Theresa Andersson: Flying Home

Music Features Theresa Andersson
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The Muses Parade, which always rolls the Thursday evening before Fat Tuesday, is one of the most beloved of all Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans. On February 16 this year, I found myself on Napoleon Avenue near Perrier Street as a tractor-pulled trailer carrying a 10-foot-tall high-heel shoe covered in purple Christmas lights emerged from the dusk. Standing atop the shoe was actress Patricia Clarkson, tossing plastic bling to a few favored watchers. Behind her came a swarm of giant butterflies, their neon-flashing wings fluttering above their operators’ heads. There were gas-fed torches swaying atop dancing flambeurs and double-decker floats from which masked women tossed beads and plastic high heels.

The overhanging live oaks on both sides of Napoleon Avenue, already dripping with plastic beads from earlier parades, seemed to form a tunnel. About halfway through the parade, a giant white egret appeared at the end of that tunnel. As it slowly drew closer, one could see that its flapping wings and bobbing head were operated by puppeteers with long black sticks. Riding the crane as if it were a race horse was Theresa Andersson, one of the city’s most popular indie-rockers. Her long red hair spilled down over her gold-sequin-and-red-lace bustier, and her gown’s long train, festooned with pink and orange circles, fell over her maroon velvet pants and pink boots. Through her headset mic, she was singing “Hold on to Me” from her forthcoming album, Street Parade. Marching before her were her backing singers, all wearing silver Mylar capes; marching behind her was a brass band, each musician wearing a cardboard crown that depicted a different architectural highlight of the city.

“I felt like I was floating down the street,” she recalled two days later, “like I was seven years old again reading my favorite book about a crane. I didn’t want it to end. I wanted to give people a storybook experience, and because we were so well-prepared, I think we did that. People were shouting out beautiful things, and I recognized a lot of familiar faces. You can see things really well when you’re in a parade, and I was sitting 12 feet up in the air on a seat 12 inches square.”

One gets a similar sense of floating reverie from Andersson’s new album, finally released today. There’s a ghostly dreaminess to the vocal harmonies, keyboards and horn arrangements that wash up against and often submerge the marching rhythms. Most parade songs are written as if you’re in the middle of the parade, but these are written as if you’re on the sidewalk watching the parade go by as different sounds approach and then dwindle away.

There have been dozens of songs that celebrate New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, but almost all of them celebrate the giddiness of the procession at full throttle—when the horns are blasting, the drums banging, the marchers high-stepping and the sidewalk throngs screaming. By contrast, the title track of Andersson’s Street Parade captures that moment right after the parade, when the floats have turned the corner, when the crowd starts to disperse and the city workers come through to sweep up the broken beads and empty beer cans.

That moment echoed Andersson’s own feelings at the beginning of 2010. Her previous album, 2008’s Hummingbird, Go!, had been so successful that she’d been able to tour behind it for almost two years. It was a one-woman show, and while the 90 minutes on stage were exhilarating, as was the half hour of meet-and-greet afterwards, the other 22 hours each day were often lonely. This dichotomy was driven home when the tour finally ended in time for her to come home for Mardi Gras.

“I watched the parades from a friend’s house uptown,” she said, “and I noticed that when the floats had gone by, the parade just fizzled out; there was no big finale. There was this lull between parades where it got really quiet. You were sad that something was over, but then the anticipation built for the next parade. I thought, ‘This is a metaphor for my life right now. I’m with people and it’s noisy, then I’m alone and it’s quiet.’ That hour and a half with the audience is explosive and exciting, but then you’re alone again back in the van, driving to the next venue. It can be pretty depressing. So you get these extreme highs and lows.”

Hummingbird, Go! had been a breakthrough album for Andersson thanks in large part to the viral video for the opening track, “Na Na Na”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n2eD4GcLohE. In that clip the red-ponytailed singer/songwriter stands barefoot and alone on her kitchen’s gray-diamond linoleum. She strums the mountain dulcimer sitting on two green barstools by the refrigerator and with her toes twists and taps the foot pedals that record those strums as a repeating loop. She bounces across the kitchen to a drum set, handling the sticks with her hands and handling the recording controls with her naked feet. In much the same way, she loops harmony vocals and classical guitar, her dexterous toes grabbing the right knob from the 14 possibilities each time. With her bangs falling in her face, Andersson sings a compelling lead vocal while her busy feet trigger certain tracks and mute others.

