Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Conversation with John Paul Keith

John Paul Keith discusses his new solo album, his collaboration with Amy LaVere, and what it means to be a musician in Memphis.

John Paul Keith returned to Memphis in 2007, after spending years living in Nashville and Birmingham, Alabama. Since then, he’s released two stellar rock and roll albums--2008’s Spills and Thrills and 2011’s The Man that Time Forgot, both on Big Legal Mess. He is now about to release a third, Memphis Circa 3 AM,which he recorded with Roland Janes at Sam Phillips Recording Service. In addition, he is preparing for the first release from Motel Mirrors, the “duet project” he created with noted singer-songwriter Amy LaVere and drummer Shawn Zorn.

Keith will be out on tour this fall (in his venerable tour van, named Vincent Van Go), and might be coming to a venue near you. He was kind enough to answer a few questions for this blog.

Your new solo album, Memphis Circa 3AM, comes out on September 17.  How do you feel it stacks up against the previous two?

I think it's better than both of them, but you always have to think that. If I didn't think it was better, I wouldn't be putting it out. But my gut tells me this really is the best thing I've ever done. It's certainly the best sounding recording I've ever been a part of, in my opinion. That's thanks to Roland Janes.

How did the historic conditions surrounding the making of this third album affect the recording process? 

Well, Phillips is a historic studio. They cut "Wooly Bully" by Sam the Sham in there, and "Mister You're a Better Man Than I" by the Yardbirds, among others. And of course Roland's life story is basically a history of Memphis music. He's one of the pioneers of the recording business, but also of rock 'n roll guitar. So I really wanted to work with him on this.

But it was a risk. Sometimes, guys who are getting up there in years, especially on the recording side of things, don't have the ears they used to have, or are fixated on keeping their gear current, and in the process they lose what made their sound and approach so special in the first place. I didn't know until we started if it would be like that with Roland, but it wasn't at all. 

There's no computer at Phillips. We cut to 2" analog tape the way he's been doing it since he first started working there in 1983, which was also the last time they had a gear upgrade. Nothing gets past his ears, and his arrangement and musical ideas were correct every single time we tried them. It was really the most rewarding recording experience of my life. I can't start talking about it without gushing. 

Me and all the guys in the band just loved working with Roland, and we loved the results we got with him. We didn't make a "period piece." We didn't set out to make something intentionally retro. We just cut the best new songs we could with the best sound we could using this guy who'd been around since the dawn of rock n roll. And that's what he wanted to do as well. This record will always be very special to me, even if no one ever hears it.

You had the opportunity to open for Chuck Berry a his club in St. Louis. Tell us how you got that gig and how it went.

Chuck plays in his own bar in St. Louis, Blueberry Hill, every few months, and it sells out immediately. The room only holds a couple hundred people. I went to see him with some friends a couple years ago, and was not impressed with the support act, so I decided to get on the bill. Some friends of mine from there, Kentucky Knife Fight, put me in touch with the talent buyer there and we got the gig. We didn't get to meet him but it was a thrill nonetheless.

Many of your best songs ("Rock and Roll Will Break Your Heart," "Songs for Sale," "The Man that Time Forgot") deal with the frustration and disappointment that are the products of the creative process. What keps you going in the often-unpleasant work of writing new material?

Well, I tried quit playing and writing altogether about eight years ago, out of frustration, but I couldn't make it stick. But quitting music will make you really appreciate it when you start back again. When I moved to Memphis, I very quickly started playing all the time. There's really nowhere like it. It's not for everybody, but it's been a great fit for me. The musical community in Memphis is very, very special, and has something great about it which is very hard to articulate, despite its flaws. I'm also lucky to have a great label, which is always an encouragement. I'm very proud to make records for them, so I'm always trying to be a pro and do the best I can and work towards the next one.

I've often found that the best songwriters have the best record collections. Could you share with us a few of your influence that might be unknown to the casual music fan?

Man, that's a tough one. I wouldn't know where to start. I listen to a lot of stuff, although I'm not a record collector per se (I'll take it any way I can get it, vinyl, MP3, whatever). Lately I've been listening to a whole lot of what you could call soul, but in a way I think of it as more "adult pop." Dusty Springfield, Glen Campbell records. Songs by Carole King, Jimmy Webb, Bacharach. Piano-based songwriters. I think piano players approach composition differently than guitar players do, and I'm really interested in that. Too bad I can't play piano.

The first Motel Mirrors EP comes out on August 27.  Though I'm very familiar with your first two solo albums, I haven't heard anything from the Motel Mirrors yet. What should I expect?

Motel Mirrors was an attempt to do something timeless and romantic in the duet vein. It's modeled on the Conway/Loretta sort of thing but also with a lot of Everly Brothers in it, too, in my opinion. I always wanted to hear Amy slap the bass on a record and do more of a rockabilly thing, which she almost never does on her own records. And I'd never written specifically for male and female voices together, so that was a really fun exercise. If you like my records, I think you'll like Motel Mirrors. It's also the first record I've ever done any covers on. We cover a Buck Owens tune, a Red Foley tune, and a Mickey and Sylvia tune. It's fun.

You said you prefer Bob Dylan's Desire to Blood on the Tracks. This is your opportunity to explain yourself.

I like to be contrary. But I do really think the songs are more ambitious and the recording is warmer and grittier and fatter. I like the "Old World" vibe to it, that sort of exotic thing. In some songs it comes across as Latin or Hispanic, in others it's more Gypsy or what have you. 

I love the sparse instrumentation, just the acoustic guitar, bass, drums, and fiddle. Emmylou almost steals the show, of course. First time I toured Europe playing guitar for Jack Oblivian, I remember driving through this exotic, barren landscape in Serbia to this little village called Pirot and listening to that album in the van. I know it had nothing to do with Serbia but it just seemed to fit! Plus any guy like me with a sister can't help but be moved by that track "Oh Sister".

You can hear "Everything's Different Now," the first single off of Memphis, Circia 3AM, here.  Keep an eye on for info and tour dates, and be sure to follow his always-entertaining  twitter feed.

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