Writer of The Week: Luke Winslow-King

Awhile back, American Songwriter sat down with Luke Winslow-King in the kitchen of his house in the French Quarter. The next night, Winslow-King played a show at the famed Preservation Hall, just a night before My Morning Jacket took over the historic venue for a one-night stand. Winslow-King’s Pres Hall show was recorded by the club’s resident analog engineer, Earl Scioneaux III, who also recorded the recent benefit album Preservation, featuring such notables as Tom Waits, Andrew Bird, and Steve Earle. The night Scioneaux pressed the red button on his reel-to-reel tape machine last May, the skeleton for Winslow King’s upcoming album, Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya, was formed. We talked to Winslow-King about collaborating with a lyricist versus writing alone, life in New Orleans, and the difference between composing and playing the blues.

How long have you been in New Orleans and what originally drew you to the city?

I graduated high school in 2001 and I was here the winter after that, so almost ten years now. I was into Nick Drake and Bartók. I studied composition at the University of New Orleans. I was into blues, electric blues, Texas and Chicago blues, and I had known a little bit about Mississippi delta blues and Louisiana kind of music, but not really. I didn’t really see the delineation between rural and city blues yet.

You worked with mentally disabled people in New York, writing songs and recording the music. What did the recordings sound like?

Every one of them was really different, and they just had a really awesome, uninhibited approach to lyric writing. I’d be playing guitar. They would write a poem and I would ask them to pick a white note on the piano for every syllable of the poem to determine the melody, then I would play that melody while they would sing it.

What’s your next album going to be like?

I want to make something that’s a little bit more where I’m at right now which is… a live thing, just playing music with people, just like really playing blues and jazz, and really digging into some of the standard and spiritual material I know from down here. And also tunes that I’ve dug up that no one does. I’ve been doing “The Cocaine Blues” by Luke Jordan. It’s from ’27. Then this other tune by Jessie Mae Hemphill, she’s from North Mississippi, from Como. These are tunes that I’ve learned from other people on the street that they have learned from these people and the lyrics have changed, they’ve written other lyrics to them. I think those are the kinds of things worth recording and documenting, and I’m just working with some really excellent players right now, really awesome musicians.

What have you been writing lately?

I’m trying to write songs from a different place now than I ever have before. I’ve actually been going through a long kind of block where I haven’t been writing as much, which I think is really good for my spirit. I had a writing partner who was my girlfriend for the last two albums [Luke Winslow-King and Old/New Baby] and we worked together all the time and were always checking each other and editing each other’s stuff. Now I’m just starting to be inspired again by words that I hear on the street, and by phrases, sometimes these little cliché phrases that people say that don’t make any sense [but] are the coolest things to put in songs, and that’s some of the stuff I’ve been really inspired by. My life is just going really well, I’m really healthy and really in love with my life and the people around me, so my songwriting is really waking up again in this really awesome way.

Has your writing style changed now that you are no longer working with a lyricist?

I’m glad that [working with a lyricist] was a part of my history and I feel like I’ve learned a lot by those approaches of actually talking about it. “What do you think we should put next? How does this sound? How does this make you feel when you think of this?” It’s really good to have a history of learning to write songs out loud. Now I feel like [a song will] come out in whole stanzas of, just like, natural things – like how I feel. I try to write it down and if it doesn’t feel right, I ride my bike or go out and think about it, and it just keeps coming out the same way. In my mind, no matter how much I want to change it or want it to become different, it keeps coming to me in the same way, like that’s just how it is. I can’t edit my mind, it just keeps going, and there’ll be like these kind of bluesier, simple passages, but then some of the things that I’ve learned in my past about writing poetry like that will come out in just one line, which is cool to have a bluesy, natural way of speaking phrases and then there’ll just be that one poetic line at the end that can really drive home and mark it. I really like that.

It almost seems like classical influences and folk influences would get in the way of each other. Do you find that happens? Or did they marry in a way that worked.

