Keb’ Mo’ answers the phone at his Franklin, Tenn., home on an early June morning in good spirits. He’s just dropped his son off at camp and finished breakfast—“the regular stuff,” he says. But he’s also getting ready to release his latest project Oklahoma, a 10-track album out June 14 on Concord Records that features cameos by Robert Randolph, Rosanne Cash, Taj Mahal, Jaci Velasquez and his wife, Robbie Brooks Moore. Even though Mo’ has been through this record-promote-release-tour routine several times before, the process still brings anticipation. “Mostly I’m excited when I’m done with a record, when it’s all in the can and ready to go,” Mo’ says. “There’s excitement, and then I just cross my fingers and hope people like it. By the time that happens, I already like it.”
Oklahoma wasn’t intended to be a star-studded album full of political messages about feminism and what it means to be American—it was actually supposed to be a solo acoustic project. Once he began working with his friend and producer Colin Linden, the shape of the album started to morph into something Mo’ hadn’t expected. Speaking with Blues Rock Review, Mo’ discusses how those changes turned Oklahoma into an album of which he seems to be quite proud.
With Oklahoma’s release quickly approaching on June 14, what’s exciting you the most about the new material?
I’m just waiting to see what happens. I have some hopes about it, but it doesn’t mean someone else will like it just because you like it. I just hope it spreads a little joy and happiness in the world.
I didn’t have time to anticipate much. I was working on another record. I went in and finished my Christmas record, which is going to be released during the holiday season this year. I’m kind of overwhelmed with anticipation at this point.
The most anticipation I’ve ever felt was with my first record, in ’94. I really felt that anticipation because I just knew it was going to flop—and it didn’t. I was like, “Wow—it didn’t flop.” The anticipation diminishes after time goes by.
There are probably a couple of times when I made a record and people got confused; it was just a little different. You kind of let go of what other people think. The fans like authenticity. Sometimes, when they first think your authenticity is a little off, they catch up.
What goals did you have in mind when you began working on Oklahoma?
The first goal was for it to be a solo acoustic record, which didn’t happen. And it wasn’t called Oklahoma; it was just a bunch of songs. I just wanted some good songs, like I always do—I wanted 10 really good, authentic songs. The funny thing about this one, a couple songs came up, like the title track, “Oklahoma.” It kind of rolled out of the creative juices of the other songs that were being recorded.
“Oklahoma” was a wild card. I was a couple of songs short. I had this idea about Oklahoma, and I was like, “Oh god, Oklahoma—that’s just crazy. That has nothing to do with me.” I had a writing session with a writer I’d never written with, Dara Tucker. I said, “Where are you from?” She says, “Oklahoma.” I go, Okay—there might be something with this Oklahoma idea. Let’s just write this idea; I don’t know what’s going to come of it.
So we wrote the song, and it turned out pretty cool. I still wasn’t convinced it was something for the record, but I really liked the song. The demo was set to tempo—I always set my demos to tempo because I don’t make demos. I just set the demo to tempo so that if I decide I want to record a song, I just build it right on top of the template I’ve laid out. I put Robert Randolph on the scratch copy of “Oklahoma” and it started to get interesting. We finished the song, put the vocals on, put some guitars and keyboards and a little percussion on, and it started to sound really cool.
For the solo section, I was going to put a guitar solo on it, but I thought, I don’t think this is a guitar solo. It’s got to be a fiddle, because that adds the Oklahoma vibe to it. So I called Andy Leftwich and he came in and did this brilliant violin. At that point, and with Robert Randolph on the end doing his thing, it was going on the record. I looked at the whole thing and I was like, “That’s the title cut.”
To what extent do you give direction to collaborators you work with in the studio?
It’s different every time. You have guests on your record; sometimes they like to get direction or want to get direction. Sometimes they don’t, they’ll come in and just slap something down, and you have to make it work. Sometimes they do their thing, sometimes they let you guide them. When they do something that’s maybe not what you think it should be, that’s when the creativity comes in. Robert Randolph, Andy Leftwich, Rosanne Cash and other people that come in, they come in and just change the trajectory of the experience.
Rosanne showed up through a friend. We had written the song [“Put a Woman in Charge”] and we said, “We could finish it—but we shouldn’t. Let’s call a woman.” It was really obvious. So we called Beth Nielsen Chapman, who happened to be doing something; she came over and almost finished it. She really gave it the extra feminine power. But I was trying to find a singer to sing on it. We were stumped. We were thinking, “Who’s going to give this the power it needs?” All the names we could think about were not available to us, or would bring the wrong kind of attention. So I called a friend in New York, Ed Zimmerman, and I sent him the song because he knows a lot of musicians; he’s a real music and wine aficionado. He said, “How about Rosanne Cash?” And my antennae just went up. “Whoa. That’s freaking cool.”
I hadn’t really paid much attention to Rosanne Cash. I live in a bubble; I’m more for social information than information about who an artist is. [Zimmerman] said, “She’s very much an activist, and she might sing on the song.” He sent it to her and she said yes. So she sung and sent her part over. I met her at the Americana Music Awards, and that year she was being honored for lifetime achievement. She spoke, and I was like, “Holy mackerel. Talk about your real deal.” She brought a level of power and legitimacy to it, about women and about people in general rising up. That was fantastic.
In what ways did Colin Linden shape the album as your producer?
I love working with Colin. Colin’s my buddy. We just like hanging out. I was kind of burnt out from making records. I was going to make this solo acoustic record and I wanted to have someone around who was a great acoustic player who could in a pinch help me with something. But that’s not really what happened. We got into making the record and we went on a journey. It was not what I expected it would be, for either of us. But when we got to the end and looked at it, we were like, “Wow—that’s cool.” It was really great. I’m really glad I called him. Not only did he bring his musical expertise to it, he brought a lot of love on the record. When you make a record, sounds go on the record, but the energy in the room, everyone’s energy was in there. It goes into the backbone and the conscience of the music that you’re making. They’re like ingredients. Like if you’re making a pie: the better the ingredients, the better the pie.
How would you say your early career as a staff writer for A&M Records influences your approach to songwriting now?
I started out on the demo squad. I would help produce demos for writers at A&M. In so doing, I had to make the charts. I was the leader at sessions. When I came in, I had to have a vision for what the demo was going to be. In my opinion, I was probably overdoing it, overachieving, trying to be under the words of the song. I was in a sense taking apart songs of great writers. I was learning the anatomy. I began writing songs, and then I would get to do my demos there as well in my spare time. That’s how I got signed to A&M.
After that stint, I spent years just sitting in a room writing songs, whether I had an idea or not—sometimes I would sit all day playing three chords over and over. I was being stubborn about figuring out this songwriting thing.
I think the difference with me is that I groomed myself as a songwriter, not necessarily as a musician. I knew I couldn’t really play that good; I played okay, but songwriting was a more creative vehicle for me, in as much as I could really get good at it without doing what seemed like work. It seemed like fun to me, like putting a puzzle together instead of slaving over scales and trying to play faster and faster, learning how to transcribe, things like that. It was something that was really fun to me, practicing writing songs instead of practicing the guitar.
Now songwriting is a lot easier because I think I did all the work in the ’70s and ’80s. By the time the ‘90s came—even though I had taken a good three-year break from songwriting before my first album—I started writing songs again.
Even now I don’t get writer’s block. I can always write a song. It’s not a skill—I just know that the songs are hanging there. I know the song’s lurking somewhere, so I don’t get discouraged and go, “Oh man, I’m not thinking of anything,” because I’m not thinking of it. It’s all just hanging there.
Interview by Meghan Roos