Jon Batiste, whom many know as the bandleader from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, was born into a musical dynasty in New Orleans. While he’s grown up around the city’s legendary food and arts scene, he prefers a more personal touch when it comes to showing visitors around. “If you came to New Orleans and you came to me, I would take you to my grandparents’ house, or my mother’s house, or my aunt’s house,” he says. “Somebody’s family member’s is the best place to eat.”
The recent Golden Globe winner (he won Best Original Score for his work on Pixar’s Soul) has traveled the world for work since he was a teenager, and as he tells Condé Nast Traveler, relying on locals is the only way to see a place. While travel and live music are on hold, Batiste has a new album out this month, We Are, which has a funkier R&B sound and includes appearances from several Batiste relatives. Read on for his takes on the best music scenes in the world, sleeping on planes, and taking care of his voice while traveling.
How he spends his flight time:
I like to sleep. I can sleep anywhere. I can sleep in the back of a bus with my knees pressed against the seat in front of me. I could sleep in the last seat of the plane, which I’ve done many, many times, in coach. These last few years, I’ve been lucky enough when I’m traveling first class and I can do the bed seat. It’s a real pleasure when I can sleep from the time I get on the plane to the time we’re landing. But if I can’t, for whatever reason, I’m watching a documentary. I’ll watch the same documentary on the plane there as on the way back—I’ll do a deep dive of one specific movie most of the time.
The precautions he takes when traveling:
You have to have your regimen for your voice. It’s all spiritual, but I do think those things help, like having Throat Coat and different teas and herbal blends that can help you to literally coat your throat because of the dryness of flying. The corona times, of wearing a mask and things like that, was already something recommended to singers, people who are performers. Also turtlenecks—I’m always wearing a turtleneck! Just covering your throat, keeping warm, and keeping the temperature up. Really, it helps me to be ready to sing.
The top music scenes in the world:
Anywhere in Bahia, Brazil, is incredible. You should definitely check out anywhere that has a rumba session, if you go to Havana. I would say to go to Tunis—Sidi Bou Said in Tunisia. If you could find any place to hear the performances of their folk music and see the dance that goes along with that, that has been a thrill in my life. Wow. There’s a lot of places with great music. New Orleans, as always. If you go to New Orleans, I think that you’re liable to see one of my family members on a bandstand. Go there and look for somebody named Batiste and you’ll be swinging.
And his favorite places to play or hear music around the globe:
I prefer the element of surprise, and the element of being in communities. My favorite experiences have been outside of venues. I mean, part of the thing that I’m known for is taking the audience, for the encore, out of the venue and marching in the middle of the street. In Turkey, actually, that was one of the best things that I’ve experienced—playing outside in one of the public squares. Or playing in Florence, in Santo Spirito, a public square where people gather on the weekends from sundown to sun up, near the Duomo. Then there’s another spot that I played in Jackson Hole, actually, in the national park there. It’s amazing. I love the ideas of gathering people in the summer when they do those festivals.
His strategy for getting to know a place when traveling:
I’ve been touring the world since I was 16, and what I learned very early is that you find somebody who is a local and you ask them a series of three questions. One, what is the food that I can only get here? Because the food is going to be the thing that when you remember [from a] trip—that’s what you’re going to taste on your tongue, the smell you’re going to remember. And then I always ask them, where do people go that is not the advertised place to go? They usually end up taking you to some hole in the wall, or the back of somebody’s grandma’s house. Like if you were to go to Machu Picchu, or to the Grand Canyon, it’d be like finding a little trail off the beaten path. There’s like a whole other canyon. It’s like more dangerous, but it’s cool. Once we’ve eaten and once they’ve taken me somewhere, then I ask them, where is the place that you would stay? There’s a lot of places that you can stay, and the accommodations will be great, and it’d be comfortable. But it’s just like, this is the real experience. Sometimes you have to sacrifice comfort, but I would rather try doing that for a night or two, if I can.
His recommendation in New Orleans (aside from his grandma’s house):
There’s a place called Verti Marte. It’s open basically all night long. It’s like a Kwik-E-Mart, but a French Quarter, New Orleans, Kwik-E-Mart that has the best po’ boy sandwiches and chicken that you could find at that hour, anywhere in the world.
On his favorite vacation of all time:
As a traveling musician, the ideal vacation is to be with people and not have a plan. My favorite vacation, I like going on road trips, and it didn’t have a destination, but I guess you could say the place we stayed at the most was Marfa, Texas. But my recommendation for a perfect vacation is to not have an itinerary, not have an obligation. Get in the car, have five days, pick a region and just drive. Decide where you want to stay that night, where you want to eat, go meet people, look up stuff, Airbnb. That’s what I did, and ended up in Marfa somehow.
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