“When you try to tell a drummer or a bass player, as I’ve said, how to put that extra something in it, they don’t even know what the extra something is that you’re asking for. They don’t get it. It doesn’t have a name. It’s just a feeling that’s intangible that grew up in the embodiment of growing up in New Orleans. It’s a second nature thing to you, like blinking your eyes.”
Irma Thomas at length about her 54 years in the music business, from being fired for being a “singing” waitress to recording music with an ever-increasing number of fans. Oh, and a few thoughts along the way about the delayed credit of the British Invasion, the irritating aspect of Motown and how HBO’s “Treme” did New Orleans right. A lesson in soul from the Queen of New Orleans.
PS: Well I suppose we can just jump right into it—I know you’ve got Jazz Fest coming up. I know this is a regular thing for you, so could you tell me a little about what it means to you?
Irma: Oh, playing Jazz Fest? Well, I get to entertain the world in one place. [Laughter]
PS: And you’re going to be two shows, correct? A gospel show and a blues show?
Irma: Yes, I do a gospel show on the Friday of the second weekend in the gospel tent, and I’ve been doing that since 2006. That was the first year they initiated the tribute to Mahalia Jackson, and so I’ve been doing it every year since then.
PS: And I know you regularly perform gospel music too, correct?
Irma: I’m a member of my choir! [Laughter] So yes I do regularly perform gospel music.
PS: I know I’ve read interviews with you in the past where you talk about the components that define soul, but you don’t see it as a genre as much as what you bring to the song …
Irma: It’s not a genre. Soul music as people tend to want to give it a genre—like blues or pop or jazz or classical—soul music is the feeling that you bring to the product. You, as a writer, you have soul because this is your passion. This is what you enjoy doing and you tell the conversational story with a passion. So that’s the soul of the product. You can’t make it a genre, because everyone who does something that they enjoy doing brings soul to the passion. The feeling that you bring to what you do.
PS: So with that in mind, to be called “The Soul Queen of New Orleans”—what does that mean to you?
Irma: Well, it’s a title that they gave me. I don’t know what I did to get that. [Laughter] It happened to me because the gentleman who was my drummer at the time, who’s now decreased, he didn’t want to call me “The Singing Grandma,” so he called me “The Soul Queen of New Orleans.” And then officially, they did it in 1989, so that became a title that hangs on to me. But you know, I take it in stride. I laugh about it when they say it, but I guess they have to give me a title. I don’t know why, but that’s just the way the music industry is. They like to pin titles on people. It’s a way of showing their admiration for me, so I take it in stride. I don’t let it go to my head.
PS: Well I want to talk to you about your career at large, and from what I’ve read before, your singing career started with it getting you fired from two jobs.
Irma. That’s right. That is so correct.
PS: And yet this doesn’t deter you. Usually if something happens where something gets you fired from two jobs, you think, “Maybe I’ll do something else …”
Irma: [Laughter] Well I always tell people that I relate my situation to Jonah in the belly of the whale. Jonah was given instructions to go someplace, and he decided not to go and took his own direction. So in order to make sure he gets the job done, God allowed him to get swallowed by the whale. Once he was in the belly of the whale and he was told, “I told you to do what I told you to do,” then he went and did it. So I guess I was being told, “I want you to sing.” And I kept getting fired for singing on the job, so I wound up in the business and I’ve been in it ever since.
PS: And what happened at the first two jobs, because you weren’t actually working as a singer, correct?
Irma: No, I was not. I was just keeping myself company as people do when they’re doing something sometimes to pass the time away. I was basically working by myself. The first time I got fired, I was working the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift, because I was a very young mom and my parents couldn’t babysit during the day. You know, I’d put my kids to bed and then go to work, and work from 11 at night until 7 a.m. I’d be home before my parents went to work. Even though I was married, I was still living at home with my parents because I wasn’t with my said husband at that time. Bussing and washing dishes and this was a way to keep myself company and keep me awake also, because there were some moments that there was a lull in time. Rather than sleeping on the job, I would sing to myself. I was in the back of the restaurant, and as far as I thought, nobody could hear me. It didn’t matter, because I just wanted to keep myself company. My boss, who happened to have been Caucasian, didn’t like what I was singing and told me he didn’t wanna hear the “N” music, so I got fired.
