Time For 'Love & Desperation': Talking Blues, Americana & Livestreaming With Rick Shea

Rick Shea recently released his tenth studio album, Love & Desperation, which he had started before the world ground to a halt, and continued and completed in the midst of lockdown. You'll find some very relevant themes and emotions in songs like "The World's Gone Crazy" and "Big Rain Is Comin' Mama", but the overriding Blues elements on the new album would channel current feelings pretty well, too.

Aside from putting out a major new release, Rick Shea has been living his double life as a live performer very well during quarantine by playing full livestream concerts every Saturday, too. Some of them have even taken in local venues in Southern California most recently. You can still check out Rick Shea's appearance on our own Tower Instagram Live show right here, but he also spoke with Tower's PULSE! about his history in music, the trends in his songwriting, and why the Blues really are at the root of all popular music in the USA.

Hannah Means-Shannon: What was your thinking behind releasing the album this Fall?

Rick Shea: I just started this album because it was time to make an album and I had enough songs. When the shutdown started, I just found a way to continue it through. I just wanted to finish it.

HMS: It does seem like some of the songs on this album reflects the emotional climate we’re in. Was that an intentional goal?

RS: I don’t know that I would use the word “intentional”, but yes, the album was absolutely affected by everything. There are a couple of songs that are a result or address things. There’s “The World’s Gone Crazy” and “Big Rain Is Comin’ Mama” is about a storm. But those songs were written during the whole process whereas the rest were partly written when everything started. I see those songs as a statement and a reaction to everything happening.

HMS: It’s really helpful for people to have songs that they can relate to right now. In all honesty, I think the climate in the world before the pandemic was so divisive that it plays into a lot of music written just beforehand anyway. Things felt really intense and a lot of musicians seem to have picked up on that.

RS: I agree. I think things were going in a certain direction and people could see it. But they could also see that it was a bad direction, and maybe they had to go to a certain point for a correction. I have to try and stay optimistic and I do feel positive about things right now.

HMS: When you’re working on music, are you aware of that at all? Do you have a sense of responsibility to bring positivity to people, or is it more about the songs and how they want to take shape?

RS: To a certain extent, I am thinking about it. The songs come out the way they want to come out, but at a certain point, I do look at what I’ve got and try to think in terms of what I’d like the album to be. Then I try to move things in that direction. For instance, there are more minor-key Blues songs on this album than any album I’ve done. At one point, I realized that, and started thinking about other styles to bring in.

HMS: I’m quite a Blues fan so I’m really pleased that so many of them turned out to be Blues on this album. I have no complaints!

RS: Thank you very much. To me, Blues really is the basis of all the popular music that has appealed to me. It’s the basis for everything, really, whether you can hear it on the first listen or not.

HMS: I think there are very good arguments for that. I’ve even heard people argue that Folk wouldn’t exist in America without Blues.

RS: They are closely tied. If you go back to before recorded music, or right around that time, things were often mixed together as far as I can tell. I like that mix. That’s what I have on my iPod.

HMS: Do you mix things together in live performance? Do you change in style from song to song?

RS: I feel like I do. I don’t know how apparent it is. I feel like we move from Folk to Blues to Rock ‘n Roll quite a bit, but with the same lineup and same instrumentation. That keeps things centered.

HMS: What do you think of this term, “Americana” for music? Do you think it applies to you?

RS: I’m pretty comfortable with it. I think it’s a good general term. There need to be some terms like that to let people know what something might sound like. It is kind of broad and it’s a little undefined, maybe because it’s still new.

HMS: I feel like it’s a term that might help people who are approaching from a distance, but when you get further in, you might find further distinctions. But it does seem to give artists permission to try things out, like cross-pollinating different traditions.

RS: Yes, which can be very good.

HMS: Do you recall the first ways in which you encountered Blues?

RS: Yes, it was through The Rolling Stones and bands like that. Then is was through Folk Blues through Tom Rush and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and people like that. That’s the way most people discover older styles of music, through your own peer group. Then you dig it out.

