Kenny Wayne Shepherd Speaks To SonicAbuse

Today, Kenny Wayne Shepherd releases the stunning new album, ‘Lay it on down’ via Provogue, part of the Mascot Records group (check out our review here). Working hand in hand with Marshall Altman, Kenny and his band cut ten diverse tracks, all tethered to the blues, but with elements of funk, soul and rock ‘n’ roll all drawn together to create an album timeless in its direct, emotional honesty.  I recently had the opportunity to speak to Kenny about his connection to the blues, the recording of the record and his connection to his home state, Louisiana, to which Kenny pays tribute on the beautiful track ‘Louisiana rain’.

I’d like to start with a little bit of background. As far as I know, your father had a huge collection of music to which you gravitated, but how did you come to light upon the music of the blues in particular?

Well, you play blues music a lot. We used to listen to everything in my house from country music to funk and blues, rock ‘n’ roll and gospel – just everything. I was basically exposed to almost every kind of music because of my dad but there was something about the blues that drew me in… Something about the honesty of the music. Blues music to me is a… it’s music that’s meant to be played from the heart, so when you’re tapping into your heart and soul in your music and you’re trying to transmit that to the listener , that’s the kind of thing that defies age boundaries. It doesn’t matter whether you’re four years old and don’t understand what the song is about. If the music is straight form the heart, you can connect with that and I feel like that’s what I connected to – the emotion of the music and that kind of drew me in. I was always attracted to the guitar as an instrument anyway and in blues it’s one of the feature instruments, so it was the perfect combination of things that I connected with at a very young age.

In terms of guitar, you’re entirely self-taught. Does that idea of playing from the heart, feed in to the notion that, rather than pursue a more traditional music-school route, you’d learn by feel?

Yeah – it’s just by listening. I learned a lot just by ear and sounding things out. I’ve been surrounded by music and, I think, there was a certain musical instinct that I was born with but it took a lot of practice. Playing by ear, instead of being formally taught as a musician… the tolls that I have to lay music are basically my instincts and what I feel coming from the inside out and that enables me to really just tap into my feelings and the emotions that I want to portray in the music instead of tapping into formal knowledge about how it works.

You were involved in the music industry from a very young age – did that side of things put pressure on you as a musician as you grew up as part of the industry?

Well… I was lucky to have a very early start. I grew up around the music business – my dad managed radio stations and he was on the radio as a disc jockey and he also did some concert promotions, so we thought every concert that came through town and I got to meet a lot of really famous people when I was really young – before I ever thought to pursue a career in music – so I was exposed to the ins and outs of the music business, so I didn’t know that it was, in some way, preparing me for my future as a musician. Getting started so early, I think that was a real benefit. I’ve just turned forty years old and so I’ve had a career now, going on twenty-five years of being a professional recording and touring artist. I was playing shows when I was thirteen years old. Yeah man, I think it gave me a leg up and the fact that my career’s being going as long as it has is a testament to the kind of music and the fans that support… If I’d chosen to do the trendy thing when I’d signed my record deal, it’s quite possible that I might have had a five year long career – some people are lucky to have that. But you know, it’s been going on twenty-five years now, so I’m very fortunate. When you play timeless music, which I think blues and rock… as genres, they’re somewhat timeless, so when you play that kind of music and you’re not susceptible to whatever’s trending at the moment, then it’s comfortable to have a life long career if you want it.

One of the things that first attracted me to the blues was the sense of community that exists and there seems to be a mutual respect between artists both young and old and you tapped into that with your project – ’10 days out’ – when you documented and played with the legends of the blues…

Actually, that was… we did that in the same year that Clapton did Crossroads and I’d been invited to play that and I couldn’t do that because I was doing ten days out. That’s a real special project that we put out – I think one of the most amazing things that I’ve been a part of when it comes to putting out a product for the fans. It was a labour of love, it was born out of my love and appreciation for this genre of music and all the musicians that came before me and made it possible for me to do what I do. So, to make music with some of these people – and some of them were very well-known and some of them never got that huge break – but man, what a thrill! It was a great documentary and album and it was very significant for the time because we had no idea that some of them were going to pass away – sixteen or seventeen of them died having featured on that project. So it was very timely and significant. Every day someone brings it up and we’re in the preliminary process of doing a second one…

Oh wow, that’s amazing – is there a time frame for that or is it just getting kicked around at the moment?

Well, I have a working title, but it’s not an official title yet. The idea is that we’re doing it ten years later. It came out ten years ago this year, so the goal would be to get started doing it sometime this year, so that it coincides with the ten year anniversary of the release. It wouldn’t come out until next year at the earliest, but at least we’d be filming it ten years later. It’s ‘ten days out’, so:  ‘ten years later’… or something!

