Todd Sharpville Interview
April 11, 2011 in Interviews
Guitarist, singer and songwriter Todd Sharpville is a key figure in the history of modern UK blues. With vocalist Earl Green he hosted the Monday night blues jam at The Weavers Arms in Stoke Newington, which was a hub for all aspiring young blues musicians and singers and a Mecca for visiting blues players. Todd’s career has taken him all over the world as a side man and a bandleader. Todd has a new album out, and he came in to Blues In Britain to talk to Fran Leslie. Photo: Al Stuart
Tell me about the making of the album, Porchlight.
My manager, Dave Jones of Cat House Music in Kansas City, took over Joe Lewis Walker’s management and signed Joe to a three-album deal with Stony Plain in Canada. Joe decided that the first two albums would be produced by Duke Robillard. Duke is a friend from many years ago, whom I had lost touch with. The last time I saw him he had just proposed to his current wife Lorrine, in the middle of supper. We had lost touch over the years.
I went over to guest on Joe’s album, the first of the three-album deal, A Witness To The Blues, and reconnected with Duke again. Duke had listened to a album that I had recorded in the five years, during the five years of my disappearance from the blues scene, which was my divorce album, Diary Of A Drowning Man.
It was really a singer-songwriter’s album not so much a blues record. It featured a duet with Sam Brown; I put a Gospel choir on the record. I recorded it in Denmark. It had cost a couple of hundred thousand pounds to make. Three record labels all went bankrupt before it could be released.
I now own the rights so at some time it will surface. It’s more of a mainstream record than a specialist thing.
Through that meeting, in Rhode Island, when I was guesting on Joe’s Witness To The Blues album, Duke heard Diary and had fallen in love with the record. He asked my manager Dave if I’d be interested in doing a blues album and, if I was, if he could produce it.
That was very nice. I’d long been a fan of Duke’s aside from our friendship, a massive fan of him and his history and his style of guitar playing. He and Jimmie Vaughan are the two white modern exponents of the style I have always appreciated, loved and enjoyed; the less is more, the American version of the Peter Green approach, playing to express instead of playing to impress.
So, one thing led to another and I found myself coming back to the blues in force and doing this album in Rhode Island with Duke.
We both guested on Joe’s third album for Stony Plain. It’s a live album recorded on the blues cruise, which we did this year. It will be released shortly. It was great fun and we have done some shows since.
Duke is very, very proud of what he did with my record. It’s a double album. I went through a month long period of writing songs, hurriedly for the record. I sent them all over to Duke, on the assumption that we would pick maybe ten or eleven songs. We ended up struggling to find songs that we were happy to let go so we ended up turning them into a double album. The recording process was interrupted by my father’s death, which accounts for the album title and I suppose the ethos of what the album is all about; certainly the emotional energy behind the recording of it
Porchlight? Explain please!
You will understand when you hear the lyrics. The title track, Porchlight is a reference to the light that loved ones leave on when it is time for us to come home. It’s about the purity of the relationship between parents and children; the nearest we get to divine love. That’s the notion behind the title track.
I had just finished writing the majority of the songs and then my dad died, so we had to postpone the recording sessions. When we picked them up, I flew back to Rhode Island to do the recording and subsequently had to go back to mix the record.
Which studio did you use?
Lake West, West Grange, Rhode Island where Duke had done one of the Fabulous Thunderbirds albums that he played on. It is close to where he lives. Jack (John Paul Galtier), his manager and engineer owns the studio. There has been many a great blues album (that has) come from that studio.
What was lovely, as well, was I had taken to fishing these last few years. Whilst they were setting up the mixes, they needed an hour between tracks; I picked up a cheap fishing rod from Wal-Mart and would just sit there with my manager on the pier on the lake, just a few yards away from the studio. It was a good place to be, after my dad’s death, surrounded by friends. Duke’s band was the backing band; they are all good mates.
How long did it take to record and mix?
Because it was a double album, we took a bit longer than one would normally take on a blues record. We took about a week and a half to cut the tracks, because the songs were all new to the band. I was using a lot of the time to arrange the band. Duke left us to our own devices for the first few days. I just wanted to get the arrangements figured out. I had written the tracks in the middle of nowhere in Wales and by the time I had finished writing I was pretty definitive about how I wanted the arrangements to be but explaining that to a band – I am not the most erudite in musical situations. That took a fair bit of time. Once the arrangements were done, it was pretty much banged out live.
I wrote most of the horn parts there. I la-la the horn parts to each horn player and the players write them down. We work like that. I used to read music when I was little but I have long forgotten how to do it. It is so much quicker to la-la and leave it to the technical people to write.
