Aaron Neville on Upcoming Crawfish Fest Appearance, His Musical Family and the Rise of Face Tattoos

Aaron Neville
Rick Diamond/DJBB14/Getty Images for Blackbird Productions

Aaron Neville poses for a photo prior to The Musical Mojo of Dr. John: A Celebration of Mac & His Music at the Saenger Theatre on May 3, 2014 in New Orleans.

From May 31st to June 2nd, the North will get an opportunity to experience the South, when Michael Arnone’s 30th Annual Crawfish Fest comes to the Sussex County Fairground in Augusta, New Jersey.

Musically speaking, the biggest name on the bill will be R&B great Aaron Neville, whose sweet and soulful voice will be featured on the evening of June 1st. The festival will also feature performances by artists specializing in either bayou-based Cajun, zydeco, delta blues, New Orleans R&B, brass, gospel, or jazz (across three stages) -- including the Marcus King Band, Rebirth Brass Band, and Neville Jacobs (which features Aaron’s son, Ivan), among others.

And the cuisine is straight out of the bayou, as well, as a hefty 10,000 pounds of specially imported crawfish will be on site, serving as the basis for several trademark Louisiana delicacies. “We’re going to throw down,” predicts Neville. “We’re going to have big fun from the bayou -- jambalaya, crawfish pie, and gumbo.” 

Billboard caught up with Neville before his appearance; see our conversation about the festival, face tattoos and some of the singer's modern-day favorites below. 

You are appearing solo at the upcoming Crawfish Fest.

Aaron Neville and His Band. It used to be the Quintet, with my brother Charlie, but it’s the Quartet now. But Charlie’s spirit will still be there with us.

What would you recommend the most as far as the menu?

Crawfish Étouffée, crawfish pie, and just regular crawfish. You can’t go wrong.

Your son, Ivan, is appearing as a member of Neville Jacobs at the festival. That must be special for you.

No doubt. We’ve done shows together, all over the place -- Tipitina’s, jazz fests.

And your other son, Jason, is a singer as well.

Jason and his wife, Lirette, have a big funk band [Jason Neville Funky Soul Band] that play on Bourbon Street and they play down in the quarter, Tipitina’s, and all over the New Orleans. They’ve also made trips to Texas and other places. So yeah, Jason Neville, be on the lookout for him -- he’s good!

Between you, your sons, and your brothers, the Neville family is rich with musical talent.

My brother Art started it out, and Charles. We just got together -- we didn’t have to tell nobody, “You take this note” or “You take that note.” Everybody knew what note they had to take. It just came automatically. From little kids in the project, I was eight years old, my brother Art was three years older than me, and Charles was two years older than me, and we would sing and harmonize. It’s been going on for a long time.

As far as singing, did you ever have formal training, or is it something you picked up naturally?

I just learned from singing. Listening to other singers. My brother Art was my first inspiration -- I wanted to sing like him. And then Nat King Cole, Clyde McPhatter, and Sam Cooke came. But like I said, my brother Art was my first inspiration.

Which modern day singers or artists do you admire? 

I like Maroon 5, Beyoncé, Bruno Mars, and Christina Aguilera -- she can sing. She can hoot. John Legend is another one of my favorites.

Last April, your brother Charles passed away. How would you like him to be remembered?

As a great horn man. He wasn’t just a saxophone player -- Charles had history with his saxophone. He could bring you everywhere he has been. That was his forte. If he had been to India, he could play something from the Indian players, and he would bring it over to China or wherever. And he could bring it to the blues clubs on Beale Street, and minstrel shows he played when was about 15 years old, hanging out with other artists like Miles and Charlie Parker. Charles was a horn man.

Your last solo album was in 2016, Apache. Are you working on new music?

Yeah, I’m always working on something. If I get an idea, I’ll put it down. In fact, just the other day, my brother Cyril was here visiting, and we were going over some stuff. I have my poetry, and I turn my poetry into songs.

Three years ago, you told Billboard, “We're in turmoil everywhere.” Do you still feel this way? 

More than everywhere now. It’s scary. You don’t want to look at the news -- the news is the blues. I guess things like that happened all along, but now with things like CNN and Facebook and this and that, it comes to you -- bam! -- right in the face. Before, they had tsunamis and earthquakes happening in places, but we didn’t hear about it. But now, the plane crash and all that... it’s crazy.

A lot of modern day pop and hip-hop artists have facial tattoos, but you were one of the first to get one, right?

Well, I’ll tell you what -- see if any of them were born in 1957. Because that’s when I put that one on, when I was 16.

What was your family’s reaction when you first got it done?

My dad made me scrub it with Brillo Pads and Octagon Soap. The skin came off, but the tattoo stayed. But some years later, I had an album out called The Tattooed Heart [in 1995], and we were doing a special thing in a tattoo parlor, so I let them go over it and outline it -- freshen it up.

What do you think of the pop and hip-hop artists who now also have facial tattoos?

I think it’s cool. To each his own. It’s their body. My dad had told me that I already had my birthmark, my mole over my eye... he said, “You already have a mark over your eye, and you’re going to put another on your face?” It was part of me growing up. And I don’t regret it.

Festivals 2019