I think they totally worked together. My favorite composers were always the folk classical composers. Bartók was really into the Romanian Gypsy music and Dvořák, who’s a Czech composer that I always really liked, was into native folk music like that. Aaron Copland was always emulating American folk music, so my favorite composers were always the folkier composers anyway. I think those composers, what they did is they took natural folk songs and expanded them out into bigger forms so there’s more happening and expanding and expanding, and I’m kind of taking it back, but maybe expanding in another way. Not just saying it’s anywhere compared to what Dvořák and Copland were doing, but I was inspired by that melodically and just the way the passages moved and modulated.

You’re a great performer and in New Orleans that’s really important. What have you learned from playing music for people?

It’s been so good for my songwriting to learn how to entertain people here, and I’ve been writing songs while I’ve been thinking [about performing]. [For example,] I’m playing solo down on Frenchman Street, there’s a brass band on the corner and a jazz band in the club down the street, what do I want to be playing for these people? What do I want to be expressing in myself, and also what do I want to try and bring to these people that come to New Orleans that want to hear music? I can play this standard that they can relate to and give them a taste of what the history of the place is about and then also digest that history and come out with something they can relate to in a modern day that is also reminiscent of that, so it’s really cool to do these weekly gigs and be kind of living in this scene of people from all over the world who are coming here to hear music. What do I have to offer to them? And sometimes I’ll just improvise stuff, like come up with stuff on the fly, or play these tunes that I have come up with, that I’ve dug up and play them in a new way and really get into what’s happening here and write a song for the place and time, which has been really exciting.

And you’ve done a fair amount of busking too?

I guess most of the busking I did was in Europe when I first started doing it. I’ve done it in New York and here too, but solo busking I’ve done mostly in Europe and New York. That’s just more about standing up straight and singing over people’s heads. One thing I learned busking is you sing normally, and then when you get to the loud part of the song, you go like this: Put your head up and sing over everybody, so the microphone is actually like, here [motions above his head]. It’s a cool trick that I learned, and people really respond to it, singing over the microphone, you know, and just really looking at people while you’re singing, traveling the audience you’re making a direct connection with almost everyone that you can. There’s certain times as a performer that you just have to hide away and close your eyes and play, and I’ve experienced a lot of that, and then the other extreme is going out into the audience with your mind and your spirit while you’re playing and just really try to connect with everybody, really be alive and have your senses be really sharp, and in those moments you can really communicate and you can come up with the right thing to say in between songs. People can hear the songs clearer, they can hear what you’re actually talking about. And it’s cool when you can learn how to do that and almost walking through the audience and reading people in this other way, you know, and it’s cool that it works in any language, which is really cool when you go traveling to do that, and that’s something that’d definitely transferred to the stage when I’m doing these smaller, intimate solo shows.

Most people in New Orleans want to hear standards? Is it hard being a songwriter?

There’s not a very good venue for songwriters in New Orleans, really. There’s one that’s called the Neutral Ground [Coffeehouse], it’s Uptown. I try to embrace it, for sure. I found when people are talking during songs and stuff, I try to take a different angle with them, try to explore different approaches that are going to get through to them and then ignore them in a really professional way if nothing works, take a break, hope that they leave, try to really sing to the other people that are listening. People just haven’t learned how to be good audience members, is something that I’ve learned, and you cannot take it personally as a songwriter. You could be the best songwriter on the planet and if they don’t know who you are and if they’re not there to see you, they have a Bud Light in their hand and they’ve got something to say, they’re going to say it and you have to just let it go. You can’t take it personally when someone comes to your show and wants to talk. They turn their back to you and talk.

How did you start hanging out with New Orleans musical legend John Boutte?

John Boutte is like my mentor. It’s kind of cool because it’s not through music, but he inspired my music through food and through kindness and humanity. The way that he loves his mother inspired my music, things like that. He’s just a really, really soulful person who has a really tremendous appreciation for life, and he just really takes things in and really smells things, they’re just so alive. He really appreciates every day of life. The way that he loves music and the way that he feels swing, you know the way that he feels swing, when he says, “that shit is swingin’,” he means it and can really say it, you know what I mean? He just helped me kind of understand the culture here through a really discerning eye that had been through it his whole life, so for him to show me some things about this place really meant something.