Jeff Powers is the real thing, one of those guitar players with a journey story that reads like a Jack Kerouac novel. Rather than learning blues licks from players in Chicago or Memphis he lived in Mexico City for seven years and polished his skills in a not well known vibrant blues scene. That story being all the more interesting because he is a trained classical guitarist. His choice is always the less traveled road and that shows in his work. Jeff’s music clearly pays tribute to who has come before, but it tickles the ear pleasantly with s unique and creative take. Whether slamin’ out an electric bottle neck slide piece, or an acoustic number, Jeff Powers delivers. One of my favorite interviews. Here is Jeff Powers.
Let’s start with the road you took to get here and now. Give us a bit of the highlights of that interesting journey.
I started playing guitar very young but I didn’t take it seriously until I heard Jimi Hendrix playing “All Along the Watchtower”. I remember the moment when I heard it it was like those Renaissance trumpets blasting and a voice telling me this is what I’ll do for the rest of my life. I thought I was going to be a ROCK STAR. I thought that life was going to be easy money and fun. Was I ever wrong but I kept doing music and growing and I’m cool with where I’m at now. I learned about blues in my teens, took jazz lessons and eventually ended up in music school studying Classical Guitar Performance. Eventually I moved to Mexico City where I began playing blues
Go back a little – you went from playing Classical guitar to playing the Blues? That is a strange transition – what attracted you to the Blues?
So, I started playing guitar very young, but not seriously. I had a teacher who taught me some blues and it always stuck with me. And when I heard Hendrix I really wanted to be a guitarist yet floundered around for years. In the 1980’s I heard such crap on the radio I got disillusioned with pop music and on a whim took some classical guitar lessons. I really got interested and pursued it, went to music school and got a degree in classical music performance. After 10 years of playing only classical I was feeling unfulfilled, to say the least. And then I saw Stevie Ray Vaughan live and knew I wanted to play blues. After moving to Mexico to teach and play classical guitar someone out of the blue called and asked if I played the Blues and I lied and said “Yes! Joined their band and tossed aside the tux and put on a badass hat…the rest is history.
When I listened to the CD I heard a nod to Billy Ray, a nod to Buffalo Springfield/Neil Young, even a bit of Wes Montgomery. It took a second time through to hear that the real homage is an approach, a style of play, with honesty and authenticity that is, I would offer, rarely heard – since the 60’s and 70s. Did I get that right?
Well, I grew up in the 1960’s and believe that a lot of the best rock was produced then. It is pretty obvious that Neil Young, Buffalo Springfield, CSNY had a huge influence on me. I sure hope my music is honest and authentic and not just a homage. I feel like I’m one of those guys, that I’m a contemporary of those guys but with modern influences. I’m a 1960’s musician that has been a long time coming.
I think you meant Stevie Ray Vaughan? SRV saved me! He was huge in my life. I dug a deep hole pursuing a classical guitar career but was miserable and didn’t know what to do about it until I saw SRV and it changed my life. I realized you could make music the way you wanted to, not like the junk I was hearing on the radio, and have a career. The concert I was at was a real spiritual experience…people in the front and isles were down on their knees and bowing as if they were in the presence of a saint. He was so deep in the zone it was like church except it was a church I loved and wanted to belong to. So, as I like to say I lost the tux and got some shit kickers and a bad ass hat and started playing and living the blues again. My life became colorful and exciting. Then after a lot of time in the Mexican blues scene I moved back to the US.
I was shocked when I got back to the US though. I stayed with a friend in Syracuse and the first night back I saw Duke Robillard in a club…that’s a humbling experience for most guys who think they are doing great at blues guitar. I realized I wasn’t really thinking like an artist I was just practicing my guitar and not creating something of my own…I was another SRV wannabe so I started going back to my songwriting, something I had done when I was younger.
Actually it’s the reason I started my long journey on guitar to begin with. I was writing songs but was struggling with the guitar so I took up Classical guitar to improve my technique. I went to the Cleveland Institute of Music where I received a degree in performance and was just shy of a Masters degree by one incomplete class when I ended up in Mexico. It was during that time that I really lost my direction. I must say I became quite a good classical guitarist and it has helped me profoundly both musically and personally. Anyway it was time to grow some more….find something that was mine…make a real artistic statement. I needed to write for me…entertain myself…follow my muse and let the chips fall were they may. Hopefully other people would love it too.
It’s funny you’d mention Wes Montgomery cause my father got me started on guitar at 8 or 9 years of age and would have me listen to Andre Segovia, John Williams, Barney Kessell, Carlos Montoya, Wes Montgomery among many other master guitarists. I’m sure you can hear Wes in my playing especially with the octaves.
