Its been about five years since producer, composer, guitarist and showman Jeff Jensen began truly setting fire to the blues world. In a life story that began in California and, via some dark times in the Pacific Northwest, landed him in Memphis, Tennessee, Jensen has emerged as a super-charged, emotional entertainer.
His trio plays well over 200 shows per year and when he’s not on the road, he’s penning and recording new material or producing projects for other musical heavyweights such as John Parker and Brandon Santini. In just over a year, he’s released a critically acclaimed, award-nominated studio album and, most recently, a high energy live record that gives us a peek into where he really shines; his live performances.
There hasn’t been a bushel made that can hide the light of Jensen while on stage. He and his band mates pour out their passion to audiences who eat up every note and look for more. His live shows, thankfully, can’t be unseen; the memory lasting a lifetime.
With a tour of the Southern United States presently underway and their next European tour beginning on May 6th at the Moulin Blues Festival in Ospel, Netherlands, Jensen took to the time to allow us a few questions. We wanted to take a gander at what makes him tick and what we learned is that he is a rapier-witted master of his craft (with some lofty goals as you will see). A highly intelligent yet unpretentious, intense artist, hell bent on giving his fans what they want and what he feels they deserve.
JD Nash for American Blues Scene :
First of all, congratulations on the release of The River City Sessions and the success of Morose Elephant. How did those album titles come about?
We recorded the live album in Memphis in front of an audience of our biggest fans. Memphis has many names, and ‘The River City’ is one of them because of its perfect placement right off the Mississippi river. So to pay tribute to the historic and wonderful city we recorded this album in, we named it The River City Sessions. As far as Morose Elephant goes, that is a very deep and significant title. An elephant is viewed as a very powerful, spiritual animal in many cultures. They represent honesty, longevity, strength, power, and stoicism. The word morose has a lot of negative connotations; sadness, anger, frustration. The idea here is, one can be the ‘elephant’ while feeling ‘morose’. Not all great people or inspirational figures feel great all the time. So just because one is going through a bad time, doesn’t make them a bad person. Some of us lose our sense of self-worth while battling a bad life situation. But if we are good people deep down inside then we can still be the elephant.
What made you decide to release a live album at this juncture? Was it fan requested or something you’ve been wanting to do?
I consider what we do performance art. Music is the vessel in which we express our emotional energy. So of course, the live show is really where you feel that most often. I am so proud of my band and what we’ve been able to accomplish over the last couple years that I wanted to document it. So after more than 400 concerts in 30 states and 10 counties, we just wanted to lay down what we do. We invited all our super fans to travel to Memphis and be part of this recording. We ended up with folks from 8 different states in our audience. It was powerful! And it’s as real as it gets, just the three of us doing exactly what we do night after night, organic, raw, and real. I’m very proud of this, and it’s a great representation of the Jeff Jensen Band, so if you don’t like this album, you probably aren’t going to like my band.
Your bio talks of a “calling” that directed you to Memphis. Without trying to sound condescending, was it akin to what you would consider a religious or spiritual calling?
Whatever higher power there is out there guided me to Memphis. I’ve always loved this city, the culture, the history, the people, so when I had to move, it was the obvious place for me to go. And boy was that the right move. My life has never been better nor has my career. I thank God for my situation every day.
You met Brandon Santini and went to work in his band in a very short time after your arrival. How did that come about?
A great friend of mine, Chris Sabie, introduced Santini and I 30 hours after I moved to Memphis in 2011. Brandon and I jammed that night at Wet Willie’s on Beale St and we hit it off. To make a long story readable, we basically started working together that night. We did about 450 shows and we played on a few albums together as well, it was great!
Now that you’ve home based there for a while, does Memphis feel like home?
The old cliche goes, ‘the home is where the heart is’, and to be honest, my heart is on the road. I am so happy touring and sharing our music with the world, that it feels like home to me the most. But stability and serenity aren’t often found in the dresser drawers of hotel rooms. I do find those things in Memphis though, since the day I moved here a half a decade ago. That feeling has only grown with the wonderful friends I now have. If I could live anywhere in the world, it would be in Memphis, Tennessee.
Do you come from a musical family?
I came from a family of deep music lovers, but not musicians, excluding my mother who played piano when I was a child. It was very inspiring hearing her play all those years.
Have you always been a blues fan, or did you come into the genre later in your life?
I discovered blues music about age 12 while exploring rock-n-roll albums. The raw emotion of Muddy’s guitar and BB’s voice got me from the start. I have never looked back. I do enjoy many different types of music, but blues still hits me the hardest. Its just real!
Fans and critics alike have raved about your stage presence, particularly your energy on stage. Would you say you were influenced by other artists in that area or is it a natural occurrence once the music gets going?
I’ve always liked Buddy Guy and he’s a wild man on stage so I’m sure some of his antics have inspired me. But when it really comes down to it, I just try and let the music flow through my entire body and whatever happens, happens. Plus, people pay to see a show, I want everyone to know that every single time I step on stage I’m truly giving it everything I’ve got, there is no holding back in my band.
Speaking of energy and stage presence, your band mates, are no slouches in that department either. Do you find that you feed off one another’s energy during a performance?
