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?
AN: Allen and I go way back. He produced my first recording in 1960. And we worked together from 1960 to 1964 and again in 1971 and 1972. We founded New Orleans Artists Against Hunger & Homelessness in 1984.
TR: Did you and Allen do any work together when you two were growing up?
AN: We went to the same high school. He was kind of a big shot. To me he was — he was older. I think he was a senior when I was a sophomore. But I worked up some nerve and passed him some poems I'd written. He put them to music and created songs out of them.
TR: How is the recovery process going in New Orleans?
AN: A lot of it is back. A lot of it is not going to come back. There are a lot of places here that will never be back. There is still construction to be done, and there are still houses that are empty. There's a lot more that could be done. Most of it is getting done by regular citizens. The government didn't even try to do all that it could do.
But it's coming back. You know those toys that you hit and they bounce right back up? That's what the people of New Orleans are like. That's our spirit; hit us and we'll bounce back up.
TR: Fifty years ago, did you think you'd be where you are now?
AN: I just wanted to sing. That was the most important thing to me. I wasn't that concerned about a career. But here I am!
TR: What do the next 50 years in the music business hold for Aaron Neville?
AN: Well, I'm getting married next year. I lost my wife, Joel, three years ago. She was diagnosed with cancer in 2004, and we had three good years together until she passed in 2007. It was rough. I was trying to get to the other side of it. But I'm happy now. Music is a healer; it always has been a healer for me. It gets you through whatever adversity you face.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.