Jon Batiste can’t stop dancing — and for good reason.
The band leader perhaps best known for his role as the charismatic music producer of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert has been hosting live dance sessions over Instagram recently and people from all over the world are joining in. It’s a fresh serving of soul power and an opportunity to celebrate connectedness through movement. “That’s the key man, to feel the music, feel it in your soul,” Batiste says while casually tapping away at the keys of his piano in the basement of the Ed Sullivan Theater. “It may be 3pm in New York but it will be night time in the UK or the next morning in India. People all across the world have been joining in and really enjoying it.”
The act of dancing is a celebration in itself and the New Orleans-native-turned-New Yorker certainly has a lot to celebrate. His work as the co-composer on the Pixar animated film, Soul, earned him the 2021 Golden Globe for Best Original Score and his new album, We Are, is already earning him great reviews. The album is an uplifting collection of songs that came to life through several pre-pandemic recording sessions from the very dressing room he’s calling from.
We talked to Batiste over Zoom about how the album came together, what it feels like to lead a Mardi Gras parade, and how him and Stephen Colbert are adapting with a new formula for late night television.
Congratulations on your new album. How do you feel now that you’re ready to share it with the world?
I think it will help people. I think it will be helpful to have that kind of connection because we don’t have an opportunity to connect in person. This pandemic has separated us. So music can bring people a sense of community in a way that will be helpful right now.
How did the album come together?
I wrote it starting in September of 2019. I did a series of about a week of recording sessions in my dressing room at the Ed Sullivan Theater. I invited Kissell, a producer from the Netherlands, and singer-songwriter Autumn Ross, along with several other creatives; instrumentalists playing all different instruments, singers, engineers, food deliveries coming in and out — just 24/7 it was a creative hub. That’s what the blueprint of the album came to be. Took about eight or nine months, but those first six days in the dressing room is when it really started to take shape.
You have some phenomenal features on the album, including Zadie Smith. How did you end up getting one of the most important novelists of the 21st Century to lend you her vocals?
We just happen to be friends. She called me one day to see if I’d be interested in getting on Zoom with her and singing together. We started doing that during the pandemic, her from London and me in New York. Sometimes she would sing; sometimes we would invite friends of ours to join; sometimes it would just be us playing and singing songs together. I was finishing the album around the time we were doing one of these sessions so I asked if she wanted to sing and she said yes.
You dedicate the album to “dreamers, seers, griots, and truth tellers who refuse to let us fully descend into madness.” What does that mean to you?
There is always madness that needs to be kept at bay. There’s always things that are going on that need to be thwarted. And I think right now we are the people who are in charge of what happens for the next generation and generations to come. So I’m dedicating We Are to all the people who want to create a future that has the true divinity of what we stand for and not our lower selves.
Listening back to the album, what is something you’re especially proud of?
I’m really proud of the way it all came together. It’s a synthesis of so many things. It’s not just a synthesis of different musical styles, it’s a synthesis of life experiences and different ways of music making; different ways of creating sonic frequency and putting them together in ways that I haven’t heard. I’m especially proud of the way that the tracks “Boyhood,” “Movement 11,” and “Adulthood” formed this three-movement suite and they’re kind of at the center of the record, they’re the spine of the record, and those tracks have captured my life experience from the past until today in a very personal way.
You sing on the album, “There’s no place like New Orleans,” which of course there isn’t, but would you say you identify more as a full-blown New Yorker at this stage of your life?
I feel more like New York is home right now but when I’m in New Orleans and I’m with my family, there’s something there that can’t be replicated. It’s a spiritual connection. It’s a connection to the soil. It’s a connection to the traditions and all the things that are there. And then New York is more where I grew up and became a man.
You were once the grand marshal of the Endymion parade during Mardi Gras. How would you describe New Orleans’ parade culture?
For Mardi Gras, there are more formalized crews that create floats and roll down the street and everybody gathers from all different walks of life. They throw parades and create these big celebrations that last the whole day. Endymion is one of those crews and for the 300th anniversary of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, I was the Grand Marshal. So I led this huge parade with thousands and thousands of people gathered on the street, waving at everyone from the top of the float. I jumped off the float at one point and started playing with some of the marching bands. The high school and college marching bands from all across the South come and gather and play. And I played with a lot of those bands, including my high school, St. Augustine High School, which also ended up on the new record. That marching band has been legendary for the last 50 years.
The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, like everything else during the pandemic, was forced to pivot. How did you adapt your role as music director?
I have a good sense of how to do the show, because we’ve done over a thousand shows now and it’s been almost six years, but I have someone who’s here working with me. The rest of the team has their own ways of putting their stuff together remotely. And then somebody puts it together in the studio at the end of the day, instead of us being together and capturing it all at the same time. So it’s a little bit of a bit of a shift mentally, but we’ve gotten used to it.
How would you describe your relationship with Stephen Colbert?
He’s a really important person in the culture of late night because there’s nobody that’s been like him before. He’s a really different type of late night host with a skill set that I think is unmatched. And I just kind of find that we have a relationship that is a friendship. We work together but I feel like the friendship is the aspect of the relationship that I try to focus on when we’re working because it keeps the vibe. And the vibe is important when you’re doing it every night.
What’s one piece of advice he’s given you over the years that really stuck with you?
He always likes to quote E.E. Cummings. And he talks about his relationship with his wife in the sense of when you lose yourself and you become one with another person, your whole self is what you find. You know, talking about that aspect of being in a relationship and always yielding to your partner. It’s friendship stuff.
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