By Brent Thompson
In addition to possessing a raw and honest musical style, Fantastic Negrito is a good sport. Speaking by phone from his Oakland, Calif. home literally hours upon returning from Australia, he sounds understandably tired but engaging and thoughtful nonetheless. Born Xavier Dphrepaulezz, the singer/songwriter stepped away from music for several years before reinventing himself as Fantastic Negrito. And what a reinvention it has been. His past two releases – 2016’s The Last Days of Oakland and 2018’s Please Don’t Be Dead [Cooking Vinyl] – both earned Grammy Awards in the Best Contemporary Blues Album category. On Saturday, April 27, Fantastic Negrito will perform at Zydeco with special guest Magnolia Bayou. The show, sponsored by Birmingham Mountain Radio, begins at 8:30 p.m.
Birmingham Stages: Thanks for your time, especially on such little rest after returning from Australia. Had you toured in Australia before this recent trip?
Fantastic Negrito: I’d played Byron Bay, but this time I was able to do Sydney, Melbourne and the Byron Bay Blues Festival.
Birmingham Stages: How did the material for Please Don’t Be Dead take shape? Were these songs newer compositions, older ones or a mixture of both?
Negrito: Some of all of that. A lot of times I think I work well with bits and pieces. Something like my Chris Cornell tribute – the song that came at the end of the record – that came out of nowhere. “Plastic Hamburgers” had been in my head for years.
Birmingham Stages: Do your songs tend to evolve and take shape even after you take them into the recording studio?
Negrito: Absolutely. It’s kind of a catharsis. I love it when it’s organic and trying to be what it wants to be. I was talking with Quincy Jones about this a couple of weeks ago. He was saying, “The minute you start trying to write that hit song, God walks out of the room.” And I love that.
Birmingham Stages: How would you describe your writing process?
Negrito: I’ve got kind of a leaky-faucet brain. It’s ongoing and it’s always happening. You take these pieces and you look for the inspiration. Once you find that, you ride it like a wave. Stay truthful – that’s the most important thing.
Birmingham Stages: If you will, talk about your hometown of Oakland.
Negrito: The Bay Area has been churning out music for so long, going back to Sly Stone, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Tower of Power, Santana, The Grateful Dead, Metallica, Green Day and M.C. Hammer. You also have the Black Panthers and Hell’s Angels. There are some edgy people [laughs]. The people I named were not going to go along with the status quo. I’m just a product of this incredible place – its culture, its diversity, openness and hypocrisy.
Birmingham Stages: You stepped away from recording and performing for several years. What inspired your return to music?
Negrito: I felt it through the eyes of a child. I had a son who was young and I experienced it through his eyes, ears and heart and that was a very profound lesson – being taught about music by a young baby. In this part of my life, I wanted to contribute to music rather than get something from music. Early in my career, I was always looking for what music could do for me. Now, at this age, it’s what can I do for it.
Birmingham Stages: How do you feel about modern technology’s impact on the music industry? Some artists applaud the accessibility and others say this is a difficult time to be heard among the crowd.
Negrito: I think the main thing is not to think about it and just create. I think when you are contributing, you don’t have time to even think about that. Technology is great, but there’s nothing like the mind and spirit of a human being. This music comes from our ancestors and it’s very spiritual and it’s been passed on. I just started playing in the streets for five years. I picked up a guitar, walked out onto the street and I never looked back. I never worried about who was going to hear it or not hear it. It’s a matter of being focused, creating and letting it take form.
Birmingham Mountain Radio Presents: Fantastic Negrito with Magnolia Bayou at Zydeco on Saturday, April 27. Showtime is 8:30 p.m. (doors open at 7:30 p.m.). Advance tickets to the 18+ show are $15 and can be purchased at www.zydecobirmingham.com.