The Golden Globe-winning actor-musician talks about his sophomore CD, “Didn’t It Rain”—a collection of jazz and blues standards.
Actor-musician Hugh Laurie
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, a conversation with actor and musician, Hugh Laurie. The six-time Emmy nominee for his indelible portray of “House” on the long-running FOX series is now on tour with the Copper Bottom Band performing classic songs from his second blues album, “Didn’t It Rain.”
We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Hugh Laurie coming up right now.
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Tavis: With six Emmy nominations spread out over the eight-year run of “House, M.D.” on FOX, Hugh Laurie convinced us he was a brilliant, albeit disdainful, physician now on his second blues CD titled “Didn’t It Rain.” He’s convincing us he’s a logical inheritor of the great blues traditions of W.C. Handy and Jelly Roll Morton. Let’s start our conversation first with a cut from this CD called “Evenin’.”
Tavis: So every artist that I’ve ever talked to in my entire career either loves or hates the way they sound, so…
Hugh Laurie: Hate. Hate, hate, hate. But it’s always been that way. Can’t stand myself on voicemail or anything, no. Always, always hate. Hate the way I sound and hate the way I look. I think that’s the natural state.
I cannot understand people who are happy to look at themselves, hear themselves. It’s an absolute mystery to me. I admire it. My God, I wish I could do it, but I can’t.
Tavis: So then how does one judge, how does Hugh Laurie judge, whether or not he is happy with the project? How do you feel that out if you’re not enamored by your own sound?
Laurie: I don’t. I am resigned to perpetual discontent. Usually I need about 10 years to go by and then I can look back on something and I go, well, that was okay. Or I can hear something and that was okay. At the time, I don’t think it’s possible.
The only thing you could do is to surround yourself with people you trust and hope that they will steer you in the right direction and say that’s not really happening or thumbs up. I think that’s all you can do. Otherwise, you can get so sort of tied up in your own head, you know, on the tiniest things, sometimes things that no one else would notice.
Tavis: It’s one thing, Hugh, I suspect to not be in love with the sound of your voice. But it’s abundantly clear to me that you know what you love in terms of music when you hear it. I mean, you know the stuff that inspires you.
Laurie: Oh, I do.
Tavis: You know what turns you on.
Laurie: Completely, completely.
Tavis: Well, what was that back in the day?
Laurie: Well, I suppose the first – I’m not completely sure what the first song was. I think it was a Willie Dixon, but I couldn’t swear to it. I was probably eight or nine years old when I heard this song.
I suppose it was the first blues song I ever heard, that blue note, and it just hit me like a thunderbolt and I’ve been vibrating ever since. It was like a sort of magical kingdom that I could go to through that door that opened.
And Muddy Waters, I suppose, was my first great hero. You know, every boy wants to be a guitar player and Muddy Waters was just the king. He was the King Bee. He was it.
Tavis: You started singing or playing first?
Laurie: Oh, playing, playing. No, the singing, this is a recent arrival. I’m getting better at it [laugh]. It’s something I should have done – well, all of this stuff I should have done more of when I was younger.
And there isn’t a human being alive who doesn’t wish they’d worked harder at a musical instrument. Right, right. I’ve never met anyone who says, you know, I’m really glad I gave up the clarinet, you know. Nobody says that.
Tavis: I kick myself every day that I stopped playing saxophone and piano.
Laurie: Yeah. Do you touch them at all now?
Tavis: If I walk across a piano, if I walk past one, I’ll stop and play.
Laurie: Oh, you will?
Laurie: Oh, so the…
Tavis: The saxophone thing, though, I wish I’d stuck with it.
Laurie: The flame is still burning.
Tavis: Yeah. It’s never too late, they say, but…
Laurie: They do say that. I’m not sure if they’re right to say that [laugh], but they do say it, yeah.
Tavis: They do say that. When you look back on your life and your career – this is one of those impossible questions. Let me ask it anyway. How do you think – ’cause I ask myself this all the time – how do you think things might have been different had you been more committed to your musical gift early on in your life?
Laurie: Well, it wasn’t that I wasn’t committed. I mean, my love for this music has been an absolute constant throughout my life. But in terms of actual performance, of actually putting myself out there and doing it, it’s so hard to know. I mean, I realize I’m now in this incredibly blessed position of being able to play with this band and go out on the road and put on these shows.
But, of course, that’s only happened after 30-odd years of being an actor. It’s not like it’s a shortcut, being an actor. I wouldn’t advise it as a shortcut. But it’s so hard to know. I mean, you know, music is one of the noblest callings I can think of. It’s the highest of all the art forms to me.
