Ilana Katz Katz is a singer/violinist who loves the blues. And like, one imagines, most violinists exploring less traditional violin genres, she was encouraged to stay in her musical lane.
Of course classical music was in the mix, which didn't speak to her personally. But there were also other musical styles that weren't her cup of tea. "I'm Jewish," she says. "I played the violin. [My parents] were like, Why don't you play klezmer music?' And again, like the classical music, it wasn't me being rebellious. I just didn't resonate with the klezmer music."
Katz (her middle name was Katz and then she married a Katz, giving her a permanent echo) resisted the shrill call of clarinets and stuck with the blues. "Musically, that sound just made me happy," she explains. "And I really liked to listen to it. Whereas somebody else might love classical music—it is very beautiful—but it doesn't resonate with me even though I play violin."
Katz is quick to point out the violin's history within the blues. "The blues fiddle came before the guitar," she says. "On the plantations, the slaves would play instruments. And if they were good at playing fiddle tunes, then they would be able to play at dances for their masters. And when they had those instruments on their own, they were intertwining what they were doing with the field hollers and so the blues fiddle is really intertwined with the Appalachian music from way, way back. And also they say the fiddle is the most like the human voice, in terms of emotion."
Katz found an unusual audience in the depths of the Boston subway. "I would say playing in the subway is my biggest influence as a performer," she says. "Everybody asks me about the subway, you know, 'What's that like?' It's such a melting pot of society. The stage I'm on is at the same level as every person there and I have had so many wonderful and strange situations there. And so it definitely influences me because everybody needs to go somewhere."
While Katz loves the subway, (she has an album called Subway Stories), she also performs topside, where an above-ground encounter with bluesman Ronnie Earl led to him pulling her on stage to perform with him. That encounter, plus his personal encouragement, helped to increase Katz's confidence and exposure.
Her latest album, In My Mind is beautiful, with the violin cast in the role usually given to the guitar. Her lovely voice, without the traditional blues heft, is also atypical, in a refreshing way. All of this allows her to create personal blues songs using a unique—although, as we've learned not historically unique—timbre.
In this interview, Katz discusses her writing process, and how she found the courage to write songs after spending years writing novels and screenplays. Katz is thoughtful and deliberate, but also delightfully Zen about music: "Whether you're talking about a Jackson Pollock painting or movie or a certain kind of music, as humans, we just like what we like, and we don't have to have a reason."
WM: How did you come to the blues?
Katz: I played the violin starting in fifth grade, and when I was about 13, or 14, I heard John Lee Hooker. And, in my mind, I'm coincidentally saying that even though that's the name of the record, I thought, but never said aloud. 'Oh, my God, I want to play on the violin what John Lee Hooker is doing on the guitar, and I just fell in love with it. We all have our own [challenges] growing up, which I won't go into, but I had some depression growing up, and I really resonated with the blues, going back.
WM: Was it a specific song?
Katz: It wasn't a specific song. It was his sound. Everybody's got their own sound. They were just something about him playing his guitar. He has a very—especially when he does his solo acoustic stuff— he's got a very primal sound to his guitar. And I just loved it.
And the other thing was that I loved playing the violin, but I did not like classical music. And I always would kind of get in trouble for trying to play the notes off the page. So I loved the instrument, but I didn't like classical music. I still try to listen to it every once in a while and it's just not my thing. I appreciate it, but it's not my thing.
So I heard the blues, but I also ended up really getting to the blues through Appalachian music, which is another kind of music that you learn by ear. And so I studied that and everyone always said, 'Oh, your style is so bluesy,' because I was always trying to play the blues.
WM: John Lee Hooker is so rhythmic. Did you hear how the violin would translate in your head? Or did you just have a sense that this was the type of music you wanted to make?
Katz: I do like the the rhythmic sound of what he does. And I also like a lot of the hill country blues. I play a lot down in Mississippi. I didn't really think about that. I just liked the whole setting. I listened to a lot of blues once I found John Lee Hooker. And he's my go-to man. If I'm like, 'Oh, man, what do I want to listen to?,' I can always listen to John Lee Hooker. It's like going home. But it was more that [he] opened me up to the whole umbrella of the blues.
