Your next UK tour begins July 15 in Plymouth, but it’s by far your first trip here. What’s it been like for you playing in the UK?
It’s been really good for me. One thing I’ve noticed about playing in the UK, is that you play in front of a group of strangers who really have no reason to like you or dislike you, but the shows always go really well. When I play back home, you know, you might be playing for your friends, but that’s what I like about touring – playing for strangers. And they’ll always tell you the truth, that’s for sure!
You travel light - it’s often just you and your guitar, no band or anything. Have you come to enjoy that sense of loneliness touring on your own must bring?
In some ways it’s nice because I’ll get a lot of quiet time. I’m really a boring person in a lot of ways, but the longer you go, the more lonely it gets. But it helps playing for different people every night, and the fact that every city or town has a different feel to it also kind of helps to prevent you from getting lonely. Some areas might be a little more reserved, while people in other areas seem to be much more outgoing. I’ve spoken to a lot of musicians about this, it’s really strange how people in some cities might have their arms out and act very straight forward, while other cities seem much more polite and reserved. Not that either one of them is worse than the other, it’s just interesting how some cities can be really close yet still very different.
A lot of the gigs on this tour have been set up by amateur promoters, people with normal day jobs who just do this for the fun of it. Where do you think you’d be without them?
The network of people who love music and make it possible for a man like me to come over and spread my music is just amazing. There are a lot of things in this world today that can make a man depressed and down, so it’s a big comfort and reassuring to me that you still have people around the world who just love music enough to do what they can to bring artists over, set up a show, bring people to see it, and then let you crash in your bedroom after the concert’s over. It’s a very anti-rockstar thing and I like that about it.
Honestly, the first time I ever came over to England to play, it was because of a promoter up in Newcastle by the name of Graham Anderson, who had sent me an email telling me how much he liked one of my records. We kept in touch, and he made it possible for me to come over and play the Americana Festival in Gateshead three or four years ago. He just made it possible and gave me the opportunity to come over here and open for Guy Clark in front of 1500 people, which kinda made me think good God, I need to come over here more often! It’s a beautiful thing, and I’ve met so many people here who just do it out of the love for music.
And I suppose you are as well?
I’m actually really fortunate to be able to do this full time. It doesn’t make me rich or anything, but it pays the mortgage and supports my household. So I’m fortunate in that part. I understand the question, but it’s the only thing I’ve done for the past five years. If I was in it for the money, it would have been smarter to become a doctor or a lawyer, but I enjoy playing music and I feel lucky to be able to do that.
Your previous album, Grandpa Walked A Picketline, was recorded in a studio, but Joe Hill’s Ashes was made in your own living room. Any particular reason behind this? Most people start out in their living room and then make it to the studio,
I really enjoyed making Grandpa Walked A Picketline, I got to work with some amazing people on it. I was really happy with it, and it was beautiful to work with Chris Stamey, who produced it, Bob Olhsson, the engineer who was the head engineer at Motown during their heyday, Al Perkins and that whole crowd, but after making that album, I also wanted to do something a little bit different from my perspective. I honestly wanted to record it myself at home. I like to joke with my friends that I’m the world’s foremost authority on what an Otis Gibbs record should sound like, so I thought to hell with it, and started setting up equipment in my living room. For two weeks I would record 12 hours a day, and I think I ended up recording 30 or 35 songs for the record. I just jumped in head first, and at the end of the process I just started listening to all the recordings. I’m pretty good at telling myself the truth, what sounds great and what needs a little bit else. I took it over to my friend, Thomm Jutz’s studio and we brought in a few players all while we tried to maintain some of the intimate feel of my living room. It is one of the most rewarding albums I’ve ever made, just because the recording process was really, really enjoyable. It has a homemade flavour without the corporate aftertaste.
So how did this happen? Get the idea for a song in bed, stumble down to the living room, record it and then back to bed?
Well, this is pretty much how my days went during that time. I would wake up, get some coffee and start rewriting some things for a couple of hours while I was drinking my coffee. Record for a few hours, then stop to get some food and then I would go back to rewriting stuff, trying to finish songs. That’s how it goes, you know, the songs on the record are first or second takes, but you spend hours rewriting stuff that won’t even end up on the record. If it feels right, it feels right. Also, I might write a song and let it sit for a year and never play it or anything, and then pull it out and go wow, that’s pretty good.
Writing and recording for 12 hours a day must take a hell of a lot of discipline on your behalf?
Yeah, and people never really talk about the actual craft of writing songs. They think of the grand rockstar life and everything, but they never think about you having to have the discipline to learn the craft. That’s the hardest part. You have a life, you have people around you, but I just try to block out everything for a couple of weeks, let my friends and family know that I’ll be working. But that’s also one of the difficulties of working at home. I have a dog and two cats, and they make noises. You’ll be right in the middle of a song and the cat miaouves, a loud car goes down the road and the birds in the yard are singing, and that ends up on the record. I don’t mind it at all, but I’m sure if you listen to the record loud enough, you’ll be able to hear it. But it’s part of my life, and I like to think that what goes on in my living room will end up on a record that people on the other side of the world will listen to it.
Does this mean you’ll never set foot in a proper studio again?
I don’t ever want to say never. I have a huge appreciation for the George Martins and the Alan Parsons of the world, so the fact that I’m recording in my living room should not be percieved as a slight to them. I’m an artist and I think artists should work with whatever means available to them But right now I dont have an interest in working with a big name producer, but it’s always nice to work in a studio like I did with Grandpa Walked A Picketline. I like where I am at this moment, but I don’t want to say that I’ll never work in a studio again. What I’m offered the chance in 10 years, and somebody pulled out this interview and said look what you said?
Who was Joe Hill?
Joe Hill was a songwriter and labour organizer about a 100 years ago. For people who’ve never heard of Joe Hill, the easy description would be, when Bob Dylan first started out, people would refer to him as the next Woody Guthrie, and when Woody Guthrie first started out, people would refer to him as the next Joe Hill. He was framed for murder in Utah, and was executed by fire squad, cause at this time, they were trying to knock out all the labour leaders of the time, and he was percieved as being that. He would write songs and people would sing them at picketlines. I just wanted to bring his name out so people would remember he excisted.
You’ve always written topical songs that could be mistaken for political. Do you think you’ve become more of a political artist with this album?
To be honest with you, I don’t think my songs have really changed in that way. What I often think about it, when the Carter Family sang No Depression, no one acused them of being a political band. These days, if you write a topical song, it gets perceived as a politcal song. I don’t think the subject matter on this album is no more or less political on this one than any of them. I’ve never thought of myself as a political artist and I really hate that word. I think it says a lot more about the rest of the world that forty years ago songwriters would write about everything. Neil Young or CSNY would never be pigeonholed as political artists, it would just be one asset of what they do. It’s kind of odd that these days, everything’s been so polarised. If you express a political opinion, people call you a political artist. I’m not an evangelist. I don’t want to be preaching to anyone. And if the song sucks, if it’s not good, people don’t care what the hell they’re about. I’m fortunate to have a little fanbase, and some of them probably might see me as some radical, politcal leader or something, and some of them might just like me because my songs sound nice to them.
Otis Gibbs’ Joe Hill’s Ashes is out now on Wanamaker Recording Company. For more on Otis and his upcoming tour of the UK, go to otisgibbs.com