Reclaiming Roots: Loose Cattle Took 10 Years, Two Cities And One Pandemic To Lock Into Place

Categories: Offbeat

By Mark Guarino

November 28, 2023

The New Orleans band’s earliest roots are in New York City where the two principals—Kimberly Kaye and Michael Cerveris—got together to play cover songs to blow off steam and keep the flame of their relationship burning. An album of cover songs and a Christmas record followed. It only took a breakup, a personal health crisis, an eventual relocation to New Orleans, a new rhythm section, a pandemic, and a lot more confidence writing original songs for Loose Cattle to emerge wholly new. The band’s forthcoming self-titled album of largely all originals marks the occasion.

For Kaye, the new record feels like “a quantum leap.”

“You can hear in it what living in New Orleans and being part of a community of musicians does to your brain,” she said.

Loose Cattle is winding down what became a breakout year for the band. It played its first show at the Jazz and Heritage Festival at the Lagniappe stage, a performance that also debuted “Crescent City,” the band’s dancefloor-driven cover by Lucinda Williams. The song, firmly in the canon of unofficial anthems for the city, was a way of declaring the band’s determination to thrive in Kaye and Cerveris’ adopted home. The song originated from sessions recorded at Dockside Studio, the retreat-like recording operation in Maurice, about 150 miles west of New Orleans in the heart of Cajun Country. There, along with fiddler Rurik Nunan, drummer Doug Garrison, bassist René Coman, and special guests, the band gained greater confidence about its strengths and why New Orleans plays such an important role in its newly- evolved sound.

“We wanted some place rooted in the soil of Louisiana,” said Cerveris. “And there is something magical about that place down in the bayou. The gear is top-notch, and the vibe is what you’d expect for a place where Dr. John spent a lot of time.”

Now is a good time to be an Americana band, but it’s also good to be one in New Orleans, a city defined by funk, R&B, brass bands and traditional jazz. But in recent years, the rejuvenated interest in country and folk music nationwide has seeped into New Orleans. Bands and singer-songwriters like the Deslondes, the Lostines, the Scamp Walkers, Silver Synthetic, Chris Acker, and Heather Littlefield, among others, have helped drive attention to acoustic music and to music more influenced by The Band than the Meters.

For Cerveris, Loose Cattle is a fundamental New Orleans band for how it “fuses together all sorts of different styles.” It may not have a brass section punching its way over the choruses of these songs, but the phrasing and rhythms are there. “So much of New Orleans music exists to get people moving, which is fantastic, but there’s a long tradition of New Orleans music that has stories to tell too,” he said, starting with “St. James Infirmary” which Cerveris called a “quintessential” example of the city’s songbook.

Summer Camp in the Swamp
The architect for the heavier guitar sound of “Loose Cattle” is John Agnello, a producer Cerveris chose for his work with guitar-driven bands like Dinosaur Jr., the Hold Steady, Sonic Youth, the Drive-By Truckers and Kurt Vile. To round out the sound, he brought in Jay Gonzalez, the Athens, Georgia-based multi-instrumentalist with the Drive-By Truckers, who became a sixth member of the band over the nearly two weeks of sessions.

At that point, Cerveris and Kaye had both demos that were fully-formed and others that wouldn’t take shape until all the musicians collected themselves in one place. An example of the latter is “God’s Teeth”—a brooding nocturnal tune accented by the open-ended sonic noise Gonzalez coaxed from his guitar. Gonzalez said the band’s balance of straightforward roots songs and heavier, more angular guitar rock was familiar territory. The difference, he said, were the duet sensibilities in the vocals.

“I love harmony bands. The Everly Brothers might be one of my favorite duos, ever,” he said. “And when it’s a male-female thing, it opens up a new perspective. Michael may sing something [dark] like ‘God’s Teeth’ but Kim has a different personality. It’s not Michael’s band or Kim’s band, it’s very much a combination of the two. That changes the timbre—the band’s sound is the same, but it can be a whole different thing.”

