Many a legend in many a field has said it has taken X amount of years to become an overnight success. Hard work is everything, but arguably most definitively in the arts and music. Canadian one-man-blues-band Steve Hill (Steve plays guitar, harmonica and drums simultaneously and brilliantly) may not be the most recognizable name on these shores. Yet with the release of his third collection of songs since becoming the consummate artist he now is – and his ninth in total – his is a tale that might not well be told at all, were it not for his determination, dedication and vision.
Hard work and drive is what keeps Steve Hill going – tempered with an extraordinary talent – and he is about to head out on tour supporting Wishbone Ash having only just completed a solo tour of Germany. In the meantime, he is speaking from his home in Montreal, enjoying a small vacation before hitting the road once more.
“I came after the German tour which covered 18 shows in 20 days home a week ago, so there hasn’t been a lot of downtime,” Steve said, happily. “This upcoming tour supporting Wishbone Ash will take in 27 shows in 30 days through October and November. In between times there’s the recording of a TV show called Bauhaus in Germany to fit in the day before the Wishbone Ash tour begins. So it’s pretty full on right now,”
“Andy [Powell, guitarist and founder member of Wishbone Ash] likes to do this, you know. I supported them on tour in Germany in the winter of 2016 and did 32 shows in 35 days that time. This is when the guy is 67 years old, by the way, so I just figure if he can do it what the hell do have to complain about!”
On November 10, Steve Hill’s Solo Recordings: Volume 3 is available here in the UK. An album riddled with power, passion and masterful musicianship, it lays down another marker as to how far he has come since embarking on the one-man-band project he began with the release of Volume 1 back in 2013. Thus far, Volume 3 has received high praise from all quarters.
“I’ve been blown away with the reviews,” Steve chuckles. “It’s been amazing from both the UK and in Germany and I’m very happy about that. In fact, most of the reviews have been more popular from Europe than they have been back home. That’s always pleasing.”
A lot of folks think that this only my third album, but I used to be a guitarist and singer and not have the drums and harp thing going on. My first album was released 20 years ago, but this is now kind of a new beginning for me.”
New beginnings smack somewhat of tired old endings. Yet from adversity something new and wonderful has been born. Just how adverse were those conditions? “I was broke and it was either try something new, which I did, or apply to work at McDonalds. That simple.”
“The thing was though that I had this really bad manager and back in 2005 I’d poured my heart and soul into a new album which this guy didn’t do a damn thing with; no money, no marketing, no gigs … I mean nothing. I had credit cards to pay and bills like anyone else and absolutely no money with which to pay them, while he was doing pretty well for himself it seemed. Anyway, the album tanked, as you would expect because nobody was hearing, it and I wasn’t getting booked to play songs from it, other than at those gigs I arranged myself.”
“I had to do something to get people to sit up and take notice, because playing music was all I knew – and is all I know – how to do. I’d been doing it 25 years by this point. That’s when I thought about when I used to busk on street corners and perform solo gigs in pubs. Returning to that would, I thought, at least get the bills and cards paid off. I also recorded some stuff live in the studio I owned, just to sell at gigs and that was pretty much how Recordings Volume 1 came about, which eventually outsold anything I’d recorded previously. It won at the Memphis International blues challenge and was nominated for a JUNO award [the Canadian Grammys] that same year.”
“The solo shows began rolling in and I eventually added a high hat cymbal to the kit and a snare, then a harmonica. Then people would ask me ‘when’s Volume 2 coming out?’. I had to explain to them I only called the first album Volume 1 because I thought it was funny. Anyway Volume 2 came out and that actually won the JUNO Blues Album of the Year when it was released. Then people were asking about Volume 3 and this is where we’re at right now. I just keep at, it’s great the way it’s going down right now.”
