Luke Winslow-King is one very fine guitarist, singer, composer and songwriter. Formally trained in musical composition and an accomplished jazz guitarist, he is able to fuse blues, gospel, R&B, folk and jazz into a hugely entertaining and quite original rootsy style.
He’s been performing since he was a teenager and releasing albums since 2007, playing in his adopted home of New Orleans and then touring extensively in North America and Europe. He’s just released his 6th album, Blue Mesa, which is a wonderfully upbeat, positive album of rocking blues featuring Italian blues guitarist Roberto Luti.
Down at the Crossroads talked to Luke about the album and life on the road…
DATC: First of all, Luke, congratulations on the new album. It’s very, very good; I’ve been playing it non-stop these past few days. Tell us about the background and what you were trying to do with this album.
LWK: Thank you so much. Well, I’m just putting one foot in front of the other and this is the next natural progression. I’m writing songs about my situation and life and just trying to take the next most natural step artistically.
DATC: The album has a quite different feel to your previous records, particularly musically. With some songs, we’re almost in blues-rock territory, with some nifty electric guitar solos. Is that a bit of a departure for you?
LWK: No I don’t think so. There’s been a natural growth from my first albums which were more acoustic, and there’s jazz roots in some of the early albums and classical too. But I’ve slowly introduced a more rocking electric sound, album by album, and actually, as an artist I feel like I’m coming back to my roots and playing music more like what I played when I was a kid in Northern Michigan. So, it’s actually not too far a departure for me personally. I think it works and I’m getting a great response to it on the road. It’s music that’s a little bit more energetic and accessible.
DATC: Who handles the electric guitar work on the album? Because there’s some pretty tasty stuff there.
LWK: Most of the solos on the album are Roberto Luti’s. So yeah, he definitely stars on electric guitar. How it’s developed on stage is that he’s more of the lead player and I’m more the rhythm player. Roberto tours Europe with us and will be on the road with us most of August through November.
DATC: It’s obvious you’re a fine guitar player, Luke. Not least slide player. Is the guitar your first instrument? Because I gather you have a formal musical education so I’m guessing you’re proficient with other instruments?
LWK: Yeah. My major in college was music composition, so my main focus was orchestration. So I learned the instrumental capabilities and limitations of many instruments and how to write for that – how to orchestrate and blend them together. I also had to become proficient with piano, so I can defend myself on the piano, as they say. I played all my scales and chords and I can tinker around. I also play harmonica, a little bit of banjo and mandolin and some other stringed instruments. I’ve played bass in some gigs. But guitar’s the main instrument that I feel comfortable performing with.
DATC: And did you start playing guitar at an early age?
LWK: Yes, my father was a guitarist and guitars were always around the house. So I started messing with guitar around 4 or 5 years old and then I started taking it more seriously, taking lessons when I was 10 or 11.
DATC: I’m guessing you have a pretty interesting guitar collection. What do you have and are there any real favourites there, one you would rescue if your house was burning down?
LWK: Yeah, I’ve a really cool American Conservatory parlor guitar from the 1880s which is very precious to me. It’s not really valuable, but it’s an old guitar that has a really great energy to it. That’d be one that I’d rescue! Then there’s my National guitar that’s been a huge part of my career – I’ve played a lot of Delta blues on that guitar in New Orleans over the last 15 years. It’s an all steel guitar and I’ve played that one for years and years, so that one’s really valuable to me.
I also have a really cool Jimmy Hendrix Stratocaster that my dad scored for me at a garage sale – pretty amazing to find a guitar like that. And I’ve a 1930s Gibson archtop and a 1950s one that I play a lot. But these days I’ve settled on playing newer Stratocasters that are more dependable and not so scary to take on the road.
Roberto has an amazing Stratocaster that is worth thousands and thousands of dollars. And vintage Stratocasters are amazing, vintage guitars are amazing, but we can get away with paying more modest, less valuable modern guitars on the road and like them just as well. Roberto’s got an amazing 1930s vintage National too.
DATC: So, you’re now 15 years or so into your career?
