Interview with Pacific Northwest bassist Polly O'Keary - catchy songs, scorching vocals and riotous bass

"I think the biggest change vis-à-vis women in the music scene, and in the blues scene, is that that people really and genuinely want to see us excel at things that are not traditional for us."

Polly O'Keary: Blues Fusion Callin'

Polly O'Keary, award-winning and world-touring bass player, vocalist and songwriter, is back in the northwest with a brand new band, Polly O'Keary & The Rhythm Method. With her top-shelf trio, she performs a mix of soul, funk, blues and rock that has won her top honors as a songwriter, singer and performer from blues societies around the Pacific Northwest. She is well known for her joyous, explosive stage performances, her powerful and expressive voice, and her powerful bass grooves. She has had a long career in blues, and brings 25 years of experience to the stage. She began playing music in bars in Mexico at 16, and after an early rock career that included a record deal and a large following, she fell in love with blues at 28. She put together a band that quickly caught the attention of Pacific Northwest blues fans, playing top venues and festivals and winning many awards.

She was first named Washington Blues Society Female Vocalist of the Year in 2004, and has won it twice more since then, as well as many other awards and nominations. Her first and second albums were well-reviewed, and the second was named Album of the Year by the WBS, and Polly was named Songwriter of the Year. But when Polly and her drummer and partner Tommy Cook got a chance to take rhythm section duties for northwest legend Too Slim and the Taildraggers, the two toured internationally. After four years Polly O'Keary has once again formed her own trio, Polly O'Keary & The Rhythm Method, and is back bringing catchy songwriting, her scorching vocals and riotous bass to stages in the USA and Canada. In 2013 released the powerful “Compass”, her new album, "Black Crow Callin'" to be released May 12th, 2017 is the newest release from Polly O'Keary & The Rhythm Method.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

I think I have learned how to reach in and find something true to say, and a way to say it. I’ve learned how to be genuine, without pretending to be something I’m not. I’m not from the deep South, I’m not a lot of things typically associated with blues. But I was just in Clarksdale, Mississippi, thought to be the birthplace of blues, and it is extremely poverty stricken. And I thought about what blues is. To me, it’s just music about a hard life. By that, I don’t mean it’s necessarily sad. A lot of it is about joy, love, drinking, eating, playing music. But in many ways, that’s part of a hard life, the escapism that goes with it. It’s true you don’t have to have come from poverty to play blues, but blues came from poverty, and established its themes of life lived recklessly.

What were the reasons that you started the Blues/ Folk/Rock researches and experiments?

I have been playing music all my life, and I started out doing covers in bars at 16, but I didn’t really have a musical direction until I was 28. One night, a friend gave me a ticket to see Jeff Healey. That night changed my whole life. When I saw that blues rhythm section working together, I knew what I wanted to do. That was it. I quit my band, quit my job, moved to Seattle to find other blues musicians, and never looked back.

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

I’ve been involved in a few of those counter cultures. I was in rock before I saw Jeff Healey that night. It was a reckless community, hard drinking and pretty open to hard drugs, too. I really adopted that hedonistic mentality and it cost me a few years, unfortunately. It was also pretty male-dominated. I felt like a second-class musician for most of those years. Blues was different. The musicians were mostly old enough to have already dealt with any addiction issues they might have had. I got clean and sober early in my blues career, and the blues community was supportive. Recovery was really understood. The musicians and studio pros I have worked with in blues have been on the whole a lot more cool with working with women, more willing to take a woman seriously as a songwriter and band leader (although I hate being a bandleader like anything and thank God in my trio we are really communal about making decisions). That, in turn, has helped me take myself more seriously through the years.

"The thing I loved most about the old blues was the reality of it. It wasn’t always pretty; there’s a fair amount of reference to domestic violence, “Boom, Boom” being a good example, and cheating and all of that. But it was real. It was people writing about life as they lived it."

How do you describe Polly O'Keary sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

We are a trio, so that shapes a lot of the characteristics of our sound. Variety can’t come from instrumentation, so it has to be in the songwriting. I try to write music just cohesive enough to be recognizable as us, but eclectic enough to keep a crowd interested for three hours in a club. I love interesting fusions. My favorite songwriters successfully combine styles. John Bigham of The Soul of John Black fuses ska, blues, neo-soul, hip hop, reggae , funk and R &B into his brilliant records. Steve Perry of The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies fuses ska, ska-core punk, old school big band swing, alt-country, glam rock and even lounge jazz and that’s why he is such an under-rated genius. I try to work from a blues base, but draw in at various times zydeco, surf, country, soul, R&B and jazz. But ultimately, good music tells the truth. That’s my goal, to tell the truth. Have you ever seen someone you loved get sentenced to prison? Tell it. Have you ever fallen for someone wrong for you? Tell it. Have you watched a good friend’s marriage fall apart, or been so scared of your own drinking all you could do was pray, or had a moment of simple joy while playing at a summer blues festival? Find the words, find the music, and tell it, so that others who have been there can nod, and say, yeah, that’s what it was like, I felt that, I’m not alone.

