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Eric Bibb

While the main focus of attention in the rock and blues world remains the electric guitar, almost in the blink of an eye there's been a sudden dawning of a new age and a new generation of acoustic players filling concert venues around the world.

Where once there was just Taj Mahal carrying on the acoustic blues tradition, now there is coterie of superb players from Guy Davis, Corrie Harris and Alvin Youngblood Hart to European practitioners such as Hans Theessink and American Expat musicians like Eric Bibb.

It's little over 12 years since Eric made his mark in the UK at the London blues festival and he's never looked back. Last years 'Diamond Days' marked a quantum leap in his style being both sophisticated yet accessible while unflinchingly delivering some heartfelt social messages and personal convictions that he has successfully further explored on his latest and best yet album 'Get On Board'

Not so much a concept album as one that draws on an optimistic view of the interconnectedness of people and a sharing of a common mutual unity, 'Get On Board' finds Bibb as both the social commentator and de facto messenger.

And in the company of a stellar list of guests from Bonnie Raitt and Tommy Sims (Springsteen/Clapton) to the amazing Texas Blues and gospel singer Ruthie Foster, as well as his producer Glenn Scott, Eric has arguably recorded the best album of his career. With a 2008 World tour in prospect Eric Bibb's star is very much on the rise.

'My new album 'Get On Board' is, without a doubt one of the most exciting projects of my career. It's a further exploration into the place where blues meets gospel and soul'

'Get On Board' deals with the themes of unity, inclusiveness and spirituality, yet for a number of years (geographically speaking) you seem to have been a restless spirit, an outsider looking in?

To a degree yes, I travelled and made my home in places far away from my original home so the whole process of having to make a way into a strange community, making friends, getting acclimatised, learning a new language, has all been part of my journey

Could you have tackled a concept such as unity 10 years ago or does it reflect your thinking of late?

Excellent question. It's definitely something I've grown into. Ive always felt that connectedness that I'm talking about and being able to carry that message out to the world takes a certain amount of conviction that only comes I think with experience and maturity?

And did travelling outside of the US and living in Sweden help formulate your ideas about the world? You have also talked about finding the new World Music scene there. Did this inspire you to take a broader view of your own music?

Assuredly so. You know America and particularly New York where I'm from attracts people from all over the world but I never found it was really the melting pot that maybe it was intended to be. I found a lot of pots cooking but not necessarily melding together.

They were kind of little segments adjacent to each other but not necessarily mixing it up. In Europe and particularly Stockholm I found a group of people who were very keen on mixing it up.

Musically I found a community that included ex pats from America like myself and local Scandinavian musicians but also many musicians from African, South America and the rest of Europe who had wandered into a scene where they felt welcomed, a place they could call home eventually. So I really found a World Music community long before World Music as such became a marketable concept

Did that stretch your own musical horizons?

Naturally it did influence me but I didn't have to stretch for it, it was right there and I just took it on board.

On the opening track 'Spirit I Am' you sing, 'the world is just a picture of what's inside you and me'. I just wondered in these post 9/11 times what sustains your optimism?

Good question, cos I get to travel, I see things happening in communities all over the world, whether it's an Aboriginal community in Australia or its up in Scandinavia. I'm finding groups of people like minded people who are doing really good things, that don't always make the headlines.

But I'm finding enough stuff out there, the way people are quietly going about building their communities, hooking up, staying connected, environmentally friendly things that are maybe out of the mainstream but are working very effectively toward building a better world. So there are a lot of positive things in my experience. But if I only fed myself with the news I would be in bad shape.

You didn't record until in your 40's and you experienced an unsuccessful attempt to build a career in New York in the early 80's. Was there a time when you thought the opportunity had gone? And was it in fact always a personal goal to record as a solo artist?

Yes it certainly was always a personal goal to record. I have recorded prolifically even when I wasn't reaching the market place and I had people who were at least interested in helping me document my songs. I was encouraged by a lot of people but its been a longer road than I thought it would be - that's for sure - to get to where I am now and to get to the market place with my recordings

That being the case, were you ever dispirited?

Oh yes, yes very much so but different things kept me going such as the possibility of always being able to perform live which was always important. I was always able to get gigs or to teach in some fashion, whether it was guitar students or young people in music schools.

