Q&A with Canadian roots musician Jeff Rogers, evokes weighty comparisons to the past with his unique style

"I think music has grown so much over the past century. Musicianship is at an all time high, and the technology is incredible at enhancing everything one can do. There’s more of literally everything now than there’s ever been, but if I could wax nostalgic about eras now passed, I would say I miss the imperfections."

Jeff Rogers: Blue-eyed Bluesy Soul

Canadian roots singer/songwriter and keyboard player Jeff Rogers’ unmistakably soulful voice often evokes weighty comparisons to the past - whether that’s Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles or even Otis Redding… yet, his tone, range, phrasing, and sincerity, all make him unmistakably contemporary – and totally original. Jeff’s highly anticipated new solo album, Dream Job (2024), released from Diesel Entertainment, and was recorded at Wishbone Studios in the revered music mecca of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where many of the greats including, Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, Bob Seger, Etta James, Paul Simon, Otis Redding and The Black Keys, have recorded. For this album, Jeff is accompanied by some of the legendary musicians of Muscle Shoals, including guitarist Kelvin Holly (Little Richard, Bobby Bland) keyboardist Clayton Ivey (The Staple Sisters, Thelma Houston), drummer Justin Holder (Keb Mo’, Delbert McClinton) and bassist Shonna Tucker (Booker T. Jones, Drive-By-Truckers). Dream Job is co-produced by Dick Cooper of The Cooper Brothers and features special guest appearances by Grammy Award winner, Colin Linden, and Juno Award winning singer, Kellylee Evans.

(Jeff Rogers / Photo by Landon Entwistle Photography)

Raised in Ottawa as one of the city’s best kept secrets, Jeff’s Rogers honed his skills and mastered his craft over the past twenty years performing constantly in the clubs and festivals in and around the area, including, Ottawa Bluesfest, where he opened for Norah Jones. Jeff has toured internationally and is in demand session player. He has also been a member of renowned country/rock band The Cooper Brothers for over a decade, and won the 2020 International Blues Challenge as a member of HOROJO Trio. Dream Job is the culmination of this musical collaboration and might be the boldest statement to date of Jeff’s vocal talent, his musical ability and his song writing gifts. 

 

Interview by Michael Limnios                        Special Thanks: Mark Pucci Media

How has the music influenced your views of the world? Is there a message you are trying to convey with your music/songs?

Music has shaped my world and has been my focus and passion since I was in elementary school. As such, I’ve always felt somewhat apart from many societal expectations when it comes to career milestones. I don’t really know what “normal” means, per say, but I know that being a life long professional musician isn’t considered it. Music has both made me feel as an outsider looking-in this world, and an insider of the art form that is music. For myself, and I suppose for many people, being a musician is a dream job. And thanks to my dream job, I am grateful and hopeful. I’m extremely grateful to be able to follow my passion and see where it takes me, it is a luxury that is not afforded to many. I’m hopeful that I can continually improve as a musician, artist, person, husband and father. And those sentiments carry over into the songs. Dream Job is an ode to the art form, a joyous expression of gratitude and hope. 

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

In a nutshell, I’d describe my sound as “Blue-eyed Bluesy Soul”. I was musically raised on B.B. King and Motown Records. My musical tastes are broad, but my preference has always been music with groovy bass lines and killer vocals, so I try my best to play what I like. When I think of blues music, the pinnacle for me is 1970s B.B. King and Bobby Bland. Monstrous voices, backed up by a soulful and groovy band, with the occasional symphony backing them up. I get chills every time. We couldn’t get a symphony for Dream Job, but we did get a gospel choir for a few tunes and that was extremely special. My creative drive has always stemmed from my desire to play. I am a musician’s musician. I play for the love of it, for the discovery in it. I strive to discover new and interesting ways to play everything. I like to say that I never play a song the same way twice, and I suppose for anyone that isn’t a robot that’s a universal truth… but I like to veer off course intentionally sometimes just to see what happens with the music. It keeps it fresh, and keeps my band on their toes, and that’s where the real beauty in music is: honest reaction. Playing songs to a script can yield powerful results, particularly in sing-a-longs and branding, but what drives me personally as a musician and creative, is the excitement of having no automated net to catch us. I thrive in a little chaos, and it keeps me wanting more.

