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ERIC BIBB: AUSTRALIAN TOUR INTERVIEW

Two-time Grammy nominated, acclaimed blues journeyman Eric Bibb has released 37 albums since his recording debut in 1972. As he tells us down the line from London, where he’d won Best Blues Act in the 2019 JazzFM Awards the night before, there was never much of a chance he’d become anything but a musician. Growing up under the influence of his folk-singing, activist father Leon Bibb and being surrounded by folk legends such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Pete Seeger, who would regularly visit his home, and having the great American singer and activist Paul Robeson as his godfather, Eric was destined to become a troubadour in the truest sense. Bibb has travelled the world for 5 decades picking up influences along the way and mixing those ingredients into his own blend of blues, soul and world music stew.

Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips had the pleasure of chatting to Eric about his career, his instruments and upcoming Australian tour which begins this week in Perth on May 10.

Eric, you were gifted a guitar at age 7, do you remember the first song you learned to play?
I had guitar lessons as part of that gift and I think the first song that comes to mind is a little melody called Yellow Bird. Another song I tried to figure out the chords to … do you remember the Singing Nuns from Belgium? They had a song which was a hit on the radio when I was quite young … ‘Dominique’. It’s embarrassing for a blues player to maybe say that was one of the first 45 records I purchased with my own money. I loved it because it was basically acoustic guitar and voice, I could understand what was going on and even figure out some of the chords, so that was another big moment for me.

From what I recall there was some pretty nice picking going on in that song …
I don’t think I got to the finger picking parts, just the A minor chord but I do remember really liking that song.

Being surrounded by so much music and so many great musicians in your childhood, was there ever a chance you could have been anything but a musician?
That’s a good question. I think not! I was interested in different things. In school I liked reading a lot, still do. History was fascinating. I also liked carpentry, my dad was a good amateur carpenter but he was also a great singer so the music won out. I think from a very early age I identified this passion for music and just kept going and that’s why I am where I am because I never stopped… never let go of the music.

You worked with your father on a tribute album to Paul Robeson who was your godfather, what are your memories of Paul?
What pops up in my mind right now is a picture of Paul holding my twin sister under one big arm and me under the other. This was at our baptism when we were quite young. A smiling Paul Robeson holding two worried looking twins because were were probably anxious that we weren’t in our parents’ laps. I have that picture framed in my living room so I see I every day. Paul is a presence and always was a presence in my life. Though I didn’t meet him often, something about his calling and his charisma and the way he was such a huge influence on so many people including my father, not only as a musician and singer but also as a political activist for social change. He was really a role model for many people including my dad. Somehow Paul’s presence was part of my family life. We referred to him often in conversation, followed his travels and challenges. Then later in life when I started touring myself, I had the wonderful experience of travelling through the part of Wales, where Paul befriended many of the miners in certain communities. I was performing on stages where my godfather played way back in the 30s, so that was an amazing full circle experience for me.

What instruments will you be bringing with you for this tour?
It’s always a challenge. I will probably only have two guitars with me. One of them is a wonderful guitar made by an Australian luthier named Scott Wise from WA, it’s a lovely guitar. The other guitar I will probably have with me is made by a wonderful Finnish luthier named Juha Lottonen. I have many guitars and I wish I could bring more on tour but the logistics are too challenging.

What are some of the most important elements to you in a fretted instrument? Obviously the tone but how do you like the string height and fretboard smoothness, etc? Are you fussy about that kind of thing?
Yes because I am fascinated by the whole art of luthiery. I have many fine instruments and some of them I don’t tour with because I feel they don’t need to be subjected to the hard rigours of the road. When it comes to any instrument, of course the sound is essential but also the set up is paramount because you can have a fine guitar but if it is not set up properly it will not work for you. I use medium gauge strings or light gauge but often medium … I like a low action because I really like to to be able to get around as nimbly as I can. A lot of people don’t like the action too low because it can sacrifice the tone but because of the way I play, dampening the strings quite a lot, a low action doesn’t get in my way. I can make the guitar sound the way I want it even if the action is low. Certain guitars do sound amazing acoustically and some don’t but with a good pickup then can be a really good workhorse. So not only the best instruments are going to be the best workhorses. I have very expensive guitars and I have very cheap guitars and some of the cheap ones are my favourites.

