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The Real Accent Project: USA Travel Blogs

New York, New Orleans, Mississippi & Boston

Day 1: London to New York
We’re off on our first app adventure. The aim of this trip sounds simple enough: to record the regional accents of a male and female speaker in each area we visit. However, we’ve had to put in weeks of preparation: organising the logistics in as tight a timescale as possible, investing in new sound equipment (that fits into Gavin’s big, fluorescent orange case), sending thousands of emails to set up contacts in each region and speaking to a number of our potential subjects on the phone to check out their accents. I’m an over-planner by nature so what could go wrong?

We arrive tired but excited in a cold, grey, overcast New York. As soon as we’re in Manhattan, I’m on the phone to our New York contact who’ll be introducing us to the Brooklyn recording subjects. She’s not sounding happy as her husband isn’t well and promises to call us in the morning. Of course I’m sympathetic but there’s a niggling worry that this isn’t going to work out.

Day 2: New York
Our New York contact doesn’t call so late morning we try again: her phone goes to voice mail. By the afternoon we’re a little frantic so start building up other contacts through the hotel. A tour operator puts us in touch with a couple of potential subjects but their accents aren’t what I’m looking for. Our original contact finally calls in the early evening, confirming her inability to help us out. However, I speak with her niece who promises to introduce us to the people we need. In relief, we head off to the theatre: The Lucky Guy by Nora Ephron and starring Tom Hanks (excellent, just in case you’re interested).

Day 3: New York
Bad news: the niece can’t help us out today but promises to line up potential subjects for our return to New York later in the trip. We pursue a few more avenues throughout the day then give up. Perhaps it’s best to plan for when we return to New York before our flight back to London. Better to have the ‘right’ accents than panic and record sounds we don’t need.

Day 4: New York to New Orleans
I fret on the flight to New Orleans. It’s the fourth day of our trip and we haven’t recorded anybody yet. Plus we’re heading to the one place that I haven’t been able to set up recording appointments. Are we wasting our time and, more importantly, our money? However, my spirits lift as we fly into gorgeous sunny weather and find our hotel on the broad expanse of St Charles Avenue with the evocative sound of streetcars rattling past us every few minutes. For some unknown reason, my room is upgraded and has a lounge attached to it, perfect for recording purposes. Not only that but it isn’t long before we meet out first two subjects: Keith and Doñel. Both were born and raised in New Orleans’ Seventh Ward and both are working at the hotel. Extraordinary luck.

Day 5: New Orleans
I’m a little nervous. Today we’re doing our first recordings. I know what we want from Keith and Doñel but will it all come together? Sometimes accents veer wildly when people read or if nerves take over in spoken conversation. However, it turns out that both are keen to make this work for us. Sweet. Keith is a little nervous to start because he’s never been up past the ground floor lobby before but once over that, he’s wonderful. Doñel relaxes so much that she’s able to tell us about being caught in the crossfire of a gunfight some years ago. Her story is incredibly moving but I wonder if it’s appropriate to use on the app without exploiting her experience. She reads my mind because on leaving she throws her arms around me saying she really wants me to use it.

Success at last so we pop out to celebrate at a jazz club where we see/listen to the amazing Wolfman Washington and the Roadmasters (utterly brilliant, just in case you’re interested).

Day 6: New Orleans to Biloxi
We hire a car. Actually, it’s a black van thing. There’s a strong possibility that we might have to use it for recordings so best to go big. We set out early from New Orleans and negotiate the road system. Our Mississippi contact, Beau, meets us in the Biloxi Visitors Centre car park at 9.00 a.m. and takes us to our first recording subject, Lloyd. Lloyd is a retired High School Principal with old world Southern charm and an accent to match. Initially, he’s a little taken aback with the amount of recording equipment we’ve brought with us, but soon settles to the task. Lloyd is a wonderful teller of stories and, very soon, we have more than enough material.

Next stop is lunch at the local diner, where we meet Janelle. She agrees to record for us when she gets off work at 4.00 p.m. We eat po’boys (delicious, just in case you’re interested) and talk about guns (as you do in Mississippi).

Back at Beau’s house we meet JD. I’m not quite sure about the pet python in the corner of the living room or the loaded handgun that Beau gives me to hold. It feels as though we’ve walked onto a movie set but, no, the python and the handgun are definitely real. JD has more of a backwoods accent, a perfect contrast to Lloyd’s gulf coast. We have a little trouble with Beau’s dogs who bark constantly for attention so takes are ‘managed’ in between frenetic bouts of noise. Thankfully the python sleeps on throughout it all.

Beau takes us back to the diner where we drink bottomless cups of coffee waiting for Janelle. Lucky we have the big black van thing parked out the back because it’s the only place to record without background noise. Setting up the equipment is a challenge so Gavin moves some seats around. However, the acoustics are perfect once the doors are closed. The only problem is the heat: it’s not a particularly hot day but the van is stifling with the exits sealed. We take regular breaks for air. Despite the conditions, Janelle seems to enjoy the session. Usually she’s picked on for her strong regional accent so she’s very happy for it to be celebrated.

