Q&A with Canadian musician Rob Lutes - tackles the realities of the world with depth, humour and a unique style

"The tradition is so big and the history so long, there is so much honesty and connection within the songs and stories, the blues holds it all. It's really a kind of gift. A means by which we can recognize and acknowledge whatever is happening and find the way forward."

Rob Lutes: Journey Into The Unknown

Since the release of his first album Gravity in 2000, Rob Lutes has steadily built a collection of exquisite songs that inhabit the intersection of blues, folk, Americana, and the contemporary singer-songwriter genre. As skilled delivering a Piedmont blues classic as he is performing his own acclaimed original songs, Lutes's masterful fingerstyle guitar work and soulful voice bring an unmistakable intensity to his live performances. Lutes has had several of his songs recorded by other artists. Recorded in Fall 2020, “Come Around” (2021) is the follow up to Walk in the Dark (2017) for which Lutes won the Canadian Folk Music Award as Contemporary Singer of the Year. Co-produced with his longtime collaborator Rob MacDonald, Come Around features 11 original songs and a superb cover of the blues classic "In My Time of Dyin'". Featuring Lutes' unmistakable voice and unique guitar technique, Come Around offers a fresh blend of blues, Americana, folk and pop that carves a way through the current state of human dislocation with wisdom and humor.               (Rob Lutes / Photo by James St Laurent)

Mixed by renowned engineer Rob Heaney, Come Around features some of the finest Folk/Roots musicians on the Canadian scene, including versatile guitarist Rob MacDonald, keyboardist Bob Stagg, bassist Solon McDade, drummer Mario Telaro, and gorgeous backing vocals from acclaimed singer-songwriter Annabelle Chvostek and renowned Montreal artist Kim Richardson. Recorded at six different studios due to COVID-19 restrictions, Come Around represents Rob Lutes' vision for a sort of freedom that can come through struggles large and small. “We had to make adjustments in the way we did this album. We couldn't be together,” Lutes said. “But from across the country, we found a synergy through these songs. It is as if we are in the room."

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

Since I became a touring musician in the late 90s, blues and roots music has been a sort of passport for me to travel the world, meet thousands of people and learn their stories. This is a gift. Those stories and friends have nourished me and my songwriting. I find I do some of my best writing on the road where you grind from show to show, but fresh experiences are coming at you daily. I found two of the songs from Walk on the Dark on the road in Germany and the Netherland in May 2016. Pumping Love came to me driving on the Autobahn the morning after a show in Oldenburg. The song I Am the Blues came a few days later after a show but took me the rest of my time in Europe, about four weeks, to finish.

How do you describe Rob Lutes sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

My sound and songs have evolved a bit over the years but if there was a theme to it all, I would say it is that I try to find some sort of truth about the human condition in my writing. I work my lyrics and the music until I feel like I am getting at something that is real. I don't get too excited about a song if I'm not getting close to touching something like that. When I am getting on to a song. I feel like it is already there somewhere in the ether, and I have to dig down and discover it. That's probably what I love most in music, the aha moment when you finally find the song you've been working on.

How do you think that you have grown as an artist since you first started making music? What has remained the same about your music-making process?

Over the years since I started making music, I have just listened more and learned more about the process of songwriting and about playing my instrument. The lessons and skills of writing and performing come slowly to me over time - through doing it. And that's what makes it rewarding - that idea of paying my dues. I think there is some truth to it. At least there is for me as I needed to try and fail to figure out what works, and I'm still doing that. The joy of writing a new song, and of playing the guitar has never gotten boring or stale for me. I never tire of picking up the guitar or banjo. It's something that gives me something every time. That to me is a kind of magic. I am grateful for that.

"The future is so up the in air globally, I think music will  continue to play a role in how we process all of what is happening, whether with the climate or politically. Music is a sort of constant coping strategy for putting the pain outside and allowing all of humanity to look at it and figure out the best way forward." (Rob Lutes / Photo by Mark Robinson)

How do you describe "Come Around" music philosophy and songbook? Do you have any interesting stories about the making of the new album "Come Around"?

