June 22, 2024

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Interview with Steve Baker: Too Much Is Never Enough – The power of love: Videos, new CD cover

Interview with English singer-songwriter-harmonica player and guitarist Steve Baker. 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?

Steve Baker: – I was born in 1953 and grew up in South London. At school I was regarded as unmusical and had to sit at the back and keep quiet during music lessons. Growing up in the 1960s I was exposed to the golden age of British pop music and absorbed the influences of the day, from the Beatles, Kinks and Stones to Bob Dylan and Cream.

The British blues boom was also in full swing. One day shortly before my 16th birthday I picked up a harmonica belonging to a schoolfriend and was instantly fascinated. My friend never learned to play, it had been sitting there just waiting for me to come along and I immediately realised I had to have one. My parents bought me a tremolo harmonica for my birthday, but I soon found it couldn’t make the sounds I knew from records. I went down to a music store in Brixton and bought myself a Hohner Echo Super Vamper, the British equivalent of the legendary Marine Band harmonica heard on countless blues and folk recordings, and within a few months I’d taught myself the rudiments by listening to records from artists like Duster Bennett, Paul Butterfield, Sonny Terry and many others. In Britain in those days we had record libraries and I borrowed dozens of LPs, mainly Chicago and country blues, but also classic jazz albums by artists such as Sonny Rollins or Thelonius Monk. I realised I couldn’t be totally unmusical after all and started learning guitar too.

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After a couple of years messing around on my own I began playing harp with my friend Dick Bird, who was already a very good fingerstyle guitarist and singer. We were both about 19 and I started learning to accompany his repertoire of songs by guitarists such as Blind Blake, Big Bill Broonzy, Mississippi John Hurt and others. We began doing floor spots in London folk clubs, taking our first tentative steps towards performing. In 1975 we joined an acoustic jug band called Have Mercy, which had been founded by a couple of guys from my school and had two regular gigs each week. This was big fun, it was the time when punk music was emerging in Britain and even though we didn’t play punk, we had the same kind of over the top attitude and energy. Have Mercy must have been the only band ever to feature three harmonica players at the same time, it was madness. We were fortunate to also have several great singers in the band, so we had massed vocal harmonies and a program ranging from jug band tunes to blues and R&B. We didn’t use amplification and often played on the street to augment the club gigs. In Spring 1976 a blues fan from Aachen saw us playing in Soho and spontaneously invited us to Germany. He fixed us up with several concerts there and trustingly sent us the train and ferry tickets, so at the end of June we went over for three weeks. At the time I didn’t realise this was to be a turning point in my life. We had such a good time that we cashed in the return tickets and soon ended up in Hamburg, where our wild performances were an immediate hit with audiences. We swiftly put down roots and settled into the local music scene, which was still very active following the British Beat invasion of the 1960s. I didn’t go back to Britain at all for a couple of years and haven’t lived there since. After making a living from playing the harmonica for 2 or 3 years, I realised I’d somehow become a musician and everything else sort of developed from there.

JBN: – How has your sound evolved over time? What have you been doing to find and develop your own sound?

SB: – With Have Mercy I started off simply trying to play as acoustically loudly as possible in order to be heard over the general racket of other harmonicas, resonator guitars and massed vocals. After moving to Hamburg I soon began playing in other contexts. I played enough guitar to have developed a working knowledge of harmony, something many blues harmonica players lack, and Hamburg at the time was a music industry hub with a lot of major record labels and a large studio scene. I started getting offers for sessions, mostly German pop, Country and Schlager, and of course had to play whatever the producer wanted, so I developed a degree of flexibility which later stood me in good stead. I also began playing live with Tony Sheridan, a first generation rock&roller and the man who gave the Beatles their first recording job. He was a great singer and guitarist, and in addition to rock&roll and blues he also played songs by artists such as Ray Charles, Nat King Cole or James Taylor, so I learned quite a number of classic tunes from outside the blues repertoire. At the same time I was playing with German language singer Franz-Josef Degenhardt, who played very different music, more like cabaret or chansons, and I had an electric rock band called Tough Enough.

All these factors helped me develop a distinctive sound of my own, which I like to think has become both more dynamic and also more melodic with time. Many people tell me they only need to hear a couple of bars to recognize me, which is a great compliment. I play fewer notes nowadays, but try to make each one count.

JBN: – Have you changed through the years? Any changes or overall evolution? And if so why?

SB: – Anything which doesn’t change is probably dead. My music has evolved continually over the years, partly as a result of learning to execute things better, but also because my interests and intentions have developed too. Nowadays I’m more interested in songs and try to structure my harmonica playing so that it supports the song, rather than trying to show off my technique or get all my licks in.

