New Orleans Advocate
December 13, 2017
by KEITH SPERA
Michael Cerveris knows firsthand that a successful acting career is a mixed blessing when it comes to launching a secondary music career. A Tony Award-winning Broadway, television and film actor who lives in Treme when not working in New York City or elsewhere, Cerveris also fronts the country/Americana band Loose Cattle with vocalist Kimberly Kaye.
His extensive acting resume — ranging from the title character of the 2005 “Sweeney Todd” Broadway revival to recurring roles in the TV series “Gotham," “Fringe,” "The Good Wife" and "Treme" — gave his band a measure of immediate notoriety. One of Loose Cattle’s first gigs was at Lincoln Center for the prestigious American Songbook series.
Promotional benefits aside, his day job also “brings along as many prejudices — and sometimes well-warranted ones,” he said during a recent phone interview from New York. “Every time I hear about some actor who’s got a music project, my first thought is, ‘No.’
“And the kinds of things that people know me for in acting doesn’t necessarily make them fans of the kind of music that we do.”
Or as Kaye put it: “‘Sweeney Todd sings country!’ is a rough sell in a social media, pull-quote kind of world.”
But Cerveris has been a musician as long as he’s been an actor. He toured as a member of Husker Du frontman Bob Mould’s solo band and has led Loose Cattle for six years.
The band’s latest release is a decidedly nontraditional Christmas album, “Seasonal Affective Disorder.” Cerveris, Kaye, their bandmates and special guests trot out songs, mostly from the country canon, that explore the flip side of the merry holiday season, including Robert Earl Keen’s “Merry Christmas From the Family,” Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December,” Willie Nelson’s “Pretty Paper” and Tom Waits’ “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis.”
Loose Cattle will celebrate “Seasonal Affective Disorder” on Tuesday, Dec. 19, at Chickie Wah Wah, starting at 8 p.m. The band’s New York-based core will be augmented by local pianist Tom McDermott, Paul Sanchez, John Boutte, trombonist Craig Klein, and members of contemporary Cajun band the Lost Bayou Ramblers.
“It’ll be a pretty big posse in Chickie Wah Wah’s living room,” Kaye said. “Even though we’ve failed to be a living room band, we’ve definitely kept the living room band feel.”
Cerveris grew up in West Virginia and majored in theater studies at Yale. He earned his first Tony nomination in 1993 as the title character in the Broadway production of “The Who’s Tommy.” He won his first Tony as John Wilkes Booth in the 2004 revival of Stephen Sondheim's “Assassins.” He scored his second, for best leading actor in a musical, in 2015 for “Fun Home”; he punctuated his acceptance speech with "Who Dat!"
Kaye first met Cerveris as a reporter covering the New York theater scene; they ended up dating. He encouraged her to start singing, a pastime that came in handy as their romantic relationship deteriorated.
“We were at a place where we were looking for things to do that weren’t arguing with each other,” he said. “Singing kept our voices busy in a more positive way.”
His appreciation for rootsy music rubbed off on Kaye.
“I thought I hated Americana and country music,” she said. “I was a Jersey punk girl from Freehold, where you come up with metal and arena rock and punk and ska. My relationship to folkier music came with other people’s prejudices on it.”
They formed Loose Cattle intending to play informal shows in living rooms. It quickly evolved into something more.
So did Cerveris’ flirtation with New Orleans. He didn’t really discover the city until the 2007 shoot for the movie “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant.” To the soundtrack of community radio station WWOZ-FM, he “fell deeply in love” with New Orleans. “I felt very connected, and devoured it the way only the converted can.”
He brought Kaye down for her first visit in 2009. She was initially reluctant to embrace “this place where my boyfriend kept disappearing to. I felt like New Orleans was the other woman. I didn’t know if I was ready to meet her.”
She wound up returning 10 times over the next 13 months and now calls New Orleans home. She and her husband, Ray, got married at Kajun's Pub on St. Claude Avenue. “I get it now,” she said. “I totally drank the Kool-Aid.”
New Orleans proved to be fertile creative ground. Cerveris and Kaye worked with Paul Sanchez to develop his songs into “Nine Lives,” a musical based on the post-Katrina struggles and triumphs of a cross-section of local characters. Sanchez in turn introduced them to the local music community.
“We owe our individual and collective connections to the music of New Orleans to Paul,” Cerveris said.
“Seasonal Affective Disorder” initially took shape when Kaye wasn’t in any condition to contribute. She spent much of 2016 in hospitals battling a litany of chronic, debilitating ailments, including Crohn’s disease, interstitial cystitis, shingles, a drug-resistant kidney infection and ruptured ovarian cysts. Thus, she mostly left the song selection to Cerveris, thinking the record would never get made: “I thought, ‘This is his way of helping me focus on something that’s not the hospital.'"
