“More Passion Out of Fewer Notes”: An Interview with Luke Winslow-King
Slide guitarist Luke Winslow-King’s musical journey has been as literal as it is figurative. The 30-year old singer-songwriter was born and raised in Michigan, where he learned to play jazz guitar. At the age of 19, he was touring as part of a Woody Guthrie show called “From California to the New York Islands” when the band’s car and all their instruments were stolen in New Orleans, leaving them stranded in the city. Winslow-King has considered it his adopted hometown ever since then, enrolling in the University of New Orleans’ music program and busking on the streets in his free time.
With Bloodshot Records’ recent release of Winslow-King’s third album, The Coming Tide—which was recorded back in 2011—he’s poised to have a breakout year. The record is a mix of interesting cover choices—they range from Lead Belly’s “Ella Speed” to “Got My Mind Set on You,” a song written Rudy Clark (and originally recorded by James Ray) that Ringo Starr took to the top of the charts in the 1980s–and engaging original songs that blend prewar blues, country, jazz, and ragtime.
Winslow-King called us while driving through the Adirondacks to chat about The Coming Tide, his current tour with fellow throwback Pokey LaFarge, and his favorite classical Czech composers.
What originally drew you to the slide guitar?
I’ve been playing slide guitar since high school. I’d always been interested in it to some degree as I was studying bebop and different kinds of jazz. I came to something of a personal crossroad: I could practice a lot and learn how to shred, or I could learn how to get more passion out of fewer notes. In college, I began experimenting with different things and met a great slide guitarist named Roberto Luti, who was from Italy and lived in New Orleans. I started watching him a lot, and we became good friends. We have a lot of the same influences—Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal—and Roberto was really inspiring because he could get so much passion out of so few notes. It was like his guitar was a human voice. Now I feel that I can really speak with the slide guitar and get it to talk like I heard Roberto do when I was younger. He’s still a great friend of mine; we tour Italy together once a year. You try to learn to play like somebody, but in the process you end up developing your own style. We both have different sounds now. I’m glad that I found this path with the bottleneck and I’m excited to learn more about it and get better at it throughout my career.
In college, you spent a summer studying classical music in Prague. How did that influence your own work?
I spent that time digging into the Czech composers like Smetana and Dvorak and Martinu. A lot of composers from that part of the world blend a lot of folk music within their classical music. All through my developmental period, I was trying to find parallels where you could take people’s music and transfer it into something else. A lot of the traditional jazz stuff I like is danceable, relatable people’s music that’s blended with elements of jazz or improvisation. A lot of that Czech music is similar in that it has folk melodies interwoven with classical music. It’s been a long journey for me to find different kinds of music and learn how they’ve blended over the years.
I studied orchestration and arrangement when I was there; I learned a lot about how to write harmonies and things like that. Some of that is reflected in the arrangements I wrote for The Coming Tide, but it’s more present in my earlier albums when I was a bit more classically-oriented.
It’s an interesting blend of highbrow music and music that’s been often been considered “lowbrow.”
I’m really interested in classical music and stuff that’s a bit more sophisticated, but I also really believe in sharing music with people and making it available to all walks of life.
Tell me about the covers you chose for The Coming Tide.
I always told myself I’d never write a murder ballad; I didn’t even really like performing murder ballads, but this one really struck me. I had heard the Mance Lipscomb version of “Ella Speed” first–though I think Lead Belly’s version precedes it—and I’d also heard Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Word Blues,” a beautiful, minor folk ballad from a Delta Blues woman, and it shared some of the same lyrics with the version of “Ella Speed” that I heard. So I made a decision to join those two songs. I was really taken with the melody and the story of someone making mistakes and feeling regret.
“I’ve Got the Blues for Rampart Street” and “Ella Speed” are me trying to find little instances about Storyville and clues about what life was like in the red light district of New Orleans back then. It really intrigued me, and I was trying to have a few different songs that came from different angles to help me discover a little bit more, to paint a picture of how life was back then and how it parallels ours today.
“Got My Mind Set on You” came to me randomly. I was picking on the porch one day, doing this repetitive, North Mississippi groove, and it just sort of fell in my lap. I thought it was kind of humorous and enjoyable. I wanted to have a song where people would vaguely recognize something and feel like they knew it, but not this version of it. Usually the audience spends half the tune trying to figure out what we’re playing, and by the end, they’ve really gotten into it. We were also trying to mix elements of Caribbean music, too. We took out certain elements of the song—a bunch of the chords and the bridge—to turn it into this monotonous kind of drone. I like the feel of it and we had a good response when we played it live, so we didn’t question it.
How do you write songs?
I usually come up with a lot of ideas on the road and try to jot down a few things that I’ll flesh out when I get home. A lot of these songs came really naturally. “The Coming Tide” came in one stroke of the pen. That’s really exciting, when you wake up and write down a whole song.
On this record, I feel like I was really striking out on my own. I’d worked with different co-writers in the past, but I was inspired to trust myself, trust my songwriting, and try to go somewhere new with it.
“You Don’t Know Better Than Me” is another track that sticks out to me. I surprised myself with that one. I still can really get into the lyrics and feel strongly about them. I didn’t expect that when we were arranging it, but when we finally recorded it, it came to life.
“You and Me” was another one that came out really easily. It was influenced a bit by Mance Lipscomb’s approach. It’s mostly traveling songs and love songs that came naturally. I was trying to find freedom in my writing and not sound like anybody else, but have it come from a natural, intrinsic place.
The title track sounds influenced by spiritual music, even as there’s a contrast between the upbeat arrangement and the lyrics.
I grew up in a Baptist household and had a lot of those influences, but I also wanted to make a less preachy, more secularized version of gospel music that people could relate to. I’ve always loved gospel music, and the genuine feelings behind it. I tried not to question the song; it came naturally, so I just put it out there. People have responded well to it. We tried to make sure it wasn’t too campy or too preachy, but just have it be genuine.
How does your previous career as a music therapist change the way you approach your work?
It gave me insight into how people’s brains process and use music, how they respond to sound and lyrics. Sometimes learning a little bit about the abnormal mind gives you a window into how the normal context works for people. I met a lot of wonderful people and saw a lot of lives changed for the better by music. It proved to me that I was meant to be a songwriter and a performer and how vital music is to our existence.
What was the recording process like for The Coming Tide?
We did a lot of it live at Piety Street Studios in New Orleans, which is right down the street from my house. I worked with this engineer named Earl Scioneaux; we went to music school together and he’s a trusted friend. It was great to be able to record in the neighborhood and draw upon all the great talent in New Orleans. We had horn players who were such good readers; I could write charts and they’d be able to read them accurately, but could also improvise with a lot of passion when called upon to do so.
What’s next for you? Since The Coming Tide was recorded a few years ago, are you working on new stuff?
We’re going into the studio in a few weeks to work on our new record. We’ve got a bunch of new songs we’ve been testing that we’re excited to record. We’re about to do a few shows with Pokey LaFarge, go to the studio, tour the Midwest for a lot of the summer, then head to the Northwest in August and September. We’re playing a lot of new towns and our draw is increasing, so it’s exciting to show up and have people who are excited to hear us.
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