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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Irma Thomas, who's known as the Soul Queen of New Orleans, chose the songs for her new CD, titled After the Rain, before Hurricane Katrina. But the song list could read like a CNN hurricane special. In the Middle of it All, Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor, 'Til I Can't Take It No More, Stone Survivor, and of course Shelter in the Rain.

Ms. Thomas has been singing for nearly 50 years. It's long enough to know what's coming around the bend. She and the members of her band, David Torkanowsky on grand piano, Dirk Powell on guitar, Chris Severn on upright bass and Michael Skinkus on percussion, have joined here in Studio 4A to talk about this new CD, After the Rain.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. IRMA THOMAS (Singer): My pleasure, Scott.

(Soundbite of song "Shelter in the Rain")

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) When the lights are down, And the stage is bare and no more magic's in the air, There's not a friend in sight to care, Your tears no one will share, I'll be your comfort through your pain, I'll be your shelter in the rain.

When your sad is bad and your bad is worst, And there's no who to turn to first, When you've done everything you can, No one's there to take your hand, I'll be you comfort through your pain, I'll be your shelter in the rain.

When you've looked around, And haven't seen me anywhere, Though when you were down, I lifted you up from there, There isn't a thing you can ask of me I won't do, Just you put your trust in me, My love will see you through.

When the final candle's flickered out, Why me is all you can think about, When all your joy has disappeared, Your future isn't clear, I'll be you comfort through your pain, I'll be your shelter in the rain.

When all the odds say there's no chance, Amidst the final dance, I'll be you comfort through your pain, I'll be your shelter in the rain, I'll be you comfort through your pain, Yes, I'll be your shelter in the rain, I'll be your shelter, Be your shelter in the rain.

SIMON: That was just beautiful. Thank you.

Ms. THOMAS: You're welcome.

SIMON: I gather, reading through information about you, that you don't like talking about the hurricane.

Ms. THOMAS: I don't have a problem talking about it. It's just that when I do, people find it kind of strange that I don't sound depressed when I do. I don't have time to be depressed.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Ms. THOMAS: I'm too blessed to be, you know, depressed about it. I mean, it happened. It happened to thousands of us, and we have to move forward.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Ms. THOMAS: So I just don't spend a lot of time dwelling on it feeling bad. I try to look at as being a blessing in disguise. Whether we look at it that way or not, it is a blessing in disguise for most us. Because we're - some of us are in better shape than we were prior to the storm in that we're able to pay off some properties and bills and things we weren't able to do before the storm. Some of us, such as myself, career-wise, has a resurgence. I'm alive and well, and doing a little bit better prior to the storm. And most of the interviews I've done, they want some negativity about the government. I don't have time for that. I don't dwell on things like that. Whatever you feel about it is your opinion. I don't have an opinion, because I don't have time to think about that. I'm too busy trying to rebuild my life.

SIMON: So if I had asked - let me put it this way. Are you now the Soul Queen of Gonzalez, Louisiana?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THOMAS: I don't think so. Half the folk don't even know I'm there. I'm very low key, so I don't go around saying, hey, y'all. Look at me. It's Irma Thomas. I'm in Gonzalez. I don't do that. So half the folk will be looking at me and don't know it's me.

SIMON: And what's the state of the Lion's Den, your club?

Ms. THOMAS: It's no longer in existence...

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Ms. THOMAS: ...as far we're concerned. First of all, the building is in pretty bad shape. And the owners of the building are not sure if they're going to tear it down and rebuild it, or if they're going to go in and gut it out and redo the inside. But right now, thanks to Katrina, my career is too full to have to worry about the Lion's Den.

SIMON: Mm-hmm. You used to cook for people...

Ms. THOMAS: Oh, yes!

SIMON: ...as well as sing for them. Yeah.

Ms. THOMAS: You do that in New Orleans. When you invite company over, you feed them and you get them drunk.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THOMAS: But you feed them first so they won't get sick.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THOMAS: That's just the normal thing with New Orleans. That's what made New Orleans unique. We have that openness about ourselves, even a stranger on the street, if they saw you and you had a conversation for more than 10 minutes, you'd probably get invited to somebody's house.

SIMON: Are songs about loss, in a way, equally or even a little more universal than love songs?

Ms. THOMAS: Yes, because most times, loss of some kind, most people have had it and they can relate to it. The song is a way for them to express what it is they would like to say and can't find the right words. And usually a song will come up that will express it for them better than they can come up with it themselves.

SIMON: This new CD, After the Rain, people have remarked that it's a little more pared down than some of your other work. There are not horns in it. It seems to...

Ms. THOMAS: True.

SIMON: ...just rely on the fundamentals.

Ms. THOMAS: Well, it was a project that my producer, Scott Billington, thought about some years ago. We just didn't know exactly which direction we wanted to go in. And I wasn't very much help. So it got to the point where I just said, oh, I was too busy being a grandma and a great-grandma, just - Scott said (unintelligible). So he found some material and he sent me a CD with about 15 songs on it. And we narrowed it down to 13, one that we threw out after we got to the studio and decided that didn't fit and brought in after - Shelter In The Rain in place of it. So...

SIMON: You just dropped something in the middle of your explanation I want to follow up on.

Ms. THOMAS: Sure.

SIMON: Did you say great-grandmother...

Ms. THOMAS: Oh, yes!

SIMON: ...or grandmother?

SIMON: Yeah?

Ms. THOMAS: Six times already.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: How the hell did that happen?

Ms. THOMAS: Because I got started early.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Really?

