Frédéric Yonnet: Don't Underestimate The Harmonica

May 3, 2012
Originally published on May 3, 2012 1:20 pm

When it comes to the harmonica, some people may think of honky-tonks, country music and the blues. But Frédéric Yonnet is giving it an urban jazz feel. The French-born musician is known for his dynamic and energetic performances, and has collaborated with the likes of Prince, Stevie Wonder and John Legend. He's currently working on his album Reed My Lips: The Rough Cut.

In a performance chat with Tell Me More host Michel Martin, Yonnet says he embraced the harmonica after playing the drums and realized it wasn't a practical instrument to travel with. "I couldn't carry my drums anywhere I wanted to — I didn't have a car," Yonnet says. "My neighbors hated me because I was the loud neighbor upstairs. So I had to take out my frustration on something that can fit in my pocket."

Now, Yonnet travels with roughly 40 harmonicas — each, he says, with their own personality.

Collaborating with Fans and Music Giants

Yonnet is inviting the public into his creative process. Latest material from his working album, Reed My Lips: The Rough Cut, are downloadable from his website, where fans can comment on the music, song titles and album artwork. He plans to incorporate constructive feedback and suggestions on his final CD, and credit the people who submitted them. Yonnet expects Reed My Lips: The Final Mix to be released in 2013.

Yonnet also tells Martin about his special relationship with Stevie Wonder. The two met backstage during the 2006 Grammy Awards, when they were introduced by comedian Dave Chappelle. Yonnet says it was an extremely intimidating moment until they began talking about harmonicas, and Yonnet played one of Wonder's songs. Now, they try to play together if they happen to be in the same city, Yonnet says.

Getting Health Benefits from the Harmonica

The harmonica has also helped Yonnet manage his asthma, which he grew up with.

"When you have asthma, if you forget your inhaler, that's when the monkey jumps on your back," he says, "and I realized that when that actually took place, it was easier for me to pull the harmonica out of my pocket and practice a lot harder."

Yonnet is sharing that realization with kids who have asthma, teaching them to control their breathing by using the harmonica. He's also teaching them to incorporate the instrument into music they regularly listen to, and use it in their own, creative ways.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. When you think harmonica, I bet you think honky-tonk, country, blues, maybe Stevie Wonder giving it some R&B love, but you probably never thought you'd hear this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: That is Frederic Yonnet with the intro from his album in progress, "Reed My Lips: The Rough Cut." It's available now as a digital download. He's actually asking fans to weigh in on the music, titles and album artwork. It's a bold new concept that brings listeners into his creative process early.

And Frederic Yonnet has collaborated with many musical greats, as well, such as Stevie Wonder, of course, Prince and John Legend. And Frederic Yonnet joins us now for a special in-studio performance. He's brought the whole band with him, as well.

Welcome to you all. Thank you so much for coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

MARTIN: Would you mind introducing your friends?

FREDERIC YONNET: Sure, absolutely. Today, on keys, we have Hope (unintelligible) on keyboard.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

YONNET: On guitar, Robbie McDonald.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

YONNET: On bass, Dennis Turner.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

YONNET: And, over there on the drums, Chris Bynum, on drums.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

MARTIN: Thank you all for coming. Thank you for coming. You have a very interesting background and, if you'll just tell us a little bit about how you got here, born in France.

YONNET: Born in France, raised in several places around France, following my dad through his jobs. Every four or five years, we had to move, but lived most of my life in Paris, where there's a huge music scene and that's pretty much where (unintelligible).

MARTIN: And your mother has a French Guinease(ph) Creole background?

YONNET: Correct.

MARTIN: Which of them is musical? From which did you inherit your music gene?

YONNET: Actually, none of them, unfortunately. But somehow, it must have skipped a generation or two because my grandfather on my mother's side was playing 17 instruments and my grandfather on my father's side - I found out that he was a piano player and also a harmonica player.

MARTIN: And there's a very funny story about how you chose the harmonica, that you'd actually started on drums, but...

YONNET: But I couldn't carry my drums anywhere I wanted to. I didn't have a car. My neighbors hated me because I was the loud neighbor upstairs, so I had to take out my frustration on something that could fit in my pocket. And, you know, what a better instrument than this? It's inexpensive. It makes people smile. Good choice.

MARTIN: But you also wanted to play the melody. Right? And you also kept getting in trouble because you kept, kind of...

