We interviewed roots music alchemist Luke Winslow-King back in late 2016 for the release of his I’m Glad Trouble Don’t Last Always album, so we jumped at the opportunity to chat with him again on the heels of his newest release Blue Mesa (out 5/11 on Bloodshot Records). During our interview, the dapper guitarist opens up about the musical expansiveness of Blue Mesa, the ever-present influence of New Orleans on his songs, the experience of recording his new album in Italy, and much more!
NoiseTrade: Although your melting pot back catalog is deeply seasoned by the music and vibes of New Orleans, some of the aesthetics and themes of your new album Blue Mesa (out 5/11 on Bloodshot) are meant to evoke a distinct Southwestern desert feel. What inspired the cross-country geographical shift?
Luke Winslow-King: I guess I’m always influenced by my surroundings as I travel. All of my albums have explored different sentiments, styles, and genres, but the title track of this new album was set against the scenery of America’s Southwest. I was leaving Flagstaff at dawn one morning and was taken back by the beauty of the landscape, watching these beautiful mesas materialize in the distance.
NT: The musical DNA of New Orleans is naturally still an evergreen presence in your new collection of songs, especially on tracks like the flirtatious “Chicken Dinner” that you co-wrote with “Washboard” Lissa Driscoll. What can you tell us about the writing of the song and about Lissa’s influence on the New Orleans side of your sound?
Winslow-King: Lissa really gave me a lot. She was a wonderful blues lady in New Orleans and really showed me a lot when I first moved there. She was tough on me. She wouldn’t let me get away with any bullshit. She pushed me to be ruthless and relentless, to find my own place and to take pride in it. I was 19 years old when I pulled into town. I’ll never forget, she said “oh you want to play the blues do ya?”
Writing songs with her was easy. She had a few ideas in her back pocket that she had never finished. She was generous enough to share them with me and let me finish the songs before she passed away. Some of the songs changed quite a bit from her original vision of them, but she was happy to let me run with them.
In her later days, she gave me so much encouragement and confidence by just telling me that I was on the right course, to never be ashamed of my inclinations. She would never do that when I was younger.
Lissa had terminal throat cancer and knew she was “going down slow.” She decided rather than to endure a second round of chemotherapy that she would rather spend the rest of her days doing what she loved. That spring she went to Texas with me and my band as one of her last hurrahs, she and her dog Bingo. It was an unforgettable tour for me and the band. We went swimming, got drunk and cried, laughed a lot, and talked about old times. The songs “Chicken Dinner” and “You Got Mine” came out of those weeks together.
NT: During the songwriting process for Blue Mesa, was there any particular song or individual lyric that really solidified the themes and focus of what the album was going to be for you?
Winslow-King: The rhythmic cadence of the lyrics on the song “Blue Mesa” felt like a new beginning for me, a new dimension of lyricism that I have not yet explored.
I feel like the album is a hodgepodge of different themes, but the thread that connects everything is the feeling of the record. The state that we were in as a band when we recorded it. There’s an ease to it. We were all really comfortable in the studio. This is the first album I’ve ever recorded where I kept all my original live vocal tracks.
NT: What sparked the decision to travel to Italy to record Blue Mesa and what are some of your favorite memories of your time there?
Winslow-King: Our guitarist Roberto Luti is from Livorno (Leghorn), Italy. He spent 10 years in New Orleans from 1998 to 2008. He was actually married to Lissa Driscoll for some years. Roberto and I have been touring Italy and Europe together for over 10 years now. We’ve become close comrades and musical partners. The song “Leghorn Women” is an homage to the beautiful women of his hometown.
He knew of a studio that he liked in the fortress village of Lari, Italy, so we decided to use some of our free days on tour to work on the new album. We had kept low expectations and were surprised to have recorded most of the record in only two days.
The owner of the studio Mirco is completely blind, but can still manage to make his way around the fortress village on bicycle with no trouble at all by reflecting sounds off of the ancient brick walls. He knows every inch of that studio inside and out. This brought some extra magic to the recording.
NT: Finally, you have some obvious musical influences like Woody Guthrie, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Dr. John, and the like, but who are a few artists that your listeners might be surprised to know you consider as influences?
Winslow-King: Lately I’ve gone back to my roots and have been really inspired by rock ‘n’ roll artists from my childhood. I grew up listening to classic rock radio in my hometown of Cadillac, Michigan. Tom Petty, Bob Seger, Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder, Aretha Franklin, Phil Collins, Taj Mahal, and the Rolling Stones all left a mark on this album.