This year L4LM, in tandem with Chris “Shaggy” Davis the NOLA Crawfish King, is proud and excited to partner with the Brett Thomas Doussan Foundation for the inaugural NOLA Crawfish Festival. In an effort to bring the masses together for a good cause over the greatest local music, beer, and crawfish New Orleans has to offer, NOLA Crawfish Festival will donate a portion of all ticket proceeds from the event to BTDF. Tickets are going fast and are available here.
The mission of the Brett Thomas Doussan Foundation is to raise mental health awareness by means of advocacy, education, and music. Through their endeavors in the Greater New Orleans area and across the Gulf South, the foundation hopes to keep the legacy of local musician Brett Thomas Doussan alive in the community that fostered his deep passion and appreciation for music before he was lost to suicide at 26 years old.
We sat down with the directors of BTDF to learn more about their story, their views on the New Orleans music scene, and how their promising campaigns are changing peoples’ lives and cultivating a whole new community of support within the New Orleans music landscape.
Why do you think music is so important to the culture of New Orleans, and what role would you like BTDF to play in this community?
We ask that question in every single interview with our artists for our Music For The Mind Campaign, so that they can share the message. Interviewing these people week after week, they all kind of say the same thing but in unique ways. It comes down to: the musical culture is so indelibly unique in New Orleans. It’s the birthplace of jazz. One of our featured artists, PJ Morton, told us that if you go to Detroit, most people work in the automotive industry, and it goes grandfather, to dad, to son—the tradition is passed down. Here, music is passed down from generation to generation. Everything revolves around music. Music is played at every family function; music is played at every Mardi Gras parade. In every event that we have, music’s in the background. It can be at something like the golf tournament we’re hosting this week. So music is an integral part to the city of New Orleans, and it’s the one thing that brings everyone together—it spans genders, race, and socioeconomic class. Everyone loves music and everyone connects with music.
Here’s how we would like the Brett Thomas Doussan Foundation to play a role in that community: When we talk about mental health, there are huge stigmas around it. People don’t want to talk about depression and anxiety. But that’s also something that’s a common thread in human nature—there are times when we’re sad and there are times when we’re feeling things we can’t explain. So because we have this integral, unifying part of this city in the music culture of New Orleans, we can use that as an outlet to say, “Hey, let’s break this stigma. Let’s talk about that. We have other things in common, too. Music has helped us through bad times in the same way that it’s helped you in a bad time.” In the same way that music knows no race, gender, socioeconomic class, etc., neither does mental illness—and it’s something that we can use as an outlet and unifying factor to bring back what our mission is: to break the stigmas of mental health, to raise awareness, and to gain funding for these things. Music is so much less intimidating and invasive, and at the same time so deeply connective and healing for people who deal with things like anxiety, bipolar and borderline personality disorders, depression, suicide, and so many other internal struggles. Music is a form of therapy for many with mental illness. So why not blend the two, tie it all together and create a new platform?
Music seems to get lots of professional musicians through hard times of their lives. Who are some musicians you’ve spoken to who have shared their stories with you in that sense?
The first musician who stands out—maybe because he was our very first interviewee for our Music For The Mind campaign—is Big Sam Williams of Big Sam’s Funky Nation. We didn’t really know what to expect, we met up at a bar, wondering how it was going to go since it was our first time! In our interviews we always include the Allen Toussaint quote, “Music is everything to me short of breathing. Music also has a role to lift you up-not to be escapist but to take you out of misery.” We love that quote and think there’s so much truth to it, but when we first asked Big Sam for his relation to that, we were worried that he would find it too heavy and personal. Well, he immediately started talking about how he, out of his family with siblings and extended family, is the “strong one” who kind of carries everyone else. From that he told us that he has played at three of his family members’ funerals, and that music was his way of coping and getting through loss, and being strong and caring for his family. It makes you wonder that if one of your family members passes away, or at the funerals you go to, could you imagine playing during the funeral service? That was just so powerful to us, and we didn’t expect to get such profound moments out of these interviews at first. Robin Barnes told us about having a kidney infection recently and being told by doctors that she might not survive it. She told us that she just lay in bed singing her favorite song, the Disney song, “When You Wish Upon a Star,” and that doing so got her through her medical condition.
