"Try to speak from the heart with your own voice rather than copying other people"
Steve Baker is one of today's most influential harp players and an integral part of the modern harmonica scene. He was born and raised in London, England and now lives near Hamburg, Germany, where he first came in the late 1970s with the legendary jugband "Have Mercy". Recently cited as one of the world's top ten blues harmonica stylists by no less than Detlev Hoegen of CrossCut Records, Steve has been a full-time professional for over 35 years and has earned an enviable reputation as an innovator and pioneer on this frequently under-estimated instrument.
He has developed an instantly recognizable original style which is both expressive and lyrical, but is never merely an end in itself. It puts the music first and his playing is always directed at bringing out the best in the song rather than emphasizing his undoubted virtuosity. His subtle and rhythmically accented phrasing, combined with a rich command of timbre and tone, communicates an emotional intensity and depth of feeling which is rarely heard on the harmonica. For this reason he is often regarded as one of those players who have revitalized the instrument in Europe, and as one of its leading exponents worldwide. His unique sound draws on the blues harmonica tradition and combines it with elements from country, folk, funk, soul and jazz to create an exciting and individual fusion, which transcends stylistic boundaries while sounding totally natural.
Steve has played on hundreds of recordings as a studio musician and can be heard on a wide variety of CD productions by artists including Dionne Warwick, Marla Glenn, Klaus Doldinger, Irmin Schmidt, James Last, Bonnie Tyler and many more, as well as on countless jingles and German pop productions. He can be heard on numerous film and TV soundtracks including Soul Kitchen by cult German/Turkish director Fatih Akin, which was awarded a special prize at the Venice Film Festival in 2009.
Steve is also a highly regarded author of harmonica literature and has written a number of instructional books. Alongside these activities, Steve presents regular clinics for Hohner in music stores and is one of the most active figures in harmonica education in Europe.
Steve, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues & who were your first idols?
For me that started around 1969 – 1970 in London, when I began teaching myself to play the harp. The first harmonica players I consciously listened to and tried to copy were Duster Bennett (Smiling Like I'm Happy, Blue Horizon Records) and Paul Butterfield (The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Elektra Records). Thanks to the local record library, I soon started listening to Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee as well as both Sonny Boys and Walter Horton. However, I was also listening to the rock music of the time such as Cream, Led Zeppelin, the Stones, Beatles and later also to bands like the Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers, Little Feat, Jefferson Airplane, Steve Miller and many more. I always loved the blues but was never really a blues purist.
What was the first gig you ever went to & what were the first songs you learned?
Difficult to remember, it's rather a long time ago;-). Growing up in London, I got to see Blind Faith and the Stones only a week or 2 apart in summer 1969 at the famous free concerts in Hyde Park. I used to go to gigs at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm and attended my first real blues concert at the Royal Festival Hall with the Groundhogs, John Lee Hooker and the Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation. I also used to spend Sunday afternoons in Studio 51 in Soho soaking up Brett Marvin & the Thunderbolts, Sam Mitchell and others. This was all around 1970. The first song I learned on harp was Country Jam from the Duster Bennett LP.
Any of blues standards have any real personal feelings for you & what are some of your favorite?
I no longer really enjoy playing a lot of the well known blues standards. I love the originals but for me some of them have simply been played to death. There are many wonderful blues songs which touch me deeply, for example much of JB Lenoir's acoustic work (Alabama, Down In Mississippi, The Whale Swallowed Jonah and many more) or the little known She Used To Be Beautiful by Forrest City Joe Pugh, but these are not really standards. I think a lot of the well known blues standards had a completely different significance for the performers and their audience at the time when they were created than that which (now mainly) white blues fans tend to attribute to them today. After all, up til the mid 1950s, blues was popular entertainment for black Americans and the main audience was women. A lot of the songs were meant to be funny and were frequently also topical. When Willy Dixon came up with Hoochie Coochie Man or Chuck Berry wrote Route 66, they were aiming at creating pop hits and probably didn't even think of the songs as being blues.
When I'm fortunate enough to hit the spot it comes from all of them. Don't forget the gut either! I want to connect with my listeners on all of those levels, but probably the heart is the most important. I also place great value on connecting rhythmically through my groove and phrasing.
What does the BLUES mean to you & what does offered?
Blues is about life and if you wanna play it convincingly, then how you play it needs to reflect your own life. Getting to know the blues has given me a wonderful common language to communicate with other musicians and audiences everywhere.
What do you learn about yourself from music? Three words to describe your sound & your progress
Music can be a liberating force. It is for me. My sound is my own and I like to feel that I'm still progressing in my music.
What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician?
Musical training may help, but only if you have talent. I had no training and thought I had no talent, but slowly managed to learn a few things anyway. Probably the biggest help is to play with passionate musicians who are better than you are. I've played with some great ones and it certainly helped me. However, to what extent intense life experiences in general will help you to make intense music is an open question. Most people have such experiences, but few can translate them into great music. It certainly seems to me that depth and conviction in any art form usually relate to personal experience in some way, though.
