When Ray Charles canceled last month's gig at the House of Blues due to ill health, the club was left with exactly four days to fill the hole in its schedule. Who could bring in a Saturday night crowd on such short notice? It only took a few moments to think of the answer: the Theresa Andersson Group.
Andersson did bring in the crowd -- a more than respectable turnout for a hot, steamy summer night. She seemed to be having a blast. Dressed in an army camouflage miniskirt and a low-slung, sparkly silver top, she strutted around the stage, dropped her voice to a husky rasp, and smiled wickedly at guitar player Glenn LeBlanc and bassist Lloyd Lambert. For a band that only found a fixed lineup this summer, they seemed quite at home onstage. Andersson alternated between playing violin and guitar, and sometimes dropped both instruments to croon into the microphone, counting on LeBlanc, Lambert and drummer Jamal Batiste to keep the funk flowing.
Some may remember Andersson's music from her days with Anders Osborne in the 1990s, and others from her 2002 solo album No Regrets. But the story of the Theresa Andersson Group really began last January, with a series of no-cover weekly gigs at the Red Eye Grill that Andersson called "open band rehearsals." During the next six months, nearly every Wednesday found her with a shifting cast of musicians and a crystallizing, energizing new sound. People quickly caught on to a good deal.
The new sound was all over the place, in the best way possible. Songs that had been neatly polished three-minute radio tunes on No Regrets stretched into 15-minute jams. Sometimes it was rock 'n' roll, with distortion on Andersson's violin and wailing guitars, sometimes acoustic folk, and sometimes straight-up New Orleans funk.
By June, LeBlanc and Lambert had committed to the band, with both Batiste and Willie Green agreeing to sit behind the drums when they could. The House of Blues gig was just the latest watermark reached by Theresa and the boys. A Best of New Orleans© award for Best Female Artist of 2002 and festival bookings from California's High Sierra Festival to Ottawa's Blues Festival all testify to the band's growing appeal.
Then there was her triumph at Jazz Fest 2003. In addition to showcasing her new, evolving sound, Andersson got her picture in all the papers by dropping her skirt partway through her set and performing the rest of the show in a blue bikini and body paint. "It was just a fun approach to that day," she recalls. "It wasn't hard to drop the skirt once I was onstage; the hardest part was just to take that step and say, 'OK, I'll do it.'" She smiles, remembering the audience reaction. "It was pretty cool to hear people's inhalation when I dropped the skirt. It was like 7,000 people gasping in unison."
This week, a new round of free weekly gigs begins at Carrollton Station, this time on Tuesday nights. Here, audiences can see the singer do what she does best: connect with a crowd and get everybody dancing. Her enjoyment of performing was in full evidence at the House of Blues, where audience members responded gleefully as Andersson singled them out for a line or smile. If Andersson and her group reach the big time, New Orleanians will likely clamber to claim the songwriter as one of our own. Never mind that she was born in Sweden, started writing songs in Nashville, and did some of her first solo performances in Austin. You can hear it now: "Theresa Andersson? Oh yeah, she's basically from here."
The native claim on Andersson makes a certain sense. Yes, she happened to be born 5,000 miles away, on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea, but when the petite blonde opens her mouth, a rich, soulful voice pours out that feels like New Orleans.
She remembers listening raptly to her mother's Mahalia Jackson records as a child in Sweden, long before she could locate Louisiana on the map. When, at age 18, she arrived in New Orleans and immersed herself in the music scene, something vital clicked into place. "I really connected on some spiritual level and some musical level," Andersson says.
Andersson says her Swedish farm-girl upbringing was in all ways unlike her new tropical home. "Winters were very long, cold and dark," she says over a cup of tea in the cozy kitchen of her lower Garden District home. "I used to ride my horses under the moonlight on the snowfields." Her musical mother showed her how to make the time pass, playing piano while Theresa sang accompaniment. From then on, she was hooked. "I started singing in Sunday school when I was 4 years old and kept singing."
At 9, she started playing violin. At 12 she had her first performance with a microphone in front of a large audience: she sang the theme from The Deer Hunter to 6,000 people. "I loved the way it felt when I heard my voice echoing out," she recalls. In school, she played and sang with an acoustic, all-girl group as well as a rock/pop band that traveled to Belgium, France and Canada. She also sang in the World Youth Choir and dabbled with big-band jazz, orchestral music, Swedish folk tunes, and operatic and avant-garde vocal styles.
"The voice is an amazing instrument," Andersson raves. "Sometimes when you sing a certain style, it narrows it down too much, you sort of get into a little box: this is pop music, this is jazz, this is that, this is this." At that early stage of her training, she developed a love for experimentation and musical cross-pollination that is very evident in her music today.
"Let me tell you a story from a long time ago. In a place called the city of roses, with alleys of cobblestone."
