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Damon Johnson (2011)

Posted May/June 2011

 

damonjohnsonJune2011bI’ve had the privilege of meeting – and even interviewing – some great artists.  Each one displayed their own unique traits that impressed me.  Among the musicians I’ve come in contact with, the exceptional ones have always been those who have the ability to enjoy a diversified career and depth in their playing that crosses a variety of genres.  One such artist that I recently had the privilege of interviewing is Damon Johnson.

I became aware of Johnson quite simply because I have been a long time fan of Alice Cooper.  Damon just so happens to be the guitarist for recent inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the better part of the last seven years and is just the right kind of scary good player for a scary rock and roller.

Johnson is a triple threat to the second power because, not only is he a tremendous rock guitarist, singer and song writer, he fills the same three pairs of shoes in the other genres as well. In Damon’s main area of expertise, rock, he first hit the national stage as the frontman, guitarist and primary songwriter for his band, Brother Cane, which headlined its own shows as well as toured heavily as an opening act for Aerosmith, Candlebox, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Robert Plant and Van Halen before breaking up in 1998.

In the songwriting portion of Damon’s arsenal of musical weaponry, he has had his songs recorded by such rockers Sammy Hagar (Salvation on Sand Hill), Stevie Nicks (Every Day), Ted Nugent (I Won’t Go Away), Queensryche (Middle of Hell and Home Again), Skid Row (Ghost and See You Around) and Carlos Santana (Just Feel Better) as well as his former country band, Whiskey Falls.

He’s also lent his licks and vocals to the likes of country star, Faith Hill, on her huge 2002 hit, Cry.  He’s also sang and played on projects with Sammy Hagar, Ted Nugent, Damn Yankees, John Waite, Slave To The System, and even The Temptations.

When Damon isn’t on tour with Alice Cooper, he focuses his efforts on his other band, Brother Cane, as well as his own solo efforts such as his recent acoustic CD, Release – a phenomenal work that I can guarantee you will wear out from listening to it over and over again (you can read the Boomerocity review of it here).

It was with great excitement that I was able to arrange a phone interview with Damon since our schedules couldn’t synch up at the recent Dallas International Guitar Festival.  It was a call that I was afraid wasn’t going to happen since, the day before, a devastating tornado hit Tuscaloosa, Alabama, shaking things up a bit near his home an hour away.  Fortunately, all was well at the Johnson household and our call went on as scheduled.

We started off our chat by talking briefly about that tornado.  Damon shared that, “I’ve lived in Alabama ever since I was five years old and I’ve never seen a day like yesterday.  I’m 46 so that’s a long time, man! Tornados have become almost passé here – it’s just a way of life. But that one was like a terrorist attack or something! Man, it was just CRAZY! Pretty much, everybody I know, personally, has made out okay.  I have some friends who had some trees down in their yard but no real loss of property or, certainly, no loss of life. But, unfortunately, that’s not been the case with everybody. We’re definitely relieved and grateful, man!”

As I mentioned, Damon was at the Dallas International Guitar Festival. What I didn’t learn until after the show was that Damon also attended the Phoenix wedding of Alice and Sheryl Cooper’s son, Dash, and then back to Dallas for his acoustic performance that Sunday afternoon.  It had to have been a mastery of logistics to have pulled that all off.  Johnson talks about it.

“Yeah, I did go to Dash’s wedding. See, Brother Cane played Friday night. Then my wife and I got up early the next morning and flew to Phoenix out of Love Field to get there and then we were on a different airline to come back. So, we fly back to DFW Airport (about another 30 minutes or more of drive time than from Love Field) on Sunday and I literally got out of the cab and straight onto the stage with my acoustic guitar to sing back there at that Singer/Songwriter stage (one of several stages at the guitar show). It was a crazy weekend, man! It was fun! It was high intensity and always running behind, it felt like, but it was fun and met some great, new people and met up with some old friends. Somehow, we pulled it all off.”

We steered our conversation around to discussing Damon’s latest CD, Release.  The album is a pleasant mix of rock, country and alternative in a package that transitions evenly from one genre to another without jarring the senses.  It especially bridges the gap between country and rock.  After sharing my take on Release with him, I asked Johnson what he set out to accomplish with Release.

“Randy, it was really just about getting those songs committed to tape and get them out there into the atmosphere – out in the world. There’s fourteen tracks – three of those are ‘covers’ so the other eleven songs are part of a stack of 40 or 50 songs that I’ve written or co-written over the last 7 or 8 years.  They were things that just weren’t right for Slave To The System. They weren’t right for Whisky Falls but I knew that there was some good stuff there and I thought that the only way to get it out was to put it out under my own name.

“I started working on this in my head a little over a year ago. A few people have said, ‘Well, we really would have expected another rock project out of you.’ And I said, ‘Precisely!’  That’s the whole reason why I wanted to do this because I’ve done so much rock and guitar-heavy stuff in recent years – particularly with as much as I’ve toured with Alice that the stuff I listen to in my spare time – particularly in the last several years – has been decidedly more American/Singer-Songwriter stuff.

“I don’t know, man.  It was just my way to pretend that I could hang out with cool guys like Guy Clark and Steve Earle – the legend that is Van Zant. I really love Lucinda Williams and artists like that. I love what you just said, Randy, about it kind of bridging the gap between rock and country.  That is absolutely what I was thinking, as well. I’m glad that it came across that way. It’s really about the lyrics, the writing and the singing than it is about the guitar playing.  The fact that people have said so much nice stuff about my acoustic work is a real bonus because I had a great time making that record.”

From the countless times I’ve listened to Release, I kept feeling that most of the album was introspective and contemplative.  Having been guilty in the past of not “getting” an album from time to time, I asked Johnson if was an accurate observation or if I was reading too much into it.

“No, brother, I think that’s very accurate, Randy. A lot of people just weren’t able to know or understand when that first Brother Cane record came out in 1993, some of those were the first songs I had ever written in my life, man. I had always wanted to be Jimmy Page or Joe Perry when I grew up and hadn’t really given much thought to writing lyrics. I was a fan of great lyrics and songs that had great lyrics, but it just never occurred to me that anybody would ever care about what I had to say about anything. So I had let my guitar do the talking all those years.

“So, being kind of thrust into that arena when I became the lead singer for Brother Cane – not long before we made that first record – it kind of opened up a whole new world to me. I’m so proud of how that material – the Brother Cane material – Randy, has stood the test of time.  But there’s no question that I’ve learned a lot and grown a lot.

“Again, listening to so many great song writers, I just felt really inspired to want to just get my songs out there. I, too, felt like there was a lot of reflection in almost all of those songs and, somehow, they seem to fit together nicely even though Pontiac may lean a little country and Leave It All Behind could almost be a grunge song and Everyday and Better Days Will Come At Last – those are just great pop songs. But, somehow, it all worked. I just think that’s a credit to the songs and that’s what I’m most proud of, man, is each song seems to stand on its own.”

A personal favorite of both my wife and I is the song, Pontiac.  It compels the listener to repeatedly play the song while driving with the one you love – especially if you’re fortunate to still be with the love from your youth.  As a boy born in the south, I could almost sense the pleasant smell of farms as I drive and listen to the tune.

Damon laughs at the “farm” comment as he replies, “You’ve obviously listened to the CD, man, because I think Pontiac is the best song on the record.  It’s the song that I think stands the greatest – it deserves to be recorded the most. I’ve gotten so much flattering feedback on that song in particular.  Even a couple of Nashville artists have expressed the desire to want to cut it.  I’ve heard that kind of thing through the years so I don’t get too excited about it but it could certainly happen with that song. I think it’s deserving of that because it is very ‘every man’.

“I laugh with my dad about it. I’m like, ‘Well, this is my attempt to try to be Bob Seger’ who I hold in such high esteem!  For us in the south, man, Bob Seger is our Bob Dylan! I’m not saying that Bob’s lyrics are simple but he just seemed to speak to the common man more than anybody else – or at least to that generation. So, I’m really flattered that you dig that song. I’m very, very proud of Pontiac.”

When asked how long Release took to put together, Damon gives us the skinny.

“I started putting a list of songs together while I was on the road with Coop last year – I’m sorry, in 2009.  Whiskey Falls wrapped up kind of early 2009 and I went back to work with Alice that spring. That was when the idea first came to me. I just had a list going on my phone. I would just go, ‘Oh, I like this song’ and it just kind of morphed out of that.

“So, when I was home in January of 2010, a friend of mine has a great studio here and he took a meeting with me and we talked about some kind of schedule. So, it was nice, man, to sort of – in a way – work for somebody else in that the studio had a schedule to keep. I made it a point to be on time, try to get there as early as I could and stay there as late as they would let me and get as much work done as possible. Because, really, man, during those off days from being on tour with Alice, I’m trying to be with my wife and kids as much as I can. But I’ve got to give them some credit for being supportive of that whole thing.

“But, to answer your question in a more precise manner, I think the whole thing, really, got recorded in about a month. And that’s, literally, like a Tuesday night here, a Saturday afternoon there, that kind of thing, so it wasn’t a super intensive, every day kind of thing. I was just trying to mix it up, man. That balance is something that I feel that I’ve struggled with my whole career so it’s been extra gratifying to get the support that I have from my family and then to be able to put out something that people have said some really nice things about has been very rewarding and really fulfilling.”

For those of us who don’t walk on stage for a living, it’s hard to relate to being away from home for weeks and months at a time and then come home and try to be a spouse and

Damon and Alice Cooper Recording Alice's Harmonica Solo and Cooper's House - Photo Courtesy of Damon Johnson

a parent. I commended Johnson for tackling the challenges of balance and quality of home life because family is usually the first casualty in an artist’s life.

“Well, Randy, I’ll share this with you, man – and that’s really cool what you just said. It inspired a thought within me. I used to think that it was easy, too. It used to be easy but I think that was when I was a lot more self-absorbed, man – just really selfish with my time and what I wanted to do. It’s a gross understatement but a marriage is a partnership.  Most musicians really fail at that. I say that with a lot of respect. I’m not saying that to be judgmental or to put anybody down. But, man, to be married to any creative person is a challenge because it’s almost like they have this sickness or this kind of ‘thing’ that overtakes them and there’s no on or off switch. It either comes or it doesn’t. Sometimes, it comes in waves and sometimes it doesn’t come at all. I think some of that struggle – that’s the word I’m looking for – some of that struggle to try to do a better job of finding that balance was absolutely reflected in this collection of songs. I think that was the place that I was at in my life as these songs came together.

