Interview with this new and bright young blues talent by Mike Stephenson took place in Jackson, Mississippi in October 2013. Many thanks go to Peggy Brown for all of her help.
I was born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1984. My parents divorced when I was three which forced my mother to move to Clinton in Section Eight apartments called Clinton Heights and we stayed there with my two older brothers, and my mother was really tough on us because she wanted us to be men. My grandfather had a church and my mother was the organ player. My grandfather was a guitar player, my uncle was a guitar player and my uncle was the music director and they needed a bass player, and one evening in church he put the bass in my hand and told me to play it and I was nine years old and I just started playing it, and once I started playing I had no idea what I was doing. From that point on, every time the choir would sing we would go and practise and he would show me what we were singing and he used to tell me to learn the song. My uncle’s name is Tony and he lives in California now, he does music there. He played for Raphael Saadiq, the r&b artist who used to sing in that group called Tony! Toni! Tone! He was the lead singer and my uncle Tony played with him for a couple of years. He is a great musician.
Me just growing up in church and starting to play bass at nine years of age and getting into it, but I really didn’t like playing that much but they made me play. I was more into sports, like basketball. Tony, my uncle, is my mother’s brother. He would encourage me, and what with my grandfather playing guitar in church, which was the lead instrument in our church – in most other churches it is the organ – it all helped me into music. My church is True Gospel Church Of God In Christ in Jackson. I was so into sports back then, I didn’t care about music, I just played because they made me play. So once I got into basketball my uncle Tim, which is my father’s brother, he taught me how to play basketball as he was the athletic one in the family. He was tall and everyone wanted to be like him but he didn’t get a chance to play basketball because of the religion, my grandfather’s religion.
My mother’s side and my father’s side were both in the same church, so I had both sets of grandparents in the same church, both sets of uncles and cousins in the same church and everybody did the same thing, and my grandaddy preached against basketball and preached against secular music and a lot of other things. He was very strict so my mother ended up leaving the church, and I don’t remember my mother being at church when I was little. I know now she was there at first and what I remember when I was growing older was my mother not being at church. I think she kinda got burnt out from that lifestyle of being sheltered, and she told me that I should always follow my dreams and do what I want to do as she didn’t get a chance to.
My mother had my brother when she was twenty and she had me when she was twenty three and when you are twenty three with three kids that was tough, I mean when I was twenty three I was just graduating college. I’ve got a daughter now and I’m twenty nine and I’m just getting my feet wet with that, but when my mother was twenty nine she was already nine years deep into the game. So my mother told me to follow my dreams, and basketball was my dream. She never held me back from doing anything I wanted to do, and my other cousins they didn’t get to grow up like I did because their parents were still in the church and my mother wasn’t, so I got to do what I wanted to do. I lived my own lifestyle and my mother worked hard. She went to work every day and come home and then cook every day and even on weekends she used to do odd jobs and she used to sew really good and do decorations and things. So she was a hustler and still is and works really hard, and I think that is why I am so headstrong about what I do is because I see how hard she used to work, and how she never sat down and never rested and even now she is the same way. If you see my mother people think she is my sister and she looks so young and her skin is still smooth and she always took good care of herself.
As for my basketball I remember playing for my first league team when I was in fifth grade, I would have been about ten years old. My uncle was training me way before then so right about the time I started playing music I was doing basketball as well. I didn’t know how good I was at basketball, but I got NVP at the team I played with in fifth grade. My uncle used to take me different neighbourhoods and different playgrounds and I used to play against the kids and grownups on the streets and playgrounds and my uncle never allowed me to quit. He used to be with me in my grandmother’s back yard for hours and hours and he would not let me quit. I used to cry; he used to play me like a grown ass man and I was only ten years old and I think that is where my edge comes from because he never allowed me to give up. He made me fight through the adversity of playing against a grown man which was good enough to play in the NBA, that is how much talent he had, but he couldn’t do it because of the religion.
So my uncle was basically living through me, basketball. So once I started doing that I went to junior high school. I got NVP in junior high, I was number one player in the state in my senior year at high school. Then I went to college at Southern Miss and I played there for three years and I then went to this school called William Carey University at Hattiesburg in Mississippi, and in my senior year in that college I won national player of the year. I led the nation in scoring and I was top five in the nation and basketball took up so much of my time. When I left college I didn’t get drafted to the NBA so I went overseas and played in Lebanon, this was in 2008. I’ve just seen this movie called ‘Argo’ and I’ve watched that time and time again, the reason being when I was in Lebanon when you go out in the street you had these military people with M16 guns just like that movie. When I was in Lebanon, a US embassy car was blown up two blocks away from my apartment. The US embassy was advising us to stay inside so I didn’t know what to do, so I went to the general manager of the team I was playing for and said that I want to go home but they said I had signed a contract. I asked them if they would let me go as I was not familiar with that type of lifestyle and he was gracious enough to breach the contract and let me come home.
