Q&A with musician and blues fan Mick Kolassa, playing the blues a long time with a style he likes to call “Free Range Blues”

"I do believe that blues is basically a genre, that to be blues (to me) it must reflect aspects of the African American experience, rhythmically or in the way the story is told. There are other wonderful musical genres that can talk about hard times or bad relationships, but that doesn’t make them blues. Molly Malone wheeled her wheelbarrow through Dublin in a hard life of selling shellfish, but that isn’t a blues song."

Mick Kolassa: Wasted Youth Blues

Mick "Michissippi Mick" Kolassa is a lifelong musician and hardcore blues fan and an active participant in the Memphis Blues scene. Born in Michigan but resident in Mississippi, “Michissippi Mick” has been playing the blues a long time with a style he likes to call “Free Range Blues”. He’s not tied down to one style, be it Delta blues, country blues, Chicago blues, or Memphis soul blues. Mick Kolassa has once again teamed up with Jeff Jensen to put together a package of fun. Following the critically acclaimed “If You Can’t Be Good”, his new album “Wasted Youth” (2021), is a collection of a dozen tracks with 14 songs, 11 of which are Kolassa originals. The Covid year of 2020, during which Mick lost his wife and several friends, inspired many of the songs on this album. All proceeds from the album are going to The Blues Foundation, where Kolassa is a former board member.                     (Mick Kolassa / Photo by Donna Criswell)

The pace gets changed with “I’m Missing You”, a funky and danceable love song. “Easy Doesn’t Live Here”, is another love song, noting how difficult love can really be! On “I Can’t Get Enough” Mick is joined by another guitar playing friend, Anthony Paule. Mick then turns to the downside of 2020 and the things that happened with the song “Feeling Sorry for Myself”, but bounces back with a love song about separation, “Touching Bass”. “Darkness to Light” is a medley of three of Mick’s favorite songs: War’s “Slipping Into Darkness”, The Youngbloods’ “Darkness Darkness”, and the old spiritual “Wayfaring Stranger”. “My Mind Doesn’t Wander” is another love song, this one featuring Brandon Santini on harmonica. “Pieces of My Past”, which is a slow blues, came about as Mick was moving to his new home, which necessitated downsizing and getting rid of “pieces of his past”. It seemed a fitting memorial to 2020. The album ends with “Edge of a Razor”. Which tells the story many of the hard-working women Mick knows and respects.

Interview by Michael Limnios               Mick Kolassa @ Blues.gr 2018 Interview

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

From my point of view there are 2 blues cultures, one that gave us the music and the other is the blues fan culture - and they are very different. The culture that gave us blues music was (is) one of oppression and resilience, despair and hope. One of the best decisions I ever made was to move to Mississippi and really learn about this blues culture. It helped me to see the world in a very different way because it helped me to better understand the struggles - past and present - that brought blues to life. I travel a lot, especially in the Caribbean, where I’m able to see the different ways the people who experiences the horrors of slavery and oppression have been able to deal with the challenges they face, and music is always a big part of it. Realizing the similarities of blues, calypso and reggae - in the stories they tell and the way they are told - helps me to see it all as a wonderful, hopeful stew

How do you think that you have grown as an artist since you first started making music?

Every time I get together with people to make music I learn a little more, and that’s simply wonderful.  Probably the biggest aspect of my musical growth is to see the similarities across genres - actually to realize how much blues has influenced every western music style.  Also, If you pay attention as a musician, you can’t help but learn some music theory along the way, and that sure makes songwriting a different thing - it frees you in a number of ways. In blues many people get trapped into the “1-4-5, 12 bar” structure that is so common, but there is so much more to and in blues than that, and I love to explore different way to deliver blues.

A very important thing for me is that once you acknowledge that blues began as and should still be a verbal art form - meaning it’s about the lyric and the story told by the words, not just the guitar licks - you find yourself working make sure the music advances the story - to me it’s the soundtrack of the song, not just the sound.

"Frankly, of the most difficult things for me recently is to see the number of musicians and fans who claim to love blues but seem to adhere to what I consider a racist philosophy (basically white nationalism). I don’t see how you can really love the music that was created by people you secretly hate There, I said it!" (Mick Kolassa / Photo by Donna Criswell)

What has remained the same about your music-making process?

