Friday, November 11, 2016

Ten Questions With......Blues Fiddler Ilana Katz Katz

(Photo by Holly Harris)

One instrument that was, ummm, instrumental in the early development of the blues is the fiddle.  The violin was featured prominently in African-American string bands, dating back to the 17th Century, but fell out of use in the 30's.  The Mississippi Sheiks included a fiddler, Lonnie Chatmon, and Muddy Waters' Plantation recordings of the early 40's used Henry "Son" Sims on occasion.  The legendary guitarist Lonnie Johnson also played fiddle, as did Big Bill Broonzy.  Other later fiddlers included Howard Armstrong, who was active into his 80's, Papa John Creach, and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown.  More recently, there have been blues recordings from fiddlers Vassar Clements and Chris Murphy, and Charles Burnham appeared on several of guitarist James Blood Ulmer's mid 2000's blues recordings.

Ilana Katz Katz

A couple of months ago, I met Ilana Katz Katz on Facebook.  She is a blues fiddle player and singer who has played in the subways of Boston for seven years.  A couple of years ago, she was enticed by guitarist Ronnie Earl to emerge from the underground scene, and began playing with him and other artists, such as Earl, Bobby Radcliff, Bob Margolin, Cedric Watson, Barry Levenson, and many others.  She released her first solo album, I've Got Something To Tell You, in 2014, which earned very good reviews.  This spring, she released her second album, Movin' On, which consisted of a mix of originals and familiar classics that touch on traditional and modern styles.  Her fiddle playing is a combination of the old blues style, traditional Appalachian style.

Several of her friends join in on her latest disc, including Radcliff, Levenson, Watson, and guitarist Chas Justis and it's really fun to hear the interplay between the fiddle and guitar and, occasionally, gourd banjo played by Watson.  Listeners will find that she's a very good and creative songwriter as well....Earl covered her "Runnin' in Peace" on his CD, Good News, and her "Marlyn's Blues" was a finalist in Big City Blues Magazine's "Coolest Blues Song in the World 2015."

When she's not making music, Ilana manages to keep busy as a writer, having won awards in fiction, journalism, and technical communications.  Her debut novel, The Underground, is now available at  She's also a visual artist and a runner, successfully completing three marathons.  She lives in Boston and Newport, RI with her husband, Warren, and her cat, Boris.

We greatly appreciate Ms. Katz taking the time to sit down for Ten Questions.  I knew when I first met her and heard her album that she would be a most interesting subject and she didn't disappoint.  Please check her out below and then go and visit her website and check out her recordings.

Ten Questions With.....Ilana Katz Katz

Can you tell us a little about your musical background?  How old were you when started playing the fiddle?  Was it your first instrument or do you play others?

I began playing violin in 5th grade as part of a school program in Kansas City, where I grew up. I always loved the violin, but didn’t really connect with classical music. I always wanted to stray from the notes on the page, but I am grateful for the classical music experience. I quit playing entire for a period of 7 years not long after college. As far as other instruments…I am certain all the magic potential on that short little fingerboard will keep me busy my whole life, so I am sticking with – only – playing the fiddle right now. J I started singing three years ago – and that’s an ‘instrument’ too, and I’m thoroughly enjoying learning to sing and play at the same time. That’s a whole new experience.  

Do you come from a musical family?  What kind of music did you listen to/like when you were growing up?

Music was a big part of our household. I grew up with a lot of folk music around. I’m the youngest of four and my parents wanted to be sure we each took music lessons. I’m the only one who stuck with it. My dad bought the violin that I still often record and perform with  – for $5 at a garage sale when I was a kid. We had singalongs – literally singing "Kumbaya" – and Bob Dylan’s "Blowin' In the Wind" – along with all kinds of traditionals. I loved it all. The Peter, Paul, and Mommy record was my favorite. I used to play it over and over and dance around the living room in pre-school. My mom also listened to show tunes a lot and listened to opera and told me that when I grew up I’d love opera, which I don’t, but I do thoroughly enjoy some musicals (Jesus Christ Superstar, for example).
J My mom wanted me to play klezmer music, but my passion for the blues and Appalachian music kept my focus and continue to do so. My mom died a few years ago before my first record, but she loved knowing that I played in the subway and she got to see me start to perform on local TV shows. I was happy that she got to see that.

