Peter One is Back on the Stage (and Loves It)

The legendary artist talks with Matt Ross-Spang about the creation of Come Back To Me.

Peter One originally found fame as half of an Ivory Coast-based country music duo with Jess Sah Bi, who released their acclaimed record Our Garden Needs Its Flowers in 1985. In 1995, he moved to America and, after detours in New York and Delaware, found himself living in Nashville and working as a nurse. In 2018, the American label Awesome Tapes From Africa reissued Our Garden…, and Peter has since returned to music. Last month, his major label solo debut, Come Back To Me, was released by Verve Records. To celebrate, Peter got on a Zoom call with his producer — Margo Price and Jason Isbell collaborator Matt Ross-Spang —to catch up about its creation. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Peter One: So I wanted to ask you, what was your first thought when you heard that you were going to work on music from an African artist? 

Matt Ross Spang: Well, our good friend Jay Steele sent me a little link on you, and I don’t think story can prepare you for your music, or you as a person. He said a couple of things, but then when I heard the music and when I saw you, my mind was double blown away. Just the power of your music and your spirit, I don’t think anyone can do it justice by trying to describe it, especially over email. So it was such a exciting thing for me too, because I always wanna do something different and work outside the usual box. And so I was so excited when he first reached out, and even more excited once I met you and and heard some of your music.

One of the things that really excited me was that you record a lot at home too, so you have this music in your head, but then you know how to capture it and bring it to life. And that’s always exciting for me because — you know when people go rock climbing, there’s one guy that climbs the rock and there’s one guy that holds the rope? I was happy to hold the rope for you while you climbed that rock.

Peter: [Laughs.] Did you listen to African music before we met? Did you have some reference artists?

Matt: You know what’s funny is, before I had met you, I had gotten into some Zamrock — that era in Zambia where they kind of were influenced by Jimi Hendrix. Obviously Africa is a huge continent, so there’s going to be various massive differences in sound and genres wherever you go. Zamrock — like Amanaz, WITCH — I like a lot of those records. But those records are more rock and psychedelic than Our Garden Needs Its Flowers, the stuff you had been doing. So when I heard your stuff, and the more folk-country stuff, it was really exciting because that’s a new part of that sound that I’d not heard. Especially being on the Ivory Coast and having some of the French language involved in those records that were coming in over there and influencing you guys, it makes for a really unique sound. 

In a way it’s kind of similar to Memphis, in that Memphis is this big delta where you had everything coming from all over and inspiring all the artists here. That’s how we got rock & roll here: We merged gospel and country and blues and the Native American music that was already here and the stuff that obviously came from Africa. So it was wonderful to discover that aspect, because I was not as familiar with that.

Peter: Yeah. I’m asking you this question because when Jay told me about you, I asked him, “Can I listen to some of his work?” He gave me links, so I listened to a lot of music that you produced; I read about the artist that you produced also. I found that it’s exactly the kind of producer that would I be comfortable working with. You are not the first one that was suggested to me — I think you were the third or the fourth. I forgot all of their names, but the first one was in California. I listened to some of his work also, and he was really good, but something was not working for me. The same as the second one who was introduced to me; he was in New York and was great also, but still something wasn’t working. And I said, “OK, they’re all good, but can you find someone who’s as good as these producers but who is close by? Because we’re going to need to talk, we’re going to need to see each other.”

Matt: Absolutely.

Peter: He’s going to need to see how I move, how I walk, how I speak, all of that. And in the same way, I’m going to be observing him. So the close distance is the one that made my choice. And when I listened to the different music you produced, I said, “Wow, yeah, that’s the young man I want to try.” So I was wondering if you had some African music background, [because] when we got to the studio, I saw that you had more than what I thought you had. You have more experience in listening to different music than I thought. So I was really, really comfortable. It was a really good experience working with you.