WM: What's the story with Ronnie Earl pulling you up on stage?
Katz: Ronnie Earl changed my life. So I was playing in the subway since 2008. There's actually an article that I just wrote about it. And I love playing the blues and I went to hear Billy Boy Arnold. [He] was playing in a small place in Boston called Club Café. And so I went to the show, and Ronnie Earl got called on stage, and at the end of the show—it was packed, like you could not move—and when he was leaving, he stopped in front of me, nobody could move, and Ronnie Earl just started talking to me. We had a very good friend in common, David Maxwell, who's passed. We just started talking and [Earl] said, 'You should play with me some time.' And he invited me to play with him, and it took a couple of months, and then he invited me to play with him.
Then, I went to see him a few weeks later at a show and he said, 'I want to help you.' And I was like, 'Well, what do you mean?' So I was already recording a CD and when I told him that, he said 'I want to be on your CD.' And I didn't really think he was serious but the next day, he called me up and he said, 'I want to be on your CD and my manager's going to call you.' And we recorded in my house with no rehearsals. I started spending a lot of time with him. He would invite me out all the time to go see shows, and if he was going somewhere, he would have me sit in with him, and he really, really, really ushered me around. And I'm forever grateful to him.
WM: Did the two of you ever talk about why he gravitated toward you?
Katz: We talked about a lot of things. He didn't specifically say that. It's funny. The night that he did say, 'I want to help you,' we were talking about John Lee Hooker, and we were talking about some of the songs we like. One of them actually. It's the one about the flood, ["Tupelo Blues"].
Ronnie Earl helps a lot of people. He lifts a lot of people up. I'm somebody who, I follow through and I work hard, and so it turned into something a lot more than 'Hey, why don't you just come and sit in with me.' It turned into this whole friendship.
I think he gravitates toward various people. You kind of have a stint where you hang out with Ronnie, and he kind of lifts you up and sends you out of the nest. That's how I feel. And it's actually really nice. I ran into him recently at a festival and it's always nice to see him.
Writing In My Mind
WM: And what was your writing process like for In My Mind?
Katz: Well, I'm [going to] go back to Ronnie Earl for one minute and say that the the first night I sat in with him, at the end of the night, I was getting ready to leave. I was so nervous. And everybody left, it was a very, very small place in Groton, Massachusetts, a little cafe. And he said, 'Sit down,' and he said, 'What are you doing playing in subway?' And I said, 'Well, I like playing in the subway.' And he said, 'Do you write music?' I said, 'No. I write books and things, but I interpret music.' He took my hand, and he leaned in, he literally said to me, 'You're not always going to play in the subway, and you're going to write your own music.'
I did think something of it, but I thought, 'Well, that's so strange, because I don't write my own music.' So I am a writer. I write novels. I've written a bunch of novels. I've written screenplays, and I just started paying attention to lyrics and writing things down. And so it just kind of unfolded. So there's not really a specific story about that particular body of songs. But I'm always writing songs and always writing lyrics.
WM: How come you weren't writing songs? As a writer and a musician, it seems like songwriting would be like a natural meeting point.
Katz: I thought so little of myself at the time; I didn't think I was talented. I love playing in the subway, but when I went down to play there, I went down there because I didn't think I was very good. I was trying to do something to not be not be depressed [laughs].
And I always feel good when I leave the subway. I don't really have depression anymore, fortunately. I've done a lot of things in my life, and music is one of them, to heal myself. I just didn't really think of myself as very good, so I didn't think I would write good lyrics. I have a bunch of novels, [but] I didn't think my novels were very good. I just had low self-esteem. And so to add another writing thing... I just didn't think I would be very good at it.
WM: And when Ronnie told you that, was it like a switch flipped where you started writing songs?
Katz: I always jot things down. I think I really was already writing lyrics but not like a full song. I will say yes, it was like a switch flipped, because I still remember it. It just felt like somebody was telling me something I really needed to listen to.
WM: What about the song "If"? Do you remember what the process was for writing that?