I use a piano to write with at home. I avoid keyboards you plug in. All my gear is old gear and I only use computers for email and Facebook. I have a Dictaphone that I carry about with me. If I am on a train, or whatever, I la-la into the Dictaphone and try to figure it out the next day. There are lots of songs that start that way.
Who did the mixing?
Me and Duke and Jack the engineer; he is an amazing man, wonderful engineer. He and Duke are very close. We bonded over the Joe Louis Walker sessions, originally. The whole process of my album, which you would expect to be very sombre because of my dad’s death, actually it was quite the opposite. There was lots of laughter throughout. It bonded me (with) Duke and Jack and Duke’s band. It was such fun; very hard work.
Mixing took about ten or twelve days in total. Don’t forget it is a double album. There were a few songs, which we dropped, which we might use later.
There are fifteen tracks in all. Duke guested on one song “Lousy Husband But A Real Good Dad”, where we got to have a wonderful little head-to-head, guitar jamming session. Joe Louis Walker, whom quite a lot of my fans know already, was my mentor as a kid, came and guested on it. He refers to his students as his ‘puppies’; some people don’t like to be referred to as puppies but I am very proud to be a JLW puppy. He came to the studio. Kim Wilson came to the studio; he was an absolute dream to work with. Duke of course was already there; he had no choice but to guest on my album, I had him in my clutches already. I had a great session with Joe on “When The Blues Come Calling”.
Kim Wilson played harmonica on four tracks. Two of those tracks needed backing harmonica, rather than solos; so I felt awkward having the man I believe to be the greatest living harmonica player, playing backing harmonica on two songs. There were no egos in the room. It was great having someone who is so capable.
The T-birds were on a tour at the time that took them relatively close to the studio. We organised the sessions at a time when we knew Kim was going to be about. The two songs that he solos on, “Can’t Stand The Crook” and “Misery”, I personally think are reminiscent of a feisty, young Kim Wilson; I think he played the ass off both songs. I always hoped that we would be able to do something together, so I was thrilled that he agreed to do it.
Who was in the band?
Jesse Williams played bass, who was Duke’s old bass player rather than Duke’s current bass player. He plays electric and upright bass. He’s an old friend whom I originally met on a Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise. I was thrilled that he was going to be playing on it. One of the stalwarts of Duke’s past, Doug James played baritone sax and led the horn section for me; that was a must! I couldn’t do anything with Duke Robillard without Doug James being involved, whom I have always adored, musically and as a person. He’s a funny guy.
I made a new friend in the process, Duke’s current keyboard player. When we were doing the sessions with JLW, we had Bruce Katz on keyboards. I have always respected him. I became familiar with him through the stuff he did with Ronnie Earl. I assumed he would be playing on my record but Duke recommended his current keyboard player, Bruce Bears, who has a slightly less specialist field of vision than Bruce Katz. Bruce Katz is great straight-ahead blues. Bruce Bears has a really good angle aside from the blues, Gospel and so on. Bruce Bears and I bonded over the sessions. He’s incredibly good fun; he had me laughing through almost all of it. Then we had another old mate, Mark Teixeira*, on drums, who is such a solid drummer and such an easy going, laid back guy. He’s always got a smile on his face. It was exactly the right combination really to bring out the best of me for that particular moment in time.
I am looking forward to working with them as a band. We have gigged together as a band. It was very good fun.
Are any of them going to play with you promoting this album?
Duke is going to do some guesting with me on the road outside of his own schedule as will Joe, as will Kim, in order to help me promote the record. In terms of using the original album band that really would be dependent on schedule and also on cash. Although they are not the most expensive band in the world to work with, getting them all over from the US is an expense.
Are you going to tour with them in the US?
I am going to do a fair amount. The record label has me doing an interview tour across America at the beginning of next year, specifically to talk to the broad sheets, the local radio and all the local press. For the preliminary tour, I will be doing some double billing with Tommy Castro in the States. I will be playing with Tommy’s band; they are all close friends. It’s a small circle of friends and allies.
It will probably be later in the year, I imagine, when I will be doing some touring with the original band. I would like to; we are discussing it.
Between November and January, the record label is doing a ‘blues push’, to American blues media specifically. They are subcontracting to a blues radio plugger. They will be doing a mainstream (media) push from January on. They will be plugging the CD, doing previews and advertising, that side of thing. The beginning of the year is when I start doing my interview tour. Around that time is when I will actually start playing.
When is the UK album launch?
Charlotte Street, on 29th October and then the US is the 9th November (2010).
Todd Sharpville: Porchlight (Cat House Records)
*Mark Steven Teixeira – not the baseball player Mark Charles Teixeira