Recording at Dockside was like going “to summer camp” he said—Cast into the swamps of Vermilion Parish, the musicians worked together, ate together, and drank together with little interaction with the outside world. Storytelling dominated the dinner table, with Coman and Garrison telling stories of working with legends like Alex Chilton earlier in their career, or Agnello casting spells with his memories of working in the 1980s at the legendary Record Plant in New York with hitmakers like Cyndi Lauper and John Mellencamp.

“I was taken aback but immediately put at ease because everyone was so low-key. Outside of the Truckers, it was one of the most positive recording experiences in a really long time,” Gonzalez said.

Guests like Lucinda Williams (who lent vocals to “Joanne” by Lady Gaga and Mark Ronson, the record’s only cover) and Drive-by Truckers’ Patterson Hood (guitarist and voice of the “river demon” on “The Shoals”) appear as do New Orleans luminaries like songwriter Alex McMurray and a vocal choir consisting of Debbie Davis, Arsène Delay, and Meschiya Lake. Gonzalez said the natural environment played a role in forcing the musicians to become more of a whole, just as they would during a live show.

While recording “Crescent City,” he held back on the organ until Louis Michot—guesting on fiddle—gave him the signal to open up his playing, so eventually everyone’s playing was swirling together. “You could tell he was listening to everything,” Gonzalez said. “With Cajun music, you don’t play anything tentatively, it’s very much acoustic instruments at top volume.”

Blood Harmonies
What makes the best harmony singers work is often their differences. Cerveris and Kaye—a soft-spoken West Virginian and a brassy Jerseyite from Springsteen country—discovered they shared “blood harmonies” from the start. “She and I always had that from day one,” he said.

Singing is what kept the couple together during a relationship, which started in 2009 and lasted about four years, and it continues to draw them together in the resulting friendship. “I know fantastic singers who can’t sing harmony—they are amazing solo lead performers, but singing harmony is a real talent. Kimberly has both those things in spades,” Cerveris said.

Cerveris grew up with a mother—a Juilliard-trained dancer—and a father—a Juilliard-trained classical pianist—who taught music at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. Like any kid growing up in the 1970s, the sounds blaring from his FM radio—Kiss, Rush, Mott the Hoople—drew him in and moved him to pick up the guitar in junior high. An acting career intervened. Eventually, Cerveris ended up—most improbably for a budding rock star—on Broadway where he ended up collaborating with a real rock star, Pete Townshend, when originating the title role in The Who’s Tommy in 1992. That produced a flourishing acting career that continues today where Cerveris veers between roles in stage musicals, television and film.

The story could have stayed put that way. Broadway’s enthusiastic and loyal audience could have easily sustained Cerveris’ income through an early retirement. But he changed lanes and committed to building an independent music career from scratch. There were first-rate stints of apprenticeship—playing rhythm guitar in Bob Mould’s touring band for one—but otherwise, Cerveris carved out a path where two worlds—A Tony Award winner who plays original Americana music in clubs—can exist. “Nobody ever told me I wouldn’t do it. Or if they were trying to tell me I couldn’t do it, I just didn’t pay attention,” he said. Oftentimes, he discovered, the audiences from either side of his world are not aware the other side exists.

“I do love and cherish when people meet me now as a musician because they heard the band and then have no clue that I do anything else,” he said. Like most of us, the dynamic of not being defined by one scene was formed back in high school. “I didn’t fit in any one place or clique…That carried over in my life too. I’m still trying to figure out who to sit with in the lunchroom,” he said, laughing.

Like him, Kaye also came from a family that influenced her direction in life. Growing up in Freehold, New Jersey (yes, hometown to Bruce), she attended Wagner College, a performing arts school in Staten Island, New York, the same school her father—a theater technician for Broadway and Off-Broadway theaters—attended. Both parents cheered her interest in the arts, starting her with trumpet lessons when she was seven and following her career playing in a ska band in the 1990s. She met Cerveris when she was working for a Broadway industry website as a writer.

