Everyone responds to pandemics in different ways. Some people get really into baking bread. Others learn a craft. And lots of songwriters used the down time to record. Singer/guitarist Rick Holmstrom opted for the latter, but not right away.
First, he had to fight off the pull of Alaska.
“I grew up in Alaska and I thought 'Maybe I should go back to Alaska and see if I can get some kind of work,' he recalls. “At the beginning of [the pandemic], I really just was out of sorts, because, you know, my wife is working, my kids are busy with school and I'm just sitting there, and so I thought, 'I’ve got to get out of here. I’ve got to go do something.' My family up north had a cabin, outside of Fairbanks, that my folks were planning on painting that summer. So I thought, 'Well, I'll just go home and do that.'
Luckily for music lovers, Holmstrom opted to stay in the lower 48 and make See That Light,an album of blues-inspired rock and roll (reviewed here), with a minimalist production that allows Holmstrom’s songs to shine.
You can forgive Holmstrom’s pandemic planning process for not skipping ‘go to Alaska’ and landing directly on ‘make an album.’ While See That Light is his seventh album, his primary vocation is band leader, most recently working with the legendary Mavis Staples, but having spent time backing artists like William Clarke, Johnny Dyer, and Booker T. Jones.
With Alaska off the table, as he realized he couldn’t escape COVID up north, Holmstrom turned to his cache of incomplete songs. “Well, I've got this unfinished work,” he says of his thought process. “I can start working on it and try to corral it and tighten it up and turn it into a record.”
The bandleader was ready to assemble his own band (choosing co-producer Steve Mugalian on drums and Gregory Boaz on bass; both from the Staples band). Holmstrom found an engineer and started recording, reorienting himself into the work of being a musician and giving him a pandemic project to focus upon.
While Holmstrom writes regularly, it’s not a part of his Staples job responsibilities. Despite 14 years together, Holmstrom’s never written for the blues legend, although she has sung on his albums. “I might have run something by her manager at one point and they considered it,” he says. “She's had some really, really great, well-known songwriters write for her.” Which is true. Staples has worked with songwriters ranging from Matt Ward to Jeff Tweedy to Nick Lowe to Ben Harper. Holmstrom understands the desire to work with better-known writers. “They're going to find their songs somewhere else,” Holmstrom says. “They're not just going to get them from her guitar player.”
Given the songwriting Holmstrom shows on See That Light, that might eventually change. Inthis interview, Holmstrom discusses the making of See That Light, and how he assembled it from notes and voice memos written during his down moments on the road. He also talks about his process for finding new blues sounds, by learning old songs. He has a vision for his songs and knows how to get it down on tape.
Writing See That Light
Rick Holmstrom: Some of the songs I had for a while. I finished them a while back. And other ones were bits and pieces.
We were so busy with the Mavis group. For the longest time, we were constantly on the road. I had some songs that were done and they were just sitting there. I knew, eventually, I'd get around to recording them. I had a lot of little snippets, like a verse and a chorus, or just the chorus or just the verse of other songs. When the pandemic started, I started just kind of grabbing everything, corralling it, and looking at it and finishing things, and then starting new things and grabbing a couple of old things. And then, right around April or so, I started looking at it. 'Now, this might be something. We should start working on this and turn it into something.'
Working Mojo: So when you said some of the songs were done, what does that look like for you? Did you have complete demos? Or was it just verses and chord progressions?
Holmstrom: No, I had, let's see, I would say maybe five songs. Five or six songs that I would consider done, lyrically, or mostly done. And then a lot of times, I'll just sit there and record them on my voice memo function on the iPhone and maybe send them to my friend Steve Mugalian, the drummer in our band, who co-produced the record with me. And so, 'What do you think of this?' 'Yeah, that sounds great.' Or, 'I don't know about that third verse' or ‘What if you said something about this here?’ [He would] send me back working on it a little bit more, tidying it up a little bit.
Sometimes, when we were doing all that traveling with Mavis, if you've got like a five-hour flight to New York, in the first couple hours, you might read the paper and take a little nap, listen to some music, and all of a sudden you wake up, you've got two or three hours left. Or if we're on a bus tour, I'd sit up in the front of the bus with the driver, with a notepad. And so I had a lot of things that were just a beginning of a song, or half or two thirds of a song, and I had never finished it. So I finished up a bunch of stuff like that. I wrote a handful of songs from scratch during the pandemic. Then we recorded 16 songs and only released 12 on the record. So some of them are still kind of sitting around [laughs]. They might show up later.
WM: And you talked about the snippets of songs you had. Where do those live? Are those voice memos? Or do you have a notebook?
Holmstrom: Both. I mean, most of the time they are in notebook form, but sometimes I'll find them in notes. In the iPhone, I'll just have like, ‘Oh, man, I forgot about this thing.’ Like "Losing my Shit" was one of those songs that started off like that, where it was just like a verse and the beginning of a chorus. And I looked back and [went], 'Hey. I have the chord progression here. And I have the verse and I have like, half the chorus, and then I just stopped. I should look at this.' Then a day later, or a couple of hours later, 'This might be a decent song.'