Matt: Well, I can say it back to you! I love working with you, Peter. It was interesting too, because we met on Zoom, because it was during the beginnings of the pandemic. But in a way, working under those conditions, I felt like it all brought us [closer]. You know, you always get close with the people you work with in the studio — well, at least you hope to — and you kind of become a little family. But I felt like we were even more tight knit because we were kind of hunkered down together for days at a time and you couldn’t really go out to eat, you couldn’t do all these things. So I think in an odd way — I hate to say it helped the record, but I think it just made us all feel more like a family even quicker. So it was kind of a great in that sense, you know? 

But yeah, I remember that first day of us getting together, because in the studio, like you said, you kind of do watch each other and you try and figure out how they like to work and what they want. I really appreciated how vocal you were from the beginning about certain sounds and feels. You let the session musicians try a couple things, but then you quickly said, “This is what I like.” Because at the end of the day, we all want to serve your vision in the song. And so it was wonderful to see you start directing. That’s when I felt like, We gotta co-produce this thing. This is such a team thing, and this is a dream of yours you’ve been working on for so many years — I want to just help you capture it and highlight it. So yeah, it was just a wonderful, wonderful time. I’m so glad you skipped those other two on that list and came to me!

Peter: [Laughs.] I was really pleased by the way you guys work. Because the way I see things is, everybody has a background, everybody has experience, everybody has skills. So when you get to the studio as an artist, you have your vision. But since it’s only you, you can find in the other people suggestions that are way better than what you think. So the way I see it, you let them play the way they feel it sometimes. Most of the time it will be exactly what you want or it can be can be beyond what you expect. If it’s too different from what you want, then you can step in and make your suggestion. And that’s what I did, and I think we got each other really, really good, and I really appreciate that. And the musicians were great. From the very first song, I saw that they are the ones who can play it.

Before we met, I did work with two different producers who I paid out of pocket myself, and it didn’t end up good. The first one, I sent him just one song to try, and when they started, he called the musicians and they met in the studio and they started playing, and they didn’t even ask me anything. They started playing, they were done, they left. 

Matt: That’s wild. 

Peter: Yeah. And when the musicians left, he said, “OK, this is what what we have. We have to add this, we have to add that.” But the beat wasn’t right. Everything was too different from what I wanted. It was something I wasn’t feeling comfortable singing. So I told him, “OK, there are things we need to change here.” He was going to try himself to play the bass, and it’s still not working. So when I told him, “You should do it this way for the thing to match the beat,” he gets mad. [We did it] two or three times, and he was getting frustrated, and I said, “OK, let’s just give up. Give me my tapes, and then I’ll get out of here.” [Laughs.] The second producer was the same thing.

The way I worked with you, I really, really loved it. You guys were open to suggestion and I really felt comfortable working with you. It was a great experience.

Matt: Well, it’s funny you say that — that story makes me sad, because the studio is all about listening, and if they’re not even listening to you, then they’re not not listening to anything, really. We all have our little boxes — I’m a very limited guitar player. I know my limitations on the guitar. But we all kind of have our little things we go to and our little voicings or whatever we hear. So what I love about starting a session with someone, especially someone like you, is I try to tune my ears to how you listen, kind of like a chameleon or something. Because I’m not an artist; I like to help artists. So I don’t want to make you sound more like what I think stuff sounds like, because that’s not correct. I want it to sound like you want it to hear. And hearing how you hear is really unique, and I always learn something from people when I try to listen like you listen or see what you like. 

That’s a lot of the reason why I picked those guys that we have, because they all have big hearts and they play with them and they not worried about getting their part on a record. They just want to find the right part that you want, that fits the song. I’d be remiss if we didn’t say their names: Ken Coomer, Brian Allen, Pat Sansone, Paul Niehaus, Allison Russell, Patrick Orr, Jim Spake and John Németh all played on this record. I think that first day they came in, they played what they normally would play, and then we slowly fine tuned it to what your song needed and how you heard rhythms and parts. And when we got there, it happened really quickly. I mean, we got, I think, two or three songs in the first day. But once we kind of tuned ourselves to your wavelength, we started getting that magic. That’s the neck-hair-standing-up feeling that I love, when we are doing something new and different and making you happy and serving the song. That is the ultimate goal, instead of putting you into some other box. I don’t want to put you in a box, Peter.