I’ve spent most of my working life as a sideman and always really enjoyed it, but sometimes found myself in conflict situations with whichever singer I was accompanying at the time. I also became tired of covering standards, so in 2016 I decided to see if I could cut it as a songwriter, singer and bandleader and wrote and recorded my first solo album Perfect Getaway, which came out in 2018. This was either foolhardy or courageous, depending on how you look at it, but I’m glad I did. Performing and singing my own songs is the most rewarding thing I’ve done in almost 50 years as a pro musician. I found writing songs very absorbing, and they kept on coming, so since then I’ve written, recorded and released two more albums on Timezone Records: The Great Divide in 2020 and Too Much Is Never Enough in 2023.

JBN: – How do you prepare for your recordings and performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

SB: – I’m not very good at practicing. Today I spend a lot more time at home singing and playing guitar than I do practicing harmonica. I love playing the harmonica together with other instruments, but on its own I find the charm of the instrument is limited. So I tend to practice it mainly when I have a gig coming up, to work up the chops I need to perform. When at home I go to the gym twice a week, this is a great help with staying in shape to be able to sing and play harmonica over a two hour show. For me the spiritual side of music lies in the moment of making it, it’s a communion between me, my instrument and the audience. I don’t make any conscious preparation for this, it’s just something which hopefully will happen if things align right. When recording my own songs I practice them a lot beforehand, but mainly the vocal and figuring out guitar parts. On my solo records the harmonica parts are the last step in the process, I like to have the song clear first and rarely write around the harmonica except for instrumentals.

JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2024: Steve Baker – Too Much Is Never Enough, how it was formed and what you are working on today?

SB: – The songs on this album reflect our troubled times, I hope people don’t find them too depressing. The current state of the world makes me both very angry and very afraid, and I guess I just needed to vent my frustration. I believe artists have an obligation to call out the dreadful things happening all around us, so I didn’t mince my words. There are a couple of songs where I think I managed this, I’m pleased with the opener Poison Chalice and also with Charles Delondes Ghost, a song about gun control and why the USA is so unwilling to implement it.

The ideas and songs for this album came about during the covid pandemic. Due to the enforced idleness, I spent a lot of time playing guitar and writing. To ease the time in lockdown, my wife Nico and daughter Gina joined me in making Youtube videos with our friend and neighbour Jeff Walker on socially distanced upright bass, and Robert Carl Blank came by to record a video for a US harmonica festival with us. After spending the previous 5 years playing loud rock&roll it was a relief to return to my folk roots and play without any amplification again, and I decided to record the new songs in an acoustic line-up. I’m proud of the record and am generally very happy with how it’s turned out.

At the moment I’m just enjoying performing this material live. I don’t really have any control over the writing process, but a couple of new songs are in the process of bubbling up from the depths of my mind. I’d like to make a live record next, to document how the songs develop through live performance, but I’m not in any great hurry.

JBN: – How did you select the musicians who play on the album?

SB: – Jeff Walker has played bass with me since 2017, when I first put a band together to perform the songs from Perfect Getaway. He’s a great musician and good friend who has been an invaluable support during this whole time. My music couldn’t have developed like it has without him, so there was never any question of getting anyone else. Robert Carl Blank is an accomplished singer/songwriter in his own right and also a great guitarist. Because he’s been part of this project from the beginning, I wanted him to play on the album. Both also perform with me live. I wanted a good studio drummer, and recording engineer Uli Kringler (who also contributed additional guitar parts) recommended Heiz Lichius, who did a fantastic job. Percussionist Yogi Jockusch is an old friend and colleague and plays with me live whenever he’s available, so of course I asked him to add percussion. Stefan Stoppok is a very successful German language singer/songwriter who I’ve known for a while now, and when I told him about the project he kindly offered his services. His waldzither on I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine is beautiful. The closing song Gina’s Lullaby is something I made up to sing her to sleep when she was little, so when I finally decided to record it I asked her to sing harmony with me.

JBN: – What sort of feedback did you receive after it was released from musicians or your friends and family?

SB: – The response has been really positive. A lot of people have said that it’s very intense and personal, and I’ve been complimented on the songwriting, which is very gratifying. Production, playing and sound have also garnered high praise, and one friend who’s been familiar with my work for decades says it’s my best record since Smoke and Noise with the late great Chris Jones (Acoustic Music Records, 2003). My family has to live with me writing and practicing the songs, but even after being earbashed over the past couple of years they still appear to think it’s pretty good. So the general impression seems to be that it’s not bad for an old guy like me if you like that sort of thing.

JBN: – Can you share any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions over the years?

SB: – One experience which changed my life was when Chris Jones and I first performed together. He was a brilliant classically trained American fingerstyle guitarist and a great singer, probably the finest musician I’ve ever worked with. In the course of my job for the Hohner company I often played for them at the Musikmesse in Frankfurt, and in 1994 I convinced them to invite Chris, who I’d met a year or two previously, but at that time had never really played with. We had no rehearsal at all and just set up on the booth with a couple of cheap amps. We started playing, and it was instant magic. We stopped the traffic all week, people were mesmerized. It was like each of us telepathically understood what the other was going to do before they did it. The musical communication between us was the most intense I’ve ever experienced, but it wasn’t just in our own minds, the listeners felt it too and many people came up and told us so. This was the start of a great musical partnership and deep friendship which lasted 11 years, until Chris’ tragically early death in 2005, and resulted in four CDs on Acoustic Music Records. Those albums have stood the test of time and I’m still really proud of them today.

