Ray Davies calls from London a few weeks before his tour begins. He doesn't have any set lists in mind and rehearsals have been loose and infrequent. He lets in a guest who he directs to a cup of tea. He speaks quietly, casually, and he swears his music is no sacred cow. "Just songs," he calls them. He considers what songs he'll perform at the Voodoo Experience, his U.S. debut with his band The 88. "I'm just going to do songs. That's what I'm going to do," he says. He pauses. "That's what I do."
True, Davies has made a career with those songs. The Kinks have one of the most acclaimed discographies in rock music — from early, fuzzy two-minute '60s singles to conceptual pop operas and '70s and '80s power pop. The Kinks outlived the British Invasion, though the band was prohibited from touring the U.S. and was consistently a critical hit and commercial flop. A trio of concept albums — Village Green Preservation Society (1968), Arthur (1969), and Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround (1970) — embraced English nostalgia with a reluctant eye toward the music industry, and industry in general, and showcased Davies' gift for injecting satire and irony in his songwriting, often celebrating the working class through sophisticated pop music.
Davies' last headline in New Orleans wasn't linked to an album or tour, but for getting shot in the leg near the French Quarter in 2004. He hasn't visited since.
"What amazed me was how kind the locals were," he says. "Locals were deeply hurt by it. People are very supportive. It sticks together. It needs to."
Davies' dad constantly played jazz music at the family's home in London's Muswell Hill. "A lot of the old guys down there (in New Orleans) remind me of my dad. The buskers," he says. "My dad played banjo, and he played harmonica. He even played washboard. He'd fit in really well down there. He never went to America. He was a very pivotal, major influence on me when I was a kid."
The Kinks embraced American blues and rock 'n' roll but didn't shy from its jazz background. Village Green echoes English vaudeville and music hall, and the band dips headfirst into traditional jazz arrangements on 1971's Muswell Hillbillies.
Last year, Davies opened his (admittedly never-locked) song vault, and invited musicians to take it apart. The album's title, See My Friends, refers more to the track of the same name and less to his stellar lineup of players. "I never really had too many friends," he says, laughing. "I'm not known for being a collaborative person in that respect."
A host of celebrated artists and younger bands, like Spoon and Mumford & Sons, joined Davies in the studio to revisit songs from his more than four decades of songwriting.
"I was trying not to impose myself on the sessions," he says. "One thing we agreed: We didn't want it to be a cover. It had to be a collaboration."
Davis shares the opening track "Better Things" with Bruce Springsteen, giving the 1981 song the E Street treatment, with an organ, call-and-response vocals and harmonies. "We talked a lot about the track. We sent texts and everything," he says. "He said, 'We've got to do it, it's a track I'd record anyway.' It's picking the right casting. Casting is really important as well."
The remaining songs stay close-to-faithful to their original counterpart, with the exception of Metallica's amped up, double-bass-drum take on "You Really Got Me" — which follows a gorgeous, heartbreaking duet with Lucinda Williams on "Long Way From Home." The title track went to Spoon; The 88 takes on "David Watts"; and The Pixies' Frank Black cleans up "This Is Where I Belong."
Jackson Browne, who hadn't been invited to join the album, sought out Davies. "I hadn't envisioned he'd be on it, particularly singing one of our English songs," Davies says. "But he came in the studio and said, 'Let me convince you, it'll be fine, don't worry.' So he played 'Waterloo Sunset' and really stood out."
Alex Chilton appears on "Til the End of the Day," one of his last recordings before his death last year. Chilton, a longtime New Orleans resident, befriended Davies following the shooting. "Musicians never get close. We were polite friends," Davies remembers. "He was very helpful to me when I was down there, and a very knowledgeable guy, a very quiet sort of guy — probably had his demons like everyone else, but we got along very well."
Davies and Chilton also recorded a take of "Set Me Free" during the See My Friends sessions, but it didn't make the album cut. Chilton asked Davies to write for an album, which never materialized. "I said I'd think about it," Davies says. "One of the last things I did with him we did toward the end of the day, I said, 'You know, I'll get some songs together and I'll play them to you next time I see you.' And of course I never saw him again."
The See My Friends sessions also opened up Davies to other collaborations. His duet with Springsteen segued to writing new material together in the studio. "The beginning of a meaningful relationship. Or not," Davies says with a laugh. "I never take songs too far. I'm not one of these people who does extensive demo sessions. I wait till I get a band in. I still like to think I'm playing in a band rather than using studio guys. It's why I like working with The 88, like working with a band. As we speak they're learning a whole bunch of songs I'm sending them to learn so we can play them when we come down. It's difficult to know what to play down there."
Difficult? The group makes its "world premiere," he says, in New Orleans. "I'm a bit nervous, I got to tell you."