"The blues is all about getting what is inside of me out. Whether it be something happy, sad, or funny, blues music is the way I express myself."
Kevin Selfe: A Blues Thyphoon Coming
Kevin Selfe is a man who has dedicated his life to the blues. For more than a decade, he has been sharing that love and dedication with audiences from coast to coast, building a loyal following wherever his energetic mix of traditional and contemporary blues is heard. Although many have played the genre before him, Kevin’s path to, and through, the blues is an interesting one and is what draws people to his music.
After graduating Magna Cum Laude with a degree in Meteorology in 1995, Selfe felt like there was something missing, something else calling him. He decided to abandon a potential career as a weatherman, and pursue the music that consumed his soul, the blues.
In 1997 at the age of 23, he joined the regionally popular Fat Daddy Band based out of his hometown of Roanoke, VA. During his tenure with them, the Fat Daddy Band won the Charlotte Blues Society’s 2001 Talent Competition and was a finalist at the Blues Foundation’s 2002 International Blues Challenge in Memphis, TN, thus being named one of the top 6 unsigned blues bands in the world. After spending 6 busy years touring the South and recording 3 CD’s, Kevin left Fat Daddy and joined forces with fellow Virginia bluesman Rodger Crowder, forming Little Rodger and the Cheap Thrills in 2003. In early 2005, Kevin decided it was time to go out on his own and formed his own group, Kevin Selfe and The Tornadoes. The band quickly became known as one of the tightest and most energetic blues outfits around. In September 2005, he and the Tornadoes had the honor of backing up Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater and in January 2007, Kevin backed up the late Carey Bell, on what ended up being his last show.
Kevin Selfe & The Tornadoes released their first CD entitled Selfe-Contained in January 2006. Kevin relocated to the blues hotbed of Portland, OR in February 2007 and formed a West Coast version of The Tornadoes. In September 2009, Kevin Selfe and The Tornadoes released their highly anticipated second CD.
In four years Kevin Selfe and The Tornadoes have become a Northwest favorite, winning prestigious Muddy Awards in 2011 and 2010 for Traditional Blues Act and 2009 for Contemporary Blues Act of The Year from the Cascade Blues Association.
What do you learn about yourself from the blues, what does the blues mean to you?
For me, the blues is all about getting what is inside of me out. Whether it be something happy, sad, or funny, blues music is the way I express myself. I’ve learned that I can express and share things I wouldn’t normally share in a conversation with someone, and somehow through blues it becomes normal and safe for me.
Photo by Greg Johnson
What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN and SONGWRITER?
The best advice I ever got was to write about what you know. And that is exactly what I’ve done. Even though it may be painful, or embarrassing at times, it is what makes me real. I am very open and transparent about my life experiences and ultimately that is what connects me with my audiences.
How do you describe Kevin Selfe and The Tornadoes sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?
I definitely consider the band a blues band with many different influences from Delta and Chicago, to West Coast and Modern. I really do enjoy all styles of blues and try not limit myself to one specific style. My philosophy is to be respectful of those who have come before me, and honor the music they made, learn it the best I can, and ultimately put my own style on it.
From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues music?
That’s a tough one. Like I said earlier, I really enjoy a wide rage of blues styles. But I have probably learned the most by listening to Muddy Waters, Freddie King, Howlin Wolf, Skip James, Elmore James, Albert King, Duke Robillard, the list goes on and on. I learned a lot by going out and watching guitarists live and see how they did things and approach certain songs. Guys like Bob Margolin, Billy Crawford, and Phil Wagner…all incredible players that I would watch and try and figure out as much as I could at their shows
Are there any memories from Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater, which you’d like to share with us?
When I had the opportunity to play with him I believe he was around 75. I had never met him before and my band was backing him for a festival show. I was really unsure of how well he could play at his age, having never seen him. He showed up to rehearsal the day before, and that man could PLAY! I was thoroughly impressed. And in addition to playing great, and putting on a wonderful show, he was an incredible nice man to be around.
What do you think is the main characteristic of you personality that made you a bluesman?
Honestly, I think the biggest factor has to be my romantic relationships with women. Growing up I never really garnered much attention from the ladies and that was exacerbated in college because my major, meteorology, was probably the most uncool major on campus. So I had a lot of time by myself to sit around and play guitar. When I started becoming a decent player, girls started coming around and showing me attention…and that is when the real blues began and I started writing songs about my relationships.
Which memory from Carey Bell makes you smile?
Carey was having a really hard time getting around then. It took him quite a while to get up on stage and situated. The venue was full and there was complete silence…you could literally hear a pin drop. He looked back at us to start a song, and even though he was in pain, I could still see this twinkle in his eye. That first note he hit on the harp still resonates with me today…it was magic. It was as if someone flipped a switch in him and he came alive. It was a beautiful moment.
What are some of the most memorable jams and gigs you've had?
