Tracy K: Canada's First Lady Of The Blues Harp
“ When my music makes someone happy, helps them unwind, relax and have fun, it is a greater achievement and fulfillment than any award I can receive. ”
During the early sixties, when British rock groups stormed North American shores, she recalls her first introduction to the blues and how she was introduced and drawn to the early recordings of Sonny Terryand Brownie McGhee.
Since then, although she played briefly with a rock group at one time in her musical career, she has built upon this, her foundation for the blues. Steady performances and critical acclaim opened new doors for K, who penned the song "Rock This House" for the movie Scared Silent (2002), in addition to performing in the film with her band. She also recorded three original songs for a fundraising blues compilation CD and appeared, again, as singer in the band in another film, More Than Meets The Eye (2003).
Her 2007 release Old, New, Borrowed & Blues (Independent), produced by Toronto blues great Jack de Keyzer, earned her international airplay and rave reviews, and featured her own solid band of five years. It is a seamless blend of blues, with Chicago, Texas and Delta influences, country and rock, all finely crafted into an original contemporary sound.
Today she is recognized as one of the few female blues harmonicists in Canada, and one of the finest by any measure anywhere, winning the COM Harmonica Player of the Year (2006) and Ontario Independent Music Awards for Best Blues (2007); as well as being a nominee for Winnipeg Blues.com's Electric Act of the Year and First Runner-up for the 2007 Toronto Blues Society Talent Search.
All About Jazz : At what age were you when you decided to pursue music professionally? Do you recall the moment, or did you sense yourself drawn in that direction since you were a kid?
Tracy K: I first had the urge to perform when I was still a preschoolerabout four years of age. I was drawn in that direction, for sure. I made up my first songs at eight years of age in a band with my cousins. I was in several theatrical performances and musicals throughout my school years, and landed a lead role for a dinner theater production while my own kids were very young. I have been a performer all of my life, and felt that a teaching position was not unlike performing, really.
I am also a visual artist, and saw myself teaching art, music, and drama, and working with special needs kids. I was known as a singer in my hometown, and was called upon for the National Anthem several times. However, I made the conscious decision to pursue a music career at 25 years of age. That is when I finished my third year in the Faculty of Education, studying to become a teacher. I went to Toronto for the summer, got a taste of the music biz there, and never left.
AAJ: This rock band you played for when you first started performingwas this a decision based on peer pressure, as many kids are drawn to music enjoyed by their peers? How did this band start?
TK: Actually, the first band was back in High School, and I was asked to join it, purely on my image. The two other male members took a chance asking me if I could sing, and as fate would have it, I answered yes. They used to watch me walk the halls in school at lunch playing air guitar and singing to an imaginary sound track.
It wasn't until I moved to Toronto that I started my own band. I had been singing with many other bands as a guest vocalist, both lead and back-up until that time, in Manitoba. However, my own shot at fronting a band in Toronto was short lived. I quickly realized how big and daunting the music industry was, and decided it best to get a gig as a background vocalist in an up and coming act. That way, I could watch from a safe distance just how it all worksenter The Blame. We were a six-piece, funky, indie rock band. I had background vocal duties with another girl, and I played harmonica, roto-toms, and other percussion toys.
AAJ: How long and where did you perform with them?
TK: I was with The Blame for about three years. We played the main haunts of Toronto's infamous Queen West music scene, and did a few regional gigs. The Blame did a fair amount of recording, including a video which received rotation on Much Music. We were also a CFNY talent search winner, which was the big indie radio station. This exposure and our studio experience landed me work as a session vocalist for other artists and some commercial work as well.
AAJ: You left music for awhile. When were you were absent from music? You left to raise three children. How long were you gone?
TK: I had my first baby in 1990 and was still part of The Blame at that point. I played with them up till two weeks before giving birth, and was back on stage five weeks after. It wasn't until I became pregnant for the second time that I left. I was six months pregnant in the autumn of 1991 when I moved back to my hometown in Manitoba with my husband and two year-old daughter. I reentered university, studying music and electives while on a waiting list to get back into the Faculty of Education. I was also working part-time as a silk-screen artist, my first trade.
When I became pregnant for the third time in 1994, I quit everything and decided it best I stay home with my babies for a few years. I sang for a couple of show/wedding bands during that time, and would make special guest appearances with some local acts from time to time, but mostly I was singing nursery songs and lullabies.
It wasn't until my youngest entered kindergarten that I went back to the music as a solo artist and embarked on my career as you know it today. That was around 1998.