Who are some of your musical influences on the fiddle?   Who influences you as a writer and performer?

I have many, many, many musical influences. Here are a few:  My favorite no longer on the earth musicians of all time are Tommy Jarrell – who was a tremendous old-time fiddler from Toast, NC with his own sound that has a lot of sliding “Blue” notes that drew me in. The other musician – who was not a fiddler – but continues to influence my fiddling – was the great John Lee Hooker. He is my go-to musician more than anyone. A few other no-longer-on-the-planet-musicians who influence me a great deal are Stuff Smith, Howard Armstrong and Claude Williams. But discovering the Blues fiddling of Big Bill Broonzy and Lonnie Johnson – who were known more widely as guitarists – had a huge impact on me. 

There are so many others. I also want to mention those who inspire me today. In the blues world, the amazingly talented and extraordinary violinist/singer/songwriter and wonderful human J Anne Harris is a huge inspiration. She has her own sound, is very versatile, energetic, so joyful and soulful in her vibe in live settings as a performer. J

I’m quite influenced by many live performers, but I am mesmerized by certain musicians who perform as solo artists – in addition to with their bands. I’ll mention just a few of my favorites: Bruce Molsky, Paul Oscher, and Rickie Lee Jones. They are each transcendent in their solo performances. I always learn when I get to see them. I love making music with full bands, and duos, but also really enjoy performing solo – which is how I mostly play in the subway.

As far as writers, I was very influenced by James Baldwin when I began to get into writing. I read everything he wrote, but these days, I don’t have a ‘favorite’ author, but a few writers whose books I savor: Margaret Atwood, and my friend Barbara Shapiro who is a stunning writer. Some of the passages I read from these writers are so beautiful. I’ll stop and read a sentence over again and it’s like a sort of poetry tucked inside a novel.

Have you always been a fan of the blues?  If not, when did you discover them?

(Photo by Laura Carbone)

I first heard a John Lee Hooker record when I was 14 or 15 and felt that music in my bones. I immediately had a thought of wanting to play blues on the fiddle like John Lee Hooker played on the guitar. Of course, I don’t play like John Lee… nobody does! But I do draw from him – or at least I try to. J I love a lot of music under the blues umbrella – old-timey to the modern electric sound.

The fiddle is an unusual instrument in the modern blues, which is odd considering its prevalence during the pre-war days.  How difficult was it for you to break into the modern blues scene with it?

I’m so glad that you mentioned the fiddle is from way back because people always think it’s “new” to the blues. Honestly, I wasn’t trying to ‘break into’ the modern blues scene. My connection to playing with blues musicians unfolded like magic.  My experience with the fiddle – nearly always – is that people are very excited to welcome it in most music contexts, whether there is a pop band, old-time, blues, duo, big band, or whatever… I feel very blessed to be welcomed to so many different kinds of musical configurations.

You have worked in the subways for the past seven years, playing your music for commuters and travelers.  Can you describe to us what that’s like and tell us the positive and negative aspects of it…..what you’ve learned from it?

It’ll be eight years in February. J The subway is truly a melting pot of people. The subway is where I go to pray with music, and I am always pulled to return there. I just got back from recording my third record out in Los Angeles last night. Because of that, I have been away for three weeks, and I can’t wait to get back there tomorrow morning. I miss it so much!  

I have many, many subway stories. Subway performing lifts my spirits – on even the most mundane day. I feel like a conduit of music and I love sharing music with people who aren’t expecting to hear it. A couple of stories: I once serenaded a bride and groom on their way to city hall – white dress and all – to get married. I played a waltz and they danced around the subway platform until their train came. I’ve also had some very deep conversations with all kinds of people – homeless, abuse victims, … people hear me and seem to want to talk to me and tell me about themselves, how the music I am playing makes them feel. They listen to me and I listen to them. In that experience and exchange, I feel we help one another.