There are cuts on the CD that have as a songwriter a clear social voice, ’13 Seconds 67 Shots’ (Kent State). ‘Down In New Orleans’, ‘I’m In a Bad Mood’, ‘Tall Buildings’, but you also have some relationship songs. Love ballads ‘Let’s take A Ride’, and not so much about love songs, ‘Waiting For The Ax To Fall’, ‘Just Because He’s Wrong’ and “Ray of Hope’, all insightful and sensitive lyric writing – but very different. As a songwriter how does a song come to you? What has to be in a Jeff Powers song?
Nothing has to be in a Jeff Powers song except I have to get a certain spiritual feeling or type of magical feeling before I believe I am onto something…My music has to give me a thrill that is deeper than feelings that I experience on this “worldly plane”. I should say that I’ve written funny songs and odd songs that are good and they really didn’t take me to that deeper place and they do serve a purpose but really I’m looking for that magic that deeper place where those great songs live.
Songs come to me in many different ways but something like “13 seconds 67 Shots” is sparked by anger or frustration. I was reading an article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer On the 40th commemoration of the Kent State Massacre about the bloodshed and how no one has been prosecuted for open firing on innocent students. Like everyone I was again outraged and wrote this song. With “Let’s Take a Ride” I just jumped out of bed one night and started playing and singing this song…it came out complete with verses chorus and bridge….that won’t happen very often if ever again! It’s a little like the Townes Van Zandt story where in a dream he saw himself playing a song woke up wrote it down complete then fell back to sleep…in the morning it was there complete. One thing is…I refuse to have writers block and will start a song by any means even by just reading something out loud while improvising on the guitar. Before long the song magic will kick in and a song will unfold. I think a lot of songwriters do things like this. You’ve written so many songs yourself Ken so I imagine you have ways to keep the creativity flowing too.
And to point out more complexity – you have two songs here that are in a way autobiographical, ‘Gypsy Girl’ and ‘Wild Child’. The first for Ani DiFranco and the second for a friend, both favorites of mine on the CD! I suppose because you write them with such bold texture and sweep. Tell us how these songs came about.
I was listening to Ani Difranco being interviewed on NPR and was impressed with how sweet; yet bold she was…very honest…took so many chances to get where she was in spite of the pressure. When I was young, there weren’t many women in Rock which I never really understood why but now because of artists like Ani DiFranco a lot of girls pick up the guitar, perform and write songs. They have someone there as a model sort of like Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Bob Dylan and SRV were for me. So as a tribute to “Rocker chicks” I wrote this song. It is not exactly about Ani DiFranco, because I don’t know her but it’s a tribute to the many female artists that are playing now.
The other song “Wild Child” is about someone I knew really well in high school and after. He was a real bad dude; he was dangerous crazy and very funny. I was the “new” kid in school and the first day I was there he started a fight with me. He was crazy but a lot of fun. A risk taker, an entertainer, loved music, sang Rock and Roll and lived fast…But at the same time we were having fun he was also making money holding up stores, pulling off scams, just living wild. I told him he was going to die in a car crash, and prophetically, he did a few years later.
You write hard living, beer drinkin’, road running rockers, social commentary rock and roll songs with big hooks, self reflective folksy ballads, and cool jazzy pieces – there is something revealing itself in your personality here – any thoughts? (The interviewer probed with an appreciative grin on his face.)
Like I’ve been saying my musical journey took many paths. I was always searching for my musical identity. It is hard for me to be content so instead of practicing or using what I have or know I’m always looking for something else. I like to think that has helped me change and grow a lot even though it made it hard to keep a direction. I do think all my music experience is finally coming together and that I’ve found my path…I’m a late bloomer or should I say a late Baby Bloomer. Also, I really haven’t had any success commercially so I guess I’m always trying something else but it always has to be something that I love and believe is pure not just something I do to be popular or make money…don’t get me wrong I would like to make a lot of money and be popular but I would never compromise my artistic beliefs. As artists our integrity is all we have so why give that up.
When you sit down to write what happens – tell us about your process from writing the lyric/melody to the finished cut.
As I said earlier, I don’t allow writers block and will use any and all methods to create a song. I believe writers block is usually in the starting process more than the nuts and bolts of finishing something. Anger fuels a lot of my creativity and if something is on my mind I grab the guitar, start playing and singing – anything, anything that comes out will eventually weave itself, or will itself into a logical song.
