Q&A with harmonica master and veteran sideman Michael Rubin, his music too have grease and imperfections

"My hopes is that a blues musician will be heroic as a player and a person and the money guys will back him all the way. Blues has resurgences. We just need a hero. My fear is that I won’t be able to pay my mortgage this month."

Michael Rubin: I’ll Worry If I Wanna

Michael Rubin was conceived in Memphis in 1969. He went to Woodstock in the womb, sealing his love of music. Born in New Jersey in 1969, his family moved to Pittsburgh, PA and ultimately to Marin County, CA (the home of the BLUES!). He picked up a harmonica at 15 years of age and immediately knew it was his future. While at college in the Bay Area he had easy access to his true classrooms, outstanding music clubs, including The Cotati Cabaret and Slim’s in San Francisco. The blues was undergoing a tremendous resurgence and players such as Charlie Musselwhite, Norton Buffalo and Mark Hummel lived and played nearby. California has been a celebrated harmonica mecca and legends passed through regularly, most notably Rick Estrin with Little Charlie and the Nightcats, who not only mentored Rubin on the harmonica, but showed him that blues can be both excellent music and hilarious. Rubin took that knowledge to heart, studying Estrin, Rice Miller, Mose Allison, James Harman, Louis Jordan, and non-blues musicians The Coasters, David Bromberg, and Jonathan Richman. After college Rubin moved to New Orleans where he became an original member of Irene and the Mikes and was mentored by Andy J. Forest and Anders Osborne. From there, Rubin spent a half of a year busking on the streets of Europe, before moving to Austin in 1993. There he joined the blues scene and was mentored by Gary Primich, who knew that crafting a song was as important as blowing harp well.                                           (Photo: Michael Rubin)

Rubin focused on being a sideman, finding steady opportunities with many bands. Throughout he kept writing, his songs became hidden gems, only appearing to the world on special occasions. He learned that there was more to music than blues and began to deeply explore a myriad of styles, including folk, rock,  jazz and classical music. As his harp skills became widely known, he was recruited to be the featured harmonica player in the musical, The Civil War, which he helped launch in Houston. Rubin would move to New York when the show debuted on Broadway in 1999 and received multiple Tony Award nominations. Every night, to the accompaniment of his harp, the North won, and the slaves were freed. Returning to Austin after a year in theater, he performed with such luminaries as Ruthie Foster and Cyrille Neville. He also played with popular Austin acts, such as Seth Walker, The McMercy Family Band (who sing backup on Rubin’s new album), That Damned Band, Kalu James, Sick’s Pack and many others. He is a sought-after recording session artist, appearing on dozens of albums. Through the years he continued writing his original music. At 50, it became clear to him if he did not put out his own music soon, it might never happen. Having distinguished himself as a sideman for many years, Michael Rubin finally steps into the spotlight, not only as a harmonica master, but also as a singer-songwriter on his debut album, I’ll Worry If I Wanna (2022), on Many Hats Records. Co-produced by Josh Fulero and Rubin (many hats indeed!), the album features nine Rubin originals. The core backing band includes Mike Keller on guitar, Michael Archer on bass, and Mark Hays on drums, along with several memorable guest players.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

As for journeys, the blues have been the guiding force in my life. I started playing harmonica and someone gave me a John Lee Hooker album with no harmonica.  I loved blues so much I decided that whether or not anyone had played harp to blues, I was going to play it to blues. This brought me to the used record store where the blues section might have well have said, “Michael Rubin’s section”.  This led to clubbing with an underaged beard to hear and meet my new heroes.  As soon as possible I moved to New Orleans, travelled through Europe, to Austin, Manhattan and back to Austin in search of music. As far as blues affecting my view of the world, my favorite blues has always been funny. Give me Rice Miller, Mose Allison, Rick Estrin, James Harman. I try and live my life with the understanding that no matter how tough it gets, something about it is hilarious.

"I do not believe in the supernatural. If you want to claim I am spiritual because I try to live with intention of helping others and not harming and I have had experiences that felt magical that I could not explain, then I am spiritual." (Photo: Michael Rubin)

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

I am most interested in swing, jump blues, Texas shuffles and New Orleans rhythms. If an album is too slick, too well produced, it’s not for me. I like the music too have grease and imperfections. I want my harmonica to be unique. I am happy to tip my hat to the masters that came before me but I am hoping that I will get you thinking about other newer things. I am very interested in the chromatic harmonica in the Little Walter style and George Smith/William Clarke/Rod Piazza but also in the Stevie Wonder/ Paul Delay style and finally in what Bill Barrett is doing with double stops and bending. Hopefully I am tributing these players but also coming up with my own thing, which mostly has to do with rhythms and harmonies. Also, the chromatic has traditionally been associated with the key of D, I play it in multiple keys on the album, including Fourth Coast, an instrumental in the key of A. On diatonic I am fascinated with positions (playing one harp in multiple keys) and you can hear me play in all 12 positions on my new album. I do use overblows (a technique that raises pitches) on the album, but only in the most basic position.

