In this My Spilt Milk encore story, Luke Winslow-King talks about his relationship to the blues.
When Luke Winslow-King released his second Bloodshot Records album, Everlasting Arms, we talked about his relationship to the blues. He plays Jazz Fest's Lagniappe Stage today at 2:05 p.m., and he'll sit in on lead guitar with Little Freddie King during his set in the Blues Tent at 12:10 p.m.
“The blues picked me, and I’m going to go with it.”
Luke Winslow-King is talking about his new album, Everlasting Arms—his second on Chicago’s Bloodshot Records. He’ll play an album-release party Friday at The Blue Nile, and he hears fairly broad genre diversity in the songs on Everlasting Arms but concedes that the blues are the through-line. There are jazz blues, folk blues, hillbilly blues and country blues, on the album, along with some rock ’n’ roll.
“There’s always been a little rock ’n’ roll mixed in; we just went further that direction,” Winslow-King says. Not that it’s obvious. More rock ’n’ roll in his music translates to letting in the influence of Neil Young and The Band, but only in the way they played American roots music. There is no “Cortez the Killer” or “King Harvest” on Everlasting Arms, but there is “Cadillac Slim,” with its pounding, Domino-inspired piano and digging baritone sax to push the song along.
“The blues have always been a part of my musical life,” Winslow-King says, even when he was growing up in Michigan. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to lean on it as heavily as he does, but he had a blues band then and he has one now, albeit a skeletal, largely acoustic one that taps the blues more for form than mood.
Winslow-King road-tested the songs for the album, so instead of figuring how to scale down recorded versions to suit his touring band, he had to scale many of them up to include horns and other instruments that are unlikely to be with him on tour.
“By the time I’m recording, I know what the three-piece version will sound like, what the four-piece version will sound like, what the six-piece version will sound like, and all differences in between,” he says.
The album was cut with a core band of trumpeter Ben Polcer, bassist Cassidy Holden, drummer Benji Bohannon and Winslow-King’s wife, vocalist Esther Rose. he attributes the success of the album to the work he and Bohannon did before they started recording. “We spent every Tuesday for a couple of months up in the attic getting every groove really dialed in,” Winslow-King says, working with a metronome to make sure that the guitar and drums were perfectly locked. “Not only was he playing the right beat, but it was entirely inside the guitar part.”
That freed him up to use his guitar more expressively. “If you’re dragging your pick up and down too much, you’re not hearing the syncopation. You’re hearing every beat, and if you hear every beat, you’re not putting emphasis on any. For me, rhythm guitar is usually more about the tone. The tone of the rhythm guitar can really paint an atmosphere. Instead of a pattern, it’s just a solid color sometimes.”
Winslow-King worked hard a pre-production partly to save time and money in the studio, but since much of Everlasting Arms was cut in an attic during the summer where it was often 100 degrees, he and the band had a lot of incentive to make sure they were ready when they finally went in to record. He got a lot done when he was given the use of a cabin in the mountains outside Ft. Payne, Alabama. It brought out the country in his playing and in Rose’s voice, which has an Appalachian quality to start with.
“It was a really fruitful period for the album,” he says. They rehearsed, finished some lyrics, and worked out arrangements. While there, they figured out “Wanton Way of Loving,” Esther Rose’s first lead vocal with group. “It came about from wanting to feature Esther on the album and trying to bring it into our world musically,” Winslow-King says. Initially, the song was slower and had more of a down-tempo, hip-hop groove. While in the country, he came up with a simple country guitar part and the two worked up the call-and-response vocal interaction. When it came time to record the song, Winslow-King brought in more instruments to work up an involved bridge, but after listening to and comparing it to the demo, he realized all of it was unnecessary and stripped the bridge back to the bones.
“That felt like growth to me.”
Working with guest musicians was a little bit of balancing act because Winslow-King had a clear vision of the album. “I want the solos to have a clear storyline,” he says. To that end, he had detailed charts that he had written for such musical guests as violinist Matt Rhody and Bruce Brackman, Charlie Halloran, Jon Gross and Rick Trolsen. Despite the heat, he wasn’t afraid to ask for 10 to 20, sometimes as many as 30 takes to get what he wanted, but Winslow-King also gave the players room to bring themselves to the project. “You have to get to a point where you’re completely confident and know exactly what you want, but not so egotistical to think that someone might not have a better idea than you,” he says. “You have to have the confidence to know what you want and how to get it, but also to know when to step back and say, Alright, this guy’s got a lot of experience, and what he’s bringing to the table might be beyond what I had in mind, so I’d better listen up.”
“I think I push people pretty hard,” Winslow-King says, but the grind comes from experience. “I’ve made albums before where I thought I had it, and when I got to the editing room, it wasn’t there. There’s nothing worse than not having it when you need it.”
Because he’s not only working with peers but peers who in some cases have more experience than he does, Winslow-King has to strike a delicate motivational balance to keep people working with him when he’s telling improvisors to stick to what’s written on the page.
“When the guys hear the records, they understand why I did it.”
Winslow-King looks like a guy who doesn’t do laissez faire easily, and looks are not deceiving. He goes with the flow where songwriting is concerned, but song selections and arrangements are very deliberate, thought-out things. Part of what makes Everlasting Arms work is that it sounds very much like his idea, even though it works in a musical vocabulary that’s very prevalent on Frenchmen Street. He works very deliberately to make songs seem effortless, though his performances never sound tossed off.
“It’s a beautiful and sad thing that yesterday was release day for us, and I spent much of it thinking about what the next album would be,” he says.
Luke Winslow King plays the Crescent City Blues and Barbecue Festival Sunday at 11 a.m. in addition to The Blue Nile tonight.