They still paid me for the time I was there, which they didn’t have to do. When I got back to America I was kissing the ground. So I kept training and training in basketball and my agent told me that he had the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Indiana Pacers interested in me. The clubs kept calling but they didn’t invite me to their training camps. When I was training I hurt my ankle real bad. I tore the cartilage in my ankle and had to have surgery, this was in 2009. Cartilage takes twelve weeks to rebuild, I was on crutches for a while and I was rock bottom, no money, no career, I had a degree in coaching but that’s something I didn’t want to do at the time. I was thinking of coaching as a thing to do later.
So I thought I should go back to what I know and that is music, so I grabbed my guitar and pen and paper and started writing songs and learning songs and looking up Albert King, as I love the blues. I looked up all the blues greats like Stevie Ray, Freddie and B.B. King and I started playing and covering that stuff and then writing my own stuff, and that’s how I really got started, in about 2009 soon after I had my surgery on my ankle. I went to the International Blues Competition that year, although I shouldn’t have really been there as I was on one crutch. I was representing my band, the Jarekus Singleton band, and that was great for me and then my leg started getting better and by then I had started building a buzz around town which took a while and Peggy Brown, who is now my manager but wasn’t my manager then, she was helping me with bookings and she helped me get a gig in Farish Street at Frank Jones Corner and I played the gig and it was great for me. It felt really good and that was my cue and I said this is for me, this is what I am supposed to be doing. I was still hoping for basketball as I thought I’m going to get healthy, my leg is going to be fine and that I will get out and start playing again. I trained and did everything I could but my ankle just wouldn’t be where it was supposed to be, and I figured that God was trying to tell me something.
Since 2010 it has been a grind of staying up a lot of nights, twenty four hours a lot of times, figuring out what to do, how to promote how to self promote, what songs are good, writing, learning how to play guitar the right way, because when I was in college with basketball I went five years without playing music at all. That’s how much basketball took me away from music, it’s like I was obsessed with it. I was still depressed a bit but when I started playing the blues it helped me with my emotional side that I didn’t know that I had. I would cry on stage and it would give me a feeling that I never imagined that I could possibly have as an individual, and nothing in this world ever makes me feel the way playing the blues makes me feel. When I play the blues all the good and all the bad run through me, like it’s all mixed up. It makes me happy, it makes me sad, makes me mad, all these emotions are like a big knot in my chest, when I start playing, it unties the knot.
I write all of my material. When I was younger and at school I used to hate school, so I used to write poetry and I used to try to come up with some funny stuff and make it rhyme or come up with whatever I was going through at the time and just try and make it rhyme. We had a Mother’s Day programme at church and I thought I would write a poem about my mother and read it at church, and the whole church went crazy, and from that point on, every time we had a programme at church I was the poem guy. So my grandmother used to tell me that I needed to have a poem ready and that’s what I used to do at church, was read poems. As time progressed, my Uncle Tony would teach me all this different music. I was listening to D’Angelo, Lauryn Hill, a lot of r&b and neo soul, Albert King and some rap music.
So I gravitated towards the rap music, as that is the culture I grew up in. So me and my friends would be at school at the lunch table and somebody would start a beat and we would start free telling. Whatever came into our heads we would say it, and try and make it rhyme and we used to do that every single day. We would talk/ sing about a lot of different stuff like what’s going on in the neighbourhood, what’s going on in the school, girls and that type of stuff. With my lyrics in my songs, it is different to everybody else’s, as I try and take the time to paint the picture in the way that nobody else will paint it. For example one of my rap songs goes like this
“I got my eyes on the prize, I’m thinking network, y’all got your eyes on those thighs, y’all all thinking sex work, I was raised a little different, I want the check first, I’m trying to make it get better before it gets worse”.
Just me being creative with it and I never liked the fact that people would put music here and take any lyric and put it with the music. My thing is, when I listen to music I like people to say things and then have to rewind it and say ‘Wow let me listen to that again’. I use a lot of metaphors and stuff in my songs. In one of my new songs it talks about
“I’m soft hearted I must admit, I feel sorry just a little bit, then when I think about the pain you caused I don’t feel sorry at all, and you actually think I am gonna let you back in so you can do this stupid mess again, you gotta be kidding me, you must be out of your mind to think I am going to deal with the lies you tell me time after time, you can’t be serious, you’re way out of my league, if lying was a sport you’d have the number one draft pig and the number one seed”.
So using metaphors and making people think about what is going on and painting the picture. I listen to a lot of country music as well. I listen to a lot of Brad Paisley who is one of my favourite guitar players. The way he writes music and puts it together, you can close your eyes and see everything he is saying and it’s just like a storyline perfectly put together, and some country artists are good at painting that picture and as a musician that’s what I want, that picture painted and not just a half arsing song. It’s dissecting the song and making sure the picture is painted for the people.