For example, if my kid said to me, I want to give it all up, whatever it is that they’re doing, and I want to take my saxophone and go out, I would say, “May God go with you. This is a great and noble thing that you’re doing.”
That doesn’t stop it from being incredibly hard. I mean, it’s a brutal, pitiless business in many ways and is only getting more so with, as we all know, the collapse of the record industry. It’s a very, very tough life, but, my God, it’s a beautiful one.
Tavis: I have echoed what you said a moment ago, Hugh. I’ve been asked, I guess, a thousand times over the course of my career about this show, you know, in particular why it is that I talk to so many artists like yourself.
It’s because I believe that music is the noblest, the highest, of all the art forms. I know why I feel that way. Why do you feel that way?
Laurie: I just know – well, here’s one little tiny piece of evidence. After a hard day’s work of doing anything, anybody doing any job anywhere, who goes home and says, “Honey, I’ve had a terrible day. Why don’t we do a scene from “Coriolanus” to unwind?” [Laugh] Nobody does that.
Tavis: Yeah [laugh].
Laurie: You know, what people do is that their last refuge when times are hard and when times are not, when times are sweet, the first place people want to go and the last place people go is music.
They want to lose themselves in music, be transported by music. Its ability to soothe, to console, to enliven, to inspire is like nothing else that I know of.
Whether people want to dance or they just want to let it wash over them, it has a power that language, for all its great beauty and sophistication, cannot ever quite address. Even the greatest poets, I think, cannot quite get to the places that music can get to in the human – I was gonna say mind, but it’s actually the entire body. It somehow seems to infuse the entire body.
Tavis: So that, if I take your point, any gift that is pregnant with that kind of power, any gift that is that noble, has to be, I think, treated and regarded with the kind of respect that a vocation like that demands.
Laurie: I completely agree.
Tavis: And some artists do that and some artists don’t.
Laurie: I completely agree, absolutely. And one of the things I’m so keen to do in the show that we’re doing on the road now is to express in the most respectful terms, I mean, without it becoming, you know, Poe faced, but to express my admiration and my love for this music as respectfully as I can.
The only thing I could say, I suppose, is that – and I could put my hand on my heart and say that everything we do in the show is sincere. We don’t do anything, or I couldn’t imagine us doing anything, that is just for effect, you know.
Oh, we don’t really like this, but it’ll probably go well. You know, this will get them on their feet or this will – I can’t really do that. I can’t imagine doing that. The songs we play are the songs we love and I love them as much today as I did yesterday and will tomorrow. It’s sincere is what I mean.
Tavis: Give me some sense of the show. When this project first came out, we talked about it on my radio program.
Laurie: Right, right.
Tavis: I’ve been listening to it since it came out and loving every piece of it. And now, as you mentioned, you and the band are on tour around the country going to different places, different venues. Give me some sense of what I’m going to see, what we are going to see when we see you on the road. What’s the show like?
Laurie: Well, I’ll tell you first of all what I wanted it not to be.
Laurie: And that was, I didn’t just want it to be a recital. I wanted it to have a sort of theatricality to it, a sort of – you know, for it to really be a show with a capital S. And I hope that we have – I believe – no, I’m gonna go further. I know that we have achieved this.
I’m so proud of the show that we’re doing. And I know that, if I were sitting there, I would love it. That sounds cocky, I know, but I’m gonna say…
Tavis: If you can’t buy it, you can’t sell it.
Laurie: Right, exactly. Exactly right. So, you know, I hope that it’s a show that will do all the things that you hope any piece of entertainment will do, that it will make people laugh, that it will make people think, that it will make people cry, it will give people chills at times, it will make them dance.
You know, I hope it’s all in there because all those things are in this music. All human life is in this music. It encompasses everything.
Tavis: Do you think music still has the power, the resonance, to do that in this day and age? And maybe the question isn’t so much a question about music as to whether or not we’re open to allowing music to impact our lives in that way, to move us in those ways.
Laurie: I think so, yes. I mean, I think – you know, it’s a strange thing about the world. Everything seems to be speeding up year by year. Everything becomes more fragmented. We seem to be addressing our communications with each other and with ourselves in smaller and smaller pieces.
You know, it’s 140 characters this year. Maybe someone will come up with it saying, yeah, you can do it all in 10 characters. Well, is that the way we’re thinking about our lives?
But I think music does now and always will transcend that sort of fragmentation. I think music is the refuge. It’s the place we go to escape, to find comfort and find peace and happiness, joy.