“Using my toes is a new skill set I had to learn,” she told me in 2008. “Sometimes I have to leap from one pedal to another, or from the drums to the dulcimer, while playing an instrument, without losing my balance. I actually took a ballet class from my friend, because I couldn’t always keep my balance. My toes do a lot of work these days, so I take very good care of them, I make them pretty. I carry a white shag rug with me when I tour.”

She had recorded the album in that same kitchen and had toured behind the record with a similar, sample-and-loop, one-woman show. The experience changed the way she wrote songs. Previously she had always written with an acoustic guitar in typical singer/songwriter fashion; even on Hummingbird, Go! the pedals had been used for recording but not for songwriting. For Street Parade, however, she used the pedals from the songs’ inception.

“If I rely just on the chords from the guitar,” she explained, “it’s a narrow sound, but when I use the loop pedals, it becomes much more panoramic. I can instantly create vocal harmonies and horn parts. I can hear everything instantly, so I can play with the harmonies and flow with them. Once I create that palette of harmonies, I weave a melody through it. It’s inspired by Duke Ellington; I believe he did the same thing, only he had a whole band at his disposal instead of pedals.”

Andersson explained all this from the front room of her double-shotgun house on Algiers Point. While most of New Orleans sits on the East Bank of the Mississippi River, a small sliver of the city sits on the West Bank, and Algiers Point, facing the French Quarter across the water, is there. The singer’s egret-riding costume hung from a door that led back to the kitchen where she shot her famous video. Sitting at the kitchen table were her husband Arthur Mintz and their eight-month-old daughter Elsie.

“When we recorded Street Parade, this room was the control room and all the horn players were in the next room. I’ve been around horns in New Orleans ever since I got here when I was 18,” the Swedish native said, “but I’d never written for them. But with my pedals I could sing the parts for each horn and hear how they fit together. I kept painting with instruments that way before I ever brought the horn players in. When I did, I quickly realized I had to adjust to the player and the moment; I had to know where I was going and help them get there.”

Andersson had recruited New Orleans poet Jessica Faust to write the lyrics for five of the songs on Hummingbird, Go!, and that went so well that Faust wrote all the lyrics for Street Parade. Just as Andersson didn’t want to play the tuba or trombone on the record without being an expert, neither did she want to write the lyrics. She gave her collaborator wordless demos of the developing songs along with a tentative title. The two women would talk about the feelings and experiences that went into the songs and then Faust would go off on her own to craft text for the music.

“Jessica teaches at LSU,” Andersson explained, “and I contacted her about getting some poems by female poets. She sent me a few and slipped some of her own in there—and hers were the ones that made me cry. She had never written lyrics before, but I liked that she came from a different perspective. Hearing her lyrics is like reading a really good story; they put you in a different place, a dreamy place. They’re a bit melancholy perhaps; some are about independence after a relationship breaks up, which is what Jessica was going through. As a woman, I’ve been there, so it felt fine to sing them even though I’m happy now.”

Andersson has spent her adult life in New Orleans, and that city’s carnival spirit dominates the album. But she spent the first 18 years of her life on Gotland Island in Sweden, and her native land still influences everything she does. She maintains a home in Sweden in addition to the one in Louisiana. It was her favorite Swedish children’s book, Selma Lagerlöf’s The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, about a boy who shrinks and rides birds, that inspired the egret puppet in the Muses Parade. Peter Moren of the Swedish trio Peter Bjorn and John sings a duet on “What Comes Next,” and the whole Street Parade CD was produced by fellow Gotlander Tobias Froberg. Scandinavian shadows dapple the music with doubt and second thoughts.

“My harmonic palette is influenced by Sweden,” Andersson admitted. “I like singing in minor keys—even on uptempo songs. I can’t get away from that.”

Nonetheless, New Orleans is where she spends most of her time. As we said goodbye on her front porch with its green pillars and small facing garden, we could see the Mississippi River levee a block and a half away. She gazed at it and admitted that the city, despite all its problems, keeps drawing her back.

“I love flying home and coming into the airport,” she said. “It’s a real welcoming view as you come in low over the marshlands and see the city off to the side. It’s like you’re riding a giant egret over the swamps.”