk and gave away his children to family members. But he ran out of family members and knew some people in Delacroix, so when my dad was in the third grade—he was nine years old—he gave my father to these people to work as an indentured servant. When he was 16 my father ran away to New Orleans and got a job as a waiter, where he met my mother. So that whole part of my life was a lie. He died when I was six but I have no memories of him. Through my psychiatrist I found I have other memories from when I was five, just none of my father.
After Katrina you quit Cowboy Mouth and took time off before re-embarking on your solo career.
I went to Belize for three months. It was lovely and peaceful, there were no cars, and I learned to write songs in Spanish. After three months I realized that I liked it so much because it reminded me of New Orleans so I thought okay, I’ll go home. So I came home and it was empty. I got to be friends with different jazz musicians and started to play with them in John Boutté’s band. I had to learn to be a better songwriter because I had to learn to be a better guitar player. John Rankin taught me a lot about how to play in those contexts. Those were the best of times, those were the worst of times. It was empty, it was sad, it was beautiful. I had been shut down so long in Cowboy Mouth I was bursting with ideas. I aspired to write in every style effortlessly. I wanted every record to be different. I started with Exit to Mystery Street. The next one was Farewell to Storyville which was really stripped down, then came Stew That is New Orleans, me playing electric guitar and telling stories about New Orleans. Every record changed and that was fine. Then there was Nine Lives which I stumbled into bitching and moaning like I do most great things in life. I was still processing Katrina and yet I was able to process it through this book and these characters. When I listen to it now I realize it’s not the book, it’s me.
How did the Rolling Road Show evolve?
I was recording Exit to Mystery Street and the Young Leadership Council got in touch and asked me to do a show at Lafayette Square. I said I’d love to. They came back and said “We’re a youth organization and we’re concerned that you’re a little old for the crowd we’re going for, would you mind sharing the stage with Ivan Neville?” So I called Ivan and he said “Paul, you know we’re the same age, right?” I told him I knew that but that’s what we had to do to get the gig. So he agreed and we did it. After the show a woman came up to me with tears in her eyes, it was only October after Katrina, and she said “Everything on that stage reminded me so much about New Orleans as it was, thank you.” So I thought I’d keep doing it. The next time I did it I had Shamarr Allen on trumpet and somebody came up at the end of the show and said “What’s the name of the band?” I was calling it Paul Sanchez and friends, but my drummer, who’s a yat, says “That’s a rolling road show is what it is!” So the name stuck and we’ve had so many members through the years.
That band became a kind of template for the cast of Nine Lives.
Yes. I love Debbie Davis, so she chose a lot of the singers who ended up on the record. And I was a big fan of the Boutté family so I wanted to use as many of them as I could. I had Arsène and I had Lillian and Vance and Tanya and Teedy and John and Peter so that was like a dream of mine to do an album with them. It helped me find myself.
Do you think that Spencer Bohren’s passing had any impact on your idea to start over again?
Spencer’s life impacted my life. I admired him so much from the time I was 19. I wanted to be that troubadour who travelled the world telling his stories. Spencer leaving the way he did seemed a part of this journey that I’m on. The journey had already begun before his illness was announced. It was a journey away from live performances, away from the road, a way to reassess how to be an artist, and Spencer’s passing, Art Neville’s passing, Dr. John’s passing, seemed to reinforce the idea that what I do has value and I need to find valuable ways to share it, and not just make a living from it. There are other ways to make money. I’m not sure what they are [he laughs] but there’s only one way to deliver the truth as I know it.
Do you think you’ll write more songs?
I haven’t. I’ve written some with friends who stop by and say would you write with me and I do. But for the first time… in years… I don’t… think about it.
Will you tour to promote this record?
So this is it.
You’re not going to stop performing altogether, are you?
I’m not sure. My audience has dwindled dramatically over the years. It began to get harder to get gigs out of town—hard to get gigs in places that used to be strongholds like Chicago. I think it’s an acceptance of the age of my audience and an acceptance of my age and my place in pop culture, I don’t know.
But you’ll still play in New Orleans.
It sounds like a retirement.
It would be a retirement if I could find another way to make a living. So far I’m striking out in that regard. One of the things I most admire about John Lennon is that he quit for five years. It’s not easy. You love it so much. I’m not much of a businessman so I wasn’t able to turn Paul Sanchez into much of a business concern.
