Keb Mo, the multi-talented artist from Compton, California, sat down with us in the middle of a cross-country tour to talk about his music, his life and his latest album, The Reflection.
Aside from his music, his many credits include roles in several movies, including Can't You Hear the Wind Howl, in which he played famed bluesman Robert Johnson, and Honeydripper, in which he played Possum. He has appeared on several TV shows, including "West Wing" and "Sesame Street," and he played a key role in "Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues." He's even won three Grammys in the Contemporary Blues genre.
GUITAR WORLD: What was the inspiration for the music on The Reflection?
The inspiration is life -- if you go song by song like "The Whole Enchilada" -- and at reflections of your life, like "My Shadow," "Something Within," "Inside Outside" -- and introspecting. I might be making up a word, there but the whole record is about going inside.
Can you tell us what your writing process was for The Reflection?
The writing process spans a couple of years. Three years, actually, because I did a lot of co-writing. I co-wrote with Melissa Manchester, Alan Rich, Vince Gill and Maia Sharp, to name a few people. And I did two covers, one of which is called "One of These Nights" by Don Henley and Glenn Frey of the Eagles. The other one is a song called "Crush on You" by Kevin So, who is actually now playing with my band.
When you co-write a song versus when you write a song yourself, how does that differ? Do you sit down and actually collaborate one on one, or do you just go back and forth?
Well, you sit down kind of like this interview. You have a discussion and you kick through the ideas you think are the best ones to describe the stuff you are looking to elaborate on. During that time, you put those words to music. Sometimes you have a musical-scape already put down and you put music and lyrics over it. Sometimes the lyrics come and you put the music down, so it all depends on what's going on that day and who you're writing with. Like the song "The Reflection." That was pieced together, words and chorus at the same time. We did a line and we pieced the melody together. We actually wrote the melody before the chorus came and then once we had put the melody together, the words came.
Can you tell us about some of the collaborations on The Reflection, particularly with Vince Gill, India Arie and David T. Walker?
Vince Gill and I got together at his house and put a song together. He had an idea for a song, "My Baby's Tellin' Lies," so he said it's a good idea, let's go in there, and when the song was finally written, I felt like "She's got a body that was built for sin" just popped out of nowhere in the song, you know. But at the same time, I felt it described what needed to be said. I'm always set on making sense, but this time it was kind of a little abstract but very definite at the same time -- so that was interesting.
"Inside Outside" was co-written with Skip Ewing, a well-known country song writer. He came to LA, and we wrote that song. From a metaphysical standpoint, what's on the inside is on the outside, what's on the outside is on the inside. You feel like you're the star and the director of your own movie and your mind is the projector on the screen.
That's a very cool metaphor.
Yeah, I try to always have valuable information I can share with people. I'm not claiming to be some sort of know-it-all, but sharing information that has been helpful to me, I just share and let people do what they wish with it and hopefully some other people can come along and help reinforce those ideas -- if they are really true ideas. I just try to be a conduit and messenger of the collective, so to speak. It's a sheer labor of love and I can't say it's the best album I've ever made, but it's the one I've worked the hardest on.
Really? That's an interesting statement.
Yeah, I really did. I put lots of time and hours in it. When "Crush on You" came about, working with India Arie was a great honor, as was Vince Gill. I also got Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Brown on my second album, but I always feel like getting guests is a very special thing, and by having a guest on a record you are inviting someone into your home, because your record is your home.
And when you invite somebody into your home, there's some connection there. There is something really in that relationship that warrants them being there. So every guest you see on my record is someone who is genuinely, in some way, entrenched in my life. Like David T. Walker. He has been my guitar hero for many years. I've known him since the '70s, and a lot of people ask me who's your favorite and who are you inspired by, you know, and they always expect somebody really famous. They want you to say B.B. King -- and I was inspired by B.B. King, don't get me wrong. But the main influence on me for many years was David T. Walker.
