Friday, October 2, 2015

Ten Questions With......Mick Kolassa

Mick Kolassa is a talented musician, lifelong blues fan, and a member of the Board of Directors of the Blues Foundation in Memphis.  He's also very active on the music scene in Memphis and in the Mississippi Delta.  Born in Michigan, Kolassa has lived in Mississippi for the past twenty years and has earned the nickname "Michissippi Mick."

To date, Kolassa has issued two recordings, both on Swing Suit Records.  The first one, Michissippi Mick, debuted in 2014.  It featured Kolassa with some of Memphis' finest musicians and a sharp set of original tunes along with some intriguingly reworked covers of roots, rock, and blues tunes.  His latest release, Ghosts of the Riverside Hotel, includes many of the same musicians, including producer/guitarist Jeff Jensen, keyboard master Victor Wainwright, harmonica ace Eric Hughes, and many many others that blues fans, especially Memphis blues fans, will be familiar with.

Both discs are entertaining from start to finish, with great contemporary originals that also pay tribute to traditional blues and roots music and his interesting "bluesified" reworkings of classic tunes of multiple genres.  Best of all, 100% of the proceeds from sales of these discs goes to the Blues Foundation, split between two very worthy programs:  The HART Fund and Generation Blues.  Please visit the Blues Foundation page for more information on these programs and others.

Mr. Kolassa was gracious enough to sit down for Ten Questions this week about his new album, his musical style and influences, and the Blues Foundation's future plans and goals.  We thank him for taking the time to do so.

Ten Questions with Mick Kolassa

Friday Blues Fix:  Can you tell us what drew you to the blues?  You’ve been a fan for a long time.

Mick Kolassa:  I started listening to and enjoying blues music fifty years ago, when I bought my first Robert Johnson record.  At the same time I was becoming familiar with Hank Williams and other pioneering country artists, and really saw the similarity in the music and the themes of the songs.  I was already doing “folk music” and these styles fit in perfectly, but blues just hit me much more deeply, probably because I was also a fan of Soul and R&B.  In the late 60s so much of the great rock was based on blues that it all just fit together and reinforced my love and appreciation of blues.

FBF:  When did you decide you wanted to be a musician?

MK:  I always wanted to be a musician, and my father fed that desire by talking to me about which instruments I would play.  I started playing the drums in the school band when I was about 12 and soon after also took up guitar.  From then on I have just always had an instrument within reach.

FBF:  Who are some of your influences as a singer and guitarist, and how did they influence you?

MK:  For guitar I’d say my two biggest influences are BB King and John Lee Hooker – because they could both do so much with just a couple of notes.  BB could say more with four notes than most of the folks out there who are showing how fast they can play.  John Lee was the master of keeping it simple in a different way - he could make one chord with a simple riff and hypnotize the world with it.  To fill it out I would have to add two more Kings and another Hooker - Albert and Freddie were also masters of keeping it simple, but with a little more attitude.  Earl Hooker was a guitarist who could take two or three very common riffs and turn them into the most beautiful song you ever heard, also without trying to play too many notes.  You can’t go wrong with those 5 guitarists.

Vocally it’s harder to pin down, mainly because I believe that a vocalist has to sing like themselves to be credible, so I don’t try to sound like anybody.  But I can say that Howlin' Wolf and Frank Sinatra are probably to two big influences on my singing for very different reasons; Wolf’s inflections when singing were amazing, the way he sang a word or phrase drove the meaning home, he used his voice – not just the words – to tell the story and deliver the message.  When he sang a line you believed he was speaking the truth.  Sinatra understood the musical underpinnings of a song, he used the melody and rhythm as the basis for what he sang but he sang around them – he didn’t just connect the dots or color inside the lines.  I’m doing that more and more, I can get deeper into the song when doing that.  My three favorite singers today all do that, but in very different ways.  Sugaray Rayford has this big wonderful voice and a heart to match it.  When he sings it just feels like he is celebrating the song and that knocks me out.  John Nemeth has a very different style, with voice like butter, he has such a wonderful tone to his voice, and the ability to make it really work within the song that he’s singing that I can’t help but love to hear him sing.  But I have to say that the singer who really amazes me is better known as a piano player, and that’s my buddy Victor Wainwright – he can boom it out with the best of them but he can also tear out your heart with “I’d Rather Go Blind.”  Whenever I hear any of these people sing it really hits me, and I try to adapt some of their styles into what I do.  Even though I’ve been singing for 50 years I’m still learning to do it better, and really enjoying it more.