I also use the country tuned harmonica (where one of the notes is changed from a standard harmonica, enabling someone to play in the second position major scale easily) but I use it in 3 different minor positions, 5th, 6th and 7th. As a singer, I am a real good harmonica player. I’m just trying to sing on key. I am joking, but there’s a lot of truth there. I am trying to do things rhythmically and with inflection that will ingratiate the listener to me and enjoy my music not in spite of my lack of vocal chops but also because of it. My songs need to be actual songs, not just 3 minutes of singing verses and soloing. There need to be melodic heads, choruses, bridges. My lyrics are necessarily funny, but beneath their double entendres are themes that are much more serious and often reappear throughout the album. I’m trying to tell you something about my life. Hopefully you can relate and you are welcome to sing my songs but they are extremely personal.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?                                                  (Photo: Michael Rubin)

When you say past, do you mean pre covid? I am just trying to get some gigs that don’t get cancelled. One thing that I do not do, but that I loved about blues from the 50’s and 60’s is that each major musician had a style. Muddy Waters played the same song, every time. Howling Wolf, Jimmy Reed, they had a style! My hopes is that a blues musician will be heroic as a player and a person and the money guys will back him all the way. Blues has resurgences. We just need a hero. My fear is that I won’t be able to pay my mortgage this month.

"As for journeys, the blues have been the guiding force in my life."

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

I suppose the most obvious agent of change has either been meeting my wife (and mother of my children) or when a friend handed me my first harmonica. Since there are a lot of women in the world and I am a man, and many women are attracted to men, the odds are I would have met someone. So in terms of unlikely events, the harmonica wins. As far as highlights of my life, the days my kids were born were up there. Our wedding was off the charts. More recently, I got a dog and he likes me best, so that’s nice.

There have been days like when Clifford Antones brought 50 of the greatest bluesman to play for hours at The Cotati Cabaret and kept playing after the locked the front door for the night. There have been days when I was in front of big enthusiastic crowds and in front of no one but still managed to play a cool lick.  Living in New Orleans was magical. When I was 28, I got the gig all bluesman dream of. I got called to play harmonica in the Tony nominated musical The Civil War at The St. James Theater. And when I was 21, my band played well and won The Battle of the Bands at Magnolias in Santa Rosa. My point is the highlights don’t have to be fancy, resume filling moments. Little events filled with wonder work just as well. But the resume stuff is fun, too.

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

Fame doesn’t mean much. Many of the famous people I have worked with were jerks and the money was worse than backing up the unknown person. Treating yourself and others with respect is the way. Determination and setting goals and working towards them is the way to success. The amount of hurdles towards putting out my debut record was intense. I would not stop until it was out. Making a living as a musician is challenging. I set a goal for the raise I want to give myself each year and I fight for it.

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

I would make streaming platforms pay a reasonable amount per play.

"My lyrics are necessarily funny, but beneath their double entendres are themes that are much more serious and often reappear throughout the album. I’m trying to tell you something about my life. Hopefully you can relate and you are welcome to sing my songs but they are extremely personal." (Michael Rubin / Photo © by Steve Rogers)

What's the balance in music between technique and soul? What are the secrets of blues harmonica?

If by soul you mean an outside spirit-like force guiding your actions, I do not believe in that. If by soul, you mean feeling and emotions, I can work with that. Technique is extremely important. As a listener, if a player hasn’t built his technique to a professional level, the chances of me listening twice are low. This is professional music, you need to know your craft. If we’re at a campfire, it’s all about fun, but if you want me to pay for your music, show it respect. If the feeling isn’t there, it’s not blues. It’s just not. Different harmonica heroes affect different listeners. I appreciate all the heroes, but some of them speak to my heart.  I am trying to play in a way that gets the listener to feel who I am and hopefully relate.

The secrets of blues harmonica are secrets. I give lessons. It's a body/mind/spirit thing. And by spirit, I mean feeling. You need to be able to do many physical techniques. I used to believe harmonica was the hardest physical instrument in the world until I got serious with other instruments and realized they’re all tough to master. You need to get  rhythm in your body. You need to understand how music works. There are many harmonica players who “just feel it” and know nothing about how music works, the theory behind it. In my opinion, many of them produce music that I don’t want to listen to twice. For feeling it is tough to teach. Listen to the pros. Go see them play. Understand just how much they are really giving to a performance. I am sorry James Cotton is no longer with us. Every young harp player should have seen James in his prime.

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?

Again, I do not believe in the supernatural. If you want to claim I am spiritual because I try to live with intention of helping others and not harming and I have had experiences that felt magical that I could not explain, then I am spiritual. I like the saying “After the ecstasy, the laundry”. I am searching for the moments in life that feel like magic, but I never want to get so lost there that I forget someone needs to do the dishes, and that someone is me. If humanity needs help, it needs to be me and sometimes that help isn’t glamorous and promises no recognition.

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