What on earth could possess a 15 year old boy in 1997 to have an interest in Blues harmonica?
A young Brandon Santini listened to a popular rock band of the day and liked what he heard.
“At 15, as you can imagine, you listen to what’s on mainstream radio and Blues Traveler…I heard those guys and I was like, ‘Man, I really like that harmonica.’ So, I bought one of their albums and I saw what kind of harmonica John Popper plays, so I asked my mom to take me to the music store and ended up buying a harmonica that day.”
That day would change Santini’s life as he is now recognized to be one of the best harp players in the blues scene today. Santini’s most recent studio recording, 2013’s This Time Another Year, was widely lauded and earned Santini nominations for several awards.
When asked why “harmonica heroes” don’t seem to be household names like “guitar heroes” are, Santini delivered a theory pinning it on the amateur that thinks they can play.
“I’m not really sure of the exact answer to that. You know, harmonica can be a really easy instrument to play and it can be a really tough instrument to play for some people. Luckily with a lot of practice I’ve been able to achieve what I have. I think the harmonica…I don’t know if people don’t think it’s the coolest instrument, as much as a guitar, or what but I think that a lot of cats will give it a bad name by showing up at jams. There’s that guy in the audience that has the harmonica that’s playing in the wrong key. I think it’s a different ballgame with harmonica.”
Santini does have an optimistic outlook on bringing harmonica playing back in focus in blues music today because he thinks it is currently lacking. “I’m trying to change that. (laughs) There’s a lot of great players out there. I just wish there were more in the forefront.” Santini continued with a valid point that “back in the ‘50s and ‘60s you couldn’t find a blues band without a harmonica player. That’s just totally different now.”
In terms of harmonica influences, Santini has a laundry list that, while predictable, is also essential. “Well the first guy to get me into straight blues was Paul Butterfield. Then I got into James Cotton. Then Little Walter. You know, Kim Wilson, Sonny Boy Williamson II…all those guys are my big influences,” said Santini. “It’s tough for me to narrow it down. I really like the big tone amplified players a lot and James Cotton is great at that.”
Since Santini represents a younger generation of blues players, it was important for him to highlight his inspirations from the new guard: “Well, you know I think Jason Ricci has really helped the instrument evolve. He does some really amazing things that I can’t do, but he’s an amazing player. I’m glad that he’s getting the recognition he deserves. Outside of that, some of my favorites now that are still out there are…Gary Smith, he’s absolutely amazing. There are some great guys that are doing a lot of instruction…Dennis Gruenling is one of my favorite new guys. Ronnie Shellist out in Colorado, he’s absolutely amazing. Bob Corritore is an amazingly tasteful player and a true gentleman.”
While his harp playing is clearly what sets Santini apart, he also commands a huge, smoky voice that perfectly complements the music. Initially Santini had no intention of singing, but rather was forced to out of necessity. “The way I started singing is when I first had the idea of leaving North Carolina where I grew up to come to Memphis I was playing with a guitar player in a duo setting. It was his idea to move to Memphis back in 2003 and I said, ‘That’s great man! Who’s gonna sing?’ And he said, ‘You are.’ I said, ‘Ooof, okay.’ (laughs) It was just trial and error and just forming my own voice.”
Santini doesn’t credit one vocalist as the inspiration for his style, but many fans of his have their own thoughts. “Some people say I sound like Dr. John, I get that more than anyone else, but it never has been just one single influence. It’s very much my voice and I’m really proud of that. It’s definitely far from perfect, but I guess it’s just everything I’ve heard. That’s the best I can describe it.”
Was it was tough making a living in the blues scene in Memphis with so many other blues acts based there?
“When I first moved here I certainly hadn’t achieved a lot of great things with my playing. I still had so much to learn. I still do. It was amazing to see all of the great entertainers, not just musicians, but entertainers on stage. On Beale Street you have to put on a show and be able to pull those people in off of Beale Street because if you don’t somebody else is going to do it. There was just so much great talent to learn from. The beautiful thing about Memphis and the blues genre in general is that I don’t see it as a very competitive genre. It’s very family-oriented and supportive genre and that’s why I’m really proud to be a part of it.”
“Even though the blues market is relatively small, it’s a blessing in disguise because you get to form these relationships and friendships with people all over the world…it’s a beautiful thing.”
This Time Another Year was both a huge nod to one of Santini’s harmonica heroes and also a comment on life in general. “Well the song ‘This Time Another Year’ is a big take on an old Charlie Musselwhite tune. I just thought that line is really cool because ‘this time another year I wonder where I’m gonna be?’ That’s how that lyric goes and I think that’s such a very, very cool introspective thing that we always ask ourselves.”
“We recorded about 20 hours at Ardent Studios in Memphis. Ardent’s a very legendary studio, so it was really cool to record there and absorb the mojo of the albums that had been recorded there in the past. We tracked live for pretty much all of the instruments. There were a few times that we’d go back and overdub a harmonica solo and go back and re-do some of the lyrics and some things like that, but I really like to capture that live feel. When you’re playing 150-200 shows a year, you’re naturally going to be more comfortable with that live feel instead of layering things over and over again. I think in the blues world it’s very much a necessity to capture that live feel and not lose that.”