FBF:  Who are your songwriting influences and how do they inspire you?  Can you describe your songwriting process?  How did you go about crafting some of your songs on the new album?

MK:  First and foremost Willie Dixon is my biggest influence, he understood the need to tell a story for the song to hang together, and he also used a lot of humor, which I obviously do too – whenever I’m working on a new song I reach back to Willie for inspiration.  But I also have to give credit to Lennon and McCartney as well as Smokey Robinson and even Kris Kristofferson for influencing me and my songs, their use of words to paint pictures was special, and I try to draw from them as well.  I could probably list a dozen others, including Townes Van Zandt, Jimmy Reed, Jimmie Rodgers, Tom Waits, and Randy Newman – they all helped to shape the way I think about songs and songwriting.  The common theme with all of them is that they tell stories, complete stories, with their songs, and I try to do that.  I think that there are too many “songs” today that are just words and thoughts put together to fit into the music the artist wants to play, not real thought to the lyrics.  I just can’t do that.

My songs come about in two different ways.  First, a phrase will catch in my mind – often after is leaves my mouth – and it just sounds like it would be a good song so I play with the idea.  Often the phrase just turns into a song that almost writes itself.  On this album my song “If I ain’t fishin” came directly from that, and one I just finished is called “My hurry done broke,” which was what I told a guy who asked me to walk faster.  Sometimes I’ll have an idea for the story of a song that will come to life when a phrase comes to mind. On this album the song “I always meant to love you” came that way – I thought about what the song should be for quite a while, which was to tell the story of a guy who realizes too late that he should have spent his life with a particular woman rather than running around, but it wasn’t until that phrase “I always meant to love you” came to me that I could write the song.  The other way a song will come to me is when I am strumming the guitar or messing around on a keyboard and an idea for a melody comes to mind.  I will play around and try out different words and ideas to go along with the music that then something will just click.  But in both of those cases once the song starts it basically writes itself – when the idea is right the song just comes out.

FBF:  Can you tell us how your latest album, Ghosts of The Riverside Hotel, came to be?  This is a really fun album.   

MK:  After my last album was so well received I was just anxious to try to do it again.  I had some song ideas that I was working on that didn’t make it to that album, and others that I had been working on since the release, that I found myself with about 20 songs that I wanted to record.  Over the last year Jeff Jensen and I talked a lot about music and recording, thinking about what we had done on our last albums and what we would like to try out.  For this album I had every song worked out pretty much completely before I started working on them with Jeff and the band.  I had played them many times in small gigs and for friends and family to get some feedback – usually just on my acoustic guitar. Because of that we were able to get these songs down with only a couple days of rehearsal and 4 days in the studio with Jeff Jensen, Bill Ruffino, and Robinson Bridgeforth to get the basic tracks down.

I wanted to cover a lot of ground, like I did on my last album.  Blues is a big tent with a lot of styles, and I love to play all of them, so I wanted to have as much variety as possible.  I also wanted to take another classic rock song and “bluesify” it, like I did with “The Letter” on my last album.  Randy Newman’s “Mama Told Me Not to Come” was a natural for this, and I love the way it came out.  I also wanted to honor the great Josh White by getting more people to listen to “One Meatball,” and I knew I wanted to have Reba Russell back me up on that.  Jeff Jensen suggested that we use a reggae feel during the verse, which I really loved. When Victor Wainwright added his piano to that song I almost cried it was so good.  Of course, I had so many friends join me on this record, to add their musical gifts.  In addition to Jeff and Reba and Vic, I was also lucky to have Brandon Santini do his magic on three songs, and my buddies Eric and Walter Hughes just nailed “Grapes and Greens,” which is my homage to Muddy Waters – as I wrote that song I knew that Eric and Walter would play it with me because they could bring it to life.  Of course, having Watermelon Slim join you on anything is always a treat, and that was a great session, and having Chris Stephenson at the controls of the Hammond B3 makes any song better.  And I have to mention the Layman family, Cole and Logan, who joined me along with Tracy Mastaler and Annika Chambers, both of whom are dear friends, to do the song “Whiskey Woman.”  It was just a whole lot of fun to record these songs with these friends, who happen to be amazing musicians.

