Featured Interview: Jeff Jensen

imageThere’s no mistaking Jeff Jensen when he hits the stage. The blues-rocker’s a high-energy, high-intensity performer from the jump, crisscrossing the floor in rapid-fire movements, drawing a roar from the crowd as he doffs his cap and lets his freak flag of long locks fly free for the world to see.

A gregarious road dog, Jeff’s shows are cram-packed with original material infused with the heights and depths of human emotion, baring his personal struggles, vulnerabilities and honesty in the process. But as well as even his biggest fans think they know him, there’s far deeper that even they might imagine.

There’s no question that he’s a full-on wild man in performance. When the house lights dim, however, and he’s at home with his wife and newborn daughter, Raelyn, he reveals himself to be a different creature entirely: a deep-thinker with strong family values and concerns for his fellow man.

Like most folks in music today, he’s balancing precariously on a blue tightrope, dealing with putting food on his table and keeping a roof over his head in the midst of an unbelievable, inconceivable international tragedy, fully aware that his only source of income is gone and fearful that the entertainment world might never recover from the damage it’s already experiencing.

At age 39 and based out of Memphis for most of the past decade, Jensen’s already had plenty of ups and downs in life. But nothing like this – as Blues Blast learned when we caught up with him by phone recently. It’s particularly difficult, he says, because he’s always been imbued with a strong work ethic.

The son of a hard-working construction contractor, he grew up on a ten-acre ranch in Green Valley, Calif., about two hours north of Los Angeles and surrounded on three sides by San Bernardino National Forest. And even though his family weren’t farmers, there were plenty of animals – cows, pigs and chickens — and other chores afoot to keep him busy. “We grew most of our own food,” he remembers, “especially meat. We raised a cow a year, slaughtered it and had a deep freeze with hundreds and hundreds of pounds of beef in it.”

Jeff grew up listening to ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s rock, primarily through his mother’s extensive record collection, which lead him directly to the blues. “I realized that some of my favorite songs weren’t written by the guys playing them,” he says. “I kept seeing names like Willie Dixon and Robert Johnson in the credits. As soon as I got my first Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters albums, it was all over – the blues got me!

“When I wanted to play guitar, I was ten, and my parents were like: ‘Yeah, you can play guitar, but you have to get a job and save up enough money to buy one. Do it, and we’ll help you out with lessons.”

The youngster started doing whatever odd jobs he could find – everything from painting fences to mucking out stalls, saving every penny he could and finally earning enough to pick up his first six-string a year later. After experimenting with rock, funk and jazz, he started playing professionally after high school, eventually landing a gig in a blues band that worked as far south as San Diego a few times a month.

He’s been a hard worker ever since – even working behind the scenes as a 23-year-old to found the Santa Clarita Valley Blues Society in 2003, an organization he initiated with an older friend, Chris Sabie, after becoming interested in the Blues Foundation and traveling with him to Memphis to attend the International Blues Challenge. Based in Newhall, Calif., the group remains active today.

imageJensen founded his own band about a year later and worked out of Southern California from 2005 to 2009, playing about 200 shows annually and releasing two albums: The Jeff Jensen Band and I’m Coming Home on Swing Suit Records. The group competed at three IBCs during that period and served as the opening act for B.B. King during his tour to celebrate his 80th birthday.

Always interested in producing, Jeff’s been heavily involved in the studio since 2008, when another friend, John Parker – who was in the midst of a five-year war with cancer — enlisted him to supervise the recording of his own, self-titled album. That disc was finished just prior to Parker’s death and released a few months later. It’s loaded with inspirational originals, including “Forget All My Fears,” which deals with his battle. That song’s become an anthem that’s frequently played at American Cancer Society events, and Jeff sometimes incorporates it in his own sets today.

Jensen relocated to Portland, Ore., in 2009 and re-formed his group, but trouble was on the horizon. By the time he left in 2011, he’d lost everything, including his band, his house and his lady. He was ready to head back to California, abandon music altogether and get a real job when a friend extended an offer to put him up for a while in Memphis until he could get back on his feet.

It proved to be one of the best moves in Jeff’s life. He arrived dead broke, without a car or a plan – just a suitcase and a guitar in hand. Less than two days later, he crossed paths with Brandon Santini for the first time at a jam on Beale Street. In short order, the harp player hired him to serve as both his lead guitarist and musical director.