I’ve been listening a lot to ‘Lay it on down’ and it’s a great piece of work and the first question is how you developed it as an album – did you write it thinking about the sequence and flow, or do you write the songs first and then worry about the flow later?

That’s pretty much what happens. When I go to write songs, I don’t go in with a certain agenda. I just want to write some great songs and then I collect as many songs as I can out of the song-writing process and then the album begins to take shape. We can go in and it just depends on the mood of the day and the particular ideas that are speaking to me. A song might be written and it’s going to be a rocking song, more bluesy or a ballad. On this album, one thing that I did want to do was… the last one was traditional blues, so I wanted this one to be more contemporary. It’s a pattern in the history of my career. We were talking about the blues documentary and right before that I had done, basically a straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll and there wasn’t much on that that was traditional apart from the blues based foundation of that record and then we followed that up with a traditional blues project, then we did a live record, then we did another studio album and then we followed that up with a more traditional blues thing, so we do tend to go back and forth with the recording process of doing something traditional and then doing something modern. This album is all new material, no cover songs. It shows, in my opinion, a wide range of musical influence and ability between the musicians and song writers that I work with and it’s a very diverse sounding record.

One of the important things is getting the sound right and, If I understood correctly, you produced it alongside Marshall Altman…

Yeah, I mean I’ve been very, very hands on form the very beginning of my career in every aspect of the process. I produced the last album myself, but on this one Marshall and I did it together and I give him a lot of credit. He’s a really talented guy and he contributed a lot of great ideas to this record. He was involved just about every step of the way as well. It’s good to have someone you’re working with shoulder-to-shoulder, arm in arm, that’s as invested in the project as you are.

I guess it’s important to be able to bounce ideas back and forth, trying to get the right sound and tone and the fell…

Yeah, it’s also great to try and, for me, I try to align myself with people who have strength in different areas. The reasons why the vocals on this record are… there’s a lot of attention on the vocals; there’re a lot of harmony parts and that’s partially Marshall – the arrangement of these songs and the performance in the studio, because he is a singer as well and he has that background.

In the studio, do you prefer to cut it all live or does each musician lay down their parts separately?

Oh no, I don’t… I can’t stand making records that way. When we go in, we put everyone in the room together and we play everything together as a band. There’s always going to be some overdubs whether it’s going back and trying to get a better vocal performance or maybe a better guitar solo or something like that, but the bass, drums, keyboards are basically all put down together and we do the least amount of overdubs possible. I just don’t believe in layering tracks and emailing music back and forth to twenty people and having their parts on it with nobody playing together. There’s no opportunity for the human element to come into play or for any spontaneity to happen that way. I think when you make music this way, whether the listener realises it or not, they’re hearing a much more connected performance.

It sounds like some of the songs on this record are quite personal – near the end of the album there’s the song Louisiana rain – a tribute to your home state I think.

Yeah, it’s about my love and appreciation for where I come from. I was born and raised in Louisiana, it’s where I grew up, it’s where I found my love for music, I started my career there. I’ve travelled the entire world over several times in my life but there’s something that always brings me back home and that song is basically my testament to that.

The theme of home seems to be a common theme in the blues…

Well, we’re proud of where we’re from I think. At least, where I’m from in the south, people don’t forget their roots. They don’t forget where they come from. I just know that if it wasn’t for my family and the way that I was raised and the roots of where I come from, I wouldn not be the person and the musician that I am today.

And, of course, the South has such a strong connection to the blues…

 Yeah, the blues was born in the South of the United States, that is its birth place for better or for worse, that’s where it came from. It was born out of difficult times for sure, not some of the greatest times in the history of our country. Nonetheless, it’s one of the greatest forms of American music and it was born out of it and there is a natural and direct connection between the south and the music of the blues.

I have one last question, if that’s OK – the new album is released in a special package – the cars and guitars version and I was curious as to how that idea came about?

It was something that the record company suggested that we do, to have some bonus content for a special edition package for the fans. If people have been following me and my career for any length of time, they learn very quickly that I have a passion for cars – automobiles – that is almost as strong as my passion for music and guitars. The music has afforded me the opportunity to pursue my passion for cars over the years and I have built some pretty cool vehicles that have been heavily featured in magazines over here in the US and on TV shows, automotive shows, here in the US. SO I’ve made a name for myself in the car world over here, so it’s another dimension of who I am and what I like to do, so they thought it would be a cool thing to do a feature spread inside of the special edition package with some of my favourite cars and guitars.




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