Q&A with Aussie Griot & Blues Shaman Steve Tallis - a passionate musician who in his own way evokes the universal values of life

"Music is my life, my calling, my essence, the way I express myself fully. I am a very private person - I value my privacy but I hold nothing back with my music. I live a very quiet life no matter where I live. Anything anyone wants to know about me is in my music, my songs - if you are prepared to listen deeply. I don't believe in "targeted audiences" - I believe any human being no matter what age, gender, sex, culture can enjoy my music - both live and recorded."

Steve Tallis: The Journey of Life & Music

Steve started playing music in 1962. Music is his calling. From birth he was surrounded by the music of his Macedonian ancestors and music from the Balkans. Listening to live music at picnics and dances as a small child opened his mind and spirit to trancelike rhythms, improvisation and chanting. He started listening to the radio – Rolling Stones, Them, Animals, Manfred Mann, Jimi Hendrix, Yardbirds, Kinks…. He searched back further to the roots of the music he loved – and then back to the source – Africa. Steve is an Australian Griot, a Blues Shaman. He has lived and performed in the USA, Europe, Mexico and Asia – supporting some of the biggest names in music – eg Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, BB King, Joe Cocker, Tina Turner, Buddy Guy, Eric Burdon. Influences include Leadbelly, John Coltrane, Tim Buckley, Captain Beefheart, Sun Ra, Miles Davis, Van Morrison, Howling Wolf, Tom Waits, Jack Bruce, JB Lenoir and Bob Dylan... African, Indian, Haitian and Islamic music have all had a spiritual and rhythmic influence on his work. His love of blues, gospel and a cappella field hollers shows both in his live shows and recordings. Two lifelong ambitions came true when he toured India in 1997 and Pakistan in 2003. Explorations into Vodou, Tantra, Buddhism, Sufism, The Bible, Hinduism, Taoism and Native American Indians have affected him deeply. Steve Tallis is unique, fiercely independent and is not a man to be compromised.

Steve Tallis, 2017 / Photo by Oska Tallis

“Where Many Rivers Meet” (2020) is the 8th self-produced album by this tireless singer-songwriter. It’s also the most personal. He has wanted to do a solo album for a long time. Steve expresses himself accompanied by his Gibson SG guitar and 12 string Guild acoustic or a cappella field hollers. 16 of the 25 tracks are original creations that alternate with songs he has arranged, the whole giving way to a voice full of conviction. Words that speak of the spirit, earthy, unadorned music that comes from somewhere under the skin, this is as real as it gets. A deeply personal album also thanks to the accompanying booklet with the lyrics of certain songs and a selection of portraits, milestones in the career of a musician who has travelled the world for more than 40 years. The album cover, with this shell like a fossil, undoubtedly refers to the origins of his music which has its roots in the Blues to which Steve brings his personal touch, the fruit of the legacy of his influences from Leadbelly to Bob Dylan. It also symbolizes fertility, rebirth and love. Don’t we say that the Greek goddess Aphrodite materializes in the ocean carried to the shore in a seashell? Steve Tallis is a passionate, driven and proudly independent musician who in his own way evokes the universal values of life, death, love, sex, transmission, filiation, sharing, energy, faith, beliefs, revolt.

Interview by Michael Limnios                Steve Tallis Interview, 2016 @ blues.gr

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

I started performing in 1962 so have experienced 6 decades of music and change. I listened to music from a very early age - my home was always full of music - music from my ancestors in Macedonia and The Balkans - Greece, Turkey, Albania, Yugoslavia...Rock n Roll, Jazz, Blues etc. I've always been a bit of a rebel and an individualist...I have always been politically engaged (brought up in a left-wing old-style socialist household) and still am very much engaged today - and not just Australia. The 1960s were probably the biggest influence on me but, as I get older, I believe my earlier influences (ancestors - music from The Balkans) is stronger than may be apparent...not necessarily music but spiritually. I love touring and traveling...meeting new people, sharing my music with people, new audiences. I don't believe in holidays...or breaks from music...playing music is what I do and what I need.

How do you describe Where Many Rivers Meet 'philosophy'? What touched (emotionally) you from the Abalone shell on your album's covers?

The word I would use to describe my album is "Raw" - not just in sound but in emotions, feelings, rhythms. I have always been fascinated by rivers from my childhood. It is interesting to me that a river twists and turns - with obstacles in the way - but the river keeps flowing - like life. We found the shell featured on the cover on Rottnest Island (an island off the West Coast of Perth, my hometown in Australia). The original is in Paris. It is an Abalone shell (like a fossil) and suitably describes my life journey - love, death, sex, my roots, philosophies from birth to today. I'm feeling the healthiest I have ever felt in my life and in a very creative, positive phase.     (Steve Tallis / Photo by Frances Andrijich)

"Stay true to your / my personal beliefs / philosophies. Work hard. Stay healthy and focused (I was given 6 months to live in 1976 so I focus a great deal on my health). Don't take anyone or anything for granted. Don't believe anything any critic says about your music - positive or negative. Be honest with yourself."

