Interview with Blues acoustic guitarist and singer John Durr. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.com: – First, let’s start out with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music. How exactly did your adventure take off? When did you realize that this was a passion you could make a living out of? When did you realize that this was a passion you could make a living out of?
John Durr: – A very good question. I grew up on a farm – mainly sheep – in rural New South Wales, approx 120 Kms north of the Capital, Canberra. My family had an interest and love for music, it was something that was always around.
The first Blues artist, I witnessed, who had a real impact was T Bone Walker on an English TV show. I thought his name was weird, when introduced, but then was mesmerised by him. I was about 13.
Our local radio station, being in the country, played ,mainly Country music – Johnny Cash. Hank Williams etc and local Australian country music artists.
I learnt some basic piano, then the clarinet. Finally I settled upon the guitar in my late teens after a stint on banjo!
Then the normal teenage bands etc.
As to making a living, well, I think that I drifted into that. I moved to Melbourne, a much bigger city, and began busking on the streets. Then I realised I could make a living!
JBN: – How has your sound evolved over time? What have you been doing to find and develop your own sound?
JD: – My sound has evolved over time, although I always referenced the very beginnings of learning the guitar.
In the early 1970s, there were very few Blues albums available in Australia. It was a struggle to discover the techniques that the great Blues players, such as Mississippi John Hurt, Furry Lewis, Lightnin’ Hopkins etc used. My results were not very satisfying.
To prepare myself for this album, Fading Rainbow Blues, I re-visited the tunes and techniques of those artists, whose work I attempted to emulate in my beginnings. But now, we have YouTube and access to the various styles and sounds of the Blues greats.
It was a revelation. I had not picked up the guitar for close to 30 years, so I really was starting over.
JBN: – What routine practices or exercises have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical proficiency, in terms of both rhythm and harmony?
JD: – I practice to a click/metronome so that the timing is correct. To create my own sound, I tune my guitar to an open D chord and play all my material in that tuning.
It forces me to consider creative ways of presenting the songs.
Blues is about groove and timbre, primarily, so I focus on those primarily. To attempt the micro tones that great Blues singers achieve, I work on copying material from Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey etc.
JBN: – Have you changed through the years? Any charges or overall evolution? And if so why?
JD: – Yes – I have worked really hard on getting the sound of the Blues. It ain’t easy!! The main evolution is really in the writing of Blues songs, It is difficult to write Blues songs that relay a message without having them sound like Bob Dylan!!!
JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2022: Fading Rainbow Blues, how it was formed and what you are working on today.
JD: – When preparing for the album I decided to go back to the start. The first Blues tunes that I learnt on the guitar, seemed an obvious choice. One slight problem – you cannot undo awareness, and my awareness of skilful playing had grown appreciably since I was a teenager.
My initial thought was to do a totally solo guitar/voice album, in the style of the old Country Blues, but some rudimentary recordings very quickly convinced me that it wasn’t going to impress – me for a start.
The I decided that I wanted to make an album that was modern, but had the attitude and spirit of those old 1920s recordings. I listened to all those great artists repeatedly – my wife put up with them playing continually in the car!! My main inspiration was Ma Rainey.
I am working on new material all the time. How it will end up, I don’t know.
JBN: – How did you select the musicians who play on the album?
JD: – Whilst wrestling with the conundrum of what musicians to put-on the album, I was reading WC Handy’s autobiography – Father Of The Blues. In the book he describes one of the first times he experienced a “Blues combo”. They were showered with money, he states. The combo was guitar/violin and mandolin. OK – that was it for me!
I wanted a real Blues violinist and was impressed with Anne Harris’ work with Otis Taylor. I emailed her, she accepted, and provided exemplary accompaniment on both violin and mandolin.
The other 2 musicians, Jimi Hocking and Jenny M Thomas, are local Melbourne musicians.
JBN: – In your opinion, what’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
JD: – Wow -very hard question!!! There is always a battle in music, and art generally, between the head and the heart. The head demands consistency and the heart demands innovation. Too much head is boring and too much heart is confusing.
A French film maker, whose name I have forgotten, said a great script must create a surprise, that is totally inevitable. Same applies to music.
JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; are you okay with delivering people the emotion they long for?
JD: – I crave to deliver the emotion to the audience. It is the reason for public performance. To unite the room, so that the performer and the audience are one, is the ultimate goal.
JBN: – Can you share any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions over the years?
JD: – Mine or others? Too many to begin. As to other performances, seeing Ike & Tina Turner in the 1970s is still one of my favourites. Chick Berry, whom I saw at least 6 times, was unpredictable. Buddy Guy and Junior Wells were so intense that I couldn’t connect. Would love to go back and see that show again!
JBN: – How can we get young people interested in blues when most of standard tunes are half a century old?
JD: – The Blues Club – Melbourne Blues Appreciation Society (MBAS), of which I am President, runs a Youth In Blues Programme. It is well attended and many good, young Australian Blues artists have come from the programme.
We not only teach them the fundamentals of the Blues, such as rhythms etc, but also the poetry of the Blues. For example, we teach them the words to When The Levee Breaks by Memphis Minnie and relate to bad floods that certain Australian towns experienced earlier this year when a levee was breached.
JBN: – John Coltrane once said that music was his spirit. How do you perceive the spirit and the meaning of life?
JD: – A really tough question. Brought up a Catholic, we were told – do unto others as you have them do unto you!
JBN: – If you could change one single thing in the musical world and that would become reality, what would that be?
JD: – Greater respect for the brilliant artists who have gone before and been forgotten.
JBN: – Whom do you find yourself listening to these days?
JD: – Still the same old Blues – Ma Rainey, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Blind Lemon Jefferson etc etc.
JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?
JD: – Music can supply a soundtrack to our life – births, deaths and marriages (sex).
JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine: where and why would you really want to go?
JD: – I am happy with today – 1920s dentistry would not be fun!!
JBN: – So far, it’s been me asking you questions, now may I have a question from yourself…
JD: – What got you interested in this music – and favourite artists.
JBN: – Jazz and Blues are my life!
JBN: – At the bottom line, what are your expectations from our interview?
JD: – Just to connect with another fan.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan