Blues legend Keb’ Mo’ is promoting “BLUESAmericana,” his 12th studio album released in 2014. It was nominated for three Grammy awards, topped blues charts and took home a Blues Music Award from the Blues Foundation.
Keb’ Mo’ called from his home in Nashville last week to speak with Charleston Scene about the album, a song he helped write in the wake of the Charleston shooting and how he sees the future of blues music.
Q: “BLUESAmericana” has been a huge hit with critics and fans, and it seems like a really well-rounded album. You’ve got some upbeat jubilance in “Old Me Better,” then heartbreak blues of “That’s Alright.” There’s just a variety of emotions that come through as you go from track to track. And I’ve read that you always write from experience – so what sorts of experiences were you drawing on this time around?
A: BLUESAmericana was a relationship record. ... Some of the darkest songs, “For Better or Worse” and “So Long Goodbye” and “Do it Right,” those were really the anchor songs of the record. ... Then “Old Me Better” is just about that thing you always think of, “Remember the good old days?” But they weren’t really that good. It’s kind of like a metaphor for a bunch of dudes going out, singing that song. It’s just fun ... and frustration all wrapped up in one. But it’s a frustration that has no validity because, going back to that old way, that partying all night, you’d be saying, “Gee, I wish I could meet someone and settle down.”
Q: You’ve also said that you had some struggles in your own life and relationship, and that this album was sort of a way to work through that.
A: I just expressed it on the record, but I’m on the other side of that now. Things are better than they ever were. It’s a way of expressing what you feel ... stating the truth, asking yourself, “When you get down to it, do you want to have a relationship or do you want to keep running your whole life?” At some point you’ve got to go, “I want to have a relationship, and I want to go deep, and I want to get that trust” because the trust that you get in a relationship is what makes it so beautiful. You have to earn that trust, and once you earn it, you have to keep earning it. It becomes this beautiful thing of just falling into it like a big pillow, you know.
Q: Do you have a favorite song or moment on the album?
A: The moments I like most are just being in there with the drummer. The way I cut the basic tracks of it, is ... I just played guitar against his drums, and I would sing the songs, and we would play, and that way I laid the foundations of the songs. When I got the final mixes back, and I can hear how good the record sounded, I was like, yeah this is good. This is all right. So that’s my favorite moment, when it all comes together and you start to hear a record. ... That’s when the baby comes out (laughing) and it’s like, “Look at its arms, and legs, and look, it’s breathing!”
Q: I know “The Reflection,” your last album, was sort of your leap toward more R&B and jazz. Was “BLUESAmericana” a concept to sort of go back to the more rootsy blues sound?
A: When I did “The Reflection,” I knew I was going to do “BLUESAmericana” right after it. I knew it. I knew that the record I put out, “The Reflection,” a lot of people weren’t going to get it, and that I was going to have to like, re-ground. But I wanted to make “The Reflection.” ... I wanted to just step out and take a risk and it was for me. ... Those were personal songs, too. But I didn’t make that for anybody, I didn’t make it to please anybody. ... (“BLUESAmericana”) kind of got me back to what I was known for.
Q: To switch gears for a moment, obviously Charleston went through a really horrible tragedy in the middle of June and there was this song started by Peter Mulvey called “Take Down Your Flag.” We wrote a story about it, and I know that you contributed a verse to that, too. Can you talk about that and why you wanted to add something to it?
A: It was an urge I got. ... Jeff Daniels asked me, “Have you heard this ‘Take Down Your Flag’ song? I’m going to do a verse, will you do one?” And I said. “Yeah, I’ll do one, too.” So I did it based on my friendship with Jeff. But before I did it, I did my homework ... And I looked through everybody’s opinion about the Confederate flag, what it means today, and ... I put a lot of thought into it. I wanted to reflect on what was going on. And what I was most impressed with about the situation was how the church handled it. How they reached out with forgiveness ... and how they showed compassion ... and I thought that was so profound, because to me, forgiveness is a huge thing especially in the wake of something so heinous.
Q: Do you plan to sing that verse or do you have any other songs in mind for when you’re in Charleston?
A: Not really, that was really just for that (song). I sometimes think when violence happens and everyone’s talking about it, I purposely don’t give it any energy. Because it’s already so in everybody’s consciousness and I’m very careful about how I comment on it and how I participate in it, because I don’t want to perpetuate it in any kind of way. You have to tell people it happened. But everybody already knows and they don’t need me ... to keep driving about it.
Q: So, let’s talk about the state of blues music as a whole for a minute. Recently, I’ve heard people talk more about how they think there’s a revival of the blues going on right now in mainstream music. As a prominent blues musician, do you feel that?
A: Blues is always something that comes back. For the big music to survive, they have to sell a lot of records to teenagers. ... You need a Taylor Swift and a Katy Perry to sell a lot of records and to keep the music industry financially sound. After a while, enough of that comes through, and we need to remember our roots, something that is very nurturing and raw. And the blues is part of our music that we have to revisit in order for music to have the soul that it’s meant to have. Blues was never mainstream. It was popular in the ’50s and ’60s. ...But it’s a part of our history and culture, it’s like an old building, it gives us depth and soul. It nurtures us in a way that new stuff can’t. ... But yeah, Gary Clark Jr., and Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, who’s just a kid, they’re popping up. I talk to Taj Mahal all the time, and he’s always going “Yeah, another one popped up.” He always knows who’s popping up because blues, it’s a thing, a spirit, that always makes itself known. It always comes out. You can’t crush it.