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas for songs most frequently?

I write songs when I’m in pain. That’s how I cope. It’s compulsive and immediate. I lost a long-time friend over a misunderstanding recently, and the first thing I did was write two songs, at least one of which I’ll probably record. I find it difficult to write when I’m happy! When I’m happy, I’m doing other things. It’s easy to express happiness. But sorrow, anger, hurt, guilt, those things are hard to express. And yet, in that state of mind, I’m desperate to express it, so I can get a handle on it.

How do you describe Black Crow Callin’ sound and songbook? What characterize album philosophy?

The guys and I have deep roots in blues. Dave Miller on guitar grew up in Texas and lived and breathed Texas rhythm and blues for years. Tommy Cook started out in blues when he was barely old enough to get in the bars he played. I came to it later than they did, but I was pretty born again about it once I got there. For about 10 years I wasn’t interested in anything but blues. But as songwriters, all three of us are interested in experimenting with the genre, keeping our music rooted in the blues we love—and I love a wide, wide variety of blues, including Texas style like Smokin’ Joe Kubek, R&B style like Solomon Burke, Chicago style like anything Johnny B. Gayden plays bass on, roots like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, funky stuff like Ronnie Baker Brooks, and even calypso style, like Taj Mahal is prone to do—but drawing in other influences and genres. The music I love most involves interesting fusions. A great example is The Soul of John Black, with influences of all the above plus neo-soul and R&B. As songwriters, we build from the foundation of blues, of what we love most. I like dark stuff like Robert Johnson and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Nina Simone, so that’s “Black Crow Callin’” and “I am the One.” Dave loves Ronnie Earl style guitar, so that feel is on some of the tracks, especially “Reconciled.” I love to try fusions, so that’s why the reggae-Santana-soul mashup on “One Life.” As a bass player I love funky blues, and there’s a couple tracks in which I indulge in some horns and funk bass. Also, I like to blend humor and pain. A lot of what I write has to do at laughing at myself for my mistakes. And even though I’m not a religious sort, I like to include an element of spirituality, too.

Are there any memories from Black Crow Callin’ studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

We wanted a Hammond B3 part, but were having a hard time finding the right player. I know a guy who has been playing for about 60 years and lives and breathes B3, but is a bit of an odd duck. Finally, I suggested that I give him a call, but I warned everyone that he is a really quirky guy. He showed up at the studio with a B3 that had been in his van for more than a year, because he had been playing piano exclusively for the last year or so at this steady jazz gig he got. The van leaks, apparently. When he brought the Leslie speaker in, so much water drained out of it that it made a pool on the floor, and the top of the Hammond was covered with mold. The guy started out being really crabby, for which he is well known, but once he was playing, he began literally shouting with joy. And he played a fantastic part. I was worried the studio owner would be ticked off about the cranky biohazard I’d helped bring in, but he was delighted. It turns out, thank goodness, that he has a great sense of humor!

"For me, that line that connects the music of Mississippi to the experiences I had in Mexico, and the music of the Chicago players in the 1950s to the experiences of a blues musician in Seattle in 2014, is struggle." (Photo by Rocky Allen - Polly O'Keary on stage)

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and highlight moment of your career?

It’s actually been an interesting whole life. I grew up with no running water or electricity in a log cabin my dad built way out in a remote part of Washington state, because he and my mom believe the apocalypse is upon us and they want to be ready. They still live out there. I dropped out of school in the 8th grade and two years later was playing music in Mexico with my pot-growing guitarist boyfriend, in hippie ex-pat bars. That’s where I first started making money playing music. Drugs and alcohol were a real problem for me until 10 years ago, when I quit. I played music the whole time, but there were crazy relationship, legal crises, and all the drama that goes with addiction. Since then, things have steadily and rapidly improved. Touring with Too Slim and the Taildraggers was fantastic. My fiancé Tommy, who was the drummer in that band and is now my drummer in this one, and I got to go all over the US and Canada, and even the world. Playing a military tour was the highlight of my entire career. We played for the Navy in Bahrain, on the USS Eisenhower off the coast of Pakistan, and in Djibouti, Africa. Success looks different to different people. I measure success in passport stamps. If I’m traveling to play music, I am living right!