His selections “kindly and generously took into account” her state of mind and body. Thus, holiday songs about “joy and kids and all the food you eat — I don’t eat solid food any more — had been carefully and lovingly weaned out.”
Instead, the songs had “a slightly more bent, or humanist, approach to the holidays,” Kaye said. “I needed that.”
By contrast, Cerveris is a huge fan of Christmas tradition. He hoped to “marry that with a not entirely bleak, but clear-eyed, look at the way the holidays are for all of us. Even if we’re having a good time, they’re still hard. If there was a sense of humor in the telling, even better.”
He asked the Lost Bayou Ramblers to help find a suitable holiday song from the Cajun canon. Instead, the Ramblers wrote the fiddle- and accordion-laced “Don’t Make Your Mama Cry on Christmas Day” with him.
Kaye did suggest one song, Joni Mitchell’s “River.” The album concludes with Alex Chilton’s “Jesus Christ,” a subtle nod to New Orleans, where Chilton lived the last years of his life.
Cerveris hopes new fans continue to discover Loose Cattle regardless of his acting resume.
“When people take a chance and come, they realize there’s a reason why we like this kind of music. There’s storytelling and characters and real narrative stuff going on. When I can get people in the room, they’re really glad to be there.”
November 21, 2017
by: JOHN SWENSON
Rod Hodges walked into the Music Shed in mid-August to cut tracks for Loose Cattle’s Christmas album, Seasonal Affective Disorder, and a muggy New Orleans summer day suddenly transformed into something completely different.
“It was kinda weird,” said the Iguanas guitarist. “I had just gotten back from California and it was all dark in the studio. I plug in and suddenly I’m playing on ‘The Day It Snows On Christmas.’ It was… psychedelic.”
Hodges was one of several New Orleans musicians that Michael Cerveris and Kimberly Kaye, co-leaders of Loose Cattle, recruited to put the finishing touches on what is certainly one of the most idiosyncratic holiday records in recent memory.
At first glance Cerveris and Kaye, along with bassist Lorenzo Wolff and drummer Eddy Zweiback, appear to have concocted a slightly left-of-center country Christmas record, but a closer listen reveals more eccentric moves. Like covering Tom Waits and Robert Earl Keen along with BR549, Willie Nelson and George Strait, then adding Joni Mitchell and Big Star to the mix. Then putting together a medley of the pop music staple “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” with Charles Brown’s R&B classic “Please Come Home For Christmas.” Adding some Louisiana flavor with an original Cajun Christmas song, “Don’t Make Your Mama Cry On Christmas Day,” written by Andre and Louis Michot of the Lost Bayou Ramblers and Cerveris. Then with a tough minded Cerveris/Kaye political carol, “Shepherds In a Parking Lot.”
Cerveris is known to New Orleanians for his work with Paul Sanchez in Nine Lives and to a larger audience for, among other things, a scintillating Broadway career that started out with the lead role in Tommy, evolved through two Tony awards, most recently Fun Home, and now has him playing Professor Pyg in the Gotham TV series. Kaye sings with Sanchez and in the hard rock band The Night Confession. She wrote and performed in the macabre and hilarious A Christmassacre Story in 2014. The two have been fronting Loose Cattle as an alternative “Johnny and June” act since 2011, but on this record they’re forging a new identity.
“My voice has more characters in these songs,” said Cerveris. “There are some songs like ‘Truck Stop Christmas’ where I leaned on the accents that I grew up with in West Virginia, but on ‘Please Come Home for Christmas’ I’m just trying to use my vocal instrument to put the song across. We’ve taken to calling it Americana because nobody knows what that is so you can put it under that banner.”
Cerveris and Kaye’s thoughts about Christmas are starkly different, which adds some frisson to the mix. “Shepherds in the Parking Lot” captures this perfectly.
There’s no wise men on the TV
No light in the east
No shepherds in this parking lot
Only fallen angels tryin’ to live in peace
It’s hard to sing
A Christmas song
“Michael loves ritual and he loves traditions,” said Kaye. “Michael and I have a very different relationship with the holidays. I hate Christmas. I’ve had a lot of death in the family, heartache; it’s a tough time of year for me. Michael loves it. He loves putting on Christmas specials, going to events, decorating the tree. I’m in shutdown mode. For us to be able to meld his enthusiasm for the holidays with the acknowledgement that it’s a tough time for some people was great and I love writing songs with him.”
Maybe you can be the wise one
Bringing love where there’s a need
For shepherds in a parking lot
Maybe fallen angels don’t have to quite believe
We can sing
This Christmas song
“Writing a Christmas song is a unique thing,” said Cerveris. “I wanted to include modern elements. There were a lot of drafts, but the early drafts were too political. It made the song smaller. So we did a lot of back and forth. It’s kind of like writing a Christmas card to the world.”