Have you ever picked up a new instrument and the songs have just flowed from it because of the personality of the instrument?
Yes that has happened to me. I remember one luthier in England sent a chap around to my house with six guitars because he liked my sound and I liked his instruments. I tried them all and they were all fine but I said to the man, you can’t have this one back, it was that good. I said do whatever kind of deal you have to make but you can’t take this one with you when you go. A lot of times when I acquire a new instrument, it is completely unexpected. I’ll go into a shop not prepared to buy a guitar at all but I will have that kind of experience and can’t live without it having played it.

Did it take you a while to get the live acoustic sound you were happy with? Was that a bit of a journey for you?
Yes absolutely. Well first of all I started playing when I was quite young. The whole issue of amplification was always an issue, particularly when you start working with other musicians. Playing acoustic guitar and being heard properly is still a challenge but it has got a lot easier. The ways that we can amplify acoustic guitars now have come light years from when I started out. I discovered this Fishman soundhole magnetic pickup called a Blackstack, that I am very fond of and I have it in some of my guitars. What I love about it is that it is not a purely acoustic sound, it has a magnetic pickup so there is like a liquid fluidity to the sound that I think suits my playing. Some people want a more natural sound and are very keen on trying to find a pickup that amplifies your guitar without changing the sound at all but that is not necessarily important to me. If I want a great acoustic sound on a recording then I will eschew the pickup and just use great microphones but I actually like the sound of some of these high end magnetic soundhole pickups because in terms of sustain, they are something between an electric guitar and an acoustic guitar. I also have discovered that I enjoy playing through an amplifier, splitting the signal with a di, so you have a clean di signal and then you also link it to an amplifier of choice. My amplifier of choice is the Roland Jazz Chorus. They have made a new 40 watt model that has an adjustable depth and speed, which the original JC Jazz Chorus’ did not have, it was a fixed chorus. It was a good sound but having the ability to adjust it now is really cool and I love blending the di sound with the Jazz Chorus.

Would you consider yourself a prolific writer? Are you always writing a song?
Always wanting to write a song if not writing one. I have those moments where nothing comes and I try to force it. I have note books that are full of duds, songs that will never see the light of day but when a real song comes along I am delighted. I would call myself a prolific writer, yes.

Are you in the middle of writing a song at the moment?
No but in the middle of writing songs for a recording. At the moment, I think the last song I wrote was many days ago, maybe a week ago. I sent it to my producer and he really liked it and he’s started fiddling with it and it is sounding really good. I have also discovered recording at home, I have a wonderful engineer named Chris Mcgreevy who comes to my house and sets up in my bedroom with great microphones and interfaces in his laptop and that can be the start of a recording that will then travel around the world and end up being finished in .. you know … Jamaica. So it is exciting to be able to do that.

Do you have a bucket list of albums you’d like to make or is making an album more instinctual and immediate than that?
Yes more of the latter. I don’t plan too far ahead. There are artists who I would like to collaborate with but have yet to and artists I’d like to re-collaborate with but in terms of specific album projects, I more or less find the theme as I go along. I would like to make a guitar album, a vocal-less guitar album, where I either play something simple on one instrument or overdub into a lot of tapestries, that kind of thing. That’s a project I would like to do. I don’t mean shredding or anything like that, I am talking about making the kind of music you might want to put on in the kitchen when you’re cooking or taking a bath. Just really pleasing guitar music, I would like to make.

You are coming back to Australia again this week. Are you bringing your own band this time?
Yes my wonderful band, made up of Staffan Astner, a great guitar player from Sweden who I have brought to Australia before. The bass player is a lovely musician from London with Jamaican roots, Neville Malcolm, and the drummer who I have been working with for some years now is Paul Robinson, who played behind Nina Simone for about 20 years. A really good group of guys and we’re really excited about coming because as a group, we have been together a few years but never had the chance to do an extensive tour like this.

