Q&A with Australian Ivor S.K. - one of a new generation of exciting young blues talents to emerge from Down Under.

"I think the blues represents an escape from the world. The history of the blues is incredibly dark, encompassing as it does slavery and vitriolic racism, so I’ve always been inspired by the fact that the original purveyors of the art were able to create music so joyous under the toughest of circumstances imaginable."

Ivor S.K.: Down Under Roots Umbrella

Hailing from Sydney Australia, Ivor Simpson-Kennedy (Ivor S.K.) is one of a new generation of exciting young blues talents to emerge from Down Under. Owning a dark, smoke filled voice and liquid smooth guitar stylings, he utilises these inherit skills to give his compositions a striking originality, paying homage to generations past while bringing a remarkably fresh approach to the table. While his all original music has a deep blues thread throughout, it is by no means one dimensional, with strong reggae, soul and rock flavours permeating deliciously deep grooves, courtesy of Ivor’s previous history as a drummer. Having performed from Fiji to London Ivor has now crossed the pond to the spiritual homeland of his music, New Orleans, and is bringing his unmistakable brand of song writing and guitar playing to fresh sets of ears and eyes. Possessing a maturity in song and skill far beyond his twenty four years, Ivor is poised to make a huge splash here and abroad.                                        (Ivor S.K. / Photo by David C. Aleman)

Whether transporting his listeners to a heaving juke joint, a candlelit club, or a dusty Caribbean seaside shack, Ivor has the ability to draw audiences of all generations into his music – and keep them there. Mississippi Bound (2022) is the much anticipated third release from Australian songwriter Ivor S.K. Following 2017’s critically acclaimed Montserrat, Mississippi Bound - Ivor’s first output since relocating to New Orleans - is a 15-track roots odyssey. In keeping with his last two releases, it’s all-original, self-performed and produced, reinforcing Ivor’s singular style and feel while showcasing a few new strings to the bow.  

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

My approach to guitar playing has certainly shifted. Working and subsequently moving to New Orleans I became infatuated with the great lineage of piano players that had come outta here, Jelly Roll Morton, James Booker, Dr John etc. and they’ve really started to inform the way I play guitar. I’ve gone from not being able to play without a pick to just using my fingers, in aid of trying to incorporate more of that piano thing; really breaking the guitar up into a rudimentary imitation of the left hand and right hand combo of a New Orleans piano player. Tough gig. 

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

I still write and record the same way I have since I was 14 really. I’ll get an idea; usually something appears in my head but occasionally it’s something that’ll pop off the strings absentmindedly while I’m playing. I’ll quickly record it onto whatever is handy. Then I’ll flesh it out over time in my head, and eventually I sit down and record it myself, recording each track one at a time, beginning with drums, then bass, until you’ve got the whole enchilada. I always wanted to be a writer as a kid, so I think I’ll always have solitude and creativity intrinsically linked.

Do you have any interesting stories about the making of the new album "Mississippi Bound"?

Well, I don’t know if this is interesting, or even a story, but this was supposed to be a 20 song double album, and in the end I just ran out of time/resources/sanity, and ended up leaving it at fifteen. So there’s already five more new tunes in the chamber, been making hay! No excuses to drag my heels for the next one, so I’ll have to blame something else.                                   (Ivor S.K. / Photo by Ursula Wall)

"I think if there’s anything that characterizes my philosophy towards music it is simplicity, I always have that at the forefront of my thoughts when writing. I love the affect a pared down melody or arrangement can have, so I’m constantly seeing how much I can take out of a song while still having it work. More notes certainly don’t mean a better song. I also like to have things happen as naturally as possible."

Why was the Blues never a part of the pop/popular music? What's the balance in music between technique and soul?

I think it has always been there insidiously - the 1,4,5 progressions, the basic themes - and occasionally outright; Michael Jackson’ black and white is a basic little blues progression for example. But I hear you. Blues players tended to get the shift into rock guitar god territory, and I guess Bonnie Raitt had pop success but had to step away from straight blues for it. It may be down to blues musicians tending to be earthier people, particularly at a level where fame becomes involved. They seem to be happy where they are, and don’t feel the itch to play the necessary games for pop success.

And that line between soul and technique is maybe more interesting within blues than anything else, because arguably some of the most soulful blues has had the least technique, or what we consider technique anyway. I remember a great quote from all time drummer Peter Erskine of Weather Report renown, and I’m paraphrasing obviously but it was along the lines of “..any technique is good technique as long as you’re not damaging yourself.” Particularly true for drummers with physical ailments, but in other words, if you can translate what’s in your soul - for lack of better phrase - into some form of expression and it works long term, then you’ve got a technique. It’s just not in a textbook.

