Q&A with gifted one-man band TJ Norton & The Suitcase - doesn’t just play music, he lives and literally breathes his craft

"Blues music originated as African American music, which is cross cultural music in its nature. Music connects us all. We can, and do, connect hearts across the world with music. Differences dissolve via music shared. Common ground can be found via music. Music heals. This is how I want music to affect people, and it does."

TJ Norton: The Man and His Suitcase

TJ (Tim) Norton is a professional harmonica player, singer and songwriter from the UK, now living in Los Angeles. Most recently having one of his original songs used in the soundtrack of the multi award winning critically acclaimed documentary “As The Crow Flies”. The winner of ‘Gold Medal for International Documentary’ at the 2015 World Film Awards, by adventure filmmaker Ian Burton. Additionally, TJ has released two music video’s in support of his EP release “Never Giving Up”. TJ first became addicted to the blues at 18 years old, after finding a cassette tape of Lightnin’ Hopkins at his overnight cleaning job in a restaurant. He learned to play harmonica through one of the deepest and most critical traditions of old blues players. By ear, sitting with the more experienced blues musicians, studying and listening to recordings, absorbing every note and nuance of this great art form. He left home at age sixteen, moving to London, and two years later was living in the USA. Having been schooled by the streets. In 2018, released the album "Live at Sunbanks (Live)"

Now more than thirty years later, he has many a tale to tell with his music. Some of TJ’s more contemporary influences have been the likes of, Paul Oscher, Steve West Weston, Paul Lamb and UP Wilson. Having also played with blues greats including Gary Clarke Jr., Kirk Eli Fletcher, Janiva Magness, Bob Margolin, U.P. Wilson, Eddie Stout, Paul Orta, Arthur Adams and Zach Zunis, TJ has developed into a deeply moving blues artist in his own right who has more than paid his dues. TJ Norton plays music as a man possessed. Gifted with the ability to switch from a beautiful gentle phrase, to full bore fat tone highly energetic musical attacks, in an instant. He doesn’t just play music, he lives and literally breathes his craft!

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

Blues music has exposed me to worlds that I wasn't born into. It has brought me into personal contact with a range of people with different experiences of life. I find people's stories very interesting, and educational. Blues music is stories told with sound expressed via the voice and/or instruments. So much beauty from pain. The journeys I have taken so far have shown me that people are much the same everywhere, even though there are so many different stories and experiences. It keeps coming back to me, time and time again, that most people everywhere want to be heard, loved, understood, and live free from persecution and tyranny. This has helped me to understand my own feelings about this human experience we are all in.

What characterize your music philosophy and songbook? What touched (emotionally) you from the One-Man Band?

My music philosophy is to get the feelings and thoughts that are inside me out in the most honest way I can. The blues songs from other artists that I choose to sing, and play are the ones that hit me the hardest on an emotional level, and the ones that I feel I can perform well enough to do them justice. I have a deep respect for the artists who wrote them, so that is very important to me.

The one-man-band idea has come out of a need I always felt to be free enough to express myself honestly in the moment. My mind works quickly, and when I’m performing, I react to the audience connection in the moment, so as a solo artist / one-man-band I can do whatever I want in the that moment. This makes every performance unique, with an element of risk for me. Then the audience gets a feeling of excitement because they don't know what is going to happen.        (TJ Norton / Photo by Brad Elligood)

"Blues music has exposed me to worlds that I wasn't born into. It has brought me into personal contact with a range of people with different experiences of life. I find people's stories very interesting, and educational. Blues music is stories told with sound expressed via the voice and/or instruments."

Which meetings have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

There have been so many experiences that have been important to me. The first time I heard blues harmonica played in front of me was probably the most important. It's what got me started as a harmonica player. Playing for, and with, U.P. Wilson in the UK was incredibly important. My late friend Duncan Stott (RIP x) introduced me to U.P. and we would sit and play acoustic blues at Duncans house for hours. I was never really taught anything directly, but I learned so much by listening and studying. I played duo and band shows with U.P, some of which were very difficult and uncomfortable, but all were educational on so many levels. These were invaluable experiences. Being around UK harp players Steve 'West' Weston, and Paul Lamb, was also a blessing. My time in Austin, TX, playing with bands that Eddie Stout put together was another blessing. Eddie is a true gift to the blues community.

