In the Music Industry, But Not of It
Hailing from New Orleans, Catholic singer-songwriter Burke Ingraffia is, like his hometown, nothing if not eclectic. Ingraffia’s most recent album, “Independence, Louisiana,” released just a few months before Hurricane Katrina struck, showcases his velvety vocals and his multi-genre versatility. There seems to be a little of everything in the mix, from jazz and blues to folk and funk. Ingraffia’s laid-back sounds and faith-inflected lyrics have elicited praise from both Catholic and mainstream critics. He spoke with Register correspondent Iain Bernhoft.
What first leaps out about “Independence, Louisiana” is how much terrain it covers in different genres. What sort of a musical background do you have?
I started getting into acoustic guitar and ’60s’ folk as a teenager. When I was about 22, I spent two years studying jazz guitar at the University of New Orleans, where I learned a lot about music theory and bebop. I was pretty awful, though; I didn’t have the background or familiarity with the idioms.
As I understand it, you’ve studied theology, as well?
After I left UNO, I was living in Colorado and playing folk shows, but I really felt impelled to go back to school. I was inspired by Thomas Merton’s writing, and I decided I wanted to study theology. I went to Franciscan University to get my bachelor’s degree. While I was there I recorded my first record. I loved it and “caught the bug.”
Has this aspect of your intellectual development helped shape your music?
Absolutely. I also got a master’s degree in humanities from the University of Dallas, and that was great for my lyric writing, for incorporating classical elements, picking up on ageless themes of life, love and death.
Who would you point to as particular influences or inspiration, musically and spiritually?
When I started recording, my influences were writers like St. Augustine, Thomas Merton, and G.K. Chesterton. What really inspires me is good literature, and then my music accompanying the words is generally based on where I’m living. I’ve been back in New Orleans for the past seven years, and I come ’round to a lot of jazz-funk styles of music. But, for instance, after Hurricane Katrina, I moved to Austin and picked up a lot of that Texas-songwriter sound. It’s more twangy and lyrically heavy, as opposed to the New Orleans focus on rhythm.
New Orleans has a reputation for having a distinctive flair for culture. It sounds like you feel that.
A book I’ve been really getting into lately is Leisure: The Basis of Culture by Josef Pieper. I think that Louisiana is very rich in culture because it’s rich in leisure. There are 400 festivals in this state every year! People spend a lot of time doing family-oriented, leisurely things.
Would you explain the title of your latest CD?
My grandfather turned 100 last August and, between his 96th and 98th years, I lived with him on his farm. It’s on the border of Independence, a strong Italian community. I wanted to write about my grandfather and the life he has led, and then I started doing this record with independent Louisiana musicians. It seemed a fitting title.
I did notice that there’s an impressive array of musicians on the recording.
I’m tremendously proud of that record. Producer Cale Pellick and I worked with 20 local musicians, many of whom left town after the hurricane and may not ever play together again. It’s a little, non-repeatable snapshot in time of the New Orleans music scene, and I’m proud of that.
Do you do music full time?
I did for a while. After I got my master’s, I taught high school for a while but struggled because “crime doesn’t pay, but neither does teaching.” I decided to do music full time, and I went that way for about a year and a half. It was really fun, but still challenging. My music wasn’t Catholic enough for some Catholics and it wasn’t secular enough for everyone else.
How would you classify your music?
Well, its definitely not liturgical; it’s meant to be entertainment. But I’d like to reach both a Catholic and a secular audience. I think there are many themes that are a part of Christianity that you can present in a way that’s accessible to non-believers — types of sacrificial love, suffering as potentially redemptive.
Do you see your music as an expression of your faith?
I do. This may be too abstract, but I think of the communication within the principle of God, between the persons of the Trinity. I would say that my music is the way that I try to imitate that communication, of Trinitarian love between persons.
Do you consciously keep your distance from the Contemporary Christian Music scene?
I think that 90% of the music that comes out of the CCM industry is flat and trite. I think the focus is on the bottom line, and I don’t see much tolerance for Catholics. But the music industry as a whole is a beast. People don’t realize that there are tens of thousands of struggling musicians, many of whom are excellent and will always be unknown. The market is saturated and the industry sells music like disposable pens: cheap and quickly replaced.
In a saturated market, what can Catholic musicians offer that sets them apart?
I think that Catholic musicians, lyrically speaking, have a great advantage over Protestant ones, for the sole reason that our Christianity is not based on biblical language alone. We can use themes from the writings of saints, things written after the books of the New Testament. We have 2,000 more years of language to play with.
How does your music fit into your life right now?
Doing shows isn’t a priority like it once was. I got an MBA and have a day job currently as a technical writer. But in the past year, I was able to move back to New Orleans from Austin. I got married in October. Settling into a routine has been really good for me; it has freed up my mind for being creative.
I suspect there’ll be another record within a year. I don’t really have any big business plan. What I’m going to do is keep writing and recording my songs, and put them in God’s hands. If I live to be 80, and put together a great collection of records, I’ll be really proud of that.
Iain Bernhoft is a graduate student
in English at Boston University.
- March 25-31, 2007