Your records have gotten more and more personal, more about your life, your relationships, the people you met on the road, the breakup with your wife and how you tried to recover from that.
My solo records were to a certain extent always about my life, musical postcards I mail to my younger self. That was always my intention. Stripped away from all the artifice and pretense and grandstanding of Cowboy Mouth, but they’re the same songs. I probably became more open because I was taking more time making the records by myself. This one is a very different story coming off the heels of the rock record that I made last year One More Trip Around the Sun, which was very celebratory. This one is a reckoning. The first song is me claiming I’m gonna write a thousand songs but I don’t know what lies ahead, and then the next song is “Walking in Liverpool.” I wrote a verse and a chorus about me going to Liverpool, where I called my friend Pete Riley to play guitar and sing on it. I asked him to write a third verse about an older guy who’s lived in Liverpool all his life and he brought in his son to write the second verse. It became a beautiful round.
I re-recorded a few Cowboy Mouth songs in Liverpool because I didn’t think the band did justice to them. One was “Mary Don’t Two Step” with Michael Doucet, a Cajun version. With “Great Wide-Open World” we had this great week of pre-production, then right at the end Fred [LeBlanc] goes, “I have this great idea for a part in the middle.” Before I could catch my breath and say “that’s the lamest idea I’ve ever heard” it ended up in the song. For about 20 years I couldn’t listen to the song so I put it on this record so I could listen to it again. And I recorded a bunch in Lafayette with Mark Bingham, Michael Doucet and Tiff Lamson from Givers. I recorded a couple of songs in Nashville. So it was recorded in all these different places. The final song is “I’m a Song, I’m a Story, I’m a Ghost.”
This is all so moving. There’s this sense that everything in New Orleans is rolling toward…
…a big finale. All those people going all at once. Not just all, but all that was revered. And that’s the thing that I fear has been lost to the young people. They’ve lost the ability to savor. They’ve lost the ability to have reverence for the moment. They don’t revere the idea that they got to be in the presence of Dr. John, that they got to be in the presence of Uncle Lionel.
I finished my talk with Paul feeling vaguely depressed. Clearly, he was pretty depressed himself. It was a bad summer with so many musical heroes and friends dying, and Paul was visibly suffering from the effects of his illness.
But when I listened to the album, I heard the Paul Sanchez who transforms grief into hope, a man who can summon a smile in the face of tragedy, a New Orleans cultural warrior who can never really quit. The last verse of the album makes me think all of those things about Paul Sanchez:
Now that I’ve grown old
All my stories have been told
My songs sung to strangers and to friends
I’m surprised to find I got more songs on my mind
So I guess I’ll keep singing ’til the end
So naturally I got back to him to see if he’d changed his mind.
At the end of the title track you seem to be saying that you want to write songs and you will sing as long as you can. But you told me you haven’t written since then. Is that still the case?
It’s my last album. Sheryl Crow also announced that her new release is her last for the same reasons as me. The album, which I love as an art form, is a thing of the past. I may record songs sometime in the future but I haven’t written by myself since I broke down last October.
Are you currently working with other songwriters?
I’ve never documented my songwriting friendship with John Rankin. We’ve written a lot together, we’ve talked about doing a duo record and that is one thing I’d like to get done. There is a Write Brothers record that will be released early next year. But I’ve said a lot with four solo releases in the last three years and for now I don’t have anything to say.
I always write with other writers when they ask. I love songwriting, it’s still the most natural thing in the world for me to do and helping someone else with a song is a joy. Songwriting is easy, life is hard.
I know you’ve had to cancel some gigs but have played others. What are your feelings about continuing to perform? Have they changed since we talked?
My health has been a challenge this year. I was touring non-stop from July of 2013 until last October and I wore myself out on a molecular level. I’ve spent the year mostly recovering from two surgeries and that’s healing you need in your body and your mind.
I’m not sure how I feel about performing in the future to be honest. I’m working through what I hope is the last of some vocal challenges. If I can put it behind me, I may perform more but for now I’m playing very few live shows. I’m trying my hand at writing but even that is mostly for me, for now.
I’ve turned a page from who I was and what I wanted. I’m no longer a boy who longs to be, I’m a man who is, and I’m figuring out who I will be next.