"Emotion plays a huge role in blues, and you can get by with far less technical ability there than in classical music. And to that end, while emotion in classical music is undoubtedly present, simply reading the page direction with excellent precision will carry you 95% of the way. To play music truly is to be both technically proficient while expressing the appropriate emotion convincingly, and all musicians have varying degrees of both." (Jeff Rogers/ Photo by Marissa Dubrofsky)

Do you have any interesting stories about the making of the new album Dream Job?

When we first got into Wishbone Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the owner/engineer of the studio (Billy Lawson) had set up an electric keyboard in the control room for me to play along with the session musicians we had hired. In the main room was a beautiful 9ft grand piano, right beside where the guitarist (Kelvin Holly) and bassist (Shonna Tucker) were set up. I got the impression, given the number of albums both the engineer and musicians have made over the years with various artists, that they got in the habit of separating the visiting artist with the band so the session players could tune out any bad playing if they had to. So they set up a keyboard in the control room for me to play away from them. I asked if we could try it out on the real piano first, and if it doesn’t work i can move in the studio. The session players hid it well, but i could see a little apprehension at the idea. We hit the ground running with a tune to get some levels set, and I remember Kelvin turning to the engineer right away and saying, “he’s cool, we’ll do it in here.” That made me feel pretty good.

Why do you think that Muscle Shoals music/sound continues to generate such a devoted following? 

Reputation. Muscle Shoals has a track record of excellent music. Away from the hustle and bustle of bigger nearby cities like Memphis and Nashville is this peaceful little town that likes a little bit more rock & roll alongside their soul, blues and country music. But the sound doesn’t come from geography, it comes from the musicians they can pull from. There’s a whole lot of musicians around the area, so it’s not difficult to put together a group to bring that flavour to an album. We got to meet loads of players while we were in Muscle Shoals, including those on the album as well as several that weren’t who stopped in to say hello. It’s a trip, and to get on the regular call list of these studios you’ve got to have mojo. When you look back at the bands that have recorded there and made iconic records, it’s not hard to understand why folks would keep coming back to catch some of that sound. Bands like The Rolling Stones, Bob Seger, Aretha Franklin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Paul Simon, and so many more.

"My creative drive has always stemmed from my desire to play. I am a musician’s musician. I play for the love of it, for the discovery in it." (Jeff Rogers_/ Photo by Marissa Dubrofsky)

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

Having been playing in bands since I was 10 years old, there are so many moments that have impacted my growth as a musician. The first time I sang solo in front of a crowd of people I was 16 years old at a Canada Day celebration in my suburb of Ottawa in front of over 4000 people. The first big concert I ever went to was with my father, and we saw B.B. King in concert in the 90s, with The Neville Brothers opening up. It solidified my love of blues done right. My first regular weekly gig, I was 21 years old playing at a duelling piano bar, taking requests in a packed Mardi Gras themed bar every Friday night for 10 years. I learned literally hundreds and hundreds of songs there, so many different styles, and I learned how to interact with a crazy crowd. I got the opportunity to open for incredible artists at various festivals over the years, including Norah Jones, Lady Gaga, and more recently some excellent blues artists like Kingfish, Robert Randolph, and Downchild Blues Band. My soon to be highlight gig will be happening this summer in June when I’ll be opening for Lake Street Dive at the Ottawa Jazz Festival. They’re my favourite band right now, and I’m probably more nervous and excited for this show than I’ve ever been to be honest. 