Santini received two Blues Music Award nominations this year following the warm reception of This Time Another Year, one for “Contemporary Blues Album of the Year” and also for “Best Instrumentalist – Harmonica.” Santini recalled his initial feeling when he heard the news that he was nominated for awards along with the likes of Buddy Guy, Charlie Musselwhite, and James Cotton: “It was so exciting. The nominees will get an e-mail from the Blues Foundation before it’s public and I remember scrolling down on my computer…I was just like ‘Oh my God.’ It felt so good to know that all the hard work and dedication was paying off. Even though I didn’t win, I feel that just being nominated…just being in the house…is the rewarding part. Musicians put a lot of love and labor into these projects and touring…and you always want to know that your hard work is being noticed and paying off.”
“You’re up against legends. How do you compete with that? (laughs) You don’t. You really don’t. I like to think that if it weren’t for all those people nominated in those categories…especially the harmonica category…if it weren’t for Cotton and Musselwhite, there would be no me. That’s what I like to think of it.”
“It’s also nice to know in that category specifically that the nominators and the voters are recognizing that there is a newer generation of blues. We’re just trying to keep it going and carry it on.”
Also, for the second year in a row, Santini is nominated for the “Sean Costello Rising Star Award” in the 2014 Blues Blast Music Awards. “I can’t wait to find out…being nominated is really a highlight. It’s amazing to be nominated amongst your friends in this category. I think last year Doug Deming was a very worthy recipient of that award. I’m just thankful to be recognized by the people and the nominators. It’s a really nice feeling.”
Santini had some words of advice for anyone interested in pursuing a career in music: “Go to college and get a degree. (laughs) You know, it takes a lot of dedication and for me it took a leap of faith. I find a lot of musicians that I know that have the daytime job thing going on…they’re afraid to make that move and to sacrifice that comfort and that’s very understandable. I think making friends and supporting other musicians is the key to it. There’s so many musicians that can go out there and be unkind and unsupportive to other musicians and bands. I think that will give you a bad image, a bad name, and that’s definitely not what you want.” Santini rephrased the “Golden Rule” filtered through the music business by stating, “Be kind to musicians, be kind to fans, and you should be alright.”
Touring life can take it’s toll on a musician, but Santini seems to relish the opportunity to share his music with fans in the live setting. What does he enjoy most about touring?
“The unpredictability of it. You’re meeting so many people each day of your tour and there’s always some amazing folks out there when you’re on the road. You see strange things, you see very rewarding things. It seems like no day is exactly the same. I really just enjoy getting out there on stage and playing music for the people.”
Santini will have plenty of opportunities to get “out there on stage” when he will be touring in support of his new live album. “We’re actually going to be releasing a new live album in late January. That hasn’t been officially announced yet. So we’re going to start hitting the road late January. We do a couple nights in Upstate New York and there’s some things routing to and from. In February we’re gonna be doing four nights on the Joe Bonamassa Keeping the Blues Alive (at Sea) cruise that goes out of Miami to Key West and to the Bahamas, so (I’m) looking forward to that. We’ve got some festivals lined up for the springtime and we’re gonna be basically touring a whole bunch in support of this album.”
“It’s gonna be called Live and Extended! with a big exclamation mark at the end because it’s gonna represent my live show really well which is an energetic, dynamic show. It was recorded in Quebec City, Canada. Quebec was one of the last shows of the summer tour last summer and it’s gonna be about 65-70 minutes of music. It’s good, man. It’s energetic. I say Live and Extended! because I think ‘extended’ is a great word for it because most of the songs are over 5 minutes long and there’s a lot of crowd interaction. I’m really excited about it.”
Many people have convoluted or overblown goals in the music business, but Santini’s prime motivator is quite simple.
“I really want people to just feel good when they listen to my music. I’ve had people at shows tell me that they’ve cried. I’ve seen people emotional at shows on a real slow song. I really just want people to have a good time…either at the show or listening at home or in the car. I want them to forget about all the troubles and just get all those negative thoughts out of their head and just let themselves go and be free for that time period. That’s what it’s about. I like to make people smile at the shows and I hope my music does the same too.”
Santini has no intentions of rushing his next studio album, but he has already begun the writing process. “I’ve been writing on stuff for the last several months. We’re actually gonna start recording some of those demos and just taking our time with it. There’s no set time as to when we’ll be back in the studio. Ideally by the end of 2015, that would be nice, but I’m gonna take my time on this one I think,” said Santini. He continued, “There’s a lot of different material that this will have on it. I don’t know the word to describe it, but it’ll be a little more personal and less traditional.”
What it was about blues music that still speaks to him as a musician? Santini has the perfect answer.
“I think it’s a very honest and imperfect music. That’s basically what life is like. Life can have its hang-ups and blues can really soothe that. There’s so much great blues music out there that can pull you in. It’s soulful. I think that’s all you can really ask from a song or a musician…is to be honest and soulful.”
“I’m always very thankful for all of my fans and friends and without the support of them there’d be no me. There wouldn’t be a lot of blues bands. (laughs) We’re all in this together and helping each other with the blues, whether it’s musicians, booking agents, fans, club owners, publications, interviewers…we’re all together and we all have to stick together and keep this beautiful genre of music we call the blues going strong.”
Photos by Marilyn Stringer © 2014
Interviewer Steve Patrick is a lifelong blues, rock, and metal fan from Ohio. Steve is also a staff writer for UWeekly newspaper in Columbus, OH and Senior Columnist for HardrockHaven.net.