Under the influence: Naim Amor
A Parisian in America: Amor and his amours
On Saturday, hundreds of Tucsonans gathered at the Festival en el Barrio Viejo, where they saw singer/guitarist Naim Amor backed by Thoger Lund on cello and Calexico's Joey Burns and John Convertino on bass and drums. Later in the afternoon, Amor joined Calexico's big band for the finale of the festival.
Amor's discography, as a solo artist, with former partner Thomas Belhom as the Amor/Belhom duo, and in countless sessions with other artists, is formidable. His output in the last decade includes the VU-influenced "Mistake Love" and the Burns-produced "Sanguine," as well as three albums entitled "Soundtracks," in which Amor composes for imagined films.
Ever the musical multitasker, Amor is currently working on a new record with Jim Waters at Waterworks. He has a new baby at home, and still finds time to play with Al Foul and the Shakes, Amy Rude, Jazz Telephone and any number of impromptu configurations around town.
On March 16, Amor embarks on a German tour with former Calexico bassist Volker Zander and Tucson native and jazz scholar Arthur Vint on drums. He will be touring with French indie pop sensation Dominic A, and several dates will find the bill supporting Yann Tiersen.
Tonight is Amor's 41st birthday, which he will celebrate by playing with Amy Rude and the Heartbeasts at the Red Room. Naim Amor would love nothing more, surely, than to play music on all his birthdays, and on any other holiday. For him, all celebrations are best when they involve playing music; as a longtime acquaintance of his, I have rarely if ever attended a celebration with him where he didn't play.
In a land where he arrived in the mid 90s without a complete command of the language, Amor has always found it easiest to express himself through music, even now, when his English is terrific and he is an official American.
How old were you when you first picked up a musical instrument?
I was about six; it was a violin. I come from a family, on my mother's side, who are all musicians. I was very lucky to approach music in ways that are not at all common. My approach to music was a family thing. Every time there was a family reunion, an uncle or someone would prepare a set of music that everybody could collaborate to.
What were the compositions?
There could be some really simple classical pieces, or some old popular tunes. Some Chopin— I really remember the enthusiasm of being a child and being in an activity with the adults, making something all together.
With my family, I learned that music is something that you actually enjoy, even as other people enjoy listening. It's like a potluck. It requires the best of you, and for you to respect the best of other people. And eventually, you create the best music.
That is what makes me love music.
When did you pick up the guitar?
I sort of quit violin for a few years, when I was 13, and immediately I picked up a guitar. It felt kind of random; a cousin of mine had a really nice acoustic guitar, and he showed me three chords. A few months later, we picked up a trashed old hollow-body electric guitar, and we fixed it up. An old thing that's resurrected from nothing — that's still in me, that thing.
What were the records you fell in love with as a child?
My parents would have a variety of records, but would also tape shows from French public radio. I remember discovering country music that way, in the 70s, on a show from Radio France. A reporter had collected music and stories from a trip to the States. I remember listening to that show over and over.
But they also had a quality record collection. Lots of French chansons, like [those of] Leo Ferre. I still listen to him a lot, and Yves Montand and those people. And lots of jazz.
Is there a jazz guitarist in particular you love?
Definitely. I really like Barney Kessel, Jimmy Rainey.
But My parents had a lot of John Coltrane records, and I loved them, and I remember discovering Duke Ellington fairly young. And then, listening to this old Jazz Messengers record with Horace Silver — I still have it, it was big in France.
Then, I found Elvis Presley.
Yes, rockabilly is as strong an influence in your sound as jazz.
I really love both. There is a bridge between swing and rockabilly that is really important.
Also opera. This Ravel, it's called "L'enfant et les sortilèges: Fantaisie lyrique en deux parties" ["The Child and the Spells: A Lyric Fantasy in Two Parts," libretto by Colette]. It's an opera about a mean, mean kid who burns the curtains and everything, and then all the elements in the house take revenge.
