Q&A with Ohio fingerstyle storyteller Chris Yakopcic -- inspired by pre-war delta and piedmont blues legends

"My simple understanding of the term freedom will never be comparable to that of these founding blues artists. However, I believe the freedom present in this music is the thing that has kept me so close to it."

Chris Yakopcic: The Blues I Leave

Chris Yakopcic is a fingerstyle acoustic blues player, vocalist, and songwriter inspired by pre-war delta and piedmont players. His guitar playing builds on the rhythmic and often high energy thumb-bass picking patterns innovated by Robert Johnson, Bill Broonzy, and Blind Blake (among others). Chris Yakopcic performs regularly at bars and listening rooms mostly located throughout Ohio and Pennsylvania. He has also performed on the main stage at blues festivals in Dayton and Cincinnati. He has recently started teaching and holding workshops on acoustic blues guitar at venues such as Taffy’s in Eaton, OH. Additionally, Chris has twice qualified for the International Blues Challenge (IBC) in Memphis, TN after winning the regional competitions held in Pittsburgh (2011) and Cincinnati (2012).        (Photo by Gary Mitchell / Chris Yakopcic with his resophonic)

In 2011 he recorded his debut album “Done Found My Freedom ‘fore My Technique” and in 2015 released his second full length album ‘The Next Place I Leave’. Chris Yakopcic says: "It’s been a few years since my last release, and I’ve been thinking about this project for a long time. After ending up a finalist at the 2015 IBC in Memphis, I decided it was time get these tracks recorded. So I spent the summer with Gary King at Refraze studios (Dayton, OH) recording this CD. I usually play solo but I had a rhythm section on this one: Brian Hoeflich on drums and Leo Smith on bass. After Gary King finished the mixing, the tracks were mastered by Kevin Nix at ardent Studios in Memphis, TN."

Interview by Michael Limnios

How do you describe Chris Yakopcic sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

For whatever reason, I decided that my musical education would begin with fingerstyle Delta and Piedmont blues. Now, I feel very fortunate to have those techniques programmed into my fingers as I explore what else can be done with a guitar. I don’t think we have reached anything close to an innovative limit when it comes to this music, and I hope to find my own way impact the genre. In that respect, I’ll always be trying to do something different. There are so many rules to learn when studying music, but for me, the most fun part about learning them is figuring out when to break them. Throughout blues and jazz (and even 60s and 70s rock records), there are a lot of tunes that work simply because they contain something unexpected, and those are the kind of songs I want to make.

For example, in in the first half of Robert Johnson’s Walkin’ Blues the cadence he uses is actually a 4-5-1, as opposed to the 5-4-1 that has virtually been set in stone. About halfway through the song, Johnson switches back to the cadence we all expect. He does this possibly to keep us grounded in his tune, as he explores more complex imagery that expands beyond the traveling motif present in the initial verses. I’ll always try and find room for little ideas like this when writing a song. I also find it funny when I hear this song covered, and the standard 5-4-1 is used throughout. I just wonder, why not use the fascinating structure Johnson laid out for you, or why not push the boundary even further?

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

When I first started getting interested in traditional acoustic blues, I really related to the stories about how these artists would grab a guitar and start down the road until they came upon a place to play some songs, and then they would just move on from there. A few of these musicians may have been accused of avoiding work or just looking for a place to drink, but to me it seems like being a traveling bluesman was an opportunity to exercise some freedom within a social structure where freedom was often not an option.

Of course, my simple understanding of the term freedom will never be comparable to that of these founding blues artists. However, I believe the freedom present in this music is the thing that has kept me so close to it. As a solo artist, I can play on the stages I like, and I can do that according to pretty much my own schedule. When I’m the stage, I can choose what songs to play, and I can pick how I want to play them. When I’m in the middle of a song, I can decide when the guitar break needs to happen, how long it should be, how loud it should be, and which artist will be my inspiration at each particular moment. Several of these artists (like Blind Willie McTell for example) had songs that varied significantly between takes. Beyond that, Lightnin’ Hopkins could improvise an entire song start to finish, and still captivate the audience. I really like this way of approaching music and I’m glad I was made aware of it so early on in my playing.

"When I first started getting interested in traditional acoustic blues, I really related to the stories about how these artists would grab a guitar and start down the road until they came upon a place to play some songs, and then they would just move on from there." (Photo by Nate Stevens)

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

Every year I play a house party in the backwoods of southern Ohio for Miss Ella, Sister to the Blues. A few times this meant a sharing a stage and hanging around with an artist named Little Joe McLerran. He’s shown me some pretty amazing stuff that you can do with a guitar. The first time I met him he was into the Caribbean fingerstyle of Joseph Spence, and the last time I saw him he was coming up with guitar arrangements of Jelly Roll Morton tunes (this is in addition to his substantial blues repertoire). He reminds me how much you can do with a single instrument every time I think I’ve got something figured out.

As for advice, I will cite a bit from one of my guitar teachers Jim McCutcheon (he’s an expert classical player, and I definitely think the push and pull between rural blues and formal music theory is something that has shaped my playing).  After a few years of working with him, one day we were talking about bookings and performances, and he told me that anyone can sing, and anyone can play, but being an entertainer is the hard part. I’ve heard versions of this statement from different people each utilizing their own internal biases and attitudes, but it was important for me to hear such a technically proficient player place emphasis on entertainment value. I mean, even from the first question here, you could see that I couldn’t help getting a bit technical, so I like to remind myself that putting on a great show is most important. I’ve learned that finding a way to get the audience interested really just makes everything more fun and memorable for everyone (and also helps with landing those big opportunities that you’re after). Most of the time it’s as simple as remembering to have a personality, or for me, what I think my Blind Raccoon press release was eluding to when they referred to my “boy next door voice.” I really liked that because I felt it was accurate, and also I did not know that was a thing people said.