If there is a theme to this album, it's probably about finding solace or salvation in the tough times. Some of the songs - That Bird Has My Wings, Lightning, Come Around, Work of Art - deal specifically with this idea that we can have some control on how we frame the events of our lives and find some light even in the darkest places. Because of the Covid pandemic, we had to make this record in a sort of novel way. Since regulations and people's comfort levels made it pretty much impossible to gather musicians together in a traditional way in a studio, we recorded in six different studios. I recorded my acoustic guitar and vocals first, alone, and those tracks were sent to the other players one by one so they could add their parts. It was like building a tower I suppose, or like coloring a picture where I do a big part of the colouring at the start, and everyone adds their colours later. This meant that we needed players who could record themselves or find a nearby studio to do it. The players - Rob MacDonald, Solon McDade, Bob Stagg, Mario Telaro, Annabelle Chvostek and Kim Richardson, did the recordings in six different studios. Then my co-producer, Rob MacDonald, assembled it all and sent it off to the mixer Rob Heaney. The result is amazingly cohesive. And there was a sense, even during this "distanced" recording, of us all being together somehow through the songs. I wouldn't choose it as a way to record, but I am really happy with the result.

Where does your creative drive come from? What do you hope people continue to take away from your songs?

I want to say I was born with this creative drive, but really, I think it comes from listening to great artists all my life and being inspired by what they have done. I love to play and write, so I tried my hand at making a record back in 1999. The process is so fully engaging and stimulating -- and the feedback from people who love your songs is so rewarding -- that the writing and recording becomes this joyful risk you want to take over and over again. Creativity is a really great thing to have in my life... I make a record and I don't know what will happen, how it will sound, and who will touched by it. It's exciting. I hope people take comfort and hope and understanding from my songs, and have some fun listening. I hope they see themselves in some of them. Songs are just ways of communicating, a way to feel connected to each other and the universe. I hope people get that feeling from my songs sometimes.

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

This will sound very business-based, but I wish the new model of streaming paid artists more fairly. Having all music available through streaming services is amazing and so helpful. But it's not lucrative for artists. I still want people to stream my music, to hear my music through whatever service they use. It's really a regulatory thing and maybe it will change in time.

"I just want to connect with people through songs, bring a little something beautiful into their ears and minds. That's all." (Rob Lutes / Photo by James St Laurent)

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences?

For me, the people I have collaborated with and created with have been the most helpful to me as a writer and musician. For example, my longtime guitar player Rob MacDonald is also a sounding board for songs. We've toured and played for more than 20 years, and he knows my stuff probably better than anyone. I play new songs for him—or my wife and sometime co-writer Monique, first. If a song passes that test, I am ready to take it out to the public or into the studio. My family—parents and five older siblings all had an influence on me too. They brought so much music into my life when I was very young, from Three Dog Night to Joni Mitchell and a million other bands. I know it shaped what I like and how I write in some very deep way. Sometimes musical influence is dumb luck. You get dragged to a show, or you travel with someone and they play a song over and over again... until it gets in your soul. I have had songs come to me in many ways. I came to love Freedy Johnson on a road trip to eastern Canada with my bassist. He played Freedy's disc Black Days Blue Nights for 8 hours straight I think and I was hooked. I remember my father coming home one night with a Joe Cocker album (I Can Stand a Little Rain). My Dad wasn't a huge music fan, and he thought he was buying the latest Jim Croce record. He had just confused the names. It was a stroke of luck for my young self. That Joe Cocker record is one of my all-time favourites. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Performance, It's a Sin When You Love Somebody are just a few classics that were on the record. Finally, my friend from university Andy Carmichael introduced me to a lot of great Texas writers, from Jerry Jeff Walker to Townes Van Zandt and Willie and Waylon and Roger Miller. This opened my eyes to a whole new language of songwriting.

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

There are so many memories from playing and recording over the years. The freshest in my mind are our sessions for Walk in the Dark this past January. It all went so quickly for this record. It was late January, and cold and snowy, and we were working out of Studio Fast Forward sort of searching for these songs. I have done many records at that studio, so it's kind of a musical home for me. Once we got started recording, it felt like we were rolling downhill real fast, and it was a sort of thrill ride to the finish. I was leaving on tour in the west of Canada on the 31st of that month and we only had a few days to track the record. I somehow didn't become worried about it though. I was actually excited to hear what this record would sound like, because we were really creating as we went. I was in good hands with co-producer/engineer Rob Heaney, and I knew I had the right players. Experience allowed us to stay cool and enjoy the process. I think that vibe comes out in the record.

It sort of reminded me of the making of my first record, Gravity, which was made in 1999. I had received some financial support to make the record from a Canadian agency called FACTOR. I had a hard deadline to deliver the record and when we finished tracking it, we only had one day to mix it.  Actually, not a day. We could only book the mixing studio overnight.  We drove to north Montreal as a full band with engineer Andrew Frank. We started in the late evening, around 9 PM as I recall. We had recorded to 1/2-inch tape, so it was an analog mix, and it was all-hands-on-deck. Four or five of us were riding the faders during different tunes to get it done, with Andrew the conductor of the whole thing. It was intense. 13 songs, about 10 hours. Lots of beer to start and then lots of coffee as the night wore on. We finished early the next morning, burned a CD and I got that off to FACTOR right away.  It was a testament to how creativity can flourish within constraints because those quick mixes sounded beautiful.

