Richie Kotzen Celebrates Half Century With “50 For 50”
50 For 50 is the latest release from singer-songwriter Richie Kotzen. In celebration of his fiftieth birthday, the sometime Winery Dogs guitarist/vocalist has delivered three discs of new music packed with 50 previously unreleased compositions.
A typically eclectic affair, the album spotlights the range of Kotzen’s interests and influences, ranging from funk and soul to jazz fusion and pop.
Kotzen spoke with KMUW about the origins and evolution of this project.
How does 50 feel so far?
No different than 40. I feel pretty good! I’m excited about aging. I think part of the reason is that I don’t regret not doing anything. I did whatever I wanted for most of my life. I’m not saying that to sound like a jerk but I’m pretty happy to be in the position I’m in. I’ve got my health. You feel good until you don’t. That’s how it works.
Tell me about when the idea for this album came to you and how you went about executing it.
I’d finished 12 or so songs that would have been a normal record. I was on tour and had a hard drive that basically mirrored what was at my home studio. I found all this material that I had abandoned. Things in various forms of completion. I didn’t like the idea of all that music sitting on a drive somewhere, not being finished. Not to get too dark but there was also a sense of mortality there.
I got home and started working on it and came to a point where I had maybe 30 compositions finished. There were songs that, when I started, were almost done, some that were just an idea. I started knocking them down. When I got to that point where I had 28 or 30, I realized, “If I finish all this stuff, I’m going to have more than 50 songs.” Then it became, “Why don’t you stop at 50 and see if you can put a record out on your fiftieth birthday?”
It sounds like you’re content to write and not necessarily worry about completion in the moment.
What happens with me is one of two things. I’ll get an idea for a song and I’ll go to record it, because I don’t want to forget it. I’ll either finish it or I’ll hit a wall. If I hit the wall I move away from it. It could be any reason. The lyrics could be finished but maybe I wasn’t sure where I was going with the production. I might get the track done and not have a lyric idea. I don’t believe in writers block. Once you get to a point where you don’t have an idea, nothing’s left to be written.
In finishing some of this work I started writing new stuff. “Mountains” was floating around in my head for years. No sooner did I finish that and I had an idea for a brand-new song. That’s when I wrote “Innocuous.” That happened several times during the process.
Do you pick up an instrument every day and try to work out ideas?
There are weeks that go by when I don’t even touch the guitar. I don’t look at it or get near the piano. When I tour, I’ll take a mini-recording system with me. It’s so easy to do these days.
With “Pray For Me” from the new album, that was recorded in a hotel room on a tour. The percussion on that song is me banging on a desk and snapping my fingers on different tracks. It’s all overdubbed. With the exception of the second half, which I sang on a microphone in my home studio, the entire track was done in that hotel room. I did the lead vocal on a very inexpensive Samsung microphone. The first verse and the first chorus on that are from that room.
I didn’t have lyrics for the second part of the song. When I got home, I sang those parts into a [more expensive] Neumann. On the first half, the vocal has this lo-fi sound to it; the second half sounds more open. I contemplated re-doing the first half but I liked the performance so much that I left it alone. I think it adds a charm to the song. It actually helps the song to build and develop.
You made a video for “Devil’s Hand.” It’s a great tune but I also think it’s a great summary of everything that you do.
Thank you. It is a good summary. It masquerades as a ballad and then takes this turn into something completely different. I have this mid-tempo, slower-pace side of me where the lyrics are emotionally-driven. But then it also takes it to the guitar playing. With the guitar playing being at the level that it is, it was not easy to do. But I didn’t even think about it. It developed that way.
That’s a big part of why I made that the first single. The hardest thing about this record was figuring out what to lead with. I chose “Devil’s Hand” because of the lyrical content. I thought the song told an interesting story. At the same time, there’s the guitar solo, which is something I’m known for.
The second thing that led me to lead with that song was the visual. Nowadays, artists like me don’t get much attention from radio. It really comes down to pairing it with a visual. So, when I listened to that song, the whole video popped in my head and I thought it was the perfect song to lead the record with.
“July 14th” takes us into the fusion side of your playing.
It’s called that because that’s the date I recorded the idea.
I have all these things in my hard drives that are named after dates. With that one, I thought, “It’s an instrumental. I have names for all these other songs. This one has no lyrics, so it’s going to stay with its working title.” If memory serves correct that was not recorded with a click track. The basics for that started with the drums. I recorded myself jamming on the drum set, playing that pattern, then I overdubbed to it. That’s how the song developed. That’s quite unorthodox. Nowadays everyone’s playing to click tracks and making everything fit the grid so that they can copy and paste. That song was not done like that.
Was sequencing the album a difficult process?
It was difficult. It was one of the hardest things to do. Making the music is easy. That’s instinct. At one point I thought, “This is not going to get sequenced, I’m just going to throw the songs together and it’ll be what it is.” Then, I realized how much time I’d put in and decided to come up with a sequence.
