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Hugh Laurie loves Wild Honey

Hugh Laurie performs his blues song Wild Honey.

PT4M33S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-363x5 620 349

Hugh Laurie was only 10 when he heard the sound that would change him forever. The song on the radio was probably Willie Dixon, or maybe Muddy Waters, but it was not so much the musician as ''that magical blue note''.

''I heard this sound and it was like an electric shock. I just knew this was going to be me and it was going to be me for all time. It has stuck with me ever since. I've never got over it.

I think there's music in acting and there's acting in music. 

''I've all kinds of other things in my life, I look back at an early haircut of mine or shoes that I wore, and I think, 'God, what were you thinking?' But this will always be with me.''

Hugh Laurie performs with the Copper Bottom Band

Hugh Laurie performs with the Copper Bottom Band.

In his 54 years, Laurie has achieved international acclaim as a comic, writer and actor. In a career divided neatly across the Atlantic, we first knew him with Stephen Fry in Jeeves and Wooster and A Bit of Fry & Laurie. And, of course, Blackadder.

In the United States, he emerged with a convincing American accent in the medical television series House, which revealed the true depth of his acting talent. At one point, it was the top scripted show in the US, and the most watched show in the world.

But there was a backbeat to Laurie's acting career. His musical talent - awakened when he heard that blue note on the radio - would nudge its way forward. In House, his character Dr Gregory House had a Hammond organ at home, and would pick up Gibson and Les Paul electric guitars. Laurie's musical ability was always seeking an audience.

Which brings us to the reason for this interview. It is early afternoon in Los Angeles, where Laurie is rehearsing with his blues band, the Copper Bottom Band. From LA, he and the band head to South America, before an Australian tour this month.

Laurie was last in Australia in 1981, with Stephen Fry and Emma Thompson, with whom he was part of the Cambridge Footlights troupe. The show was a comedy. ''Well, we thought so,'' recalls Laurie. ''The audience, they kind of went along with it.''

The tour was just after England's Ashes defeat of Australia, a victory due in no small part to efforts of all-rounder Ian Botham. In what seemed like a good idea at the time, they called the show Botham: The Musical. ''That was sort of lemon in the paper cup,'' Laurie says. ''That didn't go down terribly well.''

(Laurie has not heard about Shane Warne: The Musical. ''What? Oh my God! … Oh, fantastic! That's great!'')

From that 1981 tour, a lasting memory is playing Canberra, sharing the venue with another production, The End of a Dream. Out the front of the house, the billing was Botham: The Musical, The End of a Dream. ''That stayed with me,'' he says. ''Oh dear, that would have been nice, a career in entertainment, but apparently it's not going to happen.''

Laurie says he always knew he would come back to Australia, but corrects himself. ''How could I have known anything? How could I have known I'd even be alive, never mind making a living out of this?

''No, I couldn't have dreamed of this incredible ride that I'm on. The thing is I'm quite superstitious … I'm so blessed I'm expecting something terrible to happen at any moment … a piano's going to fall on my head, or something. Someone's going to drop the Acme safe, it's going to fall out of a window.''

That Laurie is forging a new career path runs counter to a very British upbringing that had its roots a long way from the Mississippi. He grew up near Oxford, the youngest of four children. When he was seven, he had a miserable experience of learning the piano under the tutelage of Mrs Hare. ''I apologise to any of her descendants if I've badmouthed her,'' he says. ''But yes, it wasn't a happy relationship. I just couldn't stand the way it was taught and to be honest, I still can't. That's nobody's fault, it's just the way it is.''

The teacher and her reluctant pupil were slogging their way through the grade one piano book, when they got to the page with Swanee River, the closest thing to a blues song in the book. Mrs Hare decided against it. ''She wasn't having it,'' Laurie says.

Even with the electric shock of the magical blues note at 10, Laurie wasn't headed in a musical direction. His doctor father won an Olympic gold medal in rowing at the 1948 London games and at Cambridge Laurie excelled in the sport. But a bout of glandular fever ended his rowing career and saw him drawn to the stage.

Even then, his musical talent and passion was evident to those around him, including Stephen Fry. ''When we rehearsed in the Footlights Clubroom, which was the comedy revue venue in Cambridge where we wrote and rehearsed our sketches, photos of John Cleese and Peter Cook looking down on us, Hugh was always on the piano,'' Fry tells me in an email. ''Sometimes he had to be dragged off. It always amazed me that he couldn't read a word of music. That it all came from his head.''

Fry believed his friend's music would eventually find an expression. ''I had a secret feeling it always would once he had built up the confidence,'' he says. ''The great thing about the success of House was that it led to Band from TV, an ad hoc comedy band where Hugh played keyboards in a combo made up of other TV actors and that, I think, gave him the confidence to go for it. I couldn't have been more pleased or proud.''

There is an automatic scepticism when we hear of actors turning musicians, and it was no different when word got out that Laurie was planning to record an album of New Orleans blues.

