With help from Jenny Lewis, a member of the Head and the Heart, and others, the singer-songwriter forged new musical alliances, documented on ‘Let the Rhythm Lead’
Over the decades, Browne has found himself in some unusual situations linked to his music: singing in a jail cell after being arrested while protesting the opening of a nuclear power plant, or recording an album (Running on Empty) on tour buses and in hotel rooms. To that list, Browne can now add witnessing a voodoo ceremony in Haiti.
“People would go into this kind of trance,” the singer-songwriter recalls of one evening in that country, during the making of his latest project. “Then they began to hurl themselves backwards into the crowd, and the crowd helped them up and then pushed them back into the center, and they kept dancing. It’s this rhythm- and music-induced state, a high.”
That memorable night stemmed from one of the most ambitious projects of Browne’s career. During two separate trips to Haiti in 2016, he gathered together a musically and ethnically diverse group of collaborators: American musicians (Jenny Lewis, singer and multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Wilson, Head and the Heart singer-songwriter Jonathan Russell), members of the Haitian roots band Lakou Mizik, Haitian singer-songwriter Paul Beaubrun, and international talents like Mali-based singer and musician Habib Koité and Spanish flamenco guitarist Raúl Rodríguez. In various combinations, the artists wrote and recorded songs that blended all their musical backgrounds, swapping lead vocals and sometimes instruments, and singing in English, Creole, Khassonké (the language of western Mali), Manding (of West Africa), and Spanish.
Next week, the results of those sessions — a sort of multi-culti version of the Traveling Wilburys — will finally be released on a new benefit album, Let the Rhythm Lead: Haiti Song Summit Vol. 1.
“It was the most excited I’d seen Jackson in the six or seven years I’ve known him,” says Wilson, who sang and played various instruments and also co-produced the record with Browne. “Every aspect of the project was important to him, from the person singing the song to the person who played the shaker. He would go through songs with folks and scribble down the words and go through it. He was extremely focused.”
Browne’s earlier visits to the country paved the way for Let the Rhythm Lead. He’d found himself in Haiti in 2014, when he visited the Artists Institute, a recording school and studio set up by the non-profit group Artists for Peace and Justice in the wake of the devastating 2010 earthquake in that country. (APJ also established the Academy for Peace and Justice, a new middle and high school in Haiti.) The title track of Browne’s subsequent album, Standing in the Breach, was inspired by that visit and the ravaged country in general. In 2015, Browne ended up in Haiti again; there he met Russell, who happened to be visiting the country for the first time during a work break. Both were asked to pop into a class and sing songs for the students. “They were like, ‘This is Jackson — you’re going to be in a classroom with him,’” says Russell, who’d never met Browne before. “I’m like ‘OK!’”(Proceeds from the upcoming album will go toward both the Academy for Peace and Justice and the Artists Institute of Jacmel.)
One night, the two men were dining with locals — Browne talking about Bernie Sanders at one end of a table, Russell listening along to percussionists who’d gathered at the other end. Russell began singing impromptu lyrics to accompany the rhythm patterns. “At some point, Jackson leaned in and said, ‘What is happening over there?’” recalls Russell, who told Browne he’d made up the words on the spot. The spontaneity of that moment made Browne think about recording the song at the studio, in the town of Jacmel on the island’s out-of-the-way southern coast. “The goal was quite modest,” says Browne. “It was just to show these students how we work and maybe make up some songs. I thought this could result in some really great music. The idea was to come with a song, or come down there and make up a song.”
But it didn’t end there; soon, Browne corralled Russell and Wilson for the first of two creative expeditions to Haiti, and an album began taking shape. Together with the other players, they started writing and shaping material that built on all their influences. “Love Is Love,” a song Browne had started before the expedition, embodied the musical mind meld that eventually took place. “I thought I wanted essentially a Bo Diddley beat,” he says. “I didn’t imagine playing it with two hand drummers. It took some getting used to and we played it it too fast for a while, but eventually we settled into it.”