FBF:  You have a pretty impressive guest list of musicians on here.  How much give and take is there between all of you on these songs?

MK:  I learned in business that the best way to get things done was to surround yourself with good people and get the hell out of their way.  Because all of these folks are professionals who have performed with others a lot, they all know how to fit into somebody else’s musical ideas.  But because they are also good friends and great artists, they were not at all hesitant to suggest ways to improve things.  Typically we would record a couple takes then sit and talk about it, this was really collaboration rather than just doing what Mick wanted.  My favorite example of this was when Vic, after recording two or three really good solos for “One Meatball” asked if he could do one more.  Of course I agreed, mainly because I just love to hear him play.  What he played on that final take was absolutely unlike anything he had done before – on this song or anything I’d ever heard him do before.  That solo just sent the song into the stratosphere as far as I’m concerned.  Another was Brandon’s solo on “Walkin Dead Blues.”  He just played as wild as he could and what he did was stunning.  Then Jeff said “I have an idea” and he added a guitar part underneath Brandon’s solo that was breathtaking.  So, in terms of give and take, they would take my idea and give me something very special to go with it!

I also have to give to credit to Jeff Bakos, who mixed the album.  He and Jeff Jensen and I spent several days in the mixing process, rethinking much of what we had done and really focusing on producing the best sounding record we could.  Jeff B’s comments and suggestions were fantastic – he had never heard any of these songs before so his fresh look and years of experience allowed us to discover things in the songs we hadn’t thought of, such as using a “carbon mic” effect on the opening of “Ramblin Man” and later on another song.  Those little touches make such a big difference in the final product.  In the end everybody who played on or helped with this album can take a lot of credit for what they did – it is 500% better because of their help.

FBF:  On the new album, you have an interesting set of covers tunes from Hank Williams, Randy Newman, Todd Snider, etc…).  How do you decide what tunes you want to cover on your albums?  Is there any particular thing that you look for in a cover tune?

MK:  For “covers” I have to start with a song that I really like in its original form, but it also has to be something that I can put my own mark on – I like to say that I don’t cover songs, I uncover them.  So, if I can take a song that I really like and make it bluesy in a fun but respectful manner, I’m going to try.  The Hank Williams song “Ramblin Man” is a song I have sung for decades.  I was sitting and playing it one day and just started to mess around with it, and sort of ended up with a cross between “Crossroads” and “Psycho Killer.”  As I played it that way it just felt right and I knew we could do a lot with it.  The same thing goes for ”Mama Told Me,” a song that everybody over 40 knows but probably didn’t know that Randy Newman wrote it for Eric Burdon to sing, not Three Dog Night.  I just made a song a little more dangerous.  So, for that and others, if I can add to somebody else’s songs and do it in a respectful way, to help people understand it in a different way, I’m gonna try.

FBF:  Obviously, you listen to other music besides the blues.  What are some of your other favorite genres and artists?

MK:  “Classic” country, such as Hank Williams, Merle Travis up through Tom T Hall, is important to me, but so are the Beatles and a lot of classic rock.  I’ve said in the past (and still say) that my three favorite piece of music are Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, and Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing.” There are no lyrics in any of those but musically they drive to much emotion with so much complexity and beauty that I just get lost listening to them.   But I also love (and write and perform) calypso and what we used to call “folk music,” including work songs and even sea shanties.  All of these musical styles are interwoven and most share some elements, and I really think that by enjoying and understanding the different styles of music it helps me to appreciate blues more, and to be able to add elements to my own performances that are unique.