''When Laurie released Let Them Talk in 2011, initially, there was a collective groan,'' wrote Barry Kerzner in American Blues Scene magazine. ''Then, what do you know? People started actually listening to the mostly blues-based album, and found out that it was good. How about that?''

Laurie approached Joe Henry, the singer, songwriter and Grammy-award winner, to produce the record. In a 2011 article in The New York Times, Henry told Gavin Edwards he checked Laurie out first. ''I did a little bit of homework,'' he said, ''and Elvis Costello told me in an email that he had visited a set with Hugh, who had been playing piano during a break. Elvis said: 'This guy is a musician before he's anything else. He's probably a better musician than an actor.'''

Laurie is well aware of the doubters who emerge when an actor pursues a music career. ''The funny thing is that as soon as I started contemplating this thing and, in fact, signed on to do it, then of course all you see in newspapers is, 'Oh, here's another bloody actor who's done it.'''

He understands the wariness, because he would react the same way. ''I didn't expect any less from the audience or from the press or anybody else because that's what I would have felt and I didn't blame anybody,'' he says. ''All I decided early on was that the only way that I could establish my sincerity was to first of all, do it as well as I could do it, and also keep doing it. Because I think you get points for sticking around in this thing.''

It wasn't simply a case of Laurie deciding he would one day be a musician. The cameo performances throughout his acting career helped build his musical profile.

''I suppose in Hugh's case he sort of snuck up on us,'' says Glen Casebeer, co-founder of American Blues Scene. ''In a way that was probably better than if he'd have just been an actor one day and then the next day announced he'd like to be a musician too.

''Of course we've all seen this happen with varying results. We actually had knowledge of Laurie's skills a few years before the announcement of plans for an album. While on House he displayed his love for the blues and his appearances on late-night talk shows made it clear that not only does he love the blues, he can clearly play it.''

Laurie's first album, a collection of 15

cover songs, was an international hit, which, says Casebeer, opened some eyes and ears,

but it is his second album, Didn't It Rain, that has seen him accepted by the greater blues community.

''Hugh Laurie is quite competent as a blues player and one gets the sense that his style is rather timeless and he'd fit in just as well in the '40s or '50s as he does in the 21st century,'' Casebeer says. ''Another interesting detail about Laurie is that he doesn't steal the show, he's content to just be part of the band.''

The live show, Casebeer says, is not to be missed. In a review from a Chicago show last October, his magazine co-founder Matt Marshall enthused: ''While many in the audience no doubt came to get a look at the actor who played one of TV's most iconic roles, one thing is for certain: when they went home, they were talking about the musician who managed to craft a rousing, wickedly entertaining, deeply memorable live show.''

Laurie says performing with the band is highly addictive. ''There's just nothing like it.''

While it is all new to him, Laurie's band members have a breadth of experience - some with careers spanning three decades. ''I would understand if they took a more jaundiced view of the whole thing,'' he says. ''Actually, they seem to be having the time of their lives, which I'm thrilled by. For me, I am 10 years old again.

''That doesn't speak well of the show, does it?'' he says. ''You don't want to go and see a load of 10-year-olds, but to have that sort of exuberance and enthusiasm …''

Being part of that passion and commitment can have a profound effect upon him when he is playing with the band. ''It can make me very emotional just being on stage with these people, watching them and hearing them do what they do.''

In search of a simple categorisation of Laurie, we discuss whether he is more musician or actor. ''To be honest, I think there's music in acting and there's acting in music. I think of the two things not being that different in a way,'' he says.

''When we were doing House, I used to think of it in a very musical sort of way, that we were a little sort of chamber orchestra trying to fit with each other's feeling of tempo and harmonics and trying to find a pitch that would tell the story in the right way. Trying to blend with each other in a way that would tell the story.

''I think likewise in music. It is about storytelling and a lot of the time it's about inhabiting a character and expressing emotions that this character feels going through these experiences.''

One distinction he sees is that a lot of people become actors in order to take on other identities. ''They want to hide behind a mask. They might even be unhappy or unconfident being themselves, so it's easier to become someone else,'' he says.

''With music, the goal is really to try and take masks off, to try and be as open as you can with an audience, not to hide behind trickery of any kind. Because music is a very direct and very honest way of expressing yourself, of trying to move people and communicate something.''

There is a powerful honesty and connection in Laurie's music, evident when he plays one of his favourite songs, Tipitina, made famous by Professor Longhair.

A few weeks ago, Laurie was in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, riding on a float. The meeting spot at the start of the parade was outside Tipitina's, named in honour of the song and Professor Longhair.

Laurie was deeply moved. ''I'm not religious but music is as close to a religion for me as anything else could be. It's transcendent and it's spiritual and it's just a beautiful thing.

''And to be in that place next to Tipitina's …

It was an incredible, holy moment for me to actually be there.''

Hugh Laurie and the Copper Bottom Band play the State Theatre on May 5 and 6.