Johnny Azari Talks Transition From Blues Music to Stand-Up Comedy
A little more than two years ago, Johnny Azari would probably have called himself a musician. But now, the multi-hyphenate artist would count stand-up comedy at the top of his résumé, above his years in music production and his sprawling delta blues career. Fresh off of a 20-state tour across America, where he recorded both an audio album and debut comedy special called The Revolution Will Be Hilarious, Azari spoke with NoDef about everything from life on the road to new marriages and new presidents.
It had been less than 24 hours that he had been back in town after three consecutive months on the road. Azari had spent half of his first day back in New Orleans sitting on the phone with his car insurance company before taking a seat on a stoop outside of the historic Cosimo’s to discuss his latest work. The first thing you might learn about the performer is that he is well known within New Orleans. Several times throughout our interview, people stop on the sidewalk to either welcome him home or raise a finger in an attempt to place where they recognize the man with the Dylan-gone-electric hair.
Azari first gained a name in New Orleans in the city’s bustling music scene, performing and producing music for himself and others. So the first question that many ask is why. What would prompt a successful blues musician to hang up his guitar and pick up a mic? He understands the confusion. “I’ll always play the blues, I’ll always love doing it,” he said. “But I hit the glass ceiling with it, as much as an Iranian-American raised in New York City playing Mississippi Delta blues is going to take that genre. Nobody gives a shit after five years.”
The man is in many ways an anomaly. An artist — and perhaps more surprisingly, a New Orleanian — who doesn’t drink is a bit of a rarity (Azari drinks kombucha instead of choosing from the bounty of cheap brews at Cosimo’s). But a successful performer game to give it all up to carve out a new name for themselves is practically unheard of in this day and age. Azari thrives on these apparent paradoxes.
What drew him to comedy are the inherent risks involved. "There’s an old axiom: if you’re going to tell people the truth, make them laugh or else they will kill you,” Azari explained. In his eyes, in every other genre of art besides stand-up, the artist can practice it alone. “In dance you can sit in front of a mirror and practice, you can paint alone, you can play guitar in a soundproofed room, you can shoot and edit alone,” he explained. "Comedy is the only thing you have to do and practice and fail in front of other people.”
There is an essence of his blues background in his stand-up comedy. Azari works best when given a bit of room to play — he’s not restrained, and his comedy is often off the cuff and and teased out over an hour set. It’s a model he learned during his touring career, when during his three-hour-long sets he would entertain the crowd with observations and anecdotes from his life. “I realized recently that I was always a comedian, it’s just that no one pulled me aside and told me that’s what I was doing,” he laughed.
Much of his stand-up material is derived from that blues mentality. He scrolls through his Voice Memos app, showing pages of three-to-seven minute riffs he composed while driving across the continental United States. Many of the jokes featured in his special were pulled from his on-the-road musings. He talks about life as a newlywed (he married model Samantha Saliter earlier this year), his previous sexual exploits, and though hesitant to ever assign a persona to his stand-up presence he performs a lot of character work. "There’s a lot of theatre within my comedy, it’s not just all set up punchline, set up punchline. I’ll go through skits,” he answered.
What he does not quite identify with is the tag of 'political comedian’. It’s become somewhat a comedy go-to in this uncertain political climate to lean in to easy digs at the POTUS or quote the many headlines that seem better suited to The Onion than The New York Times, but that’s not very fulfilling in the long-term. The politicians of today are signs of the times, according to Azari, and not the root of the problems. Still, it must be said that one of his best bits from The Revolution Will Be Hilarious is an extended observation comparing a Republican snuff orgy to a Democrat date rape.
There’s an old saying that comedy is tragedy plus time, but Azari believes that humor is most successful when intermingled with the tragic and perverse. "My favorite [comedians] are the ones that uproot taboo and corruption and hypocrisy and all of the things that plague a society, and bring an audience to a point where they have to laugh at their own failure,” he explained. "There’s a way of processing and healing through that.” Azari’s comedy is precisely observed yet delivered with a breezy, bluesy air, in the tradition of Bill Hicks, George Carlin, and other ruthless truthtellers who came before — he tells the crowd just what is wrong with the world, with enough of a winking eye that you feel like you’re on the right side of the joke.
Late last month, Azari took the stage at Sidney’s Saloon to headline the Night Church comedy showcase. It was his first show back following his nationwide tour, and he was understandably excited. “It’s hard to predict New Orleans crowds [at comedy shows]. But that’s part of it.” Azari will be in New Orleans off and on through the end of the summer, then he will embark on a one-month tour in September. Keep an eye on his website and social media platforms to learn about the upcoming releases of The Revolution Will Be Hilarious this fall.
There are far too many artists out there today throwing inordinate amounts of marketing money around trying to put forth a facade of authenticity the likes of which very few actual artists have actual claim to. Put another way, you’re not a musician just because you play one on TV.
And then there is Johnny Azari.
In the hands of virtually any other aspiring troubadour, Songs From A Motel Roomwould sound like yet another hapless ivory tower attempt to play Bukowksi by way of Cohen for a hapless pack of damp-knickered co-eds still prone to getting titillated any time love, sex, and death walk into a bar together.
And then there is Johnny Azari.
Is there a more straightforward way to say this, than to say that this is the real shit? Songs From A Motel Room is not aspirational marketing-speak for the next high-fashion Townes Van Zandt to come down the No Depression pipe, nor is it a season on the street for someone’s thesis.
My favorite part of the whole aurual spelunk into Azariville is the fact that he provides geo-notes on where the songs were recorded—turning these songs into genuine songs of place in a way we rarely experience anymore.
