By Anita Malhotra
Canadian guitarist, singer and songwriter Jack de Keyzer has been performing, recording and composing the blues for more than three decades. Along the way he has released eight albums and received a host of awards, including two Junos for Blues Album of the Year, seven Maple Blues Awards and an International Songwriting Competition award.
De Keyzer spoke to Anita Malhotra about his early years, Juno wins and current projects shortly before a rockin’ live gig at on August 24, 2012 at Ottawa’s Rainbow Bistro.
AM: You were born in England and then came to Canada at a fairly early age. How did you get started in music?
JK: I think I was born with music inside me. Ever since I can remember I was enamored by music and guitar. When I grew up in England there was a guy named Cliff Richard who was kind of like the English Elvis, and his band was called The Shadows – they were a guitar instrumental band. So that’s where my first inspirations and idols came from.
AM: How old were you when you started playing an instrument?
JK: I got my first guitar when I was about eight, but I couldn’t really play it so it just sat at the foot of my bed. I started playing when I got to Canada when I was 10 years old in Grade 5. When I was 11 and 12 I slept with that guitar. I just played it all the time, and I learned how to play rock ‘n’ roll and blues and R&B. That’s what I started playing, and that’s what I still play today.
AM: What was your first guitar?
JK: It was an acoustic. Then I got a guitar from the Sears store called a Saturn. It was a cheap Japanese guitar with just three pickups, but I really liked it. The first good guitar I got was a Fender Telecaster, and when I went to look at it, it was all in pieces. My Dad was with me – I guess I was only about 14 – and I was crestfallen when they opened the case. But he put it all together and it worked.
AM: What were the first bands you were in?
JK: I started playing with neighbourhood kids when I was 12, and by the time I was 16 I was playing in some pretty good bands. I went pro when I was 18 playing with King Biscuit Boy, who was a blues harmonica player out of Hamilton who had some international success and played all over the world.
After King Biscuit Boy, I played with Ronnie Hawkins for about four years. After Ronnie, I did a bunch of sideman projects like country bands and blues bands. A band called the Bopcats in Toronto had been asking me to join them, but I ended up going to New York City and playing with a rockabilly singer named Robert Gordon. That was in 1978. When I came back to Toronto in 1979, I joined the Bopcats.
AM: Most of your music is centred around the blues. What attracts you to that form?
JK: In the era that I grew up in, all the music you heard on the radio was blues-based, like the early Stax recordings – Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding, and Sam & Dave and Wilson Pickett, who were all really big. The Beatles, of course, were influenced by Motown and I really liked Motown – Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. And then, a few years later, The Animals and the Stones.
My introduction to music was through those guys, trying to learn their songs. As I got pretty good at it, I met some older kids. They said, “That’s a Jimmy Reed song” or “That’s a Howlin’ Wolf song” or “That’s a Willie Dixon song,” so they turned me on to the original versions and I started liking those records better. Then I got into learning how to play the blues through Muddy Waters and Otis Rush and B.B. King and people like that. And then I went backwards and discovered Robert Johnson.
AM: Is there a zone that you get into when you play the blues?
JK: The improvisational part for sure. The thing I like about it is that it’s a very simple, solid framework, but within it you can improvise every night. I kind of flip back and forth between trying to entertain the crowd with fun stuff, and then also just playing stuff from deep inside me.
AM: One of my favourite quotes about you is that you play guitar like a man with his pants on fire. How did you develop your technique?
JK: After I got through the basics I really got turned on to Jimi Hendrix and learned as much Jimi Hendrix as I could. The guy was a virtuoso, so that probably helped set me on the path of trying to be a better guitar player. Then, when I was a sideman, I was called on to play a lot of different kinds of music – country music and rockabilly music. When I joined the band in New York City I’d never even played rockabilly before so I had a crash course in learning how to play like that.
AM: How many hours a week do you play on average?
JK: We play about three or four gigs a week every week without fail and then sometimes more. And then I’m in the studio either working on my album or producing. I haven’t done a whole lot of practicing the last year or so, mostly because we’ve been playing a lot.