The album features two collaborations between Kaye and pianist Tom McDermott. “Tom’s work with Kim has been really important to the band,” said Cerveris. McDermott does a superb job accompanying Kaye on Waits’ “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis.” But the real payday comes on the unlikely inclusion of Joni Mitchell’s nearly untouchable “River.”
“There’s no outsinging Joni Mitchell on that song,” said Kaye. “It means so much to so many people. I was terrified to sing it. The thing I love about that song is how clear her storytelling is. It’s a beautiful piece of narrative that just happens to be a song. Working with Tom on playing that song, he has some Cuban-influenced stuff that he does with his left hand on the piano, then we added that kind of wistful banjo. We tried to present it where we’re telling this story. Tom is a huge part of that storytelling, with little echoes and phrasing. He makes snow happen with his right hand at the end of the song. It’s just perfect.”
“The songs we chose say a lot about us,” said Cerveris. “Really great songwriting says something really specific and leaves plenty of space for you to fill in the rest. As a band we tend to like to have something to say.”
A Very Loose Cattle Christmas will take place December 19 at Chickie Wah Wah, with Rod Hodges, Tom McDermott, Craig Klein and other guests. Cerveris and Kaye will also be part of Judith Owens and Harry Shearer’s Christmas Without Tears December 22 and December 23 at Le Petit Theatre.
Shepherds in the Parking Lot and a Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis
BY HENRY CARRIGAN
NOVEMBER 13, 2017
Ah, it’s the time of year when images of smiling, jolly elves, compliant reindeer, sparkling lights and glittering bells, and flames leaping from crackling logs in the fireplace decorate our neighbors’ homes and store shelves. As one oft-sung Christmas song tells us “it’s the hap, hap, happiest time of the year.” In our heart of hearts, though, we know Lucy had it exactly right in her words from A Charlie Brown Christmas: “we all know Christmas is run by a big syndicate out East.” For those caught up in the wiles of the commercial glitter of the holidays, spending and getting apparently brings joy and wards off the darkness of the season. But if we look carefully look just past the branches of those trees crowding each other in the Christmas tree lots, we’re bound to see those for whom the holidays aren’t so joyous and filled with light: here’s the prostitute spending the holidays in jail; the truck driver whose holiday family are others in the truck stop; the child who pleads for its daddy not to get drunk on Christmas.
Michael Cerveris (two-time Tony Award winner and star of TV's The Tick and Gotham) and Kimberly Kaye and their band Loose Cattle remind us of this darker side of the holidays in the appropriately titled album Seasonal Affective Disorder. Their version of the Tom Waits’ holiday classic “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” is a sparse blues number made more somber by the mournful violin weaving under and around a similarly sorrowful piano and Kaye’s languorous vocals.
According to Ceveris, “This song might not be everybody's idea of a holiday classic, but in the Loose Cattle world, it just isn't Christmas without Tom Waits. Or maybe hookers. So having both in one song made it a shoo-in for the record. Even though it only has the word Christmas in the title, the whole mix of heart-on-your-sleeve sentimentality, combined with bleak reality, fits the tone of our record perfectly. Kim and I love singing harmony together, but I asked her to sing this one herself, so it would come more directly from a woman's perspective. Also, we all love every chance we get just to play and listen to her sing. Then we asked our friend Tom McDermott who is one of New Orleans' most celebrated and beloved piano players (and that's saying a lot in that city) to accompany her. He came up with the idea of making it a swaying gospel march, and the two of them recorded it live in the studio together in just a few takes. We added Justin's fiddle to help it sit in with the other songs on the record and once we heard that back, it didn't seem to need anything else. Well, just some sleigh bells at the beginning and end. Cause, you know...Christmas”
by Jane Ridley
Like a lot of people, Brooklyn-based actor Michael Cerveris, the two-time Tony Award winner currently starring in Amazon’s “The Tick” and Fox’s “Gotham,” does not always look forward to the holidays.
The 56-year-old’s band, Loose Cattle, has just released an album for the darker side of winter. It’s titled “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” after the depressive condition believed to afflict more than three million in the US.
“I grew up loving Christmas,” says Cerveris in a press release. “And I still love it, but I recognize that a lot of my holidays are kinda more like Charlie Brown’s Christmas than ‘The Waltons.’”
As his bandmate Kimberley Kaye elaborates: “You’re told you’re supposed to be having this fantastic time, but if you aren’t, that makes you feel even worse.
“People struggle alone, but as a band, we’ve learned that connecting with other people who feel the same way makes getting through those hard times a whole lot easier.”
The mostly country-inspired track list includes both originals and covers, such as John Denver’s “Please, Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas)” and the band’s own “Shepherds in a Parking Lot,” about banding together to survive the holiday season.
The record is released on Dec. 1 and the band will play the Sheen Center in Manhattan on Dec. 11.