For those uninitiated with the one-woman, multi-instrument wielding wrecking crew that is Valerie Sassyfras, let me introduce you. Born Valerie Solomon, Sassyfras began her music career decades ago under the guidance of her late husband Johnny Donald. Valerie credits him as not only being her inspiration but also her musical mentor—training her on all of her instruments (though she was a classically-trained pianist before they met) and providing valuable creative input throughout her career. Initially, Johnny and Valerie were a Cajun/zydeco/country duo whose first sets were as the house band at Mulate’s Restaurant. Both Johnny and Valerie were winging it to start. They weren’t well-versed in Cajun music, but with the help of the public library’s catalog of Cajun tunes, they honed their act. Johnny named the act “Sassyfras,” as it was Valerie’s sassiness that first caught his eye. They’d go on to play the Kenner French Festival and gather a handful of regular restaurant and bar gigs. Johnny had a background in band management and booking from his years of running venues in Mississippi and he used those talents to market Sassyfras by making Valerie the star of the duo.
After several years, the couple left New Orleans, finding themselves in Nashville. They opened a bar near the Grand Ole Opry and slung gumbo to a host of musical icons, such as Tanya Tucker and Clarence Gatemouth Brown. Their band shifted focus to a more country sound, as their Cajun stylings were too much of an acquired taste in Music City.
Later they’d move to Florida and open a music shop and a recording studio. Valerie focused on honing her act while Johnny manned the store. Then Valerie would be forced into a solo act. Tragedy struck—an accident lead to several years of surgeries and took Johnny’s ability to walk and perform from him. They returned to New Orleans, and Valerie began her one-woman instrumental performances at the Piccadilly in Harahan while Johnny hung on and offered whatever motivation and inspiration he could until his death in June of 2013.
A year and a half since Johnny’s death, Valerie has captured the eye of a new youthful audience. Her trademarked sassiness and the pure joy, quirkiness, energy, and courage she exudes on stage has landed her opening slots for Sasha Masakowski (a self-proclaimed superfan) and has her playing venues more noted for punk, hip-hop and indie crowds (Banks Street Bar, Gasa Gasa, Hi-Ho Lounge) than the retirement home training camp crowd at Piccadilly. While she deals with the pain of losing her lover off-stage, his spirit is celebrated on stage through tales of their time together and how he inspired several of her songs.
I met up with Valerie before a set at Union Station Pub and Grill, and found out what makes her tick ( hint: it runs counter-clockwise). Put a double knot in your shoestrings and hold on to a handrail as she guides us through her stage show, personal life, the Obama era, her aspirations, and takes us behind the scrim.
You recently lost your battle to save your daily set at the Piccadilly in Harahan. Tell me about the “Eat In” you staged and what lead to your fight against the Piccadilly corporate office.
Valerie Sassyfras: A week before my manager fired me, he told me that he was giving me one more week. Later on he said, “You know, corporate told me to fire you two years ago.” It would have been nice to know two years ago that my job was on the line. If I had known, I might have had more of these “Eat Ins,” but there was no warning. So I just told my friends that I had one more week and they came up with the idea to get everyone to come out and maybe that will help. We put it on Facebook and they came out in droves. I had 165 people come through, and they spent $2,700.
Did the manager ever give you a reason as to why they wanted to get rid of you?
No, but the indication was that business was off. I guess they tried to make it seem like it was my fault. I don’t know. [laughs]
Has your fight against corporate America made you any more politically active?
Really, I was just trying to save my job. I don’t know if that is political or not. However, there is something I am passionate about. It’s like no attention is paid to the senior citizens and the disabled. They are pretty much the lost group of society. They’re the ones that get harassed the most. They’re the ones that are dismissed the most. Johnny became an invalid because he was run over by an 18-wheeler. People assume because you’re in a wheelchair that you’re hard of hearing, that you’re not very bright—they assume all sorts of stuff. There was nothing wrong with Johnny’s hearing, there was nothing wrong with his brain. His brain was perfectly fine all the way til the end. But people treat you differently when you’re in a wheelchair. They condescend to you. That used to infuriate me. I had to fight for Johnny so many times with doctors about getting the meds he needed, about getting this, about getting that, about treatment. The attitude is always like, “Well… he’s on his last legs anyway, why bother?” My attitude is, “Even if he’s got one more day to live, and you can do something about it, let’s be doing it.” So I’m really empathetic when I see people in wheelchairs or walkers or that are handicapped in some way because they are considered the dregs of our society and they shouldn’t be. Johnny worked his whole life. He contributed. Even at the end when he couldn’t contribute anymore as far as working a job or something, he was helping me. Even at the very end he was pitching me songs to play at Piccadilly. He worked hard his whole life, since he was a teenager. Just because he was in a wheelchair he shouldn’t have been discriminated against. He shouldn’t have been condescended to.
