Aaron Neville‘s written a lot of poems over the years. “I’ve got hundreds on my iPhone,” he tells Billboard. He tapped several of those for songs on his upcoming album Apache, and one of the first was “Stompin’ Ground,” an homage to Neville’s New Orleans roots that’s premiered exclusively below.
“That’s all about me growing up in New Orleans and a lot of the people that I ran across in my life,” Neville notes. “You get to the part where I’m calling out names; I start out with Moleface and Melvin; I’m Moleface, and Melvin was my friend. We got tight when we were about five years old. And the line about hanging out at the Dew Drop Inn all night long with Mac Rebennack — that’s Dr. John — it’s just characters who crossed my paths. I’ve got my brothers in there, my uncle John, the [Wild Tchoupitoulas’] Big Chief Jolly. It’s like a testimony, that song.”
Neville, who’s known more as a song interpreter than a writer, has been writing poetry since he was young but didn’t hold particularly high regard for it. He kept the pages in a brown paper bag, and he didn’t start taking them seriously until a friend encouraged Neville to type some of the poems up, which yielded a limited edition book called I Am a Song. “I can’t sit down and just write,” says Neville, who now keeps his work more securely backed up. “I have to be inspired by something — maybe something I see on TV, something I lived back in the day,” says Neville, who plans to publish another poetry book in the near future. “It helps me. If I’m troubled with something and I write it out, it’s gone. I’m OK then — sort of OK, anyway.”
Apache co-producer Eric Krasno (Soulive, Lettuce, Tedeschi Trucks Band) and primary contributor Dave Gutter (Rustic Overtones) saw plenty of promise in the poems, crafting soulful, funky arrangements around them — including an appropriately Second Line rhythm for “Stompin’ Ground.” “Well, I do come from a funky family, the Neville Brothers, and before that I was doing funk with Allen Toussaint,” Neville says. “They come from funk bands, too — Lettuce and Soulive and the Dap-Kings. So they told me their ideas and I said, ‘Yeah, man, let’s go with this.'”
The Apache title, meanwhile, also hearkens back to Neville’s past. “When I was a teenager and playing football in the sun, my skin would turn red,” explains Neville, whose pet dog is also named Apache. “They used to call me Redskin or Red Apache or whatever, Apache Red. That name stuck, so I decided to go with that for [the title].” Neville also has a large “Apache” tattoo across the top of his back.
Apache comes out July 15, the day after Neville starts a U.S. tour with two nights at the City Winery in Chicago. This year also marks the 50th anniversary of Neville’s enduring hit ballad “Tell It LIke It Is,” which hit No. 1 on the R&B charts and has been covered by scores of other artists — including Heart, which had a Top 10 hit with it in 1980. “I love it,” Neville says of the tune. “It was a simple song when I recorded it. I had a few more songs I was going to record and thought would be better to put out, but my brother Art said, ‘No, that’s it. That’s the one right there.’ And when it came out it started climbing the charts. it did 50,000 in New Orleans the first week it was out. One day I was out on the streets, the next thing you know I got a hit record. It’s funny now, but back then it was kind of scary. I had to get on the road and everything. But it was fun at the same time. I just toured until it cleared out, then I went back to New Orleans and did local gigs and worked on the docks unloading ships to take care of my family. Guys down there would tell me, ‘You got no business being here. You should be on the radio,’ but I’d tell ’em, ‘Man, I got to take care of my family.'”