I guess I believe that I have the ability to always tap in to that source, magic that occurs and comes from the subconscious. It feels like I’m someone who is a medium for songwriters who have passed on and they are handing me songs to give to the world. Who knows if it’s that, or what it is actually but it just feels like I don’t write, I receive. It never fails me even though sometimes there are some pretty lame songs that come along too! They are all part of artistic expression and count. The lesser songs aren’t any less important than the masterpieces…like an important artist, it’s important to have all the sketches as well as the finished paintings…it’s all part of the process and human expression. If you love Picasso you want to see everything he did even the scribbles on napkins.
You have written hundreds of songs on your longish musical road – tell us your thoughts on songwriting as a craft.
You have to have a way to tap into the ether and recognize magic or beauty but you have to develop technical skills to finish these points of departure that we tap into. You have to understand song form, rhyme schemes or rhythmic pulse, possibly chord progressions and how they work and many other things. Plus you have to have enough technique on the instrument you are using to bring out counterpoint or just enough technique to finish the process. You don’t have to be the performer to be a songwriter. You don’t have to play an instrument really well if you have something special in your voice or your soul. There are songwriters who don’t play an instrument but just sing the lyric and melody which by copyright standards is “the” song. I am a singer/songwriter which is a different type of songwriter…we write songs or tend to write songs that are more personal for our own performances and they might not be very viable in another performers hands. Though a great song, a great piece of art probably stands up in almost any good performer’s hands, setting or genre. You’re a singer songwriter who performs and has developed your guitar playing to a high level so I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.
Being a slightly roughed up from the road journeyman music man can you give us a brief thought on what you see in the music biz today?
I like what I see today. Not on popular radio but what is going on at the grassroots level. We musicians/artists have at our fingertips things like instructional videos with guitar parts tabbed out to near perfection…when I was learning guitar in the 60’s there wasn’t one tab that I saw. You had to put the LP on the slow speed which was half speed and an octave lower to figure out a riff or song…well I’ll tell you I didn’t learn many songs in the beginning. I learned many many songs later because I was a guitar teacher and I would learn any and all songs that my students wanted to play. At first it was difficult but I became somewhat expert at it…it grew my song book and riff bank a lot. Also, today the tools to record and promote our product without the need of a record label or anyone else is right at our finger tips. So there are many great performers and groups touring and recording songs but the listener has to look for them. They aren’t necessarily touring the bigger venues with the bigger budgets, but they are making a full time living playing their music by building their own fan base, etc. Plus we Baby Boomers and those in between are still kicking and putting music out there so there is so much great music going on today.
You are a fine guitarist and songwriter – your vocals are up front clear – and clean. This may be an odd question. Which of the three do you work the hardest on, which is the more important?
The vocals are the most important but for my type of music it’s more about finding “your” honest voice and not a stylized sound. And even though I believe the voice is the most important aspect of the performance I know I am a much better guitarist than a singer. I’ve put in countless hours practicing and perfecting guitar technique, developing a voice for a singer/songwriter seems to be a more subtle approach. Every time I actually try to practice technical vocal exercises it seems I lose something that is natural in my voice. So basically I warm up a little and lightly vocalize just to free my vocal chords but I’m not practicing Bel Canto style power-singing. I think that the singer/songwriter is something special. There is a complex melding of voice, songwriting, guitar or whatever instrument they play, and personality that is the art. I think singer/songwriter should be considered its own genre even though one might be Jazz, Blues or Folk, etc. but it is a unique art form.
The entire feel of the album is a kind of balls to the wall, no apology statement – a very clear and personal ‘In The Room’ feel. I love it – was that an arrangement decision or was it a natural outcome of your personality?
I think that the “balls to the wall” sound or feel came about because I only had two days to show the band, Los Blancos, 13 songs and get their tracks down. Luckily, they are great musicians and really know how to play. I originally intended a more bare-bones acoustic guitar and voice type record, but they are a rocking Blues band and I’m a Blues guitarist and so the songs came out a lot more aggressive. You have to go with the way the players play naturally and not try to dictate anything. So with their tracks done, I had to match my parts with the same amount of energy and the same feel as the band. I had planned on using a click-track and have the band put their parts to my groove or track but they refused the click-track so I played my songs to their groove…and I like it a lot! Also, when I play or jam my style is pretty intense, even a bit aggressive but when I write songs they tend to be more sensitive or ballad-like so the two together are unique.
You play with a band and you play solo. Is there a difference in what the audience sees between the two?
Literally, I was playing different songs with the band, songs that I don’t play solo. Though recently I’ve been playing a three string Cigar Box Guitar and stomping a tambourine and using songs that were on my Blues Rock records. Little by little my solo set is incorporating most of the songs that I’ve written, whether I’ve performed them with a band or alone.