Katz: "If," which is obviously the last song on the record, it is the only song I recorded entirely by myself, in my closet. I did all the parts. And that just came out of feeling sad that there's so much disunity in the world. And without getting political, because I don't think of this as political, I just thought, 'Wow, why can't people just respect what other people believe?' And why do things have to be so, [like] 'God is this way?' Or why does it matter what we believe? Why can't we just really respect one another. And so that came out of being sad from seeing people from different denominations really shoot each other down, literally and emotionally.
WM: And musically is it just you and violin? Was there anything else?
Katz: There are handclaps. There's a shaker. And there are two vocal tracks, and I think, two violin tracks, if I remember.
WM: It's my favorite song on the album. I was very happy that it's so sparse. I think other artists might have made the choice to add drums or guitar, to give it the traditional instrumentation of the blues. And instead you did an acoustic blues on violin. Why didn't you add to it?
Katz: There are a number of layers to it. For one thing that was [recorded] at the height of Covid. I was supposed to go back down to Mississippi to finish things up. I think I did that maybe in May of 2021. That was that real lockdown, no vaccines and stuff.
So I didn't know how to use Pro Tools, and my cousin gave me Pro Tools lessons. And I just wanted to finish the record, so I just tried to do it. And I didn't really think, 'Oh, I'm not going to have this or I'm not going to have that.' I just started playing around with it.
But the other thing on top of that, is that I do a lot of performances solo. And that comes from playing in the subway. So that's just a piece of who I am. I am very stark in that way. Sometimes I think, 'Oh my gosh, I should get a band,' but I am used to playing on my own, which is something I really like to do. I like playing solo and I like playing with a band.
WM: Do you think it would have been more traditional instrumentation if it hadn't been the height of Covid? Would you have thrown a band on it?
Katz: Not much more. That would not have been a full band song. That would have been maybe a little more percussion. But no, I was already performing that, in that way, by myself. So I kind of liked that.
WM: How did you connect with Johnny Burgin?
Katz: Johnny Burgin I met through Bobby Radcliff. Ronnie Earl brought me to New York City to play at BB King's Club, which, unfortunately, [is] now closed. And Bobby Radcliff was also sitting in, and they go way back. So I met Bobby that night, and we became very good friends. He's a very dear friend, and he's an amazing bluesman.
So he knew Johnny and Johnny was touring through the area. I used to put up a lot of musicians in my house, you know, before Covid, and so Johnny came to stay with me and I connected him with various clubs and people in the area, because he didn't really have a big network around where I live. And we just started hanging out with his band. And I would play with him when he had gigs. We did some gigs together and then at night, we would jam. And that's how we came to record.
WM: What do you like about playing with him?
Katz: Johnny, he's got his own sound. He's so passionate about the music. His band is pretty spare. And I mean that with the highest compliment. He's not touring right now, but his bass player, who's the bass player on the album, Chris Matheos, I met him through Bobby Radcliff, as well. So it all kind of leads back to Bobby Radcliff. I like the spare sound: guitar, bass, drums. And Johnny was very encouraging of my songs. And as I said before, I used to not think so much of what I was doing, and he really encouraged me and said, 'These are really good songs. That's really cool.' I really appreciated that.
WM: Is it tough playing with guitar players because you occupy similar sonic space? Do you have to watch out for each other?
Katz: I never think it's tough. I love being a side musician, and also one thing that's very different with the violin is when you pluck a guitar string, the note is there, and then it kind of disappears. And the sustenance of the bow on the strings would be similar to a Hammond organ that can hold the tone. So I don't think of them as similar. I think of harmonica players, that's more similar, or saxophone. And even that, it all can work. But no, I never think it's hard to play with a guitar player. And I like to play chords behind a guitar player, to augment what they're doing.
WM: I was curious about "Bad Child," too, because I felt like that was you playing the traditional guitar line, with the guitar doing more atmospheric type things. Was that your perception of that one?
Katz: It's kind of an unusual song. I was very nervous to even share my lyrics, because it's a very personal, cathartic song about my childhood. Again, we were just playing around one night, and Johnny said, 'Hey, what else have you got? What other lyrics do you have?' I was like, 'Well, I have this thing.' And I just started playing, and we kind of—organically—we just started playing like that. So I didn't really think about 'Well, how are we going to do this song?' We started just playing and that's how it came out.
