Hugh Laurie—officially the most watched leading man on TV, thanks to his starring role in House—has put his stethoscope back in its box and his Golden Globes on the shelf, and has chosen instead the life of a bluesman, albeit a very British one. An accomplished pianist and singer, Laurie is currently touring behind his debut album, Let Them Talk—a collection of standards that features such musical icons as Dr. John, Irma Thomas and Tom Jones. We spoke to Laurie while he was on a tour stop by the Niagara River in Lewiston, New York (“pouring with rain, but it’s very pretty”), where he admitted to being a little bleary from lack of sleep.
Are you in a sleek tour bus?
I mean, the littleness makes it frankly unsleek: We bump into each other, we bang heads, we spill things on each other, we can’t find socks. But it’s standard fare, I believe, and it’s part of the bonding process. If we went on for another six months we might wind up trying to kill each other, but right now it’s a very happy bus, in spite of all the head-banging.
How does being a rock star suit you?
Oh, I am most definitely not a rock star, other than the fact that I’m the one whose face is on the poster and I’ve got to go out and do all the talking. That’s my job. But no, I have no starry feelings about it at all, beyond the sheer fun of playing the music, which I love.
Did you ever see yourself doing this?
No. Well. Yes I did, I saw it in the very furthest, wildest reaches of my dreamscape. I imagined that I would one day meet and make music with Dr John, but I never harbored any serious belief that it would come about. It’s an absolutely extraordinary experience.
Have you felt silly or self-conscious about being a middle-class British chap playing the blues?
Not really, because I just think of it as music—the conventional cliché of the blues doesn’t really do the music justice, I don’t think. I hope there are compensations for the very real charge that this is not authentic, but then, authenticity is such a flaky concept anyway. It can be very misunderstood and misused, I think. It’s a big subject and a very hard thing to define, but you know it when you come across it. And I hope that the audiences over here can hear that the way we approach this music is sincere and respectful and affectionate.
Did it ever cross your mind to sing in an English accent?
It did, but I didn’t dwell on the English possibility for very long, because you run into things like scansion. You know, you just can’t make a song scan if you sing it English. But also, this is American music—I don’t really want to hear Puccini in English, it sounds weird to me. And just like singing Italian opera, you go with the form that’s been established.
What made you step up to making your own record?
I felt like I may not get opportunities to do this ever again, so it’s about time—it’s a terrible thing, I think, in life to wait until you’re ready. I have this feeling now that actually no one is ever ready to do anything. There’s almost no such thing as ready. There’s only now. And you may as well do it now. I mean, I say that confidently as if I’m about to go bungee jumping or something—I’m not. I’m not a crazed risk taker. But I do think that, generally speaking, now is as good a time as any.
Joe Henry produced the album. Was it his Rolodex that hooked you up with Tom Jones and Irma Thomas?
It was, yes. Rolodex is fantastically quaint! Do they even exist anymore? Although Joe is one of those people who might actually have a Rolodex. He likes things that have got a bit of a patina to them. He definitely connected me with the wonderful musicians in this band, and he also brokered the various guests who appeared on the record.
Was there a part of you that worried you were being indulged because of your fame?
Yes, there was. But what were my alternatives? I couldn’t make that un-happen; I couldn’t go back and un-be an actor. So I could only forge ahead and hope that as time goes by and the number of shows goes by and I stick with it long enough and keep pressing on, I will win over the doubters or the skeptics. Or I won’t, and they can go fuck themselves. [Laughs] In a way, there’s nothing I can do about it. I don’t know that that would be a big enough reason not to do something. And we do have an indecently great time. I absolutely love playing with these people.
Where did you record the album?
We made most of it at Ocean Way studio in Los Angeles on Sunset Boulevard, one of the last great studios, and then went to New Orleans and did the horn section at Piety Street with Allen Toussaint.
Did you have any special recording rituals?
I consecrated the whole thing with a bottle of 18-year-old Macallan. And that’s become our tipple ever since. We have a pretty substantial whiskey budget. And also you walk down the hallway and you have these portraits looking down on you—Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie. I mean, they must’ve recorded a lot of rubbish there as well, I kept trying to remind myself of that. But they have a real proper echo chamber in the basement. So your voice is bouncing off the same walls that have absorbed, I like to think—it’s fanciful, I know, but I like to think—they’ve absorbed the sound of Ella Fitzgerald and Dean Martin. And that’s quite a feeling.
I just got goosebumps when you said that.
Well, I know, me too! It’s a thrilling place to be. Of course, now people just try and do the whole thing with computer plug-ins, but it can’t be the same.
Where do you see yourself in 30 years’ time?
Oh, I’ll be under the sod in 30 years’ time, without a doubt. If we start with next Wednesday—I think we’ll still be in New York. After that it’s a bit hazy. I’ve never been a great planner. I’ve never owned a Sasco year planner, which probably is as outmoded as a Rolodex. Poor old Sasco, they went the way of all things.…
I see you playing your guitar by a river somewhere—but which river?
[Laughs] I really don’t know. I hope that there is a river, somewhere. I’m fond of rivers, and rivers and bridges are very musical things. My big hope is that I’ll be playing the guitar better. That’s the only firm goal I have.
Follow Sophie Harris on Twitter: @SophieMeve
Don’t Tell Mama
What good is singing alone in your room when you can sing along with show tunes at a Theater District cabaret? Cabaret performers often congregate in the bar area before and after their numbers, and best of all, there’s no cover charge there, just a two-drink minimum. Sip a bourbon, hum a few bars, and soak up the Art Deco chic.