Q&A with British musician Trevor Sewell - smashing down the barriers between contemporary blues and Americana

"I think its great that blues fans are far more open now to giving the blues the space it needs to evolve and to embrace and incorporate different influences as this enables it to progress and grow creatively."

Trevor Sewell: UK Calling Music City

Five years, five albums, six American tours, 17 international awards, and guest appearances from the likes of Janis Ian, Tracy Nelson (Mother Earth), Paul Barrere (Little Feat) Vickie Carrico, and Sean O’Bryan Smith (Keith Urban, Kenny Rogers, Lady Antebellum), the new album from Trevor Sewell, "Calling Nashville" (2017), produced by Geoff Wilbourn at the iconic Sound Emporium Studios in Nashville, is currently smashing down the barriers between contemporary blues and Americana, with dates already set for 2018 in Europe and the United States. Trevor has recently become the voice of the audio book Dangerous Gambles by acclaimed American Author J.H Sanderson which also features Sewell’s music. Sewell’s music has not only been recorded recently by several American artists but is also featured on numerous major compilations alongside legendary artists such as Robert Johnson, B.B King and Howlin’ Wolf.                                 Photos © by John Finlayson

After spending many years as a session musician, Trevor decided to go it alone, rapidly establishing himself as one of the great emerging guitar talents, and gaining legions of fans in the process. In the U.S., his first album, "Calling Your Name," reached Number 1 on the American Blues Scene chart, where it stayed for seven weeks. His songs have since appeared on more than twenty compilations, alongside Robert Johnson, B.B. King, and Bruce Springsteen. Trevor, who hails from the U.K., is one of the most-played blues artists on the U. K.’s official IBBA Radio Chart for two consecutive years now. He has also performed in the second and third annual The Soirée in Los Angeles during Grammy® Week, in sold-out shows at the Whisky A Go Go and the El Rey Theatre.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues people and what does the blues mean to you?

Blues to me is about emotion and connection with, not just an audience, but also with your own true inner feelings. Blues can be a very personal experience but it’s magnified when it can be shared. Blues audiences know if you mean it so its not about learning to play set pieces, neither is it a display of technical ability, I think it’s far more about exposing something of yourself that you maybe can’t express in any other way and chasing that emotional thread. Sad, angry, reflective and uplifting all at the same time, simple yet complicated – it’s what you make it.   

How do you describe Trevor Sewell sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

My musical philosophy is very simple, after so many years of playing sessions for other artists across almost every conceivable musical genre, which I really enjoyed.

But it was around five years ago when I re-evaluated the things that genuinely make me happy musically and decided it was time to do something for myself, which for me meant a return to my Blues Roots, and I still feel that this was the right decision. I wrote recorded and released my first album ‘Calling Your Name’ with no plans or market in mind and was very pleasantly surprised when it picked up a lot of traction and began to chart in different territories around the world. I have the same philosophy to this day in that I record how I feel at any given time and don’t overthink things which is why all five of my albums have been different to each other.

My unplugged album ‘Face to Face’ was actually completely unplanned. I was in Capitol Studios Hollywood doing some vocals for my then new album (HOLLOW) and when the engineer plugged my acoustic in, he got such a nice sound I said ‘can I make an acoustic album while I’m here’ so we decided on no overdubs - just live! I said ‘tell me when I’ve got 10 tracks’ and 3 hours later we had a completely unplanned and spontaneous new album.

I realized that when I first started to play music it was for one reason only and that was because I loved doing it i.e. it had nothing to do with either earning a living or the pursuit of any kind of fame. I am now back in exactly that frame of mind.

"Blues to me is about emotion and connection with, not just an audience, but also with your own true inner feelings. Blues can be a very personal experience but it’s magnified when it can be shared." (Trevor Sewell and his band on stage, 2017 / Photo © by John Finlayson)

How has the Blues and Rock n’ Roll culture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

The whole Rock/Blues scene has been a huge part of everything I have done since I was about 13 years old when my brother first introduced me to John Mayall, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and so it has influenced pretty much everything I do and how I look at things. It’s taken me to places that I would probably not have visited had it not been for my involvement in the music. It’s very much apart of me.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

I think there have been so many experiences it’s difficult to hang it on just a couple, but certainly some important learning experiences have included playing five hours a night seven nights a week in the Middle East when I was about 19 years old with older far more experienced musicians and then later being signed to E.M.I in the 1980’s where I got to work in most of the major London Studios e.g. Abbey Road and Trevor Horns Sarm West which in turn helped me graduate to playing sessions with and touring with other E.M.I artists.

Most recently I’ve been fortunate to meet a lot of amazing people through the Grammys who have been incredibly helpful. Geoff Wilbourn who produced my new album Calling Nashville, Janis ian who I had been a fan of since the 1970’s, Mia Moravis who sang backing vocals on my last two albums and connected me to Paul Barrere from Little Feat (who also played on the Hollow album) Tracy Nelson as I had also a been a fan of hers since her Mother Earth days, my executive producer Tony Heyes and so many others who have helped me along the way.

Best advice always came from my Dad who really embodied the spirit of Rock n roll - I just wish I’d paid more attention to it at the time – he was an amazing man, my parents always encouraged me to follow my heart and what  really made me happy.