Since you’ve gone through all of that, has it had any effect on your opinion of Obamacare?
I don’t know enough about Obamacare to comment, but it seems to include more people that couldn’t get health care before, so there’s something to it. Right now I have no health care. When I inquired about it, it seems like it was prohibitive for me, so I’m hoping I can wait until I get on Medicare. That’s the best of what we’ve got right now.
During the last presidential election, a much wiser friend than me looked at the legalization of marijuana and gay marriage in a handful of states and quipped, “Finally, I am one step closer to fulfilling my lifelong dream of smoking weed at a gay wedding.” I could actually see you being a very solid musical choice for a weed-fueled, same-sex marriage throwdown. Do you see these changes as progress?
[laughs] Sure. Absolutely. Marijuana should be legalized. There’s absolutely nothing bad about the drug, except for the carcinogenic effect caused by smoking it. But other than that, it’s harmless. I mean, why would doctors prescribe it for so many different things if it was bad for you? At the end, Johnny could hardly eat, but if he smoked he felt better. He could eat and keep the food down with the help of marijuana. It helps a lot of people in a lot of ways. The only reason I figure it’s illegal is because nobody can figure out a way to make a bunch of money out of it. Whiskey, it’s controlled by the distillers. With pot, anyone can grow it, so no one can really totally control it, which makes it of no corporate interest. That’s why it’s not legal everywhere. Otherwise, it would be legal just like alcohol. Alcohol is a terrible drug.
If anything, it’s alcohol that should be illegal. But that’s not going to work. There’s no reason to prohibit marijuana. There’s nothing wrong with it. It helps you be creative! It makes you feel good! It puts you in a good mood! And of course, the same thing with gay marriage. Just because you aren’t gay doesn’t mean you should stop people who are from having the same rights as everyone else. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to have committed relationships with the same benefits that heterosexual couples have? It should be legal everywhere. But again, there’s no particular group that stands to benefit from it being legal, so that’s why it’s such a struggle in every state to make these things legal. But yeah, I’d be happy to play a weed smoking gay wedding. It sounds like a good time.
What’s your favorite protest song ?
Haha, I’m trying to think of the protest songs. “This Land is Your Land?” Is that a protest song? Maybe “We Shall Overcome” or “Fortunate Son” by John Fogerty, and of course, “Blowin In The Wind” by Bob Dylan is a favorite.
In your act, you share a lot of stories about the impact Johnny had on your music career. His legacy is a very integral part of the act. What advice would you give to any recently widowed readers who are struggling to cope after the loss of a lover?
You just got to go day by day. That’s all it is. It’s a struggle and I have to believe in my heart that he’s still with me. I’m constantly talking to him, and I guess that makes me crazy. I really do think he’s still with me, and I try to get comfort from his spirit. It’s not easy continuing afterwards, but it’s either that or lay around the house being depressed, not doing anything. I figure I don’t have any options except to continue on. He gave me the skills and the confidence to go out there and do what I’m doing, so it would be an insult to him if I quit. That’s how I look at it.
What’s your songwriting process? Do you start with a melody, or do your lyrics come first?
You never know. Sometimes you hear something on the radio and you’re already working on a song and it might give you an idea for a line or something. Or you might hear something and it might give you an idea for a hook for a chorus. I’m constantly listening to things and watching things to get inspired. I look at videos too for choreography ideas. You never know where the inspiration is going to come from. Sometimes I start with the words, sometimes I start with the melody.
What videos have inspired your choreography?
“Addicted to Love” by Robert Palmer, “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson, and “Whiskey Lullaby” by Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss.
How much input did you have in the art direction of the “Girls Night Out,” “What’s Up?” and “Diamond in the Rough” videos?