PS: Ah, OK.
Irma: And my next job, which was also a Caucasian owner of a club that was predominantly black—a black club owned by a white owner—and he had me as a waitress, but I used to sit in with the band, because I enjoyed singing. The customers would start asking for the singing waitress and of course he didn’t like that because that isn’t what he’d hired me to do.
Irma: So he also fired me. And I guess the rest is history, because the guy who I was singing with at the time, which was Tommy Ridgley, he hired me with his band. He got me an audition and within the same week of the audition, I was a recording artist and a couple of weeks later, I had a record out. The rest is history.
Irma: [Laughter] I guess it was meant for me to be in this business.
PS: Well it’s the world’s gain. Talking about your earlier work, I know almost right from the get-go, you were working with Allen Toussaint.
Irma: Almost. Almost.
PS: What was the first one that you did with him?
Irma: The first one was “Cry On.”
PS: Ah yes, right. And I know you’ve continued to make appearances and record with him throughout your career.
Irma: Off and on, yeah. We’ve got one coming up—a celebratory event next week that I’ll be participating in. It’s a celebration of his 75th anniversary and also the organization that he and Aaron Neville formed, New Orleans Artists Against Hunger & Homelessness. So yeah, we’ll be doing that next week and I’ll be working with him in a roundabout way again.
PS: I interviewed him a few years ago and I remember him telling me the story about writing “It’s Raining.” I think you’d gone over to his house and it was actually beginning to rain?
Irma: Mmhmm, well I wasn’t the writer, but I enjoyed singing it. It was funny, because he wrote part of the song at home and I guess it took him awhile to decide how he wanted the second verse to go. But we were actually in the recording studio when he set the second verse on the music stand while in the middle of recording the record. [Laughter]
Irma: That was during the time where we didn’t have the digital thing where you can overdub or anything like that. So he trusted my ability to get the job done. He put it up there and we didn’t have to go over it a second time, so I guess he was pretty confident in my ability.
PS: The Wish Someone Would Care album is such a great album, top to bottom, and one of the things I remember seeing was you wrote “Wish Someone Would Care” and you also wrote “Straight From the Heart.” Do you enjoy songwriting? Because I know a lot of the songs you do are from other writers …
Irma: It’s not really something that I pursue. When an idea for a song comes to me and I can get to a tape recorder and put it down, I do. But I’m not a person who spends her time during her day trying to write a song. It’s not something that I pursue. I’ve probably written a bunch of songs and they just went out my head because I wasn’t near something to be able to put ‘em down. If it comes, it comes, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I’ve written some things with other writers like Dan Penn, but it’s not something that I really pursue.
Irma: I enjoy telling other people’s stories.
PS: Fair enough. And one of the other things I wanted to ask you too, I mean, in the early- to mid-1960s, you had this whole British Invasion thing happening …
Irma: Not just me. A bunch of us. A bunch of American artists who had bubbling careers at that time kind of got pushed by the wayside because of the British Invasion.
PS: Did you feel it was being pushed by the wayside? Because especially with these British rhythm and blues acts who really focused in on the music of New Orleans—and the way they tell it, of course, is that they wanted to do the songs because they were so great and bring it to the rest of the world. Did you see that balance? Or did you feel like it was pushing you to the side?
