Q&A with Award-winning Canadian bluesman Steve Strongman - versatile talent, pushing himself in new directions

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

Steve Strongman: Pushin' Boundaries

Tired of Talkin’ (2019) is the new album from JUNO award winner and 2019 International Blues Challenge Best Guitarist (solo/duo) Steve Strongman. Recorded in Nashville Tennessee and Hamilton Ontario, this album features 11 newly recorded original compositions (12 songs total) and showcases Strongman’s undeniable talent as an award-winning guitarist and a powerful, dynamic singer. This is a deep, gritty, exciting recording that highlights Strongman’s diverse musical tastes. The Nashville sessions feature the world-class talents of Pat Sansone on keyboards, Audley Freed on guitar and James Haggerty on bass, all expertly anchored by drummer and producer Dave King.  The Hamilton recording sessions feature the talented longtime touring bassist Colin Lapsley, with Dave King on drums, and as an added bonus, the fantastic Jesse O’Brien on piano. From the first powerful notes of the title track “Tired of Talkin’”, through the energetic blues drive of “Paid My Dues”, to the incredibly soulful cover of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”, Strongman’s passion is on display with these recordings front and center. His diverse influences allow him to easily move between a funky R & B tinged “Just Ain’t Right” to a more singer/songwriter feel of “That Kind Of Fight” while maintaining the blues feel of his early roots.  Pushing the boundaries of Blues and Roots rock, “Tired of Talkin’” is honest, exciting, real music played by stellar musicians that let the true focus of creating music shine in an era when technology can often shadow the process.

(Steve Strongman / Photo by Brent Perniac)

This new recording is sure to position Steve Strongman where he belongs - on the International stage as one of the most exciting artists in the blues world and beyond. 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.

Interview by Michael Limnios    Photos Ⓒ by Brent Perniac & Matthew Barnes 

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.

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

Being a blues musician has taken me to incredible places there’s no way I would have seen any other way, like the North Pole for example (entertaining the Canadian Armed Forces in 2013) Music is a universal language, and blues is one of the most popular forms of communication. It has such a huge impact in communities and represents people from so many different backgrounds and cultures. Being a blues artist gives you a unique perspective on so many aspects of society.

"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." (Steve Strongman / Photo by Brent Perniac)

How do you describe Tired Of Talkin’ songbook and sound? What characterizes new album in comparison to previous?

This album has a variety of influences…just like myself as an artist. I wanted to make a record that is a true reflection of what the band sounds like live, so we approached the recording process with that in mind. It has heavy blues riffs and grooves, but also has introspective songs as well. This recording process was very organic and natural with minimal overdubs and studio effects – that’s the raw sound we wanted and I’m really happy with the end results.

Are there any memories from Tired Of Talkin’ studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

The album was recorded in Nashville and in Hamilton. With regards to the Nashville sessions, It was the first time that I had brought guest musicians in to record, and they were amazing!! Audley Freed, Pat Sansone, James Haggerty and my producer Dave King did an incredible job there, and we matched the feeling and vibe back in Canada with Jesse O’Brien and Colin Lapsley. Most of the sessions were recorded with no overdubs – to be able to capture the feeling on the recording room floor was incredible.

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.

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.

"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." (Steve Strongman / Photo by Matthew Barnes)

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.

"I don’t really miss anything from the blues of the past. That’s what makes that music so special. It was ground breaking and can never be duplicated…what we have to do now is continue to build this style of music." (Steve Strongman / 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.

"The Blues is an export there, a way for people to teach about the history of the music, but also a way to create jobs and tourism. Blues music and the artists that create it shine a spotlight on political issues, and it gives us a way to comment and create awareness about the world around us."

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!

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I don’t really miss anything from the blues of the past. That’s what makes that music so special. It was ground breaking and can never be duplicated…what we have to do now is continue to build this style of music. The fear for me is that there isn’t a lot of commercial support for the music, and it becomes very difficult for an artist to continue to make a living. I hope people go and see live music, and realize that this is the main source of income for artists due to declining record sales in a digital world.

"I think it’s a musical artform that influences many styles of music. It can affect your state of mind like all music can, but I don’t think that’s specific to Blues.(Steve Strongman / Photo Ⓒ by Matthew Barnes)

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

The fact that musicians are now making fractions of pennies for their work is very difficult to accept.  I’d like to see all platforms pay creators fairly.  I think some platforms are working towards that, but it has been a very slow process.

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

I think it’s a musical artform that influences many styles of music. It can affect your state of mind like all music can, but I don’t think that’s specific to Blues.

What is the impact of Blues music and culture to the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications?

Having spent time recently in Memphis, which is a home of Blues culture, you see the impact it can have on a community. The Blues is an export there, a way for people to teach about the history of the music, but also a way to create jobs and tourism. Blues music and the artists that create it shine a spotlight on political issues, and it gives us a way to comment and create awareness about the world around us.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

There are so many answers to this, I’d like to go into the studio with Muddy Waters, or hang around for a day playing guitar with Jimi Hendrix, or go back to when the true blues originators were inventing the style that has affected us so much…like Muddy Waters, or Son House, …I could go on like this for awhile!

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

(Steve Strongman / Photo Ⓒ by Matthew Barnes)

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