The “Girls Night Out” video was directed by David Bear, who just did it on his own, out of pure love for the performance, and he presented it to me. So I had no input on that one at all. “What’s Up?” was also done by David Bear, and I added an intro because I wanted to have a talking intro. But he basically came up with the whole idea for that. “Diamond in the Rough” was just a straight live performance from Gasa Gasa. I wanted that one to just be a straightforward live performance.
The “Girls Night Out” video is pretty wild. Are you on board with this psychedelic identity that has been thrust upon you?
I love it! I think it’s a great video. Everyone else seems to like it too.
The first time I saw you play at Old Point Bar, there were a lot of requests for covers. As a performer and songwriter, does that annoy you?
Well, it does a little, but did you notice this last time I played [December], the only requests were for Christmas songs? I noticed that they didn’t seem to be that interested in some of the covers I played. I thought they’d really be into “Hey, Good Lookin” by Hank Williams Sr., but they really weren’t. They seemed like a country crowd to me. Of course, I’d prefer for them to request my originals, but I understand how people think, they want to hear something that’s familiar to them. They can get familiar with your stuff, but in the beginning it’s not going to be familiar. I just hope that if I play the same venues enough, they will start to be familiar with my songs. The hope is that they’ll start requesting my stuff, and not just “Girls Night Out.”
If you could choose any artist to cover one of your songs, who would it be?
[laughs] For “Girls Night Out” I could see somebody like Taylor Swift doing it, or maybe Iggy Azalea. I’d love for Iggy Azalea to cover it. Wouldn’t that be great? Then it’d be a hit for sure.
You put a lot of effort into your stage show. What frontman/frontwoman is your favorite performer?
I draw lots of inspiration from all over the place. I was thinking earlier today that Bette Midler is a huge influence. I remember seeing her in the ‘70s in New York City and Barry Manilow was her opening act. She puts on this real baudy show, you know? She’ll be dressed like a mermaid and all that. I get inspiration from everyone I watch. Beyoncé… and then great singers like Linda Ronstadt—she was one of my heroes early on. She just knows how to deliver a vocal. There’s no choreography, it’s just gorgeous singing. I hope to be able to combine a decent vocal with the choreography and the playing to give a complete performance.
How did the use of the scrim develop?
All of these ideas were mostly Johnny’s. He had come up with it years ago, but we never enacted it. We just talked about it. Then before he died I put the curtain over the screen and I said, “What do you think? Should I incorporate this into my act?” He wanted to know how I was planning on using it. Honestly, I wasn’t really sure, but I said, “Maybe I could have an outfit on and then I’d take one layer off and have one layer on.” Johnny said, “No. Don’t ever take your clothes off. Don’t ever undress because you are too talented for that and you don’t have to.” So I always kept that in mind. After he passed away I thought, “Well, I need to do something to make my show livelier.” I thought about the scrim. I had already put the curtain on it, but I had never used it. I decided to keep with what Johnny said. I won’t take my clothes off, I’ll just dance behind it. It’s something that just sort of came to me and once I started using it, I couldn’t stop. Everybody wants the scrim.
You don’t seem to be very coy about sexuality. Songs like “Babysitter,” “Girls Night Out,” and “Diamond in the Rough” are filled with innuendo. Do you think your newfound internet success played into the concerns from the Piccadilly corporate office? Were you hurting their family image?
Well… the thing is I never played those songs there. I did do “Girls Night Out” that final Tuesday [of the “Eat In”] when everybody came in. I never had the screen there. I never sang there. It was always instrumentals. Actually, I did sing early on, but then they told me to stop. Corporate wouldn’t have seen me online. I’m sure some of the employees had. They may have made comments. I’d like to think that that side of me didn’t affect my job. I did do dancing there, but I wasn’t singing any explicit songs.
If you had an unlimited budget, describe what your stage show would be like?
How do I come up with this in five seconds? It would be a bigger expansion of what I have now. I’d still have a scrim, but it would be full- stage with smoke and lights. It would be a fancier, much bigger version. I’ve always wanted to have a video screen behind me where I could have images—like gals twisting and twerking playing while I performed. If I had an unlimited budget, I’d also have a bevy of male and female dancers on stage all kicking in unison with me too. It’d be a whole choreographed show with other dancers. Also, I’d have a band. If I had the money, there’d be no reason for me to just do everything on my own. I’d have a band where everything could be live. You want a live band, you want lots of dancers, you want the scrim in the back. That’s what I would do.
