Q&A Pacific Northwest based Polly O'Keary, fusions of blues with other genres, and on this all-original collection blends

"I've learned that women can make music as capably as men can. I didn't know that coming up. I'm from an era in which that was not the conventional wisdom by any means. I've learned that if you do something for a long time, you get better at it. I've learned that relationships come and go, but music is yours forever. It's important to remember that relationships that are not compatible with your music are dangerous for you."

Polly O’Keary: The Wisdom of 50s

A century ago, blues was born in the fields of the South, played on porches and in little backwoods bars by kerosene lamp. The times have changed, and it’s a rare blues musician who grew up picking cotton and going home to learn to play by the light of a kerosene lamp. Polly O’Keary certainly didn’t. Well, that is, she didn’t pick cotton. She picked apples. But she learned to read music by kerosene lamp, in a log cabin in a remote part of Washington State. Polly O’Keary and the Rhythm Method is the trio she built with her husband and drummer Tommy Cook, also a highly sought touring drummer and winner of the 2017 Washington Blues Society Blues Drummer award, with whom she shared rhythm section duties for international touring act Too Slim and the Taildraggers for four years. Rounding out the trio is David Miller (guitar), who grew up listening to blues in Texas.                                 (Polly O'Keary / Photo by Alex Brikoff)

2021 is a seminal year for Polly O’Keary and the Rhythm Method. This year all three members turn 50, inspiring the name of their 6th album "50" (2021). The band used last year’s hiatus to build their strongest album yet, 11 tracks that touch on themes of hard-won wisdom, wry regrets, amused reflection on past foibles, a bit of crowing over having survived it all, and hope that better days still lie ahead. The band takes pride in creative fusions of blues with other genres, and on this all-original collection blends Texas shuffle, swing, rhumba, and hill country blues with Cuban habanera, Motown, funk, R&B, Southern rock, Americana, and even one Bonamassa-style hard rocker. Standout moments include the first three songs the band has written for guitarist David Miller to sing, and a guest appearance on “Brand New Day” from long-time friend Lady A, whose legal battle with country superstars Lady Antebellum over the use of her name made national headlines last year. 50 furthers the innovations that made the band’s last studio album, “Black Crow Callin’,” a finalist in the Best Self-Produced CD contest at the 2018 IBCs. It also demonstrates that, as Honeyboy Edwards used to say, if you do something a long time, you get nothing but better.

Interview by Michael Limnios              Polly O'Keary, 2017 @ Blues.gr Interview

How do you think that you have grown as an artist since you first started making music?

When I first started making music, I was in a cover band at 16 years old, playing in bars for people my parents age and up. I worked with older musicians, and I played whatever the gig required. I really didn't know what my own direction would be. Then, at 28, I saw Jeff Healey in a club in Canada and then I knew what I wanted to do. I've been doing that ever since. In the years since, I've learned to trust myself as a songwriter and an instrumentalist. That is the most profound growth experience I've had as a musician.

What has remained the same about your music-making process?

Almost nothing. I'm disciplined now, especially as a vocalist, because I have to be, to recover from the damage I did in my undisciplined youth. I love making music now in a way I never did starting out. When a song is not proving easy to write, I no longer panic like I did as a younger artist, because sheer experience tells me that; A: Writing music is often very hard and struggle is part of the process, not proof I'm a subpar hack., and B: I can find my way to a song that reflects my original intent. It's just a matter of keeping after it, sometimes for years. The songs will come.

"Everyone always says, "follow your dreams." It's on coffee mugs and cross-stitched pillows and the covers of bullet journals. What they don't mention is the cost. Dream-following is not cheap, or terribly lucrative, unless your dream is to be an ER nurse or a mortgage broker. Following your dreams means making concrete plans and abandoning a lot of other possible avenues." (Photo: Polly O’Keary & The Rhythm Method - David Miller, Tommy Cook and Polly O'Keary)

How do you want your music/songs to affect people? What do you hope people continue to take away from your songs?

Most of my songs have a double meaning. One is for me, and one is for the listener. If they are the same, great, but I like to write just ambiguously enough so that the listener can insert themselves into the song. That is also a way I can keep my songs really honest. For example, I had a huge blowout with a roommate, and I was incredibly furious. I wrote a song called "Nothing Left To Say But Goodbye" that expresses that a relationship is unequivocally over, but never is specific about the relationship or the nature of the grievance. I want people to recognize the feeling I was feeling when I wrote the song, and feel the same sense of kinship I feel when I recognize my own experience in someone else's art. Also, I want the music and the lyric to be very consistent with the message of the song, such that I could be singing it in Latin and you'd still have a pretty good idea of what the song is about.

How do you describe new album "50" sound and songbook? Do you have any stories about the making of?

50 is in many ways an album of dark and wry humor, as is much of my work. I've made a lot of serious mistakes, and in the rearview mirror, there's humor to be found in them. The truth is often very funny. I poke some fun at myself over crazy relationships and dope and so on. But the album is also a reflection on life at midlife. The song that is the most truthfully, lyrically, is one I wrote for our guitarist Dave Miller to sing on the album, and it's about still being a touring musician at 50. Every time he sings it I feel the truth of it ring like a bell.

We made this album during the pandemic, and of course, there wasn't any work to be had. Typically, we finance each record by selling the previous ones, but a cancelled national tour and no club dates meant we had to get creative about how we funded this album. My husband, our drummer Tommy Cook, has been learning sound engineering for years, so he just did the best he could tracking it in the studio he has built, and then we mixed it and mastered it with the topflight guys we usually use. The outcome was fantastic. It's marvelous to have the luxury of time to get the track you want.