I’ll confess, at first listen to Don’t Mind The Dyin (Track 1), I got hung up on the sound. I mean, it SOUNDS like it was recorded in a motel room. It’s a bit tinny, and abrasive, and distorted, and it’s not “not-pretty” in a chick-with-a-limp kind of cool way, it’s literally just not pretty. But honestly, could it be any other way? That’s where the risk comes in.
One of the things I admired so much about Nelson Algren’s writing, is that he wasn’t afraid to point out that poor people are often assholes, because being poor sucks. That’s what I feel here, in this music. Being away from home, alone in motel rooms, with the echo of no applause ringing in empty ears—that can suck. And it can make you an asshole. Or, at least, it can make your songs assholes of anti-spiritual post-reverie. He’s wedged into the corner of a spare motel room. There’s a wall-mounted air conditioning unit inches from the headstock of his guitar, and a single bed two feet from his right thigh. Two microphones on boom stands loom in—one a broken crow, the other a spindly vulture. In front of him, a laptop on a makeshift table. He dazedly fingers a staggering arpeggio, then tilts his head back, opens his mouth, and sings:
Standing before, the lord’s darkest door …
This is the Dead Sea Scroll moment. The moment you uncover something that changes history as you’ve understood it. Azari’s revelation is neither musical nor spiritual. It is simply human. In some ways, this is the simplest album ever made, as it is nothing more or less than exactly what it says it is.
It is: Songs From A Motel Room. By Johnny Azari.
NOLA bluesman Johnny Azari injects old Delta spirit with fresh blood
On the one-man-band spectrum, Azari’s hue is definitely the Delta blues. It’s as deep a well as any to start from, and it gets especially interesting when you take that old, dark, howling spirit and conjure it with some young alternative verve like he does.
read the full article
Azari performs in both solo acoustic guitar mode and full-on rocking band mode, with a unifying thread of his raw, bluesy voice, letting you know he's shooting from the heart and gut the whole way. In old-fashioned record-store lingo, he might be "recommended if you like" Tom Waits' hearty voice, the White Stripes pounding beat and guitars, and Greg Brown's lyrical depth — and the wry humor of all three. - read the full article
BG: Where did the blues connection come from? Were you always into the blues or was that something that you discovered or worked your way back to?
JA: I started with the blues. I remember when I was 16 years old, my mother’s boyfriend at the time taught me how to play guitar. He put on Stevie Ray Vaughan and I was floored and was like, “that’s what a guitar is for.” - read full interview
Bluesman Johnny Azari featured in new Joplin music festival
Johnny Azari is a sort of time traveler. As the musician seeks a blend between Jimmy Rogers and Robert Johnson, he hears his music going back to the roots of blues. Azari’s sound features a mix of Delta blues and alternative country — two genres known to demand authenticity from their performers. Azari said he’s just fine with that.
Bluesman Johnny Azari returns with new double LP
A little over a year after releasing his album Road-Dog’s Teeth, New Orleans and Brooklyn based bluesman Johnny Azari returns with the double LP 'God Damn Blues (The Newest Testament).' As heard on the slide guitar-based, dusty single “God Damn Blues” (video streaming below), the Shiraz-born singer/multi-instrumentalist impressively conveys real-life hurt through his devilishly charming voice, effectively creating a portrait of a luckless man just trying to survive. It’s a seemingly classic blues story that Azari tells with obvious charisma and artful songwriting. – Zach Weg
Johnny Azari - God Damn Blues Johnny Azari doesn't pull any punches with his blues. This is in your face, razor-edge reconstruction of a genre that's gotten soft. His music is the last swig of whiskey after a long night of drinking. The dark alleyway. This is real-life emotion through music and he's not cleaning it up just to make a few casual listeners more comfortable.
His solo debut, The Tropic of Entropy, boasted great tunes though minimal production. Its successor, however, adds some instrumentation to flesh out Johnny’s sound, including drums and some spectacular back-up singing by Jamie Elizabeth, as on the standout song “Bitter.” And though Elizabeth’s voice adds sweetness to the mix, and Johnny’s guitar playing is prettier and crisper than before in songs like “Fatman Blues,” he’s still one aggressive fucker when he wants to be. Opener “Loyalty” barks and stomps like a mean drunk, and “The Beast of Bethlehem” is so noisy and dissonant that it pushes things into hard rock territory—the shadow of Black Sabbath hangs long over it, especially in the massive-though-low-fi drum track.
"his gravelly voice reminiscent of Johnny Cash at his most elegiac."
"The record comes in a brown lunch bag on an unmarked CD, and it is amazing—forty minutes of holy and poetic blues and alt-country with a sinister twist."
Azari’s 2013 solo album—a completely independent and free-to-download affair—is a caterwauling beast of a record. Azari’s lyrics harken back to classical mythology, and also to esoteric subjects, which inject a little class into his booze-powered hangover blues. Careful listening reveals a little revolutionary philosophy tucked away in the gritty pockets of his songs. Azari’s voice, husky and raw, reminds me of Tom Waits or a later Leonard Cohen. The Tropic of Entropy covers a lot of stylistic ground, from the epic poetics of “O Ye” to the yodeling of “FireRose,” but there’s bound to be one song here that will put a chokehold on you—I know I’ve played the shit out of the slathering bluster that is “Rabid Bitch Blues.”
"It’s not possible to define Johnny Azari in just one word: musician, sound designer, visual artist, poet and, above all, free soul, passionate human being, dissident heart."