YONNET: That's correct. I got fired from quite a few bands because I was trying to actually take the lead with the drums and they were pretty clear about this. They were, indeed. They told me a few times, you know, you can't do that or you have to walk and, yeah, I got fired.

MARTIN: OK. Perhaps you're more forgiving with your own drummer now?

YONNET: Oh, yeah. He's doing just fine. I actually like the way he plays. He doesn't play like a follower. That's what I like about him.

MARTIN: But talk about the idea of not just bringing the harmonica front and center, but also giving it, as we say, an urban jazz feel. Is that just kind of the sound that you heard in your head or how did that come about?

YONNET: It comes from the perspective that the music I listen to does not include the harmonica, so I figured that, you know, there were a window there, a window of opportunity. It was a pretty simple choice to make. The harmonica is an underestimated instrument, only used in a few different styles of music, which I love and respect a lot, but thank God, for me, I can actually take advantage of the fact that nobody is doing exactly what I'm doing. So it keeps me busy.

MARTIN: Well, let's hear a little bit.

YONNET: Let's see. We just heard a snippet earlier. We can actually develop that a little bit for you just for, you know, a quick second.

MARTIN: Sure. Let's hear it. Yes.

YONNET: Give you an idea of where the music comes from and where it's going, and then we'll come back in the conversation.

MARTIN: All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And you know what I really feel bad about is that people can't see you. Our audience in the studio can see you, and people always write about your - they use these euphemisms like electrifying stage presence. But that doesn't really capture the fact that you're kind of a wild man up here, like, with your, kind of like...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: How do you put all that together? You've got like - and is that choreographed, or is that just what occurs to you?

YONNET: Let's put it this way: The energy it takes for me to express or to actually dig out of my body and deliver to the audience requires, sometimes, more effort, more physical effort. And that's what you're witnessing in the motions.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I love it. What are you talking about? That's part of the fun of it. And I understand that you travel with - how many harmonicas do you travel with? I see maybe six up there right now.

YONNET: I have six Stainless Steel Reed harmonica. Usually they're made of brass, but those are a lot stronger than the competitors.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

YONNET: Usually I have close to 40 Seydel harmonicas in my bag, because I break them sometimes - even though that brand is a lot stronger than the competitors, you know, I like to have some spares. Each harmonica has a personality, and sometimes the personality works with you, and sometimes it works against you. So...

MARTIN: What did they say when you go through security at the airport?

YONNET: Can you play as a song?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Do they really?

YONNET: And my question is: Do you have a band?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We are having a special in-studio performance and conversation with Frederic Yonnet.

You're already releasing cuts from the album, calling it "Reed" - reed, that's R-E-E-D.

YONNET: Correct.

MARTIN: "Reed My Lips: The Rough Cut." And you're presenting work in progress. Where'd you get the idea to do that?

YONNET: I found out that people listen to the music differently when they know that they can have an impact on the end result. So I wanted to use this opportunity to share with my audience the creative process at several steps of evolution. And if some of the comments and suggestions coming back to us are actually as constructive as they can be, and if they are great ideas, they will end up on the final mix, and we'll give them credit for that.

MARTIN: Really?

YONNET: Yeah. Why not?

MARTIN: Because most people don't do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

YONNET: It's true. Most people are scared of sharing the work in progress, but I think I can learn from this, and I also want to take people on a journey.

MARTIN: Hmm. Well, let's hear another song. This is "Voice."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "VOICE")

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

MARTIN: Now, you know, I think Stevie Wonder's played an important role in your career here in the U.S. How did that come about?

YONNET: Not only in my career, he really had an important role in my life, in my musical evolution. I've always been a big fan of Stevie. I mean, of course, who isn't? But something about his generosity, his overwhelming sense of giving love that you feel in his music that actually was confirmed when I had an opportunity to meet him. I was introduced to him by Dave Chappelle. We were hanging out backstage at the Grammys in 2006. Dave was there to introduce Sly & the Family Stone. They had been gone for a long time, and he was basically there to bring them back on stage.

And as we were hanging out backstage with Dave, I actually saw the sign, Stevie Wonder, and I was shaking. I was extremely, extremely intimidated, and Dave very nicely introduced us. So we started talking about harmonica, and I asked him what kind of harmonica he uses. He answered, and I asked him if he knew about the brand I'm endorsing, and he said he was not familiar with it. So I was like, hey, let me just show you what it does.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Good for you. Nice move. Nice move.

