Hugh Laurie: Why he's singing the blues (+video)

By Lydia Jenkin

Hugh Laurie is playing in Auckland in April.
Hugh Laurie is playing in Auckland in April.

He's inhabited so many distinctive characters over the years that it's hard to know exactly who to expect when Hugh Laurie answers the phone at his current home in Los Angeles. Cranky American doctor? Eccentric lovelorn mad scientist? Comically gormless aristocrat?

The man you end up speaking to is an articulate English gentleman who's head-over-heels in love with the blues, can't believe his luck that he's been given the great privilege of recording his own work in this American music tradition, and is delighted to be heading our way to perform a full length concert with his compadres - The Copperbottom Band.

"It's almost indecent, how much fun I'm having doing this, it's sort of embarrassing" he enthuses.

Indeed, having finished filming House in 2011, and spaced out his film commitments, he's since been delving into the world of blues, soul, tango, Southern and South American sounds, and making two albums on which he sings and plays guitar and piano.

You get the impression he would willingly talk about music for hours - it's a passion he's had from a very young age, despite the fact that his family weren't really a musical bunch.

"I was sort of the odd one out. My grandmother used to play the piano, and she had a piano that she left us, but I was pretty much the only one who played it. And I didn't play it formally for very long at all, because I hated piano lessons. In fact even now, I shouldn't get started on the subject because I get all wound up, thinking about the way music is taught to children. But I gave it up, and didn't go back until I was in my late teens. And of course now, all these decades later, I'm hugely regretting all the work I didn't do, and all the scales I didn't practice and so on. But there we go, you can't go back."

It was a song called I Can't Quit You Baby by Willie Dixon, heard on the radio, that gave him his first taste of the blues bug several years later, and then there really was no going back.

"It was the first time I'd heard anything like it. It was like an electric shock. There's a thing called the blue note, it's a sound in between a major and minor third, and it's not really possible to render it, or notate it in classical western music, but it's a sound that's so brilliant, it really was like an electric shock when I heard it. I knew that I'd found the thing that I would love for the rest of my life."

So given his talents in acting, comedy, and writing, what is it about the blues that resonates so deeply with Laurie, and why does he see it as such a wonderful art form?

"I just think it has endless possibility to express what it means to be alive. All human life seems to be in this music. I guess for people who don't listen to it much it's become associated with this melancholic, 'woe is me' sort of sentiment, but to me, it's all human life. There's joy, and love, and sex, and aggression, and despair, and anger, and righteousness, and so many things. I find it endlessly thrilling."

Interestingly enough, it took Laurie a long time to visit America's deep south, and see the birthplace of the blues in the flesh, because he was worried it wouldn't measure up to his expectations.

"Even though New Orleans had been my sort of holy city, like my musical Jerusalem, I didn't go there for a long time because I actually feared it would not be what I hoped it would be.

"It can be like that with people you really, really admire too, I'm actually nervous of meeting them in case they turn out not to be what I thought they were. I've never met Clint Eastwood, and I think it's probably right that I don't meet him, because I have this picture in my head that I'm content with.

"So it was sort of the same with New Orleans. It was such a magical place in my head, I was worried that when I got there it would just be banks and shoe shops and Starbucks like everywhere else.

"I'm happy to say, it isn't. It exceeded my expectations, which were pretty damn high. It's all that and more. It's one of those cities that seems to draw people. It's quite a small place - I think now, after Katrina, it's under a million people, so it's not a sprawling metropolis - but it's in the right place, and it's influence on world culture is just beyond measure."

Of course, he was tempted to stay once he'd become so entranced, and he thinks moving there is still on the cards.

"I think it's a real possibility. I love it. There's a piano player called Jon Cleary, who's actually probably about my age I think, and I first saw him in London 25 years ago, playing at a Pizza Express, and he went and did the thing I dreamed of doing.

"He saved up a few hundred quid, got on a boat, got to New Orleans, got a job, and he's now part of this amazing circle of musicians. It's a well-trodden path, and one the I might one day follow" he laughs.

Despite his passion for the blues, the idea of recording an album initially terrified him. Creating Let Them Talk filled him with doubts - about being an imposter, being white, being English, being authentic, and trying to overcome thoughts of "who the hell do I think I am?"

But in the end it all came off well enough for him to go back for a second round with Didn't It Rain, so it must've been a little easier the second time round?

"Maybe a little bit, although in a way, because I come from this rather stern Presbyterian family, where things being easy is not considered to be a good thing, I've still got that in me a little bit, so I worry that if things are easy, it probably means they're not good enough, so sometimes I make things much harder than they need to be just for the hell of it. No pain no gain sort of thing.

"But to tell you the truth it probably has become a little easier. I've become more familiar with the whole process, and I don't quite feel like a man falling down stairs. I've slightly got my bearings. And we've done about 100 live shows now, and it's definitely better. It's funnier, it's more dramatic, we play together better, and I just love the process of it all growing and developing. It really is thrilling."

He is profusive in his praise for the band, and for Joe Henry, his producer, who put the band together, and helps him to whittle down a great list of songs to the 13 or so which fill each album - ranging from old traditionals by Jelly Roll Morton and WC Handy, to more contemporary artists like Dr John.

"A few months before we go into the studio we'd start swapping gigantic playlists with two hundred songs, and Joe would call me up and say, 'Have you ever heard this?' and I would say 'My god, you've got to hear that'. And then we'd start weeding them down, working out which ones could work.

"It's a weird thing, you just sort of have a feel for the mood of the record, for taking people on a journey that will go through different emotions, different kinds of stories, textures, and you just assemble it as best you can. All I can really say is that they're all songs I love."

If all this enthusiasm makes it sound like Laurie should've been making blues records his whole life, well, the thought has crossed his mind. But of course he has no regrets about his illustrious acting career - and neither is he giving it up.

"I'm very aware that having been an actor is a very large part of the reason that I'm in this position now.

"It would be very ungrateful of me to disown any of the other decisions I've made or things I've done, because they're why I am where I am, so I'm not at all regretful. I've done many things I'm very proud of, and I've wound up in this incredible position to be able to do the things I love, but who knows how it would've turned out if I'd committed to music at the age of 15. It might've been terrible.

"These things are unknowable, and it's probably best that way" he laughs.

TimeOut

Lowdown

Who: Hugh Laurie and the Copperbottom Band

Where and when: Performing at the Civic Theatre on Tuesday April 15

Listen to: Let Them Talk (2011), Didn't It Rain (2013)

- NZ Herald

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