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: Goin' Gone And Beyond...

Kat Danser’s music is a steel belted radial easily flexing between a dusty gravel road and a fresh coat of asphalt. True to her Polish- Gypsy heritage, Danser is in perpetual motion and her swampy roots and blues style is a fine-tuned reflection of life lessons from the road. Edmonton’s Kat Danser doesn’t just play the blues - she studies it, lives it, breathes it and elevates it from sweaty, smoky beer joints to elegant centre stage in the finest of concert halls. Her sweet vocals, lyrical genius, and instrumental prowess beautifully combine with her sharp wit and commanding stage presence to deliver unfailingly memorable live performances. Her fifth album, Goin’ Gone (Release Date: October 12, 2018), is a collaboration between Danser and Juno-award winning producer Steve Dawson and will be released on Black Hen Music and distributed by True North Records. This recording is a highly energetic album that sits the listener right beside her on the vinyl seat of a1949 Ford Lead Sled as she rolls and rumbles through the Deep South, USA. It celebrates her passion for the roots of blues music and her achievements as a graduate student at the University of Alberta where she has now officially become Dr. Kat Danser with a PhD in Ethnomusicology.

Her accolades have been many. Danser is a three-time nominee for a Western Canadian Music Award and a national Maple Blues Award - Best New Artist of the Year, winner of the Ambassador of the Blues Award (Blues Underground Network) and the International Blues Competition Best Independent Blues Album, as well as being voted to have made one of the Top 5 Roots & Blues Albums of 2014 (CBC Radio & Blues Underground Network). Danser is also a nationally award winning scholar and has presented at conferences throughout North America. She combines her performance and education skills to assist community building between marginalized peoples and educational institutions. Toward that end, Danser has been the Artist in Residence at the EPCOR Centre for the Performing Arts (Calgary), facilitated music and healing at the U-School Program for Marginalized Youth and the Foothills Youth Psychiatric School, and instructs her own Music Education Program across the lifespan from elementary schools to adult instructional camps. Danser’s primary goal is to use music as a space for personal exploration and as a method to strengthen intercultural relationships.

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.

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.

"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."

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.

How has the Blues and your Polish-Gypsy heritage influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

My first language is Polish and the vagabond nature of my kin, especially my mother, left an indelible imprint on my body. The rocking of the road, the inspiration that comes from the rhythm and the sound of tires on the highway. I love leaving somewhere and not knowing where I’m going. The excitement and joy of new experiences. I certainly suffered the marginalization and stigma of being ‘gypsy’ even though I am now understanding why my family denied that part of our lineage so long. We were also really into keening (crying for another) and I think that those sounds live in my soul.

How do you describe 'Goin' Gone' songbook and sound? What has made you laugh from album's studio sessions?

Goin’ Gone is the sound of spaces and places…the very sound of travel. It is all about falling in love with the places and having to break up with them to feel free to go somewhere else. The sound to my ears captures the mysteries and driving force of life itself.

There were many fabulous moments recording my new album. The best is that our drummer, Gary Craig, is a full on ‘juicer’…he even travels with his own juicer. So our daily break would be the Craig Surprise…a mixture of veggies and fruits and spices that really perked up our energy when needed. Back in the day it may have been alcohol or drugs but now we’re all into healthy foods.

"Blues and roots music is the result of social, political, and racial issues not the other way around. Systemic racism is pervasive in the world over and we can see these being manifest in the art of music. We are not really changing the world but we are expressing our worlds within the framework of music artistry."

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

That there would be fewer vanity projects from musicians. It has glutted the market and now audiences can’t discern between true art and those faking it for a buck. I would also like music to be even more accessible to that we are hearing more from artists who perhaps have physical, emotional and mental barriers to creating art. I think a change in technology toward inclusion is where it needs to go.

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

Blues and roots music is the result of social, political, and racial issues not the other way around. Systemic racism is pervasive in the world over and we can see these being manifest in the art of music. We are not really changing the world but we are expressing our worlds within the framework of music artistry.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your paths in music industry and circuits?

  1. Be careful how you treat others on the way up because these are the same people you will see on the way down.
  2. You only have one time to make a first impression.
  3. Being a professional musician means that you realize that 20% of it is

inspiration and 80% of it is perspiration.

Do you consider the Blues a specific music genre and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

The blues is not a movement or a genre. It is a state of mine. Many sell ‘blues’ but few really understand what it’s like to ‘have the blues’. The artists who have the blues are the true blues troubadours.

"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."

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.

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.

What does to be a blues woman in a “Man's 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.

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

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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