Hugh Laurie: On the road with an unlikely blues legend
Sunday 15 May 2011
It's all Mrs Hare's fault. When he was a nipper in a comfortable Oxford household, an Eton boy and the youngest son of a GP, Hugh Laurie was told to learn the classical horn. He lasted three weeks. Mrs Hare's efforts to teach him the instrument came to naught. But she did leave one lasting impression on young Laurie: one day, flipping to page 26 in the book of sheet music, she came across "Swanee River". "Negro spiritual, slightly syncopated," she said drily to her pupil.
She wasn't, it was clear, much interested. But Laurie was intrigued. Over the following decades, via his self-taught piano ramblings and enthusiastic record-shop research, he went on to explore the traditional American song – its genealogy, its rhythms, its meaning, its emotional power. Now, at age 51, after a lifetime digging the blues, "'Swanee River'," says the actor, "means a lot to me.
"Pete Johnson did the first boogie-woogie version," he expands, "and he played about five million miles an hour – because boogie-woogie back then was sort of the heavy metal of his day. Pete Johnson was a shredder – he would absolutely tear it up. That was part of the thrill of it, [hearing] that sort of virtuosity."
Other records that mean a lot to the star of A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Blackadder, Jeeves and Wooster, Stuart Little and (currently approaching the end of its seventh season) hit American medical drama House: "I Can't Quit You Baby", by Willie Dix, which Laurie heard when he was 11 or 12, and which he credits as being the first blues song to make the "hairs on the back of my neck stand up"; Muddy Waters' Live at Mr Kelly's on second-hand vinyl, which was the first album he bought; and all 15 of the standards (including "Swanee River") the actor covers on his own first album.
Let Them Talk is the sound of one man's passion, and it's very – you might say surprisingly – good. Laurie is the first to admit it's an unlikely scenario. Indeed, on paper, of all Britain's 1980s-era alternative-comedy veterans, his old Cambridge Footlights chum Stephen Fry is arguably a more likely candidate to be singin' the blues. Fry's psychological CV takes in a famously troubled youth, a stint in jail and depression. Laurie, meanwhile, is currently the highest-paid actor on American television, has some 25 million Facebook "likes" courtesy of the popularity of Dr Gregory House, and is a heart-throb across the world.
As he writes with pithy self-deprecation by way of introduction to the album: "I was not born in Alabama in the 1890s. You may as well know this now. I've never eaten grits, cropped a share or ridden a boxcar. No gypsy woman said anything to my mother when I was born and there's no hellhound on my trail, as far as I can judge. Let this record show that I am a white, middle-class Englishman, openly trespassing on the music and myth of the American South."
Mr Laurie tells the story of Mrs Hare from the floor of the old Louisiana State Bank in New Orleans. It's now called Latrobe's, and is one of this musical city's loveliest venues. He is playing here tonight in front of a small, invited audience, not to mention television cameras recording this debut performance for a special show to be broadcast in the US and the UK. As befits an album inspired by New Orleans' rich musical heritage, he is accompanied by some accomplished local players, as well as two of the Crescent City's greatest musical legends, the producer/arranger Allen Toussaint and the singer Irma Thomas. Sir Tom Jones, who also appears on Let Them Talk, has flown in from Los Angeles specially to sing one song with Laurie: "Baby, Please Make a Change".
While Laurie humorously but genuinely genuflects before his musical compadres, he's no slouch himself. He's a natural at the piano – he says he plays it every day at home in LA, where he's been based for seven years now – and is patently comfortable with the 1935 vintage Martin acoustic guitar that he fell in love with as soon as he spotted it. "You wanna cover it in cream and eat it," he grins, sounding not unlike one of his buffoonish Blackadder characters.
It's a riveting, engaging performance of an authentic-feeling, warm album. Laurie's four-decades-long appreciation and understanding of the blues is evident in the song selection; in the relaxed, emotive way he plays his instruments; and in his singing voice – cool, gravelly, hypnotic, a bit Tom Waits-goes-Home Counties.
The morning after the concert, I meet Laurie in a historic, early-19th-century mansion in New Orleans' French Quarter. He takes part in a short press conference with half-a-dozen non-English-speaking journalists – House is a hit all over the world – then we both repair to a drawing-room of the drowsy adjacent hotel to talk in more detail.