"My sound and songs have evolved a bit over the years but if there was a theme to it all, I would say it is that I try to find some sort of truth about the human condition in my writing. I work my lyrics and the music until I feel like I am getting at something that is real." (Rob Lutes / Photo by Patti Flanagan)

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

I think what I miss most is the authenticity of older recordings, where you could hear mistakes: The slightly out of tune guitar or piano, the shaky vocal, the note played with so much force that you hear the buzz of the guitar or the slap of the string on the fretboard—these are what make music real to me, the humanity of a recording. Today, we have to be careful not to use all the technology to autotune and edit the life right out of our recordings. It seems to  me that this has happened to a lot of popular music. All the hairs have been combed down until some songs can sound almost robotic. The future is so up the in air globally, I think music will  continue to play a role in how we process all of what is happening, whether with the climate or politically. Music is a sort of constant coping strategy for putting the pain outside and allowing all of humanity to look at it and figure out the best way forward. For me, the future is really about the search for the next song. I am really happy with Walk in the Dark but I am ready to start digging for some new songs and that is exciting for me.

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

What don't you learn from the blues? The tradition is so big and the history so long, there is so much honesty and connection within the songs and stories, the blues holds it all. It's really a kind of gift. A means by which we can recognize and acknowledge whatever is happening and find the way forward. And from a songwriting perspective, it's a framework that seems to bends and shifts to hold all the great songs in many styles and traditions.

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

There are so many lessons. Hmmm. As an artist, the top one is probably the simplest one: Keep going, keep creating, keep trying. 

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

I just want to connect with people through songs, bring a little something beautiful into their ears and minds. That's all.

"The blues is alive and well in Canada. There is a flourishing scene here, particularly in the electric blues I would say." (Photo: Rob Lutes)

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Two pieces are probably tied for the best. The first was from my brother, when I was a fair bit younger and it was the simple message that we are human and we make mistakes. Humans tend to be very hard on themselves and it's not helpful. The other piece of advice, and this one was more in relation to being a songwriter and recording artist, came from the roots songwriter Ray Bonneville, who used to live in Montreal and played on my first album Gravity. At a music conference way back 2001 or so, he told me to persevere. His experience was that if you stick around and keep doing good work over the years, things will turn in your favour at some point. He was right.

Make an account of the case of the blues in Canada. Which is the most interesting period in local scene?

The blues is alive and well in Canada. There is a flourishing scene here, particularly in the electric blues I would say. But I find myself part of a very solid acoustic roots/ folk/ blues scene here as well. Lots of great writers and performers and many festivals, events and most importantly, fans.

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

In Quebec, the widely acknowledged leader of the blues for many years was a guy named Bob Walsh. He toured around the province starting in the late 60s I believe and was the consummate showman. Perfectly bilingual, he could joke and entertain in French but sing in English, his mother tongue. He turned a lot of folks in Quebec on to the blues. Bob was also a sweet guy, very supportive of younger players. I was one of those. I met him at a gig in the 90s, where he sat in and eventually took over the show. When he started recording albums, in the early 2000s, he came to me looking for songs. I eventually wrote two for him, one called The Only Soul that ended up being the title track of one of his albums, and another called When My Time Has Come, about his crazy life and how he would greet death when it came. When Bob died suddenly last year, his longtime manager held a tribute concert for him in Montreal featuring a bunch of the biggest blues acts in the province. His widow Maddy requested I play When My Time Has Come at the show. I had never performed the song, as I had written it specifically for Bob. It was a very emotional night.

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

I'm going to assume that this is a music-related question and avoid the obvious choice of going back to see deceased relatives or friends. There are a few of those I would like to spend the day with! Musically, this is a tantalizing idea. I think in the end, I would like to go back for a day in New Orleans in the mid- to late-1920s and see King Oliver play, and maybe some blues players as well. At that time, Oliver had a young Louis Armstrong in his band. Louis is a bridge back to so much of America's musical past. Through my recent album Parade Day with the band Sussex, I researched and listened to a lot of music from that time and I see it as a sort of germination period for a lot of the music – jazz and blues and roots – that has come since.  I think I could find a lot of what I love in music in its earliest incarnations in New Orleans at that time.

Rob Lutes - Official website

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