My band is everything! Bill Ruffino has been with me for 12 years now and he is a monster, on bass and as a performer. We now have David Green on drums and he is taking us to a whole new level of ‘show’. I am so proud to be working with these guys and I couldn’t do it without them. The emotional energy exchange that happens on stage is unbelievable. No single person is driving, we are all just making music together and following the path where it takes us. That is only something that can happen with a band that loves each other and listens to each other. I’m so blessed to have that with Dave and Bill.
You tour all over North America, Europe and then some. Where is your absolute favorite place to play?
My favorite place to play is an atmosphere more than a venue. I like to play for good people that truly appreciate our brand of music. And that can be fluid, one time we could perform a venue and its so-so, next time we show up and the people are ready for us. Rain can either unite or destroy an outdoor concert, it all depends on the people. But I’ll say this, I’d rather play for 50 people who truly care than 5,000 people who are texting.
With your European tour coming up in just days, how do you feel audience reactions differ between European, Canadian and US shows?
Americans are louder and more aggressive; the Europeans are calmer and more reserved. I truly love both, but it took me a second to understand what the Europeans were thinking. At first I was convinced they didn’t like us, they weren’t dancing, they weren’t hollerin’ at us, they weren’t yelling, they just respectfully sat there and listened. After a few tours I get it now. They truly love to listen. They want to hear exactly what is being played, every single note, whereas Americans want to ‘feel’ what’s being played. Canada is somewhere in the middle of that depending on what part of Canada you’re in.
With the rigors of touring, I’m sure there are times when the road gets to be a tiring way of life. What do you find keeps you going if the weariness seems to be getting to be too much? Do you find it hard on some nights to get amped up for a performance?
Everyone has to have a job, some of us are lucky enough to tour around the world for ours. Its irresponsible for me to let myself get to the point of apathy. Any time the thought crosses my mind, I pull out a song I haven’t played for a while and bring it back to life, or I remind myself that these people paid to see us. They worked to earn their money and chose to spend it on us and they deserve the best we can give. As for the getting amped up for a performance goes… I wake up on 10 and stay that way all day. I think its a disorder, but anyone that’s met me will tell you, I don’t need any help getting amped up for much of anything.
Do you prefer playing solo gigs (meaning your band alone) or in a festival type setting with several other bands and artists?
Its awesome to get an audience to ourselves, that way we really get to control the flow of music and energy in the room. But I am a huge music fan myself, so when we get to play a festival or double bill, it’s awesome to enjoy the other bands. Plus more often than not, those turn into guest spots and jams.
As both an artist and producer, which do you enjoy more; playing live or working in the studio?
If you asked me this question every day for 23.6 days in a row you would probably get a different answer with each rotation of the Earth. I just spent a month straight in the studio producing Mick Kolassa’s next album, so at this point I’m ready for the road. But after 6 months straight on tour, I’ll be ready to settle down on some familiar soil and do some session work again. I’m truly lucky I get to do both so often, something I wouldn’t trade for a medium fuchsia colored burlap sack of Au, Element 79.
What is your favorite non-musical pastime?
Trying to obtain full global domination. I plan on being the first true King of Earth! But believe it or not, this is a tough task. There are so many hoops to jump through to try to undermine hundreds of governments and peacefully become their ruler. The paperwork alone is overwhelming. Especially the countries that haven’t fully digitized their leadership applications yet. Some of the forms must be filled out in triplicate. I figure I’ll start small and become the US president sometime over the next 21 years then through a system of positive influence and something I call ‘compassionate logic’, we will unite the entire human race while celebrating our differences. We will also illegalize hate. I’m not 100% sure but we may have to turn Australia back into a prison island, we’ll have to see how it turns out. I hope not though, I hear there is great surfing out there. I also like to cook and ride my bicycle.
How would you define personal success in the music industry?
Like maintaining an amazingly built vintage wooden roller coaster from 1945. It takes a lot of work, but in the end it is still a wooden roller coaster that was built in 1945. If you deliver the passengers safely more often than not, you are successful.
Can you give us a hint about what may be on the horizon for Jeff Jensen? We’re sure there’s more songwriting going on…perhaps another new album before year’s end?
We are just getting started. With the growing fan base we have and the never ending tour schedule we hold, this is a story in the middle of the first trilogy. We will continue to write, perform and grow. I would really like to expand our band soon by adding another member or two. I want to do everything I can to better express the emotional intent behind our music. I want to do everything I can to inspire people and help make people’s lives better, even if its just for the night. So that is what we will be working on in a variety of ways.
If you could blink your eyes and be anywhere in the world right now, where would that be?
A few years ago I closed my eyes for a second and when I opened them I was in a mess of trouble. When I was at my lowest point in life I never thought I would be where I am today. So even though this question was intended to be more a geographical one, the emotional state that we internally marinate in has the ability to make an undesirable location seem great or a paradise feel like a prison. Today I serve myself and others by trying to truly appreciate all the good I’ve been given. Part of me doing that is trying to live in my current environment. So, where in the world would I be? Exactly where I am right now, happy that someone has been inspired read this article.
The Jeff Jensen Band’s live CD, The River City Sessions, was released on April 5th, and is available everywhere on Swingsuit Records. They return to the United States in early June touring the country and playing several festivals, including headlining the 6th Annual Tall City Blues Festival in Midland, Texas on July 8th.