Luc Reynaud is a singer/songwriter and the founder of Luc and the Lovingtons, a “world-soul-reggae” band, fusing music, art, and love to bring people together—sometimes in the most heart-wrenching circumstances. Reynaud was inspired to create the band following a volunteer trip to New Orleans post-Katrina, where he saw firsthand the impact music could have on people who were suffering. He asked his musician friends to join him in creating a humanitarian-focused band and, a few years later, they launched “The Goodness Tour: Music and Art for People Facing Adversity.” Now they bring free live concerts and art experiences to people in refugee camps, disaster zones, homeless shelters, hospitals, handicap centers, youth crisis shelters and “anywhere that humans are in need of psycho-social support and a positive outlet for expression.”
The 37-year-old Reynaud (he’ll be 38 in July) grew up in Washington’s remote Methow Valley, which happens to be my adopted home. He was working as a carpenter when he saw the images of New Orleans underwater and knew he wanted to do what he could to help. But bring his guitar to the birthplace of jazz? That was a bit intimidating. How could a lone white boy with a guitar hope to lift the spirits of people whose roots were in Negro spirituals? Whose neighborhoods regularly showcased (for free) greater musical talent than one could pay to hear in most cities?
It turned out to be a question of love. Reynaud spoke the universal language. Since then, Reynaud and his band have traveled all over the world sharing high-energy music, live painting, and heartfelt messages. “The Freedom Song,” which Reynaud created and recorded with young musicians in New Orleans, was covered by Jason Mraz, who invited the Lovingtons to open for him on a national tour. Mraz also included the song in his album “Love is a Four-Letter Word.”
For the last eight months, Reynaud has been in towns and cities across Puerto Rico, working to inspire islanders who are still struggling in the wake of Hurricane Maria. He spoke with me by phone for over an hour. – Leslee Goodman
The MOON: You grew up in the Methow Valley, which is my adopted home. What was that like, and how did your childhood shape you in your work?
Reynaud: I don’t know how you get the ticket that determines where you grow up in life, but I feel so blessed to have grown up in the Methow Valley. I got to experience harmonious living growing up there. First, the nature is so incredible, with four full seasons. In the fall, the gorgeous change of the leaves, and then winter, up to your knees, in the snow. Then the spring comes, with balsamroot [a yellow wildflower] all over the hills, making you want to bust out into “The hills are alive” [laughter], and everything gets green and gorgeous. Then comes the summer and time for river-rafting and jumping from rope swings. It’s something else; the perfect childhood. Also in the Methow, I got to have incredible mentors that include really wonderful parents who show me a lot of love, as well as their friends, who were wonderful people to be around. Adults who were free and happy. So yeah, I’m pretty positive about my childhood in Methow.
The MOON: What kind of mentorship did they provide?
Reynaud: Well, for instance, I got to spend a lot of time with Bruce Morrison, an artist who taught me how to carve wood and marble at a young age. He took me on a little bit as an apprentice, and I got to do these incredible works with him. Theresa Miller exposed me early on to theater and the arts, and Mike Irwin and Susan Lagsdin encouraged me to imagine and tell stories. Rayma Hayes, the founder of Little Star Montessori School, saw into me so deeply at a young age and encouraged me to pull my light through—to go beyond what I thought I could do; to dream big; to not have a ceiling. She was monumental in my life. In fact, I actually did a piece about her in a TED talk I gave. And then my parents were incredible. My dad was kind of a charismatic campfire singer, always leading everyone in songs. I think that’s where music got into me. My mom would also sing, as did my sister, but I was more into sports [laughter]. Still, music was around me. And then my mom is the definition of unconditional love. She always let me know I was loved. When my folks split up, there was some heartache, but I was fortunate to get two wonderful stepparents. So even that turned into a positive experience.
One childhood incident I distinctly remember began with my dad driving me to school on the first day of maybe second or third grade. He started giving me a little speech, like he sometimes did, and this one was, “When you go back to school today, Luc, I want you to really emphasize trying to be kind. See how kindness feels. For example, when you’re in the lunch line, and they’re serving you food, I want you to ask the lunch ladies”—they were all ladies at that time—“I want you to ask the lunch ladies how they’re doing. Try that with everybody at school. Just make it an experiment.”
