Aaron Neville doesn’t have a singing voice; he has an angelic croon. His vocals can communicate a gentle caress, a heartfelt plea or a sturdy resilience with a magic that few, if any, other singers today can match. His new album, I Know I’ve Been Changed, is an all-gospel program on his own Tell It record label, distributed by EMI Gospel, and its release marks Neville’s 50th year as a recording artist. The name of the label is a sly reference to Neville’s breakout 1967 hit, “Tell It Like It Is,” a splendid showcase for that angelic croon.
Neville often speaks of the cornerstones in his life being music, his hometown and his faith, and I Know I’ve Been Changed is his first all-gospel release since Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans, leaving an unprecedented path of horrific death and destruction. Neville, who has been a member of the Neville Brothers, the first family of New Orleans music, will hit the road later this season with his brother Charles for a tour called “Christmas With Aaron Neville and his Quintet Featuring Charles Neville.” He recently had a conversation with The Root to, well, tell it like it is about his new album, his beloved New Orleans and his love life.
The Root: This recording is an all-gospel program. How important is the gospel to your work?
Aaron Neville: Oh, it’s very important. I often return to it. Whether it’s singing “Ave Maria” or the Lord’s Prayer in concert, listening to spirituals at home — that music is a constant presence in my life.
TR: Did that closeness to the gospel make it easier or harder to make this record?
AN: Both. There was so much great music to choose from. We did some Brother Joe May, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Blind Boys of Alabama. There is so much more, though. When I was growing up, my idol was Sam Cooke, especially for the way he sang gospel.
TR: Producer Joe Henry is well-known for creating a spare, rustic sound, as he does on this recording. What was it like working with him?
AN: He’s a real cool man, very much a producer that’s a collaborator. We did all the recording in five days in Los Angeles, and everything was cool. He’s a very good listener.
TR: This recording reunites you with [the legendary pianist] Allen Toussaint. What is it like to work with him again?