A Song for New Orleans
TONY COX, host:
I'm Tony Cox, in for Farai Chideya. And this is NEWS & NOTES.
After Hurricane Katrina, many New Orleans' artists ask themselves how they should respond. Monica Dillon is a singer-songwriter who lost just about everything in the storm, everything but her creativity. After temporarily leaving her home, Monica sat down at a piano and wrote "When the Levee Broke."
(Soundbite of song, "When the Levee Broke")
Ms. MONICA DILLON (Singer; Songwriter): (Singing) When the levee broke, my kinfolk scattered a thousand ways. When the levee broke, my kinfolk, I didn't hear from them for days. Didn't sleep at night…
COX: Monica Dillon, welcome to the program.
Ms. DILLON: Thanks, Tony. Thanks for having me.
COX: You know, that's a nice tune, and we're going talk more about it in just a minute.
But first, you know, you've been out on the road, sharing your song with people around the country and the world, how are audiences responding to you and that music?
Ms. DILLON: One thing that I usually see either while I'm playing in the corner of my eye or after the song is over, I usually invariably see someone who's been crying, who's got a tear in their eye or who's really moved by the song, the message, the lyrics, the music of it.
COX: You know, music does that to people, particularly if it touches you in a very emotional way. Let's talk about your story and the emotion that touched you when you first saw what happened to your home in New Orleans.
Ms. DILLON: Well, for me, you know, like most people, we came back not really knowing what to expect. I left not knowing what to expect. There were things that I put on top of the bed thinking, at least if there's a little bit of water, you know, these are the things that I'll still have. I didn't expect that I'd come back to eight, nine feet of water. So you know, I went to this process of really trying to understand what had happened, you know, where do I go, how do I go forward from this and it was the same emotion that many people had and what I wanted to do was figure out how to express that in a song.
COX: You know, I understand that you were a full-time electrical engineer before Katrina and that now…
Ms. DILLON: Yes.
COX: …you've decided to dedicate yourself to music. Talk about that but begin by talking about when the music stirred in your soul to make you start writing what you just sang.
Ms. DILLON: Wow. For me, I mean, music has always been a part of my life first off and, you know, there are times when we have to decide which master we're going to serve so to speak, and for me, you know, growing up, I definitely had a proclivity to science as well as the arts. You'll see a lot of people who have that kind of weird connection going on.
And so the writing started, I think, after I moved back to New Orleans. I'm originally from here. I left after high school, came back unexpectedly in late 1998. And from there, things just kind of took off. Being in a place like New Orleans, if the music is in you, it's going to come out of you. And so I went from just, you know, doing some serious study at the piano particularly to writing songs.
COX: It seems as if the Katrina experience - and don't let me put words in your mouth. I'm saying this based on the background information that I have about you. It seems that Katrina struck you in such a way that it - you became, not just a singer and a songwriter, but an activist, is that true?
Ms. DILLON: I would definitely say that. I would definitely say that. And, you know, my first CD, the music was kind of light, it was mellow, relaxing, you know, there's a little politics on it. A lot of what I'm writing now is definitely more political. And having the, I'd say, luxury or ability to travel a little bit more since my schedule is a little more flexible now, I've been to a lot of places and, you know, there are lot of things that we don't know about if we don't leave our backdoor. And so a lot of the music now that I'm writing about speaks to a particular message, a particular issue or something that lends some light to be shed on it.
COX: Well, let's follow that point up with this because the irony for a lot of musicians is that since Katrina, the music of New Orleans is more popular than ever it seems. Yet there was a musician's demonstration just last weekend about fair wages. Were you a part of that march?
Ms. DILLON: I certainly was. I had my sign and all.
COX: What was that about exactly?
Ms. DILLON: Well, I think that there is this, there's a double-edge sword. A lot of musicians, you know, rightly so, have kind of gone to national notoriety after the storm, just being in a different place where their talents were recognized.
When you live in a city like New Orleans where there are so many musicians per capita, it's often difficult to - for everyone to have their own shining light and for everyone to have that moment on stage.
And as a result, what happens is sometimes your arts are diminished or taken for granted, and so the march was about saying, listen, we need fair wages, too, you know?
The days of two-digit wages and salaries for band are over, especially when a lot of musicians have experienced another type of pay and another type of treatment in other cities.
COX: We're going to hear a little bit more of your song in just a moment, but I have one more question for you.
Ms. DILLON: Sure.
COX: And I'm curious about this. I want you tell us about the difference in Monica Dillon, the person before Katrina and Monica Dillon, the person after Katrina.
Ms. DILLON: Monica Dillon before Katrina, I think I lived life in such a way where I was surviving. And again, it's ironic. A lot of us, these last two years who've come back to New Orleans, have been doing that surviving.
The challenge that I gave myself during those few weeks after the storm, when decisions had to be made and we had to figure out what are we going to do, I decided that I wanted to thrive and I wanted my life to mean something and I wanted to be happy with the decisions that I made, the choices I made. There was no reason to go back to a job where I wasn't happy, you know? So I think the Monica now, post-Katrina, is one who's, you know, just trying to make decisions that, you know, life is on a dress rehearsal. So that's what I would encourage everyone to do.
COX: Well, I suppose "When the Levee Broke" is your coming-out song, in a sense, isn't it?
Ms. DILLON: Yes, it definitely is, definitely is.
COX: And it speaks through - I know that the words, when the levee broke my kinfolks scattered a thousand ways, and in a sense that included you scattering into a new life, didn't it?
Ms. DILLON: Absolutely, absolutely.
COX: Well, Monica, I want to thank you so much for coming on. We appreciate it. As we end our interview, we're going to go back to your song "When the Levee Broke." Thanks again.
Ms. DILLON: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
(Soundbite of song, "When the Levee Broke")
Ms. DILLON: (Singing) When the levee broke, my kinfolk scattered a thousand ways. When the levee broke, my kinfolks, I didn't hear from them for a day.
COX: This is "When the Levee Broke" by Monica Dillon, a singer-songwriter living in New Orleans. She joined us from member station WWNO in New Orleans. To hear a full version of the song, just go to our Web site nprnewsandnotes.org.
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