Feufollet Are the Oldest Brand-New Band on the Road
Feufollet are not the same band I saw in New Orleans in 2012. When I saw them then, they only sang in French. They also sounded like a true-blue Cajun band, albeit with a younger, roots-rock vibe -- not just accordions and fiddles, but the waltzes and two-steps that comprise the major song forms of this Southern Louisiana folk music, and the plaintive vocals, with just a slightly different approach to pitch. That day, they were holding down the "traditional music" stage, side by side with barroom folk acts and throwback jazz.
When I saw the band a couple weeks back during a New York City gig, it was a different band. They were more electric, more country, mostly English, and there wasn't a two-step in sight. They had a new singer, too -- Kelli Jones-Savoy, who replaced Anna Laura Edmiston, the band's vocalist of 10 years. Feufollet, in other words, is the rarest of birds, a new band rising from the insides of an old band, reformed and rejiggered. Some elements have stayed the same, like Chris Stafford -- singer, multi-instrumentalist and the musician at the heart of the band -- as well as Stafford's brother Mike, who plays drums.
And they still wail on the accordion.
There's a purpose behind Feufollet's transformation to something a little more mainstream. They've got a brand-new record of mostly-English songs -- Two Universes, released in March -- largely composed by Jones-Savoy, and when I talked to them, they were crossing the country playing rock and Americana venues, instead of the folklife festivals they've haunted in the past. "We're trying to push forward and get people to recognize the name," says Stafford. "And know it. [We're trying to] build a following."
Feufollet go back even further than Edmiston. The band formed when Chris Stafford was 12 and Mike was eight. The brothers were educated at the French immersion schools that are unique to this part of Louisiana, a region where Cajun French dialects identify locals as true natives; where preserving spoken French is a perennial political issue. The band caught on quick with locals who were happy to see youngsters embracing Cajun culture and, most importantly, singing in French. "I think that us kind of growing up and doing this at such a young age, singing in French and speaking French, people really attached themselves to that part of it, and felt like it was something they could believe in and be a part of," says Stafford.
The band were mainstays at festivals at home and around the country. Steve Riley, a Cajun music standard bearer, mentored young Stafford and produced some of Feufollet's recordings. But the sound of the band continued to advance, as they built a bouncy, earthy sound from traditional elements and augmented it with country harmonies and expansive instrumentation. Their 2010 album, En Colours, a swooning, properly Cajun record anchored by Edmiston's vocals, garnered national attention, catching the ears of Elvis Costello, who name-dropped them in a magazine interview, and earning them an NPR feature, and an endorsement of their more experimental tendencies by the The New York Times. Later, En Colours picked up a Grammy in the Cajun/Zydeco category -- the ultimate mark of success for a regional band, but a sign that, in their mid-20s, they were being cornered into a genre otherwise dominated by artists in their 50s and 60s.
When I saw them at Voodoo in 2012, the band was still riding that wave. But a month later, Edmiston was out -- she left the band to join a touring circus group, a story that probably deserves its own article -- Jones-Savoy was in, and the band started shooting for something beyond their comfortable regional renown. Honky-tonk and rock rhythms now overrule Cajun waltzes; Jones-Savoy's voice recalls classic country heroines more than bayou folk singers.
"We've been kind of taking baby steps for a long time," says Stafford. "It's kind of like, little steps and then a really gigantic step. The last two records were far from traditional Cajun music. The biggest thing for this one was pretty much just abandoning singing in French, which was a pretty big deal for us, because our entire career we've always recorded everything in French."
Stafford and Jones-Savoy talked about changing the name, but decided "Feufollet" -- French for "crazy fire," a localism that describes light emanations sent up to the sky from fires in the swamps -- had too much local cachet for them to abandon.
The songs on Two Universes were largely songs that Jones-Savoy, who hails from outside Raleigh, N.C., wrote before she joined the band, or that Stafford had written over the course of the past few years, but didn't use for Feufollet because they were in English. The album, on the whole, is a fairly straightforward collection of Americana songs in varying style, some sung by Jones-Savoy and some by Stafford. "Hole in My Heart" is a honky tonk shuffle, and one of four songs on the record sung in French; "Two Universes" is a fiddle-laden duet, a waltz that takes more from country tearjerkers than Cajun ballads.
Local flavor is incorporated seamlessly, if sparingly. "Cette Fois" dances over a chugging accordion rhythm; "Pris Dans La Vie Farouche" is a swamp pop stomper -- Cajun music's rowdy twin. Most of the songs document a romantic rift, differences of opinions that lead to heartbreak, and the desire to move on with something new. It would feel a little more metaphorical for the band's journey if the words weren't so straightforward. "Find me a love that's tried and true / Or at least someone who isn't you," Jones-Savoy sings on "When You Said Goodbye."
Part of what made En Colours great was that it seemed to strike a perfect balance between the traditional and the wandering interests of its songwriters. Cajun music and the French language still dominated, but little flourishes set it apart -- the rhythm of a drum machine; short, ambient sequences. For all of Two Universes' genre explorations, a bit of what makes the band intriguing is lost in the new material.
But they also seem freer in a way that suggests casting off the burden of tradition. They say it's easier to write honest songs in English. "The important thing is the songs," Stafford says. "These songs were written in English first and foremost, and, you know, we're American people who speak English much more than we speak French."
With that change comes many others. At home, they're playing for much the same audience of local kids with an ear for roots and traditional music. But on the road, they're refreshed to see audiences who have no idea what to expect. "When you go onstage at some of the bars we've played at, and you bring up accordions, people are like, 'What's about to happen here?'" Jones-Savoy says.
"In the past, we were marketed toward the more folk music oriented, dancing crowds," says Stafford, "where people already knew a lot about the music or had been exposed to it, and had an expectation of something a little more traditional. On this tour, we haven't been marketed toward those people at all, as far as where we're playing, and where we're being booked. It'd be almost like any band playing anywhere -- people have never heard us, and they just walk in and they're like, 'I wonder what this is gonna be?' Which is kind of great, because then we don't have to worry about all this tradition, and all this expectation and stuff. And then the reaction is based on whether they like it, or they feel something from it, or it makes them happy, or whatever."
But what of the French preservationists? The locals who held up Feufollet as their big hope for the future of Cajun Francophone songwriting? Stafford thinks they might not have even noticed the change.
"I went to do this interview talking about the French immersion schools in Lafayette, and I think the problem in Louisiana is that they're getting rid of the programs for the schools. So, Lousiana Public Broadcasting was getting testimonials from people, and I went in to talk to them, in support of [the immersion programs]. And the guy who was interviewing me, he's big in the Francophone preservation area, and he was saying, 'Yeah, I really like the direction of y'all's band. It's great that you're remaining in the tradition, going different places, but still rooted in French and the things that came before you.' And I was like, 'Man, you have no idea what you're in for, do you?'"
Just because Feufollet are shooting for a national audience doesn't mean that have to give up their local one. They're blessed to be from a part of the country that cherishes local musicians, even if it sometimes bristles at their attempts to move traditional music along new paths. Cajun music has had its share of trailblazers, and genre melding is nothing new. Steve Riley, the Cajun music legend who mentored Stafford, told me the new Feufollet record is his favorite yet.
Going forward, the question won't be whether Feufollet can turn more non-locals on to Cajun music, or if they can sustain the local audience they've spent the better part of their lives building. Despite being 16 years on, they're another new band testing the limits of their songwriting and proving themselves on the road.