Q&A with Canadian musician Bill Bourne - veteran of blues scene, life on the road is reflected in his music

"Folk and blues rarely enjoys the massive popularity of mainstream pop music, but people trust folk and blues at a very deep level. People literally ingest the music because it is about real life experiences that they do relate to intimately."

Bill Bourne: Welcome To Bluesland

Bill Bourne was raised in a musical family in rural Alberta, Canada. When he was 2 years old, he was known to sleep behind the piano at country dances. His parents played dance music in community halls in beautiful farming country. The love of nature and of music and of people gathering for celebration has been with him for his whole life. Bill loves to collaborate with friends (musicians). His most recent collaboration is with his own band, The Free Radio Band, which includes his son Pat, Pa Joe, Moses Gregg and Miguel Ferrer. They have released a new recording in 2011 called Bluesland. In 2009 Bill recorded with Jasmine Ohlhauser and Wyckham Porteous in the band 'bop ensemble'. Previous to bop ensemble, Bill collaborated with Eivør Pálsdóttir from the Faroe Islands. He produced and performed on Eivør's third solo CD, 'eivør'.                                         Photo by Anne Gillespie

The recording won double at the Danish Music Awards Folk in 2006. Other collaborations: with Alan MacLeod, Shannon Johnson, Hans Staymer and Andreas Schuld, and Lester Quitzau & Madagascar Slim (Tri-Continental), as well as his solo projects, have all attained award status in Canada. A multiple Canadian Juno Award winner, Bill has received international acclaim for his recordings and live performances. A veteran of the international blues and roots scene, life on the road is reflected in Bill's music - powerful rhythms and soulful songs, steeped in World Beat, Blues, Cajun, Celtic, Folk, Latin, Funk, Poetry and more. Bill Bourne loves to collaborate with his musical friends. His recordings, both solo and collaborative projects, have attained national award status. Juno Award winner Bill Bourne has received international critical acclaim for his recordings and live performances.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

To me, the blues is people music, a healing kind of vibe, a common ground for all people to relate to each other as well as to their internal selves. The blues were born, at least partly, out of desperate circumstances or traumatic events being retold as story songs; songs that possess truths that most people understand at a deep level. I love all music really, and I play a lot of music that isn’t blues, but when I first felt a powerful internal river of beautiful warm energy flowing freely within me, it was a Mississippi John Hurt song I was playing. That’s Piedmont Blues. Freewheeling, rolling, flowing and connected deep down inside. It felt endless, and playing those tunes brought me to life in a way that’s indescribable. It was like I became another person from a different place and time that was all places and all times. I realized immediately that music was effortlessly potent and that river of warm energy was a powerful fundamental source of calm joy I could share with people anywhere.

What were the reasons that you start roots music, poetry and “On the Road” researches and experiments?

My dad played the accordion at dances when a little kid. All that music was acoustic. There was rarely a microphone around, even for singers. The acoustic guitar fits that. The electric is something else and my dad was not a rock and roll fan. We all want to make our fathers happy, eh. I love electric music but I find the acoustic guitar is like a symphony in a box. The tones are quieter but the subtleties!  It just vibrates and wakes up the gods or something. If you listen closely when you play the guitar it sounds like a vast language of humming and buzzing and wailing and grinding voices all singing in fluid harmony. My great grandfather, Stephan G. Stephansson was an Icelandic poet. I read Leonard Cohen’s ‘Beautiful Losers’ when I was 15. I was traumatized by the potency of the order and semantics of the simple words on those pages. If you put the 2 together, the guitar and the words, you have music with ancient roots and you can travel the world and explore your own art at the same time. I’ve been hooked on it ever since.

"To me, the blues is people music, a healing kind of vibe, a common ground for all people to relate to each other as well as to their internal selves. The blues were born, at least partly, out of desperate circumstances or traumatic events being retold as story songs; songs that possess truths that most people understand at a deep level."

How do you describe Bill Bourne sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

The sound and songbook are folk music. Lately most is as improvised as it can be, vocally and on guitar. I like stomp box – it gives me a way to interact with the rhythm that allows syncopation but doesn’t lose the listener. Music teaches the musician every day. It’s always teaching the most when you let go of your idea of what the music should sound like. You jump off the cliff and you’re flying. At first that phenomenon would throw me off the song – I was afraid I couldn’t find my way to the end of the verse if I didn’t know what I was going to sing or play. But that didn’t last long. Now it’s like seeing leprechauns and feeling the warm winds blow – begin the song and magic emerges from the air around you.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice has given you?

