Featured Interview – Ian Siegal

When he talks, it’s a dead giveaway that he’s from near Portsmouth (population 205,400), on the south coast of England.

But when Ian Siegal sings the blues and plays guitar, one would swear that the Englishman hailed from near Potts Camp (population 494), deep in the heart of Marshall County, Mississippi.

So just how does Siegal – who now calls Amsterdam (the Venice of the North) home – pull off that impressive feat?

“Well, I guess it’s just that I’ve really immersed myself in that (Hill Country) music. It’s just part of the furniture in my head and I just love it so much,” Siegal recently said just an hour or so removed from exiting a studio session for his latest release. “It’s nice to know that I can fit in with guys over there who truly come from that culture. I guess in a way, it’s my tribute to that. I would never pretend to come from there (Mississippi), but it’s an intrinsic part of my musical background and hopefully I’m appreciating it in the proper way.”

He may not be a household name in the lexicon of the blues cognoscente, but Ian Siegal is no new kid on the block, having authored 10 albums of rich, roots-related music in the past decade.

And while he’s became musical contemporaries and runnin’ pardners with a who’s-who of the Hill Country circuit – cats like Jimbo Mathus, Luther and Cody Dickinson, Alvin Youngblood Hart and members of the Burnside and Kimbrough families, Siegal isn’t content to just try and turn in a paint-by-numbers rendition of the music those guys grew up around. Rather, he’s simply flavored his own Chess-styled blues with bits and pieces of the Mississippi Delta and flourishes of other Americana, resulting in a sound that occupies its own sonic space.

Siegal is also about as prolific an artist as one will find these days, having issued three projects in a shade over a year-and-a-half. Those are three projects that speak volumes about his versatility and eagerness to avoid repeating the same old formula over and over.

The Picnic Sessions (Nugene Records) sounds just like the title suggests – back-porch pickin’ on a Sunday afternoon, miles removed from the nearest sign of civilization.

One Night in Amsterdam is the full-blown modern electric blues, with Siegal backed up by a white-hot band of hungry youngsters.

And at the opposite end of the spectrum is Man & Guitar, a set of acoustic tunes that Siegal recorded by his lonesome at famed Royal Albert Hall.

In other words, if you’re looking for predictability, you definitely shouldn’t cast your gaze in Siegal’s direction.

“I don’t really think about it much, and none of those things were particularly planned to come out the way they did … they weren’t terribly conscious … that’s just the way they happened. They’re all just different colors and different flavors, but they’re all inter-connected, of course,” he said. “I’m such a big fan of so many different musical styles that I find it easy to slip into things like that. That’s one of the similarities between myself and Jimbo and Luther and Cody and Alvin. I mean, Alvin can go out and play ’70s British rock music – that’s what he loves – but then he can also go out and play Charley Patton. I think there’s a lot of people like us that have different hats they can wear with equal aplomb.”

As if that’s not been enough to keep Siegal – who may very be the Energizer Bunny of the blues, busy – he also spent a few months late last year traipsing around the United Kingdom with his good buddy Jimbo Mathus (the un-offical Mayor of Como, Mississippi) in tow. While it may not have been Gulliver’s Travels, the pairing of Siegal and Mathus roaming freely together across the countryside must have made for some astonishing tall tales that are sure to work their way into the fabric of legend.

“It was a nightmare from start to finish. He’s (Mathus) miserable and doesn’t talk,” laughed Siegal. “No, really it was great. We had an absolute blast; certainly the most enjoyable tour I’ve ever done, without any real effort on our part to rehearse. We had the luxury of having a tour manager/driver, which made it so great for us, because we could just relax and tell stupid stories. It was honestly a laugh-a-minute, it really was. The audiences just loved Jimbo. We had such a good time and people really seemed to enjoy it – it just worked.”

Much like Siegal, it seems like Mathus has always been on the precipice of mainstream success, and with any luck, both of them will get their just deserts from the blues community in the near future.