Listen to those lines from the song "City of Roses" on No Regrets for the gist of what happened next in her life. "It's about how I ended up in [New Orleans], without mentioning names," Andersson says, smiling.
The "city of roses" is what locals call Visby, the main city on the island of Gotland, where Andersson met roots rock musician Anders Osborne. "I met Anders Osborne and we started working together," she says, "and eventually sparks flew and we fell in love, and I moved here." She makes it sound like an easy decision, but at the age of 18 it was no small move. "I've never been afraid to try things," she shrugs.
From 1990, Andersson and Osborne were a couple, and she became a fixture in his band, playing violin and singing lead on a couple of songs. The combination of living and working as a couple meant that the two were together "all the time," says Andersson. "All the time. It was great, but I can't say I would recommend it to anybody."
While getting used to New Orleans and working on her English, Andersson found plenty of time to savor the local music. She cites Juanita Brooks as one of her delightful discoveries. "She has that enormous voice, she just drips of soul when she sings. It's beautiful. Just to be around that was inspirational."
Andersson made her first solo album as a side project in 1994, a traditional jazz album titled Vibes that shows off her vocal range. She learned most of the songs from a book of jazz standards she'd brought with her from Sweden -- by choosing to not listen to the original recordings, she says, she guaranteed her own interpretation of each song. She also got local gigs with her backup band. Sunday nights at Mid City Lanes became her first performances apart from Osborne, as well as her first step toward making music that reflected her own intentions and ideas.
By 1998, her relationship with Osborne was foundering. "It ended up being co-dependency," Andersson says, "and that just wouldn't last. A lot of things went on that were very heartbreaking and hard to deal with, but eventually we just exploded and went apart."
Andersson's tone becomes more measured when she discusses the relationship's end. She says that although she and Osborne are friendly, she still avoids Osborne's 1999 album, Living Room, which includes some dark songs of lost love. "It's a little difficult for me to listen to it," Andersson says. But she understands the relief of purging emotions through songwriting. Her "City of Roses" includes these lines: "We grew up and grew apart, it hurts to realize it. The moon is full, the circle's round, and it's time to be reborn."
Moving from Sweden to the United States, Andersson had gone from her parents' household to a long-term relationship; suddenly, at the age of 26, she was independent. "That's when I went on my own," she says. "That's when I reset the clocks."
When Andersson speaks of the next four years of her life, she talks of her struggle to take control of her life, her music and even the recording process. Having been guided musically by Osborne for eight years, playing his songs and serving an apprenticeship in his band, it was both a thrilling and frightening chance to choose a new direction. Andersson knew that she had songs and music in her, but she was reluctant to have her fledgling songwriting efforts observed under the microscope of the New Orleans scene.
"I had to really find my own way, and that included leaving New Orleans," she explains. "I had to get away from the situation and clear my head." She went to Nashville, another musician-friendly town, and there she started writing. "I needed to be in an environment that I felt was nurturing, where I felt free. Where no one really knew me, so it was sort of safe. No expectations."
She remembers with some incredulity how she had once accepted her role of back-up musician in Osborne's band. "Of course I would never go back to that," she says. "After you gain control of your situation, you don't want to give that up again ever."
The songs that she wrote in Nashville, which would eventually compose No Regrets, include up-tempo ballads and empowering stories of personal growth. The writing process not only helped Andersson find her strengths, it also helped her put aside any lingering anger. "I didn't want to grow bitter, and I worked very hard on that," she says.
Still, Andersson says she couldn't get comfortable in Nashville, a city with a sharp focus on recording sessions. "I am a performer and I needed to keep developing that. I needed to play for people," she says. On a whim and without any clear plan she packed up and moved to Austin. "I guess I just wasn't ready to settle anywhere. I was very afraid of stagnating again." In Austin, she heard musicians such as the hard-rocking Bob Schneider, adding yet another element to her style. "I went to see a lot of pretty hard-driving rock bands, which was inspiring to me," she says.
The next three years saw her driving between Nashville, Austin and New Orleans, trying out songs and playing shows in each city. She was ready to be discovered; at the time, her fantasy included a benevolent talent scout smiling down on her, inviting her to sign on the dotted line and join the major label march toward pop stardom. "I wanted them to scoop me up and give me a deal and produce me and make me a package," Andersson says.
She regularly sent off tapes and got a few auditions. "I would present myself to them, and they all said, 'Wow, you are a great singer and we love what you sound like.' But that's as far as it would get." There would always be some reason why being a great singer wasn't enough. After being told again and again that her music was too eclectic, she'd go home discouraged but determined.
She especially recalls one session with a label representative. After singing her heart out, Andersson remembers, "this fat A&R guy just looked at me, and said, 'You need to lose 10 pounds.' I was like, 'What? Who are you to talk?' That was the thing that just put me over the top."