Irma: At the time, it did not bring attention to the artists which they covered. Because of the time that it happened. You have to realize that the British Invasion took place between, I would say, 1964 and 1970. That whole period of time—especially the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the Who and people of that caliber—it was a time when we were going through our desegregation where blacks were fighting for their rights to be equal and what have you. So the music was another outlet for white America to forget that we existed to some extent. And also another way to escape from what was going on in America at that time. So it didn’t really help us until sometime later when the younger white Americans started paying attention and listening to what they call old school music. They realized that a lot of the music that was covered by these British groups were initially recorded by black Americans at the time they did it. A lot of the white Americans used to cover a lot of the black Americans’ songs in order for the white Americans to accept the music. Pat Boone used to cover a lot of Fats Domino’s things. And I can never think of that lady who used to cover a lot of Etta James’ music. But anyway, before the British Invasion, per se, white America had trouble accepting black America’s music the way it was. They had to change it and make it more appealing to the masses of white folk. And eventually, they came back to the original stuff, which is when the kids who really wanted to hear the original songs started listening to it. They could see the major difference, because it wasn’t until the late 1960s, early 1970s that black people’s pictures were put on the front of the album.
PS: Right, right. Now did you see a difference—you talked about Pat Boone doing Fats Domino songs. Obviously Pat Boone was more of an easy listening-type artist as opposed to say, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones doing these songs that are a bit more rough with electric guitars? Did you think one was maybe a little closer to the authentic product?
Irma: Well the British people tried to stay closer to the true format than the white American artists who was covering it. The British artists was trying to pay homage to the artists that they covered. It just didn’t turn out that way when they came to America. It wasn’t appreciated in terms of what they were trying to do, the homage they were trying to play. But as an American artist, I didn’t feel that they were putting us down in any way. It’s just the way it was. And really, I wasn’t angry at the Rolling Stones for covering “Time is On My Side.” I was angry at the general public for not doing their homework to realize that I had done it. I had recorded it and had some popularity prior to the Rolling Stones.
Irma: Every time I would sing “Time is On My Side,” it would be, “Oh, she’s singing a Rolling Stones song.” I got tired of having to explain, “No, I did it first.” So I just stopped singing it. [Laughter] I just stopped singing it. I didn’t sing it again until in the mid-90s when Bonnie Raitt came to New Orleans for a New Year’s Eve show, and she requested me to come and be a part of her New Year’s Eve show and that’s what she wanted me to sing. So I didn’t put it back in my repertoire until the mid-1990s. I mean, you get tired of having to explain to people that you were the artist who originally did it. Why don’t they take a little time and do a little research, you know? But that’s the way the American people were. Rather than accept the fact that somebody black had done something creatively and give credit for it, they would not give you credit. They’d rather give the credit to the white artist. So like I say, I was not angry at the Rolling Stones, I was just angry at the American people who didn’t do their homework. And they were right here in America, so I just stopped doing it.
PS: Well and it’s interesting, I heard Raphael Saadiq speak a couple months ago, and he was talking about how he learned that the British artists and the British public kind of came to know that original old school soul music so well. He said what would happen is you’d have labels like Motown and others American labels and they’d have listening panels where you try the new single, if the panel likes it, OK, we’re gonna put it out as a single. But then what happens is there’s tons of songs that don’t pass and Berry Gordy, for instance, might send these test pressings of songs that didn’t pass over to England. And so then in England, you’ve got all these young artists coming up and getting these very cheap records and they’d love ‘em. So they’re adhering to that sound …
Irma: Yeah that was the sense of what was going on. And see the irony of all that—and it kind of ruffles my feathers a little bit when I hear everything giving credit to Motown. Motown came to New Orleans and got their foundation for what they did.
Irma: Yeah. There were a lot of artists here in New Orleans that Motown wanted to sign and they didn’t sign up with Motown. For whatever reasons they chose not to. Probably some reason they didn’t feel comfortable with the whole situation. But Motown people came to New Orleans and hung out in New Orleans before they went back to Motown and came up with what they came up with. But they don’t say that because they want people to believe they came up with this all by themselves. But they didn’t. People like Earl King and people who have passed on, there are stories they could tell you about Motown that would make your hair stand on its end, OK?