“Now, these songs mean different things to different people, as songs should, but I got some kind of fulfillment – it was almost like those songs were with me in those times of trying to just keep a grip on things. This rock and roll thing will beat-your-ass if you let it. It will beat up on your relationships and it can cause you problems if you don’t at least try to find some serenity in there. Forgive me for sounding all new age about it but I’m really sincere. This record means a lot to me and that was a big part of it.”

It was at this point that Damon said something that has resonated with me ever since our call.  I mentioned in passing (while setting up another question) that I was about to celebrate my 31st anniversary.  Johnson cut me off by exclaiming, “Wow!  Well, I’m a lot more in awe of people that have held a marriage together for 30-plus years than I am – anymore – about a guy who has a platinum record or that got his face on the cover of a guitar magazine. That used to be the kind of thing that I held as measuring sticks. It’s just not anymore, man, because, in some ways, that kind of stuff is easy. There’s some things you do: you connect the dots and you go and do it. But, man, to keep a marriage going for 30-something years? Now THAT’s impressive!”

Our chat about family matters led me to the fact that Johnson included his daughter, Sarah, on a couple of cuts on Release.  Her contributions to the project were substantive as she exhibited talent and maturity beyond her years.  I asked Damon how it worked out working with his daughter.

“It was as special as any dad could ever imagine it to be. It was just that special, man. The thing that I have to say – this isn’t really bragging about Sarah; it’s more of a commentary – she’s naturally talented as a singer and equally talented as an acoustic player. She kind of picked it up for fun about three years ago. She got swept up in the whole Taylor Swift thing like so many other young girls did. Taylor really inspired a lot of young girls to think about writing songs and thinking about playing guitar, which makes her so special.

“I could hear her (Sarah) singing. I could hear her practicing.  She even sent me a video one time when I was on the road with Whiskey Falls. It was her in front of her computer screen and she sang some song she had figured out.  It just leveled me. It was so – I mean, it was, obviously, adorable and sweet and all that stuff. But it was truly good! For awhile, I didn’t even think about it. I thought, ‘Well, you’re just being a typical father. Of course you think she sounds great.’ But, then, I went, ‘Wait a minute!  I’m in the business. I know when something’s good and I know when it’s not and SHE’s good and she sounds great!’

“She came with me to a couple of shows – a couple of my acoustic shows. We did one down at Auburn University. I had been hired to play some function. These were all college kids. It was almost like a Greek social type of thing. In a way, I was almost like wallpaper because I’m just back there playing some songs. But it was cool and the kids were standing there with their drinks and watching me play.

“Then I said, ‘Listen, I want to do something kind of special for you guys. I want to bring up a guest. This is my daughter. She wants to sing a couple of songs for you.’ Randy, she brought the house down, man! She – brought – the house – DOWN! And the reason why the kids reacted like that, obviously, is that they saw themselves in her.  They’re like, ‘She’s one of us and look at her get up there in her sun dress and just sit there on that stool – she’s like a young Joni Mitchell or something!’

“I’m telling you this whole long story to tell you that she’s completely aloof to how talented she is. She doesn’t have that need to feed her ego that I had and all of my musician friends had and still have. It’s not about that for her. She just likes to do it. She just likes to sing. So, I was so grateful that it hit me that this would be an opportunity to try to get her voice recorded. It was her choice to sing Better Days Will Come At Last with me because she always liked that song. My wife actually came up with the idea of the Shelby Lynn cover – the Where I’m From where it has that lyric great lyric about being from Alabama and all of that.

“Again, to reiterate, I couldn’t be more blown away and proud and just impressed with her natural talent.  She’s 18 – 17 when we cut the song. She’s been playing and singing since she was about 15. But, I’m telling you, man, she just went on about her life. It’s not like she’s hitting me up, ‘Hey, Dad!  I want to do that again. I’ve written some songs!  I want to go into the studio with a band.’  No, man, she’s going to college and she’s in a sorority.  She wants to be in international business.  It’s just something that she does. I love her diversity and that she’s into all of this stuff. I’ll always be eternally grateful for having her involved.”

When I stated that I think she has a Sass Jordan-esque sound to her, Damon chimed in by saying, “What a flattering comparison, man! I think you’re dead-on about that. Any of the comparisons that she’s gotten have all been just quality singers. That makes me feel so proud!  Certainly, if she wanted to pursue it or continue it, I would do anything that I could to help her.”

Alice Cooper’s album, Billion Dollar Babies, is the first album that turned me on to his work when I was a pre-teen.  Generation Landslide, about a society that degenerated into bedlam and anarchy, was one of my favorites on that disc.  I was curious as to why Johnson selected that particular song to cover and how he got Alice to sing it on the album.

“Well, quite simply, Randy, my story is identical to yours. It was that album, and that song off that album, that really captured my attention for whatever reason. Ever since I did my first full tour with Alice in 2005, I’m always trying to get that song added into the set. Look, man, I get it. It’s a lot more acoustic based. It doesn’t have the arrangement, or even the production value, that all of his other great show songs have.

“So, we talked about it in the golf cart. We’ve talked about it at dinner. So, it was just an awesome day when I asked him if he would come and play harmonica on it like the original version.  He was like, ‘Absolutely!’  He was flattered that I would ask him.  It turned out to be a super, super cool thing.”

Wait a minute!  That’s not Alice doing the vocals?  Y’all listen to that cover of the song and tell me that Damon doesn’t sound just like Alice!

Anyway, Damon sheds some more light on the subject.

“Well, in the second what I guess is the chorus – it doesn’t feel like the chorus, really – but in the second chorus of the song he sings two lines and then we do the ‘La da da ta da!’ in unison.  It’s easily one of my top two favorite moments on the whole album. It just makes me smile.

“It’s funny, when he was recording his harmonica part, he had the headphones on and he was listening to the track.  He knew that it was my session.  It was the recording that I had been piecing together.  Obviously, the dynamics were different because it’s more acoustic guitar and not as much electric. In a minute, he goes, ‘How did you get my vocal on there like that?’  And I said, ‘That’s not you, Coop. That’s me!’  His mouth dropped open and he said, ‘Are you KIDDING me?’ I said, ‘C’mon, man! The coolest part of the whole song was your vocal on it all those years ago.’ I’ve heard that song a hundred thousand times and it came so natural to sing it with all a lot of his same inflections and his same phrasing. That made my day for him to think that that was him when it was really me singing it.”

“Listen, I’m going to blow your mind with this. Coop and I were talking about this song and the original recording. He said, ‘Damon, those lyrics were all pretty much stream of consciousness. We were just goofing around in the studio.  Mike (Bruce) or Glen (Buxton) had this guitar lick and, of course, Ezrin (Bob Ezrin, their legendary producer) morphed it into the genius that Bob always does. I just sat down with a notebook and just started ‘throwing up’ on the paper and that’s what fell out. We tweaked a line or two but, in general, it was all just off the top of my head.’

“You could knock me over with a feather after that. I would’ve thought that he had labored for weeks over that – to come up with all of those killer lines. It’s just another commentary on the genius that is Alice Cooper. That’s what keeps me here with him for so long.  I just think he’s a really rare, special artist. And to get to work with someone like that and write with someone like that and just be a part of that whole fame that is Alice Cooper has been VERY special to me, Randy. It’s, obviously, raised the profile of my career and it’s been an amazing experience.”

Neal Schon, John Guilford & Damon Johnson At The Dallas International Guitar Festival - Photo by Randy Patterson

I asked Damon for the background story as to how he would up getting the Cooper gig.

“Well, quite simply, one of the guitar players in his band right before I joined is an old friend of mine, Eric Dover.  Eric was getting ready to move on and he wasn’t 100% sure if he was going to leave Alice full time but he did take a break towards the end of his 2004 tour.  They held auditions and Eric had apparently told Alice that he needed to get me out there. The tour manager called and said, ‘Hey, we’re indeed having auditions. If you can come and play, we’ll give you a spot.’  I was like, ‘Wow!’

“I just kind of knew that everyone from Hollywood would show up and they would all look like Izzy from Guns ‘n Roses, I don’t know.  And, sure enough, man, that was kind of the case when I got there. I showed up in jeans and a t-shirt, looking like that guy in Brother Cane that listened to too many Skynard records”, Johnson said with a self-deprecating laugh. “But I knew the songs, man. I knew those things inside and out.  I had learned the parts with all of the right notes and I jumped on the microphone and started singing background vocals and I think Cooper appreciated that because he’s got so many vocals in his songs that he needs as many strong singers on the stage as he can get. I think that kind of helped seal the deal.”

Earlier this year, Alice Cooper was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Being asked if he felt the induction was having an impact on this year’s tour plans, Damon said, “It’s a real impact, man.  Alice and his manager are doing the right thing to take advantage of that momentum and they should. Coop should have been in the Hall of Fame 10, 15 years ago. But it is a great opportunity for him.

“There’s a lot of chatter in the press and it’s just a good time for Alice and even all the old guys – the original band.  They’ve made a few appearances and have done some stuff, which has been really fantastic – certainly for fans like me that love seeing that group together again.  I just think now, man, it’s time to celebrate the whole career that is Alice Cooper.  He’s certainly got lots to talk about now in the press between the Hall of Fame and Bob Ezrin coming back to do the next album, which is a HUGE deal!”

“This fall, they’re looking to release Welcome 2 My Nightmare.  It’s going to definitely be an extension of the original Welcome to My Nightmare, which is, for the people that don’t know, Alice’s first solo record without the original band. I’m sure that it’s going to be a two year period of activity – a lot of work. A lot of shows.

 “You know, I don’t think Coop is one of those kinds of guys that wants to keep doing a hundred shows a year into his seventies.  I’m sure he can see - not necessarily the finish line - but he can definitely coming where he really wants to scale it back to be with his family more. I know that he and Sheryl would love to be grandparents any day now. It would be fine with them!  Man, he’s earned that. He certainly deserves to be able to do whatever he wants.”

As a fan of all sorts of music, my rocker friends and readers will often give me a hard time for my love for country music.  With a lot of Johnson’s body of work, such as his Whiskey Falls tunes, falling into the country genre, I asked him how his fans have reacted at the cross genre work that he does.

