Tricia Boutté does not give an eff
On singing with the old cats, schooling the young ones, and using joy
as your one and only compass
“I’m not embarrassed to be walking sunshine,” jazz singer Tricia Boutté said.
And that’s the perfect description for her, with her fierce fuchsia hair, luxuriant nails, and bright wardrobe. She’d cut a distinctive figure anywhere – but in the small Greek village where I met her, playing for the sixth time at the Kardamyli Jazz Festival, she’s especially unique. But it's when Tricia starts to sing that you forget all about the vibrant exterior. Her voice commands attention. It holds you captive in the best possible way. Opening her set with an homage to Billie Holiday, she shone heart-rending new light into the classic Comes Love. Then she said this: “I don’t do anything that doesn’t give me joy.”
Tricia’s music – and attitude – prove her point.
“This is what I do, this is how I do it,” she said as we talked at the Psaltiras wine bar, where she planned to sit in with some Norwegian musicians. She warned me there’d be salty “sailor language” ahead, and as we spoke, she greeted a steady stream of fellow players, fans, and friends.
“I don’t wear my shoes. Like my husband says, I dress like a walking carnival. I’m ok with all of that now. I used to be weird about it. Even though I still looked like this, I wasn’t as confident. But you’ve got to just embrace it. Own your odd. People look at me strangely when I walk around a small town like this, with pink hair and bright colors. But I’ve been coming here so long now that they kind of appreciate it – oh it’s the colorful lady! Hello!”
Pursuing her passion for music – jazz, reggae, R&B – has taken her around the world, creating the life she always envisioned: professional singer and intentional nomad. Though Norway is her base, Tricia travels far and wide with her adorable dog, Petunia, singing in festivals, recording, and even doing gigs in care homes, “because it makes me happy.”
Tricia grew up in a storied New Orleans music family surrounded by powerful voices. But one in particular she fell in love with when she was two-years-old. Her great-grandmother had an old Victrola that played 78s, where Tricia first heard Billie Holiday sing What a Little Moonlight Can Do.
“Billie’s voice, her phrasing – it brings me joy. The tempo of it. It’s right here, wow, insane. I fell in love with that. From when I was itty bitty.”
When she was a little older, her mother would take her to see her aunt, noted singer Lillian Boutté, perform in front of St. Louis Cathedral. “My aunt started out busking in the French Quarter,” she said. “She would go out and just sing, a cappella. And we would take a little packed lunch and sit there and listen.”
Soon after that, Tricia was performing herself.
“Every weekend, my mom took me to hear the old cats. The jazz legends in New Orleans. And they would invite me to come up and sing, starting when I was 10, 11, 12 years old. Because they were like, ok, if she’s here every weekend, she actually wants to be a part of this music. At first, when I was a little younger, they were like, oh that little bitty girl doesn’t care about no jazz music. But I was always there. And so when I was 12, one old guy said, bring her on Sundays. Have her learn three songs, learn the keys, and I’ll give her some money. So every Sunday I made $40 dollars. Singing with the old cats.”
In a family of “high, lady voices,” Tricia found the inspriation to develop her “heavy, husky” voice thanks to Sarah Vaughn and Dinah Washington.
“I sing a lot of Dinah. I like her sass and her attitude and her songs. The overdramatic stuff – Mad About the Boy – songs like that. And Sarah’s voice. It used to bother me that I didn’t have the lady voice. But then there was Sarah. It was like, Oh. And when I heard Etta James, I was like Oooh, ok. There’s a place for me.”
Norway has been Tricia’s permanent home since 2007, but she came to Europe much earlier with a plan to stay.
“I knew I wanted to live in Europe, and I knew I wanted it to be Scandinavia. The first time I went down to the west coast of Norway, the area where I live now – when you picture Norway in your head, the mountains and the fjords – I was like, yeah. I can envision quality of life here.”
“I planned my life like a nomad. And I’ve lived successfully that way. Didn’t plan on kids. All that stuff. That was very intentional. It’s me and my dog. I have a husband who’s very understanding that I’m gone a lot,” adding that she travels 216 days a year, and that “it’s not as glamorous as it sounds.”
While she used to return to New Orleans regularly, these days Tricia is more likely to stay overseas and bring her mother to visit.
“There are people there who I love. Family, friends. All that. The place, though – I found, I don’t have the attachment to it like I did. And that surprised me. Shocked me, really. It’s got a lot to do with the fact that it’s not the same. Since Hurricane Katrina.”