PS: Well it’s interesting, especially early on, because you look at the roster and just the amount of great singles that were coming out of [New Orleans-based] Minit and Imperial …
PS: Almost hit for hit, they’re doing just as well as Motown.
Irma: Right! Right! Cos Motown just happened to hit on something that was unique in the way they presented it that clicked at the time. Everything has a season, and it just happened to have clicked at that time. But Motown came to New Orleans and got their foundation. Trust me. I mean, they won’t own up to it—of course not, because now they’ve made their millions and they’ve moved on. But they came here and got their foundation.
PS: But still there you got Benny Spellman, Ernie K. Doe …
Irma: Lee Dorsey.
Irma: A lot of those folks that were here—this was the music Mecca prior to Motown’s overwhelming success. This was the music Mecca. Everybody, even the east coast and west coast people used to come to New Orleans. That’s how I got on the Imperial label. I was already here on Minit when Imperial bought Minit. My contract was bought with that sale. And so I went to California, that’s where I cut Wish Someone Would Care, that album that you like. That was recorded in California after Allen [Toussaint] had gone into the service. Of course Imperial was bought out by United Artists or one of them later on, but still, that’s how I wound up on that label. But everything was out of New Orleans at that time. Most of your major recording companies with the exception of a few, like Capitol and the others, they came to New Orleans to record. There are stories that could make your head spin about recording companies that came to New Orleans, so I get a little uptight when I hear everything “Motown, Motown, Motown …” Motown came into New Orleans and put their thing together and got lucky. But I think a lot of it had to do with their marketing capabilities and that’s still the issue with a lot of major labels. [Berry Gordy] was just a shrewd businessman and he came up with an idea and he marketed it well, but the bottom line is he came to New Orleans and got his information. [Laughter]
PS: A few years ago you won the Mojo legend award …
Irma: Yeah, I was shocked! [Laughter] I didn’t know what to say, but “Wow, what do you mean I’m winning an award?” They were really sweet and it was so nice.
PS: Well and you talked during your acceptance speech about how storms have affected your life and career.
Irma: Oh, many of them.
PS: And I know you mentioned [hurricanes] Betsy, Camille and Katrina, of course, but Betsy would’ve been right around the time of that Imperial buyout, right?
Irma: It was. Betsy came along right afterwards. Betsy came in ’65 and the Imperial buyout was in late ‘63 or ’64.
PS: And what happened then, because I know you moved out to California in the late 1960s, correct?
Irma: Well I moved to California after Camille, so it was late ‘60s early ‘70s. Actually I moved to California in January of 1970.
PS: OK. And how long were you out there?
Irma: I lived in California from 1970 through 1976. Then I moved back to New Orleans that June.
PS: And is that when you started the club [ed. note: The Lion’s Den, destroyed in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina]?
Irma: No, the club came along in ’84, and I didn’t start it! My husband did. It wasn’t me! [Laughter] My part of it came when we were looking for a place to rehearse other than my garage. There was a portion of the building where the club was that was not being used, so we more or less put that back section on to the club and used it as a rehearsal room. And we were rehearsing during the Jazz Fest weekend and we just happened to get a crowd up in there. So “Wow, we’ve struck on something.” So we just started charging admission and the rest is history.
PS: Having those three big storms, obviously, but being in New Orleans and that part of the country—my sister’s on the Florida coast …
Irma: Where storms is part of life.
PS: Exactly. But when you have those big ones that come and upset life so much, there’s never been a desire for you to be away for too long, has there?
Irma: No. Even after the heavy flooding that we had in 2005, it never occurred to me want to live somewhere else. Not even to move back to California. This is home. So I didn’t see that it was a permanent destruction thing where I would never get back home, so I just stayed where I was—which was in my husband’s hometown, Gonzales, Louisiana—and we lived there for 2 years until we could get back into our home in New Orleans and now we’re back. It just never occurred to me, the desire to live anywhere else. I didn’t even make it a thought.
