Interview with Memphian Jeff Jensen
by Janet Hansen - February, 2014
Looking at the world of music through the lens of Jeff Jensen there's nothin' but blue skies
When you get the opportunity to sit down and talk to any number of musicians who discuss their art, invariably, you come away with a certain vibe -- a definite impression of what drives them. For many, it's difficult to articulate what makes them tick.
This is not the case when talking with Memphian blues artist, Jeff Jensen, who is refreshingly forthcoming about the passion music evokes in his life. Jensen has an effervescent zest for all that's right about the world, and sunny side up.
A California boy who makes Tennessee his home, there's nothing but blue skies. Taking the business of music to a different level than most, Jensen clearly points out his job really has nothing to do with songs, or notes. It's all about the effect on who's listening.
It's very true that every musician was first an avid music fan. What are your first memories that inspired your passion for music?
Rock-n-Roll! Growing up we listened to the Rolling Stones, Beatles, Chuck Berry, Clapton and all the other greats from the 1950s through the 1970s. My mother had a great album collection and I really started to explore it. That's when I realized that some of my favorite songs weren't written by the guys I thought. I kept seeing these names like Willie Dixon and Robert Johnson. So I went exploring and found the Blues. As soon as I got my first Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters albums it was over... The Blues got me!
You've recently moved to Memphis, home of the blues, from the west coast. What difference is that making in your career?
I moved to Memphis about 2 1/2 years ago after spending a few years in Portland, Oregon and having my entire life fall apart. Memphis has had a huge impact on my career. Just after moving here I hooked up with harmonica sensation, Brandon Santini. We toured all over America and Canada together for two years. Along with him, I produced his 2014 BMA nominated album "This Time Another Year". I am very proud of that work. I released "Road Worn and Ragged", and then produced another artist, Mick Kolassa. I have been busy to say the least, four albums and almost 600 live shows in 2 1/2 years is a lot of work. I feel it is safe to say that there is no other place I'd rather be than right here at home in Memphis, Tennessee.
What are the big differences you notice between the west coast scene and the south where the blues are concerned?
The south is the undeniable home on the blues. It is where it all started and you can feel it in the soil, when the wind blows and smell it in the air. There is a history here that still lingers in the vibes of the Earth. If one is open to it, there is natural inspiration all around you here in the south. However, that doesn't have much to do with your actual question about the blues scene.
The west coast, believe it or not, has a very vibrant blues community. From the guitar slingers of southern California like Guitar Shorty, Kirk Fletcher, and Coco Montoya, to the Harp players of the Golden State such as Rick Estrin, Rod Piazza, and Charlie Musselwhite, to the beautiful soul of the Northwest like Curtis Salgado, it's hard to deny the west coast's powerful blues presence.
But touring is harder on the Pacific Coast, large cities are farther apart and the big cities are HUGE. The south, Midwest, and eastern seaboard are easier to get to when living in Memphis. The cities like St Louis, Birmingham, and Atlanta have such a deep appreciation for blues music, one can't help but notice that the message blues music brings resonates deeper with these folks, ever so slight, but that difference is powerful.
In your opinion, what is the biggest misconception about the blues as a genre? Conversely which generalization do you hear most often?
"Blues is Boring".
The reason that some people think blues is boring is because they haven't been exposed to "real" blues. Maybe they saw a bar band playing a 26 minute version of "Stormy Monday" and that is their reference. Truth: Blues can be repetitive, three chords played over and over in the same order, very repetitive. Truth: Making love is also repetitive BUT I've never heard anyone complain about that! The reason is simple. Making love is passionate, soulful, emotional and real -- all of the descriptive terms that one should be able to use when describing a real blues band. If a band isn't playing with real soul, if they are only using a song to feature what a great instrumentalist they think they are, they aren't playing blues. Blues is a conversion between an artist and an audience. Blues is vulnerability and honesty to the depths of one's soul. Blues is powerful, emotional, and anything but boring. And don't just take my word for it, go see some of today's hottest blues acts and you tell me what you think. How about Victor Wainwright or Sugaray Rayford, good lord almighty, those men can put on a show!
When you're out on the road, what do fans most often comment on regarding your shows/music?
The message we get most these days is in regard to our "show". We are, or try to be entertainers. I don't feel my job is to show up to a venue and play a series of songs. What we try to do is take our audiences on a journey with us through music, comedy, inspiration, stories, and just down right fun. I want everyone in the venue to forget about their real lives, troubles, and struggles and simply have a memorable night. We are getting better and better at that, and people have been noticing and commenting.
