Richie Kotzen: 50 For 50 Interview

As Richie Kotzen himself describes it, he had enough songs for his 22nd solo album ready to go last year when he stumbled across some old material that hadn’t yet been fully fleshed out. The songs—most of them, anyway—weren’t finished, but he was pretty sure they could be. It was then that he had an idea: What if, to celebrate his 50th birthday, he released a gigantic 50-track album?

Before making any announcements, he had to figure out if it could realistically happen. In the span of about a half-year, he dug through his archives, spent a ton of time in the studio and realized it was possible. Out now, 50 for 50 shows Kotzen transforming songs that had been in various states of completion into finished works. It’s an impressive feat to size up an old foe (even if that foe is an unfinished song) and come out on top, but Kotzen doesn’t think of this album in that way. Speaking practically, he credits its existence to his freedom to release music without the oversight of a major record label, the technology that enabled him to file his unused ideas for later use and his approach to making music. “If I’m working on something and I can’t finish it, some might call it writer’s block,” Kotzen told Blues Rock Review not long after 50 for 50’s release on his custom label Headroom-Inc. “But I walk away and do something else, because I know eventually I’ll get the inspiration to finish.”

This project started with a new album’s worth of material that then morphed into a monster 50-song album. How did the project change so drastically?

I didn’t really have the idea until midway through last year. What happened was, I recorded what would have been a normal record—maybe 12, 13 songs. I went on the road with my band and I started going through this hard drive which had a bunch of music that I never finished. I started listening to some of this stuff and thought, “These things should be finished.” On the spot, I started having ideas.

While I was on the road I started archiving and working on lyrics. My plan was, when I got home I would start finishing things and see how far I could get. In the back of my mind, I had this thought of, “Wow, wouldn’t it be crazy if I got most of it done and ended up with 50 or more songs?” I had that many, if not more, ideas; I probably had 60 or 70 pieces of music, riffs and ideas and melodies. When I started working on it, I started getting ideas for new compositions. I’d finish one idea that was the work in progress, and then all of a sudden I’d write a brand-new song. Before I knew it, I had quite a bit of material recorded and finished.

At that point, I thought, “I think by the time I turn 50 I should have it pretty much done.” So I started teasing on my Instagram that I was making a 50-song album, and then I think sometime in November I’d gotten 50 songs completed. So then I stopped, because if I’d kept going I would have eventually lost my mind, being in the studio that much.

Some of the songs were just ideas. Then there were other songs that just needed some attention. Some of the songs had the drums done, the bass done, were at various points of completion. That’s really why I was able to do it. There were a lot of compositions where I’d started recording them and never finished. I had drum takes for many of them that were ready to go.

It sounds more complicated than it was. Once I got in there, it really started coming together.

What was the time span from which you were picking the unfinished works? Were some from decades back and others more recent, or did you pick all of the songs from a specific time period?

There’s a song in there where I’m not sure when I recorded it; I think it was the early 2000s, but it might have been 1999 or ’98. There are two songs that old that were actually finished. I don’t know why I never put them out, but I was sitting on those for a long time. It spans back that far; almost 20 years. And then there are songs on there that are only a couple months old. They were all recorded in various stages. Some of the songs were recorded at my old house, some things I started to record in a proper studio, but then all the stuff that was finished was done recently in my new place. It really stretches out over time and location.

That’s the great thing about the way music is recorded now, digitally. They really are files on a hard drive. In the old days, you’d have to have a vault to have all that audio tape, but I started using Pro Tools right around ’98 or something like that and stopped using analog. That’s how I was able to go back and find all these things, because they were just sitting on various hard drives.

Photo by Larry Dimarzio

Was it hard to get into the frame of mind you had been in years ago when you first started the archived songs?

I would have these ideas that I’d start years ago and then I wouldn’t finish them because basically I’d hit a wall or get stuck. That’s something I typically do if I’m working on something, even today. If I have an idea, I’ll work on it until I can’t anymore. If that gets to the point where it’s finished, great. But sometimes you work up to a point and then you get stuck. I typically move on at that point.

