Today’s Feature, July 26th and 27th: Jeff Black

January 18, 2008 at 6:29 pm (Today's Feature)

A tin lily is a thin piece of metal shaped in the petals of a delicate flower, it’s designed to take a soft glow, often from a candle, and give it more shine. It’s a hard element that does what it can to spread something as ethereal yet as essential as light.

Jeff Black’s first live performance was in the sixth grade. He notes, at the time he was nervous, unsure and hadn’t played for more than family members. However, when you are eleven dreams and aspirations seem a little more obtainable. At that age cartoons have taken a back seat and you are not quite old enough to realize that dreams sometimes have to as well when finding a job that pays bills rather than doing what makes you happy is what becomes top priority. Granted, I may be taking too much stock in the mind of an eleven year old, but when you learn how to play guitar that young, go live on stage singing Curly Putnam’s “Green Green Grass Of Home” and can honestly say that at that point you found your calling AND stuck with it, then frankly I have to side with the artist. Everyone knows what they want to do with their life but most are too scared to do anything about it. Black was stronger at eleven than most adults are now.

About a month ago, Black’s latest album Tin Lily thankfully came my way. After the first track, I was once again forced to dump other music on my iPod and replace with Black’s work. Tin Lily opens your eyes and ears to one of the most prolific songwriters today. Black’s poetry is stripped down, raw, unleashed and at the same time so beautiful, the words alone will make the hair on your neck stand up and dance in excitement for a newfound musical treasure. Listening to Tin Lily has become a daily ritual for me. I repeat line after line in my head and out loud imagining what events gave birth to such lines as “The sky might be grey today but that won’t last for long/I want to tare down this shrine to everything that I’ve done wrong.” (Nineteen). Or, my favorite song on the album, “Easy On Me,” “Hey I know what you want from me/but I’ve given all that I can give/you believe what you believe/but I think I need my soul to live.” Haunting as it is stunning, Tin Lily, at times sounds like John Mellencamp, Bruce Springstein, hints at Elliott Smith and covered in thick southern-folk styling. Even “Hard Way Out” has the upbeat piano pop of Billy Joel, coupled by with the blues-rock greats that Black has encountered throughout the winding road music has taken him. Either category you decide to place his sound, Black’s music is classic middle-America story telling at its best. Prepare to load your CD player with some of the best I’ve yet to see. Read his XXQs to find out more.

XXQs: Jeff Black

PensEyeView.com (PEV): How and when did you first get involved in music?

Jeff Black (JB): My brother got a guitar. He was 5 years older than me. I was probably about 5 when it all started. My dad would tell stories about himself and my uncle Lyle playing at little barn dances out in the country up in north Missouri. He talked about my great granddad playing guitar and my grandma Black playing piano in church. I never knew my folks to buy a record but, we always had the radio on. The one on top of the fridge, in the car, and I had a little transistor. It all hit me at a very impressionable age and seemed to haunt me so, about the time I turned 10 I asked for a guitar and I took about 4 guitar lessons at a little shop in my town. I remember a fellow named Jim Grimm taught me a few chords and I was in. I don’t know why I stopped taking lessons. Low self esteem or my ongoing self deprecating Irish disposition must have taken hold. My dad didn’t make me keep going, he was always of the mind to let me work things out on my own free will. I kept playing and learning songs. My sister started a fashion of ordering records through Reader’s Digest. “The King Johnny Cash and The Queen Tammy Wynette” and “Great Country Ballads by Great Country Stars” come to mind immediately. Mom and Dad had bought a stereo for her. Turntable, 8-track, the whole thing. The first song I remember dropping the needle down on over and over to write down the words and learn it by ear was George Morgan’s recording of “Candy Kisses.” I had a music teacher whisper in my ear. She said “you have a fine singing voice” and I latched on to that and have been holding on to it ever since. There was a little talent show, I was in 6th grade. I learned Curly Putnam’s “Green Green Grass Of Home” to perform. There’s something disturbing about an 11 year old boy singing about death row I suppose but, I knew what he was talking about and all of it shaped my outlook on music and songs forever. I never really looked back. I’ve worked several jobs to support my musical habit but it is music that probably saved my life and kept me happy. Well, as happy as a dark, brooding, troubled troubadour can be I guess.

PEV: Tell us about your first (ever) live performance like? Where and when?

JB: It was in fact the talent show. I played half a song here and there for relatives and family and sang in school programs but, that was the day that got me. I remember feeling a nervousness but, not the kind that would stop me from getting in front of people. It was more the type of excitement and concern to play it well and tell the story. Oh man, I had a cowboy hat and some orange cowboy boots. I remember the girls screamed and I found something that made me happy inside. I was a lucky young man to know what I wanted to do with my life at such a young age.

PEV: No stranger to recording studios, describe the first time you stepped into a studio?

