What does it mean to be New Orleans? The city’s magnetic pull will forever grip outsiders, but what’s it like to survive as a native son, steeped in a scene brimming with free thinkers and constant communal revelry?
For roots rocker Mike Doussan, it means finding purpose.
Raising a family and the suicide of his brother forced his hand in finding his, but through the mentorship of his drummer son August and his focused work on mental health, it’s obvious that this is a musician determined to make his work matter.
It’s a busy week for Doussan, with the release of his new record Yesterday’s Troubles and release parties at The Maple Leaf in New Orleans and Paradise Bar on Pensacola Beach. Luckily, he was able to squeeze us in to chat about his new focus, the necessity of honesty in songwriting, and the camaraderie of the New Orleans music scene.
Mike Doussan’s story is intrinsic to the human condition. There’s pain and pleasure, grit and grace, but much like the city of New Orleans and music itself, true beauty rises from chaos. His songs are proof.
When did you start playing and why?
Mike: I started playing guitar when I was 8. My dad played and I remember always loving when he plugged in and cranked up his Strat through his Peavy Stereo Chorus 212. One day I asked him to teach me and that was it. I never looked back. I remember the first lick he taught me was the signature lick from Derek and the Dominos “Layla.” I was hooked after that.
What was the a-ha moment of knowing you could make this a full-time gig?
Mike: I was 23 or 24 when I started getting out into the clubs and sitting in with bands around New Orleans. Eric Lindell was one of the cats I would sit in with and we became pretty close. We both lived in Algiers Point so it was easy for us to get together and jam, or walk the dogs, or hit the local bars for the happy hour drink specials and free mini tacos. One day he called me up to play an acoustic duo gig with him on a boat. I agreed and loaded up my guitars in his purple PT Cruiser to head to the gig. We ended up in the parking lot of the Empire boat launch, a long ways away from where I had imagined this gig would be, and when we arrived, he informed me we wouldn’t be needing the guitars.
At this point I was a little nervous, but went along without question. We boarded a shrimp boat and idled out into the bay under the late night sky. After hauling in the nets after the third drop, sorting through hundreds of shrimp, and a handful of beers, I asked Eric why he told me we had a gig only to take me shrimping. He said, “I took you out here to get you away from everything you know and tell you to quit your job and play music.” About 6 weeks later, I quit my job in construction and started booking my band full time.
Talk about the grind of the New Orleans music scene. It seems like there is a balance in the city between musical camaraderie and healthy competition for gigs.
Mike: I’ve never felt competition in the New Orleans scene. From day one I was welcomed by well-seasoned musicians to share their stages. I still feel that same camaraderie and I feel it’s my duty to extend that camaraderie to the younger cats coming up in the scene.
Compare being a songwriter to being a sideman. Is it easier to throw all of yourself out there when it’s stuff you’ve written?
Mike: I believe my passion for playing doesn’t discriminate between my own songs or someone else’s. Of course, I may have a stronger connection to something I’ve written, but I like to put all I have into everything I do.
With the new record, has it been a conscious effort to move to a more folky Americana style and if so what prompted that?
Mike: For my last two records, Sin or Salvation and Yesterday’s Troubles, I’ve made a conscious effort to let the songs be what they are. I’m not trying to fit in any genre. A lot of my writing comes out with a kind of folky feel to it, which I think is natural to a guy writing with an acoustic guitar, but I have so many different influences that are showcased on these last two records, you’d be hard pressed to fit it in a box.
What’s the secret to balancing family life with the rock and roll?
Being present. You have to be present for both the family and the music. It gets tough at times, but you can’t phone either of them in. They both deserve everything you have to offer. I couldn’t do it without my wife, Maggie, who has been so understanding and supportive of what’s demanded of me as a musician. And my kids are supportive too. It’s important to me to be able to show them that you can follow your dreams and do what you want to do to make a living.
What’s it like watching your son August grow as a drummer?
Mike: Watching August grow as a drummer has been a trip. He has such a natural, round pocket. Doug Belote, who is the drummer on Yesterday’s Troubles, compared him to Jim Keltner (Traveling Wilburys, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan.) It’s funny hear such high praise directed towards a 7 year old, but he backs it up behind the kit. He’ll be sitting in with us on the Paradise Inn Release Parties in Pensacola Beach.
If he only had one drummer he could listen to to learn from, who would it be?
Mike: He’s sleeping now and feel that I can’t answer that for him.
Whether it’s being so involved with August or your work with mental health after your brother’s suicide, it seems like you’ve tapped into the higher power of music. Was there a specific point when you realized your music had the potential to do something important?
Mike: It started before both August’s birth and my brother’s death. I remember hearing the Ryan Adams' Heartbreaker record and being blown away by the honesty in his songwriting. That record influenced some of the writing for Sin or Salvation. Over the years, I’ve tried to harness that brutally honest approach and hone my craft to reflect that. It just so happens that August was born and Brett died on the journey. Those experiences have definitely led to deeper thought and expression. The song has been such an important part of my therapy and I’m lucky to be able to express myself in such a universal art form. I know there are a lot of people out there suffering, and for some, a song might be the only thing they can relate to, so I try to include messages of hope in my music, and hope is what the theme of the new record is all about. Yesterday’s Troubles are gone.
When it comes to mental health, how does music help us?
Mike: Music can help us in so many ways! A song from our youth can remind us of good times, or certain people or places, and bring up happy memories. It can also help us grieve hardships or losses in our lives by allowing us to connect to a songwriter that has experienced similar pain. Being able to write songs that I can channel my experiences through and have them mean something to others is something I will forever be grateful for.
What unique challenges does the typical musician face in staying healthy mentally?
Mike: A lot of musicians, like most artists, face so many factors daily that can make it a struggle to stay mentally healthy. For one, the typical pay for a musician is pretty low. That alone can lead to a poor diet, less than adequate housing, lack of health insurance, etc. Being constantly in a bar scene can lead to increased alcohol consumption which is a well known depressant. It’s also common for drugs to run in the same circles as musicians.
There’s also the possibility of rejection that we face daily. A lot of gigs that you are basically forced to take to make ends meet are for crowds that could care less if you are there playing music or not. So you’re over there in the corner, playing your heart out, trying to make some sort of connection with just one person in the room and there’s not so much as a golf clap at the end of your songs. When you combine all of these factors with drugs and alcohol used as coping tools, it’s very easy for a musician’s mental health to deteriorate quickly.