"Wow! I don't know if you can see it, but there's a snake threading its way up through the latticework!"
Zachary Richard, who moments before had been ruminating on the corrupting influence of American mass culture on the culture of southwest Louisiana, has interrupted himself to point out an intruder in his otherwise edenic backyard.
"It could be a water moccasin," he observes. "I'll have to keep my eye on him." He pauses, then adds, "I need to tell Claude to be careful."
Claude, Richard's wife, has been going to and from a swimming pool not far from the snake's latticework lookout. Apparently Richard, the composer of "Snake Bite Love" and a supporter of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), is aware of the limits of metaphor, not to mention the low priority some animals place on the ethical treatment of humans.
"No," he says, suddenly calm. "It's just a king snake."
Richard hasn't had many opportunities to enjoy his local ten-acre property lately. Although his last album, Cap Enrage, came out two years ago, its success in both Canada--where it has gone platinum--and France has kept him on the road. He recently completed the first half of his "Snow Melt '98 Tour," with dates in Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec, and New Brunswick scheduled for the rest of the summer.
As if the demands of life as a rock star weren't enough ("It sounds corny," he says, "but I can't go out in Montreal without getting hit on for an autograph"), he has also spent the last few months on the set of Juliette Pomerleau, a ten-part, French-language television miniseries that will air next year in Canada and France. Directed by Claude Fournier, the Quebec director whose oeuvre includes The Tin Flute (1982) and Les Tisserands du Pouvoir (The Weavers of Power) (1986), Juliette Pomerleau tells the story of an aging, terminally ill woman and Bohu Martinek, a composer, played by Richard, whose music miraculously cures her.
"It's a very romantic part," says Richard. "I play Bohu Martinek, a composer of classical music who's insecure, middle-aged, and Czechoslovakian. He gets his big break through his girlfriend, who manages to organize a concert for him, and he's 'discovered' by the director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Charles Dutoit, who's actually going to play himself in a cameo."
At forty-seven, Richard may qualify as middle-aged, but insecure he most definitely is not. Insecure musicians don't pursue two recording careers ("There's a French career and there's an English career," he recently told Offbeat magazine, "but they've had almost no influence on one another") or publish books of poetry (Faire Recolte, Voyage de Nuit) or receive culturally prestigious decorations (the Ordre des Francophones d'Amerique for his contribution to the vitality of the French language in North America) while taking the time to found and-or champion cultural organizations (Action Cadienne, CODOFIL) and events (Congres Mondial, FrancoFete). And although he has developed curiously unidentifiable accents in both English and French as the result of his international lifestyle, he has never been mistaken for Czechoslovakian.
"Actually, the accent was one of the reasons I got the part," Richard explains. "When I speak French in south Louisiana, I have what I consider to be a relatively typical Cajun accent. But I speak two Frenches--Cajun French and a more internationalized, more sophisticated French. Some of it's Quebecois, some of it's French, and some of it's kind of mixed up because it's a foreign language to me. I can communicate well enough, but the accent is kind of weird, and I make juxtapositions that are really unusual.
"There's a Czechoslovakian school teacher who lives in Jennings and teaches French as a second language in the CODOFIL," Richard continues. "I was interested in communicating with her at one point, so I called the director and said, 'Should I go and learn how she speaks French? I don't know how she does it, but it has to be with a Czechoslovakian accent.' And he said, 'No. You've got plenty enough to worry about. You'll be worrying how to pronounce your r's instead of feeling what you're saying. Just talk like you talk. Nobody can tell where you're from when you talk French anyway.' I said, 'Great,' and that's worked for me so far."
Although Juliette Pomerleau marks Richard's first acting experience, he has had other brushes with what he calls the "thespian side of life." In the mid-1980's, he was under serious consideration for the title role in Belizaire the Cajun, a role that eventually went to Armand Assante. "I was totally out of my element," he recalls, "but I don't think that was the reason [I didn't get the part]. The ultimate reason was that I had absolutely no box-office draw."