Then in 2003, in mid-stride of my career, and just prior to recording a second album, all hell broke loose in my personal life. I was soon divorced, and then suffered stress-related health issues through to 2005. I played sporadically over this period.
In 2006, I was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, or Grave's disease, and was given radioactive treatment to kill my overactive thyroid. I was terribly ill at this time, and was finally given the medical green light in spring of 2007. I have some residual indications from the disease, but am out of the woods and ready to get back to living my life again. Stress really is a killer. My advice? Chill, man, chill.
AAJ: You were classically trained, weren't you? On what instrument did you receive formal training, or was it in voice that you were trained? Was this prior to, or before your absence from music?
TK: I had formal piano lessons growing up, but that ended when I was fourteen years old. While I was living in Toronto, I studied with Micah Barnes of The Nylons fame for one year, in 1988. He was a vocal coach, and these weekly sessions proved invaluable. I never lost my voice again after being trained properly, and am able to sing through colds. I even performed with a nasty type of laryngitis one New Years Eve in Winnipeg, 2001that was truly amazing. I could hardly talk, but I was able to sing for the duration of the evening.
AAJ: When did you first pick up the harmonica? With so few women, even outside of the blues, playing harmonica, how did this start for you?
TK: I first picked up harmonica in 1982, while backpacking Europe. It was from a Canadian soldier based in Lahr, Germany. He was a guitarist, and we were staying at his apartment while working for the Canadian army flipping burgers for the soldiers. When we [my traveling partner and girlfriend from back home] decided to continue on our travels to the south, he gave me the harmonica that I was so often picking up and tooting and said to me "When you come back this way on your way to London, you better know how to play this thing!" I drove my friend nuts for the first month with "Oh Susannah" and "When the Saints Come Marching In."
However, on the trek back up from North Africa and the Mediterranean, we did stop in Lahr, and buddy was pretty impressed with what I had taught myself to that point. He let me keep the harp, and that was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with the harmonica for me.
AAJ: Your earliest influences were the country blues of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. What was your first introduction to their music? What was it about their music that you liked?
TK: When I was in my mid-teens, I hung out with an eclectic group of friends. We were on the fringe. A bunch of old and young hippies if you will; the only ones of that kind in our tiny prairie town. They were into some real great stuff, like progressive rock and jazz, but blues was the main element and most revered. Half the time I never knew who the heck we were listening to, but I recall hearing Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee doing "Bring it On Home" and having it hit me hard enough to find out who they were, and hear more of the same. It just sounded like a whole lot of down to earth good fun, and what's not to like about that.
AAJ: Have your tastes since changed?
TK: I wouldn't say that my tastes have changed, but I sure went full circle and ended up right back where I started fromat the blues. Even as a child, my favorite songs had a swing element, or harmonica, or a horn section in them, like Blood, Sweat, & Tears, or Chicago. Hurricane Smith's "Babe What Would You Say" was one of those tunes that gave me that indescribable feeling that completely stole my undivided attention. I was way young then, and when I hear that song today, I can still smell my mother's house, and see the back yard from that kitchen seat next to the window where the radio was.
I grew up on hit radio of the sixties, so that influence is indelible. I have a brother who is nine years older than I, and his musical tastes were shared by methe British invasion, American psychedelia, Canadian folk rock. I'm still a devoted Zeppelin and Who fan.
AAJ: Talking harmonica: why do you think so few women play harp?
TK: I think it's because most women are drawn to singing. I was a singer long before I was a harmonica player. Most female singers play either guitar or piano if they choose an instrument. As for why the non-singers don't pick harmonica as their instrument of choicebeats me. Maybe it's not perceived as lady-like or sexy? Ruins the lipstick? I dunno.
But if ya wanna get all psychological, I think it's the whole gun thing. It's like a gun [sorta] in size, shape, weight, and you can just whip it outta your pocket any ol' time. Guys had the ability and freedom to blow a harp whilst being cowboys and such. I think women and their hands were just too busy in the kitchen. It's evolution, man. How's that for a story on the spot?
AAJ: Okay, ask a question, get an answer. Are there any female harmonicists that you really admire? What is it about their music that you like?
TK: Well, I haven't really listened to any female harmonicists in any great length or detail.
Stating that, Annie Raines is the first to come to mind, because she is the most well known. Since it is only with the dawn of internet and especially MySpace that I have found any other female players, we are just now creating history and credibility. A couple to note are Cheryl Arena and Octavia in the U.S.