Some people fight more strongly in their battles and some people can get negative and give up more easily. With Robin, Big Sam, and the array of amazing musicians with whom we continue to profile, music uplifted them to get through sorrowful, hard, and generally low moments of life. We walk away thinking, “Wow.” These people have shared something really personal and we feel so lucky to hear and share with our peers.
Another moment that sticks out to us is from our conversation with George Porter, Jr. We interviewed George the day after Allen Toussaint, one of his very best friends, passed away. We thought for sure that he was going to cancel our meeting, and we were shocked that he called that morning and said, “Let’s do this.” During the interview, he talked very candidly about, basically, his entire life and all of the different situations where he experienced loss. One day he got a terrible phone call at a gig that his father was found dead. He had just come out of treatment within the last day, and literally sitting at a bar receiving this news, he had a choice to immediately start drinking, or play his music. He told us that he decided to play. We walked away from George’s story relating that to our lives, and we believe that many out there relate also. We experience a massive loss, and we have a choice in that moment: sit down and let that ruin my life and let the be a defining moment in a negative way, or I can say, “No. I’m gonna focus on my music, my positivity, the things that get me through the day.” When George was talking about making that choice, it really stuck with us, because it can be that easy—choose your music, choose your positivity, and go in the right direction.
Tell us more about Music For The Mind. How did you get started with it and where has it led?
The owner of local clothing company Happy Soul Apparel lost her father to suicide and launched the brand around the same time that we launched the Brett Thomas Doussan Foundation. She has the whole mental health spectrum in her mind and personal life and is working towards promoting that cause, and was one of the first people to reach out to us to donate shirts and other clothing to our events. Eventually we got together and sat down with our board to come up with a central campaign and “hashtag” to symbolize our mission. “Music For The Mind” just fit—we all voted, we all loved it, and from there we set out to design a logo that would evoke music, mindfulness, and also Brett and his afro! The end result, we think, is pretty badass, and we’re thrilled to be partnered with Happy Soul Apparel and all of these wonderful musicians who have gone out in the world wearing our shirts and sharing our campaign.
Unfolding Music For The Mind has truly been a learning process—with each musician we figure out how to make every feature better. Originally, with the first interview with Big Sam we used generic-type questions that we crafted. As we’ve gone on, we’re looking deeper into musicians’ bios and details, because we want them to give our audience their own messages, projects, and what they’ve learned, so that everything is very personal and unique to them. There are a few questions we ask every time because we feel they are integral to our campaign, but then we break off from those to suit each person’s own flavor. We foresee this as being something that can go forever and always: a platorm on which we integrate music into mental health to reach the masses–this is how we bring it all home. And to talk to artists candidly about their own struggles and how music has gotten them through challenges really humanizes not only them, but also the struggle of mental illness and puts it in a relatable way where people can look at the musicians they look up to, and care about, and follow, and love, and say, “Man, this is something they’ve experienced too!” We’re planning our first big Music For The Mind campaign party in June at NOLA Brewery, and we just want people to come and promote the campaign and its cause behind it, to celebrate the hard work that we’ve done and what we’re doing as we move forward. This is a never ending campaign–there’s always gonna be musicians, and there’s always gonna be mental health illness. We have an opportunity here–we think we’ve tapped into something and it’s gonna be good for a really long time.
Running a foundation and networking with a bunch of other organizations around New Orleans must have its ups and downs. Who have you been working with, and what are the interactions that keep you energized to exist, and to grow? Do you have a single most impactful experience through your work within your own organization?
We’ve worked with the New Orleans Musicians Clinic, New Orleans Musicians Assistance Foundation (NOMAF), the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the Louisiana chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a few other nonprofits and different people in the entire city. What really energizes us is a job well done at the end of an event that we produce, when we’ve raised the money, all the work we’ve done has come down to one great day that goes off without a hitch, and people are smiling, dancing, happy—having an excellent time for all the right reasons. It’s when we realize that this is bigger than us, the handful of people that run our foundation. It’s really beautiful.