Peter: [Laughs.] You didn’t try. Did you have a specific vision on specific songs before we got to the studio?

Matt: I usually don’t. I mean, you had such beautiful demos. That’s the kind of amazing thing — some folks come into a session and it’s just them and a guitar, or just them and a piano, and they don’t have a sound fleshed out. You know, each record needs to have a sound to it. You had a sound already, and one that is so beautiful and unique. Your demos were so beautifully constructed, all your arrangements were there, so there wasn’t like a, I need to write a new bridge for this section, or, This section doesn’t really have a chorus, we need to find the hook. You had all these wonderful moments. 

And like you said earlier, I hate to have too many preconceived notions of what I want to change or do before the players get to play the music. Because you can hear a demo and go, This needs to be a different, this needs to be this way. But then when you get in the studio, if you don’t let the drummer and the bass player and the guitar player try something before you start dictating, then you’re going to lose the best stuff. So like you said, I always like to let everyone try their first impressions. Usually it’s a great first impression, and then if we need to mold it some other way, we do. 

One of my favorite producers, Willie Mitchell, said, “I’m not a producer. I’m a reducer.” And I always love that term too, because I felt like your record just needed to have the space. You need it to sound like you’re in the room with Peter One. I think if you make some things sound too clean or too pristine, then they don’t feel real. So I wanted to keep it really natural and real and organic sounding, because I think those intimate songs called for that. So that was really my main goal going in. But my main goal is always to make you happy, and I want you to be proud of every note when you leave the studio. But with that natural sound. And I feel like we really got that — you know, you can hear chairs squeaking in the record, you can hear all kinds of stuff going on, but it all makes you feel like you were there.

Peter: Yeah, that’s true. I really enjoyed that experience and I’ve learned a lot from working with you guys. I learned the way you guys work here is different from what we do in Africa. You know, in Africa, the producer is the person who finances the recording. Usually the producer doesn’t come to the studio; when they come, it’s just to see how things are progressing. What you’re doing, we call that “arranger” or “engineer.”

But you were doing three things, which is great. You were doing arrangement, engineering, and what we call “artistic conductors” — you know, conducting things. That’s a lot of work, to be a producer. Here in the US, you have to be more than just an engineer, more than just a musician, more than just a music lover. You have to learn a lot.

Matt: Oh, Peter, you were doing more than me. You were playing guitar, singing, writing, composing, arranging, engineering, producing.

Peter: Yeah, that’s what I’ve been doing. 

Matt: [Laughs.] 

Peter: I don’t think I learned anything new from myself. [Laughs.] No, I learned a lot from you guys. And [from] the musician themselves — most of the musicians, they played at least two or three instruments, which is really good. In Africa, most musicians play just their instrument. Some of them play different instruments, but most play just their own instrument. So here, with just a few people, you can record a lot of things. 

Matt: When recording in Africa, would you guys kind of do it the same way we did, in essentially that you would record it live for the most part? Or would you kind of build tracks, do the rhythms and the bass?

Peter: We do it in three steps. First step is to record the foundation: drums, bass, and rhythm guitar. The lead guitar can come later, and the vocals are just rough vocals on the top to guide the music. After the foundation, we come back and add the vocals. After the vocals, we come back and add the lead instruments, so they have more inspiration with the full music, and they can have their own creativity on the top of it.

Matt: It’s interesting when you’re talking about putting the rhythm on, because so much in traditional music here is that the bass and the kick drum are one thing — you know, the bass always hits the kick drum. And early on, you talked to us about how you didn’t want the bass to hit with the kick drum. “The kick is there, so make the bass be here.” And that was such a wonderful lesson, getting Brian and Ken to kind of flip all they know and try this other way. That’s one of the beautiful things you taught us on the first day. I think that will change how they play forever, because they were stuck in a box before.