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What touched (emotionally) you?

When I was just starting out in blues, I decided to start a blues jam session in my city, just so I could meet other blues players and learn more about the genre. I approached the nastiest bar I knew, a dive that reeked of 50 years of cigarettes and spilled beer, that had hookers working in it and a mural of hell painted on the walls, and they let me host a jam on Tuesday nights. There was a guy of about 60 who came in every week. He was dying of hepatitis C, and walked with a cane, but every week he loaned me five CDs from his massive blues collection. I learned the genre from that guy. He turned me on to Smokin’ Joe, Willy ‘Big Eyes’ Smith, Pinetop Perkins, Ledbelly, everyone you could think of. I can’t even remember his name, but I owe him my foundation in blues.

"I’ve been involved in a few of those counter cultures. I was in rock before I saw Jeff Healey that night. It was a reckless community, hard drinking and pretty open to hard drugs, too. I really adopted that hedonistic mentality and it cost me a few years, unfortunately. It was also pretty male-dominated." (Polly O'Keary & David Miller - Photo by Denise Hathway)

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from Mississippi to Mexico and from Chicago to Seattle?

For me, that line that connects the music of Mississippi to the experiences I had in Mexico, and the music of the Chicago players in the 1950s to the experiences of a blues musician in Seattle in 2014, is struggle. I grew up in extreme poverty. My parents lived on what my dad could make working in apple orchards. We ate woodchuck sometimes. Poverty does something to a lot of people. It makes you hold yourself a bit cheap. It’s easy to throw away a future you don’t have. If you wind up in prison, well, that’s what happens to people where you’re from. It is an understood thing among the people you know. It’s not like you are going to ever experience anything better than the way you feel right now, with six shots and two lines in you.  You don’t have a sense of possibility, that you could build a career or one day be important to society. Today is as good as it’s going to get, and so you get reckless. I don’t live that life any more, but having lived that life informs my music. I’ve spent a lot of time observing the world at the desperate level, in prison visiting rooms and crack houses and welfare homes and a huge number of dive bars. That Chicago and Mississippi music speaks to that world, too. The barriers to success for black workers in those days were prodigious. So the music told truth about the world those musicians lived in, with its jails and crazy relationships and juke joints, it’s violence and freewheeling sense of fun, even its religious themes and themes of superstition, of calling on powers greater than your own to help you through, or fearing powers greater than you that might wish you harm. I think that’s why a reasonably middle class guy from, say, Liverpool, can relate. The music might have been born in a situation far, far different than his own, but once it’s rendered as music, it resonates anyone who feels desperation, and that’s everybody, sooner or later.

What is the best advice ever given you?

I’ve heard so many wise things. Here’s a couple: “Play like you play. Assume that you were hired to play like you play, and so play like you play until you hear differently.” –David Kahl, Portland bassist “You got to slow down.” –Magic Slim, after hearing me play at a jam session at which I was trying to show off a bit too much.

"We all need to have a conversation about cultural appropriation. Blues music comes to us from a black culture during a time of great dispossession and violent repression." (Photo by Rocky Allen)

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

Portland Waterfront Blues Festival is the largest blues festival in the Pacific Northwest. The last two times I played it, in the contract, it said you had to participate in the all-star jam session in the evening, as well. The first year, I was intimidated by the level of skill I’d seen in all the bass players, and there were a bunch of them in the room. So I overplayed, trying to show off that I, too, could play 16th notes. When I got off stage, Magic Slim was sitting on a speaker nearby, like a great big, half-sauced mountain. With a voice like Moses, he said, “I saw what you was tryin’ to do. You got to slow down.”

He was right and I knew it. The next year, I was back. This time, at the jam, I was to back up Curtis Salgado. There were nine people on stage, and Curtis was clearly expecting the worst. I heard him say he didn’t think it was gong to go well. I resolved to be the invisible bass player. Remembering what Magic Slim had said the year before, I resolved to play the most logical and simple groove I could devise, and not play even one superfluous note. So I was pretty astonished when, halfway through the show, Curtis paused between songs. He turned around and asked me, on the mic, “What’s your name?” and I said “Polly.” And he said, “You’re quite good.” And later he kept saying with some visible disbelief that the show had gone far better than he expected. Thank you Magic Slim, and may you rest in peace!

