Nine out of 10 Internet stars whose claim to fame is making it big on YouTube, or some other social media site, don’t usually hang around long enough for most people to remember them from one week to the next. Usually it’s because the person has done something freakishly memorable rather than display any real talent during their fleeting moment in the limelight. In Andy Warhol’s day it might have been possible for someone to have 15 minutes of fame; now people are willing to settle for notoriety as a substitute for fame. In this everything is for public consumption age, it doesn’t matter what we do, it’s whether we get noticed or not.
So the fact that someone gets a million, two million, or a hundred million hits on a video they put up on YouTube is no indicator of a person’s talent. To be honest, when I hear about things like that my instinctive reaction is to stay as far away as possible. I guess it’s a good thing I started hearing about Theresa Andersson well after she was a sensation with her self-produced videos recorded in her kitchen. While I’ve since seen them after the fact, and for what they were they are impressive, but the first music I heard from her was stuff she had recorded professionally through a streaming version of her live concert at Le Petit Theatre in New Orleans (which is now on DVD as Theresa Andersson: Live At Le Petit). Aside from a few special guests, including Allen Toussaint, it was a one-woman show, and she rocked the house.
This was no flash in the pan sensation. This was someone with talent, creativity, skill and imagination. She had great presence on stage, a great singing voice, and an obvious talent for musical instruments. While it was slightly weird seeing a blue-eyed blond Swedish woman standing up on stage belting out African American gospel tunes and originals which had more to do with New Orleans than Stockholm, her obvious love and enthusiasm for the material helped to bridge that gap. Yet where could she go from there? There’s only so many times she could do the same thing over again without it becoming tired. So I was curious as to what she would have to offer on her newest disc from Basin Street Records, Street Parade, that will be released April 24, 2012.
Anyone who was expecting something along the lines of the infectious pop music of her YouTube hit “Na Na Na” is going to be surprised. Maturity, motherhood, and growth as a musician have all had an impact on not only her sound but her lyrical content. There’s a level of introspection permeating this disc not present on anything I’ve heard from her previously. Even “Sleepsong For Saoirse,” obviously a lullaby for her new daughter, while a dreamy and somewhat charming piece of music, hints at the lengths a mother will go to in an attempt to get her child to sleep. “Rainbow moon beams and honey bees dreams are waiting for you/But they can’t play until you sleep” is only one of the inducements offered to get the child to go to sleep.
However, it’s on songs like the title track, “Street Parade,” where we really see the differences from what she’s done in the past to now. New Orleans is, of course, famous for its parades, from the elaborate one at Mardi Gras, the ones that seem to be spontaneous celebrations at the joy of being alive to those escorting people who have died to their next destination.
While Andersson’s song is specifically about the Mardi Gras parade, the questions it raises could be applicable to any parade or any event which momentarily lifts us up into an elevated state of excitement. What happens after you come down? When the parade goes by and all that’s left is the trash from the crowds who had gathered, what are you left with? To some the answer might be a feeling of emptiness, or at least some sort of let down as you return to your ordinary life.
However, Andersson sees another side to the situation. While musically the song might lead you to think she’s bemoaning the passing of the excitement, as the sound has a very “the party is over” feel to it, the chorus clearly states “I’m not alone.” While the first time you hear her sing this you might think there’s something of the spitting in the wind attitude about the lyric, as if she’s trying to convince herself that in spite of everything she’s feeling, really, she’s fine. Yet when the song progresses and she repeats the phrase, you begin to hear the underlying strength in her voice. Yes, the parade was a wonderful high and a great party, but the impression that builds over the course of the song is her true fulfillment comes through her regular life. A party can be a blast but you really don’t get much accomplished during them.
Musically the disc also differs from a lot of what we’ve heard from Andersson previously in the complexity of their arrangements, including a far more prominent role given to a staple of the New Orleans music scene: horns. But don’t come expecting any of the styles of horn playing normally associated with the city. Instead of either the upbeat sound of a marching band or the syncopated beat of the horn section in a funk band, she’s modified them to suit the almost dream like quality permeating the disc.
“Listen To My Heels,” the third track on the disc, is a good example. The horns which open the song ease us into it with extended and muted notes, leading into Andersson’s staccato vocals. The song seems deliberately a-rhythmical and the horns smooth out the overall sound of the piece by adding a layer of texture to the metronome quality of the other instruments and her vocals. While there’s something disconcerting to hearing her sing on the offbeat—it gives the song an almost forced sound—it’s also very effective and powerful. With horns rising and falling under the rest of the track, the rough edges of the song stand out even more potently. It might not be “pretty” but neither is the message of the song, for it’s about people talking behind people’s backs and the nastiness of rumours.
Theresa Andersson started her career as what easily could have been dismissed as a novelty act on YouTube. The world quickly discovered she was no mere flash in the pan or worse, someone looking to gain a few minutes of Internet notoriety. In the space of a few short years she has gained a reputation for ingenuity and creativity. Now with her latest release, she continues to push herself and her music in new directions. While still paying homage to her adopted city of New Orleans, instead of merely copying what’s been done by others before her, she uses it as a springboard for exploration and for creating her own unique sound. It will be interesting to see where her journey takes her in the future. For now, this step on her path makes for fascinating listening.