After taking a lengthy break from music, Sean Ardoin is now firmly back on the scene. He’s overcome poor health and self-doubt to co-create a sound that he wants the world to hear. In this interview with Kreol Magazine, Sean talks about his journey back to musical nirvana.
Sean Ardoin is a member of Louisiana music royalty. His grandfather was Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin, who was a legend in his own right and also the cousin of Amede Ardoin – one of the first artists to record Creole and Cajun music. Sean’s father, Black Ardoin, was one half of the famed Ardoin Brothers.
Sean himself is a singer, multi-instrumentalist and producer. He began playing the drums as a young child then found a natural affinity with the accordion aged 11. After serving his musical apprenticeship with the Ardoin Brothers, he and his brother formed Chris Ardoin & Double Clutchin’. In 1999, Sean went his own way with “Sean Ardoin & Zydekool”, but a few years later he knew he needed to take a break.
Medical Issues and a Decade Out
At the time, Sean weighed 400 lbs. He suffered from sleep apnoea and was struggling to manage his career. He credits his relationship with God for helping him realise that his inner spirit was telling him to stop and reassess.
For most of the next decade, Sean put his music to one side – apart from a brief return with Zydeco-gospel album How Great is Your Love. Sean admits that in some ways the hiatus was one of the worst experiences of his life because he temporarily lost his self-belief and sense of belonging. However, he also says that taking time off gave him the opportunity to get healthy, cement his faith and improve his state of mind.
An Alternative Creole Vibe
For the last year, Sean has concentrated on developing the new sound he created with band leader, and virtuoso accordionist, Andre Thierry. Alternative Creole is described as a high energy blend of Zydeco, funk, rock & roll and reggae. Sean said: “We started it because as a genre, Zydeco was going the way of blues, rock and roll and reggae – we were losing it to appropriation.”
Another reason for the change of direction was the fact that Sean thinks there are preconceived ideas about Zydeco, and they don’t match the music that’s actually played in south west Louisiana. Sean believes most people from outside the region judge Zydeco by whether they like Buckwheat Zydeco, Terrence Simien or CJ Chenier. He added: “For me to promote myself as Zydeco today is doing myself a disservice because its not representative of what I am.”
Currently, only Sean and Andre’s band – Zydeco Magic – are billed as alternative Creole, but they hope others will eventually follow their lead. Sean says Zydeco musicians don’t usually have time to think about progression because they are too busy playing. For the popular bands, the weekend might typically begin on a Thursday night at the Rock ‘N’ Bowl in New Orleans. Then a gig in Lafayette on the Friday and trailrides on the Saturday and Sunday. On a given night the audience can be anything from 300 people to 1000.
A Cover or Not to Cover
Sean provided a successful taster of alternative Creole with Zydeco Happy, which is his take on Pharrell Williams’ phenomenal hit. Such a high profile cover was a deliberate departure from Sean’s normal reluctance to play other people’s work. He explained: “I always preferred to write my own music, so I didn’t have to pay for covers, but now I’ve studied a lot more I understand that some covers are necessary. Zydeco Happy is still giving me a lot of traction around the country.”
Sean hears Zydeco beats in popular music by artists such as Demi Lovato, and he’s optimistic this means the world’s ears are finally ready for what south west Louisiana has to offer. He said: “Whenever we bring this gumbo to them it’s like the perfect storm. It’s just about getting the right exposure at the right time to release it because we have the dance, the food, the culture and the music.”
Sean’s ultimate aim is to become what he calls a mid-major, which he describes as a band like Alabama Shakes. Sean wants to perform on TV, at festivals and major events in the hope that he can then share his gains by sponsoring other alternative Creole bands.
Money, Motivation & Touring
Money is not a main motivator, but Sean pragmatically admits it is a concern. He points out that if the business element of his music isn’t properly taken care of, he will have to find another way to earn a living. Then there’s the matter of principle. Sean said: “If somebody with my credentials, my level of fans and my level of draw, is making $100,000 dollars a show then I should be making the same money, or close, or even more.”
It will undoubtedly be a difficult road to the kind of success Sean is striving for, but he knows what to expect. This knowledge leads him to urge anyone who wants to start a band to consider the realities of life as a musician. He warned: “Be sure, be sure this is what you want to do. If you want to start a band, know it’s going to be hard. Know it’s real work, and working on your craft and gifting is only one small part of it.”
Extensive touring is another challenge Sean is prepared for. He’s still 100 lbs lighter than when he started to burn out, and plans to lose another 70lb to make sure he’s in the right shape to cope with the rigours of being out on the road. He said: “I love touring, but most people have expectations that it’s glamorous because of what they’ve seen on TV. Touring is only glamorous when you get to that level, and even at that level it’s really hard on your body, your relationships and your psyche. You have to be born to do this otherwise touring will break you. Touring is hard, but it’s very rewarding if you’re called to it.”
A Learner: 3 Row Accordion and Creole
One of Sean’s immediate goals is to perfect his skills on the three row accordion – he has recently been endorsed by Hohner and wants to fully articulate the alternative Creole style. His other pressing ambition is to learn Creole through a six-week immersion course. Although he sings the language, and has a working understanding of it, his real desire is to be a fluent speaker.
The increased focus on his Creole heritage is part of Sean’s pursuit of a legacy, which has intensified since his 40th birthday. Thinking about what he will leave behind has reminded him of who he is, and what he wants to achieve. He said: “I never wanted to be king of the swamp, I wanted to be king of the world. I want to take his music everywhere because I realise everywhere is where this music needs to be.”
* Listen to alternative Creole samples and find out about Sean’s latest projects by visiting: http://www.zydekool.com/