So I tried it out. As I went down the cafeteria line, I asked each person who served me food, “How are you doing? How’s your day going?” and they all lit up. They said things like, “Wow, my day is wonderful. Thanks for asking, Luc!” I noticed instantly several things. The first was that when people lit up, it made me feel good. It made me feel proud. And two, I noticed that I would get quite a bit more applesauce and graham crackers [laughter]. I was building friendships in the lunch line. That’s how I think I learned at a young age that being kind not only makes you feel really good, it has practical benefits, too.
The MOON: You mentioned that the adults around you were free. I don’t hear many adults described with that adjective. Would you mind saying more about that?
Reynaud: Yeah, the adults I grew up around were unstifled. They were expressing themselves. They could break out into song. They could break out into dance. They could break out into laughter. They could make incredible food from the garden and eat it. They were living the lives they wanted to live. My parents had wonderful friends. It’s a generalization probably, but in the Methow Valley the grownups, for a lack of a better word, were really cool [laughter]. I mean, I’m not trying to call anybody a grownup. I mean [laughter], they’re human beings who have lived long enough to decide they’re ready to have kids and take on more responsibility, but they continue to have a childlike view. Just to think about that I was around people instigating me to tell a story, instigating me to carve, instigating me to sing a song, pretty dang cool. Pretty cool to think about.
The MOON: How did you chart a career path of inspiring people in challenging circumstances through music and art?
Reynaud: It began with Hurricane Katrina. When I saw news footage of the wreckage everywhere in New Orleans and people wading in brown and black water, saying, “We need help,” my response was, no question, that I needed to do whatever I could for people in disaster right in our own country. Within four days I had a volunteer assignment through Red Cross. I was working for Mike Kuntz at the time as a framing carpenter, and he said, “Go ahead. Get down there.” As I was packing to leave, I had a moment where I was literally deciding whether to bring the guitar or not. I was nervous about bringing it because that meant that I would need to play music to people who had experienced tragedies, trauma. I didn’t know if it was appropriate to play or sing my happy songs in the face of something like that. But as it turned out, that guitar and the music inside me was the biggest gift I had to bring.
When I arrived in New Orleans, they put me on a bus to Baton Rouge to a shelter at Southern University holding about 500 people who had evacuated. They were all sleeping on cots on the floor of this sports dome at Southern University. My job was to be a floor facilitator. As people arrived, I would give them a Ziploc bag of toiletries, show them to their cots, show them the bathrooms, and try to welcome them with open arms and good energy and make them feel comfortable. Then a little later, I’d come and check on them. So I was connecting with everybody on the floor.
I’d been there a week before I snuck off to a quiet corner to play my guitar because I was nervous about playing around anybody. There happened to be two men near me—I couldn’t find a place completely alone—and I started playing Otis Redding. “Sittin’ in the morning sun. I’ll be—.” Immediately, they joined in, clapping and singing. It was the most energized I had seen anybody since I’d been there. That was my signal. “You’re here to give. Your point here is to give and bring love.” Then I knew I’d better start playing the guitar. As soon as I did, I think exactly what I was afraid of started happening. All these masses of kids came over and started singing. People just lightened up. It showed me how we’re afraid of light. Afraid of the nervousness of light coming out of us, of creating massive joy by letting our light out. I wonder why that makes us nervous. But there was no turning back after that. I met all of these kids, including this amazing 10-year-old singer who was an epic prodigy, like Whitney Houston, and only 10 years old. Together we started working on this song called “The Freedom Song,” which we sang and performed in the shelter, and then we’d take it other groups of people—elderly, kids. Wherever we’d sing it, encouraging our audience to join in, people would start smiling, clapping, swaying, putting their hands up. The song was about freedom and everybody was feeling pretty trapped. So singing about freedom was freeing. And it became this incredible experience we could share—that we were bigger than these circumstances that we found ourselves in.