The best jam I ever got to play was with Tommy Castro, Kenny Neal, John Nemeth, and Janiva Magness all at the same time at the Aladdin Theater in Portland, OR.
Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
It’s hard to choose one as I’ve had quite a few great moments that I cherish but if I had to say one it would be getting to play an old Stella guitar Muddy Waters owned that still had his strings on it. I was playing during the finals of the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, TN in 2002 at the New Daisy Theater. Bob Margolin, Muddy Waters’ guitarist, was one of the judges that night, and was presenting that old Stella guitar that Muddy had owned to Howard Stovall and The Blues Foundation. Before the presentation, Bob was slated to play the guitar for a couple of tunes. We were the last band to compete and Howard was waiting at the bottom of the stairs watching over the guitar. I asked if that was “the guitar”? He said ‘Yes’, and then I asked if I could touch it. He said ‘You sounded great…here; you can play it for a minute…you earned it.’ So there I was, playing Muddy Waters guitar on Beale Str, with his strings still on it. Words just can’t describe what I felt. It was an amazing experience. That guitar now sits in the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, MS. I get goose bumps every time I see it. The worst moment would be getting booked into a dance club in Louisville, KY. The place was packed and people were all dancing to the hip-hop music the DJ was playing. I told the booking agent they’d be better off just having us pack up and go home, but he insisted we’d be fine. Well…it didn’t turn out so good. In a matter of 5 minutes the place went from over 300 people to 5. We played a total of 8 songs that night and left. It was upsetting at the time, but I can look back at it and smile a bit now.
Do you have any amusing tales to tell from your gigs with Kirk Fletcher?
Playing with Kirk was awesome! He is one of the most talented guitarists I have ever had the pleasure of playing with, and is a really nice guy on top of it all. The great thing with Kirk is that even though he is an amazing guitarist, he wasn’t competitive at all. He has this way of elevating the play of everyone around him, and it is a very magical kind of thing. I was blown away by his vocabulary and his knowledge of different styles of blues. And the best thing about Kirk is that we had FUN playing! Lots of smiles, and joking, and making great music.
Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
Living in Portland, OR for the last 5 years has definitely been the most interesting period in my life. I have learned so much about being a better musician, singer, and bandleader from the incredibly talented people in this city. The level of blues musicianship here is unparalleled to any place I’ve ever been.
What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
Be sure this is what you love to do. Because it will take plenty of strength, determination, and sacrifice to make it in this business, and those who are unsure will find themselves very unhappy. Also, make sure you treat it like a job. Although music can be very fun and rewarding at times, that is not always the case.
Photo by Kevin Focht
What is the best advice a bluesman ever gave you?
I’m not sure who told me, but the best advice I was ever given was “write about what you know”. And that is the big reason my songs are so autobiographical in nature.
Do you remember anything funny or interesting from Fat Daddy Band and Little Rodger & the Cheap Thrills?
There are so many great interesting stories from that times, sometimes I feel like I could write a book! The best experiences with Fat Daddy were getting to make it to the finals of the International Blues Challenge in 2002, and getting to go on my first little tour through the SE United States. I learned so much about performing and about being a full time professional musician. I also learned to think quick on my feet and problem solve. Dealing with an old van breaking down on the road will do that to you…lots of funny stories there. With Little Rodger, I learned more about playing more traditional blues, and I also learned that I really did want to make playing the blues my career. It is ultimately through this experience that I felt like I should try putting a band together and go out on my own.
Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES.
Unlike many musical fads, blues comes from the soul, and that is why it will always be around. Not so much from the soul of anyone person, but form the soul of humanity. As long as men and women continue to interact, there will always be the blues. The one wish I have for blues is for it to be appreciated a little more by a larger younger audience. I believe if more people were exposed to GOOD blues music, they would find they would like it!
How do you describe your contact to people when you are on stage and what compliment do you appreciate the most after a gig?
When I am on stage, I try to draw my audience in by just being real…by being me. I joke around with my bandmates, with the audience, and I tell lots of stories. I want to people to be able to relate to me through my experiences, and say ‘wow, I can really identify where he is coming from’. With most of my songwriting I use humor to make a connection with my audiences and poke fun at myself a little. What compliment I appreciate most these days is when someone says they like my singing. I never considered myself a natural singer, and singing is something I’ve only been doing for a bout 6 years now. Before I started the Tornadoes, I was always “just a guitar player”. I have spent a lot of time recently working on my voice and have even been taking lessons from world renowned coach Tom Blaylock.
Which things do you prefer to do in your free time? What is your music DREAM? Happiness is……
I like to spend time outside hiking, camping, and biking. I have two other passion in my life American football, and Meteorology. I have a degree in Meteorology from North Carolina State University and still enjoy the weather. And I played football most of my live and was even a high school coach for 4 years. I try and watch a few games whenever I can. As for my music dream…I don’t need to be rich and famous. I just want to continue making good music, and continue to make a living…that is what makes me happy.
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