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Pierre Lacocque of Mississippi Heat talks about the women in his life

Virgil Roundtree
Mississippi Heat performs Saturday at the Front Street Music Festival in Bloomington.

The new album by the Chicago-based blues outfit Mississippi Heat is infused with the spirit of women.

“Madeleine” also introduces vocalist Deneshia Hamilton, who joined the band due to ongoing health issues affecting longtime vocalist Inetta Visor.

Band leader, songwriter and harmonica player Pierre Lacocque spoke with Jon Norton ahead of Mississippi Heat's performance Saturday at the Front Street Music Festival in Bloomington.

The song Madeleine, which is also the album title, is an ode to your maternal grandmother. What did you call her?

So, we called her Mamy. Mamy and Papy were common names for grandparents. So, we called her Mamy with a Y.

Why did you want to honor her? And it sounds like honoring your grandfather as well.

Absolutely. My grandfather, Pappy, was more of an introvert but no less loving, and no less affectionate that, in his own way, was always a wonderful presence in my life in our life. I have a sister and a brother. So, Mammy was the matriarch and extremely welcoming to the three of us and to me in particular. As a child … you and I have talked before and, you know, it has not been a happy childhood for me. But she would bring an enormous amount of oxygen, love and acceptance and welcome for me. I think my siblings would say the same. So, it was a haven for us to go and visit her.

I think it's interesting that "Madeleine" is the only song on the album without words. And it's an ode to your grandmother.

Yeah, so I had a choice. For those who know me as a musician, I'm very moved by minor keys in blues. So, when I came up with a baseline for the song and played around it, you know, I was so moved. And I said to myself that I could come up with words like I did with “Mother,” the name of the song after my mother died. This one I actually felt that I'm gonna go beyond the words … that include words, so to speak, for the emotionality to the pre-verbal expression of my love and my loss, but also my appreciation of having been loved for being me. And that's a feeling to this day. I mean, I'm emotional right now. And when fans come to me to play not only that song, but when I play the harmonica, some people come with tears in their eyes, telling me they appreciate and so forth. It validates me the way my grandmother did, because I didn't have to perform to be loved by my grandmother, it was a wonderful feeling.

You have another song on here that is a nod to another woman in your life … your wife.

Yes, we've been together 41 years and counting. Vicki's Cuban and born in Havana.

And it sounds like when she was 15 years old when she fled Cuba as a refugee. But you guys went back there — I would imagine your first time — just a few years ago, you went back to Cuba?

I think was 2016, something like that?

What was your expectation before you got to Cuba and how maybe it was different after you got there and you got to experience it in person?

Going to Cuba with my wife with Vicki had enormous amount of sentimental value, to see where she comes from and to experience it firsthand post revolution. But you know, her people, and the country that I had enormous amount of admiration already, certainly, musically, we have children who are Cuban with many Cubans in the family. But also, friends. Our best friends are Cubans, you know. But I was quite positively shocked by the survival … and drive that people seem to have in Cuba. And we traveled the islands.

So, it was not just in Havana that I enjoyed, but we traveled all over. And it was the same in spite of the oppression … the total economic disaster. You know, surgeons make the same amount of money as taxi drivers, and some surgeons were actually taxi drivers, because they made as much money if not more, because they get tips and things like that. But the survival, then maybe the hope, and the welcome of Americans … I couldn't believe it. Many of them had family they knew, of course, in Florida but everywhere in the U.S. “Oh, you're American. Oh, I have a cousin and you know, even New York, Chicago,” you name it. So, it was actually a welcoming experience.

And Pierre it's not unusual to hear some different sounds on your blues album, as you've had Latin-tinged songs in the past on Mississippi Heat albums. You've also had some jazzy stuff, but what I really like about this song "Havana En Mi Alma" is the trumpet. I love the sound of the trumpet on this song.

You got it!

It's not by chance that there is a trumpet in the song. It's a minor key reggae. Before we go to the trumpet, yes, I've done a lot of Santana-ish type of blues songs to honor my wife in many ways. That's what it was. I love it. I love the jungle beat. I like the blues structure frankly; I don't need much more than a blues structure because that's my soul really. It's a Chicago blues you know, like in 50s but I like to kind of play around. And with reggae in mind, I thought it's such a nice mix. First it was a minor key. So, pain with minor keys is played.

And in the trumpet, there is … actually in Cuban songs and similarly in Latin songs, even Mexican … you hear trumpet a lot. And of course … the harmonica solo on it, all of that, you know, of course I had to. But I said, “You know what, let's go with the trumpet on this.” We all got excited about this album as it unfolded. But also, as it neared its end in terms of the mixing and the mastering and all that … and a trumpet? We're very pleased with that.

Inetta Visor has been your primary vocalist for quite a while now, and she sings a few songs on “Madeleine.” But you’ve added a new voice on this album, Deneshia Hamilton.

Deneshia Hamilton was referred to me by Terrance Williams, our drummer of 10 years. Inetta, to start with her, is gold. She is way beyond a fantastic entertainer, singer, songwriter. And she’s really underappreciated by the awards makers. Even at the Chicago Blues Festival she was not invited to the “Women’s Blues.” Maybe because she’s part of a band. She is sadly undervalued for her talent. For example, she can sing in any key. But there’s a “but.” She almost died as you might have heard through the grapevine or through me. Her health has been compromised for quite a few years so now travel has been difficult and a risk.

So, let’s bring in Deneshia into the picture, not necessarily to replace Inetta per se, because I try to keep her with me, certainly in Chicago. I try to keep her with me till death do us part. So health is an issue and Deneshia kind of takes over the long-distance trips and she’s on the album primarily because of that.

OK, you’re the principal songwriter for the band, but you have mostly female vocalists. How do you get a female perspective if you’re the principal songwriter?

That’s an awesome question. First of all there are certainly women-specific and men-specific topics. But when I write primarily interested in the human experience. The starting point is not who is going to sing it. It’s more like I need to feel it. I need to be inspired. So after I get the mood I fantasize who is going to sing this? Then I think about Inetta and how would she sing this. Or Deneshia. So I may have to adapt. But I never deliver a song with having feedback.

My daughter helps, she works with lyrics. (laughs) She’s very good, very blunt, very direct and very loving so I trust her completely. So if she says “Dad, no, no no, this doesn’t work.” That helps me because that comes from love and respect. And then I’ll present it to Inetta, for example. And I might ask her for help, for example about a child’s name I want to put into the song. I’ll ask her the name of a boy or girl she would like. That’s a minor example.

Pierre Lacocoque of Mississippi Heat, it’s so great to catch up with you. Thank you so much for your time talking about the new album “Madeleine.”

So nice to hear you again Jon. We haven’t talked in a while, but it feels like we haven’t talked since yesterday.

Mississippi Heat plays the Front Street Music Festival in downtown Bloomington Saturday night.

Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.