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