Jensen’s career has been on a major upswing ever since. After a two-year stint in the Brandon Santini Band, he relaunched his own unit, but still found time to produce Brandon’s stellar Same Time Another Year CD, which earned a Blues Music Award nomination. In the years since, Jeff’s released four of his own albums, beginning with the highly autobiographical Road Worn and Ragged in 2013 and, most recently, Wisdom & Decay in 2018, earning nominations for two Blues Blast Music Awards Sean Costello Rising Star honors in the process.

Still extremely close friends and still touring with their own groups, he and Brandon reunited in 2017 as The Santini-Jensen Project for a few select festival dates. The response proved so great, it was impossible to ignore. With guitarist Timo Arthur, bassist Bill Ruffino and drummer David “Alabanimal” Green from their own bands in tow, they started working up new material and rebranded the spinoff as Tennessee Redemption, a supergroup that now works independently at bigger shows when individual schedules allow.

As 2020 began, Jeff and his cohorts were awash with great reviews for their Tennessee Redemption CD, which debuted last September, and their calendar was filled up with major bookings across North America and Europe, promising to be their most rewarding year yet.

Then coronavirus hit, something that – for Jensen – has been both a blessing and a curse. He’d already anticipated the April birth of Raelyn by blocking out a couple of months of down time from his schedule – but nothing like this.

“As a new father,” he says, “it’s hard to separate them. From a parental, emotional-bonding point-of-view, how many men have the opportunity to spend multiple months with their infant, where they’re home all the time? There’s no way this would have happened.

image“In a normal year, I would have been on the road for 50 to 65 per cent of the days of 2020. I would have been gone a lot. To be home with the baby has been awesome. To be a first-time parent, being off the road is a blessing…but

“Now, because of COVID-19, the entire career that I’ve been cultivating and harvesting for decades is nonexistent. It’s financially straining, but it’s also a pretty big emotional hit, especially on somebody who’s used to being self-sufficient.

“I had a dad who is and was one of the most hard-working dudes I’ve ever met, and I’ve tried to live like him. But now, I’m on the opposite side of the coin of what he went through when I was born. He was working 60 or 70 hours a week. My daughter’s born, and I’m like…I’m unemployed…I’ll figure it out when my industry comes back. I’m a hard worker myself, and that’s tough, man!”

The realities are both devastating and brutal for every musician during this difficult time, Jensen insists. “We’re very much living in unprecedented time for all of modern humanity. But what a lot of the people who aren’t in the music business don’t fully understand is that this is the greatest individual economic depression in the history of the recording industry.

“Obviously, it was caused by this global pandemic. But even during the Great Depression (note: the influenza pandemic in 1919 occurred six years before the release of the first 78-rpm record), there were still bands that could play live, that could tour and entertain people. Now, we have multiple other sources of entertainment as well as it’s simply not safe to gather in groups of large people.

“As a musician, it’s a pretty scary thing to be going through. Even though I’m almost always a really optimistic person and believe that — when all this ends –we’ll all figure it out, the future of what we do is definitely in limbo right now. The future of what we do is on a tightrope. Obviously, the longer the lockdown goes on, the more small and independent venues where most blues bands play are going to go out of business.”

Jensen cites recent research that shows that as many as 90 per cent of individually owned music venues are currently at risk of closing, and – like the virus itself – the wave of closures is starting to pick up speed.

“Most places were able to weather a couple of months of this,” Jeff points out. “But now we’re at the point that about five venues a week are closing down in the States.

“As this continues,” he wonders, “how many venues are going to be left? When we reopen – and it’s safe to gather again – how many of them will be left standing, and will there be enough for touring artists to profitably and sustainably tour?”

No one knows the answer.

“And the next question,” he says, “would be: Are we at the time in history where people would be willing to put new money into live music venues? If we were to lose 30 or 40 per cent of them, how long would it take for new ones to open…or would they?”

That’s a concern that troubled touring musicians long before COVID-19 because many long-established clubs were already shuttering for good and even the best artists were finding it increasingly difficult to secure enough work to make their tours profitable enough to support themselves and their bandmates once they returned home.

Jensen’s young enough not to remember the glory days in the ‘80s or early ‘90s, when it was still possible for a group to put together a series of gigs at four or more clubs across the country, where they’d work five or six nights in one place for a week before moving on.