 “That’s a good question. I’ll tell you this: The people that come to the show, anybody that came to the show to see Whiskey Falls play live – to a man, everyone of them said, ‘Oh, I get it. I totally understand why you would shift gears mid-stream and go wholeheartedly into this.’  Randy, the sound of those four guys singing together is as good as anything I’ve ever heard in my life, much less have been a part of. I have really have attempted to conduct myself fairly humbly throughout my career as far as what I think about my songs, my singing, my band or whatever. But, I’m telling you something, man, those four guys singing together in harmony, I would put up against the biggest name harmony groups that you could think of – even the big guys.

“I picked up the phone and called Alice and I said, ‘Coop, something really out of left field has come across my desk. It’s really special and I’ve got to give this a shot.’  Well, the first thing he did was say, ‘Why don’t you come and do the Christmas Pudding?’ That’s his annual Christmas charity thing. So, we did, man. In 2006, we came and sang at his event.  We brought the house down.  He and Sheryl came over to me afterwards and he said, ‘Damon, I totally get it! You’d be out of your mind to not do this!’

“We just all assumed that it was going to be a slam-dunk, to be honest with you, Randy. We really did. I loved it. I loved those guys. I loved those songs. It’s just a shame that we ran out of funding. We ran into some tough times, economically, when the whole economy in general took a hit in the latter part of 2007. We just never could recover from it. We were on a tiny label but we had done so much in that one year, year and a half.  Everything from playing the Grand Ol’ Opry twice (to standing ovations) to opening dates for everybody!  Alan Jackson, Brooks and Dunn, Brad Paisley, Vince Gill, Leann Rimes, the list goes on.  It was good mojo, man. We just simply ran out of money.”

Any chance of the band resurrecting?

“I never say never, mainly because I did those guys so much and know the power of the sound of those four voices together.  But it’s just going to be hard. Everybody’s got families and other commitments. We just felt that we had this window that we could all focus our attention 100% at one thing and we gave it as hard a shot as anybody could.  We just couldn’t get it – we couldn’t poke through that bubble to get to the next level to at least start to generate a little capital so that we could sustain ourselves.”

When I mention that many people are shocked to learn just how much a band has to support itself without any help from its record label, Damon concurs.

“That’s the truth, man. There are some great people who work at some of these labels and it’s a hard truth that many young artists can’t fully appreciate unless they’ve been through it. There’s so much of it that you need to do on your own. You need to build your audience on your own. You need to make your first recording on your own. You need to sell some tickets and sell some product – on your own. Then, you can attract some of these ‘suits’ with big checkbook that can put a whole staff behind promoting a single on radio and crafting your image and shooting videos and photos and all of that.  They’ve got to think that you’re something special for them to do all of that.”

On the heels of my Whiskey Falls question, I asked about the status of Brother Cane.

“Here’s the status right now, Randy. Brother Cane has done three shows in the last eleven years.  When we called it quits in early 2000, we had just run out of gas. We had been beaten up by our record label changing presidents three different times and three different field staffs and heads of promotion at radio. It was a challenge. A little similar to Whiskey Falls, we just couldn’t make a living doing it any more. Everybody’s marriages were in the toilet – was just rough. Since then, I had sort of an allegiance to those guys – that original band because we had been through so much together.

“As time transpires – this ties a little bit to the conversation we had about half an hour ago about family and about trying to find some balance – I do have that ‘disease’ of music. It’s going to be with me the rest of my days so I’ve got to find a way to scratch that creative itch, be a performer and be the breadwinner of my family. After all the projects that I’ve been a part of, I think – I know that I can’t outrun the shadow of Brother Cane anymore. It’s like, everywhere I go I get asked about it. I get such an amazing blessing – for lack of a better word, Randy – those songs have stood the way they have and that there is as much good mojo surrounding the name of that band – the songs that that band had. I wrote those songs. I sang those songs. I don’t think I’m going to run away from it any more.

“Now, with that said, I’ve got to see how this touring year shakes out with Alice and kind of what his plans are for 2012. But I absolutely intend to do a lot more work with Brother Cane in the next couple of years.”

The Alice Cooper tour isn’t going to last forever, so I asked Damon what was next after the tour was over.

“One thing I won’t do is put something I don’t think is ready. I’d love to make another Brother Cane record but the first thing we’ve got to do is get the songs together. So, I’m going to hit the road with the mindset that I want to start gathering material and writing some more.  It is a challenge to write on the road. I’m sure that you’ve talked to enough musicians to get reinforcement on that. A lot of times, it’s enough of a challenge to be on time and to keep yourself healthy. With as much travel as we do, that will chew up a full day pretty quickly. But we’ll see.

“I’ve talked to a lot of the guys I’ve collaborated with through the years and everybody’s in, man. Everybody is excited at this idea. I’m just really excited to know what the next batch of songs will sound like. I’m so proud of the projects I’ve done over the last five or six years – super proud of my latest album, Release. So, I want to know what’s next. I’d like to see what I can come up with. I got a lot to say – probably more now than ever before and I’d love to do it with an electric guitar now instead an acoustic. I’ve been playing electric guitar for so long that sometimes I don’t give it its own due. That’s kind of where I’m up right now – getting my chops back up because we’re getting ready to do these rehearsals – I’ve got the electric in my hand. It just feels good to work those muscles for a change. I love to play electric guitar. I’ve never been Mr. Hot Licks, super technical, Yngwie Malmsteen. But I can definitely close my eyes and just get lost in it. It’s another one of the selfish fulfillments that doing this so long has brought me. I love that.”

Speaking of the electric guitar, at the Dallas International Guitar Festival, I had the privilege of visiting with John Guilford, founder and owner of Guilford Guitars.  Guilford manufactures the Damon Johnson HB-1 electric guitar.  John comes across as a truly humble and confident man who knows what he believes and has a strong moral compass.  I commended Damon with his affiliation with Guilford Guitars.

 “Super humble, man!  Very mellow. Very caring. Very attention-to-detail kind of guy. I think that’s rare, man.  A lot of these guitar luthiers are either chasing the dollar and being consumed with trying to be a business man, which is fine. Or they’re so nerdy-weird about guitar schematics and measurements and neck widths and wood and it gets like, ‘Ah, I don’t want to talk to this guy, either.’  I think that John strikes a great balance with all of that.  He’s a pleasure to work with and I’m honored to be involved with those guys. They make a beautiful guitar. It’s just been very flattering that they approached me with all of that.”

Since it was obvious that Damon has put a lot of thought into what he wants to do, I asked him what he envisioned himself doing five and ten years from now.

 “Man, I think I’m going to be right here! I’m going to be making records. I want to be doing some amount of performing. But I’m hoping that in five or ten years I’m spending a few more days a year at home than I have the last five or ten. And I say that with excitement – not like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to give up this.’ I just want to lean a little more to the other side, Randy.”

With a chuckle, he added, “That’s not to say if Joe Perry breaks his leg and Aerosmith calls and needs somebody - I would jump at an opportunity like that. I’m just not out there looking for excuses to start up another band anymore. That’s why so many of these things that you have so flatteringly asked me about – it just feels good to feel like I’ve got a plan. Let’s keep it simple. Let’s keep writing as always but let’s think about Brother Cane. Let’s think about another solo record and let’s keep working with Coop. And that’s enough, man! That is a full time music career!  Anything more than that would be overkill and I-have-been-guilty-of-overkill in my life!  So, I’m ready to see what the next 5 or 10 years holds in store. If I’m lucky, I’ll get to keep playing and to keep writing and have a few people out there paying attention and interested in checking it out.”

As we wound up our chat, I asked Damon Johnson how he would like to be remembered long after he’s stepped off the tour bus for the last time.

 “Man, I would love to remember me as a guy that always felt like he was so lucky to get to do what he loved for a living. I don’t even think what they think about my guitar playing or my songwriting or my singing or any of that stuff. That’s the thing I try to get across to younger players, to my kids, to my family – I’m really fortunate in this day and age that I have spent my entire adult life getting to do what I love and to follow my passion. I can’t even explain how it happened, man!  Somehow, just staying committed to that, navigating all the bumps in the road has gotten me there.  How is that for an answer, man? I feel like I was really lucky to get to do what I get to do!”

Quinten Hope

Posted December, 2010

quintenhope00001One of the more rewarding and exciting things about what I get to do on Boomerocity is the discovery of talent that is new . . . or, at least, new to me. I’m flattered when people tell me that I’m an “expert” due to what I supposedly know. The fact of the matter is, I’m always “discovering” artists who have actually been around quite awhile and have developed a very respectable following.

Case in point: Quinten Hope

I learned of Quinten while interviewing guitarist, Andy Timmons.  In addition to bragging about Hope’s incredible talent on the guitar, he also mentioned that he was a principal in a new, high end guitar store, The Guitar Sanctuary. I made note of to conduct research on Hope to see if he would be someone I would want to interview.

My research (and acquisition of two of Quinten’s three CD’s, Start of A New Day and Reunion) opened my eyes to one of the best kept secrets of the Dallas/Ft. Worth music scene. To say that Quinten Hope is a talented guitarist would be like saying Tiger Woods is an okay golfer.  Hope is a highly disciplined artist who knows his craft inside and out and it shows in his recordings and in his performances.

The music I heard from those two discs treated my ears to some of the most intricate, work I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to. The music is incredibly well written and performed with precision, transcending a wide range of styles.  I became instantly hooked and am now a fan for life.

After a couple of preliminary visits at The Guitar Sanctuary and the exchange of e-mails, Quinten and I met for lunch at a local la Madeline’s to enjoy a tasty salad (we are both watching our girlish figures). Tucked away in a relatively quiet corner of the restaurant, we chatted about mutual friends and acquaintances and various business news.  Hope is a great conversationalist and we could have talked all day about a wide range of subjects.  It’s clear, though, that, besides his lovely wife, Caron, music is his passion and second love.

Every guitar player I’ve had the privilege to meet (friend or celebrity) eventually winds up telling me how they wound up playing the guitar and, if they’re a professional, what led them to pursue the life of a musician.  I asked Quinten to tell me what led him down his path.

“Well, I’ve always been around musicians – from the time I was growing up – my dad, he played. He had a band back in the fifties. It was him on guitar and bass – they would switch off. It was a four piece band that they had. They played the old Jimmy Reed stuff and Elmore James – just old rhythm and blues stuff.

