Maverick Magazine (UK) – Feature Article

Feature Article – Walter Strauss: Multi-Genre Guitarist, Producer and Songwriter

It happens all the time. After hearing American string wizard Walter Strauss play guitar and sing, first-timers to his shows invariably turn to each other slack-jawed and wide-eyed, whispering: ‘Why the hell have I never heard of this guy before?’ Good question. But there are good reasons, too. For years now, Walter has been in the copilot seat, as it were, as sideman for various acoustic American and African artists, and as album producer for other people’s projects. But of late, the spotlight has turned onto Walter himself. Fortunately for Maverick readers, he will be touring England, Scotland and Ireland this May, and will have on offer both the full-band PULLING SHADOWS CD and a six-song EP of guitar and voice entitled PLANET SOLITAIRE.

Much as his growing legion of fans love the live and recorded work he’s done with Malian kora and kamele ngoni masters Mamadou Diabate and Mamadou Sidibe, American folk trio the Burns Sisters, New York alt before alt was cool rockers the Head Cleaners, his own east-coast quintet Ten Sleep and west-coasters the Walter Strauss Trio. That said, it’s in a solo situation, they say, that they can hear most clearly just what a many-layered, multi-textural, one-man folk festival Walter Strauss really is.

And the general consensus seems to be that—as delicious as the melodic and harmonic elements of Walter’s singing and guitar playing are—it’s his rhythmic drive that is absolutely freaking irresistible. “Drums were my first instrument. Well, actually, the very first thing I played was the laundry hamper, with pencils. One brother would play the tennis racket, and the other played an actual guitar. I have a cassette recording of us playing Wipeout when I was six. We were good!”

You were born on in Rawlins, Wyoming. Is that right so far? “That’s right,” Walter laughs. “My dad was not a musician himself, but had a great interest in classical music, particularly Bach. And just having that around the house, that was influential, I’m sure. So was his singing. He had a beautiful singing voice, my dad …”

“My mother played piano. Lots of German volkslieder. She is a painter, and a painter of the Big West, of the mountains and the vast expanses. I think her art has a similar aesthetic to my music and vice-versa, of course.”

You left home to follow your muse at the age of 15? “Yup. And that probably made me look inside in a more reflective way than most teenagers do. I first lived in the basement of a bridal shop that, strangely, never ever had a single customer. A Mafia front? Probably. And then lived by myself out in the countryside, and that was actually a very spiritual time for me. I’d put my stereo speakers out the window over this beautiful valley, and listen to Christopher Parkening play Bach. Such transcendental performances on that record. Each note is perfectly placed, but not just in a technical way. A couple of Jackson Browne records were also on the turntable at that time, which probably influenced my songwriting. And Pink Floyd. I’ve always loved a lot of rock’n’roll.”

Tell us a bit more about your musical history. “I started playing guitar when I was eight. By that time I was ready for an instrument that was melodic as well as rhythmic, and I wanted something I could play more by myself. Still, I think I’ve always had that quirky rhythmic sensibility. I played in bands with my brothers Dave and John. Lots of harmony, and finger style guitar. Jackson Browne was big with us, Neil Young and James Taylor, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and later on Bruce Cockburn, who I started writing a bit like, apparently, even before I got turned on to him.” “I’ve always loved Peter Gabriel and I was hugely influenced by Keith Jarrett, his expressiveness, and his spiritual vibe, too, really. And I actually got around to the banjo for a while. Should I mention this, [laughs] I played my own way, but I did cop some feel for bluegrass. And later, on guitar, I approached it in that way that banjo players do, where every note in a given run is on a different string, whenever you can, to give it that very legato, harp-like sound.”

When did you go pro? “At about 18. I did little bit of gigging around Philadelphia, but then I decided to go to college in Western Massachusetts. I did some playing out while I was there, but never really went for it as a solo artist at the time. I had a cut on one of the Fast Folk records out of New York City when I was 24 or so. Also at the time I did a little demo for Windham Hill. But it was about this time I started doing the side man thing, mostly over the years with a folk trio called the Burns Sisters, but also as part of the Head Cleaners, with Marc Berger there in New York City, and that was very urban, very electric … lots of social commentary.”

So much African vibe in your music … “I really got into it in the eighties. I had friends who turned me on to African music as well … rootsy music, not just Afropop. I have a collection of field recordings of pygmies that I just loved. Unbelievable singing. Very polyrhythmic, with four vocal parts that would interweave and make this phasing thing happen and even the phasing would be rhythmic! It was along about this time that I started writing multilayered rhythmic stuff myself, definitely influenced by Foday Musa Suso, the kora musician I was listening to, even on stuff that otherwise had a classical feel to it.”

Who are some of the African musicians you’ve played with? “Mamadou Diabete I met in Ithaca, New York through our mutual friend Samite, a Ugandan multi-instrumentalist that I had gotten to know. We began jamming and before you know it we had done a few duo tours over 3 years. It was through him that I met Mamadou Sidibe. Now, this Mamadou plays kamale ngoni, which is a modern version of a traditional West African hunter’s harp. That’s one of the collaborations I’m doing these days.”

For songwriters, there’s always that chicken-and-egg question of what comes first, the words or the music … “It’s always the music that comes to me first … or through me, perhaps I should say. On the new EP Mr McKenzie came through all in one piece and all at one time. Of course, that’s not typical. But usually, I’ll get my fingers around a riff and see where that takes me. And typically, I won’t even start on the lyrics until I’ve got some really foundational stuff set on the guitar.”
Is Ishi a good example of that, perhaps? “It is. Ishi started off as a three-over-four idea, rhythmically, and eventually it morphed into just three beats per measure. And once that form had revealed itself, I could start on the lyrics.”

The Beast, on the PULLING SHADOWS album, … the words and music are so tightly integrated in that song, it almost sounds like everything got created all at once. No? “No, that’s that same process. Music first, and then lyrics. I had been working in this sort of Brazilian mode, both rhythmically and harmonically. I didn’t consult any chord books, or anything like that. I just sort of put it together the way it sounded right. And then the words came along later.”

“Same sort of thing for Love Puddle. I was just working it through in a jazz/blues idiom, and listening for the harmonic movement that appealed to me, going from chord to chord. I rarely work from theory, as it were … just from whatever theory is in my bones.”

For a lot of people who love your music, In the Stone is such a signature piece. Almost despite itself, it really does evoke images of the American southwest. How does that happen? “That’s sort of hard for me to put into words. On In the Stone, I listened more to nature than to something musical. What I tried to do was to portray things, both the expansiveness of nature, and the ethnic history, the sense of ancient ones who were there, but all in an abstract way. The groove is kind of African, the flutes Andean, and there is a Native American chant out at the end of the piece. Bringing the kora into the arrangement midway, I wanted to evoke a sense of somebody running through a Utah canyon, and even though that’s an African instrument it helped me set the scene.”

To paint the pictures heard on twin releases PULLING SHADOWS and PLANET SOLITAIRE, free-range musical epicure Walter Strauss selects deftly from an enormous sonic and musical and ethnic palette. While the former is fully fleshed out and the latter is stripped down and essential, world music on guitar is perhaps the best way to describe either and both. And always there’s that inescapable groove …

“I’m always looking to other parts of the world for influence. And I’m always trying to bring my own voice to that, whatever it is, to run those influences through my own lens.” For more information and the latest tour dates visit www.walterstrauss.com