You are playing almost every day of the tour that you are in Australia. How do you like to spend the day prior to the gig?
Walking around the towns, going into bookshops that kind of thing. I also love to walk about a town I am either familiar with or have never been before just to get a lay of the land. Sometimes I will head towards the venue and see what is around. Melbourne is a favourite city, I love St Kilda. There are some favourite places, there’s a groovy vegetarian restaurant on the beach. I wonder … is CW Stoneking around at the moment? I have met him at a festival and love his stuff. I have seen him twice and I would love to see him again and I’d be curious to see what his next project is. He is always surprising us with cool stuff.

I’m not sure, where CW’s at, I’ll look into it for you. What are you most proud of in your music career?
Ah good question. I can tell you this … I get a lot of feedback through social media. I have always got nice feedback but because of this instant stuff, I now get a lot. What I get a lot is people telling me that they have been following my music for a number of years and that the music in general or specific songs have impacted their lives in a significant way. It’s surprising when I hear it and thrilling and very gratifying because a song is a powerful thing and if you can channel, come up with a song, write a song, whatever you want to call it, that makes a person’s life happier, healthier, whatever … that is an amazing accomplishment… better than any award you could ever get. So I would say I most proud of the way I have been able to impact in a positive way some of my fans’ lives.

WESTERN AUSTRALIA

Friday, May 10
Eric Bibb & band + Rick Steele & The Blues Busters + DJ Holly Doll (18+)
Rock Rover, 47 South Terrace, Fremantle
Doors: 7pm
Tickets: $80.60 through Oztix

Saturday, May 11
Eric Bibb & band + Rick Steele & The Blues Busters + DJ Holly Doll (18+)
The River, 40 Wallcliffe Rd, Margaret River
Doors: 7pm
Tickets: $80.60 through Oztix

NEW SOUTH WALES

Monday, May 13
Eric Bibb & band (18+)
Brass Monkey, 115A Cronulla St, Cronulla
Doors: 7pm
Tickets: $90 through Oztix

Thursday, May 16
Eric Bibb & Band (18+)
The Concourse, 409 Victoria Ave, Chatswood
Doors: 7pm
Tickets: $87.95+bf through Ticketek

Sunday, May 19
Lunch with The Legendary Eric Bibb (18+)
Lizotte’s, 31 Morehead St, Lambton
Doors: 12pm
Tickets: $85 (show only); $127 (dinner & show) through Lizottes

Sunday, May 19
The Legendary Eric Bibb (18+)
Lizotte’s, 31 Morehead St, Lambton
Doors: 6pm
Tickets: $85 (show only); $127 (dinner & show) through Lizottes

QUEENSLAND

Friday, May 17 & Saturday, May 18
Blues on Broadbeach
www.bluesonbroadbeach.com

SOUTH AUSTRALIA

Wednesday, May 22
Eric Bibb & band + Lazy Eye (18+)
The Gov, 59 Port Road, Hindmarsh
Doors: 7.30pm
Tickets: $87.25 through Oztix

VICTORIA

Thursday, May 23
Eric Bibb & band (18+)
The Thornbury Theatre, 859 High St, Thornbury
Doors: 7.00pm
Tickets: $81.60 (GA); $87.25-$91.80 (Reserved seating); $126.50 (Dinner & show) through Oztix

Friday, May 24
Eric Bibb & band (18+)
Fyrefly, 34 Inkerman St, St Kilda SOLD OUT



Saturday, May 25 
Eric Bibb & band (18+)
Meeniyan Hall, Meeniyan SOLD OUT



Sunday, May 26
Eric Bibb & band (18+)
Fyrefly, 34 Inkerman St, St Kilda
Doors: 7.00pm
Tickets:  $91.80 (Reserved seating); $132.60-$142.80 (Dinner & show) through Oztix

www.ericbibb.com