Q&A with Canadian multi-talented instrumentalist, Steve Hill - explored everything from Rock, Country, and Blues

"The music was new then. I find that these days, it's mostly just imitators. Not everyone of course but I wish there was more originals on the Blues scene. Then again, when the Blues gets too original or different, people usually stop calling it Blues!"

Steve Hill: Blues Rock Reality of Illusions

Widely considered one of Canada’s most prolific guitarists, Steve Hill has never stopped delivering wildly ambitious performances and satisfying original albums. Heralded wherever he goes, the guitarist, singer, drummer, harmonica player, songwriter and accomplished producer is a musical force to be reckoned with. Forget the fact that he has won a Juno award, played concertos with Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphonic Orchestra, won enough Blues awards to fill a bathtub and walked the boards of too many stages to count throughout his 28-year career, when you stop to hear his music, you know you’re listening to the real deal. A guitar stylist with a wide musical vocabulary, he has performed over 2,500 concerts in many configurations. For the past 8 years he has toured extensively throughout Canada and Europe in support of his critically acclaimed Solo Recordings albums trilogy and one-man band show. Steve got his start as an 18-year-old sideman in 1993 and released his first album in 1997.

(Steve Hill / Photo by Scott Doubt)

Since then, he has shared the stage with many of his heroes, like Ray Charles, B.B. King and ZZ Top, to name a few, and has played at some of Canada’s biggest music festivals. Acclaimed singer-songwriter Steve Hill celebrates his 25th year as a recording artist with the release of Dear Illusion on November 11th, 2022. Three years in the making, the album is, without a doubt, a step up for the artist, both in terms of maturity and execution, and his best production to date. Known over the last ten years as a one-man band, on Dear Illusion, the multi-instrumentalist shares the spotlight with a horn section, The Devil Horns, as well as 7-time UK Blues Awards Drummer of the Year Mr. Wayne Proctor, who also mixed and mastered the upcoming record. With 12 albums of original songs to his name, he has explored everything from Rock, Country, Folk, and all kinds of music, while continuing to fuse it all with his first love, the Blues.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

Well, I like to think that if someone is into Blues and Roots music, that person probably has some knowledge of history or at least is used to hearing stories from another era. That's always good as history has a way to repeat itself.

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

My sound is a mix of Blues, Rock and Roll, Country, Folk and whatever I heard so far that has influenced me. It's a melting pot. I listen to music all the time. From Robert Johnson to Black Sabbath to Waylon Jennings, Miles Davis, The Bee Gees, Grateful Dead...in my mind, it's all connected. There are 3 basic chords in any style and they're the same. Harmony is harmony, no matter what genre or where you come from. I've always had this urge to create something. Even before I played music, I used to draw. a lot. I just need to express myself and some things are easier said through art.

"You can have great technique and no soul, and you can have a lot of soul and have no sense of time and be tone-deaf! What really matters is the effect your music has on the audience and that has to do with a little of both. You need some degree of technique to be able to let yourself go on your instrument or with your singing in order for the audience to feel something." (Photo: Steve Hill)

What were the reasons that you started the one-man-band (and acoustic sound) researches and experiments?

It just happened. 11 years ago, I released an album called Whiplash Love. It bombed. The record label just didn't promote it. Gigs were rare and I needed to find a way to keep going as I couldn't keep paying the band and still make a living. I decided to have a side project and do solo gigs in smaller venues. I own a recording studio, so I recorded solo stuff, live off the floor and released Solo Recordings Volume 1 on my own label. It outsold the 6 albums I had done before and gave quite a kick to my career! I've done over 1000 shows with this formula since then.

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?

I’ve grown in many ways in the 35 years I’ve been making music! I started as a guitar player and ended up becoming a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer, businessman… I still consider myself a guitar player, first and foremost. The one thing that stayed the same is the joy I get from playing the guitar. That never goes away.

What's the balance in music between technique skill and soul/emotions? What do you hope people continue to take away from your music and songs?

You can have great technique and no soul, and you can have a lot of soul and have no sense of time and be tone-deaf! What really matters is the effect your music has on the audience and that has to do with a little of both. You need some degree of technique to be able to let yourself go on your instrument or with your singing in order for the audience to feel something. If you’re struggling technically your mind will be focused on executing. If you want the crowd to feel something, first, you have to be in the moment. If you’re thinking about where you’re fingers need to go and you’re counting time, you’re not in the moment. You need to let yourself go and in order to do that you have to master your craft.

