Hugh Laurie's New Orleans Romp, By Way Of Oxford The House actor worked with Joe Henry, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John and other New Orleans greats on his debut album, Let Them Talk.

Hugh Laurie's New Orleans Romp, By Way Of Oxford

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block. Fans of the TV medical drama "House" know actor Hugh Laurie as the sardonic, limping, Vicodin-popping title character, Dr. Gregory House.


HUGH LAURIE: (As Dr. Gregory House) What would you want, a doctor who holds your hand while you die or a doctor who ignores you while you get better? I guess it would particularly suck to have a doctor who ignores you while you die.

BLOCK: Well, now, a different side of Hugh Laurie, the Englishman with a deep passion for New Orleans and Delta Blues. On his debut album, titled "Let Them Talk," he's romping through the music he loves best, with his piano playing front and center.


LAURIE: I wanted to appear, if you don't mind me saying, I wanted to appear naked, because I am surrounded by wonderful, wonderful musicians. I didn't want to hide behind them. I wanted to sort of come out and just appear as, sort of as nakedly and as honestly as I could and say, well, this is me doing this. This is what it's going to be. This is what I love and this is how it sounds and take it or leave it. Well, take it. Please don't leave it.


LAURIE: (singing) I went down to St. James infirmary. Saw my baby there. She was stretched out on a long white table. So cold, so sweet, so sweet, so fair.

BLOCK: You start the liner notes of the CD with just a bold disclaimer. You say, I was not born in Alabama in the 1890s. You may as well know this now. I've never eaten grits, cropped a share or ridden a boxcar.


BLOCK: All true.

LAURIE: All true. Although, by the reference to the 1890s, I was slyly trying to make it clear that actually no one currently making records was born in the 1890s. But, yes, I am perfectly well aware of the fact that I'm not conventionally qualified to play this music. It's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to make a blues record.

BLOCK: But you've done it.

LAURIE: Well, I've done my best. I've done my best.


LAURIE: (singing) With a 20-dollar gold piece on my watch chain. So the boys will know I've got...

BLOCK: Well, Hugh Laurie, how far back does that love for the blues go for you?

LAURIE: Really, as long as I can remember. But that's not saying much because I can't remember more than about an hour ago. But when I was a small boy, 10, 11, 12, probably somewhere around there, when I first heard a blues song on the radio, it was a jolt of electricity. It grabbed me by the throat, it made me shiver. And I knew from that moment that this was for me and this would be with me for the rest of my life.

And so it has proved to be. I've never really moved on, but then, I haven't moved on from 10 years old in all kinds of ways. I know that.

BLOCK: So at the time that you heard that song, you already were a piano player, right? You started playing when you were a kid.

LAURIE: Well, no, I was driven at the point of a sharp stick through some token piano lessons, as lots of children are. I absolutely hated it. I actually went on hunger strike for three days, which, again, doesn't sound very long. That's not exactly suffering, is it? But, you know, at 10 or 12, probably...

BLOCK: That makes a statement, yeah.

LAURIE: Yeah, that - three days is quite a long time. And then, eventually my mother cracked, the warden cracked, and she allowed me to give up the piano. And I didn't come back to the piano 'til sort of late teens and then just started fiddling about on my own.


BLOCK: Your version of the Stephen Foster song "Swanee River," which we might think about as a really sort of melancholy lament, you turned it into this incredibly fun Barrelhouse stomp.

LAURIE: We let rip, yeah.

BLOCK: And we hear you kind of cackling in there.

LAURIE: Hootin' and a hollerin'. I was having a very good time. Couldn't hide it. Back in the far-off distant past, when I was struggling through these piano lessons, which I didn't enjoy, the only song in the book that we were working from that I thought even vaguely resembled a blues song was "Swanee River." It kept me going. It was the oasis on the horizon, and we crawled across the deserts of these awful French lullabies and polkas that you have to learn to get there.

And when finally we arrived, my piano teacher, she turned the page and she looked at it and went, a negro spiritual, slightly syncopated. No, I think we'll leave that.

BLOCK: Really?

LAURIE: And we skipped it. And that was the moment I knew that classical music was not for me, so this has always been with me, this song, for that reason.

BLOCK: I'm talking to the actor Hugh Laurie. His new CD is "Let Them Talk."

LAURIE: The actor/musician.

BLOCK: Actor/musician. Actor slash musician.

LAURIE: Or musician/actor.

BLOCK: One or the other.

LAURIE: I don't know. An underwear model. No, I'm not. That's not - I made it up. Not true.

BLOCK: I thought you were naked. (Unintelligible)

LAURIE: I am. (Unintelligible)

BLOCK: Okay.


LAURIE: (singing) You're nasty. You're dirty. Take it away. You're terrible, awful. Take it away.

BLOCK: Hugh Laurie, when you sing a swampy kind of song like "Buddy Bolden's Blues," which has all these great vocal expressions in it, all these voices that you're doing, I wonder if you're sort of diving into a character in sort of the same way that you might slip into the role of Dr. Gregory House on TV. Does it feel like that at all sometimes?

LAURIE: I suppose a little bit, but less conscious, I suppose. I feel when acting, I am sometimes overly self-conscious, I think, going, no, don't, put your eyebrow back where it was and, you know, turn to the left. You know, I'm sort of very consciously adopting this character. But with music, I don't know. I found it was a question of just closing my eyes and just sort of letting things come out. Acting is largely about putting on masks, and music is about removing them.

BLOCK: It sounds liberating, really.

LAURIE: It is. And actually, I do every day. The truth is I get home after a day's work acting, shouting, and limping and pulling faces, and I go straight to the piano, and that's where I can sit for 10 minutes or five hours sometimes without even being aware of the time passing. But it is immensely liberating. That's where I sort of let everything go.

BLOCK: Well, Hugh Laurie, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks so much.

LAURIE: Well, thank you for having me. It's been great talking to you.

BLOCK: And you can hear more of my conversation with Hugh Laurie and songs from his new album, "Let Them Talk," at NPR

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