That situation may change after the French and the French-Canadians get to see Richard in Juliette Pomerleau. He will be in all ten episodes, and, although his is only the third-most-visible role, he does have some very important scenes. "In one of the scenes that I'm going to do, I actually meet Charles Dutoit, and I conduct a symphony orchestra in concert. I have a conducting coach, and I'm actually learning how to conduct, which is not that simple.
"There are two styles of conducting--I've learned all this in the last month," Richard demurs. "One of which is American, when the beat is on the downstroke, and the other is German, when the beat is on the upstroke. And since my character is Czechoslovakian, the theory is that he would probably learn the German style, which is totally unnatural for me because the down beat is in the air and the backbeat is on the ground. So I'm having to rethink my notion of conducting."
He'll also have to think his notion of performing. Despite his proven proficiency on a number of instruments--a proficiency amply demonstrated on his dozen solo albums--his role as Bohu Martinek will require him to play a sonata by the contemporary composer Andre Gagnon. "He's very brilliant, very romantic," Richard observes, "sort of like a Quebecois Yanni without the hair."
He laughs. "Not really. He's classically trained, but his music is romanticized for the popular audience. Anyway, some of the simple stuff, like the first two bars of these pieces, I can pretty much play. My hands are in the right places, and it looks real. But for some of these very technical pieces, there's a classical pianist who comes in because they just shoot the hands. But for the credibility of the sonata, they want to be able to link my hands and my face. So I'm going to have to play this sonata. It's about five minutes long, and it's classical. I don't know if I'm going to be able to pull it off, but I'm excited about the challenge."
Richard is excited about other challenges as well. Should his next album, for instance, be a French one ("My record company in Paris is clamoring for another record because of the success of Cap Enrage") or an English one ("I've been effectively absent from the United States marketplace for two years, and it's time to come back")? He has been writing songs for both projects and could go either way.
"Right now it's a jump ball," he admits. "I suspect that I'll be doing the French one this fall, but that could change if we have an offer to do an American deal. I would probably rearrange my schedule to do that one simply because it's been a long time coming."
Complicating the decision for Richard is his awareness that his choice will have further-reaching cultural ramifications than similar choices faced by other bilingual artists. It has been a long time, after all, since anyone has lost sleep over whether Gloria Estefan would record in Spanish or whether U2 would record in Gaelic. Indeed, Richard's high-profile involvement in the restoration of French and Cajun culture to their rightful places in Louisiana and the eyes of the world is virtually unmatched in the pop-music community.
Despite his insistence on wearing two hats ("There's Zach the Cajun Militant, and then there's Zach the Singer-Songwriter"), he switches them frequently. Just as often he wears both at the same time. No sooner does he begin explaining that his music "has no political agenda" than numerous exceptions occur to him.
"'Sunset on Louisiana' [from 1992's Snake Bite Love] speaks about the problems created by chemistry. And I'm not anti-chemistry. I'm just against the misuse of industrial technology and the ramifications that it has for the health and the well-being of the people of a place that I love very much. And then there's 'No French No More' [from 1990's Women in the Room], which is the ultimate ironic Cajun song because it's in English, but it's about an experience that everybody's had. Those can be perceived as socially conscious songs. But I've never sat down and said, 'Today I'm going to write a song to influence people to the way I think.'
"As a songwriter," he continues, "what I'm doing is creating something that inspires me and that I hope communicates that inspiration to other people. There's no raison d'être apart from the celebration of the experience itself and the communication."
The experiences he chooses to celebrate in his songs, however, tend to echo the more overtly political nature of his extra-curricular projects. How many songs with titles like "Zack's Zydeco," "Zack's Bon Ton," "File Gumbo," "Aux Natchitoches," and "Jolie Blonde" does he have to record before his fans figure out that his love for all things Cajun runs more than swamp deep?
"My songwriting is very anchored in south Louisiana," he readily admits, "and my style--whatever the purists might say--is very much anchored in the musical traditions of south Louisiana."
Richard's reference to "purists" reveals the existence of yet a third hat: Zack the Musical Iconoclast. His undisputed status as the most influential Louisiana musician to emerge in the last twenty years notwithstanding, he still relishes the challenge of taking on his critics.