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

One of the most respected music venues on the scene in Dayton, OH was a place called Canal Street Tavern, run by Mick Montgomery. The first time I ever walked in there was to see John Hammond. That same night, Bob Dylan happened to be playing Fifth Third Field across the street (it was for his tour with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp I believe). There was a point where you could walk outside and hear John Hammond and Bob Dylan playing at the same time. I don’t think that happens very much anymore. Anyway, that was just a really cool way to be introduced to a venue that would end up being the place where I learned how to perform. I probably played in that venue 100 times following that night. I’ve tried out so many different songs there, and met most of the local music guys I know through that place.

"I really believe the ever-changing marketplace is driving nearly every decision that’s made in the music business, so I don’t really feel like I can come up with an alteration to reality that would be mutually beneficial to everyone involved." (Photo by Kelly Thornton, Orpheum Theatre 2015 IBC)

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

I guess it’s hard to say that I “miss” it because I’m relatively young compared to the potential age of the music. My experience with this music comes from listening to the records, and if I do start to miss something, I can simply go play it again. As my playing has progressed, I started to feel closer to these recordings as I revisited them, as opposed to more distanced. As time passes, we will always have these great recordings to inspire us. I love the thought that at any time, I might find my new favorite song that’s been quietly waiting in a box at a flea market or yard sale. Haha, it will finally be able to call out after a needle has once again been dropped on it, and it’s been sufficiently rescued.

Equally, I don’t really have any fears about the genre, I’m very glad that I’m always going to have those classic records to try and live up to, and other artists are always going to be able to do the same in their own way. If the fear in question is specifically related to the future branding and monetary value of the genre, I think the tussle between music as an art and music as a business has always has existed and always will exist. It’s just up to us to decide which path is best in any given instance.

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

I really believe the ever-changing marketplace is driving nearly every decision that’s made in the music business, so I don’t really feel like I can come up with an alteration to reality that would be mutually beneficial to everyone involved.

However, I suppose my one selfish change would be to reinstate (worldwide) the rules regarding albums and singles in the UK in the 60s. At that time, if a song was released as a single, then that recording could not also be used on the album (this is why American versions of albums sometimes differed, as this rule was not enforced in the U.S.). I like this idea because it makes the single seem more like a separate work with its own message, as opposed to feeling more like a salesman’s sample. Also, maybe songs on an album would be thought of more as chapters in a book, instead of a list of tracks. Then I think that would open up some room to do some really interesting things with full length albums. I think it would be fairly easy to manage as well, assign an ISRC to each unique recording of a song (which is typically already done) and log with a single official release (haha, I suppose it’s important that I work through the logistics of my hypotheticals).

Make an account of Ohio blues scene. What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the local circuits?

The thing that’s that currently in my mind about the Ohio blues scene is that fact that 5 acts from Ohio made it to the finals in the 2015 International Blues Challenge (IBC). We were all back stage at the Orpheum Theatre before the finals show, signing our names on the designated section of the wall, and it was stating to looking like a Cincy Blues Fest lineup. I’ve known Noah Wotherspoon (one of my favorite guitarists to watch) for years and I think the Orpheum was the first stage we’ve really adjacently shared.

Photo by Kelly Thornton, Orpheum Theatre 2015, IBC Finals

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from Robert Johnson and Blind Blake to your generation?

I guess one direct line is that I used to take lessons from Ernie Hawkins. He was one of Rev. Gary Davis’ disciples in New York in the 60s (along with David Bromberg, Woody Mann, Rory Block, Bob Weir, and many others). David Bromberg’s “How Late’ll Ya Play ‘til” live set was an album I heard early on that I was really amazed by. From there I found Robert Johnson and also came across those “Blues at [the] Newport [Folk Festival]” compilations and that’s really how I discovered so many of the trad players. It became a big bubble of influence for me and now it’s hard not to think of at least one of those players every time my fingers start moving around a fretboard.

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

Of course I could go hang out at the Newport folk festival, or go back further and find out how Robert Johnson really died, but since there was no directional limitation on this question, I would have to say I’d want to go into the future. I listen to so much of this music that I don’t know how useful it would be for me to spend just a single day in any one place. When we consider the overall timeline of this music there is very little that we have undocumented (compared to say origins of religious beliefs, or what spurred certain parts of the planet to have an increase in technological innovation). Therefore, I would travel forward in time to see what blues music sounds like 50 years from now. Within a (nearly) 50 year span, we’ve seen this music go from primal field hollers (catching the end of Patton’s recordings in 1935) to the well-polished, pop-accessible blues of Robert Cray (Smoking Gun was #22 Billboard Hot 100, 1987). Furthermore, in just a bit more than 50 years we’ve also seen recorded music go from a six minute shellac record to some ambiguous, instantly gratifying, digital shared cloud thing.

So, if I traveled 50 years into the future, I’d be able to see how much more the blues genre will change, what previously inflexible boundaries will be stretched, and what great sound the freedom in the music will lead to. Also I would be able to find out what the next crazy way to purchase music is. Hah, my money’s on an acoustic blues revival (with no clue as to the medium on which the music will be placed, but probably vinyl).

Chris Yakopcic - Official website

Photo by Gary Mitchell

 

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