The standout moment for us came from putting together our first annual Battle of the Sands volleyball tournament to benefit mental health awareness in the New Orleans area. We were involved with Project Paint at the Behavioral Health Unit inside Children’s Hospital. Basically, we remodeled an entire wing of the center. It was hard work—we were there super early and painted every day until we were all exhausted and sore (laughs). When it was all done, we took a step back and looked at it—it was the physical manifestation of good work from all of the people and volunteers and artists who collaborated on this, knowing that the children who were going to walk into that building were going to be better as a direct result of our work. Really, it felt like the final turning of a huge negative into a tangible positive thing that is going to be everlasting. That was the “zing” we all felt—we knew we would be doing this forever after that.
We’re a really young organization, and what we’ve been able to accomplish thus far is really great and incredible. We’ve linked up with a bunch of really amazing organizations. We’re all there trying to find different ways to help each other. Our goal from here is to start having these recurring fundraising events that are really fun and communal every year, one after another. We’re an advocacy and awareness organization–we have the awareness down pat, and the advocacy, we’re learning about growing that. These organizations we’re partnering with are very strong in that regard. So hopefully, looking at the foundation down the line, we will get stronger in our efficacy element in New Orleans and beyond.
Again, to look at the big picture for the Brett Thomas Doussan Foundation, there is a role we want to play here. It’s an exciting time for medicine in New Orleans, but it’s not a good time for mental health, even though it could be. The reality is that an entire epidemic has been ignored. One in four people struggle with mental illness, and yet there are only sixteen hospital beds in the brand new gigantic University Hospital in the city that are reserved for that area of care. It’s grossly underfunded, and at the end of the day, big picture and long term, we would like to see our foundation become a core part of helping New Orleans–the city that we love and for which we’d give anything–be the best it can be. If that’s going to happen we’ve got to tackle this mental health thing.
How do you incorporate the unique culture and music scene of New Orleans to accomplish the goals of the Brett Thomas Doussan Foundation? Does anything here need to change in your opinion?
Our job is to figure out a way to incorporate all of the things we just talked about into mental health in a new and unique way, make that into a new industry here, and the Music For The Mind campaign is just that. We’ve never seen this before, it’s never been around, and we’ve created and crafted it, and are crafting it still as we go forward, and will be crafting it still even after that. Our goal is not something that’s ever really going to be attainable, because we can always still better it–there’s always something more we can do. So we’re not going to hit a certain point and say, “We’re done, we don’t need to work anymore.” It’s never going to stop. We’ve talked about expanding our reach to the general arts community, which stretches far beyond the music scene in New Orleans. So many photographers have donated their time to us–they have been just as willing and excited. Of course, the arts culture of New Orleans is not just limited to music, it is so broad and across the board.
We’ve had a really amazing experience–we can’t really think of anything up to this point that could have or should have been better. We walk away from every interview with shock and awe, because we just got to connect in the most human way with these people who we are fans of! It’s kind of insane when you’re sitting with someone whose music you’ve followed for so many years, and you’re actually talking to them about what’s in their heart and their life experience–then, they turn it around and want to hear about your life experiences!
What are some misconceptions about New Orleans and its music community, and what are some truths?
We have people come to New Orleans telling us about that time they got to see “Brown Eyed Girl” at that place with the handgrenades. Misconception number one: We’re a bunch of cover bands on Bourbon Street! That is so far from what is happening here. Another misconception is that New Orleans is just a bunch of cover bands, a lot of funk, Mardi Gras music all the time, all jazz, all brass. That’s just the tip of the iceberg and it’s so not true! New Orleans music is so rich, and all original and heartfelt. You have everything across the board here–if you’re looking for a singer/songwriter at a hole-in-the-wall bar, you will find it if you look hard enough. If you are looking for a 100-year old blues guitarist, you will find him somewhere. If you’re looking for a big band, or if you want to go salsa dancing, you can find it here–there is no genre that goes untouched here. There is no form of art, music, or expression that you can’t find on pretty much any given night.
Let’s go back to the misconception that everything is just funk, funk, funk, rock, funk, funk, funk. The glaring reality is that we have a strong alternative scene here. We have deep Gospel roots. We have this whole array of music–we have everything, it’s all of great quality, and we offer it all here every night. Even country! You’d be hard-pressed to find a roots-rock group that doesn’t play an old traditional country tune every so often–like Dave Jordan & The NIA. [Brett Thomas Doussan’s brother, Mike Doussan, plays lead guitar for that band and is also a beloved member of the New Orleans music community.] Dave Jordan and The NIA is going to bust out some John Prine every once and again. Alvin Youngblood Hart is gonna throw out some old country tunes, and it’s gonna catch you by surprise! So there really is something for everybody, even if you think, “there’s nothing for me.” Walk into a show and listen for a little while–eventually you’re gonna hear something that you love. It’s inevitable–it’s going to happen.