In the current era, virtually all bands play one-nighters that are frequently located hundreds of miles apart and pay for their own lodging on nights they aren’t gigging. Today, there are fewer clubs that are even farther apart, and the great majority limit national bookings to mid-week and weekends, forcing many groups to seriously consider abandoning the road because they’re paying out more money on off nights than they’re making when playing.

imageAt present, the biggest problem virtually all blues musicians face today is the fact that their income comes solely through performance, leaving them without any other economic lifeline. They make all their money on the club circuit through appearances and direct contact with their fans and the CD and merchandise sales that result between sets and after gigs.

“It’s pretty much all of our revenue,” Jeff stresses. “Most people aren’t cognizant of or very sensitive to the fact that nobody is really selling (a large amount of) albums and nobody is really doing ample merch sales outside of the venues themselves.

“Of course, there are different levels of success. As an example, if Gary Clark Jr. would release a single, it’s pretty reasonable that, No. 1, it’ll get real FM radio play – which pays real royalties, and, No. 2, he has superfans out there who are actually going to go out there and buy his merchandise even if he’s not playing concerts. And No. 3, he has a name, reputation and label in place that place his music into commercialized environments — movies, TV shows and advertisements — creating additional revenue.

“But the real working-class guys like me, we just don’t sell much merchandise outside of gigs and don’t have people working on commercialized placement.”

Everyone in the working class would like to work toward that level of success – a concrete money stream in the form of what’s known as “mailbox checks,” but it’s more of a pipedream rather than an attainable reality, Jeff says. And getting airplay via services like Spotify provide virtually no help whatsoever in the majority of the blues world.

Spotify claims it pays out from 6/100ths to 6.8/100ths of a cent per stream – a figure disputed by industry watchdogs Ditto and Soundcharts, which claim the actual figure is more like 3/100ths to 6/100ths of a penny. No matter what the true figure may be, it’s nothing but chump change — and it’s paid out to the band as a unit — not individually to each member – to divide amongst themselves.

“One single person needs something like 320,000 plays on Spotify per week to make the equivalent of what he’d make on a minimum wage job,” Jensen points out, “and that’s every single week – not some crazy, weird fluke.

“If you have a Spotify account, it’s easy to see how much money artists are making. You can go look at the artists’ accounts and see how many hits they’re getting and do the math. Look at the blues artists and you’ll find that nobody’s getting those numbers, and they’re having to share what they do receive with their record labels and other people in their organizations.”

It’s far different for the dominant mainstream acts – so much so, in fact, that Cardi B dropped a new tune, “WAP,” recently and received 50 million plays in a single day…something impossible for any blues artist to conceive of even in the wildest of dreams.

“If I got 50 million plays in one day, I’m fine!” Jeff exclaims. “That’s real money coming in. But that’s not happening in the blues.”

The time to act to save the blues for future generations is today, Jensen insists, and everyone involved in the industry needs to be involved in finding answers “because ALL of us are the people who are going to keep this going one way or another.

image“And we’re going to have to get creative in the future about what kind of concerts we can play. If a club that books blues five nights a week goes out of business and is replaced by one local fan with a big yard who wants to host a house party, there’s no balance there. You don’t have to do the math. It simply doesn’t work unless there’s a network of folks doing it – something that’s worked in other forms of music.

“Again, I like to be the voice of positivity and optimism,” Jeff stresses, “but at some point – when you talk about business and numbers – we also have to be realistic. There are genres of music where the middle-class, working-class sector has essentially disappeared entirely.”

As an example, he says, the singer-songwriter community flourished in bars and small clubs across America for decades, but no more.

“You can be a super-successful singer-songwriter – like Ray LaMantagne – or a local (artist) who goes to your local open mic to play. But how many singer-songwriters today are able to tour for a living and really make ends meet?” he says. “That sector’s almost completely gone.”

While the current future for all musicians is precarious, blues lovers have something special going for them, Jensen believes. “What’s really special is that the blues has a really passionate working-class, middle-class sector of musicians – the folks who make all of their money off their music and their artistic pursuits, whether it’s performing, producing or whatever.

“We have our really famous artists – Gary Clark Jr. and Joe Bonamassa, the legendary figures – Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton – and then a massive quantity of hobbyists and bar bands who do it for fun. And don’t get me wrong: those people are important. They bring something special to it.

“But what really keeps the creativity alive and what continues to allow the genre to continue and grow in an artistic and creative way is that working (touring) sector. What happens if that’s eliminated…if, when it all comes back, there aren’t enough bars to play and you’re either a bar-level musician who can’t make a living on music alone and have to get a job to subsidize it – and the only other option is becoming a famous rock star?