With that, Andersson ditched the dream of manufactured stardom. "It was like, if they can't envision me in a major-label deal, then I'm just going to create my own situation," she says. "I'm just going to do it on my own."
Andersson says she admires musicians such as Ani DiFranco, Cyndi Lauper and Madonna -- women who either release on independent labels or refuse to be compromised by major label meddling. But her next move even surprised her. After three years of constant motion to find her own style and voice, Andersson realized she was ready to return to New Orleans.
"I was ready to make my mark," she says.
She was coming back with a new philosophy, and three new goals. First came the weekly Red Eye gigs. "When you're onstage sometimes there can be the tendency to feel a little separated, and the audience can't really feel connected," she says. "And onstage you have the lights on your face and it's hard to see; you can't get too close. I wanted to really connect with people on the same level so I'd know who I was talking to."
There's no stage at the Red Eye, so the band set up at one end of the dance floor, on the same level as the audience. News of the shows spread. "I felt a very strong need in coming back to New Orleans to build from the ground up," Andersson says.
Her second goal was to develop her new sound. Veering away from No Regrets, which she describes as "a more adult contemporary sound, a little sweeter," Andersson wanted to bring a harder edge to her music. Part of her motivation lay in her years of fruitless encounters with A&R people. "I got tired of everyone trying to tell me what I'm not, instead of what I am," she says. "I don't ask for permission now. I'm through playing it safe.
"That's when I started using the violin more aggressively, I play it with a lot of nerve and I use effects, I use distortion, I make it wail and moan and just cry." Fresh inspiration came from a Sonic Youth concert that suggested new ideas about feedback and overtones. "It was my first time hearing a band like that, and I was floored," she says.
The third goal was the most important. To build an audience and explore a new sound, she needed cronies, partners in crime. "I didn't want to be the front singer and have a back-up band. I wanted a band," she says. She searched for a tight-knit group with whom she could grow musically.
Bassist Lloyd Lambert is the son of the legendary New Orleans bass player "Luscious" Lloyd Lambert; he started gigging at the age of 17 and rotated through a number of funk and R&B bands over the next 10 years. When he heard Andersson's music, he says, he knew what he'd been looking for. "I liked what she was singing about," he says. "When you're playing here in New Orleans you find that a lot of stuff is almost jamming, because the concentration is more on knowing your instrument. It seemed like she had a more song-oriented style that you don't hear too much in New Orleans."
Guitarist Glenn LeBlanc originally hails from Lafayette. He didn't figure out what he wanted to do with his life until he got laid off and went to Austin. "I went to look for work, but I came back with a guitar," he says. Over the next years he played "any style that I could get my hands on," including blues, rockabilly, country, zydeco, thrash metal, and drum and bass. He played and toured with zydeco-fusion hotshot Terrance Simien and says his eclectic tastes are a good match for Andersson's broad influences. "She and I were born to play with Frank Zappa," he laughs.
For Andersson, the new arrangement represents the final step in her transformation into a self-assured bandleader. With earlier groups, she'd always been concerned about being overpowered by the male musicians. "I was very concerned about being in the spotlight," she says. "I wanted to be heard, seen and everything else. I think that stems back to the whole Anders thing."
That fear no longer troubles her. "I know that people see me; I know that people hear me," she says. "I don't have to prove myself the same way. So, to me now, it's more about just making good music and the interaction, the energy between us as a band and between us and the audience. That's where it's at."
She says this year's Jazz Fest show also helped her realize a goal, set some time after the A&R man told her to drop 10 pounds. "I went through a period of being very self-conscious, because I had all these people telling me how I should look, where I was lacking," she says. But, she says, it wasn't about proving something to the A&R man -- or the publicity. "I did it just for me."
The Theresa Andersson Group is now working on building its local following and planning a new recording. Upcoming shows include this Friday night at the State Palace's upstairs venue, The Core. But Andersson expects the no-cover weekly gigs at Carrollton Station to be her primary method of connecting to her growing audience.
Those shows are free for a reason, she says. "We want to give people a chance to see us if they've never seen us before, without feeling like they'll lose out if they don't like it. I think people will like it, though. If people are willing to come out and give it a try, I think they're not going to regret it."
She pauses. Having shaken off her doubts of the past three years, what's left is a radiant confidence in her band and her new-found style. "I think it's going to be unlike anything else going on here in the city, I dare say."
- Amy Dickerson
- Fiddler on the roof: the Theresa Andersson Group includes guitarist Glenn LeBlanc, Andersson and bassist Lloyd Lambert.
- Clayton Call
- Andersson triumphed at Jazz Fest 2003 -- and gained even more attention by dropping her skirt and performing in bikini and body paint.