When I got back to the Methow, I was telling this story to my grandparents, Dave and Barb Reynaud. My grandpa sat up in his chair and said, “I think you have to go back and record that song. I’ll pay for your plane ticket. I want you to go back, find those kids, and record that song.” My Grandma Barb agreed, and I asked my great friend Benjamin Swatez to come with me with a film camera. Benjamin Swatez has been involved with almost all of the music and art service work. He helped found the Goodness Tour. So he and I returned to Baton Rouge and found the kids. We got a recording studio, recorded the song, and Benjamin filmed the whole thing. That experience first showed me that I could join my two passions—music and service—into one. That was the seed of it all. Then, five years later this unexpected thing happened. I donated “The Freedom Song” to a compilation CD called “Love Wins” by an organization called Harmonic Humanity. They would give it to homeless people on the street for $1 and they could sell it for $10. Joseph Jacques, one of the founders of Harmonic Humanity, gave one of the CDs to Jason Mraz after one of his shows on the west coast. Jason Mraz is a world-famous Grammy Award-winning artist. He heard “The Freedom Song” and contacted me via Myspace and asked if he could cover it. He said he was in love with the story of the song and wanted to share it all around the world and try to make a smash hit of it. He said he would always tell the story of the kids and me creating the song, and he did. Also, before he even covered the song, he took the original to an organization called Free the Slaves, which is working all over the world against modern-day slavery. Did you know there are over 37 million slaves in the world today? It’s astounding.
Jason and Peggy Callahan, co-founder of Free the Slaves, brought “The Freedom Song” to a shelter in Ghana, West Africa, for recently freed boy slaves. They introduced our Freedom Song recording to these young boys who had been freed from slavery in Ghana and it became their anthem. It was something else. They learned it word for word. I got emailed this video that I watched at midnight after a long evening of rehearsing with Luc and the Lovingtons. I opened up this email and it was a video with Jason and Peggy Callahan and a group of like 25 young boys from Ghana singing “The Freedom Song,” word for word, just belting it out.
It was one of the top spiritual and artistic-spiritual moments I’ve experienced in my life. I cried. I cried immediately because the song had gone to a whole new level. It had started as a song about freedom from mental pain, emotional slavery, about feeling trapped in circumstances not of your choosing. And now it had evolved to include physical freedom from actual slavery. Then Jason did record a cover of the song and saw our band play, and he invited us on tour with him. That’s how Luc and the Lovingtons got to play our first show to 35,000 people. That was in Mississippi, at the Bulldog Bash, and then we got to go on tour with Jason. All of that came through following my heart, following my intuition, even if it makes you tingly with fear.
The MOON: Why do you think that is?
Reynaud: Maybe it’s the ego’s protection against an immense amount of life that’s going to rush through you [laughter].
The MOON: Why should that be scary?
Reynaud: Exactly. I think Marianne Williamson articulated it exactly: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
I don’t know why there’s that thing that wants to stay in a safe zone, that pulls us down and sometimes averts us from experiences that maybe gives us the butterflies. It knows that “Yeah! You’re light is going to get pulled out!” [Laughter].
So now I know to trust that. I’m going into a Syrian refugee camp and I don’t really know much Arabic and I don’t really know a ton about Middle Eastern culture, yet, somehow, I’m being called and I’m so freaking nervous. But now I know to trust in that. And yes, it’s happened every time. I was nervous when we went to the Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. I was nervous when we went to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. But now I know to do it. “Feel the fear, and do it anyway.”
The MOON: So, tell us about what you’re doing in Puerto Rico. It’s amazing that we don’t hear much about the situation there, and it’s still a huge story.
Reynaud: Yeah, absolutely. So, about two years after “The Freedom Song” experience, I created a band called Luc and the Lovingtons, which was made up of my best friends, including friends from the Methow Valley. Our emphasis is always music that connects to love and action; to joy and community, to being awake and alive, to the best things about humanity. Three years ago, we created kind of a new movement called The Goodness Tour: Music and Art for People Facing Adversity. Jeremiah Alexis, a filmmaker and great friend, and The Lovingtons and Benjamin Swatez all came together to create it. Benjamin is the art side of it all. His job is to play paint. That’s his instrument. He starts each concert with a blank white canvas. As soon as we hit the first song, whoosh!, his brushes start going and he starts painting, song by song, what the moment is, what’s happening with the crowd. He paints a new visual replica of every concert shared. His part has become a huge piece of The Goodness Tour. Our mission is to bring music and art to people in extreme adversity as a free energy boost to people who really need it. It has reinforced what we already knew beneath the surface of the value of music and art for trauma relief, for healing, for psychosocial support.