“I think he’s (Mathus) finally getting more attention. Not as much as he deserves, but it seems like things are improving,” Siegal said. “I think he had some issues with labels and stuff in the past, but now he’s finally free to do what he wants and it’s great what he’s doing.”

Siegal’s portal into the world of the Hill Country blues came via Robert Mugge’s brilliant 1992 documentary, Deep Blues: A Musical Pilgrimage to the Crossroads. Through that movie, Siegal learned of the patriarch families of the Holly Springs area.

“I was about 16 or 17 when that came out and my dad got it on CD, with R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. Then, it went off my radar for awhile. And then Sweet Tea (Buddy Guy’s magnificent 2001 release that celebrated Hill County blues) came out, and in a small world getting smaller, Jimbo was basically the musical director on that album,” Siegal said. “And also about that time, the North Mississippi Allstars kind of reawakened that music and brought it back into my life. Then nine or 10 years later, I find myself working with Jimbo and Luther and Cody and all these guys, so it’s strange sometimes how things happen.”

Siegal’s 2011 album – The Skinny – was billed as Ian Siegal and The Youngest Sons and features the youngest sons of Jim Dickinson (Cody), R.L. Burnside (Garry) and Junior Kimbrough (Robert).

“Yeah, thanks to Cody (who produced the album), I had Burnsides and Kimbroughs on it. It was a real honor to have them playing on it,” said Siegal.

When Siegal gets together with the Dickinson brothers and Alvin Youngblood Hart, what you have is a collective known as The Mississippi Mudbloods. They were responsible for 2012’s Candy Store Kid, an album that they were able to do a bit of touring behind, and if things shake out the proper way, blues fans may get another dose of Siegal and The Mudbloods sometime down the road.

“Quite possibly. It’s just that everyone’ s been so busy with projects – Cody and Luther, in particular. They’ve got their fingers in so many pies that I frankly don’t know how they keep up with themselves – it’s insane how much stuff they’re involved with,” Siegal said. “But it’s (The Mississippi Mudbloods) an open-ended thing and we did it because it was a convenient time and things fell into place. We did do a real last-minute show last year. There was a cancellation at the Cambridge Folk Festival and they asked me to do it with my band, who were not available at that time. As I was looking down the roster of the groups that were playing there, I noticed the North Mississippi Allstars. So I e-mailed Cody and Luther, expecting them to say they couldn’t do two shows in one day, but they were like, ‘Yeah! Let’s do it.’ So just like that, it happened, which was really cool. But I am planning another tour with Jimbo for next year, because it was just so popular. People went nuts.”

He may not have gotten the opportunity to take the bandstand with them, but Siegal still fondly recalls getting the chance to be near a couple of other Mississippi blues legends that are no longer with us.

“I did get to see Robert Belfour at the (Kenny Brown’s annual Hill Country) Picnic two years ago and even though he didn’t play, I did get to hang out with T-Model Ford, as well. That was quite an experience. It was so sweet, but Duwayne Burnside sat beside him and held his hand the whole time – T-Model had recently had a stroke and was in a wheelchair and was in bad physical shape,” said Siegal. “But Duwayne held his hand and everybody was feeding T-Model white lightning, but you know if a man gets to be in his 90s and can’t drink a little white lightning … I really don’t know when he can. And T-Model was still managing to eye all the girls with a twinkle as they went past, so it was a real honor to be in his company, if even just for a couple of hours. But it is important to get out and see people, because there’s so many that I’ve missed, so I’ll take any opportunity to see my heroes these days.”

Another interesting twist to the musical fabric that makes up Siegal is his propensity to pen songs that instantly evoke memories of the ways and the bygone days of the deep south. It wouldn’t be too far off base to think of the knack that The Band’s Robbie Robertson (a Canadian) had for telling stories about American life south of the Mason-Dixon line when thinking of some of the compositions that Siegal has created.