“Of course, that’s not a choice. If we had one, we’d all want to be in Gary Clark Jr.’s position. We all aspire to reach that level. But what if Nick Moss can’t play blues for a living? Or John Németh? Or Victor Wainwright? Or Samantha Fish?

“What happens to the actual art itself,” Jensen wonders, “and how do we continue to grow it if that happens? We’re at the point where we really need to have conversations about whether or not we truly value the working-class musician.”

If the answer is “yes,” he says, it’s time for everyone involved to figure out a way to support the industry so that’s it’s sustainable and will flourish. If the answer is “no,” then everyone involved will have to get a meaningful job and suffer the consequences — being unable to focus on their craft and everything that comes with it.

The time for conversation is now, Jeff insists. If musicians, fans, promoters, publicists and bar owners wait, when they finally do sit down to talk, it may be too late to bring corrective actions to fruition.

One thing that will help, he believes, is to insist that every blues society include the words “preserve and promote blues music” in their charters, insisting: “If there’s ever a time for the blues societies to really implement what their charter is all about, it’s right now.

image“If there was ever a time for the Blues Foundation to step up more than they ever have to preserve and promote blues music, now is the time. And if we can have our community, our blues societies, our deejays, our publications and our artists really coming together to define how much we value each of our entities, then – maybe—we’ll be able to create a way to get through this COVID lockdown and be sure we have the future of the music we all love.”

Meanwhile, Jensen – like many of his peers – is soul-searching for solutions to all of the issues detailed above. “There are definitely exceptions for what I’m about to say,” he stresses, “and I don’t want to stereotype people, but when you’re allowed to focus on an artform exclusively, usually you have the ability to get to another level in whatever you’re doing.

“Sure, there are some hobbyists that really achieve a really high level of artistry and musicianship. That is possible. But for the most part, most of the musicians who get to a prolific level are fulltime professionals who get there because of the tens of thousands of hours they’re allowed put in to it – holding their instruments in their hands for 200 gigs a year, working in the recording studio for themselves and others and more.

“I worked construction most of my early life because that’s what my family did,” Jeff says. “And when you’re out there swinging a hammer all day, that’s hard work that messes up your wrists, your fingers and hands, your tendons. So it gets harder to play your instrument and develop the micro-muscles you need to achieve elements of finesse.

“Professional musicians almost have a strategic advantage because they’re able to play so often. If we eliminate that whole class of people, we’re left with the potential of having nothing but very corporatized rock stars and a large community of passionate hobbyists who have to spend the majority of their time working on cars or doing construction or computer work when they’d rather be playing.”

The time to talk is now, Jensen insists, because the life of the entire blues community is tottering on the brink and in desperate need of a plan of action created by smart, capable people ready to take leadership roles that will enable the industry to return to stability after everything reopens.

The message is grim, Jeff admits, but he remains upbeat despite the thoughts swirling in his head as he sits at home, tends to his daughter and searches for answers to the big questions himself. Meanwhile, he’s extremely grateful for all the love and support he’s received from fans around the globe since the birth of Raelyn.

“I’ve literally have lost count of all the social media private messages I’ve gotten from folks either congratulating me and my family or asking if there’s any way they can help us out,” he says. “So many people have asked for my address and my Paypal info and have contributed to make sure that me and my family are okay. It’s un-believable!

“If there’s any evidence of how powerful a community can be and how important being a member of it can be, the blues community and my fans are the perfect example. There’s an important physical and emotional connection between us. And the line is blurred between friendship and fan. It’s hard to tell how many of my shows you have to go to where I give you a hug, talk and shake hands or exchange Facebook messages it takes before we really are friends.

“It’s a really beautiful connection, and a lot of blues artists share the same experience. I want to say a huge thank you to everyone who’ve simply reached out to see how I’m doing and the others who’ve gone way above and beyond that, too. Man, we’ve had people who’ve sent us diapers, made us quilts…it’s been overwhelmingly beautiful.

“It gives me hope, energy and focus to get through all this. When you have fans that treat you with dignity and respect the way mine have been treating me, that’s really beautiful, and I’m extremely grateful!”

Learn more about Jensen, pick up some of his music or even reach out to him directly with encouragement and solutions by visiting his website: www.jeffjensenband.com.

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