We’ve done two tours down the west coast of the United States, performing in homeless shelters, hospitals, youth crisis shelters, shelters for battered women and children. They’ve been absolutely a no-turning-back, life-changing experience for the whole band, recreating the same aliveness we felt playing for 35,000 people on the Mraz tour because the value of what we were bringing was so great. One time we played for kids on life-support and it was so deep. We saw the kids move in their bodies in their beds, hooked up to all their tubes. They were really feeling the music. Their heart rates were going up. One of the young boys was kind of dancing in his bed, and Ben was painting, and I was just so grateful that we had made the right moves to get there. It was so the right thing to do for kids who would never be able to get out to a concert. We were coming to them, which is the point. We come to the people who are in deep, deep need of a boost. Last year we started going international, and our first trip was to a Syrian refugee camp called Za’atari in Jordan. It’s the country’s fourth-largest city, populated by refugees.
We brought music and classes to the camp, and we completed a song called, “Welcome to My House,” which incorporates Syrian refugee youth singing in Arabic, “You’re welcome to my house,” with a response from American teens from the northwest singing, “You’re welcome to my house,” in English. The music video of this song is one of the pieces of art I’m proudest of. Everything that song and film says, the process by which it was created, and the impact it has on people who watch it reflects my vision for the world. We partnered with Voices of the Children, based out of Mount Vernon, Washington, on this project. So then, when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, we had plans to take the Goodness Tour to Denmark, to some domestic violence shelters. I was driving in the car and hearing voices on NPR saying, “We’re wrecked. We’re devastated. The hurricane has devastated our island, and we’re in desperate need. We need help.”
So I called Benjamin Swatez again and we both said at the same moment, “I think we should shift our plans and go to Puerto Rico.” We asked the rest of the team and everybody was game. And, as usual, as we started making plans, I started to have doubts. “How is our music and art really going to help in this situation? A few people in our community expressed doubts, as well, saying, “Wouldn’t it just be better to send them the money you would spend on airfare? I mean, these people are still without water, food, electricity. You’re going to show up with…songs?” And other people were telling us there were problems with looting and violence; we could be heading into a dangerous situation. Thankfully, Benjamin had unwavering resolve that our service was going to be of massive value. Nevertheless, it was definitely, wow, an intimidating choice. As it turned out, by the time we arrived—seven weeks after the hurricane—some stabilization had occurred. Plus, we learned once we got there that some of the theaters had opened to present music and art the very day after the storm. So they knew the value of what we were bringing.
Nevertheless, when we arrived, it was still black at night. All over the highway, it was still dark, very little electricity had been restored. On the second day, we met an 18th district representative who took us to a school up in the mountains where we presented a whole course of music and art to all of these school kids, some of whom had lost their homes. Their parents and the teachers were all in tears as they watched us sharing music and joy, and Ben led this amazing therapeutic art class that had them painting about their experience with the hurricane. The sun was coming in through the windows, and teachers were coming up to me in tears, grabbing me by the shoulders and saying, “We’re so proud of you for coming. We’re so proud of you for coming.” In one day it was all of that. I couldn’t believe I had considered just sending money instead of coming.
We went on to have a week of doing that all over the island, non-stop, no sleeping. We were in one community one night, and we would drive all night to the next. The next morning we would be giving an assembly at a school, in the afternoon and evening we’d be in a plaza helping the community paint a mural. We instigated the first concert after the storm, where the whole community came down and sang. I realized in Puerto Rico, that’s one of the biggest roles of the Goodness Tour; we’re instigators. We come with our creativity, our songs, our paint, but our focus is the moment that we get somebody in the audience to start to sing, to dance, to paint. That’s a victory. The moment a person is being creative, they are instantly being brought fully into the moment. They’re producing something from inside themselves that goes beyond circumstance. And that has instant healing properties. Whether you lost your home, a loved one, or you lost everything, the moment you are creating something from within, you are accessing your potential—your freedom to choose.
The MOON: Yeah, you’re no longer just the victim of circumstance; you’re using it as grist for creation. Wow.
Reynaud: Yeah, so our Puerto Rican tour was only going to be a week, but then came a moment I recognized from my experience with “The Freedom Song” and “Welcome to My House.” A man named Marcelo Medina from the mountains of Moca on the west side of the island, came up as I was playing some chords on guitar and the kids were painting. I was just singing a little “whoa, whoa” kind of thing, and Marcelo started improvising from his heart. “Puerto Rico se levanta, bella isla del encanto.” Which means “Puerto Rico is rising up, whoa, whoa, whoa. Beautiful island of enchantment, whoa, whoa, whoa. The island of my love, whoa, whoa. Puerto Rico is rising up.” That statement of strength became kind of a catchphrase throughout the whole island, “Puerto Rico se levanta. Puerto Rico’s rising up.” The feeling of his words was coming out loud and clear, and I got the spark that I now always trust, which told me, “This is a real song being born, and it should be born all the way.”