It’s been a long day but we manage to fit in a quick walk on the beach before the drive back to New Orleans.

Day 7: New Orleans to New York
Buoyed up by our successes in the south, we have great hopes that all will work out in New York. However, when we arrive back on Manhattan our contact’s phone goes to voicemail. It appears she’s blown us off. No chance of doing anything about it tomorrow because we’ll be on the move again.

Day 8: New York to Boston and back again
It’s a very early flight to Boston. The pressure is on because we’ve only one day to get what we need. However, we’ve had some help: an extraordinary number of people emailed around the city on our behalf, all keen for us to celebrate the beauty of the much-maligned Boston accent. Consequently we have four recording appointments with two men and two women (one of whom is travelling down from Cape Cod for the day).

We’ve booked a meeting room in a centrally located hotel, which we’ve been assured is quiet. On arrival we find this isn’t the case as it’s situated right next door to an extremely noisy kitchen. We can’t record there. After ‘discussions’ with the hotel duty manager we’re moved to a large conference room, dirty from an event the day before. We can put up with the mess but sound tends to bounce around the walls of such a large space. However, it appears we don’t have any other choice: it’s St Patrick’s Day, Boston has gone mad with visitors and the hotel is fully booked.

Kent arrives with his small son, who sits quietly colouring-in while we record (bless). Both have textbook South Boston accents. Soon after, Jon arrives with a more muted, but just as useful, accent. He’s keen to record for us, travelling into Boston from his home in Cape Cod. Both Kent and Jon are good talkers so the morning disappears quickly. Our female subjects are arriving later in the afternoon so we head out to a local market for clam chowder in bread bowls (and, yes, you can eat the bread bowl afterwards, just in case you’re interested).

We return to our dirty conference room and wait and wait and wait. In a fit of nervous anxiety, I pace the hall to the lobby and back again a number of times and leave a series of voicemail messages. By late afternoon we realise they’re not coming. It can be difficult relying on volunteers: some people are so keen to record they’d move mountains to get to us but others… We can’t leave Boston with half the job done: we need at least one female example. Luckily, it turns out that Susie, who works at the hotel front desk, is about to go on her meal break. She has a wonderful accent and her manager agrees she can take extra time to do the job for us. It’s been a difficult day for her with a lot of drunks in the hotel because of St Patrick’s Day so the experience with us is a relief.

We’re running late now for the flight back so there’s some sprinting to be done. We make it in time but we’re exhausted (our schedule has been punishing over the past week). We arrive back in Manhattan after midnight.

Day 9: New York to London
Last day of the trip: it’s supposed to be our rest/fun day before the flight back to London in the evening. No chance of that because we still don’t have what we came for. So we pack up the big orange case with sound equipment and head off to Brooklyn. It’s the final attempt. The day is grey and we end up in a miserable-looking area. There’s a car with a spray of machine gun bullet holes. Perhaps the large fluorescent orange case wasn’t a good idea: we do stand out. Our best bet will be eateries so we end up in an Italian restaurant/pizzeria. There’s a fabulous accent seated not too far away from us but the man becomes nervous when I keep looking over (it’s that sort of area) and questions the waiter about me. I stop looking. When the waiter takes our order, we explain why we’re here and what we’re searching for. He says he’ll speak to the manager who comes over to talk to us. Elisa is only 20 years old but runs the business for her father. She loves the sound of our project and her accent is perfect (plus it would be great to record someone so young). Only problem is, she can’t record today and we only have today. So Gavin asks her if she’d be prepared to record in a few weeks. Elisa agrees immediately. And so, US Trip 2 is born. I listen open-mouthed: well that was a surprise, Gavin. Before leaving, we meet Dominic, the big boss and Elisa’s father. He offers an espresso so perhaps we have him on side. Difficult to tell though.

Back to Manhattan to pick up our luggage although there’s a quick detour to FAO Schwarz and the Muppet Whatnot Workshop to design a couple of Muppets: one for my seven year old son and the other for Gavin’s fifteen year old daughter (a must-do, just in case you’re interested). Then it’s the final mad dash to the airport for our flight back to London.

Final Thoughts

We’ve learnt a great deal from our experiences on this trip. Here’s a few of the highlights:

  • Always stay in the area you’re trying to record (if you want Brooklyn accents then don’t stay on Manhattan).
  • Try not to rely on one person to organise appointments; always have other options up your sleeve.
  • Avoid travelling to dodgy areas with a big fluorescent orange suitcase full of expensive recording equipment (in other words, disguise what you’re carrying).

It’s been a life-changing nine days, primarily because of the people we’ve met and bonded with along the way. Grateful thanks must go to the volunteers we recorded who gave of their time so generously: Keith, Doñel, Lloyd, JD, Janelle, Kent, Jon and Susie.

I’d also like to thank the people who helped us find our recording subjects:
Francesco de Asmundis (VPT), Jack Barnett (VPT), Michael Hiskey (Kognitio), Beau Barnett, Kirsten Beal (Blue Man Group) and Megan Cokely (Boston Symphony Orchestra).