Best advice - 'Always dress up to perform', (I can't remember who first told me that). 'Do something you don't normally do', (Pete Townshend told me that when I was working at his studio in London one time)

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

There are SO many! Here are a few, off the top of my head. While in Austin Texas, (2001 I think), I was playing in one of Eddie Stouts bands in a restaurant on 6th street called Jazz. There was a young kid he brought in one night a week to front the band. His dad brought him in. He was 16/17. He played great guitar, and could sing pretty well. His name was Gary Clarke Jr.

One time when I was playing harp in Alex Edens band, Crosscut Saw, in Yorkshire UK, this happened. We were playing a pub in Sheffield that always had a really enthusiastic audience. The place was packed, we were full on into a powerful tune, and the room was going crazy. I took a solo, walked into the audience, climbed onto a chair, and as I was playing I suddenly felt myself being grabbed and lifted into the air by my legs. First I was worried, but after a second or two I just decided to trust the moment, so I played even harder and the guys holding me started jumping up and down. There was sweat and beer flying everywhere. It was wild, crazy, and beautiful. I will never forget it.

First time I played for Janiva Magness on the Legendary Blues Cruise, on the big outside stage. I was on stage with some of the very best blues artists in the world, backing up Janiva who is in my opinion the best female blues singer alive today. And, i was the new guy who nobody knew. I could feel the eyes on me from the world class artists, and the blues fans. No pressure lol. It was terrifying, humbling, exciting, and mind blowing, all at the same time! Meeting and playing with Bob Margolin on Beale Street in Memphis. Being backstage with Taj Mahal and Dr John (RIP). Having dinner with Charlie Musselwhite, and his lovely wife Henri. Having breakfast with Bobby Rush. Playing Lucerne Blues Festival in Switzerland, where they treated us like long lost family. Beautiful. Playing my first festival, on the stage, in the USA, (Sunbanks Festival, WA), where I got a standing ovation, and got re-booked before I left the stage. It made me cry. Playing on two Grammy Nominated albums since moving to LA. There are so many more, but we only have so much space. That's a great problem to have, right?

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

I miss sitting down with a guitarist, playing acoustic, just doing it because we want to, and we love it. Right now, in this Covid19 situation I miss playing live. The connection with people is essential to my well being, and I’m not getting that this year. I hope young people will be able to discover deep blues and fall in love with it. I fear for the future of live blues, especially in small local venues. So many have closed now.

What would you say characterizes L.A blues scene in comparison to other US local scenes?

I'm not sure. I've only lived in LA for 5 years, and don't really know the scene in other parts of the USA well enough to comment. I do know that the scene here is much smaller than it used to be. There are less places to play. Cadillac Zack has done a good job of building a scene. He puts on shows on a Saturday, Sunday, and Monday in three different venues in LA, and also a venue in Ventura. World class acts play those shows every week.

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

Listen, watch, learn your craft well, and never stop learning. Practice! Give 100% every time you perform. Be confident, be kind, be humble. Play for the song. Support whoever you are playing with, or for.

"I hope young people will be able to discover deep blues and fall in love with it. I fear for the future of live blues, especially in small local venues. So many have closed now." (Photo: TJ & The Suitcase)

What is the impact of Blues on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?

Blues music originated as African American music, which is cross cultural music in its nature. Music connects us all. We can, and do, connect hearts across the world with music. Differences dissolve via music shared. Common ground can be found via music. Music heals. This is how I want music to affect people, and it does.

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

North Mississippi. RL Burnside's home. To be able to spend a day listening to him, and playing with him would be a dream come true.

TJ & The Suitcase - Home

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