There are few who can say they performed harmonica duels onstage with Stevie Wonder. Even fewer whose mastery of the harmonica got them on tour with Prince. But French musician Frederic Yonnet knows the pocket instrument inside out, capable of making it sound larger than life. Ahead of his February 20 gig opening for Snow Patrol at the Dubai Jazz Festival, he tells Gulf News tabloid! about his secret jams with Drake, his upcoming appearance in a re-release of ‘A Star Is Born’ and how leaving the drums for something much smaller changed his life.
Q: What do you have planned for your show in Dubai?
A: I want to make sure you leave the show thinking and saying out loud, ‘I would have never thought a harmonica could sound like that.’
Q: The harmonica isn’t, maybe, the first choice for some musicians. Why did it call out to you?
A: The harmonica fits in your pocket, so it’s easy, it’s friendly, it’s convenient, it’s inexpensive. For me, I grew up with asthma. The more I was playing, the better I was feeling. It strengthened my lungs. So, it became kind of a substitute for my inhaler.
Q: You initially started out on drums. Why did you decide to stop that?
A: Growing up in France, I didn’t have the facility to practice the drums as much as I wanted, and the harmonica was like an easier alternative. I just put all my frustration and all these musical ideas in the pocket instrument and I discovered that, actually, the drums were like a segue into jazz.
Q: What are some of the biggest misconceptions that people have around jazz?
A: That’s a good question. Most people, they probably think that jazz is complicated and a very cerebral music... I’ll make sure that it’s not totally the case when I perform, because I like to engage the audience and I like to create a conversation, not just between the musicians on the stage, but also with the audience.
Q: How did Prince first approach you about performing with him?
A: I was jamming with Stevie Wonder at Madison Square Garden in, I think, 2007. As soon as I stepped off the stage, I realised that somebody was performing on stage with Stevie [and] the energy changed totally in the arena. I went back to see, and it was Prince. A few months later, I got invited to go into Prince’s house during the Grammys and he recognised me from that performance. From there, he started calling me to record [and tour].
Q: Prince had a specific vision for his music. Did he have instructions for you, or did he let you do your own thing musically?
A: He was setting the rules during the rehearsals and then he was breaking them on the stage. The only thing he would remind me of was, ‘Yonnet, blues always works.’ And he was actually right. Blues is the starting point for a lot of his original music and that’s why he wanted me to remember that if there were anything that I was uncomfortable with, or surprised by, or anything that would destabilise me onstage, or any kind of inspiration I would need, just to remember to go back to the basics — and basics for him were definitely blues music.
Q: What was it like to work with Stevie Wonder?
A: That was like living a dream before you get to dream it. Stevie called me as a special guest on the 50th anniversary [tour] of my favourite album, Songs in the ‘Key of Life’. And every night, I felt like I was treated to the greatest listening session ever with, like, 35 musicians on stage a three-and-a-half-hour show, and I had the honour of performing two of the harmonica parts... It was a treat. He overwhelms you with his generosity and with talent.
Q: Is there someone from today’s musical landscape you would like to perform with?
A: Anybody I listen to on the radio [or stream]. When I put my harmonica on top of it, I’m like... I would love to play with [artists from] the Rolling Stones to Future. There’s really no boundaries. I mean, we’ve had some secret jams with people like Drake or Snoop Dogg and Erykah Badu, and it sounded wonderful. We’ve been talking about doing some things together.
Q: What are some of the projects that you that you’re focusing on this year?
A: There’s going to be a re-release of the movie ‘A Star is Born’, and you’re going to see a little bit more of me in it — I produced a few [of the] songs and I’m in a wedding scene between the two characters. There’s also a big [Martin Scorsese] production that’s happening on Netflix that secures my sound as the lead on the soundtrack. It’s called ‘The Irishman’.
*Tickets to Dubai Jazz Festival at the Media City Amphitheatre start from Dh350. The festival is headlined by Snow Patrol (February 20), Jamiroquai (February 21) and Alicia Keys (February 22). Frederic Yonnet is also set to perform at Soho Garden on February 19.