“We got into the sixties and a couple of guys went into the army. They all lost touch for awhile and then got back together. But he would always have guys coming over to the house and do some jamming in the back. He was really getting me turned on to country like Waylon Jennings and all of those guys.

“One night I saw KISS. They had this really cheesy movie on. It was in 1977 and it was called KISS Meets The Phantom of the Park – ‘Movie of the Week’, you know? I just remember watching and going, ‘Wow! That’s out there? That exists?’ So, for years after that, I jumped around in my room with a tennis racket.  I put a flashlight in the window to shine on me like a spotlight and jump around with this tennis racket. And I did this for years!”, he says with an embarrassed chuckle.

Uh, you and millions of others, Quinten.  Or, so I’ve heard.  I’m just sayin’ . . .

“I remember specifically, one day, I was in there, jumping around and I actually stopped and turned the record off and go, ‘You know? If this is what I want to do – if I really want to do this – I might want to really learn how to play. If I’m going to stick with this tennis racket, I better start watching John McEnroe, you know?

“So, I got a real guitar. Actually, what was supposed to be a real guitar – it was better than the tennis racket. I think I was around 12 years old.  I got this white flying ‘V’ – because that’s what KISS played at the time - had to have it. Dad actually wanted to buy me a Les Paul and I go, ‘No! I hafta have the white flying ‘V’!’  It was by a company called ‘Hondo’.  It was a $250 guitar. Dad goes, ‘You sure you don’t want this Les Paul?’ It was, like, a thousand bucks back then. ‘No, man!’ Looking back, I wish that I had taken the Les Paul.

“So, they got me the guitar and I would sit around and pick everything out by ear. I was taking the needle off the record and putting it back, just figuring everything out.” When Hope shares this, I had to smile because great guitarist like Keith Richards came to mind for doing the exact same thing.

There comes a moment of truth in a musicians life – one of many, actually – when they make that first decision to play in a band. I asked Quinten at what point did he feel that he was good enough to play in public?

“Well, I was practicing a lot. I would go to school, come home and the first thing I would do was drop my books and play guitar all night long. I guess I was in eighth grade and just about to go into high school. I went to South Garland High School. There was a pop band called The Show Boaters – eleven vocalists, guitar, bass, drums and two keyboard players. It was school band and it was an actual class. You had to audition to be in it. What they did was they took pop tunes and country songs and work up a set and perform now and then – like at business luncheons and events like that.

“I tried out and I made it. At this point, I was the only freshman that played in the band. I remember standing there for the audition. It was my first realization, ‘Holy crap! I’ve got to play in front of somebody!’ I worked up this whole Randy Rhodes solo. I’m going to go in there and do some finger tappin’ and some Crazy Train!

“I go in there and start playing and I drop my pick! I’m fumbling around – what do I do? I dropped my pick! I couldn’t pick up the pick because my Jordache jeans were too tight to get the other one in my pocket! So, I just started making stuff up on the fly and, somehow, I made it into the band. I was in the there my whole high school ‘career’.

“I learned a lot. Every day, it was an actual class. You would go and set up in this room and rehearse a song. And, if you were in there, you automatically had to be in the choir. So, two hours of the day in school, I was doing music. And, then, I would go home and do music the rest of the night. That really helped a lot.”

This rigorous regimen obviously groomed Hope to be accustomed to the discipline necessary to practice and rehearse in order to become a world class musician. He pretty much says so as he continues.

“It was really good because they would say, ‘Here are the songs we’re going to do this semester.’ There would be 30 songs and I had to go and learn these 30 songs. They didn’t always have the music for them but, luckily, I had already been playing things by ear and training my ear. I had to learn all of those 30 in about a week because I didn’t know what we were going to rehearse. The instructor was tough and if I didn’t know the songs, I didn’t want to hear it from this guy at all!

“So, from the standpoint of making sure I had my stuff together and meet deadlines, it was really good training. It still transfers over today. If I have a gig somewhere – somebody calls me to do something for them, I’ve got to make sure that I’ve really done my homework and not just show up to the gig and go, ‘Let’s jam!’  That gave me a really good foundation.”

While researching Quinten’s background and work, I learned that he was a music graduate from University of North Texas.  I asked him if he went straight to UNT after graduating from high school.

“No, I was going to go be a rock star” he says with a laugh.  “The good thing about the time where I was developing a lot of skills and how to play, there was a lot of diverse music. Dad was into old blues, and new blues like Stevie Ray Vaughan and country – blue grass, even.  In the school band, we covered everything from pop tunes to classic rock to country to whatever. So I got my feet wet with a lot of different styles but, still, the whole rock thing was what was calling.

“So, I got out of high school and actually worked in a local music store. The reason why I wanted to get a job there was to meet other musicians. I figured, ‘Man, this is the place where everybody’s going to be.’  A friend of mine worked there – we became friends and he had a friend who was rolling through town and he used to be in a band as a bass player. He came in and I met him.  We got together and started writing songs.  So we did this little rock band thing. We gathered three other guys and formed a five piece band. We did really well. We dealt with Warner Bros. and Geffen Records.  We never signed anything and thank God we didn’t.  We were right at the turn when everything went Alternative – the whole Seattle/Grunge scene. So, I’m really thankful that it didn’t happen.  Of course, at the time, you don’t understand why it happened but, looking back it’s like, ‘Ah! Perfect!’

“The whole thing happened: The band breaks up as usual – after three years into it. It’s another one of those realizations where I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Alright, I’ve spent three years of my life working on this and it went away just like that. What am I going to do to make sure that it doesn’t happen if I want to keep doing music?’ So, that’s when I went to UNT and got involved there and got into reading music – the whole music theory thing.

“When I went up there I did Jazz Studies and Music Theory. I did a double major and, man, that opened up a lot of doors as far as developing my musicianship and musicality. And that was a big part of it, too. When I tell these stories and look back, it’s pretty funny. Even now, I’m sitting here thinking, ‘Wow, that was kind of cool!’

“At UNT, you either had to be classical music or you do jazz, which is funny because, if you try to go out and do jazz to make a living, it doesn’t happen.  So, again, you have to be fluent in multiple styles. Plus, trying to break into studio work, it’s the same thing.  You want to get calls where you can handle any situation – country gigs, pop gigs, whatever.  But, probably at North Texas, it was probably the worst playing I have ever done in my life.”

I asked Hope why that was.

“I think they really wanted me to try and sound like somebody who wasn’t me. ‘Oh, this is good but it’s too blues based or too rock based. You need to sound more like this . . .’.  So, I had this whole struggle going, trying to create my own identity but, at the same time, sounding like someone they wanted me to sound like. It just didn’t work but I got through the whole thing. I think one of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from Fred Hamilton. He runs the whole guitar department up there. I worked my way up to study with Fred. You study usually with grad students and TA’s (teacher’s assistants). So, I worked my way up. The first semester I’m with Fred, I’m all excited and am, like, ‘Yeah!’.  I’m sitting in his office – the very first lesson – he looked like Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings. He’s got the slicked back, long white hair with a beard. I kept on thinking, ‘Cast a spell or something.”

“But  he sat back and he was stroking his beard and he just goes, ‘I can’t make you play any better.’ What he was talking about was, ‘Taking a lesson with me is not going to make you any better. You’ve got the facilities, you’ve got the skills and the knowledge. You’ve got to go back to the music that you like – that you dig and you’ve got to get your head between the headphones and figure out what you like. We can talk about concepts and techniques and other approaches. You’ve just got to go back and dig into what it is you like.’”

After following his heart to pursue his musical passion in school, Quinten graduated from University of North Texas in 2001.  In addition to working on his own music, he also enjoys a reputation as a much sought after session musician. I asked him to tell me about that aspect of his career.

“Well, I try not to get it on the hundredth take.” He says with a laugh. “I try to get it done quick. The key is to try not to suck. It’s real funny because I was always in the studio with a rock band – we did a couple of CD’s. I’ve been in the studio doing my own thing. But it’s real funny, when you get a call from somebody to come do something because, most of the time, you DON’T know what to expect. I just did one – I guess it was last month – for about a week. I recorded four days for this guy’s record. But it was really cool and laid back. The band was great.  So, we did eleven tunes for this guy’s record.  But it’s pretty cool and it’s one of those things that keeps you on your toes because it’s not like you’ve got a lot of time. You’ve got to get it done quick to make sure that you don’t run up their studio bill.

“It’s like the whole recording scene changed a lot in the last few years.  Everyone has a home bedroom recording studio. I do a lot of stuff where people will send me a rough mix of a tune and I’ll drop it in my Pro Tools rig, record the guitars and send them a WAV file back and they just drop it in and it’s done. I’ve done a lot of stuff for guys in San Diego and New York.  It’s pretty consistent work.”

When Quinten isn’t hard at work in the business called rock and roll, he spends quite a bit of time applying his craft in the non-profit sector, most at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas. I asked him how that all came about.

“Prestonwood had their Saturday night service and their Sunday morning service going on. So, I got a call one day from somebody at Prestonwood and they said, ‘Hey, would you come over and play on Saturday night for us?’ And, at this point, they still didn’t have a lot of guitar music at all. It was mostly the orchestra and piano kind of thing. But, they had a song that had a guitar solo in it and they needed a guitar player. So, I went over and played that Saturday night.  A couple of weeks later, they called and asked, ‘Hey, would you come back and do it again?’ So, I went over on Saturday night. After a few times of that, they really started to like the vibe of what was going on. And, then, they added me to Saturday nights (as a regular) but nothing on Sunday.

“Then, one night, Todd Bell, the music director over there, said, ‘Man, we really like what you do and we want to add this in on Sunday morning, too.’ So, I have been there ever since. Now, there is lots of guitar music. We changed that pretty quick! We rock and roll over there now.”

Later in the conversation Quinten shares the story about a very interesting development that sprouted from his work at Prestonwood: “One thing that we got started there was the music school. I’d been on them for a long time that they needed to get a music school going. We talked about it and mentioned it here and there. We had lunch one day and they said, ‘Hey, we’re going to start a music school and we want you to be part of it.’ I grew the guitar department really big. I was teaching something like 40 people a week myself. Then, I had to bring on two other guitar teachers to help me with the load. It was pretty crazy and it’s still going pretty strong.”

Since Hope has an extensive – and impressive – resume of musical work that can be proudly pointed to, I asked him who all he has worked with that has commanded his respect.

