LAFAYETTE — A demitasse of espresso beside him, Zachary Richard stares wistfully from his front porch into the rows of live oaks he planted 30 years ago when he built his Acadian-style house on a few acres north of Scott, La. The trees, like the singer-songwriter who planted them, have matured into elegant expressions of south Louisiana.
"What I do as a French songwriter is what I do as an English songwriter, and that is to express the emotions that inspired the song with as much elegance and simplicity and power as I can," he says.
Those emotions run deep on Le Fou, his 20th album and arguably his best. Searingly understated, personal yet universal and graced with impeccable musicians including locals Sonny Landreth and Roddie Romero, Le Fou traverses an emotional landscape pitted with environmental peril, love and longing and questions of identity. There's hardly a song on Le Fou you can call straight-up, traditional Cajun or zydeco — much of the record is, simply and beautifully, acoustic folk/pop — save for his cover of the traditional zydeco number "Bee de la Manche," the only tune on the record Richard didn't write himself or with collaborators. But the indigenous rhythms, instruments and melodies of Acadiana imbue the music with a sense of place. It's almost as if, with each passing record, Richard is reinterpreting his native south Louisiana, and but for one stanza in one song, the album is also entirely en francais.
"The songs write themselves — I don't choose the language," he explains. "Once the language declares itself, then I have to obey the declaration; I don't really have a premonition or a method or an idea what language the song is going to want to be written in."
But geography, he adds, has a lot to do with the language in which he composes. "I think it has a lot to do with where I am in life physically," he says. "If I hear a lot of English it means that mostly English will come out. A lot of those songs were written while I was touring in Quebec after the (BP) oil spill that summer. I was in this context that was deeply Francophone, so I'm not surprised that it happened mostly in French."
The record is being released in the U.S. this month, although it's been on iTunes and out in Canada for a while. The decision to debut the record in Canada was an obvious one — that's where Richard butters his bread. He's a multi-platinum artist north of the border, more likely to be asked for an autograph in a Montreal cafe than at Early's Food Store in his hometown. (The City-Parish Council voted in late March to request that the state Department of Transportation rename that stretch of Highway 93, notably home to The Best Stop Supermarket, "Zachary Richard Highway." Richard also was honored recently as the most recent James William Rivers Prize winner by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette's Center for Louisiana Studies, joining such past recipients as Ernest Gaines, A. Hays Town and James Lee Burke.)
Translated, the album's title means "the crazy," and its cover bears a photograph of Richard, barefoot in a suit, standing on a beach with one leg and his arms raised like a teenaged Ralph Macchio. But it's not an autobiographical presentation.
"Le Fou, you would think that it's about me being 'the crazy,' but there was actually some thought given to it," he says. "The posture that I'm holding, it's not like the Karate Kid. Actually, it's the crane [a tai chi position]."
This is where it gets a little nuanced, which is typical of Richard: The album's title comes from "fou de Bassan," the French name for the northern gannet, a seabird that, like the songwriter, splits its time between Canada and Louisiana. Richard says an oil-covered northern gannet was the first bird to be pulled from the polluted Gulf of Mexico and cleaned following the BP oil disaster in the spring of 2010 — an event that deeply affected a songwriter long known for his support of environmental causes.
"It's all about the oil spill," he says. "The concept was, OK, you buy the record and think, 'This guy thinks he's crazy.' But you listen to the song and you realize, 'Wait a minute, it's not about this guy — it's about a bird that was in the oil spill in 2010.'"
Le Fou almost didn't happen. Following the oil disaster, as Richard was writing songs for the record, he spearheaded a series of concerts in Canada over the summer and into the fall of 2010 to raise money for victims in Louisiana, pushing his physical and emotional limits. While home in Scott in October and with the compositions just about complete, he suffered a stroke that put him in the hospital for five days and in physical therapy for months. He still has some residual numbness on his left side, although the stroke never impaired his singing or ability to play music.
"I think the most significant ... aspect of that experience was realizing that one day I'm going to die," he says.
He was 60 at the time and in vigorous health. He isn't joking when he says the stress of organizing the benefit concerts played a role in the stroke. "I'm a musician, not a politician, and I didn't have any talent for controlling the stress of all of that," he says, adding in jest, "I think I got a stroke because of the oil spill. Maybe I should be suing BP."
He's not suing BP, Le Fou was released, and the 13-track record is a gift. From the fierce opening track "Laisse Le Vent Souffler" ("Let the Storm Wind Blow") through the bluesy "Crevasse Crevasse" (Richard blows a mean little harp on this one) to the majestic finality of "Les Ailes des Hirondelles" ("The Wings of the Swallow"), Le Fou is Zachary Richard at his best.
The songs shift from plaintive and pleading to bouncing, playful and uplifting, peeling away the layers of Richard's influences and reconstituting them into something familiar yet new. The musicianship on the record is top-notch and understated, performed by players whose confidence trumps showmanship.
That he plays with some of the finest musicians in the world isn't lost on the songwriter either. "Getting two or three or four — in this case it was four musicians — even though they're some of the most talented and proficient players on the planet, getting that to gel is hard; you don't just turn it on. You have to wait," he says of the recording process. "There's still this element of mystery and magic that is so cool."
And the record is full of sonic surprises in which Richard's sense of orchestration and ornamentation — Landreth playing a resonator guitar on the so-fine "Clif's Zydeco" — lights up and sparkles.
Le Fou is referential and reverential but never self-conscious. But many of these songs are exquisitely self-aware, written by a man who is acutely conscious of straddling multiple dimensions. "The [song] that is the most significant is the one that's called 'Orignal ou Caribou,' which in English is 'Moose or Caribou,'" Richard explains. "And there's this lovely line, 'I don't know if I'm from the north or the south or from the evening or the morning.' That is a real symbol for me — not knowing whether I'm from Quebec or South Louisiana, whether I speak English or French."
But he also rues the French language's ever-tenuous toehold in his native south Louisiana: "I tell myself, the richness of my life is being able to do everything at once, but sometimes it's maybe frustrating not to be understood in my own neighborhood, in the language which I consider to be the maternal language of the neighborhood. But I don't hold that against anybody."
— Walter Pierce is managing editor of The Ind in Lafayette, where this story originally appeared.