We discuss the blues. It, rather than pop or rock or punk, was the music that transfixed teenage Hugh Laurie. Is that perhaps because it's an immersive musical form, rich in history and narratives and personalities? You can dive deep into this stuff. "One can dive very, very deep," he nods in reply. "It has very many elements to it. And all those historical elements are true. But also, I remember reading once – I think it was an observation of Robert Palmer – that although a lot of the early blues heroes were men, in its original form, the blues might actually be a female form. And that it really originates from a lullaby. There is that repetitive crooning of a couple of lines. There is something soothing about explaining away the troubles of the day."
Laurie has battled his own emotional demons, and is no stranger to the psychiatrist's chair. When, at the press conference, I asked him if his love of the blues in his youth marked him as an old soul, he replied: "Probably that's true... And I might even have been, for that reason, a slightly lonely soul. Because I didn't have that sort of communal, tribal thing of sharing [musical passion] with people. Why is that? You know, I never even looked into that. Obviously that's another £20,000 worth of psychotherapy. Thanks!"
Now he expands on the blues' hold on him.
"Of course it brings all the other things, too – it brings sex and love and dance. But in its first instance, with the likes of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, those very first singers were female. And maybe I'm seeking a lullaby," he muses. "Maybe that's what I'm after, some soothing..."
A reflective and analytical man – and clearly something of a worry-wart – Laurie scratches a stubbly chin and considers what's he's just said. "I mean, it can be disturbing, too, it's not sugary. But maybe there is some soothing element to the blues form."
Laurie has previously indicated that his relationship with his mother wasn't smooth. I ask him: as the youngest of four did he embrace the blues because he thought, "I need that cuddle"? "Ah..." he smiles. "See, I feel I've got to be careful now." He's aware that he's previously been painted as a troubled, sad malcontent in the media. "Hugh Laurie needs a cuddle," he says, imagining the headline. "Well, comfort, yes..." He pauses and smiles again. "Let it be noted that I didn't go with cuddle."
Are there elements of acting on Let Them Talk? He sings in an American accent that befits the songs' provenance. "Yeah, that's a tricky one, isn't it? I'm well aware it will sound very different to a British audience than to an American." Americans, you see, have no sense that his normal speaking voice is rather pukka English. They see no "discordance" because, due to House, they think he is American.
"When people go to the English National Opera," he continues, "they see opera in English – aggressively in English. I mean, is that more or less [authentic]? Is it affected for English singers to sing in Italian? Well, no, it's written that way. That's the idiom. That's the form. You can then translate it if you want. I don't quite see the problem, to be honest. The form is the form. And I don't really feel inclined to worry about that too much. Although," he adds, "I say that sitting in America, where there's basically much less apologising going on. That's one of the things I love about his country."
Stephen Fry has spoken on this point too. He laments the British "Must I?" attitude versus the American "Can do" approach. "Yeah, yeah, it's undeniable," agrees Laurie. He's said before that he wasn't looking for a lead actor role in a serious US drama when House came knocking; if it had been a BBC drama about a north London GP, he'd have been equally interested. He insists he's never been a man who thinks strategically about his career.
"I'm quite into the details of things, and I concentrate very hard on the thing that's in front of me. But I don't really think very hard about the thing three months away. I assume I'll be dead by then. It's why I quite often agree to do things that I subsequently wish I'd never agreed to."
Nonetheless, after seven years living and working in LA, he's found American positivism fundamentally appealing. "To be free of the whole self-effacement dance is very liberating. Americans just don't understand that at all... They have energy and optimism, and those are attractive things."
Has that benefited his art – or arts – during his time here? "It's possible, I suppose. I think what's more likely is that I had a really rare opportunity to reinvent. Actors – well, most of us – are dragging our lives around behind us, like tin cans behind a just-married couple. And to be able to cut those strings and leave the tins cans behind and naturally reinvent yourself – well, not consciously reinvent," he qualifies, "I didn't bleach my hair and change my name or anything. But to start again, that's an incredible gift. I'm very lucky to have had that chance."