Why Kaye was writing about singers on stage and not singing on the stage herself can be traced back to a single moment: when one of her instructors told her efforts to sing were “terrible.”

“That dashed my confidence,” Kaye said more than 20 years later. “I had unhinged non-functional stage fright.”

Drinking helped get her in front of a microphone over the years, but it wasn’t enough. She credits being in New Orleans to work on the “Nine Lives: A Musical Story of New Orleans” by songwriter Paul Sanchez, to ultimately help her turn a page. “He was generous,” she said of Sanchez. “He said, ‘Kim do you sing?’ I told him I had a terrible voice. He said, ‘You’re wrong’.” Days later she was onstage with Cerveris. It would take time, and his coaxing, to regain her confidence after 15 years away from the stage.

“One of the reasons I have tremendous love for Michael is that he took someone with crippling stage fright who couldn’t get onstage in front of 10 people and was very patient about that. He told me ‘Your voice teacher was wrong. Music is not for people who sound one kind of way’,” she said. “I wish I could get those years back, but it’s really lovely to have them back now.”

New Orleans played another role in helping her confront the second greatest challenge in her life: Confronting, and then learning how to live with, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) a group of rare genetic connective tissue disorders that affects the skin, joints, and blood vessels, and caused her to suffer organ failure and autoimmunity. After being misdiagnosed for 20 years, which inflamed her health condition more, Kaye was properly diagnosed in 2017 at the Cleveland Clinic’s Chronic Pain Rehabilitation program in Ohio—an achievement funded by the nearly $100,000 raised online the year prior.

“The love that I have for the larger music community, meaning not just musicians but people who are music fans, is limitless and something I don’t know how even to reciprocate,” she said. “Music literally saved my life.”

And the songwriting deepened. “Sometimes writing down the thing you’re going through is the best thing to do,” she said. “The songs on Loose Cattle are not love songs—no one was in love—but instead, they’re survivor songs.”

“When we started the band, Michael and I were a kind of childish couple trying on the personas and words of other artists because we didn’t know what we were doing,” she said. “Then life happened, and our relationship changed, and the world changed, and the way we felt inside changed and we had a better idea of what we were trying to say. Now we’re 10 years into being a band and this is just where we happened to land.”

The Right Chemistry
Assembling the line-up that would become Loose Cattle today took years. The New York incarnation started to fade once Kaye and Cerveris relocated to New Orleans as coordinating rehearsals and shows became difficult and expensive. Enter Rurik Nunan, a fiddler and harmony singer whose resume as a sideman includes stints with Dave JordanLynn DruryAndrew Duhon, and many others. He fell into the band in preparation for a 2016 holiday show Kaye and Cerveris were rehearsing for, and which required a fiddle. His Americana background can be traced directly back to Whiskey Gentry, an Atlanta-based band Nunan has played with since 2014. In Loose Cattle, his instrument often takes the lead solo role. “It’s on me to take us in any musical direction apart from the bare bones of the song,” he said. The freedom Kaye and Cerveris have given him is unique: “We just trust each other.”

Nunan also helped develop Loose Cattle as a true harmony band, becoming the third voice to blend with Kaye and Cerveris. “We had no idea he could sing,” said Kaye. “To us, he was just a wonderful fiddler.” Over time, singing became one of his favorite roles in the band. “I just love singing with people who can sing well and finding those harmonies I can blend with,” he said.

The pivotal moment for the band was when drummer Doug Garrison and bassist René Coman locked in as its rhythm section. The two men represent one of the powerhouse units in New Orleans music for their four-decade tenure in the Iguanas. Coman said the country and folk music in Loose Cattle’s DNA overlaps with the signature Latin and R&B grooves of the Iguanas. “These are all blue-collar kinds of music. There’s a garage element to all of it,” he said.