PS: Well and in the time since, especially with shows like “Treme” and a number of the albums and benefit projects that have come out, do you feel like that brought that much more attention to New Orleans, its music and how it originated so much?
Irma: Yeah, it helped the music scene. In fact, it helped the arts scene in New Orleans a lot. You know, New Orleans whole artistic situation was brought to light through the “Treme” series because they did introduce a lot of local musicians who probably would not have been known if they’d not been shown through the “Treme” project. You know, the entertainment situation as a whole was really brought to light through the series. Unfortunately we still get scrutinized, because of the flood, the attention on our growing period and growing pains—we have all the problems of any other major city—it’s just that ours is always looked upon because of what happened to the city. But overall it was a good thing for “Treme” because at least “Treme” portrayed how New Orleans is, or was at the time that they were doing the filming. They didn’t try to make us sound like some foreign people speaking a language that no one understood. They didn’t try to make us sound any differently, they spoke the language that we spoke and they told the story as best they knew how. They took some liberties here and there, but they stuck to the basic facts, so it was a good thing.
PS: Were you happy to be a part of it? I know so many New Orleans musicians got a chance to be part of this program …
Irma: Oh yeah. It gave me an opportunity not just to sing, but it gave me an opportunity to show whatever acting talent I have. [Laughter] It gave me an opportunity for that spotlight a little bit. It was a good thing overall for us, as far as I’m concerned. It was a good thing for the city, it was good for thing for the artists within the city, it was a good thing for the musical aspects of New Orleans, it was a good thing for the business aspects of New Orleans. Like I said, they took a few liberties here and there—that’s the industry and that’s how they get the job done, but they don’t exaggerate it to the point where it’s not believable. And so they told the story as close to believability as possible and a lot of it was based on facts. So I appreciate that they tried to tell the story in a very respectful way. When I hear them saying that the series is not going to continue, you know, it would be our loss because they really did a justice. A beautiful job of trying to bring New Orleans to the world.
PS: Do you feel like that helped more Americans …
Irma: Understand us?
PS: Well, to use your phrase, “do their homework.” To realize the cultural and musical impacts the city’s had?
Irma: Not only that, I think it may have helped the rest of the United States understand that this culture is unique in that we actually blend. The cultures here in New Orleans blend a lot better than the cultures in other major cities. For instance, New York has many cultures there, but they don’t blend the way the cultures blend here in New Orleans. And it’s kind of hard to understand the reason why, it just happens here. We are more hospitable to each other in terms of our cultures, we’re respectful of each other’s culture, we share each other’s culture, we blend our cultures together in terms of a little bit of what you do with your foods, we put a little bit of that in our foods. In terms of the cultures’ musical abilities, we share that and blend that here. A little bit of Irish, a little bit of German, a little bit of French in our musical cultures. This is the one city out of all the cities in the United States that happen to be port cities where the cultures actually blend. You don’t get that on the west coast, you don’t get that on the east coast. I mean, these are port cities and you don’t get that blend like you do in New Orleans.
PS: As you just explained, it could be food—you know a New Orleans dish when you have it. And the music too. You know New Orleans music when you hear it.
Irma: Yeah! It has that uniqueness that’s just intangible. You can’t put your finger on it. It’s something different about it that tells you it’s from New Orleans and you don’t get that anywhere else.
PS: And having worked in California and musicians out there, what do you think New Orleans musicians bring to the table that others might not be able to?
Irma: It’s an underlying rhythmic beat that you can’t explain to east coast or west coast musicians. It’s a little extra beat that we put into the rhythms of our music. When you try to explain that to somebody, unless they’ve been here and lived in it and heard it and felt it, you can’t explain to a drummer or a bass player how to put that little extra something in there to make it unique.
PS: I know there are stories about Allen Toussaint trying to get drummers to do certain things …
Irma: And they don’t get it.
