Cover Story

Queen in Exile

Festival International headliner Irma Thomas is singing her way back home to New Orleans.

Irma Thomas has traveled many miles since last September. Just weeks after Hurricane Katrina, Thomas delivered a chilling version of her timeless 1962 hit "It's Raining" at Madison Square Garden's "From the Big Apple to the Big Easy" benefit and trumped mega-headliners like Jimmy Buffett, Simon and Garfunkel and the Dave Matthews Band. She played a New Year's Eve gig in London, buoyed by the reception to her stirring deep-blues version of Bessie Smith's "Backwater Blues" on the Our New Orleans 2005 benefit album. And two months ago, Pontchatoula native Thomas was treated like royalty in Los Angeles at the Grammy Awards, where she sparkled alongside Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt and Sam Moore in the show's finale.

Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans, is back in the national spotlight again this week with headline performances at Festival International and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. The appearances coincide with the release of her new CD, After the Rain, which Thomas recorded in Acadiana at Dockside Studios earlier this year. After the Rain features Thomas backed by New Orleans' finest musicians and locals like Sonny Landreth, David Egan and Dirk Powell, and contains some of her most powerful vocal performances to date on tracks like "I Count the Tears" and Stevie Wonder's "Shelter in the Rain."

But like so many Louisiana residents, Thomas is still trying to get back home. Her house in New Orleans East flooded extensively, and Thomas lost most of her possessions, including some treasured memorabilia. She and her husband, Emile, have been living in Gonzales, La., for the last eight months, but Thomas' irrepressible spirit hasn't been dampened. Thomas spoke to The Independent Weekly last week by phone from Gonzales.

After the Rain is a terrific album. Did you approach making this record differently than your previous albums?

I approached it differently in terms of not having horns as backup. Producer Scott Billington had an idea of the direction he wanted me to go in terms of my vocals. He wanted to feature my vocals as opposed to having a lot of horns. It's not that the horns covered my vocals up in previous CDs, but they were there, and whenever there are horns, they tend to be noticed over anything else (laughs). The songs he chose were all picked long before we knew Katrina was on her way. That they fit into the scheme of what has happened was a coincidence.

Was it hard for you to sing songs like "In the Middle of it All," "Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor," or "Stone Survivor," given that people might hear the lyrics post-Katrina in a different light than originally intended?

No. I approach those songs just like I would do any other song. It's a story to be told, and of course, having lived through what we've lived through, the story had more feeling involved with it. But it still doesn't change how I would have addressed it had Katrina not happened. I'd still be telling the story that is being told within the song itself. When I'm in the studio, I block out the fact that I'm in the studio. As far as I'm concerned, there's an audience there, and I'm telling that story to that audience.

How did you enjoy recording out at Dockside Studio in Maurice?

It was very therapeutic. I love it out there. I'm a country girl at heart. I can appreciate the solitude and not having the hassles of the city around you and the encroachment of city sounds while you're trying to get the job done. Even when you walk outside the studio, you have the quietness to think over what you want to do and focus on what you want to do, as opposed to recording in the city, where if you step outside the studio, reality checks in and you hear sirens. To me, it's a positive thing that those of us who are entertainers in the hustle-and-bustle world are able to get out of that and go to a studio like Dockside where it can become some kind of retreat. It was like being away and phone service was atrocious, which made it even better (laughs). To me, that's a plus, because if you can't get a lot of phone calls, then you're free to free your mind and concentrate on what you're doing. There's a special tree there you have to stand under to get good cell phone reception, and I thought that was so funny.

You worked with some guys from our area on the record and recorded some more David Egan songs on After the Rain.

Tracy Nelson and Marcia Ball did a couple of his songs on our Sing It! CD, and I've done a few other songs of his. He's quite a writer. He was the one that I give props and credit for getting "These Honey Dos" written. I had the song idea and some lyrics, and I told him what it was about. I gave it to him around 3 or 4 o'clock one afternoon, and the next day he comes back with "These Honey Dos."

How about recording with Sonny Landreth? That combination of your voice and his guitar is pretty powerful.

