Q&A with award-winning Canadian bluesman Steve Strongman, a versatile talent, and a restless one

"Blues is a blank canvas for an artist. There are so many ways to express yourself through blues music."

Steve Strongman: Pushin' Boundaries

Modern and timeless, Steve Strongman’s new album “No Time Like Now” (March 10 release date) is a slab of reinvigorated 21st century blues. An intoxicating shot of raw electrified blues, the album captures the performer riding a surge of new energy. The album is a shout-out to a lifelong love of blues in all its shapes and shadings, from rough-hewn electric blues, blue-collar hollers and swampy stompers to soulful groovers and hushed, heartfelt ballads. More than anything, the album reconnects with the primal force and emotional clout of dirty blues. It’s a stunning rocker, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Award-winning Canadian bluesman Steve Strongman is a versatile talent, and a restless one. By constantly pushing himself in new directions, he has kept himself vital. His talent is huge and impossible to miss, and it’s matched by his staggering musical ambition — as guitar-slinger, songwriter or vocalist. The same structures and progressions that animate blues and roots music can also choke the air out of it, smothering it in caricature and cliché. But Strongman is a subtle shape-shifter who manages to slip that trap without betraying the music he loves. Throughout, he never sounds an inauthentic note or loses touch with the essence of the blues. In the tradition of The Howlin’ Wolf Album and Muddy Waters’ After the Rain. No Time Like Now offers tribute to blues-rock as a full-blooded, living thing, not a museum piece.

With No Time Like Now, one of this country’s most talented and compelling blues players becomes a juggernaut. Backed by an impressive pack of players (including drummers Dave King and Adam Warner, bassists Rob Szabo and Alec Fraser, keyboardist Jesse O’Brien), the band is pure fire — both athletically limber and wickedly tight. The session also features a stellar guitar cameo from Randy Bachman on Strongman’s muscular cover of Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet”. No Time Like Now buzzes with fresh energy — loose, playful and reinvigorated — but it’s thanks to the caliber and chemistry of the players that it lands its punches so consistently. Strongman’s impressive resume includes stints opening for guitar legends such as Johnny Winter, B.B. King and Buddy Guy. The performer’s breakthrough 2012 release A Natural Fact was hailed as a standout, earning Maple Blues Awards for Recording, Songwriter, and Guitarist Of The Year as well as a 2013 Juno Award for Blues Recording Of The Year. In 2014 he was thrice-nominated at the Maple Blues Awards and in 2015 received a second Juno nod for Blues Album of the Year (for Let Me Prove It To You).

Interview by Michael Limnios

All Photos Ⓒ By Matthew Barnes -- Special Thanks Mark Pucci Media

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

Blues is a blank canvas for an artist. There are so many ways to express yourself through blues music. I hear blues influence in all styles of music. It keeps me honest, and I’ve learned it’s the most emotional way that I can express myself. 

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

All life experiences make you a better writer. I get inspiration from so many aspects of life, travelling, family, friends, society. The best songwriters have a way of conveying their experience and emotion through song, and that’s what I try and do when I write. 

How do you describe Steve Strongman’s sound and progress? What characterizes your music philosophy?

I don’t think that I have a philosophy about music; I try not to be confined to any one aspect of music. I feel it’s the job of an artist to continue to push boundaries. My sound is always progressing, and I let the songs dictate what sounds we should achieve.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?

I can’t say any one person, as I’ve learned so much from all the great blues artists. I will say that I learned a lot from growing up watching Mel Brown perform live Also, Buddy Guy’s control over his stage and band is impressive to say the least. I continue to learn no matter which artist I am listening to or performing with.

"All life experiences make you a better writer. I get inspiration from so many aspects of life, travelling, family, friends, society. The best songwriters have a way of conveying their experience and emotion through song, and that’s what I try and do when I write." (Photo by Matthew Barnes)

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

Every career has highs and lows, so I’m not sure about best and worst. I suppose a high point was winning the JUNO award here in Canada for Blues Recording of the Year, but I could easily say opening for BB King or Buddy Guy. A low point was finding out that Mel Brown had died — I feel we had a lot of music to create together and his time was cut too short.

What do you miss most nowadays from Mel Brown?
I miss being able to go into any place big or small, and hearing his undeniable tone and phrasing. It didn’t matter what guitar or amp he was playing through — Mel’s tone was in his hands and his sound was undeniably unique. That’s the mark of great guitar players. You can tell it’s them when you hear them.

