Interview:In A New Place - Kenny Wayne Shepherd Makes a Total Rock Record
Proof that nothing ever stays the same: The leaves are falling off the trees in my yard, and though it's still 80+ degrees outside, I know the winter winds are comin' my way soon. More proof: After three previous platinum releases, guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd sings LEAD vocals on almost every track of his new album, for the first time. Still more proof: It's not a blues album. Not even close.
For the past 10 years we've known Kenny Wayne Shepherd as the blues' best hope and shining light. He brought radio and television attention to a genre that doesn't get much exposure, unless it's an "Entertainment Tonight" story about superstars B.B. King or Eric Clapton. We've also known him as a pretty hot guitarist, regardless the musical style.
Now, with The Place You're In, Kenny Wayne's fourth studio release, and first for Reprise Records, his musical style has morphed toward the straight rock side - with perfect clarity and focus. With a guest spot on "Spanked" by friend Kid Rock, and tracks that groove like never before, the now 27-year-old musician lets it all hang out. You've probably already heard the single "Alive" on your local radio station, and may already be hearing the second single as well, "Hey, What Do You Say." If not, be sure to listen and request.
Guitar.com spoke with Kenny Wayne Shepherd just a couple weeks ago about his musical evolution, his expanding gear collection, desert video shoots, and his upcoming blues DVD, dedicated to raising money for the non-profit Music Maker Foundation. Live on, brother.
Guitar.com: Hello Kenny, how are you?
Kenny Wayne Shepherd: Hey, how you doing, man?
Guitar.com: I'm doing well. Your new album sounds really cool, really different, really rockin'.
Shepherd: Thank you.
Guitar.com: And your voice sounds great, too.
Shepherd: Thanks a lot.
Guitar.com: There's even a funky side to it all, almost Lenny Kravitz-like. What brought you to this point? How did you move from the more straight blues you had played on your previous albums to this more rock style?
Shepherd: Well, if you listen to the first three records, you kind of hear the natural progression of the music turning into more rock 'n' roll. It's always been blues-based rock, but I kind of felt like on each of my albums I kind of addressed some of the blues, and some of the rock. But nobody ever got a full dose of either one. And so I just decided to go ahead and do an all-out rock record. And in addition to that, my voice kind of lends itself more to rock than it does to standard blues stuff.
Guitar.com: Have you been singing for a long time, because it sounds like you have.
Shepherd: Well, I sang lead vocals on one track on my first album, and then I've been singing all the background vocals since then. And doing all that live every night, for almost 10 years - I've gotten better. Of course I'll always want to be better than I am, in my guitar playing and singing. There's always room for constant improvement.
But it took me awhile to get used to the sound of my voice. You know how people listen to the way they sound on their answering machine, it kind of wierds them out, like, 'Woah! I didn't know I sounded like that!' But it's magnified a million times when you're singing lead vocals on a song. So it took me awhile to get used to the sound of my voice, and to also figure out what I'm capable of doing at this point with my voice. And I think I've found my niche!
Guitar.com: I think you did. Did you go out and play any of these songs live before you recorded them?
Shepherd: No. That's another thing: I wanted the record to be fresh when everybody heard it. And plus there's always a concern about bootlegs. I'm real nervous about playing new material before the album actually comes out. I don't like for people to get a hold of stuff before they can go out and buy it.
Guitar.com: So I know you wrote some of the tunes in the studio, but did you write others ahead of time - and practice the vocal lines before you got into the studio? In rehearsal?
Shepherd: We started the actual process of making this record about a year and a half ago. And Marti Frederiksen and I started writing and demoing these songs. We really took our time. The whole thing was just a slow process over about a year and a half. What happened was we'd write a song, and we'd put it down, and I'd have a CD I'd take home. And I'd have several months to listen to it over and over again, and practice and prepare, and get ready before we actually went into the studio and recorded it.
Guitar.com: Was this your first time working with Marti?
Guitar.com: Obviously you got along well - you worked together for a year and a half writing, and then he produced your album.
Shepherd: Yeah, Marti is a great guy. He's very talented. He's not just a great producer, he's a great musician. He can play drums, he can play bass ... He played bass on the whole record. He's a great vocalist. He did a bunch of background vocals too. He had some really great arrangement ideas. We didn't just keep it on a business level. We hung out and did some cool stuff outside the studio too, which made it a lot more personal.
Guitar.com: And do you feel that this stylistic move away from traditional blues has maybe opened up some new avenues for you?