So you like it when the audience gets on stage and dances behind the scrim?
Yeah! The fact that they would want to do it or have the confidence to do it is rewarding. You know, you gotta get loose to be able to do that, and most people are not inclined to do that. But of course when people drink they get looser. I’ve had lots of situations where nobody would come up because they are too shy or too awkward or whatever, but it felt really relaxed the other night [at Old Point Bar]. I mean—my god, it was just such a wonderful reaction.
What’s the most shocking album we’d find in your record collection?
I like all sorts of music. I used to be, “No rap, no hip-hop” but now I’m doing it myself. I incorporate a lot of hip-hop so I can’t say that anymore. The only thing I haven’t warmed up to is heavy metal. For some reason I just don’t get it. I guess it’s because I can’t understand what they are singing. When I can’t understand the lyrics, it gets frustrating for me. If I can hear the lyrics, I can appreciate it. Hmmm, what would be the most unusual for me? [laughs] Maybe Bette Midler… Oh, I know: “Rhapsody In Blue” by George Gershwin.
Who are some of your favorite hip-hop artists?
Snoop Dog, Iggy Azalea, and Jason Derulo.
You’re an extremely unique performer. I can’t figure out what scene you belong to. How do you describe the Sassyfras sound?
Passionate music. Every song is like my child that I try to nurture. I’m constantly reworking the songs. Rearranging them. Trying to make them better. I try to come up with new ways to present them each time so they won’t be the same. I’d also say that the Sassyfras sound is pop music. Other people have called it pop music, and that seems to fit. I do feel like I incorporate country, rock, hip-hop, jazz… I feel like I blend all of that together.
What exactly is the “Alligator Dance?”
[laughs] It’s just a silly song. I think alligator is a funny word. People seem to like that word, especially down here. You see it everywhere—in logos and just all over the place. I thought I’d just put together a silly song to match the idea of a silly sounding word. People really seem to respond to it even though there’s really nothing to it. In fact, somebody gave me the idea at Gasa Gasa the other night for the choreography—like the open-the-mouth thing [mimics an alligator chomping with her arms]. I hadn’t thought of that before. I was doing this [clasps her hands together and wiggles her arms in a snake-like swimming motion], the slide thing, or maybe a swim thing. Then I saw someone in the crowd doing the open mouth thing and I was like, “I need to incorporate that, because I like that.”
“Youth is Wasted on the Young ” is probably the greatest song title I’ve ever heard. What’s that song about?
[laughs] Well, just what it sounds like. When you’re young you’ve got all of this energy. When you’re older and supposedly wiser, the energy has left—it’s gone. It’s wasted on the young because they don’t have the wisdom yet to appreciate the energy that they still have. When you’re older and you can appreciate it, the energy is gone.
You seem to still have a ton of energy, you often play three hour sets with no break. It’s almost a tantric-like performance. How do you maintain your energy level?
Yeah, and on New Year’s Eve I have a four hour set and I’ll do that without a break. My attitude is like once I quit then it’s time for me to go home. Once you stop, you get tired. You have a chance to think about things and you get tired. If I keep going, the energy seems to keep going until I stop. Once I stop, I’m exhausted. I just keep going because I’m afraid to quit.
What would it take for you to walk out on a stage and look out at a crowd and think to yourself, “Wow, I’ve really made it?”
When I get invited to play on the JazzFest stage!
What’s the one thing you want your audience to take away from a Sassyfras performance?
I want them to feel good! I want them to forget about all of their troubles and cares. I want them to feel encouraged. I want them to feel optimistic. I want them to feel free to do whatever is in their mind creatively that they want to do. You’re never too old to start anything. This leg of my career started a couple of years ago. Johnny and I were entertaining years and years ago—back in the ‘80s, but we quit for a while and we tried other things. We had music stores. We were traveling, playing music, all that, but there were long periods where we weren’t playing. So I started this new leg of my career when I was 59 years old, and I’m 61 now. I want people to feel like whatever it is that they can’t do because it’s too late—it’s never too late.
Valerie Sassyfras performs at Gasa Gasa on January 9th, at Banks Street Bar on January 10th, at Circle Bar on January 22nd and at Union Station Pub & Grill on January 31st. For more info check out valeriesassyfras.com