There’s no difference in the way the audience sees me except the type of person who likes acoustic solo playing and the type that might like rockin’ blues is very different or is often very different. I have to say there is a lot more to develop to play a great solo set than being one part of a band… Most musicians can fill a band position quite easily but going solo is a huge step further, at least for me. There’s a lot more to develop in order to play a great solo set. It’s only you. Besides my main influences like Hendrix there have been local heros or unknowns that have totally inspired me. For instance seeing Buzzy Linhart in a little club performing his songs solo with his huge personality got me totally hooked on this singer songwriter thing but it took me years to be able to do it well.
Introduce us to the players and the behind the scene folks that contributed to the CD?
The CD was released February 10, 2012 though I’m just about ready to do the official CD Release. The project all started with Grammy winning guitarist, Jose Alvarez. I taught Jose while living in Mexico when he was 14 years old. He quickly became a professional and was hired into a band in Syracuse, NY while he was in still in High School. “The Dean of Syracuse” Colin Aberdeen, a great Blues musician living in Syracuse at the time mentored him and they became fast friends.
I later moved to Syracuse, in the 1990s and stayed with Jose who introduced me to Colin and we became great friends through Blues and partying. After living in Syracuse for a short time, I moved back to my hometown of Cleveland. Then last year, I needed musicians to record my new CD. I searched for the right musicians to record with and decided that my good friends in Syracuse were the ones for the project. I called Colin and asked if I could use his band to do the backing tracks on my CD. Colin put me up in his home for weeks and recorded on a couple of tracks some great guitar and harmonica. But it’s the rhythm section of Los Blancos* that plays on almost all the tracks and influences the over all feel and sound of the CD. Perhaps the engineer, Mick Walker, made the biggest contribution. Mick is a top notch engineer besides an excellent musician/performer. We spent countless hours editing, mixing and mastering.
Los Blancos is a fantastic band that should be heard live by all Blues fans. I was lucky to have them on the backing tracks.
“Los Blancos” consists of:
Bass, Vocals – Steve Winston
B3 Hammond, Piano, Vocals – Mark Nanni
Drums – Mark Tiffault
Guitar – Jose Alvarez
Slide Guitar, Harmonica, Vocals – Colin Aberdeen
Here is a tough question I have asked myself a thousand times as a singer/songwriter on my long road – How do your fans see you as performer, as a person?
I started performing as a classical guitarist which influences how I perform to this day. It’s much different than performing as a popular artist. I practiced many hours trying to understand and prepare another composers work while trying to get to the heart of their compositions.
Now that I am writing my own songs and playing the Blues I believe that a fan is looking for my heart and soul in the songs and the way I perform it. They are moved more by my groove and the message that I am conveying in my music. I hope my audience hears and sees that I put a lifetime of work and emotions/myself into my music – my songwriting and my playing and that I am not about one “catchy” song or flashy guitar solos but that I have a multi-dimensional approach to my art.
How do you see yourself as a performer? As a songwriter?
I see myself as a singer/songwriter (sometimes I refer to it as a singer/songwhiner), which is a musician who writes songs more for themselves and their own performance…kind of a Bob Dylan or Neil Young type (someone I’m often compared to). There are songwriters who are collaborative and work and write with a band and then there are professional songwriters who write songs for others and don’t perform. The same goes with singers and guitarists, not all of them are writers or even performers but I’ve always been attracted to the John Lennon types who have something very personal to say and see themselves as “the art”.
Jeff it has been a treat chatting with you – is there anything we didn’t hit on that needs to be said?
As you can tell, Ken, my musical journey has taken many paths – like a labyrinth. I wouldn’t have expected to be where I am now, had you asked me 5 years ago. I am more focused now and I believe a lot of what I’ve done in the past is coming together; something I didn’t see before. Everything I’ve done, even a lot of things that I thought were lateral moves seem to serve me now. I feel I’m a Baby Boomer whose time has come. Some hard working, dedicated musicians are recognized while they are still young, some are recognized later in life and some aren’t recognized until they have passed on…I hope the latter won’t be me. Lol
What’s next for Jeff Powers?
Well, Ken, I have just started two new projects. The big one is recording and posting one to two original songs per week while videotaping them and uploading them to YouTube and my website.
The other project is producing a new CD of original songs played solo on a 3 string Cigar Box Guitar. The only instruments on the CD will be my voice, guitar track, and a tambourine I stomp on while playing.
Well, there’s a third project actually, besides those two projects. I am currently recording various new original songs with my band Dead Guy Blues. These songs will be posted as singles during the next month or so.
Thank you for your honesty, I would have expected nothing less from you my friend. Dave and I will be keeping an interested eye on your journey.
Thanks, Ken, for your interest and support. It has been a pleasure getting to know you as another songwriter/musician/music journalist.
Interview by Ken Lehnig. Design and layout by David Dodds
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