What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?
Once Chris Jones and I opened for the Scorpions and Leningrad Cowboys in front of about 20000 people in Bremerhaven. The stage was floating in the North Sea on a huge pontoon over 100 yards offshore, so the audience were just tiny dots in the distance. This was a bizarre experience and there are some great videos from it on my Youtube page
Another memorable gig was in summer 2011 at the European Music Workshops in Alsace, France with Dave Goodman and Martin Röttger. Ten minutes into our open air performance it began to rain heavily and the audience was getting soaking wet, so we invited most of them onto the covered stage and played with them sitting all around us.
Where did you pick up your harp style & in which songs can someone hear the best of your work?
Long story. After assimilating bits of Duster Bennett, Butterfield and a couple of others and starting to learn guitar, I took my first tentative steps with other musicians, learning to play ragtime and folk blues with guitarist Dick Bird. Parallel to this, I spent the first half of the 1970s mainly listening to American West Coast music. The combination probably helped me adopt a more melodic approach to the harp than that of most blues harmonica players, a lot of whom understandably tend to model themselves on other blues harmonica players who they admire. As well as trying to imitate my harmonica heroes, I began absorbing melodic ideas from guitarists and later also from sax players, and transposing them to the harp, a process which has continued ever since. There was no plan to this, it just kind of happened because that was what I was listening to. I guess this must have helped me to eventually become a musician who plays his music on the harmonica, rather than a custodian of the blues harmonica tradition, because a lot of what I wanted to play on it wasn't originally part of that tradition.
In 1975 I joined Have Mercy, an acoustic jug band performing raucous country blues with an almost punk rock approach and energy, which brought me right back to the blues even though I didn't really know how to play it. We moved from London to Germany because we discovered that (unlike in Britain) you got paid there, and I started listening intensively to Little Walter for the first time. Like most blues harmonica players I owe a great deal to Walter, he was a huge influence and I probably absorbed more from him in terms of phrasing and swing than from any other harmonica player.
We share the same birthday, May 1st. From the late 1970s onwards I started playing on a lot of commercial recording sessions and throughout the 1980s I also worked in rock bands and with singer-songwriters, so I learned to play a lot of music which had little to do with the blues tradition. From the mid 1990s onwards, however, I realised how much I was missing and became more interested in traditional styles again. I began learning how to tongue block single notes and also work on my enclosure. Now I try to meld all the elements I absorbed along the way so that they make musical sense, and like many other contemporary players I mix and match styles and techniques to fit the music.
Of my own releases, I think the 4 CDs on Acoustic Music Records with the late great Chris Jones contain some of my best recorded work. If I had to name one tune I'd say the song Gotta Look Up from our final CD of the same name. Doublecrossed and Blue from the same CD is one of my favorites too. Chris and I had some fantastic times together and I miss him greatly. There's some good original country blues songs on King Kazoo with Dick Bird and I recorded several CDs with Abi Wallenstein which have some really good stuff on them. As Long As I Can See The Light on the CD Blues Culture is a pretty good version in my opinion. I'm also really excited about the forthcoming CD with Dave Goodman.
Why do you play harp & what were your favorite harps back then?
I play harp because the harmonica chose me. I started on Hohner Echo Super Vampers (at that time the English version of the classic Hohner Marine Band, the original blues harp) in summer 1969 and have stuck with Marine Bands ever since. I can only really play my music on them, no other model or brand works as well for me and no other harp has that sound. My work as a long term consultant with the Hohner company has meant that I've had the privilege of being closely involved in the development of the latest additions to the Marine Band range, the Deluxe, Crossover and Thunderbird. These are definitely my favorite out of the box harmonicas today and believe me, I've tried everything on the market.
What are some of the most memorable workshops you've had?
After giving the first ever harmonica classes at the Schorndorf Guitar Days in 2000 and 2002, from 2003 onwards I initiated, taught at and helped organise the Harmonica Masters Workshops in Trossingen, Germany. As of 2009 I've also put on the European Music Workshops, a 5 day summer class in Alsace, France where I teach harmonica and am closely involved with the organisation, together with Alsace native and harmonica lover Robert “Sunnyside” Koch. Anyone interested in either of these extremely enjoyable events should check the links: www.harmonica-masters.de or www.european-music-workshops.com. Other memorable workshop experiences were a workshop in Moscow 1996 with simultaneous translation in front of 600 students in the Institute of Sciences, and a couple of close shaves the year before in Victoria, Australia, where Jones and I nearly got beaten up by mad drunk Aussies.
The last time I gave one. I use humor as part of my teaching method and we usually have quite a lot of laughs in my workshops.
Who would want to be your disciple and who make to you a workshop?