Peter: Yeah. I wanted to bring in something a little bit different to the music in Nashville, you know? Something with an African flavor. Something that when you listen to it, even if it sounds like country music or folk music, you can tell that there’s something different in there. 

Matt: Absolutely.

Peter: You remember when we had to redo “Staring Into The Blues”? We had to redo it two or three times, because I just needed the shaker to be present. Because the first version was kind of pop to me, and I said, “No, this is not what I want. I want it to be a little bit more bluesy.” And so we got it, and it was still missing that shaker — because the shaker is an instrument that is very popular in African music, so I wanted that taste to be there.

Matt: I think we even had him play the hi-hat with his fingers to get that. We did “Birds Go Die Out of Sight” two or three times, because the story is incredibly sad, [so we kept trying to find] a groove for it that’s not too happy, but that maintains the sadness, but doesn’t just keep it dragging. We kind of went JJ Cale groove-ish, then we pulled it back too slow, and then we kind of found the right way this third time. But we did attack that one a couple of different ways because trying to maintain the story and putting some music behind it that still was moving was an interesting thing.

Peter: Yeah and the pedal steel and harmonica bring in the sadness of the song.

Matt: Yeah. I called the pedal steel the “Sad Machine.” [Laughs.] 

Peter: [Laughs.] Yeah, it really made it what we wanted. 

Matt: I know this has been a long time coming, and we had such a fun time making this record. We finished the record in Memphis, mixing and doing a couple overdubs. Now you are playing these songs to sold out crowds in England, and you’re in, I think, DC right now. What’s that like for you, to be traveling and playing these songs now?

Peter: Oh, man. I’m really happy, and I’m very grateful to you guys, to the management team. I’m very grateful to everybody — I’m retrieving my younger years. [Laughs.] I’m back on the stage and I love it. I really love it. What I’m planning is to work more, because to me, it’s just the first step. It’s the beginning. This album tells me that I can be a star. I’m not a star yet; I can be a star. I have to work harder. I have to work more, work on the songs that I have in my catalog, work on new songs, and have people like you guys again to work [with]. I’m really, really grateful to everybody that participated in this album. Make me young again!

Matt: Well, I know we’re all grateful for you, too. I can’t stress enough what a life changing and fulfilling time that was getting to work with you. And you kind of mentioned this before, asking how much African music I had listened to: There’s so much heart in your songs and I think no matter where you’re from or what you listen to, you can recognize that. Because certainly a lot of these listeners that are finding this album maybe aren’t as familiar with African music, but they can hear your heart in these songs. And I feel like that’s the ultimate unifying thing. I’m starting to sound like a dang Hallmark card now. But I really feel like that’s what endears all of us to this and helps us find what needs to be in those songs, because you kind of laid it all out Also, you’re one of those people that — I’ve seen you with a whole band and I’ve seen you with an acoustic guitar, and you can carry it all with just you and your guitar. Like, the extra musicians and instruments are beautiful, but man, when it’s just you and a guitar up there, it’s pretty powerful. So I just can’t wait to see what you do next, because I’ve watched you knock some crowds out. They didn’t know what they were expecting and you come out there and all their mouths dropped to the floor.

Peter: Oh, thank you. I’m really happy to have you guys on this album. I’m really grateful, and I’d be really happy to work with you guys again.

Matt: Peter, I would do it for free. Don’t tell the label, but I’d do anything for you, anytime, anywhere.

(Photo Credit: left, Angelina Castillo)

Peter One is a musician from Côte d’Ivoire living in Nashville, TN. His legendary record with Jess Sah Bi, Our Garden Needs Its Flowers, was released in 1985, and reissued by Awesome Tapes From Africa in 2018. In 2023, he put out his major label solo debut, Come Back To Me, on Verve Records.

(Photo Credit: Angelina Castillo)