PS: Exactly. You just go get a New Orleans drummer and …
Irma: And they’ll get the job done. Exactly. They understand what it is you’re asking for. So when you try to tell a drummer or a bass player, as I’ve said, how to put that extra something in it, they don’t even know what the extra something is that you’re asking for. They don’t get it. [Laughter] It doesn’t have a name. It’s just a feeling that’s intangible that grew up in the embodiment of growing up in New Orleans. It’s a second nature thing to you, like blinking your eyes. You do it because that’s part of who you are, and that’s something we can’t explain to other musicians. It’s a natural rhythm that comes to you after you live here for awhile. Even people who move here, if they stay here long enough, they get it. But they have to be here and absorb it to get it.
PS: Do you feel that you still get some of that flavor—say on the last album, Simply Grand, because basically that was just you and piano. Working with a variety of different artists, but you’re working with Dr. John. You’re working with Randy Newman …
Irma: People who’ve lived here. Sure. I think the only person I worked with who hadn’t lived here was Norah [Jones], but among her recordings, she has recorded some of the material that I previous had recorded. I think she did a version of “Ruler of My Heart” on one of her first successful CDs, so she understands the feeling of what New Orleans is about. But everybody on the CD that I worked with has been in New Orleans for a period of time. Either was raised here or born here or lived here for a long period of time, so the feeling of the music was still there.
PS: And what about working with Randy Newman, because you’d worked with him from very early on, I think?
Irma: Believe it or not, I recorded many of Randy Newman’s songs and I’d never met him. That was my first time actually meeting him.
PS: Oh really?
Irma: Yeah, to know him, yeah.
PS: Wow, I didn’t know that. Because I know “While the City Sleeps” is one of his early ones and you did that a long time ago …
Irma: Yeah! I had sung lots of his songs, but I had never met the man.
PS: So how did that end up?
Irma: It was nice, it really was. It was very pleasant and cordial. He understood me, I understood him. He’s a very laid-back person, but he was fan. And it’s weird working with people who happen to be a fan.
PS: Is it?
Irma: Yeah, you know, it’s a little unsettling, but in a nice way.
PS: I would imagine at this point of your career, you’re running into that a lot.
Irma: A lot. I do. And you don’t get used to it. I find that even on day-to-day basis, I run into fans who get overwhelmed when they meet me, and I kind of look at them like, “What’s wrong with you?” [Laughter] In a nice way. It’s just that if a person who’s in this business gets to the point where they take for granted when people get overwhelmed to meet you, something’s wrong with them. Because to me, it’s kind of unsettling. You appreciate it, but then it’s a little scary.
PS: Did you have that kind of moment meeting anyone?
Irma: Not to that extent. I was kind of in awe when I met and recorded with B.B. King, because I grew up listening to his music. My father was a very big B.B. King fan, Lightnin’ Hopkins fan, John Lee Hooker fan, he played a lot of the early blues music in the home. So to actually grow up and meet and sing with a person that you grew up listening to their music, it’s a little unsettling and overwhelming. But I kept my cool. [Laughter] You know, it took me a few minutes, but I appreciated his gentleness. I guess he understood once I explained to him why I felt the way I felt about it. He’s a very, very endearing man. He doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable around him. But that was the only person I really felt that way about. You grow up listening to their music, but you never expect to be a participant on the same record with this person. Come on now! [Laughter] Now, I met Percy Mayfield, he was not a nice guy. Very rude. I had a show in California and I met him, but he was not the least bit nice, so I was not enamored with him whatsoever. John Lee Hooker was a nice guy. He was up in age when I met him, but he was very cordial and very nice. He appreciated my being a fan. I introduced myself to him and told him that I grew up on his music. I said, “I don’t want you to feel that I’m being disrespectful, but I actually did grow up listening to your music.” But you know, you meet these people who you don’t expect to meet in your lifetime, and yeah, you’d be a little overwhelmed at the meeting. But I didn’t get silly with it, because I’m in the business and I understand what it’s like to have someone meet you and be overwhelmed. They don’t mean any harm, it’s just the reaction they’re getting when they meet you, so I understand it.