How do you describe Ivor S.K sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

You could say my sound would be filed under the ‘roots’ umbrella. Blues is always the common thread that runs through my songs, but with a love of the blues you inevitably get lost in all of its closely related forms like R&B, soul, funk, jazz etc. so there is always a broad spectrum of sounds at play. Of course instrumentation plays a large part in the sound too, and the blues can lend itself to a stripped back solo guitar or piano, to a full band with all the trimmings. I tend to perform solo, so Delta Pines, my first release, was entirely acoustic and the song writing was heavily pre-war blues orientated, whereas the new album Montserrat stretches out to incorporate band arrangements, reggae and funk songs, there’s even a bit of country in there too.

I think if there’s anything that characterizes my philosophy towards music it is simplicity, I always have that at the forefront of my thoughts when writing. I love the affect a pared down melody or arrangement can have, so I’m constantly seeing how much I can take out of a song while still having it work. More notes certainly don’t mean a better song. I also like to have things happen as naturally as possible. There’s the old cliché that says if a song takes you more than five minutes to write scrap it, and there’s no doubt there’s certain moments in time where songs write themselves in front of you, and invariably they’re the better ones. ‘Don’t try’ as Bukowski said.

"Music and the spirit seem to prosper in uncomplicated environments, so maybe there’s something to the simplicity of music, particularly something like blues, that can be pared down to so little, that might help us gain some insight there." (Ivor S.K. / Photo by Mike Jones)

What were the reasons that you started the Blues/Folk/Rock researches and one-man band experiments?

In my early teens I fell in love with rock’n’roll, namely AC/DC, and at the same time I had started learning a couple of instruments, first drums and later on guitar. I recall that during my first guitar lesson I was taught Robert Johnson’s ‘Dust My Broom’, so I began playing the blues before any real interest had blossomed. As I developed further I wanted to start writing music in an AC/DC-esque style, so I started investigating who their influences were, and I began to see names like Freddie King, Muddy Waters, Johnny Winter, Elmore James and so began my exposure to the history of the blues. Not long after this I picked up my first blues album, a generic Muddy Waters collection and that was it really, there wasn’t any turning back at that point.

I ended up putting songs together myself out of necessity more than anything else. I grew up in a small town, so finding other players my age who had any interest in blues was a fruitless task. Once I’d been playing for a while song writing became a natural step, and as it was clear it was what I wanted to do my parents bought me a very basic eight track recorder for Christmas one year to start putting all my song ideas together. As I played guitar and drums, all of those early demos were just two piece instrumentals; singing wasn’t even in my dreams at that point. As the years went by I fooled around with the bass, and then started laying vocals down too just so I could show the songs to any potential singers. I never came across any singers that fit the bill, and so I’ve settled into doing it all myself since then. The solitude of it has become one of my favourite parts of writing and recording.

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

Be cool to everyone and keep your ears peeled. Have fun. Don’t force it, let it come to you. Mistakes are important. And be careful whose advice you listen to.

"Blues is always the common thread that runs through my songs, but with a love of the blues you inevitably get lost in all of its closely related forms like R&B, soul, funk, jazz etc. so there is always a broad spectrum of sounds at play." (Ivor S.K. / Photo by Mike Jones)

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

I think the blues represents an escape from the world. The history of the blues is incredibly dark, encompassing as it does slavery and vitriolic racism, so I’ve always been inspired by the fact that the original purveyors of the art were able to create music so joyous under the toughest of circumstances imaginable.

I think every journey I’ve taken for the last 10 years has been because of the blues. I have been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time in Louisiana and Mississippi over the last few years and it’s been a phenomenal lesson in music and the culture that helped mould it all. The sparse landscape of Mississippi and the bustling soul of a city like New Orleans are very much present in all those classic recordings and being able to stand on the same ground on which those recordings were made is something else.  

What does the blues mean to you?  What touched (emotionally) you from Cuban/Latin and Reggae music?

For me the blues is primal, it grabs us for reasons we may never know, and as I said earlier, it is a form of escape. When you’re playing or listening to it that’s all your mind is focussed on, so it can be therapeutic in that sense. I think the improvisational nature of it plays a big part of that. There’s such a limited harmony to the basic blues, and that means that when you play with that particular palette your own personality will come through. BB, Albert and Freddie were all playing the same notes, but what a difference there is! 

