Jon Cleary talking about Dynamite New Orleans Music and more

BD: Jon, thank you for taking time out to speak to me at Bluesdoodles, before the launch of your album Dyna-mite out on 13th July and your tour as part of Bonnie Raitt’s Band. We did meet when you played at Abertillery Blues Festival with the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, long before Bluesdoodles existed!

BD: Before we talk about the latest album can we turn back the clock – what made blues music an obsession living in Kent?

JC: I grew up in a musical family with a great record collection, this educated me and provided a wealth of information. At that time there were two main sources of music on the television, Top of The Pops, mainstream hits of the day and Old Grey Whistle Test, progressive, serious ad rock music.  Blues I was aware of through my Uncles who were quite young, they were enthusiastic and musicians. I listened to all music that caught my ear.  I was digging deep into black music tradition, blues, jazz rather than listen to the music of the day. Artists like Dr John, Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder Bonnie Raitt were all on major labels, not the music I wanted to explore. You had to be a great musicologist digging this stuff up, the old era of black musicians. Now most musicians however obscure you can find in seconds by typing a name into google. Back then it was so much harder you became like an archaeologist on a dig finding a gem was hard and could take years looking for a recording it was like finding the Holy Grail.

BD: The obsession led you to leave Kent at 18 years old and moving to New Orleans, did you have a plan or was it lets see how this adventure turns out?

JC:  I had this idea of getting on a plane to New Orleans. Back then air travel was not so common and most people went to Florida or Disney World, not New Orleans. Now travel is freely available making the world smaller but the result is the rubbing away of regional cultures as they were what made you go to those place in the first place. They want McDonald’s, consumer goods and to be connected. New Orleans was an exotic location, when I got there they were amazed to hear an English accent I was something of a novelty and that helped me get a job and survive. I was lucky, landed a job in a bar where good music was played. I saw and heard all the music as I worked and welcomed into its dysfunctional world. I played the piano in the bar for fun. James Booker played on Tuesday afternoons, and my first gig was covering for him. I had been a guitar player since I was a kid, and had left it at home. There was a piano in the house I lived in, I taught myself. New Orleans music didn’t feature guitar I was diving in at the deep end I was hearing Booker all the time as he would hang out and drink in the bar as the owner was also his manager at the time.

BD: How has New Orleans changed your interpretation of the Blues, and does your understanding of the genre change over the years?

JC: Piano and horns define New Orleans. For many, if you say, New Orleans, they will conjure up the image of a black man with a trumpet in a Dixie band. New Orleans was the birthplace of Jazz and it’s own distinct form of Blues. The music has evolved the sound in the 40’s & 50’s was the template of what was to become Rock N’ Roll, in the 70’s it was the first place to play funk. Music has always been evolving and changing in New Orleans right back to when the slaves were allowed to freely congregate on a Sunday in Congo Square. This didn’t happen anywhere else in the US. New Orleans had a Code Noir (Black Code) on how to treat slaves. New Orleans is Catholic, was late to join the USA was first French then Spanish, it is different more in common with Cuba (Spanish) and Haiti (French). They could freely congregate, cook food play rhythms, and speak their native tongues. It is the most African city in the USA. You can still hear music on a Sunday on Congo Square.

BD: New album Dyna-mite, before we talk in detail, are you as an artist pleased with the finished album? 