What moment changed your life the most? What´s been the highlights in your life and career so far?

The moment that changed my life the most was that time I saw Jeff Healey in a bar in Canada. That changed everything. Another huge turning point was when my drummer (and now fiancé) and I got hired by Too Slim and the Taildraggers as a rhythm section in 2009. We were with that band for four years, and that’s how I learned the business of touring, and really got to see how a fantastic bandleader runs a band in a very professional way. Too Slim has been at it for more than 30 years and knows the business as well as anyone.

I’ve also gotten to play some pretty cool situations, like audiences of 30,000 a few times, but the highlights for me are the nights on the road with my trio, like the night last summer we played for a dozen people out on a patio in Lawrence, Kansas, on a warm evening by the river, with little white lights in the trees and the smell of honeysuckle in the air. We’ve played some pretty high intensity situations, but sometimes those low intensity nights when it’s just your band and a little intimate audience and a wonderful setting, those nights are magic.

"I’d like a music world in which the way you look doesn’t matter so much. America is brutal to the non-beautiful in the music industry, at least in the pop industry. It’s not nearly as true in blues, where many top entertainers are middle age or older."

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

There was a period in country music where it was actually good. It told the truth. D-I-V-O-R-C-E was a great example of a song capturing the pain of an ordinary moment, two parents spelling out the word so their kid wouldn’t understand. Millions of people have dealt with that situation. Today, you don’t hear that kind of grit much anymore. It’s a lot more about pop, about slick and listenable and forgettable tunes. I fear the same thing happening to blues.

The thing I loved most about the old blues was the reality of it. It wasn’t always pretty; there’s a fair amount of reference to domestic violence, “Boom, Boom” being a good example, and cheating and all of that. But it was real. It was people writing about life as they lived it. I fear that blues will become a caricature of itself, people merely imitating what they think they have to say in a blues song, referencing some southern city they’ve never actually seen, or affecting membership in a culture that no longer even exists. Little Bill Englehart wrote a song that went, “I’ve never picked cotton, but then again, neither have you,” that I loved, because it did bear saying. If enough people write about meeting up with the devil in some bayou swamp, it’s going to get a bit camp. I hope blues keeps its honesty. As for blues going electric, or incorporating hip hop, or some other eventuality that might horrify the purist, to me, that’s exciting and creative. We will always probably have great solo acoustic blues players; we certainly have a number here in the Seattle area. But for me, those classic blues sounds, the 335 guitar or the Strat, the shuffle and the slide, the 12 bar, and all the other elements of blues canon, those things are pretty adaptable. There are many ways to honor and reference that tradition while still acknowledging and incorporating other innovations.

What's been your experience from Mexico? Which memory makes you smile?

Mexico was and probably still is a bit relaxed about the law. It wasn’t technically legal for me to be in bars there, at 16, performing. But their sense of legality was a trifle plastic. I remember playing in this tiny concrete basement of a bar called Viejanos in San Blas, doing hippie rock. I remember a local guy coming up and asking us something in Spanish. I couldn’t make it out, and then he started waving frantically at the stairs. I recognized the word “Cielo” then. He wanted to hear Stairway to Heaven! And that’s where I learned a folk verse for La Bamba’s that goes,  “Para ir a cielo, se necesita una poca de mota” which means, “to go to heaven, you need a little weed.”

What does to be a female artist in a “Man World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in Blues?

This is a big, big topic. I could write a book on this one. When I was coming up, it was much more a man’s world than it is today, and the music world was unapologetically hostile to women. We were largely considered to be a pain in the ass. I heard men say it out loud, that female musicians were a nightmare to work with. A lot of male musicians regarded female musicians with some contempt. Women in bands typically sang, and if they played an instrument, it was probably piano or acoustic guitar. They were not considered equals by any means. No woman was expected to even be capable of being a good lead guitarist, or drummer or bass player. We weren’t expected to know how to fix our own gear, or even how to buy it. We weren’t expected to be competent song-writers, producers or arrangers.