The first thing I decided for the first track, which was obvious, was always going to be “Stick The Knife.” What I was always going to close with was “This House,” which was always one of the strangest approaches for one of my records. It’s really nothing more than a vocal and a church organ.
At first, I focused on Disc One. I’d get a sequence that I liked and then I’d realize that there were 10 extra minutes. I’d try to fix it and then be over by 30 seconds. There was a bit a math and then the realization of, “I’m going to have the first two songs on this be the more expected guitar rock tracks.” On Disc One it’s “Stick The Knife” and that goes into “As You Are.”
I decided I’d end each one with a mellow tune. The first disc ends with “Innocuous,” the second ends with “I Am The Clown” and then the third with “This House.”
With the first disc, there’s more of the funkier elements. The others have more of the singer-songwriter/classic rock elements to them.
What about your singing? Was that something that was there from the start or did you say, “If I’m going to write songs, I’ve got to sing them”?
It leans a little more toward the second thing that you said. In the beginning, as a kid getting into music, I didn’t really know much about instruments. I’d hold a plastic guitar and get dressed in my mother’s clothes because I thought that looked like a rock star. I’d put on a long wig because I thought all rock stars had long hair. I was four, five, six-years-old. I’d stand up and pretend I was a rock star and entertain the family.
Then it was singing. I’d sing whatever the popular songs were back then. Then, when I got into learning instruments, I was really focused on that. I had some piano lessons at five, it didn’t go so well, I went away from it. But at seven, I got a little more serious about the guitar and I started taking lessons. By 13 I was starting to really get my head around it. I had a little band that would play around.
By 15 I was in a fulltime working bar band. My parents would go to the gigs so that I could get into the bars. Up to about 15 I didn’t care too much about singing. I would sing a couple of songs in that band but I was really focused on the guitar. By the time I finished my first record, which I wrote at 17-18, I realized I did not want to make instrumental guitar records. I had songs with lyrics. I remember sending them to Mike Varney at Shrapnel Records and he said, “I think if you’re going to do a vocal record, you should sing your own songs.”
I started taking it more seriously and I started thinking, “Who are the singers that I love?” It was early Rod Stewart, it was Paul Rodgers from Bad Company and Free, it was Stevie Wonder, a lot of the soul singers. I loved Sam and Dave. I started approaching singing the way that I approached guitar.
I’d record myself and say, “OK, that line sounds good but this other line sounds like I don’t believe it.” I’d go back and figure it out. That’s how I approached it. By my second record, I was singing. That was the first album that I made where I was doing the lead vocals.
I heard this interview with George Jones where he said something about having to sing a song a bunch of times to realize the truth in it. It’s an approach that’s very much like what an actor would take on.
There is an element of that. Someone was doing a session at my studio and the producer said to the singer, “I don’t believe it. You don’t know this character. Get into this. Get into what you’re singing about.” That is a part of that.
When you’re writing your own music, if you know what you’re doing and you’ve done it long enough, that is an instinct. When I’m singing the vocal to “Devil’s Hand,” I know the story, I know how he feels, I know what it’s about. When I cut a vocal like that I can feel when I’ve delivered the line. That’s why I like to be alone in the studio when I do the vocals. I know when I hit it. I can feel it. I can feel the intonation and the tone in my voice. There’s all sorts of things that go on.
It’s like when you get a really good glass of wine. I’m not a sommelier by any means but there are complexities that are analogous. That exists in your voice. When you’re a singer, you know when you’re hitting it and you know when you’re not.
Your electric and acoustic playing are also very distinct.
I think acoustic guitar is a different animal. I am clearly more of an electric player than an acoustic player. When you think of acoustic guitar you think of Tommy Emmanuel and some other geniuses. When they play it sounds like three people playing at once. I’m nowhere near that. When I pick up an acoustic, it’s more to accompany my voice or to do parts. I can shred on the acoustic. All the lines I play on the electric I can pretty much play them on the acoustic, with the exception of some of the two-handed tapping stuff.
I look at all the instrumentation as tools. The guitar could just as well be a hammer. The piano is an electric drill and I’m just trying to build a house. It’s just me trying to be creative with what I’m writing and then I’ll grab the guitar and worry about it then.
The guitar solo is the last thing I think about. To be honest, when I think about doing a guitar solo in certain circumstances, it aggravates me. In other instances, it happens very easily. My real passion is to create a process and writing and coming up with a lyric that creates a bit of a story and delivering that as a singer. It’s shifted for me over the years.
Are there albums that you haven’t done yet? Do you think, “I want to do a rock opera”?
For better or for worse, I don’t think in those terms. I’m wired so that I think composition to composition. If something happens to be an instrumental with a fusion feel, so be it. If something else is written on the Wurlitzer, that’s great. It’s not to say that I wouldn’t change somehow but I operate in those terms now.
I still have more unfinished material from this album. I was joking with someone, saying, “I’m going to put out a record in June called 10 From 50. Ten bonus tracks that didn’t make this album. I’m not saying that I’ll do that but I was joking about it. I’m not sure I’m always going to make records but I am sure that as long as I’m around I’m always going to write a song of some kind.