I’m sure my initial interest with Cuban and Reggae sounds was the connection they had with the blues and New Orleans R&B/Jazz in particular. The rhythms in Latin music are strewn throughout all that great R&B, and it moved me in how upbeat and infectious all the grooves were. Without them the music we listen to now would be very bland. The same can be said for reggae. When I was a kid my parents used to play an album by Jamaican Jazz guitarist Ernest Ranglin, so I was exposed to it early on. It’s an uplifting form of music, much like the blues, and always has that laid back Caribbean DNA to it that I love.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?                                       (Ivor S.K. / Photo by Mike Jones)

The one that springs to mind was last year in New Orleans. I’m a huge fan of Dr John, and his ex-guitarist John Fohl holds down a regular gig at a spot in uptown New Orleans, so whenever I’m in town I’m there. John is an unbelievable guitar player, singer and songwriter, and for the most part I sit at the bar, wondering what I’ve done with my life. But the last time I was there he invited me up to play the second set with him, and we jammed well into the wee hours, playing all sorts of blues tunes. I’m still buzzing from it.

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

More than anything else, I miss the humour of the early blues. Even songs like Robert Johnson’s ‘Me and the Devil Blues’ are, to me anyway, laced with a dark sense of humour. It’s all part of entertaining the listener, giving them a good time and a laugh. I’m as big a fan of a well written, ‘serious’ lyric as much as anyone else, but it does seem as though modern, original roots takes itself a little too seriously at times.

My hope for the future of the blues is that there continues to be artists producing original, individual pieces of music. I love hearing artists re-interpret and keep the classic songbook alive, I do it myself when I gig, and it is a hugely important part of playing the blues, but it has to move forward at the same time, so it’s always great to hear people doing their own thing. My greatest fear would be the blues falling out of the public consciousness. It’s a vital part of all of the music that everyone loves. Thankfully it seems a long way from disappearing right now, so let’s hope it gets even stronger.  

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

On November 8th 1983, a New Orleans piano player named James Booker died waiting to be seen to in Charity Hospital. I would go back to New Orleans on that day and make sure he was treated. James is one of my favourites and one of the most remarkable artists period. To be able to watch him in the flesh, or to hear what he would be creating now would be the ultimate dream.

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

The amount of blues talent in Australia right is probably as strong as it has ever been.  We have a plethora of blues festivals all over the country that attract top international talent, so there is no shortage of interest, and the biggest music festival in Australia is the Byron Bay Blues and Roots Festival, which attracts everyone from Bob Dylan to Buddy Guy. That’s led to a seemingly endless stream of upcoming talent too so the future is bright.

Our biggest musical exports of the 60’s and 70’s, our first rock’n’roll stars if you will, were all heavily steeped in blues music. The first of these would have been Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs whose set consisted of R&B classics like ‘Ooh Poo Pah Doo’ and ‘Rock Me Baby’, and then a few years later you had AC/DC. Angus and Malcolm Young were largely influenced by blues, and on their early albums wore those influences on their sleeves. They do a killer rendition of ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ on their first album, it’s well worth checking out if you haven’t already. 

What is the impact of Blues and Roots music on the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?                                              (Ivor S.K. / Photo by Mike Jones)

This music was arguably the most vital part of bridging race relations in the US, particularly amongst the youth in the 50’s and 60’s, which again speaks volumes of the blues primal appeal. It made people feel good, and it simply didn’t matter what colour skin the performers had. If you go to blues festivals now they are mostly attended by a white audience, which when you think about the black/white divide of 50 or 60 years ago is quite something.

The blues also bridges cultures internationally; you just need to listen to someone like Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder or Corey Harris and the elements of world music they incorporate from Africa, Hawaii and Asia to see how broadly the blues resonates. Obviously Africa has the strongest links, and you have the musicians that came from that culture like Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate, and there’s no chance we would have heard of those guys were it not for the blues connection.

I would hope that the blues would never get entangled with politics!

John Coltrane said "My music is the spiritual expression of what I am...". How do you understand the spirit, music, and the meaning of life?

I’d not heard that before, but I like him even more now. And, well…the spirit is moody, temperamental, mercurial at best. Sometimes it can just completely depart of its own will, even if you’ve done all the right things. Music you can punch away at and conjure up if need be. I can be low, sluggish, pick up the guitar and after a half hour or so of digging into some trenches, feel like I’m starting to get back into the swing, which in turn lifts the spirit, or at least calls it back for a moment. So there’s a strenuous marriage of sorts there.

And the meaning of life? Music and the spirit seem to prosper in uncomplicated environments, so maybe there’s something to the simplicity of music, particularly something like blues, that can be pared down to so little, that might help us gain some insight there.

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

I would go back to the Mississippi Delta, sometime in the 1930s, just to be a fly on the wall in a juke joint. Watching guys like Robert Johnson, Son House, Charley Patton and the like in person and at their peak, seeing what songs were in their sets, how they performed, just observing all the little intricacies. It wouldn’t get much better than that. 

Ivor S.K. - Official website

(Ivor S.K. / Photo by Ursula Wall)

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