AAJ: As for gear, what kind of equipment do you use?
TK:As for gear, well, I play both Hohner and Lee Oskar harmonicas. I love the way Lee Oskars feel against my lips. They have a nice smooth surface, easy to glide along. The Hohner Special 20s have the same feature, and the Marine Bands have that classic sound and tone that only Marine Bands have, but I wish they would smooth off the cover plates.
I have developed a real bond with the Lee Oskars over the last seven or eight years, and like the way they respond for me. They have the replaceable reed plates, which was very attractive to me both financially and environmentally. Instead of throwing away an entire harmonica, you can just replace the plates.
John Sebastien asked me once what I do to compensate for the slightly flat Oskars. I never really thought about it, and therefore must have been adjusting my embouchure accordingly. I have been switching back and forth to Hohners again, and have found that I do have to play the two brands with a slightly different approach. It presents another one of the challenges that I so embrace.
The Hohners are a little more sensitive and require a gentler and dedicated breaking-in. They need to be well broken in before honkin' on them to preserve the life of the reeds. Once broken in though, they sure do play nice, and have a very quick response.
The Lee Oskars seem a little more forgiving, less fragile, and tend to outlast the Hohners. I have the Lee Oskar tool kit, and have done adjusting when a reed is flat or sharp, as well.
Hohners are tuned to A440, but Lee Oskars are significantly loweraround the 430 mark. They are both excellent performing harmonicas. I am happy to use either.
I play both acoustic harp (without a harp mic and amp), and amplified harp. In my blues duo which is primarily Piedmont and Delta rags and country blues, I go acoustic, singing and playing harp through a vocal mic, usually a Shure [SM] 58. I use a harp rack occasionally, when I am playing guitar on a song and want to throw some harp into it. I call it "chewing gum and walking." I go amplified when I play with my band, and change my tone throughout a performance as per the song's feel.
As for amps, I prefer the Fender Blues Deluxe, and own a Blues Junior. Settings vary from amp to amp, but I find less treble and more mid and bass are the standard for harp amplification. The rest of the settings are personal taste.
I used a Hohner Blues Blaster harp mic for years. It broke down, and at that point I treated myself to a Shure Green Bullet. It is the new bullet, the reissue, and doesn't hold a candle to the original vintage bullet, but it still performs as a great harp mic. It fits nice in the hand and all.
I would love to get my hands on an old Astatic. I find that so much of your tone is manipulated in your mouth and throat, so the mic and amp are to the player what formal attire is to the person. A good player can make a guitar sing without any pedals or Marshall stacks.
Same said for harp players. Nice gear can make nice sound, but an accomplished player comes with good sound built in. That is the beauty of acoustic harp playing. All of the tone and technique is man-made.
The mark of a true harmonica great can be witnessed in this format. Doctor Ross is a fine example of this sort of achievement. He didn't even have to use his hands to help with his acoustic tone as he played harp in a rack while he accompanied himself on guitar, and his tone and technique are astounding.
AAJ: You are presently leading your own group. But you have also played as a sideman, etc. Which do you prefer doing?
TK: I love doing both. Leading my own group allows me to sing and play guitar as well, and perform my own songs plus favorite cover tunes.
As a sideman, I get to experiment and I embrace the challenge of just sitting in, impromptu. Plus, I just love blowin' harp, so being a sideman is just as fulfilling. I now perform in a duo format as well, and my partner sings some tunes, so I get to just blow away. Man, I love it. The material we do is mostly old rags and blues, so it's fun as heck, and challenging. Some of these old tunes don't have harmonica in them, so I get to interpret the melody lines and improvise harmonies. I also like to try different positions in this format, to get the most out of the "feel" for the tune. I love playing lead on harp, too.
AAJ:At what point in your life did you decide to start playing blues?
TK:I decided to make it my foremost genre when I embarked on my solo career, after the children. As far as I can remember, though, I've always played the blues, alongside other rock forms. The band I had in Toronto before I was in The Blame was a southern-rockin'-blues thing.
AAJ: I read, on your MySpace page, some well-stated ideas regarding the blues Can you share those with us?
TK: My ideas on the blues? Well, they're hardly my ideas, but more a truth. The blues is the truth, as I see it, behind all music that we hear today, musically and theoretically speaking, and that has been the case since the turn of the 20th century. Just ask W. C. Handy. He'll tell ya. It's the meat and potatoes on the plateall the other stuff out there is garnish and side dishes. I also keep trying to spread the news about the blues being happy music, and dispel the myth that mainstream audiences believethat blues is "blue" and downer music.
