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Published: 2011/11/07
by Randy Ray

A Song to Last a Lifetime with Keb Mo

RR: Let’s talk about the collaborators on this record. How about Marcus Miller?

KM: Yes. I’ve worked with Marcus together before, and that was great. He was amazing. I’ve worked with him on his record, too [ Free ]. We just got really good. He’s a great musician, a great guy, and a guy that really understands music. Even though he’s a monster musician, he understands a simple guy like me. “Milky Way,” that we wrote, I think is one of my best kept secret works that I’ve ever done with anybody. If I get to do a record with Marcus Miller producing, I’d love that. If I could afford it. (laughs) That would be cool.

But in this day and age, when you don’t have the big budgets anymore to do a record—and I’ve never had one of those huge budgets—you’ve got to really get smart with your record making. I’ve got a studio at home with ProTools HD, I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve, I’ve got my guitars there, I’ve got tools to work with, and I use them. I stay in there until it’s right. You could hire Quincy Jones to do a record, but I don’t think anybody could afford to hire Quincy Jones anymore.

RR: Well, you made some smart choices overall, including Vince Gill’s appearance on “My Baby’s Tellin’ Lies.” You two worked really well together on that track.

KM: Oh, yeah. We worked well together, we wrote the song together, and he actually let me produce his vocal; it was amazing. (laughter) He asked, “What do you want me to do?” And I was, “Well…uh…uh…O.K.” He was right there with me on it. That guy’s an amazing musician.

RR: He’s popular, but Vince Gill is also a musician’s musician.

KM: Oh, yeah. Yes. Yes. He’s not just a pretty face. He’s a bad ass. Vince is the kind of guy that if he likes you, he’ll come find you. He’ll come find you and say, “Hey, man, do you want to work? Do you want to do something?” He’s not living in some kind of rock star bubble. He’s very active. Around town [Nashville], he plays with this band, this Texas swing band called The Time Jumpers, that’s just amazing. He goes and does gigs. If you come over, if you want to say hello or something, he’ll bring his guitar and come play—you know, he’s just a regular dude. I met him when I was playing at the Ryman [Auditorium in Nashville], and one day I come backstage and there’s Vince standing in the dressing room: “Hey, man, how you doing?” (laughs) I said, “Oh…oh, man. O.K.!” If anything, I was probably standoffish from him because you never want to crowd a guy like that. I’m sure everybody would like to work with him, but he said, “Hey, let’s work together. Let’s do something.” I didn’t believe him, but he said, “No, really. I really want to do something,” so he’s a man of his word. He did it, he came through, we did it, and it worked great.

RR: It does. There’s a new cat in your band, Kevin So, and he wrote a beautiful song, “Crush On You.” Indie.Arie duoed with you on vocals on that album track.

KM: I know India.Arie. First came the song, “Crush On You.” That’s a song I heard of Kevin’s probably about eight years ago. I heard him do that song, and I said, “Man, that song’s amazing. What are you doing with that song?” He said, “I recorded it on my album.” And I said, “O.K., well, something’s gotta happen with that song. That’s a cool song.” And I was doing this record, and I asked him, “Can I have a crack at it?” He said, “Sure,” so he let me take a crack at it, and I just sung it. He ended up joining the band, too. After we recorded it, I thought it would be great to have a girl singer on the second verse, and I talked about who I could get, and he was talking about a couple of singers, so I said, “Let me call India.” Actually, I texted her, and she said she would do it. I e-mailed her a copy of the mp3 I was working on, and she said, “Yeah, I love it. Cool,” so she put on a vocal on it and sent it back.

RR: John Lewis Parker co-wrote “The Whole Enchilada” with you.

KM: I’ve written a lot of songs with John Lewis Parker—“More Than One Way Home,” “Henry,” “As Soon As I Get Paid”—and he’s a great writer. John Lewis Parker was also the co-writer on the big Chicago hit, “Hard Habit to Break.” John and I roomed together when we played back in the day with Papa John Creach. I’ve known him a long time, he’s a great writer, and he’s the kind of guy—he’s like me—that he’ll stay there until the job’s done. (laughs) We’re like that. We’ve written some really cool songs and, because we’re friends, we write songs together as an excuse to hang. We hang out and write a song. I’ve watched his kids grow up. One of his sons just got a gig as a college professor, and he was the son that always just did O.K. in school, and I was worried about him, and now he’s a college professor. (laughter)

John is an amazing guy, and a really hard worker, too, a talented guy, and I just got a lot of history with him. I love working with my friends, and writing is very intimate, so I like to write with somebody I know, and then we can go to really intimate places in songwriting to really get a song. We wrote “Just Like You” together [the title track from Mo’s second album, released in 1996] and he pushed me on that. The reason I wrote “More Than One Way Home” was because of him. He said, “Hey, man, why don’t you write a song about Compton.” I said, “Write a song about Compton? Nobody wants to hear about Compton.” (laughs) He said, “Yeah, come on; write about Compton.” So I sat down and wrote this lyric out, and at the end of the day, we had the whole thing done. The chorus—we kept going back to the chorus I’m on my way back home, you know what I mean? (laughs) Things like that, and then one day he called and said, “How about this— more than one way home, ain’t no right way, ain’t no wrong. ”

We really stayed in there is what I’m trying to say. Stay in there until the laundry’s done. John Lewis Parker is a very important collaborator for me.

RR: That’s why I brought up John because you have some experienced collaborators working with you on The Reflection, and you also brought in some new collaborators, too. There is a fine blend and contrast to that mix on the album.

KM: Maia Sharp.

RR: Exactly.

KM: Maia Sharp opened for us for a few years and I got to know Maia. She would come out and play sax with us, too, because she plays sax. She’s great, man. She wrote some Bonnie Raitt songs, too. If I work with Bonnie, if I hang with Bonnie, she’s around there, too, and I got to know her on a couple of levels like that level, and the fact that she did some shows with us. We worked on “All the Way” [on The Reflection ], and it was really, really a lot of fun.

Writing with me is hard because it’s not a one-day thing. You might have to do two days with me to get the song. I think a song that’s going to last a lifetime is worth three days of your time, as opposed to a few hours. You might get it in three hours. When I wrote a song with the Dixie Chicks, that was like a two or three day process. First thing, you’ve got to go in and talk. You have to go talk the first day. You have to have some tea, you’ve got to find out what makes everybody tick, and get comfortable because you might be going to an intimate place, especially during that time when they were having all of that controversial stuff with the George Bush statements, and we had to get it all in there and figure out what needs to be said. So, it’s a very intimate experience that you’re getting into with people that you don’t know that well. You don’t just jump in. There’s got to be some songwriter foreplay, I call it.

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