JC: Yes, new album, did you enjoy it? BD: Yes superb, looking forward to sitting down and writing the review. As you can imagine a lot of music arrives every day, very few get the reaction where I say to my husband when he arrives home you have to listen to this one – that was my reaction to Dyna-mite!  JC: That is good to hear. For me when I hear music I have recorded, it is like when you have your head under a bonnet building an engine. You can’t go then on a casual drive, you are listening to every clunk. I can’t listen to my music objectively. Imagine a writer in front of a typewriter, typing, and the camera pulls back and the floor is covered in screwed up balls of paper. Or an artist when you X-ray a painting you can see that there are other versions as the painter tries to get it right, yes, you can edit but you have to let it go though you feel it should have been different.  As a musician, I don’t want it to sound like what has been heard before.  Never quite happy with result can hear should have done this wish though about doing that.  There are artists that just hit the spot, photographer Herman Leonard did with his iconic black and white photographs. Cigarette smoking of the jazz greats including Billie Holiday. He only had twelve shots, he would sit and wait for the right moment, impressive. He had no opportunity to edit, the tape was good, just recorded over so you focus on the one shot. Rn’B greats like Little Richard, Fats Domino would record fifty takes then go back to number eighteen.  Though often the final take was not a complete performance as the tape man would edit taking vocals from take eighteen, the rhythm section from take twenty piano from take 24 etc. Making a record is difficult need capacity to produce the inspiration you hear. It is a lifelong struggle to get one thing that is very good. Nothing is as good as it should be, or as good as it could be.

BD: Having listened a few times it is replete with textures and tones that defy adjectives. Your piano playing is the glue that holds the sound together (whether on piano, Hammond or Spinnet). On the album, you play slide on a dobro and guitar who did you invite to be part of your big and greasy, high-class symphony swamp orchestra?

JC: Lots of people. I traditionally start and do the whole album back down in my own studio, I play the drums, bass, guitars piano and lots of keyboards from Nigel Hall.  Second track, Skin in the Game is just Nigel and myself in my studio. Then when I go uptown to the studio there is a lot of collaboration, a couple of rhythm sections play on the record. Jamison Ross great drummer is on most of the record, he is an incredible downbeat jazz drummer. Calvin Turner bass player is one of the best I have played with, he decided though to join the Police Force instead of being a full-time musician. He is one of the funkiest I know. Various others big cast of characters. You want to invite all your friends, but you still upset people when they see you why didn’t you ask me, Jon says laughing.

BD: The creative, pre-production of Dyna-mite was done in your own studio. How has this freedom of your own space impacted and shaped Dyna-mite?

JC:  Followed similar path, I really make three albums.  I spend time in my own studio I have an idea I press record and try to capture the image of the sound I want on the final recording. This is a snapshot too when I have got all the instruments. I make the record myself, mix, arrange and record. Once this is done I send the track to the musicians to listen to and then redo it much better each track again in a studio I use in New Orleans. Sometimes it is the original I like it better, sometimes there are elements of the studio session I prefer of the studio session for a whole track recorded in situ. I then create the final album which is a combination of the two albums. Dyna-mite the title track is the whole band, one live take. Big Greasy is a combination of my demo and studio. James Hunter’s horn section was in town and played on Best Ain’t Good enough; I’m Not Mad is my take with overdubs. Lots of it is a hybrid of the rented studio and my own. It is an unusual way of working and takes a long time which is invested as  I like to experiment, this is why it takes eighteen months to make in between the road trips. Most time on the road that is the way I earn my money. When I am home and have a Wednesday off I turn pro tools and look at my to-do list and decide what I am working on that day. It is one way of making a record. It would be a novelty to make it a different way. I do enjoy playing with no audience headphones on. Engineering I am not good at. Skin in the Game, Nigel came round for a cup of tea did for a laugh, set up a mic stand and placed in front of the drum kit and played not perfectly recorded but making records is not an exact science for me it is mix and match.

BD: Final question?

BD: If you were putting together the perfect band with members from across the years (dead or alive) who would you have playing
Jon: Impossible to answer. In a perfect world, I would have different musicians for each song. They all have different strengths. Some individuals are better for a particular style or number. Great Rhythm sections so I would handpick for each number. BD: So your perfect band would reflect the way you make your records? JC: I have my own label, most record companies would not sign up an artist like myself, not much money in recorded music anymore. If money was no object I would do more studio work and less gigs.

Pre-order Dynamite Here:

JJon Cleary talking about Dynamite New Orleans Music and more

 

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