There’s another truth, and George Porter and PJ Morton both talked a little bit about it in our conversations with them. When the Meters got started, the feeling was, “we’re gonna make it big!” But as George said, when you’re starting from New Orleans, you rarely go “mainstream”–which may be a good thing. People are so protective about their music here, and the perception is often that if you go into the mainstream you’ve become a sellout. They always say, “the road to success is on I-10 West.” Here in New Orleans, where you have such richness of music here over many different genres, we sometimes wish that it would spread more, and that more places can experience that, and can envelop bands with open arms and grow them organically the way we do here. George Porter kept talking about that–you know that if you’re playing music in New Orleans, you’re always playing in New Orleans. PJ Morton told us that when he first started, he had to move away which he hated, because he’s always loved New Orleans–he grew up here, it’s his life. But he likes pop music, and told us how he couldn’t get that industry here and wouldn’t have “made it”, so he had to move away. Now that he has the financial foundation he wanted and is lucky enough to pursue projects while supporting himself on the side because of Maroon 5, he’s moved back to start his new label, Morton Records, and all he wants to do with that is to cultivate New Orleans music–whatever genre it may be–and share it with the world, since now he has the platform to do that. So that brings us back to a truth about the music industry in New Orleans, and we ask ourselves and many transplants who haved moved here: with how much we love New Orleans and the music scene, to live here and be a part of it now, why can’t that be in New York and everywhere else as well, and not just passing through?
We’ve got legends playing at The Maple Leaf on a Wednesday night, and that’s because of how the city-wide industry is structured. Now, on the positive side, in terms of a truth about the industry here, you’re also never ever going to meet any other characters in the world like the characters you’re gonna meet in New Orleans–it’s just something about the people who come here to pursue music. You can go to L.A. to pursue music, you can go to New York to pursue music, but it is a certain breed of person who comes to New Orleans. You know, the ones who aren’t necessarily from here, but who find that niche. We think of our friend, Anders Osborne. You just get these personalities that just could not exist anywhere else in the world, but somehow feel like they can breathe better in New Orleans, and they find their most creative self in this community. That speaks to the people of this city, their welcomeness to the arts and to the community, the music scene. You just get some really interesting people!
What are some nuggets of wisdom as far as what you’ve learned in the process, things you’ve learned about the music industry and its ability to bring people together?
Little nugget of wisdom here: Take a deep breath and remember the big picture. Things do get stressful, it isn’t always easy in doing any project, whether your promoting a show, or running a single campaign or an entire foundation. Just take a deep breath, and remember what this is all about. What is painful today is going to be glorious tomorrow, so bear through it, stick with it, and enjoy it! At the end of the day, take a minute to enjoy what you’re doing, and think about why you started. Let it be fun, and be passionate.
Regarding the music industry here, we’re not strangers. Many of us are quite literally “married” to the music and “mothers” to the music and our feelings have been reinforced as a result (laughs). The New Orleans music community is so unique–not only are there so many musicians, but everyone is friends and loves each other in some way. They all want to come together to promote music and to promote good things. People play benefits here all the time, and they’re willing and excited to do so, because if it’s good for one it’s good for the other. When everything happened with Brett, the entire New Orleans music community rallied around us and put on a funeral show. Every local musician that we’ve ever come in contact with came to that show in support and took turns playing music. New Orleans musicians take care of their own, and they’re fiercely protective. When things go down, they all really bond together in a unique way that you probably don’t see in other communities, much less so in music communities. That’s why we’re not surprised that people jumped on board for Music For The Mind, willing and ready with the same passion and fire that we had. That element alone reinforces everything we know and love about musicians in this city. It reminds me why this is the most unique and beautiful community and culture that you can be allowed to be in. We’re so fortunate and truly blessed every day that these are the people with whom we get to deal with.
You can be a part of the Music for the Mind Campaign and purchase your shirt today at Happy Soul Apparel. For more information about the Brett Thomas Doussan Foundation and its upcoming events, visit their official website.