FBF:  You’ve been involved with the Blues Foundation for several years, serving on the Board of Directors.  Recently, the Foundation selected a new president, Ms. Barbara B. Newman.  The IBC and Blues Music Awards are really big events these days and there’s also the Blues in the Schools program and the funds that provide health care for artists.  While that’s a huge improvement from what there was a few years ago, what are some of the organization’s future plans and goals?

MK:  I will be working with Barbara and a couple of other board members on the new strategic plan for the Foundation over the next several months, so the answer to that part of the question will come later.  But during his tenure Jay Sieleman was able to turn the Foundation into a very stable and healthy organization with a lot of potential.  Barbara doesn’t plan to make any big changes until she is a lot more familiar with the organization and all that we do, but she is hitting the ground running.  For sure we will be working on enhancements to the IBC and BMA's, and I know we will work to build stronger affiliates – the blues societies that are out there – and work to add new members to the organization.  Although we don’t have specific plans right now, I know that we will be looking for ways to help the blues societies to grow and try to find ways to help blues artists to manage their way through the changing business of music.  Those are some of the things we are talking about very actively.  With Paul Benjamin stepping up as the new Board Chairman, and several new Board members, we are looking forward to a pretty invigorated board.

FBF:  Having listened to the blues for over twenty-five years, I’ve been pleased in recent years to find out about so many fans that I didn’t realize were out there, both in the U.S. and overseas.  However, it seems like a lot of them are middle-aged and older.  What do you think can be done to help the blues to appeal to younger fans without the music sacrificing too much of what we older fans like and appreciate about it?

MK:  It does look like the average blues fan is a 60 year old white person, but there is a growing base for blues music.  I think a lot of people are drawn to the blues when they get a little older because they realize is the basis for all the music they listened to when growing up.  Everybody’s gonna get older so I guess that means they are going to become blues fans eventually.  But I have to say that I am really encouraged when I see so many you and amazing blues artists.  Logan and Cole Layman, who play on my album, are serious blues artists who don’t want to play any other style, even though they could.  There are hundreds, if not thousands, of young blues artists, from Kingfish Ingram to Micah Kesselring, and Carson Diersing, the Peterson Brothers and so many more.  And the stages at festivals are filled with artists in their 30's and early 40's who are attracting new blues fans.  With Castro “Mr Sipp” Coleman, Jarekus Singleton and Selwyn Birchwood we are seeing the return of very significant and talented African American blues artists who are expanding the base of blues fans, as are so many more.

One thing we need to do is to let the younger people take the blues to the next place it can go, taking it to younger audiences and letting it expand.  We don’t need a bunch of old white guys trying to turn the blues into rock again, that was done 40 years ago.  But I see people like Jeff Jensen, Jarekus, Colin John, Aki Kumar, Danielle Nicole, Paula Harris and so many more who are playing great blues and other styles as well, bringing people into their shows to hear some exciting new stuff but also making sure that they know where this great music comes from.  Each of them is spreading the word and the love of the blues.

On another front we have hundreds of people working on Blues in the Schools.  Tas Cru, who is a touring blues musician, does a couple blues in the schools gigs every week when he is on tour, introducing thousands of kids to the blues and its magic.  He has a CD out called Even Bugs Sing the Blues and is now working on another children’s blues record.  We have hundreds of people spreading the word and introducing kids to the blues, so I’m really confident in its future.

Mick Kolassa:  Discography (Both on Swing Suit Records):

Michissippi Mick

Ghosts of the Riverside Hotel


Kid said...

Hi, I was sure your avatar was in my blog members list, but it seems to have disappeared. Any reason? Also, I've had your site in my blog list for a good while now, so if you'd like to reciprocate, I wouldn't mind at all.

Graham said...

It was on there last time I checked, Kid. I'll double check. I get notifications when you post. I will put it back on there if it's gone. Thanks for letting me know.

Graham said...

Back on there now. I remember now I had to change my password last week. I'm sure that had something to do with it.

Kid said...

There must be something wrong at my end - still can't see it. Maybe it'll sort itself out.

Graham said...

I'm seeing it on my end, but it's separate from everybody else's. I really require adult supervision on these Blogger issues. Your blog is now on my list of blogs. Meant to do that earlier.