Q&A with Canadian storyteller Robert Hubele - experiences as varied as the stylings of his Bluesy Jazzy songs

"The Blues, in my opinion, is the down and out and never going to get up again feeling that your mind tricks you with when your life isn’t going according to your plan."

Robert Hubele: Poet Of The Blues

Musician, storyteller, and blue collar icon of Canadian life, Robert Burton Hubele has a catalogue of experiences as varied as the stylings of his Bluesy Jazzy songs. The same can be said for his experience of love. Robert is the oldest of eight children, raised in the prairies of southern Alberta, Canada. At 14, he laboured at a steel mill and then became a heavy equipment operator. At 21, he wrote his first song. Robert’s world view is that love and harmony are all. Writing songs and giving concerts are Robert’s focus in life – making a difference in the world through his songwriting and concerts, causing people to see their lives in a new, more harmonious light. And it is not always the big things in life that are the most important. Robert writes about the little things that make a difference. Robert is entirely self-taught. His love for the blues started with listening to popular music on the radio as a teen. What caught his ear was Eric Burden’s ‘House of the Rising Sun’. He had no idea that it was the blues, but he just had to learn to play that song.

His friend Butch, a Redcap and co-worker at the Canadian Pacific Railroad, offered to loan him his electric guitar and amplifier and teach him how to play it. Robert became fascinated with the earthy beat and emotional impact of the blues. He began listening to and playing along with B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, and Freddie and Albert King. Robert’s introduction to jazz was through Chuck Tracy, a hard-core lounge musician and really funny guy who was his roomate for a while. In listening to him rehearse and perform, Robert got turned onto the music of Tom Waits, Mose Allison and Fats Waller. He also listened to Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Benny Goodman and – especially – Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan. There is also a touch of country in Robert’s music from growing up on the prairies on the fringe of Calgary, where music by Hank Williams, Hank Snow, and Marty Robbins was the background of his life. Robert’s interest in slide dobro began when he first heard Bonnie Raitt in the early 70s. She had learned to play slide from Mississippi Fred McDowell and Robert just had to learn how to make that ‘slidey’ sound himself. He figured out how to tune his guitar to slide tuning, and made a lot of racket for a couple of years until eventually he got the hang of it. Robert writes when the song comes to him, about one each month. It takes one-half to two hours to write a song. The best ones often come the fastest. Polishing and learning a song takes a couple of weeks. Robert and his wife Susan make their home in Vancouver’s beautiful West End on English Bay

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

I learned that you have to be in the culture for the love of the music. There is little money to be made in the music industry in general and the blues market in particular. I learned that I had a deep attachment to the blues and jazz forms and they influence my writings and melodies throughout my works. The Blues, in my opinion, is the down and out and never going to get up again feeling that your mind tricks you with when your life isn’t going according to your plan. For me, when I get that feeling, the cure is to write and/or sing and play the Blues. Music heals, and the Blues vibrations seem to have a deep connection with me and many other people.

How do you describe Robert Hubele sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

My sound is uniquely mine. Raised partly in the city, and part in the country, I took influences from both places. I write Country, Blues, Folk, and Pop songs. I must say they all have a touch of the blues behind them. I don’t decide which genre to write in. I start writing and the song appears in whatever form it’s going to take. I write stories set to music, as telling stories is a major part of my make-up. It was just natural to put them to music, which is what I’ve done.

What were the reasons that you started the Blues, Jazz and Folk researches and experiments?

I was working as a ticket clerk at the CPR Railway in Calgary. One of my friends there was a black guy who was a red-cap (luggage assistant). He lent me a cheap little electric guitar and amplifier, and showed me how to play ‘The House Of The Rising Sun’. It was an epiphany! I was immediately addicted to the guitar, and the Blues. Country was played on every radio as I grew up in a very rural area on the edge of Calgary, Alberta. My earliest memories are of Hank William, Marty Robbins, Roger Miller et al. I still play some of those songs. When I started writing, some of the songs I wrote naturally turned out country. Some still do today. I got into Jazz when I began playing Cocktail Lounges in the 70’s with my band Jelly Roll. First learning some tunes from the consummate lounge musician Chuck Tracy, who taught me some of the Jazz standards while living in my spare room one winter. That’s when I began adding Jazz to my writings.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone every gave you?

The best advice I ever got about writing was from a hippy friend when I first started playing. He said “Write what you know.” I never gotten far afield from that. Most of my songs are about the little things in life that happen to me or my family and friends, or are about them. As far as meetings go, the most important meeting of my life was meeting my wife Susan. She’s been an inestimable support through the years, and acted as roady, manager, press agent when needed.