JB: Chapman Studios in Kansas City, Missouri. I had written a bunch of songs starting when I was about 17 and never recorded anything. It didn’t seem so strange to me. There was an engineer and all I had to do was play. I didn’t think about it too much. I just threw it out there and figured it was what it was. It still is. I met Iris Dement in Kansas City and played guitar for her on what I think was her first demo of “Our Town” not long after that. I don’t think that studio is there anymore. Recording is a document in time and I love to be in the studio.

PEV: Already a well established and recognized musician, but tell us about the early years of Jeff Black.

JB: I was working at a car wash and gas station. I opened up early one morning about 5:00 am and was working on a ROBO was machine when a friend of mine from school stopped in. I think he’d been out all night. I was out for most of it. He was an artist. Still is though, he fancies himself a cantina inspector in Italy now. Extremely talented friend. He asked me when I was going to start doing what I was supposed to be doing. I was covered in grease and feeling a little dusty. I quit that morning and went home. I had finally landed a job with insurance and vacation. My folks were a little upset to say the least. I went down to Blayneys, a little blues club in KC that had early acoustic shows. I had been there before with my cousin and thought then that I would like to try and play a real club. I had gotten into a little trouble and after I had paid my debt to society, my dad took me down to Turner Music in Independence, MO. And bought me my first guitar that played in tune, He handed me my entire life that afternoon. So, I took my guitar, my newfound freedom of necessity and went looking to audition for the owner of this club. I asked to play some songs for himƒhe looked me up and down and said all the early shows were booked for quite a while but, he needed a bouncer. That was my first job in the music business.

PEV: Was there a certain point in your life when you knew that music was going to be a career for you? As well, what are some of the biggest obstacles you find yourself facing in the music industry?

JB: Well like I told you, my first performance in that little 6th grade talent show was the point for me. That was easy. There are so many obstacles for even the most talented people. I believe it is first society that wants to keep a thumb on any freethinkers. A lot of people wish you well and the best as you go along but, there are just as many who give you the “who in the hell do you think you are?” voodoo and that’s a tough one. I never felt any different than anybody else. I just loved the idea of spending my life doing what I loved.

PEV: What can people expect from your latest release, Tin Lily?

JB: A collection of songs about the fragility of the strong and just how strong the fragile are.

PEV: How was making Tin Lilly different from your past projects and how is it different from other albums out today?

JB: I recorded analog on 2″ tape. There’s one difference from a lot of records these days since 2″ is on the outs. It’s not so much about being different as it is the point of departure from the writing to the documentation.

PEV: Is there someone you haven’t worked/collaborated with that you would like to?

JB: Sly Stone, Cecelia Bartoli

PEV: How was being exposed to blues and rock so early in your life, help shape your sound?

JB: I don’t know. I try not to think about that much. I suppose it gives me a heavier foot and a little thicker skin.

PEV: I read a very interesting quote from you, where you said, “I love songs about freeing the spirit, about minimizing the struggle the best you can, about treating your individuality as something that’s precious and important,”. With that, tell us about where/how you create lyrics to match the themes of struggle, love and loss.

JB: That’s never really been up to me entirely. I just try to stay out of the way.

PEV: Is there a band or artist on the scene right now that you think is “on the rise” as well?

JB: If you would have asked me that a couple years ago I might have had an answer. I never listen to much music when I’m writing or recording. I love old soul music.

PEV: What can people expect from a Jeff Black show?

JB: That I start on time and that I figure that I get paid to drive so there are no stops and no reason to do anything but jump all the way in head first. I like to tell stories and play some obscure songs somewhere in there for long time fans. I love and live to play so I hope people expect the best I can do. That’s what I try to do.

PEV: What is the best part about playing live and what kind of venue do you prefer?

JB: Small theatres and halls are the best. The best part of playing live is throwing it all out there into the universe and versions of songs take on their own path.

PEV: How has life on the road been for the band?

JB: It’s mostly solo shows so the band is fine, the jury is still out on me.

PEV: What’s one thing we’d be surprised to hear about Jeff Black?

JB: That I am truly happy.

PEV: When you get to relax or have some down time, what can we find you doing?

JB: Cooking red meat on the grill with some cold Budweiser (in the can) handy, listening to the best radio station in the country. The Might 147 1140 on the AM dial in Nashville playing the soul hits of the 60-70’s and watching my little ones shake the world.

PEV: How have your friends and family reacted to all your success?

JB: There’s been no success and no reaction to speak of. I just have a job that I don’t hateƒeveryday. My family resides on an unconditional plane and my close friends are truly an inspiration no matter what I do for a living. Would you like some more sugar?

PEV: In all your travels, which city has been your favorite to play? Why?

JB: I don’t have a favorite, they all have a place for me. I loved Belfast, and New York. I love Texas all over and always Kansas City.

PEV: When you write music, what kind of environment do you surround yourself in?

JB: I have an old barn/garage I set up as a place for my piano and guitars. No phones, no pool, no pets.

PEV: So, what is next for Jeff Black? JB: Keep on living my life the best I can.

For more information on Jeff Black, check out www.JeffBlack.com

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