Six years and three albums down the line, Steve Hill is finally making his name in the business he loves most … after 25 years of being in the business he loves. Testament to hard work, right? And of course, to never giving up. “That’s exactly what it’s about: not giving up. I was absolutely rock bottom and I needed to find a way to get out of the situation I was in. I always remembered that around 10 years ago I’d released an album called Devil at My Heels which was more hard rock than blues. I love all kinds of music. In one day I can listen to AC/DC, Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash and Judas Priest. There are only really two type of music: good and bad. At heart I’m a blues man but I released Devil at My Heels which I’d poured my heart into and which I thought was really good.”
“Nobody in Canada would sign me though, so I released it myself. It didn’t do as well as I hoped it would although fans at my gigs really got into it in a big way. It’s then I figured that if I worked hard enough and released as much stuff as possible, something was bound to happen eventually.”
A philosophy that saw him play around 200 gigs a year at times, bringing Hill into contact with the likes of BB King, Ray Charles, Johnny Lang, Jimmie Vaughn, Jeff Beck, ZZ Top and a whole host of others.
“A lot of those gigs I booked myself, but I learned one hell of a lot. First and foremost, in meeting BB King, I was taught that the greatest are usually the nicest and that those who are assholes are the ones you meet when they’re on the way down. If you’re nice to people, then those you are nice to as they rise up will remember that for all the right reasons. Believe me the assholes in this business are never the legends. Legends will still be there when you are on your way down, offering help and support. Assholes won’t be.”
“Something that sets legends apart, too, is that they all have their own way of doing things. They have their own sound. You cannot succeed in this business if you don’t. I played with Howlin’ Wolf’s guitarist Hubert Sumlin and was asked if I could tune his guitar, because Hubert wasn’t too great at doing that himself. It was this $250 Pete Squire Stratocaster and even though I was 22 and playing support with my band to Howlin’ Wolf in Montreal, I wouldn’t have played live what I was being asked to tune for Hubert. No way. Anyway, I tuned it up and thought it sounded pretty good. Then he came along and played it and, man, it was like a whole different animal in his hands.”
“So what that taught me was, and although I’m a gear head myself, that you can have all the equipment in the world but if you ain’t got the passion and the soul and the drive and the deep, deep love of the music to go with it, you ain’t got a damn thing! It’s the personality of the player that bleeds into the instruments the legends play. That’s what we hear and feel, not the strings or the skins or whatever. It really is the entire body and the soul of the player that creates the sound, not the instrument alone.”
What stands out with Recordings: Volume 3 is that it has a massive sound to it all of its own, and a vibe that easily touches that of a live gig experience. “That’s exactly how it should sound,” Steve explained, “because I recorded it live over 5 days. Okay, that’s not quite right actually because for some of the songs I had to redo a vocal because I’d cracked a rib playing hockey two days before recording it, but otherwise it’s all live. The guitars, drums and bass are all done together at the same time so what you hear on the album is more less exactly what you get live.”
The album also has a fabulous diversity to it. Songs such as Damned, Dangerous (the first single from the album which has been getting some heavy airplay since its release) and Smokin’ Hot Machine, are counter balanced by more gentle, acoustic numbers such as Slowly Slippin’ Away and Emily.
“I love playing acoustic as much as I love heavy blues-rock and old school country music. Chris Stapleton these days is superb in today’s country scene I have to say. I love great song writers like Waylon Jennings and, of course, Tom Petty. As I said earlier there are only two types of music, good and bad, and there’s an awful lot of really bad blues out there but, also, there’s some great blues music too. And Rock. And Country. AC/DCs Powerage to me is as great as The Best of Muddy Waters. In A Silent Way by Miles Davies is as good, in my opinion, as British Steel by Judas Priest. I’m very influenced by what I consider to be good music and hence the diversity, I guess.”
