Zachary Richard is a man dedicated to his art. He started singing when he was eight years old, and has since brought the sounds of Louisiana-influenced music to the ends of the earth, playing everywhere from Mamou to Marrakesh. A multi-talented musician, he plays many instruments, including guitar, piano, accordion, and harmonica. He has appeared on Johnny Carson’s and Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, David Letterman, and various French and Canadian variety shows.
Richard’s music is constantly evolving, yet it still exhibits the influence of his deep Louisiana roots. His lyrics are moving and filled with imagery; Richard is also a poet, and recently published his long-awaited second book of poetry, Faire Récolte. Through the years, he has worked with the finest Louisiana musicians, playing alongside the likes of Dr. John, Sonny Landreth, The Dirty Dozen, Steve Riley, Brian Stoltz, and George Porter, Jr.
With 12 albums under his belt, Zachary is currently enjoying the greatest commercial success of his career with his latest release Cap Enragé, his first French language album in over 14 years. This album has already earned him the coveted Felix award in Canada, which is the equivalent of our Grammy. In a short time, Cap Enragé has gone from Gold to Platinum, and continues to sell and be a mainstay of the Canadian airwaves.
He has most recently been touring France and Canada in support of this release, and unfortunately has not been able to spend much time in his home state that he loves so dearly. He has also come into the age of technology this year, opening his Web site (www.zacharyrichard.com) that allows both his French and English fans to stay in touch with what’s going on in his career and life.
When you were writing the material for Cap Enragé, did you know that you had a hit on your hands?
No, one never knows. Specifically, because my first hit in Quebec in 1979, which was a Reggae version of a traditional Cajun song, and even though it was a ditty kind of tune, it was an even bigger hit than my latest hit in Canada, The Ballad of Jean Batailleur, which stayed number one for 18 weeks. After I had that first hit, I thought, well now I’ve found the formula! Just take some exotic rhythms and put them in this tune called Souliers Rouges (Red Shoes), which was the same kind of song. But for some reason, the first ditty sold 150,000 copies, but the follow up Souliers Rouges, only sold 2,000 copies. Like a lot of what happened to me in that original successful period in Canada in the late 70’s, I was young, in my mid-twenties; you really think you’re invincible, and you think that everything you do is going to keep getting better and better, and you never anticipate that what goes up, might come down. That was one of the lessons that I learned. Commercial success is really not about what I do anyway. I’m trying to express myself, and to communicate things that inspire me, in a way that I hope will mean something to somebody else. When I was writing Cap Enragé, I was not even aware that I was writing for a French record. There were a series of things which inspired me after a visit to Moncton in New Brunswick, and all this inspiration was like a dam that had burst, and it all came out in a short period of about three months, which is extraordinary for me in terms of “prolificity”… I don’t know if that’s a word, but Dr. John would be proud! When you’re writing, you know what you like, and of course you think everybody else will like it too. You say to yourself, I really like what I’m doing, and you don’t always understand why other people don’t just lap it up [laughs].
Considering the success of Cap Enragé, will you be doing a follow up [French] release, as your Canadian friends are hoping for, or can we look forward to another English album next?
The answer to the question is both. It’s just hard to say exactly what will happen. My whole career has been so unforeseeable. I was living in New York in the early ’70s, had a record deal, the company went through some political changes, and then basically I was out on the street. I went to France, and had this whole other thing happen to me, that basically kidnapped me for 10 years. When that slowed down, I came back to Louisiana, and started the American phase of my career. I never really anticipated doing that either. I thought I was taking a break from the French thing, and then the English thing took off. So now I’m faced with the real dilemma, never being able to unite those two aspects of my professional life. There’s a French career and there’s an English career, but they have had almost no influence on one another. The French fans don’t even know about the 10 years in which I was having success with the English projects. They figure, like, I was in jail for 10 years or something! They don’t know what happened to me! Then the people in the United States don’t really understand I have this other career singing in French, which in terms of commercial success, has been an important experience for me. Here comes another dilemma: I have English material that I’ve been working on since before Cap Enragé, and since my latest project has put me in a French zone for the last couple of years, I also have enough material for another French record. So, it seems like I’m probably going to record the next record in French, simply because there’s a real demand. However, not only do I enjoy songwriting in English, but I really enjoy the American audience, because after all it is my country and my culture, and putting that on the back burner for another year or two is something that I really don’t want to do.
