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‘Connecting to my own story’: Late Show bandleader Louis Cato reflects on his life and music

Louis Cato
Louis Cato

Louis Cato is no stranger to those of you that enjoy late night TV. He's the new bandleader of the The Late Show Band, the house band for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. He's a talented multi-instrumentalist who not only leads the band, but gets the crowd hyped in between segments. I got a chance to talk with Louis about his new album Reflections, which is a personal and intimate book of music that he called "therapeutic.”

Listen to our conversation, above.

Interview transcript:

Nicole Sweeney: When you got the news that you were getting this new role with the Colbert show, how did you feel? I know that you're ready for it.

Louis Cato: I would describe it as par for the course in a new way, because with our show, and like probably anywhere in the entertainment business, you learn to expect the unexpected. I've been working on the show since we went on the air in 2015, probably 2,000 shows or something. We're in season 9 now. My norm has been working on a show where from 9 o'clock in the morning to 5:30 pm when we tape, the script has been rewritten at least four times. So you're just ready to roll with those punches. Musically, there are bits that you put in, and that get taken out. When I was working as just the music producer, there'd be entire bits, like we need a parody of Hamilton, which means I need to recreate all the music for it. You spend hours trying to do this at the highest level, for “Oh well, that got cut.” Or like, “Donald Trump just said something else crazy, so now that's the story.” We move and we pivot.

Performance by Louis Cato on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
Scott Kowalchyk/CBS
Performance by Louis Cato on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

We are also here to talk about some brand new music, which I'm loving. It's called Reflections, which I think is quite a powerful title. Talk about going with this title. It feels like it's connected to something really deep and personal.

Very personal. There's a song on my first album called “Look Within” and when I go back and play it, it feels like very much in the way that when you write a song and you're speaking to all versions of yourself unaware, because it's your perspective. It’s a very introspective song. The place I was in when I wrote that, and it is even looking ahead beyond where I was at that point.

The last lyrics of the song are “When I figured out how to settle down, I know I'll be okay.” But clearly I'm not there yet at that point. And "Reflections" is in some ways pretty literal, looking back to that time in my life where I was quite a bit less settled, emotionally. I was in a major transition of having come from being a full-time touring musician and producer, to coming off the road and moving my family back to New York to work on a television show and going through various relationship challenges, family struggles. Yes, you hit the nail on the head, personal. I'm writing more from that more introspective, perhaps more settled, place where I've lived, what, six more years of life. I have a few more tools with which to actually look within and speak ever more.

Louis Cato "Reflections" Official Studio Video

The next track I want to talk about is “Human.”  I say that because, one, I hear it's your favorite song, but it's another title that's simple yet powerful. Often too many times we forget that that's exactly what we are. We can go into our differences and how we differ in this way and that way, but I don't think we talk about that one connection we all have on this earth. And that's being human. Talk to me about that song and why it's your favorite.

I think it's my favorite because I felt proud of myself in the way that I got something off my chest with that song. I was able to communicate and lay out some of my biggest insecurities, around holding up faces and appearances, and perceptions and meeting expectations of family, friends, kids, sisters and brothers and children. It feels cathartic in that way. Those are things that I have not previously been able to articulate.

It's interesting you mentioned kids because, before you have them, you often think how much that you give to them. But when you become a parent, you don't want to disappoint them. And there's a lot that comes with that.

There's a lot of pressure that comes with that. And if you don't want to pass that pressure back on to them, you sort of have to deal with it. Most of our parents are usually unaware and they’re putting that pressure back on the kids because it's got to go somewhere. Like, somebody got to pay these bills. I can't do everything myself or whatever the form is. But you are so very correct. If you sign up for the challenge, I think it’s maybe the most complete opportunity for deepening, because part of the reason it's so much pressure, I think, is because your children, and I'm speaking from my experience as well, they're hardwired to find your buttons.

They challenge us and it's a great experience, but I love that title because, as a parent, I find that that's almost the most human.

Because you can't hide.

You can lock yourself in the bathroom but for so long.

And I have done that. “Why does dad spend so much time in the bathroom?” But it's beautiful to connect in that human way and have these reflections.

We're social media friends and I love when you perform because I feel like a relationship with an artist and their instrument is so intimate and I love that you let us in, even if it's just two minutes on Instagram. It was a beautiful video of you performing “Some Day We'll All Be Free.” I think I watched it maybe about four or five times because it was just a perfect moment in this time. And it makes me think that someday, you'll understand. I don't know why I'm connecting those two, but being free is being understood in a sense.

Yes, that song absolutely is another step in the process of allowing awareness and consciousness and self-examination and taking responsibility. All in all, it’s my fault too.

Not everybody can do it, but there's that moment of understanding where you have to understand and be understood. It's a give and take, but you have to say, I did something too.

I think that's just physics…that by definition, a relationship is a dynamic. It's never just one side. If it was one side, it's an object. A relationship is two. I really observe and believe that to be a truth. If you're only able to see and connect with one side of the relationship, then you're missing half of the reality.

I read somewhere where this is about the rise and fall of the marriage. That's why I think I felt like this was like a chapter I was reading in your diary.

