Louis Michot photo by Olivia Perillo
Louis Michot Dreams New Dreams For Rêve du Troubadour
Louis Michot is best known as the fiddler and vocalist for the award-winning Louisiana band Lost Bayou Ramblers and also as the mastermind behind the label Nouveau Electric. But he has recently released his first solo-album which built on his 25 years of experience making and recording music, however also took him into uncharted territory. His album, Rêve du Troubadour, is a fascinating mix of sounds and approaches bound together by a dream-like atmosphere of experimentation. Michot draws on Louisiana French musical traditions, but also more modern elements like hip-hop and electronica to stretch his lyrical and musical potential into new areas.
Born from isolation during the pandemic, and allowed to progress without any specific goals in mind, the collection of songs sees Michot recording real-world sounds of the prairie where he lives at the same time as tracking his new compositions and adding them to the tracks. You’ll also notice another natural element associated with the solo project, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, at times thought to be extinct in Louisiana, but recently championed as a survivor by Michot’s biologist father and his team. The woodpecker comes into the open on the album like the Lousiana French that is often reclusive, but has developed strategies to endure. Both mirror Michot’s first foray into solo work, making new discoveries and allowing instinct to play a role in the outcome of Rêve du Troubadour.
I spoke with Louis Michot about the challenges of playing this music live, stepping into a different kind of role, and how the ideas and sounds on the album connect with his heritage and sense of place.
Americana Highways: I noticed that you’ve been playing live shows for Rêve du Troubadour but the songs are so eclectic, I was wondering if that took a lot of planning.
Louis Michot: We have a venue here, the Maple Leaf, that’s a great place to try out new material, so we did that last January, but it took us a lot of time to get it to work to the point of being able to bring it on stage. With Lost Bayou Ramblers, we’re used to not rehearsing at all, jumping on stage, and playing three-hour gigs. This was exactly the opposite because it’s not in the traditional wheelhouse. We had to really think carefully about how to bring all these arrangements and sounds into a three-piece band.
AH: Listening to this music, it’s across the board. Each song has its own world and doesn’t necessarily follow traditional song structures. There’s a sense of a collage to some of this music, so recreating that live would be challenging.
LM: “Collage” is not at all the wrong word to describe this. I took samples, I took nature sounds, while I was recording this. I used different ideas. I used samples from older things and newer things and brought them together. It was really fun to get it all together for a live performance. I don’t usually perform samples live because I’m so busy performing melodic lead instruments.
AH: That’s another challenge, stepping outside the band situation that you’ve been used to in order to create this solo work. You have to redefine your own role in the music.
LM: Completely! I’ve been the lead singer and fiddle player for multiple bands over the last 25 years. It involved a pattern, including improvisation, since that’s how a lot of creole music works. But for this, I had to relearn my chops on guitar since I’ve been playing fiddle so much. I’ve been working up to being able to play accordion live, which is a whole new challenge. Then, the lyrics on these songs are so much more extensive, using different words and rhythms, and some of them have 13 verses. One of them, the title track, involves me singing and whistling back and forth. It’s just a completely different physical and mental experience than I’ve been used to.
AH: I noticed many of these things, including the sheer amount of lyrics. It must be very tricky to perform them in exactly the same way.
LM: It’s taken me a few tries on some of the longer songs, and I’ve kept a little book for backup in case I need to refresh myself on them. The stories make complete sense and tell themselves now, but it is word-for-word for this album.
AH: I guess it’s ironic that this feels even more like a dramatic performance, somewhere between music and theater. Does that make sense?
LM: Definitely. All my other bands have been dance bands. This has completely been a much more dynamic thing. I’ve never thought of it that way, but calling it “theatrical” definitely works. You start with one piece of a movement and then shift. And we all play about four instruments on stage, so that’s part of the dance. When you put one instrument down, and pick another one up, the vibe changes.
This has been my first experience of singing Louisiana French music and having it go from people dancing and having a good time, to the crowd becoming completely quiet to where you could hear a pin drop. When I shift into some of those quieter songs, I’m in a New Orleans bar, and all of the sudden, you can hear the bartender mixing up a drink instead of everyone talking and dancing. People have never heard the club so quiet. It was almost nerve-wracking the first time I heard that silence at The Maple Leaf. Theatrical is not a bad way to describe it, since the story unfolds, too, and genres move around.
AH: It sounds like you had to really find out what this album was. It doesn’t sound like something that you could sit down and plan, but rather something that you had to watch unfolding. Was this a day-by-day project?
LM: Completely. I think the first thing that I worked on for this project was actually the last song on the album which I had called “French Dove.” I was bored in mid-2020 during the pandemic, and I took a field recording of Columbus Fruge, an accordion player and early Columbia recording artist. I took this interview with him where he was speaking and playing, and I made it my own version of a dub with a beat over it. Over the months, I continued to make little things and rework them into 2021. By early 2022, when I actually decided to do something with it, I had five or six things that I could work with. Then I thought of a few things that I really wanted to do, a few stories that I really wanted to approach.