I also had a chance to be active as a songwriter. I was working for BMG for a while long before I had a deal. I was collaborating with different writers trying to place songs with different artists.

But really it didn't start happening for me until I was invited to the London Blues Festival in the mid 90's, and Mike Vernon was part of that and it started a steady climb

Why do you think you've struck a particular chord with British audiences?

In fact British audiences have been good to a lot of people in my position as an expat American musician - African Americans in particular, with maybe the most famous being Jimi Hendrix.

But there's always been this deep affinity and understanding, support and encouragement of American roots music, particularly blues in the UK. If it wasn't for that tribe of British blues men like John Mayall etc, who kept the idea alive when the American let it slip away, it might all have died. Now it's almost back in the mainstream

Why do you think there's an upsurge in interest recently in American roots music with the likes of yourself, Keb Mo, Corrie Harris etc?

We've been absent for so long from that genre, I mean in a new way. The old guys were hanging on and there were people abroad like Brits and Europeans who were carrying on the traditions but really the lack of younger African American musicians who were taking it up on the acoustic side of it was becoming so glaring that I felt that it was just a question of time before something happened. But it's interesting that it happened synchronistically.

I came along basically at a time when Guy Davis, Keb Mo, Corrie Harris Alvin Youngblood Hart came on the scene and we all seemed to land at a similar moment so that tells you something.

For many years Taj Mahal seemed like sole practitioner of the acoustic blues style. Did you ever feel isolated in a similar way or were you in contact with other contemporary acoustic players?

Yes yes, I know what you mean but I was in touch with others. I new Guy before he hit the market place, although I felt a little bit on my own when I was incubating this stuff before I really splashed on the scene.

I met a lot of people in Europe who really loved this music especially in Sweden, but I certainly wasn't aware of many Afro American musicians playing it. So when Keb came out and beat me to the market place with an album that had some mainstream attention it was almost as if, oh man!!

But you get over that 'cos you realise it's an ego thing and you quickly realise that the music is so much bigger than any one personality. And actually I became really happy about being part of a new wave, 'cos we all benefited from the attention to something new.

Eric Bibb

Going back to the album, why was it recorded in Nashville other than the great players there?

Right, well it was actually more specific, as producer Glen Scott who I worked with before - and who is actually a London born and bred Caribbean musician of great talent - had moved to Sweden, but I met him when I was in London, and he had a connection to Nashville with his own projects some years earlier.

My manager also has connections to Nashville with writers, publishers, studios etc., and when we thought about where to do this, the producer Glen said, 'Eric you've made a lot of records basically in Europe, lets go to the States. But where should we go'?

And then Stuart my manager was talking about players, and he knew Tommy Simms, who it turns out Glen also knew from before, so there were some triangulations. Tommy was available is a great player and also has a great studio so essentially everything evolved naturally. It was not a decision from the top down.

Were the songs pre written before you invited guests like Bonnie Raitt and Ruthie Foster?

Yes they were. The idea was to put Ruthie in the mix as a duet - though originally it wasn't a duet as such as it was conceived as two people talking to each other, but I was both voices basically. Then someone said, hey maybe you should have a bona fide duet and I thought she was the perfect person.

And with Bonnie we didn't have the song completely finished but we thought wouldn't it be great to have some killer slide there, and I had this contact with her from opening her show at the Albert Hall with her. So she came to mind, and we called her up and she said yes I'm actually free to do that.

Was Glen responsible for the song arrangements? I'm thinking particularly about the trombone part on 'Conversation' and the lap steel on 'Deep In My Soul'?

The trombone and horns at the end of 'Conversation' were Glen's idea and he arranged them with some great horn players in Stockholm.

As far as the lap and the pedal steel parts by the Campbell Brothers on 'Deep in My Soul', we share the same American agent, so we started doing some shows with them and actually after a show in Rochester New York I'd begun the track and had some files with me and said 'guys after the gig can you find a studio, 'cos I need to jump on this, its just to good you know and you guys would fit'. And we did that session right after the gig.

Only two songs 'If Your Heart Ain't In It' and 'Conversation' are what might be termed relationship songs. Is that an aspect you particularly steer clear of, or do you prefer to look at bigger issues?

