Joe Satriani Discusses His Most Heartfelt Album Yet
Originally published in Guitar World, December 2010
Joe Satriani digs deep into personal tragedy and comes up with an album of uncharacteristic and deeply felt songs: Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards.
Joe Satriani opens the front door to his stylish, four-story house, located in the heart of San Francisco’s affluent Marina district, and smiles a warm yet slightly frazzled smile. It’s 10:30 in the morning, not exactly rock and roll hours by any stretch, and the guitarist admits that he’s operating on about four hours of sleep.
“I was up pretty late working on some music,” he says, leading me inside his spacious, well-appointed living room. “It’s weird: even though I just finished an album, I just can’t seem to stop writing sometimes. You get on a roll and all you can do is just go with it.”
The album Satriani is referring to is his 14th solo studio effort, Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards. It would be an unusual album title for anybody else, but for Satch, not so much. The big surprise, however, is the music itself, which the guitarist admits features the most deeply felt compositions he’s ever written. And with good reason: Although he enjoyed perhaps one of his greatest professional years in 2009 with the raging success of Chickenfoot—his party-hearty superstar band in which he rocked it old-school on stages across the globe with Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony and Chad Smith—he also experienced a devastating personal tragedy that he’s still trying to process: the death of his mother, Katherine, who passed away unexpectedly weeks before the holiday season.
“Obviously, I’m not special when it comes to the loss of a parent,” he says as we head downstairs to his private lair, a home recording studio, newly renovated with a Pro Tools setup that he says was a long time coming. “But as an artist, I have a responsibility to myself to express myself as faithfully as I can. Making records just because I think they’ll sell—I can’t work like that. I never did. I’m not saying I would ever intentionally make an album that I thought people would hate. You always want people to like what you do. But I just didn’t feel like an album of ‘Satch Boogies’ was what I was supposed to do. I wasn’t in that frame of mind. I wanted to delve deeper inside myself. I had to, really; it’s like I had no choice in the matter. By going more inside myself, I realized that my responsibility as an artist was to try to touch people, to make them feel something profound. What was so surprising to me, after I’d finished the songs and recorded them, was how truly surprising they were to me. That’s why many of these songs are my ‘black swans,’ if you will.”
Taking a seat behind his recording console, Satriani expounds on the definition of the term that forms the first half of the new album’s title. “ ‘Black swans’ is something of an ancient expression,” he explains. “Basically, it means ‘unlikely things’—images, occurrences, extreme rarities in life. The term stuck with me. I realized that what I had written were my artistic black swans—songs that my audience probably might not be expecting.”
Case in point: “Littleworth Lane.” A glistening piece of pure blues with an elegant melody set atop a humming Hammond B3, it’s an unabashed ode to his mother, named after the street in Sea Cliff, New York, where she lived since the late Seventies in a colonial house built in 1689. “My mom was bobby-soxer, and she got into church music, R&B, jazz and blues. When I was coming up, she exposed me to a lot of that music. So I wanted to pay tribute to her by writing the kind of song that she would really like, one that summed up her spirit.”
The song came to Satriani as he drove from the house into New York City one night late last year. “I was in my car, thinking about the house and how it was such an extension of her,” he says. “My family and I had so many great times with her in that place. It’s a strange thing: As your parents advance into their later years and you become an adult, you begin to understand that your folks are people, and you realize that they have personalities, too. So there I was, driving, with all of these thoughts and mental photographs running through my mind, and suddenly there was this melody. I was writing the song without even trying to.”
Other such black swans abound, such as the jazzy “Two Sides to Every Story,” another affecting homage to Katherine Satriani and the music she adored, along with the Middle Eastern–flavored “The Golden Room.” Then there’s the wistful yet disorienting “Wind in the Trees,” which harkens back to Satch’s childhood in Long Island, and the gentle glide of “Dream Song” (so titled as it came to him fully formed while he was asleep), an ameliorating trip into the subconscious built around a simple and instantly memorable melody.