There is also a lot of spontaneous dancing on the subway platform. I love that. It is a great honor to be a musician and bring people joy. I feel that with every note.. how lucky I am! Occasionally, the subway gets a little dodgy and I have to diffuse situations. That doesn’t happen all the time, but I do have to always have my antennae up and be prepared for anything…odd-balls, people who are under the influence, people who want my hard-earned money. I must be ready for anything. Recently I had to stop a woman from jumping down into the train pit where you can get killed. It has a big sign that reads ‘Danger third rail” but she accidentally dropped her cell phone there and she was about to jump down and get it. It took quite a bit of convincing her to get the train personnel to assist her. Finally, she went upstairs and within five minutes they helped her get her cellphone back. Sometimes people forget that it’s okay to ask for help!

I try not to dwell on the negative experiences where I feel physically threatened - which can be quite intense – and fortunately those are pretty rare. Mostly, there are magic moments to be cherished, and interesting, kind people I meet and get to know. Each time I go down there, it begins as an adventure. I never know what stop will be available, although I certainly have my favorite station to play at and when I get there I just feel excitement and hope and joy.

You have played with some great, talented musicians over the years, such as Bobby Radcliff, Ronnie Earl, Barry Levenson, Cedric Watson, etc…..what are some lessons that you’ve learned from them?  Any interesting stories you’d like to share about recording/performing with these greats?

I have a deep love for all of them as my friends, as extremely talented musicians and I have found them to be kind, compassionate human beings who put their soul into their work. I know that making music with people you love, respect and feel genuinely connected to is most important. This is true whether you are sitting on a porch in the middle of the woods jammin’ or on a stage playing for thousands of people. Connection is key.

I’ll share my first recording experience with Ronnie Earl. We recorded my entire first record in my house. There were no rehearsals, a few live takes of each song. I was very nervous at first, but I learned from him to trust in the feeling of the music and just play and sing from my heart, and I carry that lesson everywhere. That philosophy has helped me  ‘go with the flow’ and tap into that spirit when I perform on-the-fly with people from all walks of life. Each artist brings their particular joy or pain to their music and I feel honored whenever they include me in that intimate process and I certainly put all of myself into my music. I feel like the artists I work with are teachers and I’m lucky to learn about music and life from them.
J I also meet amazing people through each collaboration – like the incredible Diane Blue who I met through Ronnie. She is a world-class singer/songwriter who has her own band and is also in Ronnie’s band. I was lucky enough to meet her and he suggested I invite her to sing on my first record. Lucky for me she accepted! Diane is an exceptional artist and human being. Movin’ On is on her record label, Regina Royale. I’ve learned – and continue to learn – a great deal from all of the people I play and record with. 

As I said, I just got back from finishing my third record with Barry Levenson producing and playing. We’re close friends and it’s really cool to get to record with people who I feel connected to and who know me so well that we communicate in an almost unspoken shorthand. Barry is my soul brother and I feel really fortunate to get to spend time with him and collaborate. The two of us look forward to playing festivals together very soon….it’s in the works! I continually learn from Barry and it’s a great joy to collaborate on songwriting and recording with him.

Along that vein, recording with my dear friend Bobby Radcliff and his trio was its own kind of wonderful. I cherish my friendship with Bobby and you can feel that when we play together. He is one of the nicest, coolest, most intelligent people I’ve ever met. Not only is Bobby an amazing guitarist, songwriter, singer, but he’s an incredible visual artist… and we always have a great time hanging out and talking about music, art, life, and eating good food! Whenever I have the honor to sit in with him, it is really special.  

I’ve really enjoyed listening to your latest CD, Movin’ On.  Can you tell us about some of the songs on the album?  What is your songwriting process like?  How did you choose some of the cover tunes on the album?