“You know, you’ve heard of his drummer, Dan Wojciechowski . Well, he’s played drums on my CD’s, too.  He’s been on the road with Frampton – on the Frampton gig – for a couple of years now. The first time I got to play with Dan was actually at Prestonwood. The drummer that we were going to have was going to be out. So, Dan came in and played.  From the first measure of music, this guy’s groove was so deep, I said, ‘This is a cat that I’m going to play with!’

“I had already done my first CD and I was writing and getting ready for my second CD, Start of a New Day, and I said, ‘Alright, this guy is going to be on my CD.’  We had already gotten to be friends before that.  I was sitting on the couch one day and I started putting everything together. I go, ‘Alright, who is the perfect rhythm partner I would want to play with Dan?’ The first guy that popped into my head was Will Lee, off of (The Late Show With David) Letterman. I go, ‘There’s no way that’s going to happen.  He’s already so busy playing on everyone else’s records, there’s no way!’ I was in the mood that day that I felt that I could get anything done so I go, ‘Why wouldn’t he do it? Let’s make this happen!’

“So, I made a few phone calls and talked to a few friends and sent a couple of e-mails here and there and by that same night we were on the phone with each other. We spent over an hour on the phone just talking about everything. He said, ‘Yeah, man, I’d love to do it!’ I’m sitting there thinking, ‘I got hold of the wrong guy. He’s an imposter.’ To me he’s the most grooving bass player ever.

“He came down to Dallas and we did the record. That was pretty freakin’ amazing! The way that he and Dan would communicate musically on a groove – they wouldn’t have to say anything. They had never worked before – never met. Will was real impressed with Dan and Dan was just beside himself to play with Will – we all were. That was six years ago and, to this day, that is THE best band I get to play with.

“We did that record and we all stayed in touch – e-mails, phone calls. We talk all the time. I still do some shows with Dan around town. And, then, when I got ready to do Reunion – the last CD – of course, those were going to be the same guys that I wanted on it. So, we worked it out, schedule-wise. It’s kind of hard to do because Dan had just started playing with Frampton so trying to work that out, schedule-wise, was kind of hectic.  Also, trying to find time when Will could take off from Letterman. Dan was off from Frampton so we could work a week out where we could get together. It all worked out.

“We did that record and, to release that, Dan and I went to New York and played some shows with Will – at The Bitter End. That was a fun gig. We had Rob Arthur on keyboard. Rob Arthur is also Peter Frampton’s keyboard player. Rob is such a great dude. He’s got a CD out (Anywhere But Home) and it sounds awesome. It’s one of my favorite CD’s.  That gig was, I think, on September 22nd, 2008, and then we came back to Dallas.  The following week, Will flew down and my buddy, Bradley (Knight), who played with me at Prestonwood and is a great arranger and keyboard player, we all did the show at the Granada.  That was really, really, really cool.”

After exchanging our thoughts and feelings about the current state of the music business, Quinten uses the opportunity to brag on the music scene being fostered in McKinney, Texas.

“I really like the scene in McKinney as far as the square goes because they’re really doing a lot to support live music. And the people that go there are going there to hear live music. It’s not like in Dallas where you go somewhere and you’ve got people there going, ‘Gosh, I wish that band would shut up!’ At least in McKinney we’ve got that vibe going now to where it can be happening.”

“One of the things that blew me away – any time I go to New York, I’m blown away just because of the culture and the things that happen musically – the art, the vibe, the energy of everything.  When we got done with our Bitter End gig, which was cool because I looked out and I saw Felicia Collins – the chick on Letterman – and some other people that I know there and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, these people are watching me play!’ 

“After the gig, Will (Lee), goes, ‘Hey, man, Mike Stern’s playing over at the 55 Bar.’ Mike Stern is one of my favorites.  So we snuck in there. We walk in and it’s so crowded and we scoot in to the back against the wall. Mike Stern was playing. Cindy Black was playing drums – she plays with Beyonce and Lenny Kravitz. Will Kennedy was playing bass and there was a trumpet player with them. Man! They were playing at an intensity that was just incredible. But it was a volume that was just above talking volume. That was amazing! I got to talk and hang out with Mike a little after the gig. He’s such a cool dude. How cool was that?

“I come back to Dallas thinking, ‘That needs to happen here all the time.  Somewhere in the metroplex that needs to happen.”

Hope comes back to the list of artists who he highly respects.

“If I count my favorites on my hands, there’s Mike Stern, Eric Johnson, Andy Timmons. I’ve always got to throw in some old Clapton with Cream, Hendrix, of course. I missed all that stuff because, when I was learning to play, it was Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Richard Thompson, and those guys. I was learning about finger tapping and shred and do all of that. I got into the whole KISS thing and the whole 80’s rock thing.

“And, then, when I really started to get into playing, it was Steve Vai, Satriani and whoever else was shredding - John Sykes from Whitesnake, Paul Gilbert, all those guys.  That taught me a lot about technique and really getting in there and studying my picking, my left hand and learning all the scales and modes and getting as technical as I could be. And, then, someone turned me on to Stevie Ray (Vaughan) and it’s like, ‘Wow, man! That’s a whole other world!’ It floored me.

“Yeah, so those are my favorites: Andy, Eric Johnson, Mike Stern and Oz Noy is another favorite of mine, too.  He’s a cat up in New York. He’s actually from Israel. He’s kind of like fusion/jazz kind of stuff. The stuff that he’s doing is really, really cool. Check him out. He’s starting to get some good exposure on the scene. Then, there are guys like Tommy Emmanuel. He’s one of the hardest working dudes in the business. He stays booked. He loves to travel and tour. I saw him live, twice, over at Bass Hall (a world class venue in downtown Fort Worth). Oh, man! I walked away thinking, ‘Oh, wow! One guy, one guitar and entertaining? Wow.  I never met him but he comes across so genuine – the real deal.’”

Apparently, top shelf amp manufacturer, Mesa/Boogie feels that Hope is the real deal, as well.  So much so that they proudly include him as part of their impressive line-up world renown roster of artists. Artists such as Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Weir, Carlos Santana and Lindsay Buckingham, to name just a very, very few. 

Quinten’s talent, along with his solid relationship with Mesa/Boogie, have presented more than just performance opportunities.  Business opportunities also presented themselves to Hope.  One very intriguing venture is The Guitar Sanctuary – a high end guitar and gear boutique in McKinney, Texas.  Quinten shared how he got involved with the store.

“George (Fuller – a very successful luxury home builder in the Dallas area) had been wanting to do that (open the store) for a long time. We talked about it for the last couple of years.  I had been playing, recording and teaching and all of that.   He got it all up and almost ready. I was playing at Rick’s Chop House one night up in McKinney and they were up there – George and Maylee (George’s wife and lead singer of the Maylee Thomas Band) – because they were playing outside for a festival that was going on.  And then Andy popped in and played with us, too. So George and I were sitting there talking and he says, “Yeah, man, I’m getting really close to getting this thing done.”  And I go, “Well, let me know if I can help you. I’ll be there to help you out.” I was thinking, ‘If you need me to carry in some guitars or something.’ We just left it at that.

“Maybe two or three weeks after that, I get a call from Steve Mueller at Mesa Boogie. Mesa Boogie is partnered in as far as making us one of their flagship stores.  We’re one of two stores that they’ve partnered with.  One is Rudy’s music in Manhattan. They call that ‘Mesa Manhattan’. This store is now called ‘Mesa North Dallas’. So, they’ve made this their specialty shop.

“So, I get a call from Steve Mueller and goes, ‘Hey, man, George has got this shop and it’s really close to being finished  but we’re trying to think of someone who can partner with us on this and help run it.’ I go, ‘Well, I know this guy, this guy and this guy. They might be good guys.’  He says, ‘We thought about those guys but what about you?’ I go, ‘Uh, I don’t know.’

“Steve and I talked about it for awhile and it started like something I might want to do.  Later that day or the next morning, George called me and said, ‘Hey, let’s get together. We’ve got some things to talk about.’ So, we got together and talked and it sounded like a perfect deal – a perfect match. So, I go, ‘Yeah, man, I’m in! I’ve got a couple of extra hours in the day where I’m not sleeping. Let’s do something!” He says with a laugh.

“We just jumped into it and it has been going really, really well. We just had our full color ad come out in Vintage Guitar Magazine. That looks sharp. It’s starting to grow and getting national attention with orders for product. It’s getting out there.  We’re about quality and a good selection of quality. There are other stores around town that are good stores and they have their market. But George has his flair for design, style and resources – his taste for tone and equipment. It’s more towards what the Dallas Metroplex really needs - a place that you can feel real comfortable and just hang and check stuff out.”

Surely, working in neck deep in such a great store would present lots of curvaceous, six string temptations. Well, maybe not.  Not if he already owns a lot of guitars.  How many guitars does Quinten own and what is the most that he’s owned at one time?

“I think, right now – let me count real quick. Hang on.” He then starts using his fingers to go through his mental inventory.  “Right now, I think I only have 16.”

Only 16.  Is that all?

“But, at one time, I had over thirty. My goal was to have 52 so I could play one every week of the year so that it would be a year before I saw the same guitar again. But then I thought that would be a little obsessive about guitars. So, I went to my closet and I got rid of everything that I wasn’t playing. Some of them I should have held on to because they’re going to increase in value one day. But, they need to be played. They need to be loved. They can’t be lonely – locked up in a closet.”

So, what’s the “holy grail” Hope would like to own, guitar-wise?

“Man, I think I’ve already got it. I think I do. I’m more of a Fender Strat guy. I’ve got a 1959 Strat that is just amazing. I bought it ten years ago. Then, about five years ago, John English was one of Fender’s Master Builders. They had a handful of Master Builders and he was one of them.  The guitar that I have is one of the last ones that he made. It’s special. Besides the fact that he made it and that he was their best builder and passed away. They made one for me about 14 years ago that I really loved, too, a Fender Strat. But I picked up this ’59 Strat ten years ago and, like I said, it’s amazing. It’s a player’s guitar. It’s not just an investment to hang on a wall, even though it does. But this John English – it was everything I wanted in a Strat: the wood, the neck shape. I was really happy that John made it. When I took it out of the case and hit one note, that was it. I knew that he nailed it.  It has been a really great, special guitar. Yeah, definitely, my ’59 and my John English are definitely my holy grails.”

Later in our conversation, Quinten mentions a couple of acoustic holy grails.