And here’s the worst part: we bought it. I spent years and years wondering if there was something about being a woman that made me less equipped to excel. The men seem to have a lot more confidence, they seemed to love music more than I did. I didn’t know why I didn’t seem to have their level of enthusiasm, and thought maybe it was true that it had something to do with my gender. I hated the thought, but I still wondered, deep down. Then one night I saw Jeff Healey in a bar. I saw the rhythm section of that blues trio, heard what they were doing, and it changed my entire life. Suddenly I knew exactly what kind of music I wanted to do. Suddenly it was me who was obsessed, me playing for hours on end, me studying and studying the work of other musicians. Soon I had learned the lexicon of blues, was learning the philosophy of blues bass, about staying behind the beat, and what “groove” was. I started writing songs, and then made an album of my originals, and it was nominated for best album that year by the Washington Blues Society. I began noticing I wasn’t the least capable blues bassist on the scene. I started to thaw at the core, defrost from the doubt in own my potential that had plagued me. I tech my own bass now, and it’s not rocket science. A truss rod wrench and a set of hex keys don’t require any special voodoo to use, but I still find myself proud that I do it. Somehow it is still surprising when women use tools. I’ll be honest. Doubt plagues me still. I’ll go to a blues festival and watch six monster bassists rip out dazzling funk solos and I’ll find myself wondering if they can do that more easily than I because of some property men have. And in fact, having larger and stronger hands is probably an advantage. Low expectations about women haven’t changed entirely. I think the hostility has largely gone away, thank God. But remember how everyone reacted to Jeff Beck’s bass player Tal Wilkenfeld? People loved her. That was cool. But the reason they loved her was that she defied expectations. It came as a huge surprise to a lot of people that a young woman could play like that. A drummer I had worked with for years emailed me a Youtube link to her playing, along with the message “Who says girls can’t play bass?” The obvious answer was, apparently everyone. I’ve had drunk people ask at various times if I was really the bass player, if that was really my bass and who in the band I was sleeping with. Drunk people might say it, but sober people are thinking it. A lot of people have said to me that I was the best female bass player they’ve seen, or that I was really good for a woman, and so on. I don’t get offended. Usually it’s a heart felt compliment, and I recognize that we are few, and people are genuinely glad to see someone exceed expectations. I get it; I celebrate when a woman swims the Pacific or is responsible for a major science breakthrough or is a great drummer. It represents proof that we are capable. People are merely cheering for progress, and I’m glad they see me as indicative of progress in the music world. I think the biggest change vis-à-vis women in the music scene, and in the blues scene, is that that people really and genuinely want to see us excel at things that are not traditional for us. And that’s a beautiful thing.

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

I’d like a music world in which the way you look doesn’t matter so much. America is brutal to the non-beautiful in the music industry, at least in the pop industry. It’s not nearly as true in blues, where many top entertainers are middle age or older. But when young students I meet, who hope to make a career in music, especially those who are interested in musical theater and pop music, ask me for advice, I wish I didn’t have to silently think to myself “lose weight.” Because no matter how talented and creative and disciplined she might be, a chubby teen is going to have a hard time achieving her goals in pop.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the blues circuits?

Our guitarist Seattle Slim lives in Darrington. Two weeks ago, we had a landslide there that killed a lot of people. It made worldwide news. He lost people he went to school with. So did his little nephew, who he looks after during the day. It was beyond horrible. I couldn’t stand thinking about it. So I posted a single thing on Facebook, asking musicians what we could do, and seeing if there was any interest in holding a benefit. 24 hours later we had a website, a venue, 13 top area blues bands, including a whole group from Portland, a Facebook page, a charitable account, and more volunteers than we could even believe. Donations of things for our silent auction poured in from across the state. The event, called Blues for the Slide, is now scheduled in seven cities in the next month. That is the single most touching thing I have ever seen in the blues community. Man, our community stepped up.

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

We all need to have a conversation about cultural appropriation. Blues music comes to us from a black culture during a time of great dispossession and violent repression. While I don’t think that it makes any sense to balkanize music by ethnicity (I would be limited to jigs and reels, I suppose), I think it is important to be very respectful and aware of where the music came from. To play the music carries a responsibility to honor the experiences of the people who created the genre, and to be vigilant that the conditions that inspired the music never return. If we do that, blues can be a very unifying thing, a music that has appeal across many demographic divisions and speaks to many common experiences. In these times, and I speak for the United States, but it is true of huge parts of the world, anything that helps us identify what we have in common is a force for good.

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

I’d like to go ride on the Freedom buses in the 1950s Civil Rights movement. I’d like to march alongside those freedom fighters, white and black, and pitch in. I’d like to find my courage in the face of all that hate and work to change the world. I’d like to walk along with Dr. King, be a part of something that big, that revolutionary, that right. Hopefully without horrifying personal injury.

  

Polly O'Keary - official website

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