Richie Kotzen: Salting Earth Interview

Last month, Richie Kotzen released his 21st studio album, Salting Earth. Kotzen is currently in the midst of a worldwide tour to promote the album and spoke with Blues Rock Review about his creative process for the record and more.

In a previous interview with Blues Rock Review you mentioned how on Cannibals much of the album consisted of old ideas or songs that had been previously unfinished. Was that the case again here, or was Salting Earth mostly fresh?

To a lesser extent and it happens a lot of times I would imagine with a lot of artists. It was kind of an interesting talking point on the last record because there were a couple of things on there that I reworked, some things I didn’t. But, yeah, we had that on this record on two of the songs actually, one that was incomplete but partially recorded and another one that was pretty much done and I reworked a couple sections, “Thunder” and “Make It Easy.” That kind of happens. If you’re anything like me I write all the time in various circumstances and situations and I document a lot of ideas and sometimes things get finished on the spot and other times you kind of work on them and kind of hit a wall and move on to something else, but the nice thing is that I have archives of all kinds of things that are in various stages of development, so once I start getting on some sort of roll in the studio recording usually I’ll go back and see if there’s anything that I have that I like that I forgot about or never finished and that’s what really leads to the situation that you’re talking about.

Were there any times where you were out and about and just had one of those “aha” moments that you felt you needed to capture right away?

Yeah! That happens all the time. In the old days I used to have a mini cassette recorder that I’d just throw ideas and you’d sing into the thing and document your idea. Now obviously with the smart phone there’s apps you can record into, so I have one of those and a couple hundred ideas in there. Some of them are finished, some of them went on to become songs. I knew the song “Cannonball” was something I had the idea of and I had it in my recorder. I think the key is to know when you have that idea, you often times think, oh, that’s cool, I’ll remember that, and then of course you don’t because things happen and you forget, so the key element is to be able to document those ideas when you have them.

“End Of Earth” is the lead track on the album. What was the inspiration behind that track?

I don’t know specifically what inspired me to make the recording, but like anything else they come together in various ways. I would imagine just on the way the song is built it probably started with that guitar riff. Literally I think I had that riff that starts the song and then from there it just kind of developed. That was definitely one of the songs that was written pretty automatic. I didn’t have to labor over it too hard. It did not sit on a hard drive for any length of time. Once I started working on it I believe I finished it. I thought it was a good opener for the record. I thought it was an interesting way to start the album.

A lot of people know you as a strong guitar player but “My Rock” is a track without any guitar. Was that a conscious decision or did it just happen organically?

All those things happen organically because what really ends up happening is you get your basic track, you know, when you’re recording you get something that you can sing against and once I started singing it and doing my vocal I kind of envision where it’s gonna go and what I need to do as far as overdubs or background vocals. So, for that song, once I had the vocals on there the piano was really occupying enough space where it didn’t seem to necessary to have any other instrumentation except for I think there might be a couple of string patches I put on there. But the song really dictates the production. I can’t write something, I can’t start thinking about a production until I have a song. The song is really the driving force and for me the song exists when I have the melody and the lyrics. Everything else is just there to support that, so once I have the melody and the lyrics I know I have a song and every other decision is made around that.

You released music videos for “My Rock” and End Of Earth.” How do you come up with the concepts for your music videos?

They’re all different. Sometimes it’s tricky. That’s the thing about this video world. I mean, it’s easy to do a performance video obviously. Those are the easiest things to do, but for the song “End Of Earth” it’s kind of this thing where you’re being tortured by your memories and trying to escape the past and so with that video my wife and I came up the concept together where in addition to the basic performance singing footage that’s in there to have a sub story where I was basically a voodoo doll being tortured and at the end the song I escape some how and it kind of went well with the music because the end of the song has this long solo that’s much brighter than the general darkness of the track, especially the verse, so I thought it was a nice contrast.

With “My Rock” of course there’s performance footage with a piano, but the sub story there is the person singing about this powerful force that when you look at it on the surface it’s a love song about somebody else that is this person’s rock, but really what’s going on there it’s all imaginary. The person doesn’t really exist and so you notice in the video there’s this woman dressed in old clothing who’s really a ghost more than anything. She appears and suddenly disappears and that keeps happening in the video, so that was kind of the sub story there.

The video thing is interesting. I would much prefer people come to the live show and see me play the song, but it seems in today’s times you need something to go along with that. And it’s fun to do. In the end I enjoy it. It’s another creative outlet.

I think with today’s music scene audiences are so spread out all over the place and in different countries, which could explain why videos have such a large impact.

Yeah, and plus it’s there. Now the video is easily accessible as much as the music. In the old days you didn’t see a video unless you turned on a video music channel but now it’s right there for everyone and anybody can make a video, so it’s fun, it’s creative. Some people complain about the way the industry is now, but in a lot of ways it’s more exciting because you have more creativity in the pool. You have more people experimenting and doing things and showing their perspective, so it’s pretty exciting.

Continuing on that theme, having released the album on your own label, creating your own music videos, etc., you seem to be a good model to follow for independent artists. Any advice for musicians out there giving it a go independently?

It’s hard for me to give advice because my perspective is really based on the fact that I’ve kind of been on both sides of the coin. I’ve been on major labels, I’ve been on independent labels, I’ve done it myself, but the one thing why the independent thing is even something that could work for me is because I have a preexisting fanbase that I developed over more than 20 years. I’ve been putting out records since 1989, so I’m kind of coming at this from a place where I am somewhat known already, so I have that foundation that I established many, many years ago. And so it makes it easier to make a record and sell it directly to your fanbase and of course by touring you have the option to expand that base if you’re out there and you’re playing well and they’re engaged then it all kind of fits together and works. For a brand new artist I don’t really have advice because I wouldn’t know beyond making my own records and getting out and playing live and hoping that your show is engaging enough that people talk about it. I don’t know what much more you can do if you’re doing the independent route. It’s a little trickier I would imagine for someone coming in completely cold, but I think for people like me that have somewhat of a history in the business in someways it makes more sense to go independent.

You’re currently touring the album. Have you already seen the songs evolve in any ways when performed live?

Oh, yeah. One of the main ones that’s really turned out to be a lot of fun is the song “Meds.” I intended to play that song on the guitar and then one day we were messing around at rehearsal and I was doing a jam and somehow I started play “Meds” on electric piano, so that’s taken on a whole new thing. And oddly enough now I like the live version better than the studio version, so I’m trying to figure out a way on this tour to get a good recording of that and maybe release a bonus a single of that song with the way we do it now.

Songs evolve for sure. There’s other songs that we do like the song “Help Me” for example and the song “Fear” has taken a completely new life with the band compared to what it sounded like on the record.

Interview by Pete Francis

Photo: Julia Lage

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