Huffington Post Interview, 2014
A Conversation with Scott Ainslie
by Mike Rogogna
The Huffington Post, December 24, 2014
Mike Ragogna: Scott, your latest album The Last Shot Got Him was released back in October. What’s the reaction been to it so far?
Scott Ainslie: From the moment the first copies have gone out I’ve received very positive responses from listeners. The quality of the recording and the performances have both garnered considerable praise. And The Last Shot Got Him was chosen as the December, 2014 “Recording of the Month” by Rad Bennett at SoundStage! Ultra–at http://ultraaudio.com.
MR: How did the material come together for the project and what was the recording process like?
SA: I recorded 17 tracks to choose from for this record and released fourteen of them. The guiding principle was the voice and vintage of the guitar, a 1934 Gibson L-50. All the tracks are songs and tunes that the guitar might have been asked to play when it was young–ca. 1928-1941.
My process? I record all the tracks in my studio at Cattail Music in Vermont. I rough mix them and then Julian McBrowne and I mix the tracks together. For this project, I went to Toby Mountain for mastering. Both of these engineers are masters who believe in using a light touch with acoustic music and we have good results to show for that approach.
MR: Which songs on the project were the hardest to create and might there be a potential blues song behind that grueling process?
SA: This is an interesting question. Every life experience of course, when seen from the right angle, is a potential blues song. The tune I wrestled with the most was Irving Berlin’s “Say It Isn’t So.” I first heard the tune back in 1981–a recorded performance by Sippie Wallace in her old age. The track was sassy and emotional at the same time. Her phrasing, worthy of study. So, I took the tune under my wing, worked out a big band-influenced solo guitar part and began to sing it.
The bar for the tune was really high in my own head, which I think is what made it difficult to capture. For many people, it’s a touchstone song on the CD, which is nice.
MR: What is it about the blues that made you dedicate your music to the genre and accumulate your working knowledge of the field?
SA: I got my first 6 transistor radio–turquoise with a gold 6 on the front, mono ear phone jack–when I was eleven or twelve. I grew up at a time when you could hear all kinds of rock ‘n’ roll, soul music, rhythm & blues, and funk on the same radio station; in the same hour! When you start looking around to make music like that, as an acoustic soloist, you wind up with the great models set forth in the 1930s by the likes of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Blind Blake, Lonnie Johnson, and Scrapper Blackwell, among others.
What attracts me to the music? The way it sounds, man.
Music was my first language. My mother found me at the piano at age 3 picking out melodies from the records she listened to during the day. I’ve been singing and playing all my life at some instrument or another. Music: The sound is the thing.
MR: Who are some of your favorite artists on the blues scene now?
SA: I have been pleased to hear younger people of color take up the acoustic music again: Alvin Youngblood Hart, Corey Harris, Guy Davis, Keb Mo’. And, as long as Buddy Guy is still with us, he deserves his props. He’s the best.
MR: What’s your opinion of the state of the blues field now?
SA: I have yet to make it to a mountain top from which I might be qualified to answer a question like that. Blues is one of the musics I love. Affection is the key to admission here. But it also colors, as it should, any objectification of the genre.
I’m a musician, not a critic. I’ll leave that one for someone else to puzzle over.
MR: Has it been challenging to be a working artist as a career path?
SA: It can be difficult for an artist to feel useful in America. There are a couple of complicating factors:
1) Our commercial culture and many arts writers push the idea that an artist is egotistical, centered on self-expression, and
2) people misunderstand what they refer to as ‘talent.’
Addressing the first of these, I view the role of the artist in society similar to the role of the shaman or griot in traditional cultures. We are keepers of the history and stories of our culture; we create works that remind members of the various communities to which we belong of that history and our shared identities, and having given voice to something indelible about who we are as a people, we raise the question: Are we happy with this?
This is community-centered, not individual-centered work as I see it and endeavor to do it.
For the second, the idea of “talent” being some sort of gift, I actually agree with my mentor in composition and music theory, Rob Stewart – now gone – who used to state for anyone who would listen, “Talent is 90% discipline.”
Seen from this perspective, perhaps Mozart was given at birth 10% more than the kid next to him, but he was also the son of the finest music teacher in Europe at the time. He put in his time!
Artists have to develop craft, as well as individual and communal inspiration. The development of that craft takes concentrated attention over a long period of time. It’s work. Sometimes it’s like crawling over glass. To have that effort relegated to some sort of god-given gift is a very misleading–and belittling–way to look at what’s going on.
That said, if you love music, it mostly doesn’t feel like work, per se. And further, we learn what we love. Everything else is just memorization; it won’t hold.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
SA: We are all standing on the shoulders of giants who came before us. We are links in a chain of human culture that stretches back to the 40,000-year-old Chauvet Cave paintings in France. From the very beginning of human society, the arts have played critical communal-cultural, individual, and spiritual roles.
Learn something about where you are in that lineage. Know where you came from.
I know of no artist of note who sat in his or her room and generated great work solely out of their own heads, without knowing something of the artwork of previous generations.
There is such a thing as an individual genius, but they don’t get that way in isolation.
MR: Would you have listened to that advice when you first started out and what’s the best advice you ever got?
SA: By chance, that is how I started out. I met many senior traditional musicians in both white and black musical cultures very early in my work. I was very lucky to recognize the gift of that for what it was at the time. As for the best advice, I expect it was to make notes after every performance about what worked and, as important, what didn’t work. Save the good and try to avoid the mistakes. Over time, this has made me a strong performer.