They all just kind of crawled from different corners and by the time it was time to sequence the album, they all fit together perfectly. It was this homogenous mold, even though they all had such different rhythms. They all had the same feel somehow. And they were all brought together by the fact that I recorded nature at the same exact times that I was recording the music, with two mics outside, and two mics inside. The landscape, the nature, and the isolation was part of the cohesiveness of the album.
AH: This reminds me of musicians who work with found sounds. How unusual was it for you to put mics up outside? Is it something that you’ve done before?
LM: It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do. But I’m a novice engineer. This album, for me, was also the result of having practiced at recording for the past ten years in my spare time. I knew how the process worked for me. Whenever I make a demo, I get attached to the demo, and whenever I go to re-record it, I want it to sound like the demo. It’s “demo-itis.” So I knew that I had to record it right. I kept things not too soft, not too loud, without extraneous noise, but at the same time, I’ve always wanted to record a Louisiana soundscape, which is using the soundscapes that you hear in everyday life, like car wheels on a gravel road, or the cicadas or frogs at night, even waves. I’ve been slowly collecting a few soundscapes. I actually did use the waves that I recorded on the beach from 2021, from Grand Isle, Louisiana, before Hurricane Ida hit. I used that on track number seven, since it’s about seas and such.
But for the rest of the album, I put two pencil mics outside and recorded most of the original tracks in a houseboat on a trailer. My engineer mentor, Korey Richie, who works at LCD Soundsystem now, and has produced the Lost Bayou Ramblers albums, had given me this houseboat since he built a bigger, better one. I renovated it during the pandemic and set up my little four-track studio. I had two tracks dedicated to the front porch of this houseboat facing the prairie, since I live in a very remote area.
As the seasons and days would change, I’d be picking things up at certain times. It was such a long process that I was able to capture different times of day and times of the season, but always while I was recording actual songs. If you were to isolate the landscape tracks, you’d actually hear me playing and singing inside the boat. I did have to make sure that there were no airplanes flying over! That happened towards the end of track four, but I finished just in time.
I did use the 1935 recording of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker on “Boscoyo Fleaux.” I don’t know if you heard the story of this, but it’s a bird that has been on the brink of extinction for the past 100 years and my father, Tommy Michot, has been looking for it for 50 years. He’s a Ph.D. biologist and an accordion player, and they finally have some findings that will keep the bird off the extinction list. He raised me playing music.
AH: I noticed this woodpecker in the imagery for this album, and in this song. He’s even on your tour T-shirts. You also have a great portal on your website about it. That’s amazing that your dad found new evidence.
LM: He and his colleagues have been working extensively at a camp in the woods. I’ve been likening the Ivory-billed Woodpecker to the language, because people come down here and say, “Oh, do people still speak French? No, that’s long-gone.” Obviously, a big part of our generational stigma here has been “to French or not to French.” My grandparents were both educators and would not allow their children to speak French because it was illegal. It was looked down upon and was associated with poverty.
So it’s like looking for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker when you’re looking for people who speak French. They do, but they are shy about it. The Woodpecker knows not to go out in public, but stays alive by hiding, and that’s how French has existed in Louisiana. We’re also losing our native speaking population and now it’s people like me, who have learned it by teaching myself.
AH: I could tell that the woodpecker had added significance to the album and that comparison works really well. That really sums it up.
LM: It was kind of like with the record itself, the woodpecker idea wasn’t really planned, it was just one more example of how things just fit into place, you know? I didn’t even think to put the woodpecker on it, until I got to record the song with Dickie Landry. That goes back to the 1970s when my uncle played that same recording for Dickie Landry and he used that as inspiration for a piece that he did at a big arts festival, “The Call of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker.” I played him the recording, and he remembered it. Elements have found their way into these recordings pretty organically.
AH: I heard that you intentionally used more lyrics on these songs to preserve and share more Lousiana French. Was that a goal?
LM: What I’m doing here is trying to broaden the vocabulary of Lousiana French in the music because, although music has been the largest vehicle to try to keep the language alive, it’s also narrowed the vocabulary because the subject matter in the songs has always been pretty similar. We joke that every song is “You left me to go with another…” For this album, I reached deep to bring different words and ways of saying things. I used that to learn different terminology myself and words not usually used in songs. Whether it’s about gardening, or seasons, or walks of life that aren’t usually represented in songs. That’s another thing that I was able to bring forward with this album.
AH: Because the songs are all so different, that probably helped to cast the net wider.
LM: Yes, definitely. Every song is so different that each has its own wheelhouse of terminology.
Thank you so much for speaking with us, Louis Michot! Find more details and the latest information on his website, here: https://www.louismichot.com/