I mean, I think it’s – I can’t imagine – at least if that time ever does disappear, I’m out. I no longer – I hand back my ticket for a ride on this spinning globe because I can’t imagine what life on this earth would be like without music. I can’t conceive of it.
Tavis: Give me the good and the bad, the up, the down, you know, you take my point, of coming into this kind of exposure for your music after you have become a star?
Laurie: Well, I suppose…
Tavis: What’s the up and what’s the down?
Laurie: Well, the up – the most obvious up is that I don’t necessarily have to hammer on doors, you know, take the skin off my knuckles trying to break through to an audience to get people to come to the show. First of all, they’re curious to see what the hell’s this? What’s this gonna be like? Which I understand. I would be doing the same.
I suppose if there’s a down, maybe coming with that is the difficulty of transforming what people expect you to do. They’re used to seeing you in one particular way and why should they devote any energy to seeing you in another way? And that’s also understandable.
So my responsibility to the music and to my own love for the music is just to keep going. It’s to not necessarily just think about, you know, tonight’s show and tomorrow’s show, but actually think 10 years from now.
I’m gonna be still trying to express these songs that I found that I love, that I think can move other people as much as they move me. This is something that I can share. You know, I will just – I’m determined to persevere. I will keep on persevering.
Tavis: I suspect, whether you know this or not, whether you ever come in contact with it or not, Hugh, I suspect that at every one of your shows – this will change over time. But I suspect at every one of your shows, there is a slice of the audience, to your earlier point, who will give you the benefit of the doubt of buying a ticket to see you because they want to see you in this other space.
Laurie: Right, right.
Tavis: But they walk in with an attitude that says prove it to me.
Tavis: How do you respond to that slice of the audience who sit there on their hands saying, okay, prove it to me?
Laurie: The funny thing is that that side of it doesn’t bother me at all only because that’s me. I would be doing that. I know that, if someone persuaded me to go and see – I’d better not mention any names [laugh] – an actor, I know that I would have this slight feeling of, oh, really? I think that’s completely right. That’s as it should be. Nobody should get a sort of free pass and I’m determined to sort of win people over just through the show itself.
And I hope, I do hope and I believe – well, I know it actually because we’ve had these sort of conversations after the show that, you know, there have been people who come knowing nothing about what to expect, knowing nothing about this music, not even knowing the name, can you believe it, Bessie Smith. And during the course of the show, I hope – I mean, I talk about Bessie Smith a little bit and the wonderful Jean McLean sings a Bessie Smith song.
And I hope that, by the end of it, there are, you know, young or old, there are people who are going, wow, you know, the name rang a bell, but I didn’t really know anything about that.
And they go back and they listen and they become connected to this music in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise have done. If that even happens just to one person in a show, I consider that a victory.
Tavis: Let me ask how seriously you take the role and the responsibility you’ve just now sort of earmarked to educate the audience as much as to entertain them.
I was just in New York a couple of days ago and finally got a chance to see Audra McDonald in her “Lady Day” thing. I mean, Audra, five-time Tony winner. She’s barely 43 years of age, got five of these things already. I mean, Audra is all that and then some.
So I knew the show was gonna be great. But I went backstage afterwards to talk to her. I was saying to her how moved I was and how pleased I was at the education that she gave the audience.
‘Cause it’s a wonderful performance, but you’re learning about Bessie Smith, you’re learning about Lady Day, you’re learning about The Prez, you’re learning about – I mean, she’s giving you as she acts a history lesson. And I get the sense that, to what you said a moment ago, that in your show, you’re weaving some of that.
Laurie: I do. I can’t help it. It’s partly because I’m a bit of a nerd and I just can’t help gabbling on about this stuff because I love it so much. I mean, God, I would hate people to think that it’s some sort of dry musicology lecture.
Tavis: No, no, no. Those crib notes, as they were, I think, are good for the audience.
Laurie: Well, I think they – I mean, I think they add to the pleasure of it. I mean, when you learn, for example, that Lead Belly was on two separate occasions – once in Texas and once in Louisiana – was released from prison by the state governor because of the songs he wrote.
The governor of Texas – actually, I believe he got off a life sentence in Texas because the state governor fell in love with the song, “Goodnight, Irene.” He just said you can go [laugh]. You know, God speed.
Tavis: That didn’t work for James Brown.
Laurie: It did not. It’s not a uniform strategy [laugh]. It’s not completely 100% reliable. In fact, kids, don’t count on it. But I can only think that just sort of adds to the pleasure. I think it changes the way you listen.