“So many things (inspire his songwriting) … it could be a line from a book or a line from a movie that sets me off, or even something that someone says. I don’t really have a formula; normally it comes to me in a rush, sometimes in complete songs,” he said. “But I’m not the most prolific writer. I tend to write only when I’m told I have to. I normally don’t wander around writing, although I wish that I did … it’s quite lazy of me, really.”

Siegal acknowledges the influence of Bob Dylan as a writing force, something he says that you really can’t get away from if you’re a song-writer.

“I think any songwriter is going to be influenced by Dylan in some way or another, even if you don’t aspire to be that good. And I would never compare myself to him,” he said. “But he certainly recreated – or opened things up, if you will – songwriting with all kinds of possibilities. In my early days of songwriting, I was trying so hard to be Tom Waits … it was almost painful, but I think a lot of songwriters have been there. He’s certainly still in there, although I’ve diluted that some and I purposely avoid Waits-isms. Still, his shadow looms large.”

Speaking of the one-and-only Tom Waits, Siegal’s vocal delivery is at times highly reminiscent of his. Siegal can go from a paper-thin whisper to a wall-shattering roar – at times in the same breath – and has proven that his pipes are one dangerous weapon. Sprinkle in a dose of Howlin’ Wolf, a helping of Captain Beefheart and maybe a pinch of Joe Cocker and you’ve got an idea of the power and the fury of Ian Siegal.

“Yeah, that’s become my vocal style and I can’t do a great deal about it anymore … but I think I directed it that way when I started out. When I started singing, I wanted to be Little Richard or Marvin Gaye. I have a natural tone in my voice that’s similar to Tom Waits and Dr. John, the same kind of range, anyway,” he said. “But I don’t see the Joe Cocker (comparisons), except that I’ve got a gravely voice. But when I do The Wolf thing, it’s because I’m obviously doing an impersonation of him, it’s not a coincidence. It’s like, ‘Hey everybody, I’m trying to do The Wolf, now.’ It’s a vocal adaptation that if anything, it’s done for fun. I’m not trying to pretend that I naturally sing that way … it’s a vocal trick that Taj Mahal and Omar Dykes does really well.”

Another one of Siegal’s early influences was the King of the Blues, the late, great B.B. King.

“It’s hard to describe just how important he was. When I first started playing, I remember sitting with Live at the Regal, trying to copy every note. It’s really just hard to fathom how important he was,” he said. “He just touched so many people … his influence was huge, especially when you think about all the British guys in the ’60s who were heavily influenced by B.B. And he was just such an ambassador for the blues throughout his whole career. He never stopped, he was just so relentless. He really became a part of the culture, far beyond the blues. His name was known even by people that were not into the blues. Him, Muddy and Wolf were my three earliest influences. I wish I had gotten to see him live, but I never did and that’s sad.”

Siegal looms large in the world of British blues and is included among the ranks of the British Blues Awards Hall of Fame.

“That means a lot – it means that I’m being appreciated and being recognized. I think if anyone – regardless of the field they’re in – denies that something like that is important, they’re probably lying,” he said. “It’s easy to be like, ‘Oh, awards don’t matter,’ but of course they do. So it’s an honor to be recognized in that way, so I’m very proud of those things.”

Even though his parents were not musicians, there was still plenty of music playing around the Siegal household when Ian was a young lad.

“Music was always playing in the house where I grew up. It was Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry and Elvis and The Stones and The Beatles and so I think I absorbed all of that. I was quite a precocious child, musically. It’s funny, but when I talk to my contemporaries, they talk about buying their first vinyl when they were 11 or 12, but I think I was 3 or 4 when I bought my first vinyl. I didn’t go to the store myself, but I used my Christmas money to buy a Slade record when I was 4,” he said. “I really think the first blues I heard was The Stones’ version of “Red Rooster.” And then I found out it was a Wolf song. I always say this, but it’s true – I don’t recall a time when I was not aware of the blues. I can’t tell you exactly how that happened, but I don’t ever remember not being aware of the names Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, so I got into that (the blues) pretty early on.”

