Local Spins traveled to The Big Easy to soak up its diverse musical vibe and touch base with a Michigander and multi-instrumentalist who’s immersed herself in New Orleans’ ‘astounding’ music scene.
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“One night in New Orleans is like a year in any other place.”
Natalie Mae Palms smiled when I suggested making that key revision to a line from an old song about Paris by British rock band 10cc.
“That’s so cool,” conceded the singer and multi-instrumentalist, a native of Michigan who’s made her home and her career living in New Orleans for more than 18 years.
“I love it so much. I love living here. This city just provides so much. It makes me feel like I’m living the dream … It (music) is everywhere and the caliber is just out of this world.”
Other-worldly describes much of what makes New Orleans stand out from any other place.
It’s a resplendent city of classic, gorgeous Southern mansions, historic trolleys, incredible seafood, all-night Bourbon Street revelry, street-corner buskers, panhandlers, fortune-tellers and vaudeville-style sideshows, and an endless array of surprises – like a fellow strolling down the sidewalk with a giant inflatable penis.
But more than anything, it’s a city of music – vintage venues of every shape, size, condition and style, many of them hosting world-class musicians literally every night of the week.
“The level of talent and the number of top-notch musicians that live and play here is astounding,” Palms said. “Any Tuesday night, you can see the best musicians in funk, experimental jazz, traditional jazz, R&B, rock and blues, and some truly special country/Americana artists and songwriters.”
FROM JAZZ TO ZYDECO TO COUNTRY TO ROCK
Indeed, on a single Friday evening during a recent visit to NOLA (aka The Big Easy, Crescent City, etc.), my group of pals reveled in the jazz prowess of trumpeter Leroy Jones and the Preservation Hall Jazz Masters at New Orleans’ historic Preservation Hall, caught snippets of a delightful Cajun/Zydeco band along Bourbon Street and immersed ourselves in the dive-bar magic of an 11-piece band of musicians (garbed in dead face/zombie attire) performing vintage country classics by the likes of Buck Owens and John Prine.
Palms was a backing vocalist for that extended, all-star edition of Blind Texas Marlin revving up that late-night country show at Holy Diver, just part of the vast network of musicians she’s embraced since settling in New Orleans – a place she targeted even as a teenager, eventually attending the city’s Loyola University.
Growing up in a family of folk musicians and music teachers in Manchester, outside Ann Arbor, Palms began taking piano lessons at age 5 and picked up the guitar in high school, and later, banjo. Her father and mother, Mark and Carol Wells Palms, are longtime members of The Raisin Pickers string band and Creole du Nord. Natalie Mae’s grandfather, Ralph Wells, was a jazz musician and one-time president of the Grand Rapids musicians’ union.
“Piano was my escape,” Palms recalled while sipping coffee outside a cozy café in a New Orleans neighborhood accompanied by her dog.
LISTEN: Natalie Mae, “Run to You”
Natalie Mae not only honed her piano chops while growing up, but began teaching piano in high school, convinced she wanted to spend her life “playing, performing and recording.” She regularly attended Wheatland Music Festival outside Remus and volunteered at The Ark in Ann Arbor.
After moving to New Orleans in 2005, surviving Hurricane Katrina and eventually earning her degree in music industry studies from Loyola, she released her first Natalie Mae album in 2009 and never looked back. She’s since recorded two more full-length solo albums, including 2017’s “Run to You,” which OffBeat Magazine praised as proof that Natalie Mae “is comfortable straddling the lines that often separate country, folk, bluegrass and singer-songwriter.”
JUGGLING NUMEROUS MUSICAL PROJECTS AND TEACHING
In addition to working as a piano instructor, she performs solo and with her own band, is part of The RamBull Rompers indie folk-pop duo with Rose Cangelosi (a duo which appeared at Michigan’s Holler Fest last summer and released a studio album in August) and plays keyboards for pop-rock’s Fantasy Non Fiction.
She’s maintained ties to Michigan, collaborating and/or performing over the years with Michiganders Luke Winslow-King (who spent several years in New Orleans), Rachel Davis, Seth Bernard, Drew Howard and others.
“I first consider myself a folk musician, since that’s the foundation of my upbringing, but the city has so many consistent musical influences everywhere all the time that keep challenging me to learn and play more, and that I hope make their way into my music,” she said.
“More than anything, before being considered an artist, I consider myself first a musician’s musician, someone who just wants to play the music and play it well. There is so much music that came from here and is still being created, it’s endless and its influences are incalculable.”
That’s what drew her to New Orleans and keeps her there.
“Obviously, there’s the historical significance of New Orleans – birthplace of jazz, the cultural capital of North America for 300 years, etc. For me, I love how proud the people of New Orleans are of the music their city has given to the world, and I believe that’s a huge reason why the musicians of New Orleans today have such drive to create more, and not only more music but incredible music,” she said.
“The city simply has it all, and it’s unique in that it’s a quite small city, so it fosters a wonderful community that in my almost 20 years here has always felt supportive and encouraging. Any project anyone wants to put together, they’ll be able to find the musicians who want to make it happen. There is a friendliness and open-mindedness here that makes anything possible.”
That said, she credits her Michigan upbringing and watching her parents “play music together and with their many talented friends” as an inspiration to this day.
“It’s my greatest joy in life to play music with people I respect and love, so I hope I bring that element of togetherness and fun to my music and shows,” she offered.
“This city values and appreciates togetherness and joy; simply nothing is more fun than live music.”
VIDEO: The RamBull Rompers, “Thought You Should Know”
VIDEO: Natalie Mae & Billy King, “Leaving Love Alone”
PHOTO GALLERY: New Orleans (December 2023)
Photos by Local Spins