Shepherd: Yeah, absolutely. I'm just now learning the effects that singing and playing guitar at the same time can have on each: the intensity that you can put into vocals and then translate and build the intensity even more in the guitar solo that follows. That's pretty fun, and it's cool. But I've also had to learn a new way of performing. I've hired a rhythm guitar player now for my band because there's just some things that I just can't play and sing at the same time.
Guitar.com: I hear ya ...
Shepherd: And there's some times that I really need to concentrate on what I'm singing and focus on that to get the maximum performance possible.
Guitar.com: Right. I know the feeling. Are there some points in your songs where a certain guitar riff is too choppy or syncopated for you to sing over?
Shepherd: Yeah, exactly.
Guitar.com: Well, I'm very impressed. Really cool stuff.
Shepherd: Thank you.
Guitar.com: So when do you hit the road?
Shepherd: October 15th (2004) is our first show. It's our album release party and concert that we're doing in my hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana. And then we're going to be on the road after that, up until the 18th of December. We'll take the holiday off, and then probably go out the last week of January, full steam ahead.
Guitar.com: Great. And this record, The Place You're In, has probably been at radio a couple weeks already, correct?
Shepherd: The first single, "Alive," is in its third week at radio. It's had great response. It was No. 1 most added two weeks in a row; last week it had already hit the Top 20 in Mainstream Rock and in the Top 30 at Active Rock. Tuesday is radio day, so tomorrow we'll find out if it's traveled further up the charts.
Guitar.com: So you're pretty excited about that I'm sure.
Shepherd: Yeah, absolutely.
Guitar.com: So when you hit the road, who will be in the band this time?
Shepherd: You can go to my website, www.kwsband.com and there's a short bio on each of the guys. Check it out, 'cause they're all really good players. They're all really excited to be part of the new band. It's always good to have fresh musicians and new players who have a real desire to be out there on the road, playin' music.
Guitar.com: How did you find these guys?
Shepherd: We put the word out, through word of mouth, and actually we put the word out on our website. And one of the guys, the guitar player Shaun Hague, was actually one of the fans who was browsing the website. He was a fan, and he submitted some stuff, and made it to through the audition process, and ended up making it into the band. So he's totally psyched!
Guitar.com: Yeah, that's really cool. More bands should do that. Really cool.
Shepherd: The rest of the guys were ... like the drummer, Bogie Bowles, he was a friend of mine that I knew through mutual friends. The bass player, Michael Devin, was somebody who we found via word of mouth, through some other players who I really respect. And I've got Jimmy Wallace on keyboards - and of course my lead vocalist from my past couple of albums, Noah Hunt, is still in the band, and sings lead on a track on the album.
Guitar.com: This video shoot you did for "Alive" ... I haven't seen the video yet, but I'm looking at the photos on your website ... where did you shoot this?
Shepherd: The video is being edited right now. We just did the shoot last Wednesday. We did the shoot off Highway 14, about an hour north of Los Angeles.
Guitar.com: Yeah, I thought these rocks looked familiar to me. So what about the gear you're using this time around. Are you still using your Strat?
Shepherd: Yeah, I've got a Strat. I used a Les Paul on some of the stuff on the record, and a Danelectro Baritone guitar on some stuff. And as far as amps go, I used a bunch of different amps. There's this new amp company called Fuchs. I used one of their amps that they made for me and sent to me while I was in the studio. I used my old '64 Blackface (Fender) Vibro-verbs. I've got a couple of those. And I used a Fender Blackface Twin. I also used a Dumble Overdrive Special. And a couple of old Gibson amps. It was pretty cool. We tried some new stuff out, even a couple of Marshall heads and 4x10 cabinets, and stuff like that.
Guitar.com: Did you have multiple amps going on certain takes?
Shepherd: Yeah, sometimes we did. And sometimes we just had one amp, one guitar.
Guitar.com: Do you or Marti Frederiksen prefer Pro Tools, or did you record most of this analog?
Shepherd: Well, I don't know. I think now everybody pretty much does everything on Pro Tools. Analog has that warmth, though. It's either that you record everything in Pro Tools, then you bounce it down to 2-inch analog tape before you mix it, you can get some of that warmth from the tape.
Guitar.com: Are you studio savvy in that way? Do you have a home studio, or do you record yourself at all?
Shepherd: A little bit. But I leave it more to the guys who really know what they're doing.
Guitar.com: But do you sometimes demo on your own?
Shepherd: Sometimes, but most of the demos we did at Marti's studio. He's got a top of the line studio.
