When working on Salting Earth, his 21st solo effort, triple-threat songwriter, guitarist and vocalist Richie Kotzen tossed convention on its ear by taking one step back in order to move two steps forward.
“It’s something I really needed to do in order to reset myself,” he says.
His “charge to recharge” was put into play following the success of the 2015–'16 tour behind the Winery Dogs’ sophomore effort, Hot Streak. And the guitarist’s reset manifesto wound up hitting all the right buttons; the proof is on display on Salting Earth.
I recently chatted with Kotzen about his writing process, gear and, of course, Salting Earth, which will be released April 14.
How would you describe Salting Earth in terms of its sound?
One of the things I love about this record is that the song selection really encompasses what I do as far as the pendulum swing. You have songs like “This is Life” and “My Rock,” which are centered more around the piano, but at the same time you have heavier things, like “Thunder” and “End of Earth." Then you have songs like “I’ve Got You” and “Meds” that have a slinky, sexy kind of vibe. This new record of all-new material really shows me in the realm of what I do as far as being a recording artist.
What’s your song writing process like?
I approach my writing in a way that’s not held by any boundaries. I don’t think about when or where I’m going to write or record. It just happens. If I have an idea for a song and I’m nowhere near a studio, I’ll document it on the recorder app of my iPhone. Then at some point, I’ll go back and listen to these ideas and record them. If I’m at home with an idea, then I’ll go straight to the studio and start working on it. What ends up happening is that over the course of the year I may end up with 10 to 20 songs and ideas recorded, and at that point I start looking at what material works well together and what songs I can picture myself playing live. Then I can compile a record.
Is there a particular way you approach writing lyrics for a song?
Everything happens differently. It just depends on the situation. It’s interesting because there’s a song on the record, “Make It Easy,” that was sitting on my hard drive for a very long time. I knew it could be a cool song but I could never finish the lyrics. Somewhere along the line last year, I pulled it up again and as I was listening to it the lyrics just came to me. Sometimes the lyrics and melody can come simultaneously, like the song “I’ve Got You." That was a song where the melody and lyrics came together all at once.
Other times you’ll have a song with just a riff. “End of Earth” is a good example of that. I originally went in and just sang the melody and made things up for that one. Then I went back and listened to what I had recorded and was able to take the sounds I created and turn them into words, lines and phrases. Then I could just fill in the blanks.
Let’s discuss a few more tracks from Salting Earth, starting with “Thunder."
That’s another old, old track I was never able to finish. The original version actually had my cousin rapping in the verses and I came in and sang the chorus. I remember when I was cleaning out my hard drive I was playing that song and someone heard it and said, “That’s cool! You’ve got to put that out. It sounds like something the Winery Dogs would do.” I remember laughing because we were listening to something I had recorded back in 2003 [laughs]. But I decided to work on it. I re-sang the thing and re-played the bass, kept the guitar solo and drum track and re-mixed it. It’s a heavier tune that I thought would fit nicely on the new record.
It’s a crazy story how I wrote that. I went to bed early one night after drinking some red wine and woke up around 3:30 with the words and melody to the chorus. I went into the studio and programmed a drum beat and looped it. Then I picked up the guitar and put a guide guitar track behind it and began singing the melody. From there, I could hear where I wanted to go with the verses, and they just wrote themselves. It was very easy and by 7 in the morning it was done. So what you’re hearing on the record is the first result of me waking up slightly hungover with a song in my head.
What’s your formula for guitar solos? Do you go into it with an idea or is it more improvisation?
The best solos are the ones that just roll out. Although I have an idea of what I want to do harmonically or melodically, they’re all improvised in the sense that I have no idea what I’m going to do until I pick up the guitar. But then there’s another process that becomes the writing. I might go in and improvise something and then listen back and realize that the beginning and end may have sucked, but that one section toward the end was really cool. So I’ll keep that and then go back make another pass. From that, maybe I’ll get an intro that I like.
A lot of times it’s all improvised, like the long solo at the end of “End of Earth” where I’m just straight-up playing. I don’t know how many takes I did on that or which one that is, but that’s the kind of solo that’s not a middle eight. It’s one where you just go for it.
What can you tell me about your upcoming U.S. tour in support of Salting Earth?
It’s going to be a good five-week run. We’ll be starting in California and working our way across the country, back down and then back out again. The thing I’m really thrilled about is the set. We’re doing a lot of new stuff, something like seven songs from the new record. On top of that, we’ve also got a few surprises, including one song in particular I’ve always wanted to play but never did. There will also be moments where I’ll be playing the electric piano. It’s going to be a cool little set.
What’s your setup like this year?
I’m using my Fender Signature Telecaster, but I also have a Signature Strat I’m going to be using. Then I’ve got the Fly Rig, which I absolutely love. The new thing, though, is the Richie Kotzen Signature amp that Victory Amps is making. We’ve just settled on the finished production model and, provided everything is in order, we’ll be planning a release date.
Do you have an update on what’s next for the Winery Dogs?
We did two back-to-back album cycles and it was very fun and well received. Billy [Sheehan] and Mike [Portnoy] are each doing some more recording and I hear there are exciting things in the works. Right now, I’m focused on being Richie Kotzen again. This is my 21st solo record and my focus is on getting out there. We have a solid year’s worth of dates, everywhere from Australia to Japan, Brazil, Uruguay and Peru. We’re going all over the place and I’m thrilled. As for the Winery Dogs, who knows? Down the line we may do something. I’m not sure when but we always keep all the doors open.
James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.