I had a lot of things that I’d moved on from, and then I went back to them—and that’s when I was able to finish them. A great example is a song like “Mountains.” That was partially recorded, but the lyric and melody I’d been living with for a long time, and I was unable to figure out how to tie it all together. Recently, when I went back to it, it just kind of hit me on the spot.

That’s one of the things I talk about a lot when people ask me about writer’s block. I often say, “I don’t really believe in that.” My approach is that, if I’m working on something and I can’t finish it, some might call it writer’s block, but I walk away and do something else because I know eventually I’ll get the inspiration to finish the idea. I’ve kind of proven that to myself time and time again.

That’s really how it worked on this record: I went back to ideas that I started many years ago, couldn’t finish, and suddenly I was able to finish them and in the process I was coming up with brand-new ideas. I’d have a song like “Mountains” that I started years ago, just finished it last year, and then no sooner did I finish it then I wrote a brand-new song like “Black Mark” or “Innocuous.” It was kind of crazy how it snowballed. When I started, I was getting all kinds of ideas at the same time. And now the thought of going into the studio is the last thing I want to do.

Were those newer song ideas that came to you while working on archived material easier to finish? Were the juices flowing enough where they came to fruition quickly, or were some of them still a struggle to finalize?

That’s what was interesting: It was kind of like a yin and yang thing in the sense that the old ideas obviously took a long time to finish, but on the flip side, the new ideas I finished instantly. With “Innocuous,” I had finished one of the songs, went upstairs and thought I was done for the day, picked up the acoustic guitar, and suddenly I had the idea. I went right back to the studio, and that night, within a few hours, I had written a new song.

There are other songs on the record like that; the song “Warrior” was a newer one that just wrote itself. It’s kind of ironic that the newer songs really did just kind of come out and write themselves. Probably because I was already in that creative flow, so it made it much easier to follow through on it.

The way the music industry operates today is much more open to a project like this. It would have been extremely difficult to get a 50-song album green-lit even two decades ago. How much do you enjoy having that flexibility as an artist?

It’s great. For the last year and a half, I’ve been putting out singles. I had written a song called “The Damned” that was pretty cool, and I wasn’t ready to put a record out, so I made a video and put a single out. I did that with two other songs. It’s great to have that freedom. I’m able to survive and do what I’m doing on my own terms. I love it. It’s fantastic.

The first record I started to feel that on was Into the Black in 2006. I made a solo record and decided not to work with a label. I thought, “I’m going to make some music, and when the time comes, I’ll release it.” It led me to that album, and that was the first time I realized I could actually do this without a label. So far, it’s been working for me. I can put material out directly to the people who are interested, and I think the quality of what I’m doing has improved over the years because I don’t have any pressure and I’m able to really be true to myself.

At this particular milestone in your life, how much of 50 for 50 was about challenging yourself to tackle creative ideas that resisted completion in the past?

I didn’t think in those terms. I just thought to myself, “I have a lot of ideas that are sitting here. Some of them are close to being done, some need more work.” I wanted to invest the time and see if it was worth finishing, and how far I could get with it. Until I really started making a dent in it, I didn’t think I was making a record; I was just giving attention to some stuff I’d abandoned.

What songs from the archived material are you most excited or most proud to have finished?

There were some that did surprise me, the way they came out. I was very pleased with the way “Mountains” turned out. That’s a song that’s been in my head for a while; I was never able to put it all together the right way. There’s a song called “Mad Bazaar” on the first disc that has been living with me for many years, and I never really had a clear picture on how to present it. Suddenly, it all clicked. There’s a bunch on that first disc. “When God Made You,” the title didn’t exist until recently, but the concept for the music was there.

It kind of happened for all of it, because had I not gotten any given song to the point where it is now, I would not have released it. That’s my main thing: to get something to where I know that I love it, so at least I can let go of it. I was able to do that, and that’s the core approach for me when I make music.

Interview by Meghan Roos

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