I know you are often categorized as a Cajun or zydeco artist, when actually your musical spectrum, while including these genres, is much broader. How do you feel about this?
It’s like the diffusion of culture, because I’m someone that doesn’t exactly fit in anywhere. What kind of music is it? It’s not rock and roll, it’s not Cajun, but people will categorize you. With Snakebite Love getting up to Number 2 in the charts, people were beginning to overcome this misconception about what it is that I do, and who it is that I am. I think my music is more like a perennial. It’s not a fashion statement. It’s something that’s been here for a long time, and going to be here for a long time.
I heard that you were approached by the film industry, both in the U.S. and Canada. Actually, the rumor is that you have accepted an offer. Is this true?
If that’s what the rumor is, than that’s true, yes! There’s a French language production of a very popular novel, called Juliette Pomerleau, which was a best seller in both Canada and France. It’s about this rather large woman, who’s dying of cirrhosis of the liver, and I play the liver! Only kidding. One of her tenants is an aspiring Czechoslovakian classical composer. He writes her a sonata, and after hearing it, she miraculously becomes well, and is convinced that it is the music that saved her. Actually we’re doing a 10 part mini-series, and I’ll be playing the part of the composer.
I also hear you are going to be making a documentary about the history of the Acadian people. Is there anything, or anyone in particular that inspired you to undertake this project?
Actually, it’s the culture that inspired me. There is a French language organization called Action Cadienne, which is a non-profit volunteer organization dedicated to the defense of the French language and Cajun culture. At some of our reunions du village, not unlike town hall meetings, we were using a film called Acadie Liberté, which was filmed in New Brunswick, Canada. It is historically pretty accurate, but was not really relevant to Louisiana, because it stops at the deportation of the Acadians, which is when our story actually begins. We are currently negotiating to get the funding to do a more complete film. I think my personal motivation is to tell the story of the Cajun people to the Cajun people themselves. I don’t know the percentage, but a great majority of the Acadian people of Southwest Louisiana do not have full knowledge of the series of events, including oppression, deportation, linguistic genocide, floods, famines, and invasions. Still, in spite of the fact that for over 250 years, there seems to have been an attempt to obliterate this culture, not only do we still exist, but there is a resurgence of the close knit family-like bond of this truly resistant and resilient culture.
I know you support several environmentalist movements that work to save places like Louisiana’s fertile wetlands. What are some of these causes, and how do you find the time to support them?
I think if you live and breathe in the 20th century, you have to be an environmentalist. The little bit of time I’ve had to devote, as far as hands-on experience goes, has been essentially to two organizations, The Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, who produced a video called The Legacy of Labranche, and Ecoversité, which is fighting to restore the Petit Codiac river in New Brunswick.
With all these projects in the works, can we look forward to seeing you perform at the 1998 Jazz and Heritage Festival?
I’ve played the Festival every year since 1981, and I’d hate to miss a year, but it looks like I have a big conflict with the filming of this Canadian mini-series. I’m trying to work it out. It would be a great disappointment to me if I can’t. I’d really like to be there; it’s been a long tradition, and I’m doing everything I can to be able to make it.
I understand for the most part, you tour and travel quite a bit, either supporting your albums; with your work as a Francophone preserving the French language; or with your environmental causes. If you do ever get any free time, what do you like to do with it, and where do you like to do it?
I like to stay home. You know I’ve got 10 acres, and my father and I have planted almost 600 trees over the last 15 years, and that’s my therapy. Although my dad really keeps up the garden, I eat all of the stuff that comes out of it. There’s something really fundamentally satisfying about putting my hands in the dirt, and working with the earth. I also enjoy working on music in my studio, that’s what I really like to do anyway. I guess I’m really lucky, because what I like to do, is also the way that I make my living.
Oh yes, cucumbers, tomatoes, watermelon, and ditties, with a “D”.
Who would you say influenced you musically, and in a broader sense, do you have any heroes?