"My sound is a mix of Blues, Rock and Roll, Country, Folk and whatever I heard so far that has influenced me. It's a melting pot. I listen to music all the time. From Robert Johnson to Black Sabbath to Waylon Jennings, Miles Davis, The Bee Gees, Grateful Dead...in my mind, it's all connected. There are 3 basic chords in any style and they're the same. Harmony is harmony, no matter what genre or where you come from. I've always had this urge to create something." (Photo: Steve Hill)

What moment changed your life the most? What´s been the highlights in your life and career so far?

That’s hard to say…I’m really happy about the new album. To me, its the best thing I’ve ever done. There have been many highlights so far but I’m always looking ahead. I try not to dwell on the past too much. There have been big shows opening for Ray Charles, BB King, ZZ Top, Metallica and many others. Those are not usually where I perform at my best, somehow. I remember one night where I felt that I was really at the top of my game, right in the moment all night, in Sherbrooke, Qc. December 28, 2002, I think it was!  Some people tell me that the best show they’ve seen from me was last August in Trois-Rivières and I have to say, that show was pretty good!

How do you describe new album "Dear Illusion" sound and songbook?

I had a version finished right before the pandemic started. It was slated for release in April 2020. There was no point in releasing it then, so I decided to wait. The sad context of the pandemic resulted in additional time for me to offer my fans the album I’m sure will meet their expectations for my 25th anniversary as recording artist. I am very proud of the work, and ultimately the final results we were collectively able to achieve with the album, which ended up reflecting both maturity and introspection. Overall, I feel like the album as a whole is telling that no matter what happens, you should give it everything you got and move on, be the best person you can be, and no matter what, the sun will rise again. Don’t dwell on suffering, and don’t forget about it, either. Even treat misfortune as a friend, slap it on the back and say “Thanks for teaching me”.

Do you have any interesting stories about the making of "Dear Illusion" studio sessions?

The album was close to 5 years in the making. Some songs have been recorded 4-5 times, in different studios, in different countries! I had a finished version of the album when the pandemic hit and ended up redoing most of it and writing more songs. I have a pretty good idea of what I want to hear and sometimes you achieve it right away and sometimes it takes forever. It’s hard work making records! Last January, I asked my buddy Wayne Proctor to lay down a drum track on a song I had called Follow Your Heart. He ended up playing on 6 songs, mixing and mastering the record! I’m not sure I could have finished it without him.

"Well, I like to think that if someone is into Blues and Roots music, that person probably has some knowledge of history or at least is used to hearing stories from another era. That's always good as history has a way to repeat itself." (Photo: Steve Hill, he has explored everything from Rock, Country, Folk, and all kinds of music, while continuing to fuse it all with his first love, the Blues.)

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

Canada is a big country and I've crisscrossed it many times. We once drove from Chicoutimi to Saskatoon and only stopped for gas and take-out. 40 hours. one driver. 3194 km.!

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

The music was new then. I find that these days, it's mostly just imitators. Not everyone of course but I wish there was more originals on the Blues scene. Then again, when the Blues gets too original or different, people usually stop calling it Blues!

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

I would put an end to Spotify and all streaming services and make a new business model, one where artists and not billionaires and corporations get the fair share of the money.

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

Trust yourself. No matter what they say.

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

I have no idea, Personally, I just want people to feel things and be touched on an emotional level when they listen to what I do.

"I’ve grown in many ways in the 35 years I’ve been making music! I started as a guitar player and ended up becoming a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer, businessman… I still consider myself a guitar player, first and foremost. The one thing that stayed the same is the joy I get from playing the guitar. That never goes away."

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?

As far as the meaning of life goes, I certainly don’t pretend to possess that knowledge! When it comes to spirit and music, they’re intertwined for me. Music makes your spirit react to it and spirit makes music come alive.

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 have loved to see the 60s! Monterey Pop? Woodstock? First electric Dylan show with The Band? That time when Hendrix was still unknown and jammed with Cream? Trip to the Grateful Dead at an Acid Test in 66? Or go back to the 30s and witness Robert Johnson playing on a street corner? 

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