When someone comes back at me with "Oh, I don't like blues music," I ask if they like the song "Flip, Flop & Fly," or Bonnie Raitt, or Colin James, or Stevie Ray Vaughan, and so on. They usually just need that little lesson to realize that they are ill-informed on what the blues truly is, and that they really do like it. Then I drop the bomb on them and make them listen to Fred McDowell or any of the Blind Willie's, ha! (Just kidding). Truly, though, if you want to win over today's typical mainstream music fan, you have to start with contemporary blues party tunes, and work your way backwards through time.
AAJ: It's because of your work in the blues that you have received recognition. You have both been nominated for and have received awards in the blues. What awards have you received?
TK: It's tough to be noted as such, when I think of the players who really are the blues, both past and present. I am but a speck on that great canvas. It is humbling. The awards I am named for are a great honor.
To answer your question, in 2006 I received the Winnipeg Blues.com Female Vocalist Of The Year and Harmonica Player Of The Year awards, and was nominated as Electric Act Of The Year.
This past year, 2007, I was one of six finalists out of more than a hundred entries in the Toronto Blues Society Talent Search, and came in second place. Then, I was nominated for Best Blues in the inaugural Ontario Independent Music Awards, and came away the winner; it's been a banner year for me.
AAJ: As well as being a performer, are you not also presently a vocal coach? What are the key things a singer must remember?
TK: I don't do vocal coaching, but I do instruct my own children on how to sing properly, and I help them with the songs they sing. All three are musical and theatrical, and perform both vocally and with instruments. The key element to singing is breathing. In fact, isn't that the key element to life? Funny gal, ain't I?
But yes, that diaphragm breathing is key, and there are actual physical exercises put to a routine that I run my kids through. Also, accepting what your range isknowing you may only be able to expand it by a couple notesis key. The textures and timbre are pretty uncontrollable, but can be enhanced.
Bottom line for me, is to sing with passionthat trumps everything, especially once the physical training becomes an involuntary action whenever you sing.
AAJ: How many albums have you released? Your recent one has received positive reviews. Which are your favorite tracks on Old, New, Borrowed & Blues, and why?
TK: I have released two albums. The first, in 2000, Welcome to my Fantasy (Independent), was all originals, and really helped launch my career not only as a vocalist/harmonicist but as a songwriter as well. My favorite track on there is probably "Slow Dance"very passionate and sexy.
On my latest release I have yet to pick a fave. "Broken and Blue" has a great sound to it, built on an acoustic presentation. The amplified harp work is best displayed. "Wait A Minute" and "Spoonful." The anthem tune must be "Rollin' with the Changes" which was written right after the release of my first album, about the music biz. "Fire in the Sky" is just a ton of fun, and my band really shines on so many of the other tunes.
AAJ: What big things can we expect from Tracy K?
TK: It's never easy living up to great expectations, so rather than reveal my dreams, I'll tell you my targets. I am hoping to release a CD with my duo partner. I am really diggin' that project. I also have to make some time in my schedule for writing songs for my next full band release. I am currently self-managed, and finding little time for writing, as the maintenance of the business side is so overwhelming. I would like to be able to tour a lot more extensively in the next few years to come, as my children are now older and more independent. That being said, I welcome offers from professionals in the music biz to aid in these goals. I do hope to make an impact as a female harmonica player leading a lucrative career, and to encourage and empower other women players, either directly or vicariously.
AAJ: What things would you like to achieve in music?
TK: I'm interested in learning new stuff. I mean that from a playing point of view. I am not interested in becoming a better guitarist, simply because there are such awesome players available, why not just use them? I love all those great players! I am a basic rhythm player at best.
I am interested, however, in becoming a better harp player continuously. I really have a secret desire to dig into the chromatics and specialty harps like those used in harmonica ensembles. That is also something I would love to do before I dieplay in a harmonica ensemble. I also want to achieve the tone of Sonny Boy Williamson or Sonny Terry, but fear I ain't got the genetics. Recognition for songwriting is another thing I would like to achieve, which means I must keep writing to improve, to move ahead, and to stay interesting and fresh, or traditional. It is another one of the great challenges I so love about music.
Tracy K, Old, New, Borrowed & Blues (Independent, 2007)
Tracy K, Welcome to My Fantasy (Independent. 2000)
Courtesy of Tracy K