LWK: Yeah, I’m 35 now. I’d say for the last 8 years now I’ve been really hitting the road hard, and playing professionally and releasing albums since 2007. But I’ve been playing gigs and writing songs since long before that. I was playing festivals in Michigan when I was in High School.
DATC: And you’re now singing lines like “I can’t take nobody else/ I’m going alone/ I was born to roam” – how does this musical life, always moving around fit with you. Has it lived up to the expectations you had when you started out?
LWK: Well, there are peaks and valleys on every road. And I’ve definitely gained a lot from seeing the world, spreading my music around the world and building a fan base, and having people respond to my music. It’s been inspiring and it’s given me a lot to sing about.
With all that said, at some point I’d like to settle down and lead a more normal life, have a more stable relationship, have a home life as well. But I’ll never stop touring and taking this music around.
DATC: That’s good to hear! With regard to the album there’s a feel-good factor to it; it’s upbeat; you’re moving on; better things ahead. Have I got that right?
LWK: Yes, especially compared with the last album [I’m Glad Trouble Don’t Last Always] which was very much an emergency expression, just survival. And this one is more about a blend of different topics. It’s much more encouraging, inspiring to move forward.
DATC: And there’s serious stuff here as well – “Farewell Blues,” I understand is a song at least partly about your late father.
LWK: My father passed around the time I was releasing the album and also my old dear friend Lissa Driscoll (Lissa co-wrote You Got Mine, on Blue Mesa). So I wrote that song the day I heard my father was sick. It was a really hard thing to have to let go of someone who’s been so encouraging and supportive of me and my life, and was just an all round great guy to walk through life with. So yes, there are definitely some bitter sweet things on this album.
DATC: There’s a distinct Mississippi John Hurt feel to Farewell Blues, which gives it a really nice feel.
LWK: Yeah. John Hurt always had a way of making the blues sweet, you know? I’ve always appreciated that more mellow, country style blues, and I’ve always tried to learn to play that way. And to come up with melodies and have the whole thing happen on your right hand playing the chords and melody at the same time. There’s always that little pop to it, that little dance.
DATC: On each of your albums you have some gospel style songs: Blind Willie Johnson’s Keep Your Lamps Trimmed & Burning; Everlasting Arms which is reminiscent of an old hymn; On My Way from your last album; and now Break Down the Walls – which I love, by the way; I love the positive vibe of it. What is it about this sort of music, this sort of spirit, that appeals to you and resonates with people?
LWK: Well for me it’s music that matters, it’s real, it’s sincere. And it comes from my personal roots in growing up in a Baptist church and having that music as something that was taken seriously. So I appreciate the authenticity of that music and the depth of it. So I want to direct my own songs in that style. You know, especially when we talk about Blind Willie Johnson, I can really relate to that because it’s gospel music, but it’s also blues, two things that I really respond to a lot. So I’ve just been trying to discover myself within those genres and styles, and try and make some of my own music that way.
DATC: And tell us about Break Down the Walls.
LWK: Yeah, I had a real life change that revolved spending a couple of weeks in Kalkaska County jail in Northern Michigan after getting busted with a small amount of marijuana. I was in a solitary cell because I have an extreme allergy to peanuts. So I had to spend a lot of time alone in a tiny little cell, freezing, and thinking and reading, and Break Down the Walls is one of the ones that came out of that experience of being alone, and discovering and overcoming personal boundaries. And that was a microcosm of whatever might be holding us back in life. That experience seemed so terrible and traumatic at the time. And I could see pretty much my whole life unravelling, but I’m actually grateful for the experience now because I discovered I had a new chance, a new lease of life, and I feel sincerely that I’m in the right place with my life and my music now,
DATC: And that really comes across in the new album for sure. Finally, Luke, you’re touring extensively around the US and beyond over the next few months?
LWK: This weekend we’re playing Grand Rapids and Detroit, then next week out to the West Coast, Seattle and Portland, San Francisco, LA, then Utah and Chicago. And then I’m doing some festivals over the summer, and then hitting the road in the Netherlands, the UK, France Germany and Spain all throughout the Fall. And I’m working on new music and performing these songs from the album. So it’s pretty exciting.
DATC: Yes it absolutely is. Best wishes for the tour and very many thanks.