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‘Soul Queen of New Orleans’ shines on album

Irma Thomas wants music to help Katrina victims ‘get through it’
/ Source: The Associated Press

Like thousands of other victims of Hurricane Katrina, Irma Thomas — known as the “Soul Queen of New Orleans” — has spent the past year navigating through the remnants of disaster.

The two houses she had in the city were heavily damaged, and the nightclub that she had was destroyed. She and her husband still haven’t been able to return to New Orleans full time, and have been staying outside of Baton Rogue until they are able to fix up one of their properties enough to return.

Yet she recounts her troubles matter-of-factly, and even adds in a few chuckles along the way. While she may be a victim of Katrina, she refuses to act like one — or sing like one, for that matter. Her latest CD is appropriately titled “After the Rain,” and though a couple of songs directly refer to the hurricane, the CD is more marked for its folksy, bluesy direction than any somber tone.

And that’s just the way Thomas intended it.

“It’s bad enough living through it; I don’t think I would want to be singing it and then reminding people of that constantly,” said Thomas, as she sat in a hotel cafe off of the city’s famous Canal Street, still partly boarded up months after the storm.

“You can get your own depression going — I don’t need to help you with it,” she laughed. “I would rather sing songs that a person can sit down and listen to and be retrospective. (The songs are) not meant to bring sadness to you, it’s meant to get you through it.”

Not her first trialGetting through it has been Thomas’ mantra not only since Katrina struck last August, but throughout her life. The 65-year-old soul pioneer, known for hits such as “Time is on My Side” and “It’s Raining,” has overcome many hurdles; she managed to find success as a singer despite being a teen mom, and was the victim of hurricanes before Katrina — Hurricane Camille forced to relocate to Los Angeles in the ’60s because it destroyed many of the clubs where she used to perform, and she had to work in a department store to support her family.

And even though never became a big star like a few of her peers, she also managed to keep working without falling prey to some of show business’ pitfalls.

“I think Irma’s had to face hardship in her life before,” said her longtime producer, Scott Billington. “I think I’ve seen her strength and resilience blossom to a new level, its been an inspiration to be around her to see how well she’s handled this.

When Katrina hit, Thomas managed to avoid the storm, leaving town for a previously scheduled performance in Austin, Texas, a few days before it hit.

“I count it as a blessing, because he and I probably would have been sitting in that house and probably would have gone to bed,” she said, motioning to her husband and manager, Emile, sitting by her side. “(We) probably would have been awakened with water coming into the house, because that’s basically how a lot of people were.”

Initially, there were reports that she was among the missing after the city flooded (erroneous reports that she still manages to get a laugh from). But although she avoided the storm, her life would be torn asunder because of it. Her family became scattered after the disaster, and Thomas found she didn’t have a home anymore (a rental property was also badly damaged).

In addition, the club she ran, the Lion’s Den, was also flooded; her husband surveyed the damage before he would let his wife see it.

“I took him three tries to try and find the cash register under all that debris,” she said. “But after he had seen all of that he told me, ‘Honey, I don’t think you really need to see all of that just yet. Just finish what you have to do workwise. ... and then go and see it later.”’

So that’s what she did. In the first few weeks after Katrina, Thomas, like many New Orleans’ artists, was called upon to participate in national benefits to help those affected by the storm. Besides keeping Thomas busy, she says it also acted as her therapy.

“I didn’t allow it to depress me. I could have been if that was my attitude, but I looked at it this way — we’re working, it’s keeping me busy, it’s helping me to get through it all, I’m not sitting around thinking about what I lost, how much I lost. ... it was therapeutic,” she said.

What was also therapeutic was working on “After the Rain.”

New directionsThough Thomas is known for her R&B roots and her rich, throaty, soulful alto, Billington wanted to take her in a different artistic direction on “After the Rain.”

“I wanted to find some way to showcase Irma’s voice that would show her as being one of the great voices of her time, and it really seemed confining that we would make another straight R&B record,” said Billington, who’s also an A&R executive at Rounder, her label home. “Her voice has gotten so beautiful and so rich as the years have passed.”

The album sounds raw, stripped and pared down compared to the bombast that have marked other CDs.

“It wasn’t something that I had in mind to do, but he wanted to feature me vocally as opposed to having a band and a lot of horns and all of that,” Thomas said. “He wanted to have acoustic instruments, and it worked.”

The pair added Stevie Wonder’s recent inspirational song “Shelter in the Rain,” which he dedicated to victims of the hurricane, to the album, and also changed the words to “Another Man Done Gone,” to mirror the plight of Katrina’s victims: “Another done gone, the water’s at his door .... he couldn’t stay no more, the water’s at his door, another man done gone.”

But while there’s sadness and frustration reflected on the disc, there’re also sassy songs, and songs about love — in other words, it reflects the emotions of everyday human life, rather than the catastrophe.

“I think I felt that Irma herself interpreting this material was going to be able to make it about Katrina, but maybe in a way that would last throughout the years and not like something that would be a passing news report,” said Billington.

An irony of Katrina’s effects is that Thomas probably is busier than she’s ever been. The spotlight on New Orleans also extended to its musical icons, and with the added attention came extra work, publicity and a renewed appreciation for Thomas.

“I think it’s easy for someone of her generation ... to be looked at as an oldies artist and an artifact of anther time. Irma has managed to keep herself relevant as a person and therefore as an artist,” said Billington. “She has something very powerful to say to all of us as Americans.”