In terms of song choice, I am constantly listening to music and some of those – “Baby, Please Don’t Go” and some of the old-time tunes “Lazy John/Sail Away Ladies” – just called out to me and I intuitively knew I wanted to record them. Songwriting varies. “Demon Blues” was written over time, during various bouts of depression. Everytime I would come out of a dark personal time, I would think that I would never be depressed again, and then I would find myself –quite suddenly – really depressed. This – I am happy to say – is much better than it used to be. Far fewer episodes than the past 20 years. The lyrics from “Forevermore” woke me up abruptly from a deep sleep – and so those words felt like they were “sent” to me. I am inspired to write by various people and life experiences. I never know when the muse will come. Sometimes an entire song will come quickly as was the way with “You Crush My Soul” and sometimes I get snippets of ideas and a hint that more is coming the more I play. My next record with Barry Levenson has been a blast to make as we collaborated on many of the songs. It really was a lot of fun. He always takes my ideas and makes them better. J He’s brilliant… There are a few more songwriters I am starting to work with and each one brings their own thing to the table. 

And I can’t explain what an incredible experience it was to record most of Movin’ On in the very soulful Lafayette, LA with Cedric Watson. We spent a week recording there and just hanging out. He is such a passionate, creative musician with a big, loving heart and his ideas were so amazing. I felt each song blossom when we played them together. He helped me with my dream of recording great acoustic old-timey blues and we both loved how it came out. I love Cedric and it is a joy to spend time with him and play music…. To record with him was a beautiful experience.

So you see, I am always learning from all the artists I am fortunate enough to record with. I end up falling in love with each one, music and soul! That’s the bottom line.

You are also a novelist and a visual artist.  What can you tell us about your work in those areas?

I started out wanting to be a novelist, and music was mostly just for fun. I love writing. I studied journalism in college, and have written a number of novels, but only put out one so far because I’ve been so busy with music. I am about to turn that novel into a screenplay – which was optioned a while ago – but I just haven’t had time to write it. Now that I am finished recording, I’ll start on that and I am very excited. Each of these art forms pull different pieces of my mind and I really love them all. I haven’t had much time to paint or draw lately, but I recently just decided to paint my leather boots, and bought some special paint for that and I loved doing that. So you might see some one-of-a-kind Ilana Katz Katz painted boots for sale soon at my shows soon! J I’m sure I’ll do more watercolor paintings and drawings soon, too. I’m always getting all kinds of fun art ideas, but there isn’t enough time. I have my old used fiddle strings and have made a few pieces of jewelry and things and I really want to do more of that, too. I love to make things… I think it’s fun… music, story writing, painting…

What kind of music do you listen to in your spare time?  I ask that even though it doesn’t sound like you have very much spare time.  Do you listen to blues or other genres?

I listen to music much of the time. I live in downtown Boston and even if I go walk an errand that is five minutes away, I have my iPod on shuffle. I listen when I go jogging, when I’m cooking, in the car. I can’t listen if I’m writing or when I’m working at my desk because it’s too distracting. I’m often listening to blues and Appalachian music. As I said, John Lee Hooker is always in there, but I also listen to some – but not a lot – of pop music. I love and listen to a lot of old-time jazz, swing, folk music, singer songwriter genre. There is SO much amazing music and I love discovering new artists.. from past or current. I particularly love to experience live music and go out as often as I can and am fortunate enough to live near many venues that have live music many nights a week. You are right, I don’t have a moment of ‘spare’ time, but I do multi-task my listening. Some of my favorite live artists who I get to see regularly in New England are Diane Blue, Dennis Brennan, Lisa Marie, Racky Thomas and Neal Vitullo… Sometimes I like to flip around the radio stations when I’m in the car. That is still really fun and I never know what’s going to catch my ear.
J Thanks for all the fun and thought provoking questions, and thanks to everyone for supporting musicians – live and otherwise.   


I've Got Something To Tell You (Katz n' Fiddle Records) - 2014

Movin' On (Regina Royale Records) - 2016

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