Bette Davis once said that the key to life was accepting challenges, and Selwyn Birchwood appears to have adopted this philosophy as well. The 2013 IBC winner of the Albert King Guitarist of the Year Award, (and current BMA nominee for Contemporary Blues Artist of the Year) faced his first challenge when he wanted to learn guitar, but no family members played any musical instruments, and they couldn’t afford to send him for more than a couple of lessons. Birchwood taught himself and added that he is still trying to learn on his own. While his parents listened to oldies from the 50s and 60s, and his friends were forming rock bands, Birchwood didn’t relate “to songs about cars and how much money people had like the popular music. I listened to blues music about love lost and love won and getting drunk—the honesty in it. I feel like that is getting lost in the music today.”
Growing up biracial, Birchwood also faced pressure from people telling him how they expected him to act.
“They would say you need to be more this way and more that way, but I’m half and half. I don’t fully identify with any specific race. I’d just rather forge my own route, my own self-actualization, rather than just going through the motions and drawing inside the lines. I’ve always been somewhat of a loner and gone my own way. I have the sort of personality that bucks against what’s popular. That’s what my song ‘Searching for My Tribe’ is about.”
Birchwood also bucks against the ‘blues purists’ who don’t believe in allowing evolution of the genre. While he appreciates and honors the musicians that formed the blues, he does not have much tolerance for those who are stuck in the past.
“When they cover and re-cover those songs there is a point where it becomes dishonest. You can hear people singing about being born in Chicago, but they weren’t, or they are singing about picking cotton—it’s bordering on fraudulent. In some cases, they are taking this music, music which was just so fierce and so deep that people were calling it the devil’s music, and they are now making it the Mickey Mouse Club. There is not much of a challenge to get an audience to like songs they already love. To try to get them to appreciate new songs—I really dig that challenge! I really enjoy artists and musicians that share themselves emotionally and lyrically, writing their own stuff. I like it when they share themselves so vulnerably and so deeply that you relate to it so completely.”
Anyone who has heard Birchwood’s songs about relationships recognize examples of how he shares the vulnerable side of himself.
“Yes-I’ve been through my own trials and tribulations, ups and downs. When relationships are good, it’s great, and when they are bad it’s horrendous. But you live and you learn and at least you know what to look out for the next time, and you don’t throw caution to the wind and ignore the warning signs.”
Birchwood has become more peaceful and centered in all types of relationships, not just romantic ones. “Sometimes people wish you well, as long as you don’t do better than they do. However, if they see you excel at something, then they try to scratch and pull you down. But, if you are happy already, it doesn’t matter what they do. That’s what the song ‘Steal My Shine’ is about. I’m in a lot happier space now.”
Birchwood indicated that he was the type of songwriter who is always writing.
“I’m writing all of the time, especially when we are traveling. We have hours and hours of travel and drive time, and a lot of that time is spent in my own head. Plus, I spend a lot of time listening to music as well, and I will get inspired by different music and might want to write something similar to what I liked in a song. I’ve got a notepad on my phone that is a million miles long. That’s part of the fun for me—to put the pieces together. It’s part of the challenge.”
Birchwood was signed to Alligator Records shortly after his 2013 win at the International Blues Challenge. When asked if Bruce Iglauer was a ‘blues purist’, he noted that Iglauer actually encourages him to push some boundaries.
“Bruce was in Chicago in the 60’s and 70’s and not only heard some of the original great blues musicians play he recorded most of them. Most people aren’t going to do it the way those guys did, so why would I want to even send something like that to him? Sonny Rhodes also encouraged me to individualize my sound. He told me that no one else will be a better Selwyn Birchwood than you.”
Iglauer was, however, a bit hesitant to release Birchwood’s song “Police State,” which delves into police brutality and systemic racism. “That’s the only song I won’t perform live because people are so selective in their hearing and I’m just trying to share music—not change people’s minds.”
Birchwood explained that he also does not get involved in the frequent debates on social media, although he did note that the blues currently appears to be controlled by a population that is predominantly White, and he believes that sometimes the roots of the blues “coming from slavery and the fields and the struggle is overlooked. I would like to see artists give credit where credit is due. Sometimes I see them playing Muddy Waters and B.B. King and not even mentioning them. That’s just the right thing to do.”
When asked how he connected with Tom Hambridge to produce his latest album, Living in a Burning House, Birchwood noted that his friend, Joe Louis Walker did a few records with him and he realized Tom wrote some of his favorite songs off Walker’s and Buddy Guy’s albums.
“Tom has a lot of credentials, but I don’t care that much about that—I’m more into the songwriting aspect of it. I appreciated that instead of everything falling on me to run around the studio, I could unload a lot of the responsibility onto him, and I knew it was in good hands and I trusted what he had to say. It made it a lot easier on me. This was the first time that I really had fun making an album. The fun factor was way over the stress factor of making it. I also like how it seems that life has come full circle now. I was listening to Buddy Guy when I was seventeen and first getting into the blues, and now I’ve done a few shows with Buddy Guy and I’ve got Buddy Guy’s producer doing a record with me. I’m also excited that this is my first album that is available on vinyl—it’s orange vinyl. I’m amazed at how many people are picking up the vinyl.”
Hambridge seemed equally excited about working with Birchwood. During an interview with Bruce Iglauer, Hambridge stated that Birchwood’s songs “were different. They were thought-provoking. There was a positive energy coming through the songs…he was extremely creative and took his art seriously…I was intrigued by what he had to say.”
Like other musicians, Birchwood and his band (Regi Oliver, Donald “Huff Wright”, Philip “Squeak” Walker and Walter “Bunt” May) had been fully booked for 2020 but faced the loss of nearly all gigs due to the pandemic, including the cancellation of a four-week European tour. Birchwood did some live-streaming shows, but those proved to be a poor substitute for being able to play live for an audience. He noted, “it got pretty depressing for a minute there, but it was better than nothing.” He also pointed out that he was very appreciative of the fans that followed him during that time-period and offered financial support. Birchwood acknowledged that the pandemic could be extremely difficult for him, but it also offered some opportunities.
“The bad thing is that we were home for a year, and the good thing is that we were home for a year. I learned how to make a zoom call, and now I’ve got lights and crazy microphones. I learned how to do video recording. In fact, I made music videos for ‘Living in a Burning House’ and ‘Revelation’. People asked me who my videographer was for those, but it was me.”
When asked how he managed to learn all of the skills required to produce a video, he answered “because I was home for a year. I go crazy if I don’t have something to work on, if I’m not productive and growing. It was a way to feel like I am learning still and have a challenge. I am excited with what I did with it, and I’m getting better at it all of the time.”
It appears that this extremely talented guitarist and songwriter will continue to welcome challenges, and his fan base will continue to appreciate the result of that work. Fans can follow Selwyn Birchwood on his Facebook page, Instagram and at www.selwynbirchwood.com. Booking is through Intrepid Artists International.