WM: I'm glad you brought that up. I was going to ask you specifically about that song, because that was one of my favorites on the album. You had the verse and the beginning of a chorus. Did you have music to that?
Holmstrom: Yeah. I know that I had the changes: E minor, C and G. I knew it was going to have some kind of a feel like that. Because that's an easy enough thing to be imagining while you're sitting on an airplane, looking out the window, and you're hearing that big E minor chord. And then the C and the G. I think I had that. And then I might have gone back to the hotel and messed around with it a little bit more. But there's a lot of stuff like that, that I just think, 'This is pretty cool.' But then boom, all of a sudden, you're working, you're on the job. You're at a soundcheck, you're at a gig, and it's easy to lose sight of it, because my reason I was out there was something else; [it] was to do work with Mavis.
WM: How is it different recording for yourself instead of for Mavis, or for somebody else?
Holmstrom: This is my, I don't know if it's my fifth or sixth solo record. So I've done it in the past. It's very different because it's one thing if I'm doing an instrumental record, which I've done a before. Then I'm thinking about the band and guitar playing. And just like kind of arranging for instrumentals, but if I'm doing a vocal record of my own songs? Like, when you go into the studio, and you've got Mavis Staples, you've got these amazing background vocalists, like Donny Gerrard and Saundra Williams singing background vocals, that sounds like the sky's the limit vocally. You know what I mean? And feeling-wise, you can get so much from people like that. But [if] I'm going in to sing and do my own record, I have a much more limited thing vocally. And so I'm always trying to think about that, make sure that I don't put myself in positions where I'm out of my comfort zone or I'm out of what I can pull off. Because I'm very aware of the fact that I'm not Bobby Bland or Junior Wells or Otis Redding or Muddy Waters.
WM: How many people are?
Holmstrom: Well I'm not even close [laughs]. And I know that. I like vocalists who are great singers. I'm a huge fan of Al Green and Muddy Waters and on and on and on. All the great vocalists. Mavis Staples. But I'm also a fan of singers who aren't like that, like Mose Allison. Tom Petty was not necessarily somebody that you would think of as like, 'What a great singer!,' but he was a cool songwriter, and he knew how to get his point across. The same with Mose Allison, you know? So it becomes like a different thing. Like, 'Hmmm. Do I have this in the right key? The right range? Am I able to pull this off?' That's why there's some songs that we recorded, that I didn't put them on the record, because I felt like either song-wise, or vocally, we weren't getting it.
WM: Did you and Steve disagree on any? Were there any where he thought you should keep it and you thought it should go, or vice versa?
Holmstrom: Yeah. There's a song on the record called "Come Along," that I pulled off for a while, like when we were sequencing, getting ready to master the record, and I had it off for a while. And that's one of the older songs. I guess what it came down to was, I was kind of getting tired of the song. And then Steve, while we're listening to a possible sequence, Steve said, 'Hey, what happened to that "Come Along" song? I kind of miss that.
And so I ended up shit-canning another song, and putting "Come Along" back on. So that happens a lot, because, the song that we ended up not putting on, a few of them, they were brand new songs. And I was enamored with them, because they were new. I had just written them and it was, 'Hey, they're brand new, shiny things. Isn't this great?' And then you realize, 'Whoa, wait a minute, there's something here that's actually a couple of years old that maybe is better.'
WM: And do you think the older songs are better because they've been developed a little more? Or is better better?
Holmstrom: Both. I mean, that can be the case, where it's like because this one's been around for a while, and we've played it on shows, it's better because of that. And like you say, it's been through the mill a little bit, and you kind of [had a] chance to hone it and edit it. Other times, there's just something that happens, you just write something and you get lucky, I guess, or something happens, where it's just fully formed at its inception and there it is. ‘Damn, that came off pretty good.’
Like, "Losing my Shit" is kind of like one of those. There's not a whole lot going on there: a couple of verses, chorus, a solo. And I played around with adding other verses and adding middle eights to it and stuff. And it just seemed like 'Nah.' I'm all into songs having bridges and middle eights, and pre-choruses and all that kind of stuff is great. But sometimes it just ends up being, in my experience, an exercise in songwriting excess. If you just feel like it has to have all of the things that songs sometimes have. Sometimes I'd rather strip it away, and get it to a point where it's as minimal as it can be, and still work.
WM: I really loved how the album felt finished, but also like you stripped away everything unnecessary. You're just left with the essence of the songs.
Holmstrom: One of the things that my friend Jeff Turmes used to say to me, he's a bass player that played with me and in the Mavis band for a long time, and recently went on to do other stuff. He's a really good songwriter. And one of the things he used to say about songs was, he liked it when songs were bulletproof. Like the song is constructed so well, you can change the groove, you can change the tempo, change the key, and the song still works. And when you get up there and you play those bulletproof songs, they just work all the time. You can go and have a pickup gig bass player and a drummer that you don't normally work with. And you just huddle with them for like 10 seconds before you play a song. And it still works. Those are kind of fun songs to have in your quiver.
WM: Do you think every song on See That Light is bulletproof?
