New Orleans: Gal Holiday

It’s no secret that I’ve got a serious crush on Gal Holiday and her band, the Honky Tonk Revue.

I hear some pretty fabulous music all over the world, but no other singer has stolen my heart quite like Gal (Vanessa Niemann). The band rocks, the music is fresh, and her voice is like butter melting on hot pancakes.

When I discovered that she’d be playing the week I was in town, I was elated, and even more excited for the chance to sit down and chat face to face with the most beautiful woman in New Orleans. As expected, Gal in real life is as smart and snappy as she is up on stage.

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Gal Holiday sings the blue. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

How did you end up doing this kind of music?

Gal Holiday is honky tonk, western swing, and rockabilly. We do the classics, and now we’re doing a lot more original music.

It started out with a love of rockabilly. I love the fifties kind of rockabilly scene—turned up jeans and all that. And I like to dance. Then I discovered Johnny Cash was considered country music and started listening to Hank Williams and Patsy Cline, my grandparents’ records. I think a lot of the country music on the radio at the time was real modern, it had started to change in the nineties, but I liked the old western swing.

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Gal Holiday on stage at Tipitina’s. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

You cover a lot of male artists. Why?

I do. Johnny Cash in particular, for me. I have a lower female voice so when I do his songs, I do it in the same key, just an octave up. He was a bass, and I’m a low alto—or a tenor. Content-wise, I really like a lot of the male songs. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to have a female sing about prison or whatever. I think it’s a unique twist on things.

A lot of the female rockabilly artists—Wanda Jackson, and some of the women from Texas who are less well-known, like Helen Hall, Charlene Arthur—they had a little bit more aggressive nature then just the straight up country artists. There was some kind of bravado thing. Maybe a bit more tomboy feel to it.

Interestingly, songs like Folsom City Blues, that was originally done as a Crescent City Blues, which was about New Orleans—sung by a female. So there is a big crossover historically. Wanda Jackson sang “Hard-headed Woman”—Elvis Presley made it famous. I guess I like to carry on that tradition.

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Gal Holiday at Tipitina’s (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

How did you come to live in New Orleans?

I moved here in 1999 and I just found my heart here. I felt like I could really be myself and nobody was judging me. New Orleans is a magical place and though it’s not for everyone, if you’re a singer, you can find a home here. You can make whatever you want happen.

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Gal Holiday sings the pants off a crowd at Tipitina’s in New Orleans. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

Where do you recommend visitors go to hear live music in New Orleans?

1) Chickie Wah Wah is right on the streetcar line on Canal Street and it’s a really amazing place to see music—great food and it’s smoke-free! The owner is into music and the bartenders are superb. Plus, there are great weekly acts (Gal Holiday & The Honky Tonk Review play weekly)

2) Mimi’s in the Marigny, where you first saw us. They have the trifecta of good service, good food, and good music. (Drinks are a given!) Mimi’s has all of it, and upstairs is smoke-free if you wanna grab dinner and catch a show.

3) Three Muses on Frenchmen Street. It’s a small spot that’s become popular. Sophie (the owner) is a terrific jazz singer and she’s part Korean, so she does a lot of recipes influenced by her grandmother. They make their own tinctures and mixers, but know that it’s a really teeny tiny venue.

4) No trip to New Orleans is complete without a visit to MidCity Lanes Rock ‘n Bowl. It’s one of the best places to play—if you wanna support live music in the city, this is the place!  They’re open during the day and have Louisiana grass-fed beef burgers and Thursday nights is the Great Rocking Zydeco Night! Plus they have bowling and a great big dance floor.

5) Tipitina’s, of course. You gotta go to Tips. We play there and it’s a classic!

6) Last but not least, I’d go out to St. Claude, which has a whole handful of clubs like Siberia, the AllWays Lounge, the HiHo Lounge, and there’s karaoke at Kajun’s.

Any other travel tips for folks coming to New Orleans?

Some people treat New Orleans like it’s Disneyland. There’s a false sense of security because of how it’s portrayed, but it’s still a city—you have to be careful. Stick to well-lit streets. It’s safe as long as you keep your wits about you and keep your head up.

But be sure to get our and explore! Hop on a bicycle and do just that—the French Quarter is lovely but go beyond, out to Midcity, and Uptown or even out on the West Bank. Feel free to break out and see the city.

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Gal Holiday shows me her latest tattoo, a cowgirl! (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)