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

The most interesting period is now. Being a parent is fantastic, and to have a career that keeps moving forward is very exciting. The balance of these worlds is very interesting. 

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?

The biggest change has been how people consume music. Record sales are down and digital streaming is the way everyone listens now. This does affect the live aspect — I think touring now is more important than it has ever been.

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

It’s not the easiest career. I believe someone doesn’t choose music — music chooses them. If you feel this is what you need to do, then get to work. Also, start writing songs as early as you can, and write as many as you can.

Why did you think that the Canadian Blues continues to generate such a devoted following?

Canadian music is as diverse as it’s culture, and that shows in our music. Also, being a close neighbor of the birth place of the blues, I think the bar has been raised so we feel we have something to prove.

"The biggest change has been how people consume music. Record sales are down and digital streaming is the way everyone listens now. This does affect the live aspect — I think touring now is more important than it has ever been." (Photo by Matthew Barnes)

Are there any memories from Sonny Landreth, and Joe Cocker, which you’d like to share with us?

Both of those artists were very kind to me.  I remember opening for Joe Cocker and looking side stage and seeing him standing there actually listening to me. After the show he was very gracious with his time, he will be missed.

Which memories from Buddy Guy and Jeff Healey makes you smile?

I could write many pages about both of these artists. Jeff Healey was special. I remember the first time I played with him at his club Healey’s in Toronto, I had just given a long guitar solo that I felt was pretty great – I was playing with Jeff after all, and he glanced in my direction and launched into a solo that killed the place! It was almost as if he said, “OK – here you go, Steve.” He had another gear that other guitarists just don’t have.

Buddy Guy’s stage presence is fantastic — he’s such a great showman.  I learned a lot watching him perform in terms of dynamics. I’ve played with him several times now, and it’s always an education.

Do you have any amusing tales to tell from your work with Randy Bachman, Otis Clay and Jimmie Vaughan?

After I opened for Otis Clay, he pulled me aside and said “Man! I’m gonna get up there and do what you do! I loved that!” Jimmie Vaughan and I chatted about Mel Brown, and it was very nice to hear Jimmie speak so highly of him. He told me Mel was the greatest. Randy is a friend, and I’m so thrilled that I have him on my new record!  He’s always been supportive, and what a fantastic songwriter! 

What is the best advice a bluesman ever gave you?

It’s hard to pick the best advice as I’ve had lots of advice over the years. One amazing piece is from Mel Brown. He told me “Strongman, you’ve got to tell the people how good you are… because they don’t know.”   

How was your recording time and studio sessions with your band, do you remember something fun?

Every day recording and performing with my band is fun. I’m lucky to be surrounded by some of the best musicians I’ve ever seen, and they happen to be my closest friends.

"I think because Blues reflects your life, and contains an array of emotions, people can connect with blues — it’s very genuine."

Photo by Matthew Barnes

What the difference and similarity between an American bluesman and Canadian?

I think that we draw from the same influences. Having said that, America is the birthplace of Blues, and when you head down south, you can feel the authenticity. Canadians are also authentic, but it’s a more of a mixture of cultures that shines through. 

You have traveling all around the world. What are your conclusions? What’s the best jam and gig you ever played in?

One of the greatest gigs I played was at Canadian Forces Base stationed at Alert, at the North Pole.  We were supposed to play for two days, and weather was so bad that we had to stay for two weeks! It was an incredible time and life experience. 

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

I think because Blues reflects your life, and contains an array of emotions, people can connect with blues — it’s very genuine. My one wish is that Blues continues to grow, and people don’t dismiss it as a nice market style of music. 

How do you describe your contact to people when you are on stage and what were your favorite guitars back then?

I’m very passionate and honest when I perform, and I hope that connection comes through when I perform onstage. I try to connect with the audience on an emotional level at every show. My favorite guitars have always been Gibson. The 335 is the greatest! 

Which things do you prefer to do in your free time? What are the things you’re most passionate about in life?

When I’m home and have free time (which is not too often) I spend it with my wife and daughters. They are the thing that matters most to me. I’m very lucky to have their support in my career — I couldn’t do it without them. Occasionally I do like to get out and play golf, too!

Steve Strongman - Official webite

(Photo by Matthew Barnes)

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