Interview with Swiss musician Richard Koechli, who had the vision to combine the Blues with Celtic music

"Celtic music is - as Van Morrison said - the white people's Blues. It's the same injured and sensitive soul, the same intensity (of course without the typical 'blue notes')"

Richard Koechli: Blues with no Borders

Richard Koechli is a professional and popular roots-musician from Switzerland. He has played with many artists such as Larry Garner, Philipp Fankhauser, Hank Shizzoe, Yvonne Moore, Andy Martin, and many more. He is a regularly sought after studio musician and has also been engaged as producer for Swiss artists. Richard is also internationally known for the successful guitar-books he has written and released under AMA Publishing; "Slide Guitar Styles", "Best in the West" and the new award-winning release “Masters of Blues Guitar".

In 2002, Koechli had the creative vision to combine Celtic-Folk music with the Blues. He went on to produce the album “Blue Celtic Mystery". Koechli was a guitarist and instrumental-composer for a long time, but now he definitely seems to be on his way to the world of Songwriting. Together with his musically solid and brilliant backup-band "Blue Roots Company", Koechli recorded the album “laid-back” in 2008. This album presents Richard in his best Singer/Songwriter manner and as a master of Slide guitar. Roots music at its finest, in two languages (French and English), caringly produced! Koechli puts together the spirit of all his inspirations: from Blind Willie Johnson, Fred Mc Dowell and Elmore James to Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, from Gary Rafferty, Zachary Richard, Eric Clapton and Randy Newman to … his biggest influences: the laid-back-Masters J.J. Cale and Mark Knopfler.

Between 2008 – 2010, Koechli played more than 180 club-gigs in Switzerland and wrote his new award-winning book “Masters of Blues Guitar“. In 2011 he felt that it was the right time to follow his Blues-roots and produce two real Blues-albums, dedicated to the pioneers of Afro-American Folk Blues: HOWLIN' WITH THE BAD BOYS and STILL HOWLIN.                       (Photo by M. Haehl)

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in the blues?

I started playing guitar as a teenager. I was playing Pop, Folk and Rock; Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Cat Stevens and much more. But I did not really know then what Blues is, where the Blues came from. At 22, I heard for the first time a Blues-disc, it was "Texas Flood" by Stevie Ray Vaughan. That was a great experience. A short time later I discovered the slide guitar through the music of Ry Cooder. From that moment on I knew that the slide guitar will shape my life. I went way back and studied all the great musicians of Blues history; I'm still learning from these great pioneers today!

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

There's the musical side, the technology. All these immortal songs, riffs and guitar licks. But that's not the only thing for me. Blues is also a spirit, a philosophy, an emotion. The Blues has especially learned me to be honest, to show my true face on stage. And to be brave, because a true bluesman doesn't has to be a great virtuoso, he has nothing to prove to the audience, he just has to share his emotions and his only joy in the music.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN and SONGWRITER?

Love and death. I try to play and sing every note as if it were the last of my life. "You got to move, when the Lord gets ready" ...

How/where do you get inspiration for your songs & who were your mentors in songwriting?

Inspiration has many faces. I usually first feel the wish, to tell a story experienced. So I'm looking for the words (sometimes, when I write in English, with a little help from my friends, because my English isn't really good...). I first write the story in verse, and then I pack that “poem” in music. But sometimes I first hear a melody, a riff or a groove. There are 1000 ways...                          (Photo by Werner Gmuender)

How do you describe Richard Koechli sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

I think my biggest talent is to hear melodies, to feel them. My sound is earthy and deeply rooted in traditional (Anglo-) American music (blues, country, folk, and rock). My goal is to play “laid-back" and reduce the music to a minimum. Nothing to prove, every note played has to serve the song and the melody, not my ego! Of course I do not always succeed ...

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues? What is the best ever given you?

Not an easy question ... There are so many wonderful musicians in the world. Not just in Blues. Two of my main sources, mainly as a finger-picker and as a singer/songwriter, are Mark Knopfler and J.J. Cale. In the world of Blues I would call Blind Willie Johnson, Son House, Tampa Red, Fred McDowell, Elmore James, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker my greatest heroes. Of course, I don't forget Robert Johnson, but for me, Robert - sorry – was not the only King of Blues. Last but not least: also current stars such as Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Ry Cooder or Bonnie Raitt have greatly impressed and motivated me.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

There are so many, but finally, I don't want to compare moments. Every successful concert is a great moment, when I can touch people, when I feel free. Every moment, when I feel my love Evelyne's heart beating, is a great moment. Or when I'm creative and write new songs & melodies (the “flow”...) A very nice experience was of course recently winning the SWISS BLUES AWARD 2013 for my CDs “Howlin' with the bad boys” and “Still howlin'” - or the BEST GERMAN EDITION-Award 2011 for my book “Masters of Blues Guitar” (also translated in English!). Ok, now the bad news: There are also many of bad moments in my life; fears, doubts, anger, sadness, despair. But let's talk about the good news: The Blues is meant to transform these bad moments, to give these feelings a voice...

