Historically, origin stories of blues guitarists usually include a chapter about a record label taking advantage of a naïve musician.
That’s unlikely to be part of the Selwyn Birchwood biography. He comes prepared.
Birchwood, whose band won the 2013 International Blues Challenge in Memphis, will appear at the Baker Street Centre on Friday, June 16. He’s supporting the June 9 release of his band’s new album, Exorcist.
He sat down with Whatzup for a phone interview to talk about how he got here.
Looking up to right guy
Like so many blues musicians, Birchwood’s attraction came to him at a young age.
“When I was in middle school, I started playing guitar and started playing what was on the radio, and I got bored pretty quickly,” he said. “But a friend of mine gave me a Jimi Hendrix album, and man, I was just blown away by what I heard. And I said, ‘Man, whatever would possess someone to write this kind of music?’ And when you look back in his bio, you find all the older blues guys: Muddy Waters and Elmore James, BB King, and Albert King and Buddy Guy.”
Guy was someone who grabbed Birchwood’s attention. And lucky for him, he lived near a family stop for the blues icon.
“It seemed like the very next week, Buddy Guy was actually coming to my hometown in Orlando, Florida, at the House of Blues,” he said. “I just bought a ticket blindly and I had no idea what I was in for. I said, ‘Man, whatever this is, that’s what I want to learn. That’s what I want to do.’ I’ve been chasing that dragon ever since.”
Guy’s impact only grew with Birchwood’s guitar proficiency.
“It feels like it’s gone full circle now from the first time hearing real blues music at a Buddy Guy concert when I was 17,” he said. “Fast forward 20 years later, and man, I’ve gotten the same producer doing my albums as Buddy Guy, and I’ve actually performed on stage with Buddy Guy as well.”
Putting himself in music
Growing up in a creative home, Birchwood’s outlet was in songwriting as he continued to master the guitar.
“My mom actually was a painter and she had me doing painting and drawing and all kind of creative stuff at a really young age, so I was really into that,” he said. “Then when I got into high school, I got into free writing and poetry sort of stuff, and it eventually turned into songwriting. I kind of ended up putting it all together by adding the creative side of the music along with the creative side of the writing, and that’s what gave me my sound.”
He’s proud of the fact that his music is so original and personal.
“This new album, Exorcist, is produced by Tom Hammrich and we’ve got 13 new tracks of all original music,” he said. “I pride myself on writing songs so that when you hear me, you hear a band that sounds kind of like me, and that’s what we shoot for.
“I write songs and I perform my music, and I just feel like that’s the only way, otherwise I feel like I’m cheating the audience. I don’t think it takes too much to get someone to a song that they already love. So, I’m just really happy that my original music has been accepted so widely.”
Birchwood likes to have fun onstage and brings that energy to the crowd. He’s also conscious of comfort, as he has performed barefoot for many years.
“I just don’t like shoes,” he said. “For whatever reason, the crowd seemed to like it as well. It started off, I drank too much and kicked my shoes off. There was a show, the crowd went wild, so I just started doing that every show and it got to the point I was just more comfortable that way anyway, so I just stopped putting them on to begin with.”
No formula to blues
Back to the unfortunate tradition of blues musicians not getting their due from the commercial side of the industry. That’s not likely to be in Birchwood’s future.
As a young man, he put a promising music career on hold to complete his education, including an MBA from the University of Tampa.
“Ninety-nine percent of being in a band is the business side of it,” he said. “If you aren’t looking at it as a business, then you’re really going to be struggling. So, of course it helps to be able to know what’s going on. But it seems like people have an idea of what a blues musician is and it coincides with what was going on a hundred years ago. And people are surprised I can read, but indeed I can.”
Birchwood’s music is modern and fresh, but it definitely fits in the blues bin of a used record store.
When asked about the health of the genre, his message is clear.
“Man, I think the blues would be fine if everyone would quit saving it to death,” he said.
“The music is awesome and that’s why people are drawn to it. It’s honest, it’s storytelling, it’s relatable. And now people seem to want to just take the music and say, ‘Well, no, it has to be this way’ and turn it into a paint-by-numbers. At some point, it starts to be fraudulent when it’s that way, and I feel like that’s what it starts to feel like after a while.
“That’s not the way that this music came about,” he added. “It came from real-life experience. It came from real heart. It came from real soul, and it wasn’t born of just people pointing to a picture to trace.
“It’s evolved and it’s changed the whole time, so I don’t know why people try to stop that.”