It turned out that way. The original concept was 'The Promised Land' (which might be the title of the next album) and I was dealing with larger issues. I wanted to dedicate the whole album originally to Martin Luther King but just ended up doing that on 'Step By Step'.

I got the feedback from the marketing people that given the preceding album I shouldn't limit this one in scope, so while I kept those broad issues in the mix with the songs I decided to call the record 'Get On Board'. Actually both that track and the title came in late and it was actually the last song that came on board.

I had the theme that I wanted to deal with social issues but where spirituality means making a change - basically that whole Gandhian thing which influenced King, you basically have to be the change you can't just rant and rave.

So I felt that we had everything, but I wanted one more song that was radio friendly, this was conscious. I didn't need a hard core pop hit but I wanted something rootsy but still accessible to radio, and the song 'Get On Board' came to me, and I basically shouted 'hey wait I've got one more song'. The song 'Spirit I Am' also came from an idea of working with a co-writer and I also thought that might do well on the radio and we were aware that we had a couple of decent songs.

So you enjoy co-writing songs?

Yes I like doing that with the right person, I don't think I could have written 'Spirit I Am' on my own, put it that way. 'Get On Board' I wrote alone and that is the kind of songs that comes really natural to me, but 'Spirit I Am' is a bit of a stretching the envelope for me, in terms of the whole vibe and pop sense of that tune. And that's where writing with someone else who does that maybe more than I do, helps. They like my roots input I like their pop influence.

At the time of its release 'Diamond Days' was considered by many to be your best ever album. How did you approach following a career high, as 'Get On Board' is just as good if not better?

My manager told me I didn't need to be concerned with topping it 'cos he told me he didn't think I could. So he planted that little seed which goads you in a good way you know.

It's kind of a good thing to say 'cos on the one hand it took the pressure off as no one was really expecting me to top it as such, but just to make a good album. But me, I wanted to make an album that was just a strong, let's put it that way, So I'm really happy that the response has been basically all we could have wanted and more.

Did you ever have a defining moment when in your career when you felt you'd found your own style?

Yes. Around the time of (pause) I think 'Diamond Days'. It sort of really felt like the moment when the ingredients of my personal style were really in the right proportion and enabled me to find a way to combine those perverse but related influences into something personal and something that people started to recognise. I just knew it would take just a little bit more time to coalesce, and I felt that happened with 'Diamond days'.

Do you still see the USA as home?

Erm, to tell you the truth, England is as much my home as any other place including the States. Most of my adult life I've spent outside of the States and I've travelled constantly. I even feel at home in Australia having done a lot of tours there and my partner's from there. So yeah I feel in the true sense like a world citizen really.

Given your busy touring schedule, when do you find time for writing?

It would be interesting to have time off specifically to write, but the way I write anyway seems to be in the low fabric of everything else going on. Some writers make it a 9 to 5 thing but I'll be writing in the car and I have my notebook with me always and songs come to me in the middle of everything else I do.

I even get a chance to demo them on the road either on a little Zoom of my own or it's not even uncommon for me to get my phone book out on a day off after a gig and tell someone and say I need an hour of your time, what's your rate and the guy says come over.

Do you then take the songs to Glen in his role as the producer?

We talk about the songs, the kind of direction and it's not impossible that my demo is incorporated into the final recording. Sometimes I get it right. I might get a guitar or vocal track, like for 'Get on Board' - maybe 'cos it came in late. Actually the label boss in the America said, 'well Eric whatever else you do with this song I hope you don't replace the vocal because it just works'.

On the song 'Still Living On' from the 'Diamond Days' CD you reference your musical influences such as Mississippi John Hurt, Son House and 'Pops' Staples. Do you in fact see yourself as contemporary end of that musical lineage?

Yes carrying it on, and definitely being an exponent of the same core music that was at the centre of their careers. It's nice to actually get referred to like that. It wasn't my goal as such to start with but it evolved naturally but I see myself as an able continuation of that heritage.

Are you aware of Austrian based, Dutch acoustic blues guitarist Hans Theessink who's last but one album 'Slow Train' shares a similar gospel feel to your work?

