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Jon Batiste On His New Album, 'We Are'

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Jon Batiste is a multitasker. His band, Stay Human, is the house band for Stephen Colbert's Late Show, where he is also music director. He's composed parts of the soundtrack to Disney's "Soul," which has earned him critical acclaim and his first Academy Award nomination. And he's still releasing solo music. His new album "WE ARE" is out now. And Jon Batiste joins us now from his hometown of New Orleans. Welcome to the program.

JON BATISTE: Yes, indeed. What's going on?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's talk about this record. There is a lot of New Orleans on the record. I'm thinking of the title track, which features the marching band from the high school you attended. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE ARE")

BATISTE: (Singing) We are, we are, we are, we are the golden ones. We are, we are, we are, we are the chosen ones. We are, we are, we are, we are the chosen ones. We are, we are, we are, we are the golden ones.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me, how did this come together?

BATISTE: Well, this started on a six-day recording session, creative bent that was in my dressing room at the Ed Sullivan Theater and ended eight months later with me having a vision for wanting to put my grandfather on the record, wanting to put my nephews on the record, and my high school marching band. The St. Augustine High School is a historically Black college-level marching band, but it's a high school.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, you come from a legacy of New Orleans musicians, the Batiste family. Talk to me a little bit about your musical upbringing. How did you know what kind of music you wanted to make?

BATISTE: Well, funny enough, when I was a kid, the first musical influences that I can remember actually came from video game scores, believe it or not. It's kind of like the thing around me that - everyone across the world reveres, you know, New Orleans music and culture and all these things. I kind of had that as a backdrop that I almost took for granted as being normal everywhere else. But the stuff that really caught my ear when I was 8, 9 years old was Sonic the Hedgehog and, you know, Final Fantasy VII.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What excited you about that?

BATISTE: Visual sources are really important for me, and narratives are always inspiring to me. So I think the combination of having music that was tied to a narrative with characters and themes was something that really stuck with me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I mean, you can hear that definitely on this album, you explore a lot of different genres and sounds. The song "BOY HOOD" really stands out. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOY HOOD")

BATISTE: (Singing) Basketball under the treehouse. Too short to catch a rebound. Baby, that wasn't my calling, but you can still see me balling.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me about this song.

BATISTE: This song captures something that I really love about growing up that I hadn't heard in a song before. I'd heard nostalgia in music before. I've heard people talk about growing up. But that specific era, that specific city, those people, that kind of language, those images, I hadn't heard that before.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Talk to me a little bit about New Orleans and music. I mean, obviously, it is such a celebrated and iconic sound and has contributed so much to the culture of this country. Where do you think that sound is now? I mean, where does this album sit in that legacy?

BATISTE: Well, a lot of musicians who came from New Orleans were really the ones who went out into the world and showed the world how it's done in many different ways - whether it's Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet - in the early years, the beginnings of Black music and the beginnings of jazz, beginnings of American culture really forming. And then you get to today, and I think this album is a representation of what that lineage is all about, me just kind of showing people in the world that genres don't exist. There's no such thing. It's only music.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, that's almost heretical, genres don't exist. I want you to explore that thought a little bit more because, you know, even the way that we conceive of music, the way that, well, awards are given to music, you have these idea of specific genres. But we're seeing more and more that those walls are breaking down.

BATISTE: Well, I think that they're a construct that we imagine and we give light to because we segment our industry that way. We now have artists who are creating music based upon a formula of a genre, which is crazy to me because I think that art should be free and inspired by whatever. This album may be the first time that people have gotten a chance to experience that from me. But the genre thing kind of limits people and marginalizes people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think it's also a question of, like, what the audience expects from people? I mean, I wonder - when you think about producing this kind of music, which is so intensely personal and so eclectic, do you wonder about how it's going to be taken in?

BATISTE: I don't, because I think that people just want good music. I think that the industry and the way that things are segmented is at a disservice to the audience. But when something breaks through from that and exists just in the space of being, moving and deep and profound and makes you laugh and cry and dance, sing out and you don't know what to call it, I'd argue that that's more exciting for the listener than to hear something that they're expecting.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREEDOM")

BATISTE: (Singing) When I move my body just like this, I don't know why, but I feel like freedom. I hear a song that takes me back, and I let go with so much freedom.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's the song on this album that really sort of has a deep resonance for you?

BATISTE: I'd probably pick "CRY." "CRY" is a direct lyric. It's a straightforward message, but I think it's something that we've all felt in this time in this last year, 2020. And hopefully there's a level of release from the tension, a level of catharsis and release when you hear the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRY")

BATISTE: (Singing) All I want to do is cry, cry, cry. Cry, cry, cry.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Jon Batiste. His new album is "WE ARE." Thank you very much.

BATISTE: Yes, indeed. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRY")

BATISTE: (Singing) Cry, cry, cry. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: April 3, 2021 at 11:00 PM CDT
An earlier headline misspelled Jon Batiste's first name as John.