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Twilight Singers Cut CD in New Orleans

Greg Dulli's band finished album in Katrina's wake, with little power or water

February 21, 2006 3:47 PM ET
Blackberry Belle, was written in response to the death of his closest friend, film director Ted Demme. But it's hard to imagine more trying circumstances than what his Twilight Singers endured in recording the band's forthcoming Powder Burns, due May 16th. The record -- which features guest vocals from singer-songwriters Ani DiFranco and Joseph Arthur, as well as an appearance by Dulli's ex-Afghan Whigs mate John Curley -- was completed in New Orleans just a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit.

"It was hard to finish because the power kept going out," says Dulli. "We had to use generators a lot of times to get the electricity going again. There wasn't any hot water. There were rolling blackouts almost every night, and the curfew was still in place while I was there. So it was kind of a police state that we finished it under."

Dulli had begun the record in the Crescent City before Katrina, departed for Europe on a scheduled trip -- where he watched the destruction daily on CNN -- and returned three weeks later to finish what he had begun. Though a lot of artists might have moved on to a new locale, Dulli never viewed that as an option.

"I had to finish it there because that's where I started it," he says simply. "And New Orleans had shown me so many great times that the last thing I was gonna do was abandon her at her hour of need. What that city needed more than anything at that time was life in it. So I was there for two months of the curfew. It was one of the most surreal times of my life."

Along with the serious practical hardships created by the storm and the flooding, both the Twilight Singers and DiFranco, who was also recording in the city when Katrina struck, believed their tapes might be lost. Luckily, their work was salvaged by producer Mike Napolitano, who also recorded Blackberry Belle. "Mike had to do a kamikaze-style rescue," says Dulli, "blast the roadblocks, get around the National Guard and the cops to get into the [French] Quarter to get both my tapes and Ani's tapes."

But whatever trials Dulli endured, he says, it was nothing compared to what he witnessed. "I went to the houses. Unless you would've seen what I saw -- You could see it on television and stuff, but the 360-degree, live-on-location look of New Orleans was like Armageddon. It was the worst thing I'd ever seen."

The environment, says Dulli, "absolutely" influenced the album's sound, with four tracks written after the disaster -- including the title track, "Bonnie Brae," "Underneath the Waves" and "I Wish I Was." The latter song is a kind of tribute to the city, "sung to New Orleans as if she were a woman."

Another Powder Burns standout is the melodic, slow-grooving "Candy Cane Crawl," featuring Curley and DiFranco. Dulli says the singers came courtesy of Napolitano. "Napolitano knows everybody, and everybody loves him. So if you're a friend of Mike's then you're automatically friends with his friends."

Now a few months removed from the devastation, with a Twilight Singers tour beginning in late May, Dulli sees Powder Burns, his eleventh album, as a snapshot of a harrowing, challenging time. "This one is a look back at a rather difficult portion of my life," he says. "And probably what I take away from it is, 'I can't fucking believe I'm alive.'"

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