We got the chance to talk with Selwyn Birchwood a few weeks before the realese of his new album “Exorcist”, his fourth on Alligator. “I grew up listening to a lot of Alligator artists” says Selwyn, “It’s still humbling and surreal to see the Alligator logo at the bottom of my album, it’s been a really happy marriage so far, they are just as passionate about putting out my music as I am creating the music.” An insightful and funny guy, Birchwood continues to grow as an artist, trying to set his own path and vision, with total commitment.
The last time we spoke (Il Blues n. 154) you told me you already had six or seven new songs for an album. So this is it. And you wrote all of the songs, once again.
Yes, this is the one. I proud myself in the songwriting aspect, I feel like it’s sometimes lost in the blues music world today. It seems to me that people are settled on just recording and re-recording and playing all of these old songs. Some of them are over one hundred years old. And it seems like people sometimes want to keep the music in a time capsule, in museum piece. But that’s not what drew me to the music. What really drew me was how personal it was, how emotional it was, the storytelling. It seems like an outlet and a preyer for whoever’s performing the music and that’s why it’so emotionally charged, because it’s true. And at some point when you’re just standing on a stage playing other people’s music and words and telling other people’s stories it starts to feel fragile. And I just don’t like the feeling. I’ve seen enough people standing on a stage singing “I was born in Chicago in 1952…” That’s just my take on it anyway. With this record and the last one I’m confident we find our sound and I think you’d be hard pressed to find another band that sounds like us. We always seem to be the wild card and that’s the way I like it, I’m out here trying to tell my story and what I sound like. And it seems to me there is a split, half the people like it and appreciate that and the other half goes no you’re supposed to sound like this person. But all of the songwriting and writing the music part used to be why you called the performers artists, because they were creating something. You’re supposed to be painting instead of tracing.
You went into the studio and just recorded the new songs, is it that simple?
Well no, I have all the songs written before we go into the studio. Ideally I have the band performing the songs live for about a year before we’re able to get into the studio. A song always ends up differnt from when you first start reahearsing it to where you are playing it a year and a half later. It’s almost like simmer when all the spices collects up in it and it just tastes better.
A couple of songs were recorded with a different band, (Jim McKaba, Jon Buck, Josh Miller, Andrew Gohman).
They’re just friends of mine…I wanted to do it on the last album, to call up some friends that really studied the old school style. They showed up in the studio to see what we sound like. I was really happy with the sound that we got, everybody just fell right in the pocket with each other, we hit the record button and I’m hoping that I can do a full album like that. This was just like dipping the toes into water. I can’t leave things alone, I still have to put my own spin on it.
You’ve done some acoustic solo stuff I’ve seen on youtube sometimes.
Yes, and I feel like it’s part of it. You’ve got to know where you’ve been so you can know where you’re going. I like studying the old blues style not as much to simply imitate it but I want to be able to learn from it and try to utilize those tools to tell my own story and figure out what I sound like. It’s the goal. That seems to be the way all of those guys did it. All of the guys you’re supposed to imitate, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Freddie King, Albert King, Albert Collins, Son Seals…all these guys they sound very distinct, because they were doing it the way they heard it in their head. I feel like everybody’s stuck with imitation, which is the first step. After the imitation you’re supposed to have creation. That’s where I wanna get. To where you can create and have music be expressive. That’s what turns me on about music. It does not do anything for me just to hear someone play someone else’s song, it feels like karaoke to me after a while.
Your friend and mentor Sonny Rhodes passed away in december 2021. Were you able to see him before that? Would you record one of his songs as a kind of tribute?
I last saw him maybe just before the pandemic. He suprised me at one of my shows in San Francisco, California, he came to see me back stage. Unfortunately he lived in California and I live in Florida. But I talked about him all the time, in almost all of my live shows, everytime I pick up my lap steel. As far as recording goes, I prefer to do the songs that I’ve written, this is my sixth album of all original music. And it seems to be working, you know people at my shows don’t yell “Mustang Sally” or play Stevie Ray Vaughan or Eric Clapton…but rather songs that I’ve written. It’s beautiful thing to be not only accepted but accepted with wide arms.
You write a lot about yourself on songs like “Underdog” or “My Own Worst Enemy”, and you often do it with a lot of irony.