So to have him on the record and playing with him for the first time was really a big thrill. Marcus Miller is another guy who I have a friendship with and a relationship with who is very upbeat, genuine and strong as is Dave Koz. They are very special individuals, and I'm just really proud to have them on this recording.
Aside from Robert Johnson and the people you mention like David T. Walker, who were some of your earlier influences and who do you listen to now?
I don't really listen to guitar players right now. I listen to pop culture. My influence is the debate that went on in the senate about gas prices. The weather. The electric car. I'm influenced by what goes on in life and in relationships and what we are looking at, what we are paying attention to; somehow it morphs into my guitar and lyrics. But as it pertains to the guitar, that is what I use to write and express those ideas and to write those songs. When I'm doing a guitar solo on the song, the guitar solo is another verse in the song. My favorite solo is the one I did on "My Baby's Tellin' Lies." I think it's very straightforward, and I'm really proud of that.
That was a great piece of guitar playing.
I'm not a flashy player, so I don't have any flashy stuff to put out to play. My playing is based on scales, based on tinotonic. I know a little bit about harmony, I know a natural f minor, I can pull off a diminished scale and a half diminished scale, so I'm able to use that in my solos, and my solos live kind of in a small harmonic vocabulary. I think that's OK.
It's not necessarily the vocabulary but how you use what you know. So I try to maximize everything I know about the guitar in terms of voicing the guitar where I put what I play in the song. When I'm playing solo and with the band, I'm very, very groove-conscience, especially playing a solo with my voice with the guitar, and I try to not make habits of rushing because if you play by yourself a lot, it's easy to get in the habit of rushing. So with that said, someone with the immaculate timing like David T. Walker, with that touch, that's why I try to emulate a guitar player like that. He's just playing it so efficient and magical. He does have a very large vocabulary, but he uses it so tastefully. So I kind of emulate him and I'm so inspired by him in those kind of ways, and his ability to take a guitar and sing with it.
What are some of your favorite guitars that you used on this album?
I didn't use that many guitars. The main electrics I used on that was a Suhr Strat, and I used my Hamer Monaco III and with three P90 pickups -- with P100's they make a buzz and I don't like buzzing. And I also used this really cheap little Danelectro. It's got two lipstick pickups on it, two volume controls and two tone controls and a really whacky little whammy bar I used that for some little funk things. For accoustic, I used my Gibson Keb Mo Model. I have to record with it, you know? And I also used a Dobro -- A Beard by James Beard. That was given to my by Vince Gill for a birthday present. I also used the National Reso Rocket on "The Reflection" with the steel part slide there. On the solo part, I used a different steel. On "The Reflection," I used a different steel; I used my old Beltona made by Steve Evans down in New Zealand. One guitar I lost in the flood in Nashville was a Harmony Stratotone that I used on the slide solo on "The Whole Enchilada."
Now that you made the migration from Los Angeles to Nashville, how do you find the music scene in Nashville versus LA?
Well, the big difference between LA and Nashville, I think, is the country music scene is so strong. The players are very broad in their playing. When you think of Nashville, everybody just thinks country, but it's not the case at all. There are very sophisticated players there. The country scene is a kind of down-home thing. Everybody has this down-home feel and this seriousness about music, and it's kind of like more steep in tradition than LA. Because I don't think LA really has a musical tradition.
We have a Central Avenue thing like jazz back in the Central Avenue days. Growing up, bands that came out of there were like more pop culture in LA. So I know a lot of people who kept asking me, "How did you get to the blues from growing up in Compton?" and the fact of the matter is that I knew some great blues players around LA, but I didn't really connect with the blues until I was in my early 30s. I was like, "That's the blues that's not for me." So when I connected with the blues, that's when I started getting into Robert Johnson and Tampa Red and Big Bill Broonzy. I was like, wait a minute, I missed out on a whole chapter of music and history and life.