It's a song in three stanzas. Chapter one is like the beginning with a precursor to by the end, you realize, maybe that happy beginning didn't end so well. By the middle, it's like you're in the center of the storm. And by the end, the third stanza is like, alright, let's get some perspective zoomed out. It's my fault too. This sucks. I'm hurting. I don't blame you. We're both hurting. I hope that even in this, that we're on our way. It provides more and more bricks laid onto the path of understanding.

That one's got a bluesy feel to it. When it comes to the blues, you got to talk about some heartache.

It was not without heartache in every stage—from the experience to the writing and expressing that experience. Recording, you got to tap back in again to connect to all of that. That’s why I keep saying that this really feels like an honest rendering.

Was it therapeutic for you?

Yes, the whole album, and his song especially, captures a degree of expression and articulation that I have not been able to accomplish before.

Does the word vulnerable make sense, because you perform in front of how many people?

A lot every night. Our viewership is in the millions. You're aware of that for sure in every step of the way, but it's different when it's just you. That was a big part of this album too. I wanted to strip away, as much as possible, all the bells and whistles. I played all the instruments myself.

Louis Cato "Cutie Baby" (Live Studio Performance)

Can we talk about that?  That's a beautiful thing. But again, I think that's a testament to just that intimacy with someone and their instrument not needing the other accompaniment because I feel like this is something you went through and so you needed it to just be you.

That is correct. Which is actually in contrast because for my first album, I needed it to just me be me, but for completely different reasons. I felt like I had something to prove it was my first album. I have to let the world know like what I'm capable of and I will do this. And I can do this. I have to show every instrument I can play. I had brass instruments, euphoniums, trombones, keyboards and synths and delays. I've mixed it myself. Those are decisions that translate to the end result, as well. So it’s really interesting you bring up that point because that is a hundred percent my feeling. I felt like the reasons that it needed to be me for this album Reflections was that I was connecting to my own story in a more vulnerable way than I ever had before.

I want to talk about another song called “Good Enough” because insecurities, we all have them. I don't care who you are. Sometimes you just need to know that to get through another couple of minutes. But that sometimes it's hard to get there.

In my mind, “Good Enough” and “Reflections” are sort of like siblings on this album because they're both love stories, but from that angle of the insecurities. With “Reflections,” it's like, “Man, I wasn't ready to reflect when she came in my world.” I was too scared to face my own fears. And I could see them in her. Immediately, it’s speaking from the perspective of self-awareness amidst those insecurities and fears, and being honest about how that plays into the attraction, I could smell that familiar brand of self-love with a guilt that was strong. That's familiar. There's a part of the ego that is attracted to the same insecurities that I know very well in myself.

There’s a lot of honesty in this album. This is an album that I connected to because it takes you through your relationships, being a parent, being a human. This is an album for everybody, but “Another Day”?  A heartbreak plea.

This was written from that same relationship that a lot of these songs came out of, during a time of the first point where we had decided that it wasn't gonna work as lovers or romantic partners. My genuine feeling was this is someone that I care about, that I enjoy spending time with, that is a lifer for me. Even if the story doesn't play out the way like we wanted, can we still hang? Can we do that knowing that we're still attracted to each other? You know what happens when we're in each other's gaze, but there's no happy ending. So we vow to keep away from blame. But can we still just hang? “Come back and see me another day,” That's what that is.

As a male, we want you guys to be vulnerable. It's nice to get that and feel that. You sing and you play, and the notes sing to us. It’s just a beautiful album and it's an experience, which music should be. The only cover on there is a Rolling Stones song. Were you a Rolling stones fan?  Do you have Rolling Stones t-shirts?

No, I don’t. I was a late bloomer to the wonderful world of the Rolling Stones. To be perfectly honest, I grew up pretty sheltered in my small town of Albemarle, North Carolina. I wasn't exposed to secular music, except like at Food Lion. I first heard this melody in either a Food Lion or a Walmart playing over the system. In our house it was only Jesus music, as my mom would say.

That melody just sort of stayed with me. It’s got a haunting quality to it and it connected to a lot of things. Then later in my adult life, I worked in a duo project with Lisa Fischer, orchestrated by the incomparable Linda Goldstein, her manager and partner. Lisa, as you may know, sang with the Rolling Stones for 20 plus years. I want to make a t-shirt someday that says, “Lisa Fischer can sing anything.”

I would rock it.

That’s a vote of confidence. You mentioned the Cato Covers series on my Instagram. I had done a cover of “Miss You,” just a minute or two minutes of it. Lisa saw it and we were headed to a gig or something one day. She was like, “Man, I think you really tapped into something there. Mick would love this.” A vote of confidence from Lisa Fischer means can't nobody tell me nothing after that. So it sort of stuck in my head and I was like, “If there's a cover that goes on this record, I think maybe it's that one.” I took the challenge of diving into my perspective on this melody. That's how I went into the train of more on the Rolling Stones and some of their incredible discography.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Nicole Sweeney is a Queens-born, Long Island-raised music lover. Growing up in New York with West Indian parents, she was surrounded by all types of music every day and the influence of jazz was constant.