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

I think music has grown so much over the past century. Musicianship is at an all time high, and the technology is incredible at enhancing everything one can do. There’s more of literally everything now than there’s ever been, but if I could wax nostalgic about eras now passed, I would say I miss the imperfections. Music production now is so overly produced and scrutinized, and we increasingly hear less and less of the musicians performing while hearing more and more of technology “fixing”. I like live music. I like it played, not recited note for note with clicks and tracks and every performance being identical. This can be a divisive issue with many musicians and listeners alike, but in this regard, I sit firmly with blues and jazz artists in that I believe music should be expressed moment to moment, not simply regurgitated for a homogenized experience. If I wanted to hear the album, I’d put on the album at home and not pay for a ticket. That’s just my opinion. My hope and fears align, in that with such a broad range of music and artists the likes of which we’ve never had access to before, I hope listeners can truly develop their own tastes in music rather than marketing. With streaming services, we can deep dive into any genre, artist, time period, etc… it’s a wonderful opportunity if exercised with intent. My fear is that playlist consumption turns music increasingly into an afterthought. It can become background music, instead of something to absorb and develop a taste for. It can become disposable and forgettable. Say what you will about sound quality, but I believe the best thing about vinyl records was that it made the listening of music ceremonial. That’s why I was very adamant we release Dream Job on vinyl. The people who collect vinyl are truly consumers of music for music’s sake, not that those who don’t have record players can’t be either, of course. But the necessity of getting up out of your seat, picking a record and/or flipping it every 25 minutes reinforces the choice you are making of listening to music. It forces you to pay attention, and maybe in some small way, guilt trips you into listening more attentively because you had to get up and pick what record to play next. The analog technology really makes you work for it, and that work makes you care more. At least that’s what I think.                                        (Jeff Rogers / Photo by Marissa Dubrofsky)

"Music has both made me feel as an outsider looking-in this world, and an insider of the art form that is music. For myself, and I suppose for many people, being a musician is a dream job. And thanks to my dream job, I am grateful and hopeful. I’m extremely grateful to be able to follow my passion and see where it takes me, it is a luxury that is not afforded to many."

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

Listen. Before you can be a musician, you need to learn how to listen. Listening is fundamental in learning how to play, what to play, when to play, and why you play. As a musician for quite some time now, I’ve learned that the key to not only playing your best, but being a great bandmate, is to listen. This advice can translate into all manner of life lessons, from music, to relationships and life. We begin by listening to music, truly listening, and discovering what excites us. We listen to learn what we want to be as a musician. And when the time comes to play music with others, we listen to best serve the song, best serve our bandmates, and when appropriate, best serve ourselves. It’s a philosophical stance that translates across our lives. And when we are always open to listening, we stay humble and strive to understand rather than dictate. When we are truly listening, we can better navigate what is required of us, and what others need in the moment... be that a helping hand, or a sweet musical fill at the right time. I was fortunate enough to go to Muscle Shoals and play with some excellent musicians, and the studio experience is one of active listening. The session players listen to the demo, take a few notes, and then we hit the record button within 5 minutes. I listen to them, they listen to me, we jam together, and the spark is kindled there in the studio. That’s how it works. When you go to a place like Muscle Shoals, Memphis, New Orleans, or wherever, you don’t tell the session players what to play. That defeats the entire purpose of the trip. You give them the bones, and once the ball is rolling, they listen and react as they know how. You let them put meat on the bones. That’s how you get their “sound”. It may be my song, but they’re listening to it through their own ears and reacting how they will in the moment. There isn’t a song on our record that took us more than 3 attempts to lock down the rhythm section. Most were done in 2. Active listening meets technical proficiency and talent, and what you get is on the album. 

What's the balance in music between technique (skills) and soul / emotions? What is the role of music in today’s society?                     (Jeff Rogers / Photo by David Irvine)

Interesting question. Firstly, the balance between technique and emotion is truly up to the person playing. One has to know their own strengths and play to them, but also put in the time so that both are available to them when required. I lean towards the soul side of things. I’ve always played by ear and have an aptitude in reacting to music organically rather than technically. Over many years of performing regularly, my technical ability continues to improve but I doubt my hands will ever catch up to my ears. There’s no wrong or right way, it really depends on the job. Emotion plays a huge role in blues, and you can get by with far less technical ability there than in classical music. And to that end, while emotion in classical music is undoubtedly present, simply reading the page direction with excellent precision will carry you 95% of the way. To play music truly is to be both technically proficient while expressing the appropriate emotion convincingly, and all musicians have varying degrees of both. You just need to apply the right balance for yourself, and for the music you are performing. As for the role of music in today’s society, as with all the creative arts, therein lies passion. The arts are human passion given substance. They exist as a function of an artist expressing themselves, and those who appreciate and digest that passion to suit their own purpose, be it a joyful, sorrowful or introspective experience. For me, music has been my lifelong passion and my Dream Job. I’ve never wanted to do anything else. I love to play. Wherever and whenever I get the chance, I am so grateful to share my passion with anyone who’ll listen.

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