How started the thought of solo album with a-cappella field hollers? What was the hardest part of recording this album?

Most of my live work is solo so my decision to record a solo album (and also in mono) was predominantly concerning future live work. It was recorded live - first take....I recorded 39 songs then chose what I considered the strongest, most interesting performances - vocally and guitar-wise. - 10 hours. It showcases what a live show would sound like - with the mix of originals, Blues, Gospel, a cappella field hollers. It's not hard for me to record....even with a band....I never go into a studio unless I am 100% ready...mentally, spiritually, physically...and I always record live first take...I am after the feeling from a recording...not necessarily a perfect performance. I don't believe in perfection or mistakes. Not all the songs are necessarily 100% finished before I record. I prefer to leave lots of space for spontaneous things to happen. Also I enjoyed the challenge of recording solo - nothing in the way of 100% freedom. The work really starts with the mixing and mastering. This recording (as are all my recordings) are a team effort with the engineer...Rob Grant (Poons Head Studio Fremantle) - who I consider the critical element in any recording. I only record with people who I trust and who accept my recording philosophies. Trust / faith is a very important element in my recordings whether with musicians or solo. Also, I trust the engineer to give him (or her) creative space to experiment with sounds. (I have also written 13 new songs since recording this album)

Are there any memories from your travels in Ghana, India, Pakistan, and Mexico which you’d like to share with us?

There are many interesting memories. In all these countries I created music with local musicians which were amazing experiences for me - no rehearsals (I never rehearse).

Ghana: I was invited to perform at "Panafest" (2005) - a festival celebrating the end of slavery - in Cape Coast where African slaves were held in forts before being transported to various countries in the world. After my soundcheck (I was performing solo originally), musicians from a 14-piece Nigerian drumming group asked me if they could perform with me at the festival (they were performing before me that night). I was humbled by their offer and they did perform with me plus various other African musicians and singers. I was the first white musician to ever perform at this festival. Also, I visited one of the forts where slaves were held before being transported - one of the most intense experiences in my life. Very sad and overwhelming feelings and connections to dead spirits. For me, it was a critical thing to experience in my life.     (Photo by Oska Tallis)

India: I was invited to perform at the 50th anniversary of India's independence from England. "Freedom Jam Festival" (Bangalore - August 1997). The promoter had seen me (solo) at a Jazz club in Hong Kong. We did 3 shows - also with my musicians from Australia - Gary Ridge (percussion) and Dave Clarke (Violin, Harp, Vocals) - "The Holy Ghosts" (who were on my albums "Loko" and "Zozo". An amazing experience... 30,000 people... going wild... humbling experience for me.

Pakistan: I was invited to perform at one of Asia's largest World Music Festivals - "World Performing Arts / Music Festival 2003 - Lahore". I was performing solo again but the festival organisers asked me if I would like various musicians to perform with me - I said yes of course. I had 12 Qawwali singers (some family members of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and also the Sabri Brothers, a world famous Sufi musician with a one stringed instrument twirling around while singing and playing, a violinist, an amazing Tabla player (who could not speak English and later I found out he was one of Pakistan's most famous tabla players) and  various percussionists. The feeling on stage was incredible - intense and powerful.  The crowd went wild. (A review from the show is attached). The shows were apparently filmed but, unfortunately, I have never been able to get copies.

Mexico: I was invited there to do a tour with a Mexican Diva called "Jaramar". Amazing country, great people, interesting culture, great musicians. It was a very interesting experience. I performed in some large theatres, cafes, clubs, bars with local musicians and solo.

Where does your creative drive come from? How does the universal values of life, death, love, and faith, affect your inspiration?

I have no problem with inspiration. I am inspired by life, love, my children, my granddaughter, love, sex, death, faith, belief, philosophy, travel, religion, politics, inequality, the environment, racism, bigotry, discrimination, the human condition.

Music is my life, my calling, my essence, the way I express myself fully. I am a very private person - I value my privacy but I hold nothing back with my music. I live a very quiet life no matter where I live. Anything anyone wants to know about me is in my music, my songs - if you are prepared to listen deeply. I don't believe in "targeted audiences" - I believe any human being no matter what age, gender, sex, culture can enjoy my music - both live and recorded.