HMS: Can you tell me about your history with stringed instruments? Did you start off with an acoustic guitar at a young age? You play quite a few.

RS: Not too young, but shortly after we moved to California. I was interested in music and wanted to play from a young age. I played trumpet in the school band, and it was okay, but I wasn’t too keen on it. Then I fell in love with the guitar as soon as I had one, around 12 years old onwards. It’s really been about the guitar for me all along. I play Pedal Steel and a little bit of Mandolin.

I play a lot of acoustic guitar, but I had an electric guitar first. I would sit around with a friend of mine, and he had an electric guitar, and his brother had an electric guitar. So before his brother would come home from school, we would sit around and he’d play his brother’s electric guitar, and I’d play his. We’d work out little surf tunes and things like that. I’d play one part and he’d play the other. That’s really how I got started, and I fell in love with it right from the beginning. It’s really been about playing the guitar and everything is built from that, I guess.

HMS: So when you’re looking at instrumentation, you’re building that out from the guitar?

RS: I am. And when you’re looking at this album, actually, so many of them come from the acoustic guitar. That’s where I tend to do a lot of the song writing. I try to write and arrange songs so that I can play the songs solo because that’s so much of what I do when I tour outside of Southern California. It doesn’t usually work out for me to bring a band. I try to write songs that I feel like I can perform well and convincingly solo with an acoustic guitar.

HMS: That is really interesting because it sounds like it affects your songwriting choices. Would you do that anyway, and then build it out if you had a bigger sweep in mind? Would that still be the core of a song for you? Or do you intentionally write towards that?

RS: I don’t know how intentional that is, but they do seem to come out that way. A couple of the songs on this album were not based on acoustic guitar at all. “Down at the Bar at Gypsy Sally’s” is really based on the electric guitar parts. The Al Ferrier song, “Blues Stop Knockin’ at My Door” is mostly built around electric guitar, and then the instrumental song, “Mystic Canyon”, is all electric guitar. “Mystic Canyon” is the only one that I don’t think I’d be able to play on acoustic guitar.

HMS: I agree. I actually wanted to ask you about that one since I think it’s a really beautiful piece and I can’t see transposing it. But does that mean you wouldn’t play it live?

RS: I would, but with a band.

HMS: I was really impressed to see that you consistently play livestream sessions on Saturdays.

RS: Yes, I have, every Saturday since this started. I didn’t really plan or expect it. A friend of mine on Facebook was posting, saying, “I wish someone would do a live Facebook show tonight”. Meanwhile, a friend in Italy had asked me to make a video of a song, so I was set up to do that. I had everything ready, so I thought, “I’ll do that.” And I’ve continued every week at the same time.

HMS: I have been tuning in to a few livestreams and live concerts, and at first, I was cynical about it, honestly, because I’m someone who goes to a lot of live shows and miss the in-person experience. But I watched a couple of those concerts because I wanted to help out the musicians and the crews, thinking it wouldn’t really do much for me. But I enjoyed them so much that it changed my attitude. Then I realized that these are a really therapeutic thing, so thank you for doing livestreams. I’m sure that your shows are helping people.

RS: That’s part of the reason that I’ve continued. A lot of people have let me know that they look forward to the show. A certain number come and go, but I have some who have been there for every show. That’s reason enough for me to continue.

HMS: How do you decide what you’ll play in those sessions?

RS: I just try to mix it up. I have a certain number of songs.

HMS: You have quite a lot!

RS: I was also busy recording, though, so I didn’t have a lot of time to focus on the shows. But I try to bring in some new songs every week and make sure I’m doing a different set every week. I’ve also been ad-lib telling a lot of stories that I otherwise might not have told. When I’m out touring, in a different place every night, I can tell the same stories. But here I’m having to think up a lot more to talk about. That’s probably the biggest change.

HMS: That makes a lot of sense. Did you dust off any older stuff for live performance?