                                                                        Photo by Patrick Frischknecht

Are there any memories with Larry Garner which you’d like to share with us?

Well, I was on stage with him in Lucerne as a special guest, many years ago. A real great moment for me; he's a wonderful artist, singer and guitar player. At the end of the show, he said to me: “Maybe I won't remember your face or your name, but I promise you that I'll never forget your slide-guitar!”

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

I would say: You have to search for your own way. It has never been easy - not yesterday, not today. The important thing is to believe in your own talent, your own voice – and still be modest. Your talent is not only made for being your ego's “food”; you must feel the desire to make people happy – then people will respect you and buy your music. And of course: perseverance, courage, patience, trust and will; you can learn and work on your personality every moment of your life.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

I cannot give a real answer. My feelings are subjective, sometimes I think I play great, and when I listen to the recordings, I say: “bullshit!!” Sometimes I feel like a gig was bad and bland - then I hear a recording of it and I cry: “Wow, that was great!” We all look through our own glasses - and that is never really objective.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES

Blues is a primal force, a raw gemstone, and it's the father of many music styles like Rock 'n' Roll, Rock, Pop a.m.o.  A root as the Blues cannot really die - it's timeless. It is a way of life, a certain emotion. Everyone can – if he loves him – playing the Blues on his way and refine, either modern and progressive, or - like me - more traditional. The only important thing is to be honest and authentic.

                                                                           Photo by Werner Gmuender

When we talk about blues usually refer moments of the past. Do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

Of course I believe! Blues is ultimately a language, it is perhaps a hundred or more years old, but hey..., is it as old as the English language?? With any language you can tell a true story from your life – here and now.

What are you miss most nowadays from the old days of Blues Roots music?

Well, I've only been in this world since 1962 ..., so I cannot really miss the old days of Blues Roots. Maybe it was better back then - maybe not. I must live in the present and looking my own way. Nostalgia doesn't really help, even if it can be very inspiring sometimes. I have to pay my bills today – and my bank doesn't accept “the old days” as currency...

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

This resophonic-guitar was built mainly because it sounds slightly louder than a normal acoustic guitar - and that was desperately needed in the juke joints of the old days..., to be heard (there was back in the 20s and 30s years no electric guitars). Why it has become a big myth and stereotype of Blues? I don't know exactly; maybe it's the raw, dirty sound nasal, just fits to that music. But for me a resophonic-guitar sounds also great in Country-, Folk- and Pop-Music. Now let's talk about slide-guitar: that style seems to be really made for Blues; with a “bottleneck” on your finger you can convey the perfect human cry, it's like singing, not many notes, but full of nuances and emotions!

                                                                                         Photo by M. Haehl

What's been their experience from European scene?

Well, “we” had wonderful slide-players in Europe during the last 50 years; but I think the slide-story really began in Africa, in the Mississippi-Delta and in Hawaii.

What are the differences and similarities between Blues and Cajun with Swiss folk roots music?

Of course, we have our own folk music, deeply rooted, very intense and authentic. The solitude in the mountains, yodeling, the hard life on the land, etc. Today, unfortunately, for the most part only a commercial tourist attraction, to demonstrate the magic of Swiss mountains. But there is still a very creative scene of musicians who play and develop real Swiss folk music. But I do not belong because I left my heart in Mississippi...

What is the line that connects the legacy of Celtic folk music with Blues Roots culture and beyond?

I think, Celtic music is – as Van Morrison said – the white people's Blues. It's the same injured and sensitive soul, the same intensity (of course without the typical "blue notes"). I can feel a congeniality of souls, even though both styles of music have their own history and were never really mixed (except in some way in the early American “Country Music”).

              Richard Koechli & The Celtic Blues Company. Photo by Th. Hutter

Which incident of your life you‘d like to be captured and illustrated in a painting?

Maybe I'm not made for beeing illustrated in a painting...; my voice is the music, my painting is made by sounds, melodies and rhythms

How you would spend a day with Fred Mc Dowell and what would you like to ask JJ Cale?

Well, my English is bad, and – worse – I often stutter...; so I think: small talk would be a waste of time. I would say to Fred and J.J.: “Hey bros, thanks so much for your wonderful music; let's play together!

Any last comments?

Greece is a wonderful country with wonderful peoples, and I really hope the European Union will learn to give you the respect you deserve...!!

Richard Koechli - Official website

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