My second most important meeting was with Brad Steckel of Nevin Park Studios in Calgary. Brad and I met when I was recording my first album “Robert Burton” with Producer Danny Lowe at Smooth Rock Studios in Calgary. Brad was the guitar player on that session, and was the Best guitar player I had ever sat down with. He was so good I could hardly work up the courage to talk to him. We made a great album, and when we were finished Danny began a project called Q-Sound. Brad and my wife Susan were both on the R&D team, and we gradually became friends. When it came time to put out a new album, Danny was unavailable so I asked Brad. That was the album ‘When The Sky Falls’. We’ve been collaborating on albums ever since. He’s been my Producer or Co-Producer for the last 6 albums, and we’re going into the studio in February 2016 to record another album.

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

Mostly hours spent driving the band van through blinding blizzards to get to gigs in Edmonton orJasper or Banff. Trying to look spiffy and bright after 5 or 6 hours of white knuckle driving, with the same to look forward to after the gig. I remember one gig in the Netherlands. I was supposed to do an afternoon show. The promoter who brought me to Holland, Gerrit Klaassen, was driving his little Skoda truck and we were loaded down with PA and amps etc. which made the little truck pretty heavy and slow. This was lucky as it kept the truck on the road. A hurricane started up as we left, and was blowing about 120 KPH by the time we got to the gig. I performed for about 3 hours to a moderately sized audience, while outside mysterious thumps and bangs kept occurring. When we went out, we found the neighbouring house’s roof in the street beside our car.

We were playing a showcase gig with my band tHE sTRANGE at the King Edward Hotel (a Blues Stronghold) in Calgary. The tables came right up to the stage. In the first ten seconds of the first song, two guys at the table right in front of me leap across the table at each other and start whackin’ away with their fists. I motioned to the band to really kick it, which we did. By the time the song was over the guys had their arms around each other and were sharing the beer they hadn’t broke!

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

I don’t miss anything of the blues of the past. Luckily, with our technology, we’ve been able to save performances from a lot of the old blues people. We’re very lucky to have those to draw on for inspiration. I think the blues will be with us as long as there are people to have them. The Blues evolves like any other organism, and changes with the times and the culture. I consider it one of my precepts to take the Blues to new and interesting places.

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

If I could make all the Corporations who own the record companies disappear, so that record companies were once again owned by people who loved the music they produced, rather than answering solely to the bottom line in the account books.

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

There’s a Blues scene in most of the large cities in Canada. Usually restricted to one or two Blues bars, and a Blues Festival in the summer in most large cities, although Calgary also has a winter Blues Fest. Vancouver’s only Blues bar was the Yale, and it was torn down about 4 years ago to make way for a large entertainment complex/hotel. The Blues Bar component has just reopened, and I’ll be performing there in the early spring. The best era for the Blues in Canada comes around about every 20 or 30 years. Back in the 80’s Vancouver was a hot spot with Powder Blues and Long John Baldry amongst other well know acts that lived and worked in our area. Before that it was the 60’s when rock bands began doing Blues standards in their own way and made the Blues popular again for a while. They go out of favour and then are rediscovered. It’s always been the pattern. The rhythms are visceral and touch people as other music can’t. It’s in your heart, not your head.

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

What always makes me laugh is the young people who ask me to teach them some of my ‘tricks’. I don’t have any ‘tricks’ really. There’s no short cuts to being good, only 10,000 hours of practice. That goes for writing as well. Emotionally, I was very touched by the performance my wife Susan took me to at the Unity Church for a Candle Light Christmas Ceremony. The 10 piece band was superb, the pieces so well played and arranged, and the singing so beautiful I was captivated!

What is the impact of Blues on literature and to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

References to Blues lyrics and themes has become a standard for some writers such as Stephen King. Again, the themes and stories of the Blues are so dramatic and graphic that they make for good quotes as story headers and finishing pieces. The Blues has become such a well worn background to most people’s lives that I don’t think they are even aware it’s there. It does bring people together, and it’s now accepted as a true art form. I don’t think it plays a part in politics or changes the socio-cultural meme in any way.

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

I would love to be at the July 25,1965 Newport Folk & Blues Festival, watching Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins play live, and seeing Bob Dylan going electric for the first time. That would be an excellent day!

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Photo by Alana Rothstein

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