PS: Well and I remember when Simply Grand came out, all the media about it was “Wow, look at the names that are on here,” but you start thinking about it and really, these are really just all her peers.” I mean you’ve been in the business …
Irma: For a long time. A looooong time. I felt honored that they agreed to be part of my project. That in itself. They didn’t have to agree to be part of the project, and when I met them, they all came to me as a fan, and I felt very honored. And I responded in that way. It’s not everyday you get to meet people who are in the business and who’ve established themselves the way these folk have established themselves and still want to be a part of your project.
PS: And it was so great to get that Doc Pomus song, “Be You.”
Irma: Ah ha!
PS: Such a great version. So what else is in the pipeline for you these days? What else are you looking forward to?
Irma: I’m looking forward to doing another CD if possible, and hopefully one of these days I’ll get around to finishing a book I started. But I don’t know.
PS: Is it a memoir?
Irma: It’s kind of a musical memoir.
PS: Probably would be a great read.
Irma: Eh … hopefully. [Laughter]
PS: Well you talked about the industry, especially back in the 1960s and you said you could tell stories about record companies that would make your hairs stand up on end. Having seen and lived through that and then looking at the state of the industry now, do you think things have changed for better or become even more broken up?
Irma: Oh, to be honest with you, I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t even try to dissect it anymore. It’s so different. There’s more technologically involved than it was back then and the medium in which music is put out there—you know, back when I started, you recorded a record and it got played on the radio or it didn’t get played on the radio. Now you record a song or some songs and you have all these different outlets. You have tweets, you have Facebook, you have YouTube. I mean there’s so many mediums and outlets for it to go, it’s kind of difficult now for record companies to have control over what the music they put out there does. Financially, it’s kind of rough. Even when you do a show now, there was a time you could stop a lot of them videotaping your show. Now they have so many ways they can do it that you don’t even know they’re doing it. Next thing you know, you’re on YouTube. [Laughter] I went on YouTube one evening and put my name in, I said, “My lord, I didn’t know I had all this stuff on here.” But it was from people sending in audio with their little cellphones and you know, it puts record companies as a whole at a disadvantage on how to market and make their money back that they put into producing this stuff.
PS: As an artist, do you find it distracting if people are holding up cellphones at your shows?
Irma: They don’t always hold them up, that’s the point. [Laughter] They don’t always hold them up, so you don’t realize what’s being done. There was a time I used to sort of pay attention and notice it. I would stop and explain to the people what they’re doing in a way that they’d understand. You know, I would tell them, “Look, if you worked a 40-hour a week job and someone came and collected your check after you worked 40 hours, would you like it?” And usually when I put it to them that way, they would stop. Well, by that time, when I get to that point, they’ve already done what they wanted to do. So I’ve stopped doing it, because it’s just a waste. You’re gonna have those people who are gonna do what they gonna do, because they have these gadgets that they can do it with. Until someone polices it to the point where it becomes a problem for them, it’s gonna continue. There’s no one who stands in an audience in a venue and polices people doing it. Until there’s a consequence for doing it, it’s gonna happen, so that makes it very difficult for the recording industry to collect their expenses on producing it. So, it’s getting pretty rough out there right now.
PS: Going back to what you said earlier about telling someone else’s story when you sing, how important is it for you that it’s a good story you’re singing?
Irma: I have to live with it. And I feel that if I have to live with something, it better have something that I can relate to and tell the story believably. I feel a lot of the songs that have lasted in today’s industry have been songs that people can relate to and are believable and not just gimmicky. If you think about songs that you like and have heard over the years, they probably tell a story of some kind that you can actually relate to. So that’s my theory. When I’m looking for material, I try to find material and songs that have some kind of story being told about life and they tend to have longevity.