YONNET: So I played one of his songs, and well, then he gave me his telephone number, and every time we're in the same city we hang out and we play together.

MARTIN: What's that like?

YONNET: Oh, it's like living a dream before you get to dream it, literally. It's - I mean, in my wildest expectations of life and of evolution in the music business, I would have never imagined. Meeting him is one thing, but playing with him and then sharing the stage with him is even more overwhelming. And now we are actually talking about doing some work together in the studio. So it's like, ah.

MARTIN: Well, you've been playing with all kinds of people, all kinds of different genres. I know that we've seen you with, as we mentioned, with John Legend and, of course, Prince and...

YONNET: India Arie.

MARTIN: India Arie.

YONNET: (unintelligible). The Jonas Brothers, also. I'm really trying to put the harmonica in places where you least expect it.

MARTIN: Yes. You're right. I wouldn't expect it in the Jonas Brothers. No, I'm sorry.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: That's...

(SOUNDBITE OF CLEARING THROAT)

MARTIN: So is there any kind of music that you don't think you could apply it to? You think no, I just can't, I just can't do it?

YONNET: When the political involvement is too deep into something that I'm against, yes. Definitely. I'll just put it that way.

MARTIN: Mm.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK.

YONNET: Other than that, I mean, you know, music - there's two kinds of music, like Duke was saying, good and bad music. So, you know, it keeps the doors open.

MARTIN: Yeah. Sure. I also wanted to mention that you are one of the Smithsonian's jazz ambassadors.

YONNET: Correct.

MARTIN: That's kind of exciting from a kid who kept getting fired from bands in France to now being one of our premier cultural institutions. And...

YONNET: Ironically...

MARTIN: ...and being asked to kind of represent your art form.

YONNET: Ironically, there's going to be a photo exhibit at the headquarters of UNESCO in Paris. I'm a featured artist in that exhibit. So it's...

MARTIN: Do you hope any of the people who fired you see it?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

YONNET: I hope that those people are not at the music business anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: And one more thing: I understand that the work actually helps you with your asthma, and that you're actually teaching kids to use the harmonica, who have asthma, as a way to work on that - their breath and their breathing. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

YONNET: Correct. I grew up with asthma, and I always carried an inhaler in my pocket. And when I really started to switch on putting a lot of energy in sharpening my craft as a harmonica player, I realized that I did not need the inhaler as much as I used to, to the point that I actually totally gave up on it.

You know, when you have asthma, if you forget your inhaler, that's when the monkey jumps on your back. And I realized that when that actually took place, it was better for me to pull the harmonica out of my pocket and practice a lot harder. So now I'm doing two things: not only I am trying to show kids who have asthma that there is an outlet away from medicine and away from medication that actually is linked to some kind of a meditation. You know, the harmonica, when you hyperventilate, you find yourself in that kind of a pocket of meditation sometimes. So, you know, that's one thing that I like to do. But I also like to show kids how they can incorporate the harmonica in the music they listen to, you know, and use it in a creative way, and in their own way.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for coming. We sure enjoyed visiting with you. I'm going to ask you to play one more thing for us. But tell us about the album. As we mentioned, it's a work in progress, and you're actually asking listeners to participate in the creative process. When do you think you'll have the final cut ready?

YONNET: We're thinking about getting that together before September. Then by next year, hopefully the album will be released in its final, mixed version. And for the final mix, it will be released everywhere.

MARTIN: What are you going to play as we say goodbye? What are you going to play to send us off?

YONNET: Oh, this is it? This is the last tune?

MARTIN: Yeah. Sorry.

YONNET: OK. Well, I enjoyed myself so much. I'm sorry.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

YONNET: I'm not going to...

MARTIN: Well, you know, time is the one thing they're not making more of. So...

YONNET: So we're going to play a track right now. I think it's letter D on the download card.

MARTIN: Letter D?

YONNET: Yeah.

MARTIN: Frederic Yonnet plays the harmonica. His album in progress is called "Reed," - that's R-E-E-D. "Reed My Lips: The Rough Cut." Fans can download the latest material from his website and leave feedback.

Thank you so much for visiting with us, and good luck to you.

YONNET: Michel, thank you for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You've been listening to Frederic Yonnet, playing pieces from his album-in-progress "Reed My Lips: The Rough Cut." And that's our program for today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.