Interview with Canadian Kat Danser - steeped in roots/traditions, distills a refreshing approach for the future

"The blues elevates me from despair to connectedness with all people. I guess you could say it helps me be a better person."

Kat Danser: A Diamond From The Mud

Canadian guitarist, songwriter and vocalist Kat Danser throws down funky, laidback rhythms and thought-provoking lyrics. Her Swamp Blues style, steeped in early roots and blues traditions, distills a refreshing approach to roots, blues, and gospel music for the 21st Century. She reveals a new take on centuries-old premises, and is adept at taking jabs at modern-day cultural phenomena. As well as an excellent tunesmith, Danser is a multi-instrumentalist, playing the Weissenborn Hawaiian lap slide guitar, a vintage acoustic Gibson, National steel resophonic slide guitar, a tack head banjo and the Zydeco scrubboard.

Edmonton-based Danser has a deep passion, understanding and respect for Delta blues, one of the earliest forms of North American popular music, and has made several study trips to the Mississippi Delta, drawing heavily on the rich and fertile musical climate there. Her fourth album, Baptized By The Mud, is a collaboration between Danser and Juno-award winning producer Steve Dawson.

This recording is the summation of years of study, mentorship, and songwriting with legendary blues icons in Mississippi -birthplace of the blues- and her graduate studies at the U of A, where Danser focused her Masters thesis on the representation of blues music over the past century.

Danser garnered her first national Maple Blues ‘Best New Artist’ nomination, her second Western Canadian Music Award ‘Blues Recording of the Year’ nomination, and the completion of a Masters in Music from the University of Alberta. Danser is currently working on her PhD in Music focusing on music and meaning. She instructs undergraduate students of Popular Music at the University of Alberta, facilitates music and healing at the U-School Program, and instructs an all-ages summer music instructional camp. She has a passionate commitment to end homelessness in Edmonton and has performed live- to engage with and fundraise for- inner city mental health programs. Danser’s primary goal is to engage anyone who wants to learn in a process of self-discovery so that they may connect to the universe of sound.

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was the first time you felt the need to play the blues and guitar?

The first time I heard the blues was through the voice of Bessie Smith on a Columbia House Roots and Blues sampler. It awakened a deep passion to learn more and I bought my first guitar shortly after. I was 33 years old when the blues took over my life (in a good way) and I’ve never turned back.

When did your love for collecting vintage rare guitars come about?

My first vintage guitar really fell into my lap in a very interesting way. I just wanted to help someone who was having a hard time financially. Back then I had the money to do that so I just bought the guitar. Soon after playing it and falling in love with the tones, I realized I had purchased a 1947 Gibson LG-2 – a rare instrument. We will never, ever part ways.

"Blues music has the most loyal fans in the world. People trust in the honesty, the simplicity and the beauty that comes from being blue collar."

How do you describe Kat Danser’s sound and what characterize your music philosophy?

My sound is a combination of my blues sensibilities, study trips in Mississippi/Louisiana and my own artistic development. I hold a strong value to the origins of the blues and traditional styles. I also believe that honest, solid, poetic songwriting is what the ancestors of the blues expected and I try my best to live up to that code.

What experiences in your life make you a good blues musician and songwriter?

I grew up on the Canadian Prairies during a severe drought that lasted 14 years. We were very, very poor even by our community standards and had to work hard on the farm just to eek out a living. Unfortunately, the stress of being a farm family was worsened by my father’s severe alcoholism and family violence. I’ve been desperate. I’ve been hopeless. I’ve been oppressed as a girl child and have felt the crippling effects of poverty first hand. When I combine my own experiences with those that I’ve come to understand about the birthplace of the blues in Mississippi…well, I have found a spiritual home. That is what makes me a good blues musician and songwriter.

Why did you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Blues music has the most loyal fans in the world. People trust in the honesty, the simplicity and the beauty that comes from being blue collar. Most folks just want to feel their feelings and then party and dance. They want to let steam off. I don’t know where I’d be without my loyal fans. I love them dearly!

What do you learn about yourself from the Blues? How does the music help re-discover yourself?

I learn how to be a better person from the blues. It gives me a space to express my emotions and experiences as a woman in the world. The blues elevates me from despair to connectedness with all people. I guess you could say it helps me be a better person.

"Blues is a gift from African American people to the world. We should be thankful."

What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had? Which memory makes you smile?

I have been blessed to learn from the best. My mentors in Mississippi were David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards and the great Koko Taylor. Thinking of them makes me smile because it was never ever really about the music…it was about what kind of food was served at the gig and where you could get some great ‘sweet water’ (known as moonshine). They taught me to laugh at my seriousness and to accept that I am a blues musician.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

This is easy. Honeyboy held my hands in his and said “Honey, you can’t help it; you were born to the blues. Be the artist you are meant to be. You won’t be rich but it’s the happiest you’ll ever be!

Are there any memories from recording and show time which you’d like to share with us?

I was doing a really big sold out show to 600 people. The band and me started playing a tune and I had forgotten to wear my glasses on stage. When I looked down at the set list I couldn’t see a thing so I just started singing. Turns out I sang one song over the music progression of another. Everyone in the theatre was laughing hard when I shared what had happened. Sometime the best moments are the moment where mistakes happen. I wear my glasses now.

Why are Canadians so enamored with the blues? What mistakes of local scene would you wish to correct?

Canada has very close ties with the USA (birthplace of the blues). The ‘underground railway’ – during African American slavery, slaves escaped North to the USA and into Canada. I think our African Canadian communities were very harmed by a racist Canadian society but the music just lived on. Now, blues is a gift from African American people to the world. We should be thankful. There is a serious lack of blues education among musicians and communities. I think these needs to be corrected so that when we play blues music, we honour its roots.

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

I don’t miss the past. I don’t have fears about music. I just play blues to keep myself from sinking.

"Blues music has the most loyal fans in the world." 

What does to be a blues woman in a “Man Man World” as James Brown says?

Being a blues woman is easier now than ever before in history. We can market our music, create our music as we like and we have the freedom to be business minded. The biggest issue facing blues music is that the talent buyers for most festivals are men. The ratio of male to female performers at any blues festival is 20-1. Without performance opportunities, how are female artists to grow? The second issue is that we women need to stop making our lives only about love and loss in relationship with men. We participate in the stereotypes of women inherent to the blues by sexualizing ourselves. Blues women are much more than sex objects. We need to take control and communicate a broader story instead of participating in misogyny.

Do you know why the sound of resophonic and slide is connected to the blues? What are the secrets of?

The sound of resophonic instruments indicates ‘old’ or ‘distant’ sounds. It communicates the past very well. Since the blues has such a rich history, it is right that this instrument is part of the music created. The slide itself along a single string is originated in West Africa. In the USA, Africans took a single string, tied it between two nails and ran an object over it producing various sounds. This is called the ‘diddley bow’. The secrets of playing slide are numerous. It is difficult and demanding. It requires a really keen ear and a light touch.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Folk and continue to Celtic and Gospel & Spiritual music?

Music is music. It is record companies and corporations that created these genres of music you list. Music is always a combination of experiences – of one culture meeting and sharing music with each other. No style is for a specific group of people although record companies try to make us think so. It is important not to participate in drawing racial lines that says ‘blues and gospel are black’ and ‘folk and Celtic’ are white. They each have origins that have cross pollinated for centuries.

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

Taking up with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and Gertrude Ma Rainey – the Mother of the Blues – for the very first blues show in 1902.

Kat Danser - official website

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