Like "Excitable Boy" by Warren Zevon. Obviously a wish-fulfillment thing that existed long before rock, to let the id fly free—
But I am not a "bulimic" of music. When people ask me if I have heard the latest thing, I don't know. I don't eat music.
I think there is too much music everywhere, like a poison. Try to find a restaurant without music. If a restaurant forgets to put music on, the owners feel like something is wrong with the mood. But it is in that particular moment that I feel really great, because you hear the cutlery, you hear the real ambience of that particular place.
Because every place is really unique, but the world is made to make every place uniform. There is plenty of music I hate, and it is the music that is made for sheer function, for some narrow purpose. We are really in the era of marketing now [in music]. Even the independent musicians. The extreme is the McDonald's, where the napkins go here, and the music is this. It has a particular use. It's not about music.
What were your teenage records? Were you a punk rocker?
I was born in '69, so I was a bit young, but I remember seeing the occasional rock show on TV. In 1977, I saw The Corgis, The Rubettes — not punk obviously. In the 80s though, I heard all the American hardcore, and was very into that. Around '87, I discovered Black Flag, Husker Du, Sonic Youth, The Meat Puppets, actually, NoMeansNo —
Sonic Youth would seem especially important for a young guitarist, what with both Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo as "dueling" guitar players.
I saw Sonic Youth several times in Paris in '88, '89. I saw NoMeansNo in a squat in Paris in '89, and Fugazi. I was playing at the time in a few hardcore and garage bands in Paris at the time, but I wasn't writing songs yet.
Who are the songwriters that weigh heaviest on you?
Well, Ferre of course, and other French songwriters of the 50s and 60s. Serge Gainsbourg, of course, and later, Boris Vian. But also, I've always liked the attitude of someone like Lou Reed or Nick Drake.
Wait a minute, wait a minute. I can't think of two more opposite songwriters. How is Lou Reed like Nick Drake?
Yeah, but for me, emotionally, it goes to the same place somehow. Sometimes, when I say I have an eclectic view on music, I mean this, that I feel bridges between two musics that are not really there, but in my head. It's purely emotional. To me, Nick Drake moves me as much as Lou Reed, but in a different way.
What singers do it for you, and why?
It's just like the last question. I would put, somehow, in the same package, someone like Patsy Cline, someone like Billie Holiday, someone like Maria Callas, someone like Edith Piaf, and they have nothing to do with each other. But they tell a human woman's story, each equally moving in its own world, era, or culture. Someone like Oum Kalthoum, an Egyptian singer, and Edith Piaf. They have nothing in common, right? But for me they do. They are equally moving, and I get something similar for them.
So it's something like honesty? Telling their truth?
Yeah, you have to. Yeah. I see them as alike because they move me equally.
What musician do you love, but you feel completely removed from as a musician?
Well, there are musics I admire, but I would never try to do myself as a Frenchman. Like country music or rockabilly, I would find that really cheesy. I wouldn't start a country or rockabilly band under my name. I play rockabilly as a guest with Al Foul, and I love it. But I wouldn't play that, except late at night around a fire with a bottle of whiskey.
Okay: here's what happens. you are put in a studio, and you are told you can have any band, dead or alive, that you want in the session. Who plays what?
I would have Elvis Presley on drums, Jimi Hendrix on ukelele, Thelonious Monk on lead vocals, and Debbie Harry on bass.
Are you a sad-songs-when-you're-sad person, or do you use music to cheer yourself up when you're down?
Serge Gainsbourg said "When you are sad, it's time to write happy songs, and when you are happy, it's really time to write sad songs." I try to do that, but I don't know if I succeed.
What is your favorite make-out song?
The one she sings at that particular moment.
Beatles or Stones?
I will never answer that question.
Bob Dylan or Neil Young?
[long pause] That question is too American for me.
Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday?
Billie Holiday...Well, that's a tough question, but I would still say Billie Holiday. However, Ella is-- they are the opposite. They are like oranges and apples.
If you were a superhero, what would your theme song be?
The theme from Puccini's "La Boheme," sung by Maria Callas. Or [Callas] is in the band, on the DJ turntables.