"Musicalogically, I'm probably closer to Bob Dylan than to Aldus Roger, but listen to the songs. I've never repudiated anything about my heritage. I'm very proud of it. I just want to go beyond the bon temp rouler thing and achieve a status as a singer-songwriter as opposed to just a butt-shaking yahoo."
He wants to be acknowledged, in other words, as a butt-shaking-yahoo with a brain, an acknowledgment he expedites by correctly using words like "Faulknerian" and "Yoknapatawpha" in conversation. "My relationship with this culture is extremely interesting and very delicate," he says. My two Rounder records [1988's Zack's Bon Ton and 1989's Mardi Gras Mambo] were very much anchored in Louisiana. I was in this Faulknerian mode, and my albums were going to be my Yoknapatawpha County. I was going to create these universal images and address them to Everyman but in the guise of southwest Louisiana experience."
Having helped to establish Louisiana and Louisiana music as legitimate cultural currency, however, he now feels the need to move on. "In the mid-'80's Cajun got on the map nationally and assumed its rightful place in the pantheon of American musical styles. Now the challenge for me as a songwriter is to go beyond that perception and to create songs that don't necessarily have allusions to 'Jolie Blonde.'"
Not that there's anything wrong with references to "Jolie Blonde." "I don't intend to abandon that aspect of my performance or of my songwriting," he explains, "but I consider my peers to be the Nancy Griffiths and the Lyle Lovetts and the David Wilcoxes--the community of American singer-songwriters--and I would like to assume my rightful place in that."
To understand Richard's desire for assimilation, especially in light of his early identification with the more separatist elements of the various French-language movements of which he's been a part in both Louisiana and Canada, one must remember that his musical template was forged in the American pop-cultural fires of the 1960's. Almost ten years before he would spend four hundred dollars on his first Marc Savoy accordion (he now owns five), he spent his Sunday nights hunkered down in front of his TV set just like every other American teen. "The Beatles on Ed Sullivan in 1964--that rocked me to the core," he recalls.
Then came Crosby, Stills, Nash, and especially Young. "I was influenced by Neil Young probably more than anyone else at the time. Then I got the Cajun accordion. I was always trying to synthesize the two because that was my experience. People make the mistake of assuming that there was no evolution in Cajun music after 1955. They think you have to go back to Amede Ardoin or Iry LeJeune. But the spiritual inheritors of Iry LeJeune and Amede Ardoin were Clifton Chenier and Johnny Allen and Rod Bernard and the Boogie Kings. Yeah, you can say that it was just derivative American pop music sung with a heavy south-Louisiana accent, but that was the generation that preceded me. Those were the people who influenced me when I was coming up.
"There's been an incredibly rich tapestry of musical history that's been woven in south Louisiana from the time that the accordion got here in the late nineteenth century. This notion of critical purity is basically ignorant because it ignores the historical reality of what actually went on here. You cannot eliminate what happened between Iry LeJeune and me and say that I should be criticized because I played weird and like nobody else. The musical culture of south Louisiana is so rich that it should be celebrated in every aspect, all the way from Marc Savoy down through Blackie Forestier through Wayne Toups. A culture in which everybody's doing the same thing one way is a culture in decline. It might reach stasis, but it ain't growing."
Richard gestures at the nearly six hundred trees that he and his father have planted on his property during the last fifteen years. "It's like some of my trees out here," he says by way of analogy. "This clay is like brick, so the water does not drain through. It stays there, the roots rot, and after seven or eight years the trees start having major health problems."
The only remedy, he says, is to punch a hole in the clay, drain it, and keep draining it. "I'm going to try something new this time. We're going to punch through it again and put some pea gravel in there. Then we'll hope for the best."
The fourth hat: Zack the Arborist Whose Farming Methods Are a Metaphor for His Sometimes Misunderstood Approach to His Career. "The criticism actually inspires me to go further, and the fact that some people might find what I do when I go further shocking is a positive sign. It means that something is going on.
"That's my interpretation anyway," he concludes. "That's a little bit of Zach's world."