Holmstrom: Oh, no. I mean, I would love it if they were, but the ones that are bulletproof are rare. I think there's more on this record, but some of them, no. When they're bulletproof, it's almost like you're playing them live, and you just can't mess them up. And they're easy to pull off. And then there [are] other ones where you realize, this is one of the ones you kind of have to rehearse. You have to get all the parts together, and you have to keep practicing it all the time. [You realize,] ‘I guess this one isn't bulletproof. Damn!’ [laughs]
WM: What was bulletproof on See That Light?
Holmstrom: Well, I think, for me, I mean, bulletproof would be the kind of it's almost like, I hate to call them that now.
WM: It's a lot of pressure.
Holmstrom: But not only that, but it's like, bullets and all that. I mean, it's a metaphor, I guess. But I think, "Take My Hand" is one of those that you could even just get rid of a couple of the little things that we put into that song, like, there's a little break at the beginning of the solo. That doesn't need to be there. We added that on the floor of the studio as a little thing, as kind of an arrangement thing that can make it cool. And then on the fade out on the outro of the song, there's a section where it kind of jockeys back and forth, vamps between the one and the flat three of the progression. And I used to do that song just hanging on the one. Actually, we'd just play the progression continually through the song. That doesn't need to be there. But it's there. And I like it on the record and on the arrangement. That song is kind of bulletproof.
Stuff like "Got to Go" is a blues, but with kind of a quirky progression. It's like a story song that basically has this progression that just keeps going throughout the whole song. "Joyful Eye," the last song, just goes back and forth between two chords the whole song. That one I know I've gotten up on stage with people that have never played with us before. Like, maybe it was a trumpet player or saxophone player in the audience. 'Hey, you got your horn with you?' 'Yeah!' 'Come on up here. This is a C and A minor the whole song.' And that's one of the things that I've learned from Mavis; a song like "I'll Take You There" is just two chords the whole time. And there's a lot that you can do with one or two chords.
Discovering new blues sounds
WM: How do you personally find something new to say in the blues, which can be so idiom based? Is that hard?
Holmstrom: I don't know. I mean, I think it's just trial and error. For me, I love Jimmy Reed. I love so much of the original 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s blues and I'm constantly learning old songs. I'll hear something that I really dig, like a Tampa Red song or an old Lightnin' Hopkins thing, or a country blues that goes way back. And if it feels like it has something cool about it that inspires me. I'll listen to it a lot, I'll jot the lyrics down and I'll try to learn the basic feel of the song. Sometimes I'll get them really close to being authentic and I'll learn them as exact as I can. Like a song like Little Walter's "Last Night," it's one of the most beautiful blues songs ever. And I'll learn that thing and then I'll play it on my gigs for a while. It's almost like an exercise, like a model. You learn it.
Then I'll just be sitting around playing somewhere, might be my house or the hotel room somewhere, or a dressing room, and I'll just start monkeying with it, changing the groove. And before I know it, and maybe I'm thinking about [another] song, it's a completely different song and then marrying two songs. Like what would happen if I took the groove of this Meters song and put this Little Walter lyric to it. And then I might start doing that on the gig. Or like [my] song "Take My Hand" started off [as] me singing this T-Bone Walker song called "The Hustle Is On" and then putting it to a groove that I considered to be like a Snooks Eaglin kind of New Orleans groove. And I used to play that song in the set for a while. Then the next thing I know, I [had] to change these T-Bone lyrics here. So then I started riffing on it and pretty soon, I came up with "Take My Hand," and it becomes this whole other song.
So that's the way it works a lot of times for me. It isn't like I just sit down and go, 'I want to create something out of the blue that's never been thought of before.' That's too big of a task. You can sit there for hours. And you're constantly editing yourself, saying, ‘Nope, nope, I've heard that before. Nope.’ That's kind of the way it works for me. I'll start off with one thing that I know and then I'll try to juxtapose it with something completely different. And see what that sounds like. And then keep changing parts of it until it becomes its own thing. But hopefully, it's still kind of rooted in the tradition.
Another thing I like to do is, I'll have songs on my records that are 12-bar blues, and there's a couple on there, but I usually try to monkey with the changes a little bit. Like maybe a song doesn't have a four chord. But it's still a 12-bar progression. Or maybe it has an extra bar or it's short one bar or it does something that tweaks the formula a little bit so that it's not quite so predictable.
WM: How do you know when a song is done?
Holmstrom: Usually if I can make a little demo, like a voice memo recording of it and give myself a few days or something, and then just be driving somewhere, maybe, and I play it, and listen and just try to look at it as objectively as I can. My stuff is really pretty simple and that's what I'm aiming for. I'm really aiming for like a minimalist kind of a thing, like a Jimmy Reed type of deal, but not trying to be Jimmy Reed, or not trying to recreate the 50s or anything like that.
But I just like the simplicity and the starkness of songs that don't have too many little gadgets and things in them. Usually, there's probably an argument to be made that I might be under-cooking a lot of these things. I mean, I've actually heard that before, where somebody is like, 'I don't know. Really? You think that song's done?' Or 'Why did you stop there?'
We kind of like it better when it’s like this. You don't want to wrap it up in a bow too much.
Interview edited for brevity and clarity.