It may surprise some – especially since he grew up on the very soil where they were hailed as Gods – but Siegal never really took a major liking to some of the cats that were hailed as trendsetters and saviors of the blues back in the late 1960s.

“I was about 10 years too late for the British blues boom period, so I was never really into John Mayall and Eric Clapton and Peter Green and all those guys. I sort of had the privilege of going back before them, you know? They did promote and educate people into the world of the real blues, but by the time I came of age, people like Freddie King and B.B. (King) and Albert (King) were in the public domain, and it took me less effort to get to them,” he said. “And I’m glad about that, because the sort of rockier side of the blues is really not my thing. I’m pleased that I went straight to the source and discovered American blues before I got into British blues. I think that makes you a different – I’m not saying better – but a different, player.”

As such, Siegal knows ‘classic Howlin’ Wolf’ apart from … well, let’s just say ‘not so classic Howlin’ Wolf.’

“I’ve played the original version of a Howlin’ Wolf track for someone and then I’ll play The London Sessions version of the same song he did with like Bill Wyman and Clapton and Ringo and have had people go, ‘Oh, yeah – this (London Sessions) is much better.’ I’ll go, ‘Really? This is better than the Chess originals? Are you kidding?’ But, there’s no accounting for taste, is there?” asked Siegal. “But it does take all sorts.”

Just like in the United States, blues music seems to be enjoying a wave of popularity and very solid footing in the Untied Kingdom and Europe in the 21st Century.

“Apart from the ’60s, when it was very huge and very influential, I think it’s as big now as it ever was – apart from that period. Some people would argue that the culture of the blues doesn’t exist anymore and that everything being done now is retro or in tribute,” Siegal said. “But there’s certainly some great players still out there … although there’s very few of the originals. When you look at Gary Clark, Jr., playing the White House, I mean, that’s big. And I’m hearing so much blues in movies and in TV shows and in commercials these days. It’s really in the air a lot, really more than ever, TV-wise. So the blues are quite hip at the moment and long may that continue.”

Even though blues music may be permeating the idiot box at an all-time record pace these days, Siegal says that it sometimes still is forced to take a backseat – or no seat at all – in the eyes of some concert promoters.

“One thing I find is often the case is when you get festivals that have many different forms of music where you’ll have the pop and rock stages and the metal stage and a jazz stage and a world-music stage, but they won’t have a blues stage,” he said. “And I suppose it is a niche genre and is not as popular as other things, but that’s a real shame. Sometimes the blues gets treated like a poor cousin and that should be changed. I mean, why shouldn’t there be a blues stage at some of these major music events?”

It’s not like very many blues artists were ever able to find a regular home on the charts – with a few exceptions – but there are sure not many that show up in the Top 40 these days. But then again, given the way that music is consumed in 2015, it’s a wonder that any artist – pop, rock, country or blues – is able to sell enough records to earn a spot in Billboard’s rankings.

“The whole music scene has changed in the last few years, with digital downloads and CD sales down. You can hardly keep a handle on things with CD sales almost at zero. In my case, since I’ve never been a major charting artist, that doesn’t make that much of a difference with me. I’ve always made CDs for promotion and to get on festivals and stuff like that,” he said. “It’s not that significant of a change for me. But as I always say, ‘If anyone gets in the blues to make a lot of money, they’re making a huge mistake.’ Trust me, I know people that have thought they would become wealthy by playing the blues. But guess what? That’s not why we do this and thank goodness for that or we’d really be let down.”

Despite the lack of wealth earned – coupled with the cost of doing business – it’s still full speed ahead for Ian Siegal.

“I’ve always played a Hell of a lot of gigs – I think I did over 200 last year – and I don’t plan on stopping. I can go out and do solo gigs and that’s what really keeps my head above water these days, because putting a band on the road is pretty tough and it’s getting harder,” he said. “I can honestly say it’s getting tougher out there, but I can also honestly say that I won’t stop.”

Visit Ian’s wensite at: http://iansiegal.com/.

Photos by Bob Kieser © 2015 Blues Blast Magazine

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