I am writing all the time...I have notebooks in all my jackets, guitar cases, next to my bed etc...I use the mobile phone to record ideas then transfer to my laptop and then delete what I don't think is interesting. None of my lyrics are written on my laptop...Until I record.         (Steve Tallis, 2000 / Photo by  Photo by Frances Andrijich)

"Unfortunately, the biggest revolution today is the exploitation of musicians by people like Spotify etc. I refuse to have my music available on this parasite's platform. Pathetic insulting royalties and disrespect. Also, most people's attention span today is very limited - possibly 20 minutes maximum."

How do you want your music/songs to affect people? What do you think is key to a life well lived?

I want my music to touch people, move them spiritually, physically, mentally. I would prefer someone to dislike my music but respect me than like my music but disrespect me.

My mother and grandmother always said to me - "Choose a job or profession which makes you happy, live where you are the happiest, surround yourself with people who you love and who love you and make you happy, believe in yourself no matter what anyone says. Never compromise your beliefs even if you are in the minority. Question everything and everyone. Be true and honest to yourself. Respect women and all cultures and peoples. Travel. Don't place your prime importance on money or material possessions. Learn to look after yourself in every way." My parents took me to see Louis Armstrong and Trini Lopez at The Capitol Theatre in my hometown Perth in February,1963. I walked out of that concert and told my mother I was going to be a musician for the rest of my life...and I have. I wanted to do to people what Louis Armstrong (and many others since) have done to me.

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

Stay true to your / my personal beliefs / philosophies. Work hard. Stay healthy and focused (I was given 6 months to live in 1976 so I focus a great deal on my health). Don't take anyone or anything for granted. Don't believe anything any critic says about your music - positive or negative. Be honest with yourself. (I am my biggest critic). Never get sucked in by fame or celebrity status - it means nothing. Never compromise for anyone or any amount of money. Also, I have learned that I cannot create music with people who share right wing, fascist opinions and philosophies etc. I only create music with musicians who are my friends or are potential friends. I'm always looking for new musicians to create music with no matter where I live - age, gender, even musical tastes are not that important to me. I listen to an incredibly wide range of music so even if musicians are not necessarily "Blues" musicians, it's not important. In fact, any purist mentality is a negative for me. I want musicians to challenge me, surprise me, take me on a different journey - the same way I challenge them. I'm 100% open to anything, anyone and anywhere.

"I have always been politically engaged (brought up in a left-wing old-style socialist household) and still am very much engaged today - and not just Australia. The 1960s were probably the biggest influence on me but, as I get older, I believe my earlier influences (ancestors - music from The Balkans) is stronger than may be apparent...not necessarily music but spiritually." (Steve Tallis / Photo by Matthieu Ricol)

What is the biggest revolution which can be realized today? What do you think the major changes will be in the world?

Unfortunately, the biggest revolution today is the exploitation of musicians by people like Spotify etc. I refuse to have my music available on this parasite's platform. Pathetic insulting royalties and disrespect. Also, most people's attention span today is very limited - possibly 20 minutes maximum. People in general want music for free - recorded and live. Music is not valued enough as a serious profession unfortunately. Most consider it a hobby. It is the toughest today I have ever seen in 58 years of performing as a musician. The Covid19 virus has made the situation even harder with the lack of venues to play. But I sincerely believe things will get back to some normality and live work will happen again. The Covid 19 virus will force many to give up playing music as it is even more difficult than before. Only the serious professional musicians will survive. Another major problem in my opinion is musicians playing for free - devaluing the profession.

From BRUNOS DOUBLE to UNCLE MEAT. Make an account of the case of Aussie blues/rock scene in the 1960s.

The Australian Blues / Rock scene has always been vibrant (and still is today). I believe Australia has some of the best musicians in the world - based on more than 40 years plus touring / traveling. Some Australian Rock / Blues bands in the 1960s were Chain, Loved Ones, Masters Apprentices, Dave Miller Set, Missing Links, Purple Hearts, Billy Thorpe and The Aztecs, Ray Hoff and The Offbeats, Phil Jones and The Unknown Blues, Running Jumping Standing Still, Carson, Dutch Tilders, Wendy Saddington, Jellyroll Bakers, Kevin Borich Express, Foreday Riders, Margret Roadknight, Dave Hole, Molly Byron, Georgia Lee, Les Welch, The Throb, Jeff St John and The Id / Copperwine, Max Merritt and Meteors, Paul Marks, Morganfield Jubilee Blues Band, The Set, Current Bun, Down Home Group, Wild Cherries, The Creatures, Adderly Smith Blues Band, Mort and The Mobees, Russ Kennedy and The Little Wheels, The Melbourne New Orleans Jazz Band. I would even include The Easybeats as I think of a lot of their music as having r'n'b feels. There are probably more but these are just from my memories.

Steve Tallis - Home

(Steve Tallis / Photo by Hank Kordas)

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