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Hugh Laurie Puts Blues In The House


You might recognize Hugh Laurie as Dr. Gregory House - the brilliant, acerbic main character in the TV series "House."


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) How can you treat someone without meeting them?

HUGH LAURIE: (as Dr. Gregory House) It's easy if you don't give a crap about it. That's a good thing. If emotions made you act rationally, well, they wouldn't be called emotions, right? That's why we have this nice division of labor. You hold his hand, I get him better.

MARTIN: While Laurie's bread and butter has long been acting, this Oxford-born, piano-playing Brit has had a long love affair with American blues music.


MARTIN: Laurie released his debut album in 2011 "Let Them Talk." And now he's following up that effort with his second studio album, this one is called "Didn't It Rain." Hugh Laurie joins me now from NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

LAURIE: That, and well, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So your first album, people - I'm guessing - in the music industry might have said: Oh, you know, Hugh's got this musical itch he's got to scratch and then he'll move on. But this is not just a passing interest for you, is it?

LAURIE: It's not. It's not. This is an abiding passion of mine. But I completely understand that suspicion.


LAURIE: In fact, I would've had it myself. But I think all I can do is to press on and let a couple of decades go by, if I'm lucky enough, and hope that eventually I will persuade people of my sincerity and good intentions.

MARTIN: When did you start playing the piano?

LAURIE: I started - was made to start at around six or seven, I think. I absolutely hated it.


LAURIE: Piano was - well, all musical instruments were taught in this very rigid, formal, classical method when I was young.

MARTIN: But clearly something caught fire inside you. The strict way in which it was taught was not enough to deter you.

LAURIE: No, it shook me for a while. It took me a few years to get over it. But a little electroconvulsive therapy...


LAURIE: ...and I was fine. And I just - it was simply listening to records. I found myself obsessing over - well, first of all, guitar players because every young boy wants to be a guitarist.


LAURIE: And that's a universal truth.


LAURIE: But then gradually I found myself sliding over to the piano every time I listened to a Muddy Waters' record. Brilliant though Muddy Waters is, I found myself - my ear was being caught by the wonderful piano playing of Otis Spann.


LAURIE: And I would play these records over and over again to try to hear what Otis Spann was doing, or what he was trying to say and how he was doing it, and just taught myself how to play the things I wanted to play. And I'm still at it. It's still my sort of daily solace, is to go to the piano and try and pick out what Otis Spann does - and many other players, too.


MARTIN: Let's get into the new album a little bit. I'd like to start by playing a track called "Vicksburg Blues." This is featuring blues legend Taj Mahal. Let's take a listen.


MARTIN: I mean, his voice adds such texture. But I mean, that's just a great classic blues baseline you're playing there.

LAURIE: It's a - well, why, thank you.


LAURIE: It was a - that's a mountain of a song to take on. I'm so glad that we - that Taj Mahal agreed to lead the expedition, as it were. And it happened to be a very - Taj Mahal agreed that he would sing on the record if we picked a song that he sort of responded to. And, of course, you have that (unintelligible) is a free.

Well, what does that mean? What is - does he want to do something in the vein that he normally inhabits? Or does he want to do "Tie a Yellow Ribbon," because he - you know, what do he actually...

MARTIN: And do you get a second chance if you don't know hit the mark?

LAURIE: No, I think you don't.


LAURIE: I think that what that first impression is all important. And I plumbed for "Vicksburg Blues," and to my relief - more than relief - it was ecstatic moment. He e-mailed straight back and slightly disappointing that Taj Mahal uses e-mail.


LAURIE: But anyway, we sidestepped that. And he said that was one of his favorite blues songs of all time. And he couldn't wait to get sucked into it.


MARTIN: You are featuring a lot of great musicians on this album.

LAURIE: Best that I could find.


MARTIN: Which also must be kind of a heady experience to say, hey, it's Hugh Laurie, I'm making some music - will you play with me, and they say yes. It's kind of exciting.

LAURIE: It is. It is. It's ridiculous. I don't understand it.


LAURIE: I lured them with the promises of whiskey and fine cigars. And that sort of - that only takes you so far...


MARTIN: At least it gets you in the room, I imagine.

LAURIE: It gets you in the room, exactly.


MARTIN: You do a fair bit of singing on this album.

LAURIE: Sorry about that.


LAURIE: Yes, it does - it's a contractual thing. I...


MARTIN: No, it's lovely. Let's listen to "Wild Honey."


MARTIN: Did you grow up singing, as well? Or is that something that came later?

LAURIE: Only in private. I was too shy, I think, to sing publicly. It takes a particular kind of person. And when I was young I was not that person. In the first instance, when a record company said to me, do you want to try and make your record, my first reaction was, no, I'm not worthy - I couldn't possibly, and so on and so forth.

But then I actually thought, now, wait a minute. If I say no to this, it may not come my way again. And I don't want in 10 years time to look back and say I could have done that, but didn't. 'Cause I'm working on the principle that generally we don't regret the things we do, we regret the things we don't do. And, boy, so far I have not regretted it one bit.


MARTIN: You have said before that you feel that when you act, you're putting on a mask but when you make music you're taking masks off. I wonder if you're comfortable with that part of music and performing music.

LAURIE: Much more so now than I ever was. I think maybe even one of the reasons I became an actor was actually to hide. I mean, it sounds paradoxical because, of course, people are standing up in a public place and encouraging other people to look at them. So that's not the conventional definition of hiding. But I think actors are attracted to the idea of other identities and concealing themselves behind some other identity.

But gradually, I - well, I grew up is really what happened. I grew up and I became more comfortable and confident. And I suppose I started to care less about the consequences of revealing myself, you know, but what if people think this? I don't care about that so much now. I'm braver than I was. That's partly going back to the whiskey and fine cigars.


LAURIE: You know, there are some tips there.


MARTIN: I'd like to close by talking about the title track on the album, "Didn't It Rain."


MARTIN: What was it like recording that song?

LAURIE: Possibly one of the best moments in my life.


LAURIE: Yeah. It was a very, very big thing for me. There's a version of that song by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, which is something that I often put on when I'm feeling particularly full of joy or needing to feel full of joy. And so to have the chance to sort of recreate that in a studio, and hear people breathe life into that song was just one of the most thrilling things.

It all happened very, very quickly. I think we did it two or three times and it just sort of flopped out onto the table. It was absolutely thrilling. Of course, I place it after all the other important significant moments in my life.


LAURIE: But certainly I put it in the top 10.

MARTIN: Marriage, childbirth, birth our your children, yeah.

LAURIE: Exactly, yeah. But it was a thrilling, thrilling moment. And the hairs on the back of my neck still stand up when I think back to that moment.

MARTIN: Is there another album in your future?

LAURIE: Well, I hope so. I mean, nobody knows the future of recorded music or how it's going to work. But if it's still possible to get together in a room with musicians of that caliber, I will be there like a shot. And if an audience turns out to watch a show, so much the better. That would be absolute heaven for me.


MARTIN: Hugh Laurie, his new album is called "Didn't It Rain." He joined us from the studios that NPR West.

Mr. Laurie, it has been such a pleasure. Thank you so much for taking the time.

LAURIE: Well, likewise, thank you for having me.


MARTIN: Music that makes you move on WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.