Guitar.com: Where is his place?
Shepherd: It's called the Attic, and it's at his house in Monrovia, California.
Guitar.com: You live out there now, in Los Angeles, right?
Shepherd: Yeah. Well, I still have a home in Shreveport, but I spend most of my time out in California now.
Guitar.com: Are you there now?
Shepherd: No, I'm in Louisiana now.
Guitar.com: Cool. So what are you going to use on tour, what gear?
Shepherd: That remains to be seen. We're going to start doing rehearsals the day after tomorrow and I'm going to start bringing my gear in and start trying to make those decisions. I'm definitely going to bring a Fuchs amp out, and I'll definitely have the '65 Twin Reissues. And I'll probably a Marshall, some kind of Marshall stack. I can't tell you definitely yet, because I haven't made all those decisions.
Guitar.com: And as far as material, you'll be playing some of the older hits too?
Shepherd: Yeah, absolutely.
Guitar.com: Great. Also, on your website, I noticed that you were working on a blues documentary? Was that this summer (2004) that you were working on that?
Shepherd: Yeah. We've actually finished that. The film, the documentary part, is being edited. The music part has all been mixed and needs to be mastered. It's going to be a CD/DVD set that's going to come out some time next year. It's all blues - like the most traditional blues thing I've ever done.
Guitar.com: And it will contain a bunch of acoustic stuff too, I see.
Guitar.com: Is this something you're doing through your record label, Reprise?
Shepherd: Yeah. People can find out about it through my website.
Guitar.com: How did you put that together?
Shepherd: It's an idea that kind of surfaced back when I was doing my last record with (producer) Jerry Harrison. And it's kind of something that he was discussing - like I was discussing earlier - he said that nobody ever gets a full dose of blues or rock on my albums, they get a mixture. He wanted to go and do this all-blues record. And since I went and did the all-rock album, I kind of figured it would be totally appropriate. It was time to do the all-blues thing too.
So we got Jerry, and Jerry produced it too. And we went on the road for like two weeks, and went to all these old blues players' houses - wherever they lived. And we recorded with them, sometimes in their living room, or in their backyard, or just wherever was appropriate. And we got this amazing record, which is great.
Guitar.com: Right. Was that something that you personally called all these players to set this up?
Shepherd: Yeah, with some of them. Not with all of them. I was in the middle of trying to finish a rock people, but my people made contact with them.
Guitar.com: So what were some of the highlights of those sessions?
Shepherd: Well, we played a song with B.B. King in his hometown of Indianola, Mississippi. That was great. Just playing with everybody, every musician, had it's own highlights. All the people were amazing, and created this really great music. We recorded their songs, and their material. Every night and every day was a real highlight for me.
Guitar.com: And will some of this go to benefit the Music Maker Foundation?
Guitar.com: Is that something that you knew about or were involved in previously?
Shepherd: I wasn't involved in it, but when I found out about it I wanted to get involved and help those guys out.
Guitar.com: What would you say to our readers about that organization, and those old blues players - many of whom never had any big hits, or they got totally ripped off, and they're living in poverty?
Shepherd: Well, I'm at a point in my career where I feel like I can use what I do to help other people out. I like to do that. And I think if anybody makes it big, or has the opportunity to do that, they should do that as well. And also, it's like, these guys are struggling musicians who are really talented and deserve recognition, and that's one of the reasons why I did this record. What they do is they record these artists and they produce the CDs and allow the artists to sell the CDs at their own shows, and MusicMakers doesn't charge them anything. So it helps them out with some income. Check out the Music Maker Foundation website: (www.musicmaker.org).
Guitar.com: I've received some CDs from them before, and do have plans to give them a little press as well. In fact, I'll do it here, with this article. That seems fitting. (see sidebar about the Music Maker Foundation.)
Guitar.com: Well, Kenny, we'll look forward to seeing that DVD, and we'll let the Guitar.com community know about it when it comes out. Thanks for speaking with us again.
Shepherd: No problem Adam, any time.
About the Author:
Adam St. James joined Guitar.com shortly after the website launched in the summer of 1999 and has been the site's Editor for several years. Adam has worked as a guitar tech for Sammy Hagar, and is the author of several guitar and music instructional books, including "101 Guitar Tips: Stuff All the Pros Know and Use" (published by Hal Leonard). He fronts blues and rock bands in the Chicago area. See www.adamstjames.com and www.blueslessons.com for info on all Adam's books, bands, and barstool banter.
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