In what sounds like a homage to the Laurel Canyon neighborhood where he lives, Wilson wrote and sang “Goddess at the Wheel,” inspired by recording engineer Vira Byramji, who worked on the album. A version of the traditional Malian Griot song “Koulandian” combines Koité’s graceful electric nylon-string guitar and singing with Browne’s harmony. “I thought it would be harder to blend,” says Lakou Mizik’s Steeve Valcourt. ”But when we talk music we’re in the same vibration, we all understand. Everyone speaks the same language.”
The song Russell began singing over that meal became “I Found Out,” which would also appear, in a different recording, on the latest Head and the Heart album, Living Mirage. As Russell recalls with a bemused laugh, that moment was almost lost to history thanks to local alcohol. “We enjoyed our rum to the point of waking up the next morning and saying, ‘Did anyone record that? Because I have no idea what we did.’” Thankfully, filmmaker and APJ board member David Belle was filming the proceedings, so everyone was able to remember the nascent tune. (“Rum is no drink to work with,” Browne chuckles. “I get so drunk on rum. You’d be a mess if you were drinking that. We needed to bring tequila. That’s another secret ingredient to this music.”)
For the second expedition, the band of players was joined by Lewis, who was invited down by her friend Wilson. (Browne found out she was participating when the two ran into each other backstage at a Bon Iver concert and she broke the news to him.) Lewis flew to Haiti with Browne, and when she popped into the school, the singer-songwriter was met with a reception she’d never quite experienced before. “I walked in and kids immediately grabbed me and hugged me,” she recalls. “I had three kids on my right leg and they’re stroking my hair and holding my hand. It was just such a beautiful and really intense experience.”
Lewis had brought along fragments of several songs she hoped to contribute but soon realized none were quite right. “So I found a little classroom off the studio while they were recording Jonathan Wilson’s song and just sat and had some weed,” she says with a laugh. She wound up with the gently lulling “Under the Supermoon,” which details her reaction to Trump’s election (“I never had such a fright /I gasped on election night/ The whole world thinks we’re insane/ I didn’t sleep a wink that night”) and her arrival in the country with Browne.
“That’s another case of me just being so knocked out by someone’s ability to sing about what’s happening in the moment,” Browne says.
Lewis also arrived in time for the voodoo service that all the musicians were invited to attend. Coincidentally, Lewis wore clothes with the same colors (red and white) as the participants and was briefly pulled into the ceremony, where one of the male participants looked at her and said, solemnly, “You will come back to Haiti.” Then, as part of the ceremony, he spit rum into her eyes. “It burnt like hell!” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God!’” But Lewis says the voodoo ceremony overall wasn’t as strange or frightening as pop culture has made them out to be. “There were a couple of Hollywood movies that portrayed it as this really scary thing,” she says, “but you learn it’s incredibly spiritual, just a way to communicate what was going on with the different tribes.”
“Now I feel I can take my guitar anywhere and play music with people all over the world.” — Jenny Lewis on ‘Let the Rhythm Lead’
Once the work on the album was done, each of the musicians took different lessons from it. “The goal was to help out down there, but a lot of what ended up happening was inward,” admits Russell. “It was culture shock going in, and it was even more culture shock coming home to see how much apathy exists here. The amount of things we complain about is pretty mind-boggling. Then you come back from a country that’s gone through what it’s been through, and everyone is spirited and proud.”
For her part, Lewis left Haiti with a newfound sense of collaboration. “I feel like it really opened a little piece of my brain,” she says. “Now I feel I can take my guitar anywhere and play music with people all over the world.”
The recordings sat in the can for more than two years as Browne attempted to find a home for them. At least one major label passed, he says, but he finally reached a deal with Arts Music, a Warners subsidiary. Ideally, Browne would love to reunite many or most of the players for at least one live performance, but logistics may rule it out, at least for a while. (He’s also envisioning a dream second volume, where he’d invite down the French-speaking likes of Daft Punk, artist and producer Daniel Lanois, and Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn.)
In the meantime, Browne is hoping that the album will at least help call attention to Haiti — which, thanks to civil unrest and claims of election fraud, is enduring an even more turbulent period, marked by school and hospital closings, gas shortages, and deadly riots. The country is currently operating without a parliament, under the one-man rule of controversial president Jovenel Moïse.
“I don’t kid myself that we’re going to create like a huge change with this record,” Browne says, “but it’s a window into Haiti.”