He did a great job. He gave the guys in my band something to think about (laughs).

Dirk Powell's fiddle accompaniment on the song "Flowers" is a bit of a departure for you.

Oh, I've done that before. In the early '60s, Allen [Toussaint] used to use a lot of the New Orleans symphony people on some of the things that he did back in the day. So having a violin or an upright bass fiddle next to me is not an unusual task, because we've used them before. I think it's a really nice, clean sound. It gives a lot more depth to the song.

When you perform some of your older material now, something like "It's Raining," does it feel different for you or do the songs have new meanings?

It depends on the state of mind I'm in at the time I'm doing them, or what conversations have taken place prior to my going on stage. It may lend itself to that, but it's not something I go in thinking about. I've been doing those songs now well over 40 years, and you do what you know how to do, you sing it the way you know how to sing it, and whatever feelings you're feeling at that time will come through. It's not that I'm going into the sessions or the shows I'm doing since Katrina with any different attitude about what I'm doing. My attitude is the same: I want to put on a good show. I want to sell the songs to the audience, and I want to entertain. I don't go in with a preconceived idea of how I'm going to do a performance. Even now with the things I've been through, I don't take a different attitude. I go in with the intentions of having a good time, relating that good, joyous feeling to my audience because we want to go out for entertainment feeling good, not sad.

We're trying to move on with our lives and be uplifted in spirit and have some optimism there. I've always been an optimistic soul. I try to portray that optimism in my demeanor and everything else. Because it's there, it's genuine. I don't see the glass half-empty; it's half-full. And yes, we've been through some trying situations, and I'm going to have my moments, but I'm not going to take my stage to relate those unhappy moments.

Now if my menopause hits me and I go into one of my moments (laughs), then so be it. After all, I am a 65-year-old broad, OK?

I'm sure it must get tiring for you to be asked about the hurricane all the time.

But that's going to be with us for a long time, whether you get sick of talking about it or not. It had a greater and deeper effect than Hurricane Betsy had on a lot of people. Even though I was in New Orleans when Betsy hit, Betsy didn't affect me in the sense that Katrina has affected people. Betsy didn't affect the city in the sense that Katrina affected it. This is going to be around a long time. In fact, I would make this statement: I feel if I'm blessed and if I have 30 good years left in me in some form, for those next 30 years on a weekly basis, somebody's going to say something pertaining to what happened with Katrina. So we have to learn to live with it.

When you do interviews with national writers â?¦

That's all they want to talk about. When they approach me, they want to know my feelings about how I feel about what happened to me with Katrina, and I just pointblank tell 'em: "Look, it happened, it's done. I lost a lot of stuff, yes, good memorabilia. But nevertheless, it was stuff." And I always use the adage, "I've never seen a Brinks truck behind a hearse yet (laughs)". You can't take it with you. Yes, you have a lot of good memories there that some of it you can't replace. Fortunately, in my case, I was a sharing person, so I shared a lot of my memorabilia with family and friends and fans. Those who didn't lose it all have been willing to share it back with me. But as far as I'm concerned, the ones who needed it the most have it ' my children and my grandchildren. That's what's important to them and it's important to me that they have it, because that's who we were saving it for ' for those generations. My mom's still living, so it's five generations of us living now.

I don't have any one item that I felt was more important to me than the others. I was blessed in that the Grammys replaced two of my Grammy medals that I had. I wasn't expecting that, so I feel very blessed that I'm still alive, and I still have a viable career and it looks like it's going to take off again, which is OK by me. I don't dwell on what was. It's important, but it's not that important to be in a woe-is-me state of mind. I had those memories, and that's why they call it memorabilia. You can't erase that. That's going to be with me until I close my eyes permanently.

You're still in Gonzales?

Yeah, I'm gonna be here until I can get my property up and liveable in New Orleans.

You do want to rebuild and go back.

Oh, yes, indeed. That's what we're going down to New Orleans today for, to talk with the gentleman that's supposed to be putting the property back together for us. We're trying to get into a place that we used to live in Uptown, and once we get that one and we get there, then we can work on our house in the Ninth Ward area right off I-10.