The greats like Robert Junior Lockwood and Sleepy John Estes and Madagascar Slim and Richie Havens and Habib Koite and Big Dave MacLean and Jesse Winchester – too many to name but they were all important experiences. I played with many amazing musicians in workshops at festivals over the years.  I’d learn more in 1 hour than in my whole lifetime to that point – every time. Mostly it’s about learning to trust music in your own hands, as in ‘trusting yourself’. That’s a valuable lesson that can only be learned in the moment – it can’t be put into words. John Hurt said ‘if you want to learn the guitar, stand it beside the bed when you go to sleep’. I think the air rustling the strings while you sleep tells you the guitar doesn’t need you – it shows you the music doesn’t belong to you. And it teaches you symphonies. Sometime I sleep with my guitar.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

I was recording an album in 2010 called ‘Bluesland’. We were in the studio in a circle, 5 of us, for 3 days. We recorded everything, but there were brief periods of high art, deep entrainment, and during those periods, if I closed my eyes in a song, all I could see was a ball floating in the center of the room with us 5 around it, motionless. The ball was about the size of a basketball or a football and the surface of the ball was alive with moving light. Emotionally it felt very calm and powerful – effortless and joyful. This was nice. These moments are now the album tracks. My son Pat was playing guitar on that session. I remember a festival on the Costa da Sol in Almunecar, Spain. I was with Tri-Continental and we were opening for Taj Mahal. In the middle of a blues song we all suddenly shifted into a spontaneous syncopated rhythmic improve. This was Flamenco territory. We had connected with the groove in the people and the land, I believe, and it had to come out in the music – like – now! That’s happened to me before and since many times in many different places. As a musician that’s a cool experience to witness – it takes over your body.

"Take the ‘business’ out of music. Art and business do not share common ground – they’re as opposed as any 2 concepts can be. Business is based on profit or greed, music is based on generosity." (The Free Radio Band - Photo by Megan Kemshead)

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

The only thing I miss about the past was that there were not so many songs then. It was as if a musician was writing in unexplored territory. Now, there are so many songs and perspectives it’s like a huge competition just to make up a song that hasn’t been played before! Still, music is new every moment of every day, if you let it be. I have no fear of the future at all, but there are some things that have to change. Humanity has to put nature and people first and big profits last. This will come to be. We are experiencing a musical explosion all over the world and I believe artistic and musical energy is changing the world, literally. So we have a lot to look forward to, lots of music to make. Forget about American Idol – that kind of uber competitiveness is bad for music. Just take your axe to a good place and play until you break through and hook up to music. There’s no shortcuts. They say it takes 1000 hours to learn to play castanets. I believe it. But once you know how to make music the whole world comes alive when you play. It’s worth the effort. 

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

Take the ‘business’ out of music. Art and business do not share common ground – they’re as opposed as any 2 concepts can be. Business is based on profit or greed, music is based on generosity.

What are the lines that connect the Canadian and US music scene? What are the difference and similarities?

North American music is the music of First Nations peoples. That’s the common ground. First Nations sensibilities permeate music in North America. European influences have coloured the music differently in Canada than the African/European influences in the U.S. That’s a significant difference, but the underlying groove is still grounded deeply in the land and that is an ancient rhythmic sensibility that can only be identified with First Nations. My favorite band is called Northern Cree – they play Pow-wow. It’s the most intense and potent music I’ve ever experienced.

What is the impact and the relationship of Folk & Blues music to the racial and socio-cultural implications?             (Bill Bourne / Photo by Christian Kuntz)

Folk and blues rarely enjoys the massive popularity of mainstream pop music, but people trust folk and blues at a very deep level. People literally ingest the music because it is about real life experiences that they do relate to intimately. By ingesting or absorbing this music there is an opportunity that the music can change people on the inside. Humanity has always progressed by ingesting ideas and transforming from the inside to the external world – or from the inside out. Trust is the greatest asset of roots music. This trust exists because the music is an oral tradition that has ancient roots. It has survived over time because of its elements of potency. It’s actually the potency of traditional music that has real impact on racial and socio-cultural elements in society.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the local music circuits?

We recorded a CD called Gaia Sadhana recently. The band project is called Trancescapes. We recorded the CD in 3 hours. The entire recording was improvised in every way. We had no idea what it was going to sound like. It was all about the music unfolding in the moment. This still makes me laugh. I took the tracks into a studio and mixed them. The engineer liked the album. I thought it was interesting, but sometimes I thought it was too far out – too esoteric. I sent it to my record company, True North. They loved it. It’s available all over the world now. I still can’t believe it. This was the most efficient recording I ever did. It makes me feel very happy that we were able to track the album in 3 hours and that people the world over can hear it. Amazing - and very happy. 

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

New York City – May 1 – 2100. It seems obvious that humanity is going through a lot of large changes and artists everywhere are a huge part of this evolution. Artists have a lot of respect for creative energy. As a musician my quest is to be in the state of mind where music plays itself. There’s an amazing result when music is allowed the freedom to express itself. The energy is pure and very healing to everyone. I’m intrigued to see how all this turns out. Although I have to add - I definitely plan to be here in 2100.

Bill Bourne - Official website

Photo by Francis A Willey 

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