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American Routes Shortcuts: Aurora Nealand

Aurora Nealand
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Aurora Nealand

Aurora Nealand was recently praised as one of the top ten soprano saxophonists in America by Downbeat Magazine. She grew up in an eccentric family on the California coast and then Colorado, listening to Stravinsky, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Joan Baez and the Pixies. Her mom was a gardener who played classical piano, her dad an archivist who went to rock band practice between jobs. She received musical training at Oberlin College and Jacques Lecoq School of Physical Theatre in Paris, all before embarking on a bike trip across the US to chronicle the dreams of rural America. In 2004 Aurora ended up in New Orleans, where she learned to play traditional jazz in the streets. Now she leads her band, the Royal Roses, and sometimes has the persona of Rory Danger. Aurora attributes the interest in a broad range of styles to her travels and nontraditional upbringing. 

Aurora Nealand: My parents I suppose, one could call hippies. As kids that were raised on the East Coast in more strict and traditional families, they wanted a different sense of value and experiencing the experiential without judgment. My parents also didn’t believe in Western medicine so we never saw doctors. There’s a lot of things that were hard about it, and then on the other side there were a lot of things that were amazing, you know, we never had expectations of success or being pushed in one direction or another direction.

Nick Spitzer: You did end up going to a school famous for music, Oberlin. Was that a conscious decision to move in the classical direction or become a professional performer?

AN: It was primarily, Nick–well first of all it was Oberlin College that I got accepted into. Oberlin is split into a college and a conservatory. Being in Ohio and at Oberlin, which has this amazing conservatory, was incredible to be around, and certainly I knew that I was interested in music when I was going to college. Actually I remember I got to Oberlin, and I auditioned for something on the flute, and then I sort of realized that all these other kids were trained at Juilliard Prep or had private lessons since they were five. I thought that I could never be a performer because I was really behind, and so that’s when I started really doing more composition, and I took a lot of courses in sort of like sound installation and electronic music and found sound music, and then actually really coming to New Orleans in 2004, that was when it kind of flipped back to the possibility to perform music.

NS: You became a bandleader–the Royal Roses. Tell me about the rooting and flowering of the Royal Roses.

AN: The Royal Roses was formed specifically for a tribute concert to Sidney Bechet that I did at Preservation Hall in 2011, and the Royal Roses was really kind of originally a challenge to myself of wanting to dig deeper and forcing myself to dig deeper and study more the stylings of Sidney Bechet and of early traditional jazz. As someone that is attracted to a lot of different types of music, it can often be hard to make myself focus and go deep into something, and so the ways that oftentimes we do that as performers is just simply to book a gig, and that will force you to prepare for it.

NS: The name Royal Roses, where’s Royal Roses from?

AN: I was looking at older bands of the era and really seeing a lot of like royalty themes, and then roses are really a nod to my mother. My mother is a really fine horticulturalist. She loves flowers happening in wilderness, and actually roses, though they’re seen as these very sort of like delicate and manicured flowers, when they are grown in the wild, they’re equally beautiful and nasty at the same time. They protect themselves very well.

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.