“The first couple of times I went home after the hurricane, it was like, what is this? I was angry. Because that’s my home, where I was born. Who I am is because of New Orleans. So that was weird. But now it’s like, ok. The folks who stayed here, y’all let this shit happen. Y’all let these kids come and turn it into Django Reinhardt country and that’s got nothing to do with us. They’re sitting down on Bourbon Street playing gypsy jazz! What is that! Gypsy jazz is lovely but it’s got nothing to do with us. And a washtub bass! I’m like, what is happening right now? That’s not New Orleans.”
She does her best to help newcomers understand the legacy they’re trying to inhabit. But she doesn’t mince words on getting the details right, and she holds the musicians she works with to high standards on every point.
“I see them out there, wearing suspenders, cigarette hanging out of their mouth. So I show these younger cats a picture. Do you see Louis Armstrong and his band, music from the same time period as Django? Do you see this band? They’re in white shirts, black ties, black suits, polished shoes. Clean as the board of health. They did not sit on the street looking like a ragtag bunch of hobos. Wrong place. This is New Orleans. Our jazz musicians dress in their finery.”
“New Orleans jazz musicians were well dressed for two reasons. They were predominantly black working in a world of predominantly white people. To be taken seriously and treated with respect, they dressed appropriately. They dressed how they wanted to be treated. And jazz musicians in New Orleans still dress that way. They come on stage clean. Everybody’s seen Wynton Marsalis’ band. That’s how the cats at home dress. Even if it’s a club gig, they’ll still be in a button down shirt and nice pants. They’re not going to be ragtag.”
When her comments on this topic came out in a Norwegian jazz magazine, she said that she got hit from all the musicians she worked with.
“All over Scandinavia, musicians were going, ‘am I dressed well enough to go on stage with you?’ and I’m like, actually, no. Since you want to be a smart ass about it, no. You could do better. ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Your shirt’s not ironed.’ It’s still a peeve of mine. My musicians are always well dressed. And beautiful. And it makes me happy.”
Nowadays, happiness and joy are her compass, how Tricia selects gigs, who she’ll play with – everything.
“I realized that I was doing gigs that I hated, going places I really didn’t want to go. I was just saying yes because that’s what you do. Then I started to think, you are really wasting so much time doing things that you don’t enjoy, and that makes no sense. I went into music because I enjoy it. It’s my love."
“So I just started to turn things down. People would say, there’s a concert at such-and-such place. Yeah, I don’t really want to do that. But it pays well. Yeah, I don’t really care. That place is shitty. The people are not nice. And I don’t want to do that. What if we offer more money. I’m like, You’re not understanding. That’s not what it’s about. Because if I wanted to be a hooker I could have just went ahead and did that. But I’m not there yet,” she said, laughing.
It seems to be working for Tricia. Now in her mid-50s, she has more opportunities than ever.
“A group of young musicians in Norway contacted me after they saw me at a festival. They’re in their 20s. They want to gig with me. R&B and soul from the 50s, 60s, 70s. I was like, send me examples of what you want to do. They sent me some Etta James, some later life Dinah Washington, and Ann Peebles’ I Can’t Stand the Rain. And I was like ok! I want to sing that. I sent them a song that I have loved since I was a kid, one that I’ve always wanted to sing. It’s Candi Staton’s He Called Me Baby. They said, ‘Cool! Let’s play it.’ So I’m getting to sing things that I’ve always wanted to, with a group of people I can play with.”
“It’s funny. I’ve never felt that pressure of ‘you shouldn’t do that anymore because you’re this age, or you shouldn’t wear that.’ There was actually a girl. She was like, how old are you? I said, I’ll be 55 this year. And she went, I don’t know, I think when women get to a certain age, you know, they shouldn’t have pink hair and the glittery nails. And I said, you know what people my age think about what young women like you think?”
And here, Tricia pulled a wicked grin.
“We do not give a fuck,” she said, laughing a long time. “We’ve already done all the shit that you are just learning to do.”
“I have slayed dragons. I have MS. Epilepsy. I’ve had three different kinds of cancer. I’m still here. Nothing about your opinion on how I’m living my life matters to me. A 19-year-old girl cannot tell me I shouldn’t have pink hair. Baby, go sit down and watch this.”
This interview was conducted at the Kardamyli Jazz Festival by Jean Shields Fleming, founder and editor of Certain Age.
Find Tricia's music on Spotify
Tricia singing, Cindy Herbert photography
Portrait of Tricia courtesy of the artist
"Interesting Lady" portrait by Tricia Boutté
Tricia performing at Psaltiras Wine Bar, courtesy of Kardamyli Jazz Festival