AARON NEVILLE'S HOUSE OVERLOOKS the 18th green of an East New Orleans golf course, but the 54-year-old singer is content just to watch his grandson Ernest Jude, 10, do a little hacking after hours. Three of Neville's four kids (with his wife of 36 years, Joel—pronounced Jo-ell) have taken up instruments that make music, not divots. Says Neville: "Musical families are a New Orleans tradition."
The album is The Tattooed Heart. What's with your tattooed cheek?
It was just a thing guys in New Orleans were doing when I was 17. We would put tattoos on by taking two sewing needles and tying them around a match-stick or a toothpick and just draw with india ink or pencil lead. One cat had a skull and crossbones on his face. I have a dagger. A friend and I put it on. When my daddy saw it, he made me scrub it with a Brillo pad and soap.
Is it a reminder of your wild past?
Hey, my tattoos are part of me now. That's why I tell kids to be sure if they're thinking about getting one, because it's not going anywhere. But I have done my share of everything. I gave it all up in 1980—it was time to make a choice whether I wanted to live and sing or go with the madness. I've seen friends die and fall by the wayside. Now I don't drink or smoke. Sometimes when we're playing a gig in a club, I have to inhale other people's smoke, but if I don't have to, I don't.
The dagger-faced guy who's built like a bouncer sounds like a pussycat.
Sometimes I get on an elevator and the other people still move to the back. Then all of a sudden they'll recognize me and say, 'Oh, you're that singer! You're cool.' "