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Guy Tortora
Interview by Mark Harrison. June 2009

Guy Tortora is a very fine musician, singer and songwriter who makes excellent albums on his own label, the latest of which is Living On Credit. His band is full of good musicians and he also does acoustic sets. He covers a wide variety of styles, all underpinned by blues. An American who has been settled in London for many years, he's got a realistic but by no means downbeat take on the vicissitudes of life as a blues musician in London. Like many a good musician, he has to take care of the earning a living thing, and there’s family to put first. But he’s busy as a musician, with plenty of gigs, and his albums are all rightly well-received. He's someone who deserves to be far better-known than he is, though he reckons cult status would do just fine...

MH: I see that you’ve got that classic Hunter Thompson quote on your website – 'The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.' Does that in any way reflect your own experience?

GT: Well, there's also a quote from "Anyone can Play the Banjo, Why not you?" that I notice you didn’t mention! The Hunter Thompson quote is buried on the last page of the site, so I'm impressed – you really did read through the website! Like any musician I've had both good and bad experiences, and seen some strange situations: fire, flood, earthquake, crooked promoters and all the rest. But these days I like to think more about the positive side: making good music with good friends, the fine musicians I’ve had the pleasure to meet on the UK circuit, the good reactions we’ve been getting from audiences here, the basically good-natured and civilised attitude of people I meet in Britain.

MH: It's relatively unusual, I guess, for a musician to come from the US and settle here, usually the journey is in the opposite direction. What would you regard as the advantage(s) of being here as opposed to being there in terms of the music scene and your musical career?

GT: I guess the fact that the UK scene is that much smaller doesn’t do any harm, though it sometimes has its downside, too. The USA is so huge, it’s very hard to make an impact there. You can be really well known in a relatively small area, and in the next state or even the next county nobody knows who you are. The distances are vast over there - though sometimes I find that it seems to take forever to travel a relatively short distance in the UK! Friends come over from the USA thinking they can cover the same number of miles here in the same time they do over there, and I have to tell them otherwise!

MH: What about London in particular? Is it a good place to be for a blues musician? How would you assess the scene in London?

GT: Well, I have to say that to me London is not so great when you've been put into the 'blues' box, unless you're a bigger name than I. There's not really a circuit of good small rooms, most of the time you're either playing a dingy pub or if you're lucky enough up there at someplace like Shepherds Bush Empire, and there isn't much you can do in between. There aren’t many venues that are equivalent to the Arts Centres in the smaller towns outside London, which have a very broad booking policy for live music and enthusiastic audiences hungry for real music. I was surprised to find that the scene for blues and roots in the provincial towns is much livelier than in London – maybe folks in the big city have too much choice for what they might do on any night.

MH: Is there anything you'd like to see happen for the blues in London, anything that would give it a boost?

GT: What would give the music a boost in London and elsewhere, too, is more airtime on the radio. I'm still of the opinion that there's no substitute for airplay for the audience that likes the kind of music I do. Roots music in general has been forced into such a small corner, but whenever people do get a chance to hear it, it raises their enthusiasm to hear more. There really is a lot of quality stuff going on out there, and when people do stumble across it they always say "Wow, this is great! I never knew this was going on!" All I can say is get out more.

MH: You play both acoustic and electric blues – who would you cite as main influences in each of those styles?

GT: That's a hard one to narrow down - it would be a very long list. To name just a few, I would have to start with the greats like Muddy, BB King, Skip James, Son House, T Bone Walker, etc. and carry right on through the Taj Maha l/ Ry Cooder / Bonnie Raitt / John Hammond generation and then take in Keb Mo, Eric Bibb and their contemporaries, but don't forget the songwriters like Dylan, Tom Waits, and the psychedelic mavericks like Beefheart, jazzy dudes like Mose Allison, the ultimate guitar hero was Hendrix, of course, and then there's Jimmy Vaughan – I could carry on until I named every name I know!

MH: You've got some really good musicians on the albums and in the band – how did you get together with them?

GT: I guess it was just a gradual process of meeting people and finding those I get along with and liked working with. My keyboard player Janos Bajtala, was recommended to me by Brendan Canty, who was the bass player in my band for quite a while and has gone on to other things now. Brendan and Janos had worked together in one of Steve Laffy's bands. Some, like Richard Studholme, I met when the Tonezone Studio he used to run was recommended to me as a good place to record, and drummer Mike Thorne was hanging out with Richard at the time - harp player Giles King I used to run into at jams all the time and he made a big impression. There are a lot of quality players over here.