Anyone who wants to learn more about the instrument is welcome in my classes. At every workshop I've ever given, the participants have had widely differing degrees of ability and I always try to pick each of them up where they are, rather than expecting them to conform to a certain standard. I'm comfortable teaching complete beginners, though I prefer working with more advanced players, as there's so much more that I can give them. After 35 years experience as a professional musician, including publishing what Howard Levy has called “the first real book about the harmonica” (The Harp Handbook, Music Sales / Wise Publications) in 1990 and working for the world's leading harmonica manufacturer for 25 years as well as recording hundreds of titles as a studio musician and playing thousands of concerts, I'm happy to share any insights I may have. Regarding studying with other players, my friend Joe Filisko has helped me learn much more about various aspects of traditional blues harmonica styles over the years and I would also be interested in improving my knowledge of harmony, but I'm not sure if I want to learn that from another harmonica player ;-)
Personally I've had a great life as a musician and never wanted to do anything else. I'm deeply grateful for my good fortune, so please don't get me wrong, but for most musicians it's a hard road trying to make a decent living from their craft. I was only able to do so by diversifying at an early stage. Unless you're very dedicated indeed and are prepared to sacrifice the chance of a reasonably normal life for your music, it might be better to get a job and enjoy your hobby without the pressure of having to earn money from it. What's the difference between a musician and a jumbo pizza? A jumbo pizza can feed a family of four. To make a living from music, you need a lot more than talent alone. Luck is the most important thing and hard work will help, but an awful lot of musicians end up driving taxis or delivering the jumbo pizza. Music can bring you and others great joy, but it's unlikely to make you rich or even pay the rent in these tough times. If you want to make a go of it today then you need to be very good, extremely focussed and highly motivated, as well as being practised in networking, online and otherwise. It certainly helps if you can write really good original songs. You also have to be lucky enough to meet the right people, whether fellow musicians or folks who may be able to help you along the way. My advice to aspiring musicians would be, think carefully before making this choice, and if you do decide to go for it, then give it everything you've got. You only live once.
Do you think the younger generations are interested in the blues?
Depends where you are. In Britain or Germany blues is mainly associated with greybeards and beer bellies, but in Russia, Poland or Spain it's still reasonably hip and seems to attract a noticeably younger audience. The problem is the label, the B-word - if you listen to a lot of contemporary pop music from artists like Duffy or Amy Winehouse for example, it's basically blues but nobody would think of calling it that. The B-word is a turn-off for many young people and I can often understand why.
What advice would you give to one anonymous young blues musician?
Try to speak from the heart with your own voice rather than copying other people
There are advantages and disadvantages to both. I'm completely self-taught and wish now that I had studied music when I was younger. On the other hand, many people who do so become trapped by the notes and can't play without them.
There are major pedagogical problems in the way music is traditionally taught, which can be very difficult to overcome once you've gone through the process.
It's not easy to learn any instrument from books but good ones can help. However, nothing beats 1 on 1 lessons with a good teacher. I think I can safely recommend my series of 3 Blues Harmonica Playalongs book/CD packages if people are looking for high quality practice material.
Who are your favorite blues artists, both old and new? What was the last record you bought?
The last record I bought was a Leadbelly compilation. I don't really listen to much contemporary blues. When I do listen to blues it's almost always the classics. Some of my favorites that I hear fairly frequently are:
J.B.Lenoir, Little Walter, Muddy, Walter Horton, James Cotton, Howling Wolf, Freddy King
Among contemporary blues artists I greatly admire Tom Waits and Kim Wilson. I liked the first Cds from Watermelon Slim and Seasick Steve.
My two favorite blues albums of the last 20 years are Living With The Law by Chris Whitley and Wicked Grin by John Hammond
I also listen to quite a lot of African music and love old school Soul, Reggae, Bluegrass and Country
Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?
The blues is the basis of so much popular music that it can't really go away. I think it'll be with us for a while yet and its popularity will continue to come and go as it has done over the past 50 years. However, its days as the cutting edge of African-American culture are long gone, though the influences are still ever present.
What are your plans for the future & do you have a message for the Greek fans?
I'm currently recording a new CD with Canadian guitarist, singer & songwriter Dave Goodman to appear on Acoustic Music Records, it should be out in Spring 2012. Dave and I met and started working together a couple of years ago and I'm very excited about where this project is going. Dave's music is complex and stylistically very wide ranging, so I've needed a while to get into it, but the last concerts have been really beautiful. I expect to continue playing with Abi Wallenstein in BluesCulture and will be doing occasional gigs with Dick Bird as well as guesting with bands. I also play several times a year with a great German band called Opportunity, performing acoustic soul and pop, see the video interview on my Youtube page
To the Greek fans: I'd love to play for you in Greece and hope to see you soon!
Difficult question, but who of the people you have worked with do you considers the best friend?
My soul brother Chris Jones
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