You've had a great deal of support from radio according to your bio. How do you use airplay to leverage your career? For example, do you book a majority of your shows in markets where you get heavy airplay? What's the biggest payoff?
We (the blues genre) are all on the same team: radio stations, bands, clubs, blues societies, promoters, fans, festivals, and everyone in-between. We try to work with radio stations and venues to promote upcoming live performances. We try to do 'giveaways' and interviews with as many stations as we can. We have gotten a lot of love from the blues community over the last few years and radio has been a huge help in getting the word out. Our latest album "Road Worn and Ragged" received radio play in every state, Canada, and many European countries. Because of that it seems that almost everywhere we go there is a station we can reach out to. That feels really good, and that kind of support means everything to us. That's the biggest payoff to me, just knowing that the blues community has our backs.
In this indie movement, the business of music creates any number of obstacles for musicians. If there was anything you could fix about the way things work, what are the problems and what are the solutions?
I love this question. It seems to me that the best way to succeed is to focus on the positive and turn whatever broken strings we have into jewelry, metaphorically speaking. It seems to me that the biggest obstacles in our genre are placed by people displacing responsibility. For example: whose job is it to fill the seats at a venue? The bands, the booking agents, the clubs, the promoter, the Blues Societies? How about all of them? If there aren't good touring bands, there won't be good blues venues. If there aren't good venues, where will the fans go? If there aren't blues fans, everything falls apart. It seems to me that if we all take responsibility and do what we can to symbiotically work together to ensure our genre will survive, we will also help it thrive. But it really does take all of us working as a team, promoting, teaching, and inspiring. This is how all good grassroots organizations flourish -- collaboration over competition.
In the many years I've worked in this business, I've seen musicians obsess over a great variety of things when it comes to performance and recording. What do you obsess over?
I obsess over being understood musically. I do my best to express emotion through my music and performance. It means a lot to me that the depths in which we perform are understood. I always try to play the 'song', so if the song has a lot of tension then I want my guitar solo to as well. Maybe that means lots of space, maybe that means quarter step bends, just slightly out of tune just for a second, just to create the tension that the song is emotionally expressing. There are lots of themes in my music and my show that are noticed by my fans and as time goes on they are developing more and more. I obsess over communicating those messages musically and consistently.
Which of your original tunes do people respond to most often? Which standard covers do audiences most often ask of you?
Because of this question I did a Facebook poll asking my fan what their favorites were and WOWâ€¦ we got a huge response. USA TODAY gave our new album some press and loved "Brunette Woman", the first track on "Road Worn and Ragged" apparently my fans agree! They also told us they love "Raggedy Ann" and our cover of Tom Wait's "Heart Attack and Vine". When we play live we usually get great feedback on my favorite song to play which is "Can't Believe We're Through" a track off my 2007 release, "Self-Titled". I wrote a really emotional song titled "River Runs Dry" but we only play it at certain shows. It means a lot to me and sometimes it's hard to share that level of deep emotion and vulnerability, but when I have, it always goes over very well.
Do you prefer a listening room over a club scene?
I am so thankful every day I wake up and I get an opportunity to share my music with people. As clichÃ© as that may sound it is true. However, now a days my show is evolving, becoming more dimensional. At the venues where it's appropriate we do some acoustic work. I have some stories I love to share about who I really am, where I came from, and what I'm trying to do. We also have an agenda to leave this world a better place than we found it. For all those reasons listening rooms are my favoriteâ€¦ but it's hard to beat a loud, old smoky run down Juke Joint.
Given the choice, would you prefer to be known as an entertainer, great guitar player, or writer of compelling blues?
Out of those options, I guess 'Entertainer', but regardless of the title one attaches to me, I really want to inspire people. I want to do my part in leaving this world a better place than I found it. I want to help people in whatever small way I can make their day just a little bit brighter, and if I can do that through guitar playing, songwriting or entertaining, it's all ok with me.
You can check out Jeff Jensen on the Web at: www.jeffjensenband.com
2013 marks the 29th year of Janet Hansen's career as a music marketing specialist. With three Grammy award-winning campaigns to her credit, Hansen has also contributed to the legacy of two of history's most popular songs. "Classical Gas" by Mason Williams is the most-broadcast instrumental tune in history; and "Louie, Louie" by The Fabulous Wailers is the most-recorded rock song in history. In 2009 Hansen launched the global music platform https://scout66com.wordpress.com/ to encourage reviews of live shows from the ticket-buying public.
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