Have you had the same kind of trouble a lot of people are experiencing with FEMA, contractors, etc.?

I put in for my FEMA situation, and we got the typical $2,000 check. We put in for a trailer, but we never got one. We haven't heard anything back about that, and at this point I don't want one. By the time they get it to me, I won't be needing it anyway. And the people that do have 'em can't get in because they don't deliver the keys, so what's the point? The only thing that was giving me some afterthought related to making a decision sooner or later was about raising the property line. But I read in yesterday's paper where those of us who have our permits already, we can go ahead and do it, and it won't affect our insurance. Because I didn't see a need to raise my property; that's the first flooding that I've had in 20 years that I've been in the house. It made no sense to me to raise something when I never got flooded in the previous floods they had in the city.

Other than waiting to see what the hurricane season is going to do, we're going to go in and at least start doing some things that we feel would not be affected by the hurricanes, such as repairing exterior doors so we can lock it down.

You have so many fans and business associates across the country. Have you had offers to live elsewhere, and have you ever considered living elsewhere?

Oh yeah. I've had offers to come live in Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, the state of California ' but please (laughs). Louisiana and New Orleans is where I want to be. That's the nature of the beast. You live in the southern end of the United States, you live in a coastal area, whether it's New Orleans or the Gulf Coast, that's a possibility anywhere along the coastal line. Even living in Gonzales, we're not free from a flooding situation, because there's a levee less than three to four miles from where I'm living now. If you live near the Mississippi River or the Gulf, that's a possibility.

Then you move somewhere else, and I thought about some of the Neville brothers, who are living in Tennessee, and they recently had tornadoes. So there's no winning. Mother Nature is what she is, and what she decides to wreak havoc on we have to deal with it.

Forgive me if this is dark humor, but "Soul Queen of Gonzales" doesn't quite have the same ring as "Soul Queen of New Orleans."

No, it doesn't (laughs). The irony of it all, I've been here since September, and there are two local papers, The Advocate and a Gonzales paper, and they didn't even publish my birthday when my birthday came up in February.

Is it a little strange for you that it took something like Katrina to finally get some of the recognition you've always deserved?

Sweetheart, I take it anyway I can get it. Seriously, nothing happens by happenstance. Whatever happens happened for a reason. Whatever is coming out of it as far as I'm concerned as an artist, it's happening for a reason, and I am going with the flow.

What's the main thing in your tougher moments that keeps you going?

My faith in God. I don't think he's done anything to us that he knows we can't handle. Some of us don't handle it as well as others, but if it's there and he put it there, I'm going to do my best to deal with that.

At the Grammys, Bruce Springsteen seemed especially deferential and sweet to you during the Grammy performance.

Some years ago Bruce offered me to come and be a part of one of his projects, but the date that he wanted me to be there, I already had bookings at that time. He was a gentleman the whole time at the Grammys. None of the acts who participated in that particular segment were snobs; they were all very gracious people. Bonnie Raitt and I have shared billing before, and she invited me to do one of her New Year's Eve things in New Orleans. And she's always been an avid fan of Louisiana musicians and especially New Orleans musicians. I didn't know Elvis Costello that well, but he's done some projects with Allen [Toussaint]. Bruce made rehearsals like everyone else, and was very, very nice.

Any chance you and Allen Toussaint might do some of your old songs together at Festival International, since you're playing back-to-back?

When I get through with my set, I can't wait around, so if he's there and wants to come on my set, that'd be great. We've seen each other a lot lately, like at the Grammys and the Madison Square Garden show.

What's been the most gratifying performance or project you've been involved with post-Katrina?

They all have. It's just good therapy to be participating for whatever reason they want us to do it. It's there, it brings attention to the talents of people who were never recognized for what they were worth in the past. Katrina has done that. There are the great unknowns who've never gotten the kind of publicity they're getting now and deserved long before now. I'm thankful to God for that. If it never goes beyond this year, at least for this year, we got the recognition that we so deserved in the past.