“I love Collings.  Collings are awesome! Those guys are great. The first Collings I bought was an OM2H model. Great guitar – sounds awesome. But I think the holy grail of the acoustics that I own is my dad’s Martin – a 1977 D-28. This thing does have a tone to it. I’ve played a lot of old Martins that have a lot of years to age and mature. But, this one sounds pretty special.”

Since Quinten is more than adequately equipped to hit just about any stage to perform on, I asked about what his dream gig would be.

“Oh, man!  Probably play on stage with Paul McCartney. That would be THE biggest thing to do. The second biggest gig would be with Will (Lee) and his Beatles band, the Fab Faux. They do the whole record. Anything that’s on the record, they do it live. No recording or tracks. There are fourteen or seventeen people on stage making it happen. A string section and a horn section, rhythm section, vocals. It’s all going on. So, I think to play in something like that would be really cool.”

Who’s commanding your attention, guitarist-wise, these days?

“I don’t know.  I think it still goes back to the same guys because there’s something about guys like Tommy Emmanuel, Eric Johnson and all my favorite players – there’s always something about those guys that I can listen to the same record for five years and when I go back and listen to it, it’s like, ‘I never heard that!’ I think that I’m still trying to absorb everything that I started trying to absorb when I just started playing. I keep going back to that – just trying to absorb more of that.  It’s like going back and listening to Beatles records. There’s always something. It’s like, ‘Wait a minute! I never heard that before! Where did that come from?’ So, I think I still have my favorites but I still listen to it in a different way. I just approach it from a different perspective with my ears.

“I still listen to Clapton, Hendrix, Beatles, Mike Stern, Oz Noy, all those guys.”

With two of Hope’s three CD’s, I’m anxious to see this great artist come out with more work.  I wanted to know what he has coming out next and when.

“I’m working on the new record – the writing part of it. Hopefully, we’ll be in the studio maybe next spring, depending on schedules.  And, then, planning another show – a big release like the Granada or the Kessler, something like that and some more shows in New York. It’s going to be fun, man. It’s going to be fun.”

What going on five years from now?

“Five years from now? Man, I don’t know. Hopefully, more of the same but on steroids.  Maybe I’ll learn how to tune my guitar.” He says with a laugh.

I don’t mind saying that I’m a new, HUGE fan of Quinten Hope.  I love his work. I love his attitude.  I love the calm and confident vibe that seems to be ever-present with this incredibly talented man.  Kind. Approachable.  Honest. Humble.  You get the whole package with this guy. 

You can get the latest news on Quinten, including where he’ll be performing and when his latest CD will come out by visiting his website, www.quintenhope.com.  While you’re there, I would encourage you to order all three of his CD’s.  I promise you that you will love what you hear.

Bob Gruen

Posted March, 2010

bobgruen1Bob Gruen @ MoMA Collage Exhibit © Mandi NewallElvis.  Aerosmith. Elton John.  The Stones.  Alice Cooper. Zeppelin.  Lennon/Yoko. Dylan. Frampton.

These artists and icons dominated my mind (besides girls) in my youth.  Photo’s torn from my favorite rock magazines and posters purchased in the store (for the astronomical price of $1!) hung on my bedroom walls.

The images are burned into the firmware of my mind.  Their poses, grimaces and smiles frozen forever in their youth.  The close that they were in the shots influenced how I dressed and looked.  Jeans and jackets were purchased because of something similar Bob Dylan wore in a photo.  Platform shoes?  Thank you, Elton John.  Hair?  Thanks to a still shot of Mick Jagger in concert at Madison Square Garden, I started parting my longish hair in the middle, trying to feather it back just like Mick.

What single thread runs through these memories?  Many of the photos that hung on my walls, influenced my “look” and burned into my memory banks were taken by famous rock photographer, Bob Gruen.

Gruen was destined for rock and roll.  An avid fan of The Who in the sixties, they were the band that compelled him to join a crowd a half a million strong at a place called Yasgur’s Farm.  There, he witnessed not only the band that he braved the crowds and eliments to see, but many other historic performances that made the Woodstock festival the stuff of legends.

After Woodstock, Gruen eventually worked his way to the position of chief photographer for Rock Scene Magazine.  This afforded him the coveted vantage point of creating candid photos of bands and artist on and off the stage. 

Bob Gruen didn’t allow himself to be stuck in the seventies.  His interest in the music scene allowed him to effortlessly go with the flow of changes in the sights and sounds of musical tastes.  Gruen has covered almost every major act and artist the 70’s to today.

I recently caught up with Bob Gruen, by phone, at his gallery in New York City.  For some reason, I decided to start off the interview by asking Bob what career path he would’ve chosen had he not gone down the rock photographer path.  As with his answer during the rest of our conversation, his answers are open, honest and transparent.

“I have no idea.  Well, the 60’s were a different time from now.  Now, people really plan their future and their career.  In the 60’s it was turn on, tune in and drop out.  And that’s basically what I did.  I wasn’t really thinking about a career.  I didn’t really do very well in school and I didn’t have a major in college.

“I had an older brother who was an overachiever who always got straight A’s and it kind of left me with not much will to succeed on that level – to compete on that level.  So, I was living with a rock and roll band and having a good time. “

So, the obvious question in your mind would be, why photography, so I asked.

“Photography was always my hobby and I got pretty good at it.  When the band got signed, they used my pictures for the publicity.  I started meeting publicists for record companies and they started hiring me to take more and more pictures.  It just worked out that way. 

“I didn’t really have a plan to be a photographer in any specific sense – to be anything.  A policeman, fireman, anything like that. I really didn’t have a plan.  I was aimless.”

Boy, weren’t we all!

Having read his thoughts about attending Woodstock, I asked if he took any pictures while he was there.

“I did, actually.  I went as a fan of The Who and I like camping out.  Me and a couple of friends went up there to have a good time.  It’s funny, the pictures I took.  I did take pictures of my friends inside our tent so I have some ‘head shots’ with a green tent behind them but they don’t show much of the festival. 

“I did find a couple of dozen pictures of the festival that I took - a couple around my tent and a couple of the stage area.  I didn’t take any of the acts.  I wasn’t there to work in that sense.  I hadn’t yet started getting into the music business yet.  

Last summer, a French magazine asked me to put down my memories from Woodstock.  He (the editor) liked the idea that I was there as a fan and not working so I put together a story and put it up on my website (here.).

I asked Bob if he attended the 40th anniversary festivities back in August of last year.

“Not the 40th.  No, we didn’t go – or the 30th.  We went to, I think, the 25th.  Not the one that turned into an overblown riot but the first reunion which turned into a drunken mess.   We left half way through it.

“Actually, I went up the hill into Woodstock to see a real show.  We saw The Fugs, with Alan Ginsberg, who were playing on the Saturday night of the festival. 

All of us have stories of regrets and missed opportunities.  I asked Gruen if there were any shots or gigs that got away from him that he regretted missing.

“Oh, well, there are a lot of things I missed.  I wish that I could have photographed Otis Redding but I started a little too late to connect with him.  I met Jimi Hendrix once.  He said, ‘We’ll meet again’ but he was wrong” he adds with a sad chuckle before concluding by saying,  “But, other than that, I’ve pretty much met or photographed everybody that I wanted to.

Lots of changes have happened both in the music business and in the world of photography in general.  I asked Bob what he viewed as the most positive changes in his line of work.

“Oh, well, the ease of delivery.  We don’t have to rush to dupe slides and hire messengers and ship things to England overnight.  The idea of making multiple prints and rush and having to get them out to all the different magazines . . . now we just e-mail scans.  It’s a lot easier.”

And the biggest negative change in his line of work?

“Photography has gotten so easy that there’s tens of millions of people doing it!

“It used to be that a photographer had to be somewhat nerdy – to be a bit of a tech guy.  You had to focus and know what F stops and speeds meant.  You had to be able to develop and print film.  All of those things have been automated.  Now, you just pick up your phone and push one more button and whatever you’re looking at can be seen around the world.  That’s quite an advance.”

Gruen had voiced his displeasure with websites like Flikr. I wanted to know, though, if he saw the internet as more of a positive or a negative in his industry.

“Well, it negatively affects the work because people tend to think that everything they see on the internet is ‘free’.  Content is what I’ve sold all my life.  Everybody think it’s free.  It’s similar to the downloading of music files, people just take pictures and move them from one site to another and use them any way they want without even thinking that they have to pay for it.  So, this tremendously cuts into the income when people aren’t paying for your work.

I thought for sure that the proliferation of music videos and concert DVD’s over the years would have hurt the photography trade. Bob’s insights into this area set me straight on that perception.

“People tend to watch videos on YouTube or whatever.  You can’t put YouTube on your wall unless you have a big screen on your wall.  It recently came up in an article.  There was an exhibit recently at the Brooklyn Museum of Art called ‘Who Shot Rock’.  It’s about Rock Photography.  The reviewer wrote that he felt that video was the better way to review it.  We all could’ve been up in arms about that. 

“Video hardly captured the excitement of rock and roll at all.  To capture one peak moment in a still photograph that says so much about the energy and excitement, the mood of an artist - you can only do that in a photograph – a photograph that you can put on a wall and it’s just there.  You feel the inspiration.  Not like having to turn on a TV or to operate the machinery or video.  I don’t think that video cuts into the still.  The appreciation is still photo. “

As stated earlier, Bob Gruen isn’t stuck in the past.  I was curious, however, what his thoughts of the past are.  His answer is both philosophical and reflective.

“I respect the past and I think people should learn from the past but I don’t dwell in the past.  I don’t wish that I could go back to Max’s.  It’s like we shouldn’t even go back to high school.  Some people do but I certainly don’t.  I look forward , looking for new experiences.

Fast-forwarding to the present, I asked Bob what bands and artists command his attention today.  His response is instant.

“Greenday.  There are a few others that I enjoy. I’ve seen Courtney Love.  She’s a riveting performer.  You can’t take your eyes off of her.  But Greenday is certainly the top band of the land.  They’re the most powerful and meaningful band around.  And the most fun, especially if you’ve ever seen them live.  They’re the most fun band around today.

“There’s a group here in New York that I like called The Sex Slaves. They’re very  blunt and also a lot of fun.  But there’s not a lot.  I was never somebody who ever sought to follow every single group that ever existed and have an encyclopedic knowledge of it.  I just follow what I like.  I’m a fan.  I mostly follow my friends or people friends recommend.  I’m not out every night on the prowl looking for a new band.

