NEW ORLEANS — So many of the sounds that spill onto the streets here in America's most musical city are celebratory, from peppy zydeco to bottom-heavy New Orleans bounce music and the swaggering Second Line rhythms of the city's cacophonous brass bands. Especially during Mardi Gras and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, whose 2012 edition took place over successive weekends in April and May, the City That Care Forgot can, to a visitor, seem like a place where the party never ends.
Theresa Andersson, a Swedish native who has lived in New Orleans for 22 years, makes angular, thoroughly modern pop that is particularly invigorating when she performs as a "how'd-she-do-that?' one-woman-band, as she will Friday night at the Tin Angel in Philadelphia. While earning comparisons to contemporary acts like Björk and Feist, Andersson finds singular joyousness in reinterpreting gospel standards such as “O Mary Don't You Weep" and New Orleans staples like Allen Toussaint's "On Your Way Down."
But while Andersson's music makes room for that celebratory spirit, it also takes time to consider what happens when the party's over. The cover of her new album, Street Parade (Basin Street), is a black-and-white photo of the singer and multi-instrumentalist with her back to the camera after a parade has passed down St. Charles Avenue at carnival time. The street is strewed with debris, and she's the only figure in the frame.
"Mardi Gras is all about the parade and the trinkets and the band, and it gets really loud and crazy," says Andersson, talking about how she came upon the concept for Street Parade. She's sitting at a cafe across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter, in the Algiers Point neighborhood where she lives with her husband, drummer Arthur Mintz, and infant daughter, Elsie.
It's the Sunday morning of the first weekend of Jazz Fest, and Andersson has put her first two performances behind her. The first was a late-night solo show at Cafe Istanbul, where she backed herself up, as she will at the Tin Angel: By recording her vocal, guitar, drum and violin parts in real time, and triggering them via foot pedals she dexterously activates with her bare feet. The second show, which ended in the wee hours Sunday, was a collaborative performance with jazz musicians at historic Preservation Hall.
"And then the parade passes," she goes on. "And when it does, it doesn't end with a big bang or anything. It just kind of goes away and the street is left with all this trash and broken doubloons and people just kind of spill out quietly. I found myself in that situation a couple of times, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is really my life right now.'?"
The parallel, as Andersson saw it, applied to her life as a touring musician, just coming off the road, unsure of what lay ahead.
She had just finished two years out in support of her 2008 album, Hummingbird, Go!, whose songs she wrote after Hurricane Katrina. "You know that feeling you get when you realize you might lose everything?" she asks. It turned out that she didn't, because her house sustained only wind damage. "But at that point it became really important to do something that I felt really meant something," she says. "So that's when I really started to write the kind of music I really wanted to, without trying to fit a mold."
Because she couldn't afford to pay a band when she was offered a chance to tour Sweden, she learned to loop herself live. "That's when I got my first foot pedal," she says. "I took it over there to see what would happen and I ended up really loving it and the crowd loved it, too."
Hummingbird, Go! brought the late-blooming songwriter, who's 40, notoriety through the video for "Na Na Na," which showed her using her one-woman-band rig in her kitchen, where the album was also recorded. The clip logged almost a million and a half hits on YouTube — it can be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=n2eD4GcLohE — and opened up doors like a spot on Late Night With Conan O'Brien.
When she came off the road, "I ended up using the street parade as a metaphor for so many things on the record," says Andersson, who moved to New Orleans as a teenager with Swedish musician Anders Osborne, whose band she played in and with whom she was involved in a relationship that ended in 1998.
("I came here for music and love," she says. Rather than follow through on a plan to study jazz violin in Sweden, where she grew up on the island of Gotland smitten by her mother's Mahalia Jackson and Ella Fitzgerald records, she thought: "Why not go to the birth city of jazz and rock and roll instead?")
On Street Parade, Andersson says, "I used the instrumentation, for starters. I wrote for horns, but I didn't write in the tonality that you typically hear. The colors are very bright. I saw the other side a little more, that fit more into my life at the time. Almost a little melancholy."
The metaphor extends to the lyrics of songs like "Fiya's Gone" and the title cut, in which Andersson's soprano sings, "Glitter raining down, flowers fill the ground?/?tomorrow it all burns to ash."
"It's that place you're in when you end something very exciting and you have that feeling with you, but you're a little bit tired and sad that it's over. Then you start to think towards the next thing, but … you don't have the stride that you have when you know what it's going to be."
For Andersson, the "joyous" experience of making Street Parade was all the richer because she recorded much of it while pregnant with her first child.
"I was dealing with impending motherhood," she says. "As a touring musician it was something that I had just pushed off, that I didn't want to deal with. When I had the first inspiration [for the album] I wasn't pregnant yet. Six or eight months later, when I knew I was pregnant, that's when the record really started coming out. Then I knew for sure what the next phase was going to be. I could see the parade coming."