AM: Two of your albums have won Junos. How did the first one, 6 String Lover, come about?
JK: I wasn’t very happy with my first few albums I recorded in the ‘80s. I just don’t like the way they recorded back then. So when we were recording, I was not inspired by the sound of anything and was not comfortable with the process. Then a friend of mine, Alec Fraser, who is a bass player and is really into roots music, said, “I can just record you guys playing live in the studio and then make it sound like this.” And I said, “really?” Because I had met with so much resistance to do that.
So we recorded the first album in my house and it had flaws, but I loved it a lot more than the albums that cost $30,000, and that album got nominated for a Juno and won a Maple Blues Award for Album of the Year. Then Alec Fraser became popular enough to open up his own studio, so we recorded my fourth album, 6 String Lover, at his studio. We just played live in the studio and that’s what I still do now. If we need to fix something or add a sweetener here and there we do, but it’s mostly live.
AM: What impact did winning your first Juno have on your career?
JK: It was fantastic. I got many more high-profile gigs and started getting a lot more festival dates and got more interest across the country. In general it was a really good step up.
AM: You’ve done a lot of studio work with some really well-known people.
JK: I’ve done a lot of session guitar playing for live gigs with people. When I played with Bo Diddley and Etta James they were live shows – they weren’t in the studio. In the studio I have worked with a lot of different blues people like Rita Chiarelli, Willie Big Eyes Smith, who was Muddy Waters’ drummer, King Biscuit Boy, Harmonica Shah, David Rotundo, The Shaftmen, Brant Parker and Erin McCallum.
AM: You won another Juno for The Corktown Sessions.
JK: That was a surprise because we recorded at this place that I’d played at in Hamilton called the Corktown, which ironically I used to go to when I was a teenager when it was an Irish pub. We went there and a guy said, “Do you mind if I record you?” He recorded us and I didn’t really like the way it sounded, and he said he’d record us again. I didn’t even listen to the recording for about four months, and when I did, I thought it sounded really good. Then we started mixing it and I thought I may as well try to submit it for a Juno. Everybody said a live album will never get nominated, but it did. And then everybody said, “You’ll never win.” But then it did win, so I was pretty amazed.
AM: You’re also a songwriter and you have won an award in songwriting. How do you go about writing songs?
JK: It’s pretty basic. I usually come up with a song title. If it’s an evocative enough song title then the words will just come tumbling out.
AM: Do you write with your guitar in your hand?
JK: No, not always. Sometimes I’ll just sing a melody and just try to write the lyrics down and then see where the chords end up afterwards. Sometimes I’ll have the lyrics. It usually is lyric-driven whether I sing it in the air or whether I pick up a guitar.
AM: What are you currently working on?
JK: I’ve got a new album that’s being mixed right now. It’s tentatively called Electric Love and it’s about three months away from being ready for release. The new CD is all original and in more of a blues-rock style, inspired by some of my early guitar influences – Clapton, Page and Hendrix.
AM: Three years ago you were asked to give a guitar lesson to the son of Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister. How did that come about?
JK: It was a January morning and it was a dismal, cold nasty day. I turned on my computer and I saw this email saying, “My name’s Laureen Harper and I’m a fan.” I’m thinking, “Wow, this is a smarter twist on the ‘I’m an African Prince,’ and when are they going to ask me to put the money in the account or send my pin number?” And then I’m thinking, “This might be for real. Laureen Harper wants me to go to Sussex Drive and teach her son a guitar lesson.” So I emailed her back and we set up the details. We were playing at a club in Ottawa that time and they picked me up and we went to 24 Sussex and I met Laureen and Ben Harper. It was kind of ironic because he was playing the same kind of stuff that I started out playing like Eric Clapton and Cream – “Sunshine of Your Love” – and Jimi Hendrix riffs. So he was playing some good stuff, yeah, and he was a good guitar player.
For more information about Jack de Keyzer, his records and upcoming gigs, please visit http://www.jackdekeyzer.com.