RS: Yes. I’ve worked up at least ten or twelve songs that I hadn’t been playing, and I’ve been trying to bring them in. 

HMS: That might make some of them more ready for the day when touring comes back.

RS: It’s been good for that. Otherwise I could have been lazy and spent more time watching Netflix.

HMS: Is Love & Desperation your tenth album?

RS: It’s probably more accurate than to say it’s the twelfth. The first album I ever released was just on cassette, and it got rereleased on CD. I did another album that got remixed a few years later. So ten is more accurate. 

HMS: Either way, that’s a huge amount of material. Also, you might be able to sell those cassettes. Get them out of your garage.

RS: I’ve always liked my cassettes. I’ve got some around.

HMS: Do you like vinyl?

RS: I do. I’d love to release something on vinyl, but it hasn’t worked out yet. The people who buy from me are more into CDs. I think a lot of people are doing it, though, and things are backed up right now. Maybe next year for some sort of reissue.

HMS: With this many albums out, are you someone who can assess your past work and see how it might have shifted over time? Or do you see it more as one continuum that’s been consistent?

RS: I think, artistically, I’ve been on the same path from the beginning. I’ve just been working at getting better at it. As I’ve done this longer, I’ve certainly listened more, and brought in some new influences, but I do feel like I’ve been on the same path. Most of my albums feature a cross-section of songs that are more acoustic-based and a certain number of songs that are based more on electric elements.

HMS: That’s really cool. Most of the songs on this album tell stories. Is that typical of all of your work?

RS: I fell in love with that narrative songwriting style, like “El Paso” from Marty Robbins. Also, Bob Dylan, and some of those songs are stories. Narrative songs, as opposed to Pop music songs, are the songs that I write and am more interested in.

HMS: I love that. I love to hear that people are still interested in that. In mainstream music, it’s far less common to have narrative, though it occasionally pops up. I come from Western North Carolina, from the Smoky Mountains, and I want stories. I think it’s hard to do, so right on!

RS: That’s what I’m always interested in with songwriting. You have three to four minutes to fill and less is always better. I look at them individually when I’m working on them to try to tell a story with as few words as possible.

You create a setting with the music, too, which is also part of the story. You’re putting certain ideas or images into someone’s eyes musically so that you don’t have to do it all lyrically.

HMS: That’s a great point. What about “Mystic Canyon”? Does it have a sense of movement, like a story, or is it all about progression?

RS: One thing I love to do, though I don’t always get to do it these days, is to sit down with a guitar early in the morning when I first get up. And just play and just see what comes out. I don’t have anything in mind. That’s kind of where “Mystic Canyon” came from. I played the first part, and I knew that I needed a second part to go with it, and the second part came out quickly. The slide guitar, as a third guitar, was something that I added when recording since I realized it needed it. But either of those descriptions work for me, either calling it a “narrative” or a “progression”.

HMS: Have you ever done a purely instrumental album, or would you?

RS: No, I haven’t, but I’ve thought about it, since I’ve included an instrumental song on several albums now. I’m kind of a big fan of that. In Country music, with Buck Owens, and Merle Haggard, that was kind of a standard approach, to include instrumental music. Then every so often, they’d release the album with all the instrumental pieces on it. But those guys were under some brutal contracts, having to come up with three or four albums a year and that was a way to fill that contract. Those guys are heroes to me. It was a lot rougher for them.

HMS: I meant to add, about your storytelling, that the songs on this album are often taken from your own life. Some people get more fictional with their songwriting. Is it typical for your stories to have a personal connection?

RS: That’s all true. I do write a lot of songs that are from my own history, story, and background. It’s what I’m seeing and living. My wife’s family, and my own family have always been really interesting to me. My wife’s family are a big extended family, Mexican American, and my Dad was in the [military] service, so we moved around a lot. That was our little family unit that was fairly dysfunctional, so joining my wife’s family has been a new thing to me. A lot of stories have come from that.

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