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'Bringing Back The Home': Jon Cleary Celebrates The Soul Of New Orleans

Jon Cleary's new album, <em>GoGo Juice</em>, is out now. (Don't fret: He doesn't really know what gogo juice is, either.)
Danielle Moir
Courtesy of the artist
Jon Cleary's new album, GoGo Juice, is out now. (Don't fret: He doesn't really know what gogo juice is, either.)

Jon Cleary's songwriting is pure New Orleans. The pianist and singer has absorbed every last bit of sound from the Mississippi delta. But here's the thing: Cleary was born and raised in England.

Still, as Cleary tells All Things Considered guest host Tess Vigeland, his music-loving family provided him with a line to the Crescent City from an early age. "My uncle lived in New Orleans when I was a little kid and came back with suitcases full of funky 45s," Cleary says. "My mum loved New Orleans jazz, we had R&B and soul and jazz music in the house ... And so it would have been strange if I'd come up playing anything else, really."

In 1980, when he was 17, Cleary left the U.K. and moved to New Orleans himself. He didn't have much of a plan, but he did have with him a matchbox bearing the phone number of the Maple Leaf Bar, where he almost immediately took up residence.

"Very funky, full of eccentric characters and ne'er-do-wells," Cleary says of the Maple Leaf. "Music every night. It was a combination bar, laundromat and gun shop."

During those first years in New Orleans, Cleary absorbed the music of legendary R&B pianist James Booker, a regular at the Maple Leaf. At a bar across the street, he'd listen to The Meters, The Neville Brothers and Clifton Chenier.

"I felt like I'd died and gone to heaven," Cleary says. "It was just incredible, so funky. Coming from England, which was pretty grim at that time, it was like going from black-and-white to color."

35 years later, Cleary has made New Orleans his home, and he's still reveling in the city and its quirks. Take the title song of his new album, GoGo Juice — what is gogo juice, anyway?

"I wish someone would tell me!" Cleary says with a laugh. "I've got no idea what it is. I collect funny words and funny expressions — as a songwriter, it's a habit you have to get into. And that particular song is comprised entirely out of nonsense lyrics that I jotted down, that I've overheard. And so I don't even know what it is, but it's kind of a metaphor for whatever turns you on, really."

One song on Cleary's new album, "Bringing Back The Home," resonates particularly strongly this month, which marks the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the catastrophic floods that overtook his adopted hometown. Cleary says it's hard for New Orleanians to be reminded of the storm, but that he wanted to celebrate the city and its people, including those who still haven't made it home.

"'The heartbeat and the soul of the people of the city of New Orleans is the home of the greatest gift America gave the world: jazz, funk, rhythm and blues and soul,'" Cleary says, quoting a few lines from "Bringing Back The Home." "The point being, you know, the buildings were damaged, but the real lifeblood of New Orleans ... is its people."

Cleary was on the road touring when Katrina hit, and he says it was a while before he was able to get back to New Orleans. But when he did return, he saw moments of beauty as the city — and everyone in it — began the process of recovery.

"Something that tickled me was being in the checkout line at the grocery store and seeing people recognize one another and exchange their stories of where they'd been and when they got back," Cleary says, "and nearly everybody, unanimously, came around very quickly to the topic of food.

"They all were saying, 'Boy, I was in Texas, and the people were nice, but I couldn't eat that food.' Or 'I was in California, I was really missing my remoulade, my etouffee, and we had to get someone to ship out some D&D sausage so we could make the beans taste right.' Everyone was just talking about food, they were so happy to be back home so they could cook some food that tasted right."

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