I didn’t know how to make that happen though, and this is the part of the process where you have to be willing to be a little bit crazy in support of something you believe in, even though you don’t know how to pull it off. At the end of our seven days, right before we were to fly home, I said, “I think I want to come back and help that song be born.” One of our team members, Glen Shackley, a filmmaker for the Goodness Tour, was totally into it. He was available and willing. The other Goodness Tour members had to go on to other projects, but Glen said, “I’ll come back with you and help that song be born.”
So we came back and it ended up taking three months for the song to be born. But we were able to incorporate the voices of over 100 Puerto Ricans from all over the island, whom we found through this incredible journey of following signs and coincidences. We had a 19-year-old young man from Aguada singing the first verse, the chorus, and the bridge. A 15-year-old girl from Cayey sings the second verse, and an elderly choir from Caguas sang, as well as Marcelo Medina’s family members, who are the most incredible singers and musicians. Marcelo’s 12-year-old son plays guitar on it. World-famous Astra recording studio in San Juan helped us record the song for free. Plus, we made an amazing music video. The whole project has been going for eight months, during which I’ve been living in Puerto Rico. We’re about to use the song and its story and art on a concert tour to raise money to bring solar power to homes that are still without electricity and might otherwise have to wait years to get it—if ever. So we teamed up with another volunteer organization, a local Puerto Rican organization called Off-Grid Relief, which has been bringing solar power to houses in extreme need up in the mountains. They install two panels and a battery that can last up to eight years, which is enough to power lights and a refrigerator. In a couple of hours, a family can suddenly flick on their lights after all these months of darkness since Hurricane Maria. And now they’re drawing their light and energy directly from the sun, and not dependent on anybody. Off-Grid Relief has reached over 31 homes so far. We also brought solar power to the home of the 15-year-old girl who wrote the second verse of the song. Her creative light helped bring light to her family, although at the time, none of us knew that would happen.
The MOON: I have been hugely impressed by the courage and eloquence of young leaders like the Parkland survivors, the young people suing the federal government over climate change, the teen leaders of the No DAPL movement, and of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot in the face, yet still champions education. Do you share this sentiment, and if so, how do you account for this generation’s leadership capabilities?
Reynaud: I think that, for the most part, youth can see through cultural BS to the truth; to what is right. They haven’t acquired as many of the blinders, or effects of social conditioning, that their elders might have. Given the right environment around those young people, they will grow up empowered to speak their minds. I’m remembering Malala, whose mom and dad were very supportive. Her father, in particular, encouraged her to speak her mind. So I feel like we’re seeing a combination of young people who see injustices clearly, who are supported by either parents or other elders in taking action for the changes they believe in. Plus, young people perhaps don’t feel as if they have as much to lose as older people do. No job to maintain or family to take care of.
The MOON: I guess young people have always been risk-takers. They don’t necessarily see the downside of their actions. That’s why their parents worry about them driving, for example. And maybe you’re right, that the longer we’re living in a culture the more likely we are to adopt its blinders, or its conditioning. I noticed that, watching the movie RBG the other day. As a woman facing a Congressional hearing, she was trying to educate a room full of old white men about the reality of sexism. They literally didn’t see it, so she was having to break it down for them.
Reynaud: Yeah. Miguel Ruiz, the author of The Four Agreements, talks about a societal dream that we can grow into that has us accepting that “this is the way things are,” whether or not it’s the way things could be. I think young people are still fresh and tuned-in to their connection to life in their hearts. They can see the deal that most adults have bought into and say, “No way, I’m not settling for that.” They’ve got the energy to go against the current of a huge collective dream. That’s why great teachers are heroes because they encourage young people to lead, to pursue their vision, and to protect the truth of who they are, rather than conforming to a pre-fabricated slot that society might be trying to squeeze them into. That’s what Rayma, and my parents, and my community did for me. I like to consider myself still a youth, but I enjoy it when I work with kids who are younger than me. I like to pay it forward with them. And what’s that quote? “Children are the latest news from heaven.” You want to know the latest news, what’s on God’s mind these days? Look at that child’s smile, look at those curious, sparkling eyes. Yeah. You’re looking at the future right there.