I listen to a lot of music and I like good grooves. I listen to a lot of James Brown and in 2009 I came to know who Derek Trucks is, and he is amazing, and I listen to guys like Robert Randolph and I listen to Albert King, he had some really funky stuff, and you take all these different things and blend it into my own funky style. I take my grandfather and the music that came from the church and how that was arranged and take all these different genres and you have them running through your head, and somehow you have to grab from each and just kinda make it one.
When I was rapping I used to make my own music. I used to come up with all these little beats and rap over them, so I come from that side as well, and whatever comes out of me I try and put it in perspective and the music that’s made, that is what inspires me to write about whatever I write about. If you listen to a smooth jazz tune you can sit down and drink some wine because it puts you in that mood. If you want to make love to a female, no point in listening to hard rock or heavy metal because it don’t put you in the mood. I can be driving down the highway and something will come into my head and I have to grab my phone and voicemail me before it’s gone, and when I get home I listen to it and then I try it on the guitar and play it and play it and then it all kinda comes together. It’s not easy, as I can go over it time and time again and on one song I have written, I had to play the riff for about three hours straight before I really figured out where it was going to go in the song. One song can take me all day. It’s fun and I like the challenge.
My first album is called ‘Heartfelt’, recorded here in Jackson in 2011 with all original material on it. Being honest I don’t like listening to it, mainly because I have heard it so much and from where I am now I don’t think it does me any justice. I have developed tremendously from a vocal point. For me to have a recording out, I had to do that album, because I didn’t want to be a cover band, I didn’t want to be just another guy. I wanted to separate myself and be a recording artist and did I rush it? I don’t know. I don’t like to be typical. To be honest when I recorded the album I didn’t know what I was doing, I just knew I had to be a recording artist. I can’t think outside the box as I ain’t in no box so I had to write what I had to write and then let it out. So at that time that’s what I had, that was me at that time, but I’ve now moved on. My creativity is better, my vocals are better, my guitar playing is better, my leadership skills are a lot better. I work my arse off to challenge myself every day. If I sound the way I did two or three years ago then I think I may be in the wrong profession, as I think I should have gotten better and progressed if I am serious about what I am doing. I shouldn’t take steps back I should be taking steps forward.
I play blues as a young African-American as it is an honest music and genre. You can talk about anything you want to talk about, and it can be just as simple as going to the bathroom if people can relate to it. As far as the roots are concerned, from doing the studies on Muddy and Wolf and Little Walter and all those guys and Hound Dog Taylor and people who really jumpstarted it, I feel like it’s part of my responsibility to keep it going, because a lot of my friends that I grew up with have no idea of the blues world. You’ve gotta have satellite radio just to hear blues all day long. To hear good traditional blues music you have to go to satellite radio. In my culture a lot of people are raised on what’s in front of them, the TV and things. How often do you see a blues artist on national TV? You see B.B. King all of the time, but he is king of the blues and look at what he has done.
When you say blues to someone my age, the first thing you think about is B.B. King because that is all that has been presented to you. I say to myself that I love the genre, I love how honest it is, and the people that are singing the music, they are living what they are singing. These rap artists they talk about being gangsters and they talk about selling dope and killing, but they ain’t doing nothing that they say they are doing and I have a problem with that. I don’t listen to people that I don’t think have conviction in what they are singing. I’m not keen on going the gospel route as I’m not living that lifestyle. I chose to be in blues because of the history of it and the conviction of the music.
I’ve played the Chicago Blues Festival three times, I’ve been at the IBC three times. I’ve won four awards so far, that includes Jackson Music Awards Blues Artist Of The Year in 2012, Entertainer Of The Year in 2013, and for the Jackson Free Press I have won Blues Artist Of The Year in both 2012 and 2013. I’m also endorsed by Clevenger guitars from 2009. I used to play with T. K. Soul, not for long, and I’ve been on one of his records playing guitar. He is a real cool guy and works very hard and one of the best in the southern soul industry. He is a great guy to be around and play with. I used to play with Omar Cunningham as well. I played with him for two years and at the same time I was playing with Grady Champion back and forth. This would have been around 2008, 2009 and 2010 before I had my own band and before I had my surgery.
When I got my own band I still played with them for a while but eventually I just stopped being with them. I’m out on the road with my own band and having a great band, and I’m in the studio preparing a new album which we hope will be out early 2014. I’m still involved in the church when I’m not out on the road. I’m always helping church because that’s my grandfather’s church and it’s a special place for me, and my grandmother is still there, my mother is still there, my aunties and cousins are still there. I help out with the music as much as I can when I am here. It’s all about support rather than belief for me. I will support my family until the end of time, as they have always supported me. I have three songs, ‘Singing The Blues’, ‘I’m Leaving You’ and ‘Gotta Believe Me’, being played on Sirius satellite radio off my first CD which has sold well for me, so I give a shout out to Bill Wax for that.