Roswell, New Mexico's 1947 "UFO incident" is real, and Valerie Sassyfras has seen the evidence. Inspired to write an album about space, Sassyfras — a longtime New Orleans performer whose live shows are powered by a keyboard beat machine, accordion, pre-recorded tracks and a mobile set designed for her one-woman DIY cabaret — went to the library, checked out books on planets and the solar system, and "came across a story about the alien invasion."
Firsthand reports, government conspiracies, disappeared witnesses, alien textiles and laser devices for cow disemboweling all were ripe material for 2017's Blast Off! A Cosmic Cabaret, her latest self-released album, out this month. She celebrates its release at One Eyed Jacks Dec. 11 with Maggie Belle Band and Chopped Up Tulips and at Old Point Bar Dec. 14.
"I never watched Star Trek. Not crazy about Star Wars. I just thought I'd create my own world," she says. "You just start working on things, and things happen, and it comes out."
The album opens with the hip-hop-inspired spoken word of "Big Bang," in which a theremin and some squiggly keyboards propel her retelling of the origin of the universe. It follows with a honky-tonk piano and horse-hoof percussion on "Green Room on Mars" and "Dance of the Cosmos," one of a handful of the album's straight-up dance pop songs. She knows she's throwing in a lot at once. "I like to not restrict myself," says Sassyfras, wrapped in a purple fur vest and wearing thin wraparound sunglasses. "That's why I do that."
Born and raised in New Orleans, Sassyfras attended Alcee Fortier High School and was a classically trained pianist before meeting her husband Johnny Donald, who joined Sassyfras in a Cajun and zydeco duo that performed around New Orleans and the South and Midwest throughout the '80s. The duo opened a bar in Nashville, sold music equipment in Florida, and "didn't really come back for good until after [Hurricane] Katrina," she says. "That was a lot of time we weren't here playing music. ... The music changes. Everything changes."
Donald died in 2013, a period during which Sassyfras honed her solo performance at Piccadilly Cafeteria on Jefferson Highway.
"I had a great life with Johnny. He was the love of my life," she says. "When you leave the music business and come back, it's awful. You have to start completely over. So I'm starting over again."
She developed a cult fan base at Piccadilly, where she staged an "eat in" to protest her naysayers in the restaurant's corporate office, then attracted a huge crowd for her final gig, among her many irregular venues in which she's carved a decidedly eccentric space to perform, from punk dives and neighborhood bars to Morning Call in City Park and Trader Joe's in Metairie.
"Everything's a struggle," she says, laughing. "You try to pick the good venues you feel like people will see you at, respond to. I just kind of harass them until they hire me."
For her last few albums, she's worked alongside Scott Sibley, Will McMains, and Flow Tribe guitarist Mario Palmisano, who also plays on Blast Off! "I call them my consiglieres," she says. "They've been sort of like my guiding lights since Johnny passed away. I depend on them for all sorts of things, telling me what's going on in the world, with the millennials.
"I hope we're friends forever. It's hard to make music with people you don't know, with strangers. I feel like you have to have a relationship with someone to make music with them. They have to understand you, know where you're coming from, know what you want. Will and Scott and Mario have me figured out pretty good."