Are there any memories from gig, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

I’ve a lot of experiences on tour and in the studio but one of the most positive ones happened during the making of the Calling Nashville album. I believe that songs often need to find their own space in time and this is a story that I think demonstrates just that. 

I had song, which I originally wrote for a girl to sing, and recorded it many years ago. The girl was Irene Hume (who had a huge hit in the US with her band Prelude with an acapella version of the Neil Young classic – After The Goldrush) and the song was called ‘Shadows’ We were on the verge of signing a record deal with it but unfortunately it didn’t happen and ‘Shadows’ was never released. I later demoed the same song with Lorraine Crosby (the female lead on Meatloaf’s I would do anything for that (but I wont do that) and it sounded great as a country song although we still didn’t get around to doing anything with it (maybe we will in the future). I also played the song in my own band as a rock song and it worked but still seemed like something was missing.

In Nashville we recorded it yet again first as a country song, which we liked, although I didn’t think it sounded right for me! We even experimented with a punk version of it and were finally just about to shelve it and forget about it when something really cool happened … enter Janis Ian!

We were discussing the track and Janis asked to hear it without the drums and the bass and then she said I’ve got an idea if you’d like to hear it – which of course we did. Anyway Janis took me into the piano room and played a couple of chords and said ‘this sounds kind of like rain on the window frames to me – just try singing it over this!

We ran through the first verse and then went straight to record and the single SHADOWS was recorded in less than 4 minutes and became the last track on Calling Nashville and the first single. It was a really cool moment and a one I’ll always be grateful to Janis for.

"The whole Rock/Blues scene has been a huge part of everything I have done since I was about 13 years old when my brother first introduced me to John Mayall, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and so it has influenced pretty much everything I do and how I look at things." (Photo: Trevor Sewell & Janis Ian, Los Angeles, CA at Kulaks Woodshed Laurel Canyon Boulevard)

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I miss the live scene that was really flourishing when I first started and I feel very privileged to have been a part of it,  but  have great hopes for the future of the Blues. I think its great that blues fans are far more open now to giving the blues the space it needs to evolve and to embrace and incorporate different influences as this enables it to progress and grow creatively.

I don’t really have any real fears as there are a lot of great young musicians out there and as long as they progress and grow the genre but still remain true to and acknowledge their roots I think there is a bright future for blues.

 If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I would resurrect the live scene and get it back to when people would look forward to going to gigs and supporting their local bands on a grass roots level, as it is these young bands that need the support the most. When I first started there were plenty of places to play and always-great audiences. The young bands in particular need encouragement and places to play.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from UK and Europe to United States and beyond?

Well the United States have always been the driving force but I think it’s also down to the sharing of ideas and approaches that have resulted in the way blues has evolved. Blues is about emotion and that is common to all cultures, music is a powerful communicator that can reach areas that other means simply cannot.

What were the reasons that made the UK in 60s to be the center of Folk/Rock/Blues researches and experiments?

It was a very exciting time when the live scene flourished and many American influences were taking hold in the U.K and with the British Bands adding their own slant on things, London became a creative melting pot with Cities like Liverpool having their own thriving scene which of course brought us bands like the Beatles who also had a major impact on how the music evolved in Britain and very importantly how it was transported to the USA.

The success in America of bands like the Beatles and Stones turned the spotlight much more on England and this was very important with small clubs such as the Marquee Club in London’s Wardour Street becoming cultural centers attracting people from all around the world to see bands.

"Best advice always came from my Dad who really embodied the spirit of Rock n roll - I just wish I’d paid more attention to it at the time – he was an amazing man, my parents always encouraged me to follow my heart and what  really made me happy." (Photo: Travis Sewell, c. 1986, England)

What is the impact of Blues music and culture on the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Blues music, in fact music in general, is one of the most potent methods of communicating ideas, it has the power to motivate, unite and influence people and events on a global scale. It can be used to highlight political and social issues and raise funds for positive action. Music has had a huge impact in all of these areas.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

I think more than anything else I would love to go back and spend a day with my kids when they were little (they’re all grown up now) but continuing along the musical theme when I first started playing music, Newcastle was a flourishing hub of music activities from the gigs, to the hanging out in shops such as Burman amplification (very desirable boutique amps now) where you could go into the shop where they would actually make the speaker cabinets and amps right in front of you!

It was truly amazing, the air was full of sawdust and I actually owned the second ever Burman amplifier. You could order any speaker configuration you liked and they would be made to order. The Nice (Keith Emerson) had some bass cabinets made which were so big that nobody could carry them and hence they were returned a week or so later (although I don’t know who carried them back). There was an amazing spirit and buzz around this time and I used to spend days in there when I was about 14 years old. If a band was in trouble and needed some gear for their gig they could simply ask another band and they would help, even if they didn’t know them.

In fact I used to borrow the very same amplifier that Mark Knopfler also used to also borrow (a Selmer) from a great guitar player in Newcastle called Jeff Sadler. The spirit of the City was amazing I think am very lucky to have been a part of it.

Trevor Sewell - Official website

Photos © by John Finlayson

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