“I’m a bit older now.  Thirty years ago it was fun for me to sit on a bus with 22 year olds who are getting drunk but it’s not really the same any more for me.”  With a laugh, he adds, “I’m a grandfather nowadays,  I prefer to spend time with my family.

With the mention of his family, I commented on the fact that his son, Khris, is pursuing a little bit different route in the music business than his.

“Yeah, he’s just finishing up his third CD, which should be out soon.  He’s got his fans and he’s getting more and more popular.   He started kind of late – somewhat intimidated by my reputation.  Also, my ex-wife married Joe Beck, the jazz guitar player, who is a world famous musician. And I think that, rather than encouraging Khris, it kind of held him back a bit because he felt he couldn’t on that kind of level.  And I’m very happy to see that he’s doing very well on his own and enjoying it a lot.

In the course of the conversation, I mention the use of his photo of John Lennon that graces the cover of Philip Norman’s biography of the man.  It brought to mind the many others Bob Gruen had known because of his line of work.  I asked him who are some of the people that he misses either due to their death or retirement from active life and what is it that you miss about them?

“I miss Joe Strummer – being able to hang out with him and spend time with him.  His shows were great.  He was great.  It was great fun. Whenever my wife and I would go out to dinner with Joe Strummer, we would have to remind each other to bring our sunglasses because we knew we weren’t coming back until after the sun was up.  When you walk out of a bar at eight in the morning you NEED your sunglasses” he finishes with a laugh.

“Of course, I miss John Lennon – hanging out with him.  He was great. Every time I saw him, I felt that I learned something.   I miss a lot of people.  I miss Johnny Thunders.  Joey Ramone.  But I make new friends.  The Sex Slaves, Green Day.  You move on.  That’s the down side to living longer than your friends, missing them” he says with a chuckle.

With so many accomplishments that he can point to, I asked Bob what he would like to achieve that he hasn’t already.  His deadpan answer floored me.

“Make a lot of money.”

Say WHAT?! I thought rock photographers made a lot of money?

“No, this is a VERY low budget operation!  I don’t know if there was more than two or three times in my life when I started the month with enough money to finish it.  I mean, I never had a cushion where I knew my bills were paid.  I’ve always had to work every week to insure that I would have an income.

“I think that people tend to think that if you hang out with Led Zeppelin or John Lennon that you have that kind of money – that you live on that kind of level rather than just visit.  I visit.  But then I come home to a small apartment in the Village.  I don’t have a yacht. For many years I never even had a new car.  Only recently, because my wife has an income and she shares with me am I able to lease a new car.

“I’m doing much better than I used to.  I’m at least leasing a new car rather than driving my old beaters.  It’s a misconception that you live the high life and travel around and make a lot of money.  Some photographers do.  A few. Not many. 

“Certain photographers working with a ‘boy band’ who sells dozens and dozens of pictures to every magazine around the world - if you have good access to them then you can make some good money.  But, for most people shooting most bands, especially nowadays there are so many magazines and so many online so-called magazines that pay practically nothing because there are tens of thousands of people interested in photography since it got so easy.  And many of them will just give away a picture for the credit.

“So, though prices have increased ten-fold, payment for photographs haven’t increased much at all since the 70’s.  If anything, it’s going down because of so many more people willing to just put it out there for credit.

“And then other things like Corbis and Getty – the major photo agencies that are buying up the other smaller photo agencies in the world – they’re trying to own the content and so they’re purposely setting out to put photo agencies and photographers out of business by licensing photos at tremendously discounted rates.  I mean, photos that we license for four or five hundred dollars, they license for five or ten dollars, literally that kind of difference. And to have to try and compete with those kinds of prices, we can’t.  That’s the point: those kinds of companies want to put all of the other people out of business.  They want to own all of the content for the future because content is king on the internet.”

Wow!  Who woulda thunk it?

How about touring exhibits?  I wanted to find out where I could see exhibitions featuring his art and if books were available featuring him.

“I don’t really have a world-wide agent organizing that.  I’m still pretty independent here.  So, I only do a few exhibitions a year.  I do have a some planned in June for London and, possibly, in the fall in Paris.  My John Lennon book is going to come out in French next October in France. 

“I just had a big collage piece of my work that was in the Museum of Modern Art over the last summer, but that’s over now.  ‘Who Shot Rock’ is going to travel to five other museums.  It may actually be down south there.

“We’re also excited about getting the show together for the opening here in NY – I don’t even have the list of where it’s going.  It closed here January 31st.  But then I know that it’s going to travel to a few other places.

“My website, BobGruen.com, directs people to most of the available things.  My photos are available from several different galleries here in the states.  There’s one in particular that does a lot of business online.  My books, Clash is still in print but hard to get.  John Lennon is still available.  The New York Dolls book is available on Amazon or BarnesandNoble.com or whatever website people want to go to. 

“The best collection of my work, called Rockers. Currently it’s only published in Brazil but it’s available on my website but it’s a little pricey because it’s heavy and we have to ship it.  I think its $60 or $70 with the shipping.  But that’s the biggest collection of my work.

“I’m currently just beginning to work on a book that will be out in the fall 2011 that will be an American published collection of my work.”

My time with Bob Gruen was quickly coming to a close and I had a couple of more questions that I just had to ask.  One had to do with his thoughts about the artists’ he knew (other than Lennon) who are no longer with us.

“Joe Strummer comes to mind first.  I spent a lot of time with him.  Joey Ramone.  He was a wonderfully sweet guy. Johnny Thunders was a good friend.”

What about the other artist who he wasn’t quite as close to?

“Quite a lot of my photos were just done as jobs.  They were friendly but not necessarily friends.  You’re pleased to see each other but you don’t go out to dinner with each other. Some of them you develop friendships with. As in any business where you work with a lot of people there’s certain people that you hit it off with and wind up being friends with.

“I was lucky in that way to have a number of good friends.”

I thought I was wrapping up the interview by commenting as to how I thought it said a lot about him with the fact that he was able to develop the relationship and friendship with John Lennon and Yoko and that he still has the relationship with Yoko.  Only expecting a “thank you” for the compliment, Gruen, instead, takes the opportunity to defend his good friend, Yoko Ono.

“You know, Yoko’s been very maligned in the newspapers and in the press.  With her new album in the past year, she’s got quite a bit of positive press.  But, when people ask me what kind of women Yoko is, I always say that she’s the kind of women that John Lennon could marry.”

Since he opened the door to discussing Yoko Ono, I asked Bob what he thought the biggest misconception about her was.

“The biggest misconception?  That she doesn’t have a sense of humor. John said that she’s the most famous unknown artist in the world.  Everybody knows who she is but nobody knows what she does.  And I think with her new album out, she’s getting a lot of press, she’s getting a lot of attention.  More people are getting to see her perform and starting to get an idea of what a wonderfully open and how much humor her work has.

“She’s quite prolific.  On her website, Imagine Peace, she answers 10 to 15 questions every week from people all over the world.  They just write in questions and she comes up with almost zen-like answers.  She’s got a Twitter feed that she updates every few hours with, again, zen-like conceptual art ideas.  She’s just fascinating.”

Soon after, we wrapped up our chat.  While going through the rest of my hectic schedule on that January day, I reflected on the gems that Bob Gruen gave me in the way of stories and quotes.  I also realized that Bob still influences us today.  Long gone is our ability to squeeze into hip-hugging bell-bottom jeans and whose feet can handle wearing platform shoes? And I don’t even want to go down the path of discussing my hair. 

No, those are pains we can do without.  However, while Bob’s work from the past brings us smiles and memories, his work today is creating new impressions that will stay with us for the rest of our days.

Thank you, Bob Gruen, for all that you’ve done and are doing.

Beth Hart (2013)

Posted May, 2013

 

BethHartmay2013Beth Hart.  Haven’t heard of her?  Okay, well, she’s not quite yet a household name but just wait, she will be.  What makes me so sure?  I’m glad you asked. There are several reasons. 

First, for some people, it just seems to be a blinding glimpse of the obvious.  The story is told that, when she was four years old, she saw a commercial advertising pianos that had as a musical backdrop Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.  In the middle of the night, she got up and played a segment of the song on the family piano, which drew out all of the family in amazement.  She says of that moment, “ . . . the ham in me knew right away that this was what I wanted to do. I just knew . . .”

Second, she’s been in the music business for over twenty years, getting a big, early boost by winning the national title to Ed McMahon’s Star Search – long before there was an American Idol or The Voice.  As her reputation grew, she garnered the attention of such guitar greats as Jeff Beck and Slash, working collaboratively with them on various projects. 

What has apparently set Beth’s musical career on a whole new trajectory was the result of a serendipitous meeting with guitar great, Joe Bonamassa, in a hotel lobby.  Beth was asked to join Bonamassa in 2011 on the Kevin Shirley produced CD, Don’t Explain – a great album of soul-rock covers. It was this CD that brought the classically trained Hart to the attention of Boomerocity and legions of other new fans-for-life.

Adding to the growing fan basecame Jeff Beck’s invitation for Beth to join him on the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors to pay tribute to blues legend Buddy Guy, performing the Etta James classic (and one of Boomerocity’s all-time-favorites) I’d Rather Go Blind. While viewers may have tuned in to see Led Zeppelin or David Letterman being honored, as the Baltimore Sun wrote, “Everyone was on their feet when {Beck and Hart’s} soul-searing performance ended.”

I can second that “emotion” by saying that every time I post the video of that performance on my Facebook

What a reintroduction to America!

In March of this year, Ms. Hart followed up Don’t Explain with the critically acclaimed Bang Bang Boom Boom. It was in support of this album that I was fortunate and privileged to speak with her about the album after her return from touring in Europe.  Despite the extensive globetrotting, she sounded relaxed and well-rested.  Obviously, she’s quite the seasoned tour veteran.

As we started our conversation I asked Beth what the reaction to Bang Bang Boom Boom has been so far both here and abroad.

“Well, you know, I just love the CD so much. I’m so excited about it. But, you know, I know better – I’ve been around long enough to know not everyone is going to like it, right? So, when I started doing the press work, I can’t believe how amazingly supportive everyone has been and it just thrills me to pieces! 

If I’ve counted correctly, in your twenty year career, Bang Bang Boom Boom is your ninth solo album (counting the ones with your bands), not counting your two duets with Joe Bonamassa, correct?