Of the first three albums that I owned, I’ve really been very faithful to those particular stylistic statements. They were the Rolling Stones’ Out of Their Heads, Turn Turn Turn by the Byrds, and Sounds of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel. Later on, I was able to experience Muddy Waters, James Cotton, Howling Wolf, and the music that I think is the most exciting to me, which is Chicago blues of the ’50s. Of Louisiana people, I’d have to say Clifton Chenier was my idol for a lot of different reasons, only one of them being musical. Clifton was a very interesting fellow, we talked, we visited, and I followed Clifton around quite a bit. Also I’m fairly typical, if I say that Professor Longhair was a great hero of mine. I saw Fess’ last concert. Basically, I discovered him like everybody else did, just a few years before he died. Although I don’t really play in that style, he’s someone who really touched me a lot, and I just really loved what he did very much. Also there’s a whole lot of old Cajun guys, like Felix Richard who taught me how to play the accordion; although he was not one of the major players of the tradition, as far as I am concerned, he was one of the most important. But if you’re really asking me who influenced me in what I do as an American songwriter, I’d probably have to say Bob Dylan and Neil Young. I really admire artists who write well crafted songs. John Hiatt pops into mind, as well as John Fogerty; the list could go on and on…
At what age did you first take an interest in playing music, and also, what do you think of the young musicians such as Hunter Hayes, coming out of Louisiana?
I took piano lessons when I was 10, but I think I really got my start singing in the Bishop’s boys choir. Practicing every day, singing in church on Sundays, and singing at some additional functions; that’s where I really learned about music. Then when I was about 13, I decided I wanted to get a guitar and be Mick Jagger. So I stopped singing for God, and started playing the “Devil’s music”! As far as the young kids that are playing today, I think that it is wonderful. One thing I did, as far as playing traditional music, was to push the boundaries of the style, which sometimes pissed a lot of people off; but it’s like “Patin’s Duck,” I don’t give a quack! So basically, I’m experimenting with creativity, and I think that what these young players need to be told is, you can play the stuff like the “old guys,” but do it your way, or a different way, and make some new stuff while you’re at it.
Remembering your first professional gig, can you tell us where it was, and how it went?
You mean getting paid? There was a band called “Toby’s Uncle”, that had this guitar player from New Jersey who I really liked a lot — his name was Rick Toby — and we had a band at Tulane, and I was the harmonica player. It was kind of a blues band, and we played at the Ratskeller once, although I’m not really sure if we got paid! Then later that same period, I did a solo guitar thing at Papa Joe’s on Bourbon Street.
I have heard your parents and family are, and have always been, very supportive of your work. When you were very young, was there another profession they may have wanted you to pursue? Is there anything else that you ever wanted to be?
Well, I was definitely not brought up to be a musician. A musician, in terms of the Cajun culture, was associated with debauchery. Musicians stay out late, they drink, and they don’t make that much money. I was brought up in a typical middle-class family, expecting to be a lawyer or a doctor; so I figured a lawyer was good, because you didn’t have to wash your hands as often. So when I went to college it was pre-law, or whatever that meant: but then I smoked a big joint, and it was over [laughs]… it’s like, I don’t want to do this. You know, I can’t do this! It was a real disappointment for my family. I had been such a good student, and although I was a little bit rowdy; for me to go off on a tangent, and be something as exotic as a songwriter/musician, to my parents it was inconceivable. [Zachary did however graduate summa cum laude from Tulane]. Then when I moved to Montreal, and had that first hit record, I flew my parents up to see a show. It was a sold out show, 2,500 seats, a really big deal. Mom tells the story, while they were watching me perform, she turns to my dad and says “Do you recognize him?”, and he says, “I have no idea who that is!” They had never seen me play, and they were not only proud, but surprised.
Did you ever desire attention from MTV and the new “video” generation? Do you have any interest in this type of musical presentation?
Sure! I think anybody who’s not is crazy! We had done a video for Women in the Room, and a video for Come on Sheila, and we’ll probably do a second video for Cap Enragé. Videos are an access to mass culture; it would be great!
Different musical groups have nicknames for their followers. Jimmy Buffet has the “Parrot Heads,” the Grateful Dead have the “Dead Heads,” and your fans call themselves “Crawfish Heads!” What do you think of this Phenomena?
Well you know, you squeeze the tail and you suck the head! That’s good enough for me!
Could you teach us all one line of French, that would make us less linguistically challenged. Something you’d love to hear the world say: what would that be?
That’s easy … Je t’aime! (I love you)