That’s the type of music that I prefer. I really like when artists share themselves so vulnerably that you can relate to it on the higher, human level. And it becomes more than just chords and words and it starts to feel like medicine. I’m not a super social outgoing person but for some reason I can get on a stage and share myself completely nakedly like that. I feel like that opens up our connection with each other a little bit more rather than going on social media where everybody pretends to be a celebrity. You can pretend if you want but I’m gonna be real, no one’s life is that good, we all deal with stuff that is good, bad, ugly, pretty…I don’t understand why we’re trying to pretend otherwise.
Was it something you got naturally or did you have to work a lot on it, as a songwriter?
It’s always a work in progress. I actively try to get better as a songwriter with every record and with every song really. It’s one of the things you have to work on. Writing is like learning an instrument sort of thing, if you don’t use that muscle in songwriting then you don’t get any better. I feel like that’s where people tend to follow the easy path like “oh I play this song and the crowd is gonna go wild”… but I’m of the opinion it does not take too much effort, to me it feels like I’m cheating the crowd if I just play a bunch of cover songs. It does not take much for me to get you to like a song that you already love. It’s a lot harder to get up there and write your own music, and turn on the crowd with it.
Last time we spoke we joked about the fact that for every record you have a different drummer and the new one is no exception.
Yes, man(Laughs)! You’ve got to find the right personality and people sometimes kind of get it twisted, being a touring musician it takes a very specific living situation and personality to fill all of the boxes. Some people might be the best musician you can find on the instrument but they can’t get a passport or somebody might have another problem and they can’t travel or they might have twenty kids at home…It’s hard to find people that are able to do this. It’s a lifestyle that’s not always easy and playing on stage is about 3% of the job, you have to be able to do the other 97% of it.
How is your friend and band member Regi Oliver doing? I know he had brain surgery.
He’s back playing shows, you would never think anything happened. The outpouring from our fans to help him was absolutely staggering. He’s been with me about fifteen years, my bass player Huff about twelve years and the drummer and keyborardist about a year and a half. We’re selling out venues, getting placed on festival stages and I’m just excited to get on the road and share this music with everybody.
You’re back doing a lot of touring after the pandemic stop.
Yes, we were on tour in California for three weeks, then home for four days and back on the road for another four weeks in the midwest and the north east. I got back last night from the Beale Street Festival in Memphis, that was a fifteen hours drive. But I could not be happier, being this busy means good stuff is happening. We’ve just released the video for “Florida Man”, first song from the album.
I heard the song, and the lyrics reminded me a bit of the writings of Carl Hiaasen, a novelist from Florida, for the irony in describing the ordinary madness of a place where “the wild west meets the dirty south”.
I don’t know him, I got to check him out…but yes we’ve got plenty of crazyness down here! During the pandemic I spent a lot of time learning how to record and edit videos and stuff, almost all of the video and promotion I’ve made myself. The “Living In A Burning House” video, “Revelation”, “Searching For My Tribe”…and now for the new one, I’ve got another video in the works for the title track “Exorcist”. I grew up watching music videos on MTV and that type of stuff and it was always such a cool thing for me, I missed that. With the videos I’m making it’s adding a three dimensional visual art aspect of the song that way.
On this record you have background vocalists on tracks like “Lazarus”, that give a gospel feel to the song.
I was fortunate to come across some really good singers. It’s something that I wanted on my other albums but I could not find the right people to do it. I’m trying to write the music that I want to hear when I’m going to a festival or pick up an album and what draws me to it is the feel of the music, the storytelling, the way that is really crafted, the idea behind the music… I like stuff that’s a little more cerebral, that’s why every song I write and I put out has some kind of meaning, it’s not face value, there’s probably a metaphor or something else going on in there. All I can ask for is that the people that get it really get it.
On the previous record you had Diunna Greenleaf to sing with you, is there any artist you’d like to collaborate with?
I had Diunna on because I had this song and she was the only person that popped to my head and she did it exactly the way I thought that she would. If it happens it happens, I don’t have anybody in mind. But it has to fit the song. It’s just another thing that I feel often is more of a trick rather then about the music, I mean people have records with ten other guests, just to put as many names on the album as possible. If it works out to where that person would be the best for the song then I’d be all about it. The idea is to be different, that’s the only way I know.