“It counts the Don’t Explain record but not the See Saw record.  The Seesaw record will be the tenth.  Also included in that is the Live at Paradiso DVD that we also made as a record. So, it would actually be the tenth if you include Seewaw.

With that impressive body of work solidly under her belt, I asked Beth what was different in making this album compared with her other work.

“Well, by far, the first record I ever made was a record called Ocean of Souls. I was twenty years old. I didn’t like it because I don’t think I was really confident in myself and the people I was working with. It was kind of all over the place. I was scared. But, then, once it was finished, I thought it was nice. But the actual process of it – you know, I’m kind of a neurotic, OCD type of personality and I’m used to being in the studio for years because my producer was also my manager for years – since I was fifteen.  So, we spent a lot of time in the studio together but now we were actually making a real record. 

“Then, when I signed over at Atlantic, I made a record called Immortal which was my first major record company album and I didn’t really enjoy that, either. Again, I loved the music. I loved my band.  But it was the process. I was going, ‘I guess making records is just not for me. I’m really not enjoying the process.’

“It wasn’t until I produced my third record, Screamin for My Supper, with a good buddy of mine, Tal Herzberg, who was my bass player. Then I started really enjoying making records! Maybe it was because I was more in control. Maybe that gave me more security. I could kind of do things the way I wanted. But, still, it never became my favorite thing to do until I did a record called 37 Days where we started recording everything live together as a band to tape with vocals. That’s when I found, “Okay! This is the way I’m supposed to make records! This is how I love it!” So, yeah, that’s the only way I like to do it now.”

As for her latest record, “It was real fluid, easy and exciting. Ever since we started with Joe Bonamassa on the Don’t Explain record with Kevin Shirley producing – who’s an absolute genius! He’s my favorite person to work with! I hope to God I get to work with him on every record for the rest of my life! And, then, the second record I worked with Kevin Shirley was Bang Bang Boom Boom – this record that we’re talking about tonight. And, then the third record is the Seesaw record, which has not come out yet. But all three records – the first one, Don’t Explain, four days to make the record. On Bang Bang Boom Boom, six days to make the record and Seesaw was six days.  So Kevin works fast and we do everything simultaneous to tape and it’s just heaven that way! It’s really great!”

As I’ve stated in other interviews, I know that artists refuse to pick a favorite song on their albums because it’s like picking your favorite child. However, I asked Beth if she were to pick only one song from the CD as THE song to play for someone to hopefully entice them to pick it up, which song would it be?  Before I could even finish the question, she blurted out unequivocally, “Baddest Blues. That’s by far my fave. Yeah, I love that song so much and I think it embodies the colors of the whole record within that one.”

Ms. Hart then shared the story behind that song.

“Well, one of my favorite songs is the Billie Holiday song, Don’t Explain, and a song called Strange Fruit. Nina Simone does a phenomenal version of Strange Fruit. I grew up as a kid just being a huge Billie fan because my mother was and my mother always had just the best taste in music. Anyway, I was thinking about those two songs. I started working on the music first, which is what I always do when I’m writing. I kind of got some music down for it and started working on arrangements for it. I had a bit of a melody that I was messing with, as well. And, then, when it came time for the lyrics - which is another thing I do, I let the music dictate to me what the lyric is going to be, what it makes me think of, whether it’s a memory or projection of some dream I may have of the future.

“So, what it started speaking to me about was my mother and father’s divorce. My mother is such a strong, strong survivor of a woman but it broke her for a period and she ended up in bed for a few months. She just couldn’t get out. And to see such a powerful, strong woman broken like that was devastating to a little girl to see that happen to your mother. Also, Billie Holiday, the pain she suffered in her life. Billie and my mother remind me so much of each other. So, that was my muse for the song. I just love it even though it’s a painful topic, the truth is she did survive. She made it through it and better for it on the other side. She’s just an honorable, beautiful woman. She’s seventy-seven and she’s still strong and has more energy than I’ll ever have.”

My research showed – as does Beth’s performances – that she’s a very intense person. I wondered if writing a song as personal and emotionally impactful to her, personally, does that drain her.

“No!  God no!  Not at all! It’s just the opposite.  You know what does drain me that I make sure I stay away from at all costs? Is trying to write something for radio or trying to write something that you think will be a hit. That is exhausting. Forget it. You can never do it. You never know what they’re going to play. It’s a waste of time. But what gives me energy is getting to the truth. The funny thing is for me to tell the truth. Even when I’m ready and I want to and I want to be able to divulge whatever things I’m dealing with or struggling with – or even excited about – to be about to articulate it in the most honest way possible is very, very hard. Not because I’m scared of anybody hearing it but I don’t know if I can get me to do it. Because I could be in denial or be in a protective place where I don’t want to admit to myself that’s how I feel.  So that’s really what the struggle is. It’s not the music, it’s the lyric. Really, I work on it and I work on it and I try to get myself to feel as safe and secure as I can to just be able to be a real human being; to not have it together; to not try and convince myself that I’m okay. And when I finally let myself divulge that, yeah, I’m not okay. I’m still screwed up with stuff, there’s something so freeing about that, getting that load off and go, ‘Ah!’, you know?  That’s my favorite part about writing. I love to get to that place.”

I hate asking artists questions that I know have been asked them a million times. However, since I know that Ms. Hart is a new name to some Boomerocity readers, I had to ask (for your benefit, of course) who her musical influences were as she was growing up. 

“I have so many, oh my god!  Beethoven, Bach, Rachmoninoff, Billie Holiday, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, The Ramones, Carol King, James Taylor, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline. I could just go on and on and on. Every genre of music I’ve ever been turned on to – any Latin music, African music, Chinese music, any kind that I’ve ever heard in my life, I’ve just been dumbfounded by the miracle of it, the beauty of it. Human beings have so much to say in all forms of art and it’s all over the world. It’s so beautiful. So gorgeous. It really shows you how people really feel about what’s going on in the world. It’s just fantastic. There’s some good stuff out there.”

Some in the industry have compared Beth to the late, great Janis Joplin. I asked her how she felt about that comparison.

“Oh, I just absolutely adore her! You know, I never grew up listening to her. It wasn’t until I got into my early twenties that I kept hearing people say, ‘Hey, you remind me of Janis.’ So I said, ‘I’ve gotta go out and I gotta get this Janis person and see who this is.’ Well! When I got some of her records and when I got some video tapes back when they had video stores and I watched some of her stuff live, I just realized that I was really looking a real legend; someone who was a pioneer; someone who had unbelievable courage; such talent and huge range!  I think she would’ve gone on to do so much more great and fabulous art. It’s an absolute tragedy to die so young but what she left behind was wonderful, I think, for men and absolutely for women. No matter who you are, if you get enough fight in you and gumption in you, you can do anything! She showed that a white woman could do heavy rock and roll and make it fabulous. She really delivered that. Every time someone mentions Janis to me, I’m so honored and happy to hear that! Of course!”

In a gee-whiz moment, I mentioned that I thought it would be great if she did a gig or two with Janis’ old band, Big Brother and the Holding Company.  Ms. Hart said, “You know, I got to work quite a bit with Sam Andrew (original and surviving member of BBHC), who was there original guitar player. He’s fantastic! He worked with us when we did the off-Broadway Love Janis. He’s a lovely man. Such a warm and kind man.  Highly intelligent. Oh yeah! I feel like an idiot when I’m talking to him but I love him anyway!  Ha! Ha!”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

With such great names having influenced her musical tastes as she was growing up, I asked her who was capturing her attention these days.

“Oh god! So many people are grabbing my attention!  I’m crazy in love with Vintage Trouble and, thankfully, I can say that I know the guys very, very well. They’re great guys! What AMAZING performers! Great music and so soulful! Ty Taylor is one of the best front men I’ve seen on stage. I’m a big fan! Aloe Blacc is so fantastic, the music he’s doing. Unbelievable talent!  I was the hugest fan in the world of Amy Winehouse. I know we just lost her a few years back now but I just loved what she was doing. I thought she was right up there with Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday. Her writing, her singing, her phrasing – just an extraordinary talent. I’m a big fan of Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine. She’s a great songwriter!  Great, great music they’re coming up with over there. I’m into Gary Clark, Jr. right now.  So, yeah, there’s some stuff out there that I really enjoy!”

Beth Hart has had to deal with a few personal matters in her life.  Those challenges have been thoroughly covered in other excellent interviews and I saw no need whatsoever to have her rehash them in this interview.  However, I know that she’s learned a lot from her challenges and I asked her what encouraging advice would she like to give to women – and even men – who deal with the same matters as she has and does.

“One in four people with mental illness will die of suicide. That’s a fact – a statistic. There’s no getting around that. If you have a bipolar disorder, it’s so dangerous. You absolutely, ABSOLUTELY have to find a doctor you trust and will get you on proper medication and then you have to take that medication. Just like you have to eat to live, you have to take the medication to not kill yourself or go so manic, so crazy that you end up in a hospital several times a year or you may hurt someone else.

“It’s a dangerous, dangerous disease. It’s not your fault. There’s no guilt or shame. That’s a big part of the illness – you feel very ashamed, very guilty. You don’t understand why you keep behaving this way. But it’s not because you’re bad at all – in any way. You’re sick. There really is help that can really make a difference in your life! Please! Get a good doctor and medicine and do whatever you can to learn how to take care of that brain! There’s a lot of wonderful, natural ways, also that help the brain but not without medication.”

With our time winding up, I asked Beth the same final question I have asked many other artists: When she’s performed her last gig and she’s gone to that great stage in the sky, how does she want to be remembered?

“I hope that I’ll be remembered that I really put it out there and loved being alive. How beautiful it is to be alive! And the gift – the gift of life, making music and having people you love; your family, your friends. Food!  How wonderful food is and nature and God. And, if you don’t believe in God, that’s cool, too, you know. Being an atheist, maybe is into the forest or something. It doesn’t matter. Just enjoy life and, hopefully, that came through the music – the joy of making music and of being alive, more than anything!”

Beth will undoubtedly be around for many years to come and will be delighting fans with her albums and performances.  Check out her website (here) to stay in the loop about her latest tour schedule and upcoming CD releases.

Danny Goldberg

The Danny Goldberg Interview
(Posted On PerfectSoundForever.com)

February 1, 2010

 

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