Once you have that little fragment about somebody’s life, even if there’s a lot of invention and myth-making which I’m sure there is, that’s part of the fun of it in a way. It sort of adds to the way you hear it and the way you respond to it. This is a song written by a real – you know, this wasn’t a committee just sort of rolling out this stuff.
This was a guy who lived a life and a hell of a life too. And his life is in these songs; his imagination is in these songs. And I think just to know that even if it’s only that about Lead Belly, I think it just sort – I think it adds to the texture of the evening.
Tavis: So here’s the question that you know I was going to ask.
Laurie: Oh, no.
Tavis: Yeah, which is I love the stuff that you’ve been doing on these projects. But you been doing other peoples’ stuff.
Tavis: So what’s the question I’m about to ask?
Laurie: The question is when will I set out in my own little rowboat and actually do – well, I mean, have I got that right?
Tavis: You are prescient and prophetic.
Laurie: It’s incredible, isn’t it?
Tavis: Yeah [laugh].
Laurie: It’s possible that the next go-around, it’s possible. I mean, it’s something that I wanted to do and have done. I mean, I write songs. I’m just so conscious of the fact that there are so many undiscovered treasures out there. You know, some of the songs we do have barely been heard since they were recorded 80, 90, 100 years ago.
And as long as there are those precious jewels lying out there, I feel the world doesn’t necessarily need more songs. But then the world doesn’t need more of anything really. The world’s got plenty of plenty.
Tavis: Good point.
Laurie: But I do think, you know, at some point I have to take my courage in both hands and say, yes, this is me and the moon in June. I wrote that line, yeah. What do you make of it [laugh]?
Tavis: I like it. I like it.
Laurie: Well, there’s something in there.
Tavis: Hey, Jonathan, put the cover of the CD back up for me. I mean, I love this cover, man. You gotta tell me who’s idea this was [laugh]. There’s that little piano. I love this.
Laurie: This was my idea. I wanted to – well, I’d always loved that Schroeder, the Peanuts thing. But I also – I wanted to have some image that managed to combine a sort of gravity, the seriousness of what this means to me, but also the knowledge that I don’t want people to think that I’m not aware of how odd this is that I’m doing this, you know.
That some people may go – you know, I’m gonna be sitting at a piano with a manuscript and sort of sucking a pencil going this is my creative soul [laugh]. I want people to know that I know how hard it is. It’s a lot to ask people to swallow and I want people to know that I understand that. So that was the idea.
Tavis: And “Didn’t It Rain.” First of all, “Didn’t It Rain” is a great track. It’s a great song.
Laurie: Thanks. It’s amazing.
Tavis: Why do you love it so much and why did it get to be the title track?
Laurie: Well, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was just huge for me when I was growing up. In fact, now we’re doing two Sister Rosetta Tharpe songs in the show and she was just an enormous influence on me in her sort of spirit and her cool.
She was just so damn cool standing there with that white Fender. She gets the hairs on the back of my neck going just even thinking about her, never mind hearing it. So she’s just been a central figure. I also wanted – there’s something I wanted to do with this album unlike the first was to have more of a female voice to it.
I was aware the first time around that it was a group of men hammering away on guitars. I mean, I’m very proud of it. Don’t get me wrong. I’m very proud of the first album, but I wanted the second one to be – because in my mind, a lot of this music actually comes from women.
The first big stars, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, you know, these were gigantic stars. I even wonder sometimes whether all music actually comes from women, whether the first glimmering of music is a mother soothing a baby.
Maybe that’s what it all comes – it is so primal. And I wanted to get that – not to do something romantic exactly, but to do something that’s more of a conversation between men and women.
Tavis: Mission accomplished.
Laurie: Why, thank you, thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: Mission accomplished. As I mentioned earlier, we had a chance to sit and talk to Hugh on our radio show when this project first came out. And how fortunate are we now that he’s actually touring the country now. If you can get a ticket to get in to see this guy somewhere over the summer, you will not want to miss Hugh Laure and his band as they are doing their thing on the road.
The latest project from Hugh Laure is called “Didn’t It Rain.” You having fun on tour? Are you enjoying it? Playing for these people?
Laurie: It’s sort of indecent how much I’m enjoying myself [laugh]. I feel like someone’s gonna come, like the waiter’s gonna come with the check any moment. I’m gonna go, oh, my, yes. I’m sort of braced for it because I’m sort of having too much fun. It shouldn’t really be legal. I apologize, yeah.
Tavis: Well, if you’re enjoying him on “House,” you’ll really enjoy him on the stage. Real good to see you, man.
Laurie: Yes. You too. Thank you so much.
Tavis: Congratulations. Have a great tour, man.
Laurie: Thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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