On the album, too, there are Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and Grateful Dead covers amongst others, which have all been given an extra twist in the Steve Hill way. Rollin’ & A Tumblin’, Stop Breakin’ Down and Goin’ Down That Road Feelin’ Bad have never been recorded with more zest than that provided here. “We had some space to fill and, as I used these songs in my pub sets from years ago, or even acoustic sets when I was a kid, I thought: ‘Why not?’ It was on the third day of recording and I just kind of threw them in, live, just for fun. I’ve been listening to these songs since I was 18 or something and they’ve all been played to death along the way, so I thought let’s do something a bit different with ‘em. They were all recorded in one take and I think there’s something kind of true about them.”
And then some.
Steve Hill was brought up in Trois-Rivières [Three Rivers] around an hour’s drive from Montreal. Hardly a hot bed of rock, blues or anything else you would assume. “When I was growing up in the late 80s ‘Hair Bands’ were the thing. I wasn’t really into that and the guys I listened to were like Guns ‘n’ Roses. What got me in to playing though was that I had this friend whose brother had a massive record collection and it was the older records he had that got me going. Albums by the likes of The Who, The Stones, Zeppelin, Cream, Hendrix … all these guys … this is what I was listening to when I was around 11 years of age.”
“When I heard Sunshine of Your Love for the first time, it literally changed my life. British Rock from the 60s was something we could not equate with what was happening at home at the time. It was just fantastic. This huge wave of brilliance that was so different from anything we were listening to here. New Kids on the Block was as heavy as our charts got, really.”
“ZZ Top and AC/DC are big favourites of mine; always have been and always will be. When I heard Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits too, that just completely blew me away. It was a million years from what was happening here right then. Money for Nothing, man, and Knopfler, like me, plays with his fingers and that was something that inspired me to an extent. For me, although I’ve played with picks of all shapes, sizes and uses, using my fingers make the sound more personal. When I first heard the British Explosion for myself for the first time though – Beck, Clapton, Page and those other guys who’d be playing back in the 60s … that’s when I picked up my guitar and began playing blues.”
Around that time, Brian Adams would arguably have been the biggest Canadian rock star. “I had the album – Reckless – and the white t-shirt and denim look going on so I guess that qualifies me as a fan, although I was much more into Jeff Healey. When I saw See The Light featured on Much Music [Canadian MTV], that just completely blew my world apart. Man what a guitarist. In fact the first gig I paid to go see was Jeff Healey and the night he died, I was actually playing in his club in Toronto. My God. That was something. So very sad.” And lest we forget Healey’s contribution to the movie Roadhouse. “Man, I played that movie to death on VCR when it came out. And not for Patrick Swayze either.”
So do any of Steve’s family have a music background? “No. Mom played piano a little, but that was it pretty much. One of my friends had an electric guitar and another had a drum kit. None of them took it seriously though. I played piano for a short while, then a friend showed me the riff to Interstellar Overdrive by Pink Floyd and I thought: ‘What???!!’”
And that guy who introduced him to those delights opened up a whole new world as far as the naturally left handed aspiring guitarist was concerned. “To learn how to play that on a left a left handed guitar, he said, would cost me around $200 more simply for the cost of the guitar itself. I, naturally, learned how to play it right handed instead. I didn’t have $200.”
It is this ability to adapt that has seen Steve Hill climb the mountain to success. That and his willingness to put the hours in. The UK tour in support of Wishbone Ash is next on the agenda which, by anybody’s standards, is something of a toughie. Although relaxation time is at a premium, he does get a little time to himself. “I do long boarding – a kind of skateboarding – at home and yoga both at home and on the road. Mine is a very physical show so the stretching helps. I used to draw when I was younger and I also like to read. At the moment I’m into comic books in a big way. In fact, if I wasn’t a musician I like to think I might be working for Marvel or DC or one of those guys: I love the artwork and the stories.”
Does this love of story telling spill into the song writing then? “I wish it did. Sometimes a song comes complete with its melody attached, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it isn’t. Whichever way it happens, though, it’s a beautiful thing when it does, that’s for sure!”
More Information: http://www.stevehillmusic.com
Steve Hill: Solo Recordings Volume 3 is Available from November 10. Here’s Our Review
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