JBN: – In your opinion, what’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

SB: – I guess it may depend on what kind of music you play. Though I borrow elements from jazz, I can’t claim to be a jazz musician. Musically I’m a simple, self-taught kind of guy. Through playing on commercial recordings, I’ve worked with enough massively talented professional musicians to realise my own limitations. My intention has always been to touch the hearts of the listeners, rather than to impress them with my supposed virtuosity, and you can only really do this through conveying emotion, with feeling, with soul. But of course if you write songs, you have to have some understanding of structure in order to fit the different bits into place to create a coherent whole, and improvisation really only makes sense when you create a narrative, which requires a degree of intellect. As a lyricist I try to make sense, to convey some kind of content rather than just figure out nice rhymes. So I would say that music without soul is boring, but music without intellect can be too. Good music needs both, and an over-emphasis on one often comes at the expense of the other.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; are you okay with delivering people the emotion they long for?

SB: – There’s a fine line between pleasing a crowd and pandering to the lowest common denominator of popular taste. As someone who’s worked in that genre all my life, it saddens me that so many blues artists for example still continue to recycle stale old standards just because their audience will recognize them. My songs are important to me and so I try to communicate the emotional intensity which I feel to the audience, but whether that’s what they’re looking for can be a different matter. I think it’s important to respect your audience, I’ve always found it a massive turn-off when famous artists treat their audience with disdain. So I hope that I manage to deliver the emotion people long for, but I try to avoid compromising my music in order to do so. In the end I just want people to leave the gig feeling better than they did beforehand, for musicians that’s our small contribution to creating a better world.

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of standard tunes are half a century old?

SB: – There are very good contemporary jazz artists such as Till Bronner who manage this. Tradition is a fine thing, but it’s easy to become trapped by it. If you look at the originators of great jazz and blues, they created their groundbreaking work as the cutting edge of a living tradition, but at the same time they also saw themselves as popular entertainers and their music was fun, fresh and exciting. What they were not doing was simply recycling old stuff. They took the music that came before them and developed it further by incorporating contemporary elements in a new way. In many respects, even though it makes so-called standard tunes accessible to everyone, the Real Book hasn’t done jazz any favours. Like any other art form, jazz is evolving and the best artists are in the first instance true to themselves.

JBN: – John Coltrane once said that music was his spirit. How do you perceive the spirit and the meaning of life?

SB: – For me, performing music can definitely be a way of communing with the universal spirit, of channelling something which doesn’t simply come from yourself alone, but is manifesting itself through you. That’s an amazing feeling which it’s difficult to experience any other way and is one of the main reasons I do it.

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JBN: – If you could change one single thing in the musical world and that would become reality, what would that be?

SB: – It would be wonderful if my late duo partner Chris Jones hadn’t died in 2005 at the dreadfully young age of 46. We were just starting to hit our stride when he checked out.

JBN: – Whom do you find yourself listening to these days?

SB: – I don’t listen to much new music, but for Christmas Gina gave me the remastered CD editions of Tom Waits’ three best ever albums from the mid-1980s: Swordfish Trombones, Rain Dogs and Frank’s Wild Years. Brilliant lyrics and a fascinating musical mix between jazz, blues and sort of Brecht/Weill influences, recorded with some amazing musicians including the late Larry Taylor on bass and Marc Ribot on guitar. Genius.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine: where and why would you really want to go?

SB: – Despite the dire state of things on planet earth at the present time, I’m content to remain in the here and now for as long as I may.

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

SB: – The power of love.

JBN: – Do You like our questions? 

SB: – They’ve been pretty good for an email interview, you have obviously done this before.

JBN: – Have you ever given a free concert during your entire concert career? At the bottom line, what are your expectations from our interview?

SB: – I’ve played quite a few benefit concerts. Because you “play” music, rather than “work” music, people often don’t realise it’s a job, so you can often get asked to perform for nothing. But if it’s in a good cause I’m open for it.

I don’t really have any expectations from our interview, except that I hope it will prompt readers to check out my music and will maybe lead to a couple of gigs. Thanks for your interest.

JBN: – Is there anything that we didn’t talk about that you’d like to discuss?

SB: – As well as working as a musician, I’ve had the good fortune to have been able to play a significant role in the development of my instrument through my lengthy association with the Hohner company. I started working for them in the mid 1980s and have been under contract as a paid consultant since 1987. This has enabled me to help introduce some genuine improvements to the instruments I play, which is an enormous privilege not granted to many musicians, and my books and workshops have influenced how the harmonica is taught today. I don’t teach much any more, but my work for Hohner is ongoing and has been rewarding for both parties. I’m probably the only harmonica player in the world with a job like that, a relationship which has lasted the best part of 40 years, so I’m a lucky man.

 

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