When the Iguanas had a tour stop in New York City in 2012, Cerveris, who was starring in Evita on Broadway at the time, invited them to a performance. Afterward, he gave them a tour of the Marquis Theatre, the subterranean space for the pit orchestra and the backstage. “It was very interesting to see that world. I had never been to a Broadway show and here I was sitting in the star’s dressing room,” said Garrison. “At that point I knew he had a band” but he had no idea he’d join it one day.

After Cerveris moved to New Orleans, the invitation came. The decision to join Loose Cattle, said Coman, felt right. Both Cerveris and Kaye’s relationship seemed grounded, much like his own with Garrison. “They have a unified point of view and were very copacetic in terms of values,” he said. For Garrison, it took playing together one time to see how “it just clicked.”

“Michael is a very accomplished guitarist and has good musical instincts. Between tune-smithing and good performance, it’s just good chemistry,” he said.

Their addition helped elevate the core fundamentals—songwriting, harmonies—that Nunan, Kaye, and Cerveris were already building. At Dockside, Garrison remembers a situation reminiscent of how the Iguanas operate: rough demos introduced to the band to flesh into “something that felt good.” In the hands of Garrison and Coman, that meant bringing “a New Orleans vibe to it in certain ways.” “We have a sensibility of New Orleans rhythms…all the time I was thinking, ‘How can we put a little Latin tinge on this beat and not just make it sound like a country tune?’” he said.

One example is “Here’s That Attention You Asked For,” a new song from Kaye that tracks the downfall of a womanizer. The natural rhythm of a vocal felt like an up-tempo “train beat,” but instead he “put a little New Orleans twist on it and put a clave feel on it.” Suddenly, Kaye’s denunciation in the song’s chorus—“Why are you like that?”—is sung from the street during a second line parade. Coman said that while not all the themes of the record are exclusively about New Orleans, one of them—the rocker “Not Over Yet”—is “completely about what it’s like to live in New Orleans and deal with the dysfunction of this place that we all love.” With Nunan’s searing fiddle throughout, Kaye and Cerveris sing of potholes and power outages, but also the celebratory “Weirdos, witches, lonely hearts, cowboys, and queers.”

“This town will kill you and yet, it’s not over yet,” they sing.

Garrison said what Loose Cattle has in common with all the great New Orleans bands is that it is a “labor of love.”

“If you go back in history with New Orleans musicians, that’s the way it is. You had the Meters, the Neville Brothers, the Radiators—all bands that came together to play music as a fun activity as opposed to having a gig and calling musicians to see who’s available,” he said. “This is something we have to do. We play because we enjoy it.”

Reclaiming Roots
Despite his long tenure on both coasts as an actor, Cerveris is Southern-bred, and now realizes how Loose Cattle and the collective of musicians that have entered his life have allowed him to return to those roots. He lives in the Tremé, but long before that he was commuting to New Orleans for music and film roles. One long solo drive through the South in 2007 to film “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” gave him greater self-awareness of the connections he had growing up in West Virginia to the landscape.

“I had forgotten I had been raised in the South. That drive was beginning of me reclaiming my southern roots and the realization that it was so much a part of who I am,” he said. The readjustment also drove him back to the music he was originally drawn to growing up. “I had grown up and was surrounded by it, but never realized I was a part of it… that is what reopened the door. When Kimberly started the band, I wanted to play that music.”

Loose Cattle the album does not yet have a label, which is something Loose Cattle the band hopes will resolve itself in 2024. The delay is partly because of the machinations of the record industry—“the worst time than ever to put out records,” Cerveris discovered is now due to dwindling label support for bands that don’t fit a million-selling formula.

But waiting until the time is right seems to perfectly fit the band’s playbook to date. “We did not get out a map,” said Kaye. “This album is the one I am so excited for people to hear what the band is capable of. Lyric-driven folk is not for everybody, but for me, this is my jam.”

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