We're friends and we've done gigs together, Hans a real good guy, and he does do a similar thing, and works with wonderful singers like Bobby King & Terry Evans.

On the political front, what do you make of the right wing Christian fundamentalism in the States?

It makes me very uncomfortable to realise that I what I consider to be wonderful teachings can be so essentially distorted. There's no way you can naturally marriage intolerance of fundamentalism with the original teaching of Jesus.

You know the guy was rebel, he was trying to upset the status quo and so that ultra conservative intolerant 'my way or the highway' kind of vibe just doesn't work. And its tricky you know when you start claiming your own spirituality in a public way through your art... it's a tricky road to go down. But if that's how you're feeling you ultimately have to take a stand because to lock off a huge part of you when you are trying to be an honest expressive artist doesn't work either.

Given your musical background, with your dad Leon being a musician and an actor, your uncle John Lewis was in the Modern Jazz Quartet, Paul Robeson was your godfather, and with family friends like Pete Seeger, Odetta and Dylan was there an quiet expectation that you would always become a musician?

No. Though I never really moved away from music my parents were always eager for me to pursue education and becoming a pro musician would probably not have been their first choice for their son. They saw my passion for it was unquenchable and that I wasn't going to be deterred.

So they were supportive but they were concerned, they knew the pitfalls - financially and otherwise - and just wanted me to be happy. And when it really began to work for me rather than a frustrating obsession I think they were happy for me

You've always worked in an acoustic mode rather than electric why is that?

Although I love the sound of a great electric guitar player and I've worked with some great ones, I've never been drawn to electric guitar. I have one electric instrument - a silvertone that is very simple - and I play it like an acoustic guitar, even though its an electric guitar.

My love has always been for the wooden bodied guitar, whether it's a classical guitar or steel string guitar in all its variations. I really think it's a different instrument actually. You can play an electric guitar like an acoustic but basically there's something about the resonating body.

A lot of your songs come with anecdotes. Do you have to actually change them or make concessions for different audiences?

I try to keep it pretty consistent but with variations based on how much they will appreciate local references. I use those anecdotes in the songs to make a connection with the people, so whatever is going to facilitate that. So whenever I can make a local connection that always works and I think people appreciate that, you know whether it's speaking some of their language or being aware of some of their history.

Actually an example; the tune 'Spirit I Am' - the record - has not been release in Australia yet. It will be in time for the tour. In France and Benelux the record is packaged differently, firstly it's a double disc with a bonus disc called 'Field Recordings' with 7 stripped down tunes and an 18 minute film and we may release that package in Australia and they actually called the record 'Spirit I Am'. With this release in Australia, I said to my manager, given the reconciliation thing with the Aborigines people etc, wouldn't it be great to have like a didgeridoo intro on just 'Spirit I am', just for the Australians, so we're working on that.

Do you feel the whole roots scene has developed and gone back to songs and meanings rather than some of the clichés that pass for blues for example?

Yes but I can see why some of the bands are playing a style, because I understand it has such wide appeal and I understand it 'cos it rocked the whole world. I'm talking about the real Chicago blues thing that happened around artists like Howlin' Wolf and guitarists like Hubert Sumlin and those sorts of people. And man, that music should be so hot. This was the Delta cranked up and it was so potent, no wonder 50 years later they are still trying to create that but I'd rather play the original records.

But bands like the Stones did take it on to the next stage and as artists like Taj Mahal said about ten years ago that Rap is the latest form of the blues?

Yes the music developed but I can't go for that Gangster bullshit. Everything changed 'cos the money got so silly. People who were interested in making blues in the 50's, they did it not just maybe as an alternative to a job in a slaughter house, but they loved it, you could tell they had that music in them from way before and it meant something to them.

Now I think the appeal has as much to do with laying chicks and doing drugs etc and that's a different bag altogether. That's not to say there's not some talented and committed rap artists out there but I'm waiting to see what else comes as a departure from the same old stuff 'cos when I turn on the TV and happen to see some of these Rap video's, they are interchangeable, they are all the same and music should be much more than that.

Eric Bibb is on tour in the UK, in May, June and July. More information at

Interview © May 2008 Pete Feenstra
All rights reserved.

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