Ms. THOMAS: Yeah, and I'm a typical mama. (Unintelligible) all the kids and send them home.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, all right. So, see, you've got a large and loving family. That's wonderful.

Ms. THOMAS: Yeah. Yeah.

SIMON: We'd like to hear another song from you from After the Rain. If You Knew How Much.

Ms. THOMAS: Oh, okay.

(Soundbite of song "If You Knew How Much")

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) I remember those words that you spoke. You danced on my chances, crushed out my hope, when you broke my dreams in two. And you didn't even know. Broke my dreams in two, and I tried not to let it show. Because if you knew how much I love you, which is more than I could say, every time you saw me coming, you probably turn away. You hold back the smile that sees me through each day, if you knew what I was thinking, you'd never look my way. Never look my way.

Give you all my love, but I tried not to let you know. Give you all my love, and tried not to let it show. Because if you knew how much I love you, which is more than I can say, every time you saw me coming, you'd probably turn away. You hold back the smile that sees me through each day, if you knew what I was thinking, you'd never look my way. You'd never look my way.

SIMON: That was wonderful. Thank you.

Ms. THOMAS: Thank you.

SIMON: Look, I've always been told that you don't - well, you don't ask a lady her age.

Ms. THOMAS: I'm 65. What's the big deal?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Okay, all right.

Ms. THOMAS: Loving every minute of it.

SIMON: Do you have to do - be a little kinder to your voice, as the years go on?

Ms. THOMAS: No, I beat up on it like I've always done.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Ms. THOMAS: You know, I've never been a smoker or a drinker. So my biggest vice is eating. And my other vices are all grown.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: I got more than I bargained for in that one. Thank you. Ballads, when you sing them, does it help to have a little experience behind the ballad?

Ms. THOMAS: Always. Whether it's a ballad or blues ballad, it's an extra thing if you know from where it's coming from. You can tell the story a lot better from experience than you can from not knowing what it's about.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Ms. THOMAS: And once he explained to me what he was writing about, I said, oh, I've been there, I understand what this is all about. I went into - when we got to the studio, I did it and of course I started thinking about some things I had been through and I actually cried when I did the song in the studio, because I could relate to - when he told me what it was about. It's love unrequited, from, you know, you putting out more than somebody is giving back to you. And you would like for them to know how you feel, but they just don't see it. Or they see you and not feel the same way about you. That has happened to many people...

SIMON: Yeah.

Ms. THOMAS: ...many times, including myself.

SIMON: How do you keep a song fresh over the years?

Ms. THOMAS: If you're like me, and you love what you're doing, I'm chomping at the bit to get on the stage. So - and every audience brings a new surge of adrenaline. So that keeps it fresh.

SIMON: Things are breaking well for you right now again.

Ms. THOMAS: I'm not complaining.

SIMON: Yeah. Where have you been playing?

Ms. THOMAS: Mostly out of the State of Louisiana. I just got back. In fact, I was here a few weeks ago. Prior to that I was in Vermont. And then prior to that I was in Tennessee. And you know, I mean it's just been really, really busy. Which is a good thing.

SIMON: Yeah.

Ms. THOMAS: You know, this is what I chose to do, so now it's beginning to truly pay off, after all these years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Yeah. What would you like to do next? Do you know?

Ms. THOMAS: Career wise, well, I'd like to finally get a Grammy.

SIMON: Hold on. Let me just talk to the control room.

Give Miss Thomas a Grammy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: It'll be taken care of. Okay? Sorry.

Ms. THOMAS: I would like to get that recognition.

SIMON: Yeah.

Ms. THOMAS: But basically I just like to keep singing for as long as my voice and the rest of me can keep doing it. I really enjoy what I do.

SIMON: Miss Thomas, thanks so much. That was terrific.

Ms. THOMAS: You're so welcome, Scott.

SIMON: Irma Thomas, her new album is After the Rain. And thanks also to David Torkanowky on the grand piano, Dirk Powell on guitar, Chris Severn on bass, and Michael Skinkus on percussion. To hear more of the songs of Miss Thomas and that new album, After the Rain, you can come to our website, npr.org.

We'd like to end with Stone Survivor. Is that possible?

Ms. THOMAS: Let's see.

SIMON: Okay. Thanks.

(Soundbite of song "Stone Survivor")

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) The further you rise, the further you may drop. Where you land might be hard or soft. Many fools have made it to the top. And there's always some other fool ready to kick them off. But I'm a stone survivor, and I've seen this little, old world go round. I'm a straight through driver, and the ever-spinning wheel don't get you down. Down or up, I play the blues. Might get rough, but I live the life I choose. And I ain't no apologize. I'm a stone survivor.

Some are in for the long run. Some will peak before they're even 21. Some lay down when their lucky stars are gone. When my stars don't shine, I just keep on keeping on. Because I'm a stone survivor, and I've seen this little, old world go round. I'm a straight through driver, and the ever-spinning wheel don't get me down. Down or up, I play the blues. Might get rough, but I live the life I choose. And I ain't no apologize. I'm a stone survivor.

You may be pretty as a peach, might be that drum like Samuel can preach, warm every heart whereas your voice can reach, but if you just don't get it, ain't no school that can teach. I'm a stone survivor, and I've seen this little, old world go round. I'm a straight through driver, and the ever-spinning wheel don't get me down. Down or up, I play the blues. Might get rough, but I live the life I choose. And I ain't no apologize. I'm a stone survivor. I'm a stone survivor. Might get rough, but I'm a stone survivor. Might get tough, but I'm a stone survivor. I'm a stone survivor. Stone survivor.

SIMON: And this is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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