So Nashville had a deep musical heritage to the area, which comes from not only Nashville but the hills of Tennessee, Kentucky, down in Georgia, Mississippi -- you know, the South. Nashville is like the musical Hollywood of the South. But it's really amazing, and that's the difference. Also in Nashville people can spend a little more time picking. People will actually come around and say let's go play, and we'll just hang out and play, where in LA people really don't have time for that anymore because the hustle is so hard. I realized that for right now it's a more nourishing and creative environment for me musically.
You played Robert Johnson in Can't You Hear The Wind Howl? and Possum in Honeydripper, both to great acclaim. Is there any film work ahead for you?
Well, there's another movie I did where I played Jimmy Rogers in a movie called Who Do You Love, and, interestingly, it hasn't quite seen the light of day yet. But it's been to a few festivals and it's a good movie. I played Jimmy Rogers and played in Muddy's band in the movie. But as far as film, it's not really what I'm looking for. I have a theme song on television for the "Mike and Molly" show. I dabble in TV work, but mainly I'm a performing musician. That's what I do. I love performing and I love making records.
I've seen your tour list, it's crazy. Your schedule is full to say the least.
Yeah, we've gotten out there.
What kind of reception are you getting on the tour with your new stuff?
We're getting a great reception, but as far as a powerful response, "We Don't Need It" seems to be getting a strong emotional response.
I like "Something Within." That was big for me, along with "The Whole Enchilada."
"Something Within" has my family on it. My grandfather is on there singing, and that one to me is very haunting to listen to. It's written by Lucie E. Campbell, but I kind of went in the song and pulled stuff out of it because it's a public domain song, so its actually a co-write, I pay royalties on it to the estate of Lucie E. Campbell.
My grandfather sang the whole song and we took parts of it for the record and it was sampled by my son, so we took pieces of those and put them on the record. We cleaned it up later because it was pretty grainy, having been originally recorded on a boom box. My Uncle Herm recorded it on a boom box. With today's technology, we cleaned it up and put it on the record.
Tell us about Yolabelle.
Yolabelle was born out of the ending of the Sony years for me. A lot of the reason I didn't put a record out for so long is that I didn't know really what to do without Sony. I was like, "OK, what do I do now?" and also CD sales were dropping on a regular basis. With digital, people thought the music business was gonna be over. So what do I do now, you know? So I just put my record together. I started my label. I called my label "yo label," you know, like "your label." Like this is "your label."
I was looking at Yolabelle. It's long for "yo label." So Yolabelle's first release was a live piece with a few extras on it called Live and Mo, which we recorded out on the road. So I have a label, now I have to become a business man. So I said, "OK, how do I raise money to do my next record?" So I put out a live record that was very minimum cost. I didn't sell a lot of records, but I didn't promote it much, I didn't try to do that I just put it on my website and sold it online as gigs. And I earned enough money to start the funds going for The Reflection.
So then I was just putting money in as it came by and kept adding onto The Reflection. I had an initial budget of about $40,000. My friend gave me a good rate to record it, so basically I just went in and had all my ducks in a row and I did tracks and made sure everybody left with a nice chunk of money for a day of work, and I got a lot of tracks done.
Over the next couple I years, I proceeded to work on them and really massage them and go through them, and sometimes I would replace things and I just kept messing with it for the last couple years. Once I was done with it, a couple labels were asking me if I wanted to sign with them. You know, small independent labels. I didn't sign with the labels until I got the record done because I knew it was going to be a different record, and I didn't want the label to be another "Keb Mo's blues record," the typical blues that was related to me. I wanted to be sure they were on board with it.
So I waited until I was done, and a couple labels I was looking at -- one was a little more excited than the other one, so I went with the one that was most excited. And they gave me an advance as to what I had spent on the record, and I also retained ownership of my master and now I'm taking the money that I was advanced for the record and I'm putting it back into the record for promotion.
What's on the horizon?
We're going out on the road. My band is kind of reorganized. Two original members and three new members. We're rolling out there. We're a brand new band. We're a little green but we're riding on the road, and it's very exciting.
Joe Moran is a freelance photographer, videographer and writer based in New York. Visit his website at jmoranphotography.com or write him at firstname.lastname@example.org