MH: I imagine that it can be something of a struggle to make a living as a professional blues artist – after all, some of the biggest names through the ages have found it hard to get by from time to time. My personal feeling is that blues has always been a minority interest, loved by a passionate few but seldom infiltrating the 'mainstream' at any time, even during the so-called Blues Boom over here. But there are lots of good people out there who are able to get by, so it is viable. Do you reckon this is a fair assessment?

GT: I guess it has been a minority interest, though so much of the popular music made from the 50's to the 70's had elements of the blues in it, and maybe many people didn't know the true origins of what they were hearing. Yes, you can "get by", but sometimes "getting by" is hard to take. And yes, it is a struggle. I have to do other things now to supplement what I do with my music, and I know plenty of others who do, too. Many a musician has to take a gig where they can get it - it’s not always possible to pick and choose. Those who can will teach or do workshops. Blues in particular is more than ever a minority interest these days.

MH: Here at Blues in London, we're all about promoting the view that 'blues' can cover a really wide variety of good music. Do you think 'blues' in that broader sense is in a healthy state these days?

GT: I do think so, even though the music's profile may not seem to be what it once was. Certainly every style of music has it’s time, and there is a danger that the music might get stuck in some kind of sepia-toned museum. I try to re-combine the DNA of elements of some of the old stuff and put my own twist on it - performers have always borrowed elements from what they hear, consciously or un-consciously. For me that may incorporate a little jazz, or a little folk – I hear others who are using contemporary African and World elements, some are combining it with rap and break beats and "mixing" of various kinds.

MH: People sometimes talk about blues ‘purists’ and their apparent disapproval of this and that and their notion that only a very narrow style of music can truly qualify for the prestigious 'blues' label? Have you come across any of that kind of thing?

GT: Definitely.

MH: A lot of the music under the broad umbrella of ‘blues’ doesn’t revolve around the lead guitar and boogie/12-bar kind of thing but it’s very much blues for me. What would you think of as qualifying as ‘blues’?

GT: There's been such variety in this stream of music right from the start: distinct regional styles from the Mississippi Delta and New Orleans, or Memphis, the fife and drum strand, jug band and medicine show music, the electrifying sound of Chicago, the John Lee Hooker Boogie-style, and those strands led on to jazz, rock and roll, gospel, Motown and rap, etc. All of these musical strands came from African-American sources, but those African roots were also fed by the other types of music heard by those people when they came to North America, and what was created by them also influenced white country musicians in turn. And so the wheel goes round. Music is a kind of magic circle, the influences never stop. That’s the beauty and the pleasure of it. It may be something of a cliche, but blues really is a feeling, no matter what meter or time, or whether it’s 12 or 13 bars.

MH: A lot of the artists who I'd consider are going along a similar road to the one you're on, people who write their own material and who are 'acoustic band' artists with some electric stuff too, seemed to appear as recording artists around the mid 90s, though none of them were especially young at that point. Is that right and if so, any ideas why that style seemed to get going then?

GT: Well one reason was the increasing availability of affordable recording around then. Maybe, too, we had all come up around the same time, were influenced at a seminal stage by first the folk revival, and then blues-influenced rock and pop music, and we nurtured a passion for music that maybe isn't of such primary importance to people now. When I was younger I felt like I lived for nothing else. At some point you want to get back to the beautiful simplicity of the music that first excited you.

MH: Which current artists would you think you have most in common with?

GT: That's for others to judge. The nearest touchstones people sometimes seem to mention in reviews are Bibb, Cooder, or Dylan, but they're just looking for a way to describe my music that people can get a handle on, so they mention someone people will probably know. I guess I have most in common with artists who start with a real song that has meaning, not just a riff or a drum pattern.

MH: Is there anyone you’ve come across recently who you think might have a bright future in blues?

GT: Though she's been around for a while and isn't strictly blues, one of the most obvious names would be Madeleine Peyrout, she has that wonderful jazzy element, immaculately produced albums and a great voice.

MH: What's the aim in the immediate future? I see you’ve got plenty of gigs, the new album seems to be going well...

GT: Yes, the Living on Credit album is going well. The aim in the future is always to do more - and better! More exposure for the music wherever possible, and more work in Europe seems to be coming up, which has got to be a good thing. As a musician you always like to be moving on to new territory whenever you can and bringing what you do to more people than before. It helps to keep it fresh.

See also:|

Our live review of Guy Tortora.

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