So he loves what House has done for him, even if it's meant being apart from his family – his wife Jo spends half of each month in LA, half at their London home; their three children, aged 17, 20 and 22, are doing their own things in England. But he's less comfortable with what the show's success has done to him. He still can't get his head around his celebrity. Nor his, if you like, pin-up status.
"That takes some getting used to," he says with a rueful wince. "No, it doesn't take any getting used to cos I haven't got used to it. I know it's nothing to do with me in as much as I don't write the show. I'm doing my bit but I know that what they're responding to is a fictional character.
"I've had the most extraordinary things. I've had a woman writing to me asking if I would visit her dying mother because her mother had fixated on the idea that her only hope was this character. And I suppose she had some hope that [Dr House] would provide some solution or comfort."
Of course, he doesn't want to deny someone their last wish. But, well, he had to. "But also, I can't, I'm not..." Laurie stutters, his normal, flowing eloquence evaporating as this naturally private man contemplates the disconnect between his public profile and his real self. "You can't provide a fictional character to treat your mother. I'm not him. I'm not him," he repeats, with some pained feeling.
In any case, he may not be him for much longer. This summer, Laurie begins filming season eight of House. It's the last for which he's contracted, "and it's further than they've got most of the rest of the actors. It's further than they've got the writers for."
Would he be happy to end the show's run then? He nods. "If we end in good shape, and we leave with our dignity intact."
And then what? Return to the UK? "Yes, I think so. But I would keep coming back – certainly I'd keep coming to New Orleans, a lot. I've got a great affection for the States. Los Angeles is a fantastic place to work. I don't know what it's like to live there without a job. I think people find that hard. People could get very isolated, and go very bad."
Stephen Fry, as it happens, is about to film a pilot for a new drama for HBO (home of The Wire and the New Orleans-set Treme). What advice would Laurie give his best friend about working in the US?
"Get plenty of sleep before you start!" he says. "Cos, fuck me, they work hard. I think they're worse than the Japanese. I don't mean worse... but they work. I go into work on Monday morning – I'm usually on the road about five, 5.30 – and there are shops and offices opening – or open. People are at work. The roads are busy – at 5.30!"
Six weeks after New Orleans, Laurie is back in London. He and his band have just headlined the Cheltenham Jazz Festival. "It seemed to go well," he says, but thinks that, "We were a little bit rough around the edges." Tonight, he's playing at the Union Chapel in Islington. It's a more rollicking, looser show than Latrobe's, and Laurie is clearly in his element, settling into the role of rock'n'roll(ish) frontman. Self-effacing to the last, he refuses to countenance the possibility that he might have a hit record on his hands (even as Let Them Talk has broken the pre-order sales record on iTunes and has garnered positive advance critical notices). But he concedes that, when he returns to the House set in LA in a couple of months, he might do so with a newfound "spring" in his step.
"And also some sort of confidence – [because] I've tackled something outside. Because I have been doing something for seven years now. Although it's been very intense, it's been very circumscribed."
For someone who has acted, directed, written a novel and now sung, "doing one thing" for so long has exacted its price. So, "to step outside and do something else" has been a thrill. "Something challenging and frightening and that carries with it all sorts of risks of failure and public humiliation – to face that and get some pleasure out of it... Yeah, I think it gives a fellow some confidence. There may be life outside of the reservation that I've been on for all that time."
All of which begs the question: given that he's been digging the blues ever since Mrs Hare's pursed-lip comment about "Swanee River", why has it taken him so long to do this? "I can only think that it was lack of nerve. And maybe intimations of mortality."
Hugh Laurie admits that his comment in New Orleans about him dying three months hence had some "flippancy" about it. But it also had some truth. "When you start realising that you're gonna be on this Earth for a finite time, it starts to change the decisions you make, and the way you look at the future. And also the past. And I just thought, I cannot be dithering any longer. I can't be faking it forever. I've got to do this for real. Because this is what I love to do and I will never forgive myself if I don't."
'Let Them Talk' by Hugh Laurie is out now on Warner. 'Perspectives: Hugh Laurie Down by the River', exploring his trip to New Orleans, is on ITV1 at 10.15pm tonight
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