Jonah Tolchin’s Spiritual Blues

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“I put my head down and make the art that I want to make and then see what happens,” says guitarist, singer and songwriter Jonah Tolchin.

(Photo: Joe Del Tufo)

To put a simplified spin on the musical saga of Jonah Tolchin, the singer-songwriter and nimble guitarist was going about his life when the blues came to get him.

Following a burst of unfortunate twists, including road-dogged burnout, a divorce and struggles with ADHD and a self-confessed “psychotic episode,” Tolchin hit bottom, then negotiated a turnaround. He resurfaced, retrenched, remarried and strengthened his connections to the spiritual element of music and his own approach to music education.

Stylistically, the erstwhile folk/Americana-esque artist also fully committed to his early love of the blues — especially his formative obsession with such blues-rock icons as Peter Green and Mike Bloomfield and other legends. After dodging the “real thing” for years, Tolchin unabashedly channeled his blues love and lore into the new album Dockside, on his own new Clover Music label.

The results, starting with the apt opener “Blues With A Feeling” and including “Save Me (From Myself)” and “Nothing’s Gonna Take My Blues Away,” make for a powerful modern blues statement, with his cool, understated vocal style and supple and sometimes wailing way with an electric guitar.

As Tolchin explains, “I’ve wanted to make a blues record for a long time. This genre is the reason why I started playing music as a teenager, and it’s very precious to me. It took a long time for me to feel ready to make this album, because good blues songs are inherently hard to write. It’s an elusive art form from the songwriter’s perspective. I can play blues guitar all day, but when it comes to actually writing lyrics — that’s much harder.

“I’m not exactly sure why the timing finally worked out, but I can say that it was a long time coming.” He adds, “I think Luther and Dockside had a lot to do with it.”

Dockside is the name of the fabled studio in Maurice, Louisiana, where Tolchin’s album was recorded. The Luther in question is Luther Dickinson, the son of blues-country royalty Jim Dickinson, member of the North Mississippi All-Stars, and the new album’s co-producer and sometimes steamy guitar riff-swapper with Tolchin — as on the Buddhist-tinged “Suffering Well.”

Tolchin says that Dickinson and Tolchin’s bandmates Nic Coolidge and Terence Higgins (bass and drums, respectively) “created a ‘safe space’ for me to feel comfortable singing these songs and playing the guitar parts that I played. Luther is the best. I’m sure I’m not the first to say that he is one of the nicest, most down-to-earth dudes in the biz. He was super encouraging, and he has an energy that elevates the vibe for everyone.”

Dockside’s tracks traverse various byways of blues feels and subgenres, veering into the R&B-ish “Too Far Down” (featuring soulful vocalist Chavonne Stewart) and the New Orleans/Little Feat flavor of “Mama Don’t Worry.” Did he have a plan to keep diversity in the album’s mix?

“Not at all,” he laughs. “I’m a man without a plan. But seriously, I tend to have a pretty eclectic feel on all my records. I don’t really like to pick a lane: I like to bulldoze walls, lanes, genres or anything else that feels restrictive creatively. I have a rebellious spirit with that kind of thing.”

His blues sensibility is a personal one, but he admits, “I would not be anywhere if it wasn’t for the inspiration that I gleaned from Mike Bloomfield, Peter Green, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Freddie King, Albert King, Albert Collins, Ronnie Earl, Hubert Sumlin, Derek Trucks, J.J Cale, Muddy Waters and so many others.

“The one exception to that was getting to play B.B. King’s actual Lucille, owned by the man himself (he donated it to the Dockside studio before he passed). That was a tribute and was deeply, deeply humbling.” Tolchin pays respects to B.B.’s stinging style and to his guitar on the bonus track “Lucille.”

Among Tolchin’s new musical endeavors and projects is his recent leap into the role of indie label owner, of the Clover Music Group. What led him into this risky business? Tolchin asserts, “I like being in control of my timeline and I like having the ability to release as much music as I want to. That was a huge factor for me. I also wanted to build it in such a way that I could help other artists get their music out into the world. I am especially interested in working with artists like myself who don’t want to live life on the road. A lot of labels won’t consider an artist if they aren’t touring. I want to help those people out and build a digital strategy that enables folks to make a decent living from home.”

Tolchin’s link to spiritual practices and philosophies is stronger than ever. “For me,” Tolchin says, “both playing and listening to the blues is a spiritual practice. In the past I’ve talked about how I think of all music that I make as blues music. That’s because my underlying philosophy for music-making has to do with transforming depressive energy into something ‘positive.’ When I put it like that it sounds a little too dualistic. There is no ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ ‘negative’ or ‘positive’ in my realm of music-making. The blues transcends duality altogether.

“When I lean into my guitar to create sound through a string bend, all concepts fade away, and I am purely in the moment — somewhere between pain and joy. For me, that is as spiritual as it gets.” DB



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