"Most of my songs have a double meaning. One is for me, and one is for the listener. If they are the same, great, but I like to write just ambiguously enough so that the listener can insert themselves into the song. That is also a way I can keep my songs really honest." (Polly O'Keary / Photo by Alex Brikoff)

What do you think is key to a life well lived? How can Rock ‘n’ Blues music inspire activism?

Everyone always says, "follow your dreams." It's on coffee mugs and cross-stitched pillows and the covers of bullet journals. What they don't mention is the cost. Dream-following is not cheap, or terribly lucrative, unless your dream is to be an ER nurse or a mortgage broker. Following your dreams means making concrete plans and abandoning a lot of other possible avenues. Sometimes it means never having kids or even pets because you travel all the time. It might mean never getting a degree or an alternate skill and facing poverty in old age. It might mean years of insolvency and insecurity. The key to a life well lived, I believe, is doing it anyway. Security is overrated! Regret is too high a price for security.

If rock and blues can inspire activism, it's not by preaching. I'm a pragmatic sort-you have to have a goal and a strategy. If you want people to be concerned about the things you are concerned about, concerned enough to throw their shoulders to the wheel on it, you have to remember why you care and talk about that. If you are pissed off about the insane health care system we have in this country, writing the Mean Old Health Care Blues isn't going to probably be the best strategy. Write about losing your house because your kid got sick, or staying in a shit job because you can't afford to lose your insurance now you've gotten older. If you want people to care about the environment, I can't think of a more effective way to make people think of the value and beauty of wild places than writing songs like JJ Grey writes about Florida, with his sheer yearning love for the swamps and groves. In journalism, they say "show, don't tell." Show the things that make you feel the way you do, and the truth of that will resonate more than overtly political messages will do in this hyper-political moment. I say this as an all-but-dissertation PhD in political communication. You have to get past people's political firewalls to speak to them, and the slightest whiff of recognizable partisanship will only thrill the like-minded while immediately closing the minds of the folks on the other side of the aisle. Politics and identity are totally inseparable right now. Threaten identity and the door slams shut. I truly believe that the only hope of softening this sort of entrenchment is to back off the rhetoric and tell real stories that can resonate with people on a very basic level.

"I love making music now in a way I never did starting out. When a song is not proving easy to write, I no longer panic like I did as a younger artist, because sheer experience tells me that; A: Writing music is often very hard and struggle is part of the process, not proof I'm a subpar hack., and B: I can find my way to a song that reflects my original intent. It's just a matter of keeping after it, sometimes for years. The songs will come." (Photo: Polly O’Keary & The Rhythm Method - David Miller, Tommy Cook and Polly O'Keary)

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

I've learned that women can make music as capably as men can. I didn't know that coming up. I'm from an era in which that was not the conventional wisdom by any means. I've learned that if you do something for a long time, you get better at it. I've learned that relationships come and go, but music is yours forever. It's important to remember that relationships that are not compatible with your music are dangerous for you. I've learned that having the right relationships between the people who you make music with is of critical importance. Making music with people who you aren't family with, the closest of friends with, is fine, if there's at least mutual respect. But without that, there's no point in continuing that project. It's hell. There is a better situation out there somewhere, and you'll be miserable until you find it. If you do find that family, that true friendship, you are in the sweet spot. Above all, I've learned that if you don't love the journey, don't make the trip. I snort every time some twenty-something on American Idol says that the show is their last big shot, that they can't go on playing clubs or whatever. Granted, I could live without ever playing another sports bar, but I love playing music with my guys, and if that's the journey, it's also the destination. It's all gravy, beyond that.

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

I think the blues are a specific genre, but I would hesitate to try to define it. I would say there are aesthetic elements that are identified with blues and if music has enough of them, if falls loosely into the genre at least. That can include certain guitar tones and techniques, certain rhythms, certain vocal styles, and certain conventions like a 12-bar pattern that make music recognizable as blues. Blues is always evolving, too. Over time it takes on various flavors from the era it is situated in. It picked up electrification, it picked up funk, it picked up rock, it absorbed flavors of neo-soul, and more recently, people are innovating with electronica and hip hop and so on.

I don't think the blues is a state of mind. The reason is that just about any state of mind you can name is expressed using the techniques and conventions of blues. But to be good blues, I do think it needs to be authentic to the writer. It doesn't have to be deep and profound;  a simple song about being happy because it's summertime has a lot of value if the writer captured his or her natural joy and other people can relate. Blues offers a lot of ways to say a lot of things in a loose but real aesthetic framework that just really does it for me.

"I've made a lot of serious mistakes, and in the rearview mirror, there's humor to be found in them. The truth is often very funny." (Polly O'Keary / Photo by Alex Brikoff)

What would you say characterizes Pacific Northwest blues scene in comparison to other local US scenes and circuits?

I want to drink whatever is in the water in Portland, Oregon. The entire Pacific Northwest is rich in talent, including here in Seattle, but whatever they have down there is potent. Ben Rice, Lisa Mann, Rae Gordon, the list of geniuses down there is long. One thing that has always set us apart is that it's expensive to tour in our region. Venues are widely spread out. For that reason, we're a little off of the national circuit. That has led to sort of a Galapagos Island effect. There really is a Pacific Northwest sound. We all know each other, too. It's a tight-knit, strong, and active community of musicians and the people who love blues music. I have noticed that in the Pacific Northwest, blues fans are a bit more purist than they are in other regions. People out here really do like to hear blues that is very consistent with tradition. It always feels like a bit of risk writing the kinds of fusions I like to write, like reggae and blues or surf and blues, because up here you can get a bit of pushback for it, but when we get out and tour, we find most folks pretty open to all sorts of innovation. That was a pleasant surprise when I first started touring with a blues rock band.

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