WM: Because it's such a personal song, was there a lot of internal deliberation about bringing it out?
Katz: Yes. I will tell you that I didn't really know if I would ever share those lyrics. And that's about one-fifth of the lyrics that I put together [laughs]. I don't have a problem writing lyrics. I write and write and write and write, I usually have a lot to say, and then I cut it back. And I never thought I would share it. And those are some of the less dramatic lyrics.
For me writing, it's cathartic to write things down, and then you let them go. So now I don't have an energetic charge about what I wrote about. Writing that song healed me a lot about where I came from. I don't hold on to things; when I write them, I let them go. So once again, sitting around with the encouragement of Johnny and his band, that those were good lyrics, and that was a cool song, I just thought, 'Okay, I'm [going to] do this. I'm [going to] put this out.' And I'm really glad I did.
WM: And when you're writing, especially since you write in so many forms, what determines what becomes a screenplay versus a novel versus an essay versus a song lyric?
Katz: Well, I started out [and] I didn't think I was a very good musician at all. I always loved playing music. I love the blues. I always enjoy playing. I just wanted to be a novelist. And I wrote novels, I was rejected more than 700 times, for all of my novels. I had an agent and then they couldn't sell my novel. And so I surrendered. And my mom was dying, and I said, 'Well, I'm [going to] put out a novel by myself and self-publish it.' And I put it out, and then it got optioned for a screenplay. And I was like, 'I don't know how to write a screenplay.'
I have a lot of writer friends and one, who's a New York Times best-selling author said, 'You can write a screenplay.' I said, 'I don't know how to write a screenplay.' And she said, 'Read these books.' And I just sat down and I wrote a screenplay. And I don't want to say it wasn't that hard, but I enjoyed it.
So the roundabout answer is that now, at this point, where I do write all these things, because I used to just write novels, now I just know. An idea comes to me and I know, 'Oh, that's going to be a great screenplay.' Or 'That should be a novel' or 'Here are some feelings I have, this might be a song.' Or 'This definitely is going to be a song.' I just get a feeling in the moment with whatever creative idea comes to me. And the reason I am more deliberate about where it belongs, whether it should be a song, or a screenplay, or a novel is, I just feel better about myself, and so I don't worry so much.
When I worried, 'Oh, this isn't very good,' or 'I'm not very good,' then all that worry energy clouded my creativity. But now I'm better, I feel better, so an idea comes in, and I just think about it for a minute, and I know where it's supposed to go. I wish I could be more specific on how I know, but it's just listening to what's coming in.
WM: Do you have a song backlog that's comparable to your novel backlog?
Katz: I do have a lot of songs. I actually have more than enough songs for my next record, which I already started outlining. They're not all done-done, you know, super refined. But yeah, I do have a lot of song lyrics and ideas.
I also record. Sometimes I just get a melody and I'll just record that, or I'll jot down some words. I'm a big runner, so I run, and a lot of times when I'm running, lyrics will come to me, or a melody will come to me. And when I get home, as soon as I get home, I'll furiously write down what came to me and it goes in my little file or I have notebooks, and then I revisit them and then I refine them.
WM: And is there anything about the structure of screenplays and the structure of blues that feels similar. They both have strong conventions.
Katz: Another part of my life, I studied writing. I studied journalism, in college. And I wrote a lot. I used to work for United Press International when I was in college as a college stringer. They used to call [me and] I'd phone in articles and stuff. Print journalism at that time, had...there's a formula to it to. To writing a lead paragraph. And then after that, I studied technical writing. I did graduate coursework in technical writing, which again, is sort of like a trade school for writing, with a lot of rules and parameters. And I won a lot of awards for that.
And so, screenwriting also has a lot of parameters. And it's about the economy of storytelling. It can only be certain number of pages. I think I have a natural propensity [for] writing within those kind of boundaries. But as far as the songs, I don't think I write very traditional blues songs in terms of structure, and I am not schooled in music. So if this lyric comes, and that's how I want to do it, I don't think about the structure of a blues song most of the time. Some of them are, obviously, like, "Woman, Play the Blues," that follows a pretty clear kind of structure, but a lot of times songs, I just don't worry about the structure.
Interview edited for brevity and clarity.