It still has to move me, to inspire me! To me music is an emotional thing. If the song doesn’t tell a real story to me it’s not a song, it’s simply words to occupy the times between instrumental solos, and to me many of those solos also lack emotion - they may have blazing shreds and a thousand notes per minute but they don’t move me. That might be OK for some people but for me the best way to lose me is to sing a song that’s just a bunch of rhymes without a lot of meaning or to just ”recite” the words to song without really feeling it or by playing a blazing solo that could also be played well by a machine.

How do you describe new album "Wasted Youth" sound and songbook?

This album came out of my 2020. By nature, I’m a positive and optimistic person, but 2020 hit me hard. My wife passed away in October after too many years of smoking and other addictions, and I lost so many friends to Covid that it was hard to keep my head up. It also forced me to realize how fragile life is, which can also bring you down But the positive part of me wouldn’t let that happen for long, so the album really deals with me trying not to let reality get me down - some sad songs, deeply sad, some more optimistic, and a couple that are just fun.

What touched you from War's Slipping Into Darkness, Youngbloods' Darkness Darkness and the old spiritual "Wayfaring Stranger"?

I’ve always loved all three songs, and have wanted to do something with Slipping I to Darkness for years. My wife’s addictions took her from me, and the 3 songs just seemed to line up to tell a story of slipping into addiction, moving to absolute desperation because of it, then finding peace in death - something that couldn’t be found in a life of addiction. The three songs have a very similar structure, in terms of chord progression, minor changes from one to the next, so one just seemed to flow into the next and tell the story. But I didn’t want it to sound like one song, so each has its own sound because of the instruments we used, the reggae feel helped to tie it together.

"From my point of view there are 2 blues cultures, one that gave us the music and the other is the blues fan culture - and they are very different. The culture that gave us blues music was (is) one of oppression and resilience, despair and hope. One of the best decisions I ever made was to move to Mississippi and really learn about this blues culture. It helped me to see the world in a very different way because it helped me to better understand the struggles - past and present - that brought blues to life."

How do you want your songs and music to affect people? What do you hope people continue to take away from your songs?

I simply want people to like to songs, to enjoy or identify with the stories, to find something in the music they didn’t expect. I often inject humor into my songs, and I really hope they can bring a smile to someone’s face, while others might bring a tear to their eye. If they feel the music, I am very happy. I have found that after I write a song, I need to let the listener find it for themselves, to interpret it the way they feel it - it’s always interesting to have people tell me what my songs mean to them, I’m often surprised.

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

To quote BB King, you can’t judge a book by looking at its cover. First impressions can be so wrong, so whether it’s a song or a musician I always want to give them a few chances to prove me right or wrong.

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

I do believe that blues is basically a genre, that to be blues (to me) it must reflect aspects of the African American experience, rhythmically or in the way the story is told. There are other wonderful musical genres that can talk about hard times or bad relationships, but that doesn’t make them blues. Molly Malone wheeled her wheelbarrow through Dublin in a hard life of selling shellfish, but that isn’t a blues song.

How can the Blues inspire activism? What was/is the hardest part to be a blues artist nowadays?                                                       (Mick Kolassa / Photo by Donna Criswell)

Frankly, of the most difficult things for me recently is to see the number of musicians and fans who claim to love blues but seem to adhere to what I consider a racist philosophy (basically white nationalism). I don’t see how you can really love the music that was created by people you secretly hate There, I said it!  But that has spurred many to really work hard to make sure that everyone in the blues community understands the very special nature of the blues - that you can’t really love the blues if you don’t love the spirit and tenacity of the people who first created it, and you can’t love that while trying to hold their descendants back.

What would you say characterizes Memphis blues scene in comparison to other US scenes and circuits?

Memphis, because of its geography, was the place a lot of blues passed through on its way to the rest of the world - I’ve often said that if there had been good jobs in Memphis in the 40s and 50s there wouldn’t have been a Chicago Blues!  Memphis has blues in its roots, and Memphis musicians know it. As blues gave birth to rock and soul music, Memphis has always been able to bring it back to blues.

If I needed to put a blues band together in a cohort period of time to do a major show or festival, I could do it here in a Memphis minute. The city not only attracts blues artists, it spawns and develops them, it must be something in the water. If that wasn’t true you wouldn’t have to many bands and acts adding Memphis somewhere to their name, just hoping that some of the mojo rubs off into them!!

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