Bursting upon the scene with his debut album, Refuse To Lose, Jarekus Singleton seems poised to be the next blues master with Mississippi roots. In the middle of three shows at the Mt. Tremblant International Blues Festival, Singleton sat down to talk with American Blues Scene.
ABS: For this, your first major label release, were these new songs or ones you’d had awhile; were they ones that had been fleshed out on stage, or did you go in and try to come up with a bunch of fresh, new stuff?
I’m always writing and always have new ideas, many of which come at inopportune times, like driving or showering and I have to run out and get a pad, or leave myself a voicemail. I had a total of about 20 that Bruce Iglauer and I were listening to, and narrowed it down to 12. I think we picked the best songs for this project, and it’s been working out pretty well for me so far.
Not only are we losing older blues musicians, but fans as well, so it’s nice to hear fresh perspective on the blues from a younger viewpoint. You started playing bass in your uncle’s gospel band at church at age nine. How did that morph into guitar and your hip hop wordplay beginnings? Did you listen to the blues and say, “I can fit what I’m doing into that and make it new?”
I never really thought of it that way. I basically approached the game as me being Jarekus. My mama always encouraged me to be who you are. She always used to tell me “Nobody can be you. When you can’t be you, and you have to be somebody else to be accepted, it’s wrong”. She pushed me to take my lyrical ability, wit and rhyme scheme to fit into these songs.
As far as my bass playing, my uncle basically threw me into the ring of fire in my grandfather’s church in Jackson, Mississippi called The True Gospel Church of God and Christ. My grandfather was pastor and played guitar, my uncle played guitar, mom played organ, my brother played drums; in my musical family, everybody played something. I had no idea what was going on at the time.
As time progressed, I started playing with the choir. At fourteen, grandad moved to California, and my uncle was getting arthritis in his hands, so he said “You gotta start playing guitar!” He was a no nonsense guy, so it was “do it and don’t ask questions!” I had no idea what to do, other than what I’d seen and heard my uncle and grandad do. We had Testimony Service, where anyone can get up and sing, so I had to learn to follow in many keys.
I think it’s us old guys that need stuff a half step lower! Being from Mississippi, were you influenced by the hill country blues of R.L. Burnside or Jr. Kimbrough? And how big was the gospel influence, as a lot of people forget that Pinetop Perkins and other older bluesmen would play all night, then be in church on Sunday morning?
When I was growing up, I didn’t have too much education about the blues. The first blues song I heard was ” I’ll Play The Blues For You” by Albert King. I was about 15 or 16. Blues wasn’t played that much in my house, as mama loved Motown. She loved the Jackson 5, Whitney Houston, Chaka Khan, etc.. I’m still learning! I have this big pot of music that’s mixed together, and at any given time, anything can come out. I don’t know what’s going on, but I don’t fight it. It rolls.
When you write songs, do you start with those lyrics on your phone, or some cool beat, or a chord progression you like, or do you use all three? Any one more than another?
It varies, no one more than another. Some songs, I think of a lyric or line that I write down, and then come back to it later and build on it. Others, I think of a melody. A lot depends on the song. My creativity is very sensitive, so to get it where I need to be, I lock myself up in a room with my phone off, so no one can bother me. I don’t want to eat, sleep, nothin’; I just want to work on this song. This morning I had to turn off the shower to write something down, ’cause if you come back to it, it might not be the same. Creativity can happen at any time.
Do you use personal life stories, or maybe what you read or hear in the news to make it topical. Or use third person to tell a story?
A lot of the songs on this album are autobiographical. It’s my own personal experience because I want to write and sing with conviction. I like to be sensitive to every single word. At the same time, I can write about other political views or whatever, and be like Oprah, a “viewer with a voice”. God has given me a blessing to be able to convey this through music, and I thank him for that ability. Writing about personal experiences helps me get it out on stage.
That certainly comes across on your album. People can relate more to things they’ve experienced, too. Do you think the rhyming you developed as a rapper helps you with your songwriting? Does it translate to blues?
Rap gets a bad name because a lot of guys talk smack and about bling and money. But a lot of rappers talk about life, political views and what they went through in their neighborhoods. KRS1, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Run DMC; these old school guys talked about love. Those guys created an art form to be able to convey their thoughts in a different manner. So for me to be able to grow up with that, and be around the blues, I just started to merge it together; not because I was trying to, but because that’s who I was.
What college did you play basketball for?
I played for two. When I left High School in ’02, I had a scholarship to go to Southern Miss. I went for 3 years and got my degree in coaching and sports administration. My senior year, we had a coaching change, so I left and went to William Kerry University in 2007. That year I won National Player of the Year, led the nation in scoring, and was 5th in assists. I was hoping to get an NBA nod, but didn’t, so I went overseas. When I got back, I got nods with Indiana and Cleveland, but an ankle injury derailed things. You know, we have our plans, but God has his too, so…
Do you think the teamwork, dedication and practice of basketball has helped you in your music career?
Most definitely. Every team I ever played on, I was always the leader. I played point guard and was always orchestrating, making sure everyone felt just as important as the next man. As a good teammate and leader, that’s what you do. To learn how to lead, I had to be a good follower first, which I learned from playing with my uncle Tim, a pro player. Make people and band members feel important, because without them, I wouldn’t be here.
In your influences you list everyone from the 3 Kings and Stevie Ray Vaughn to Jay-Z and Brad Paisley. That’s quite a musical gumbo. Anybody contemporary you dig?
Derek Trucks is my favorite musician of all time. I’ve gotten to speak with him three times and the guy is amazing! I sat down and talked with him and his wife Susan Tedeschi when they played Athens, Georgia and we talked for about an hour and a half. And Eric Gales. His and Derek’s approach to playing is inspiring. And the John Mayer Trio with Steve Jordan on drums and Pino Palladino on bass. To see him step out and get dirty is great!
For the gearheads, what do you use for a guitar and amp? Are they custom?
I have an endorsement deal with Clevenger guitars out of Hot Springs, Arkansas. They’re made from scratch and very comfortable, and the owner Bert Clevenger’s the sweetest guy you’ll ever meet. They are very high end guitars that sound real good. The amp I’m using is my grandfather’s blackface from 1967. It took a pretty penny to get it going, but it was worth it.
If that amp could talk huh?
Well, it’s been around the world and then some!
Well, every night you play, you make it talk. Have you started writing for the next album?
Well I’m always working, writing and moving forward. There’s always something to say. I try to stay current and I’ve got my ear to the streets.
Your last year has been a whirlwind…
It’s been amazing! It’s pretty cool being on Alligator. With the album being co-produced by Bruce, he was very open minded about everything I brought to the table, and that meant a lot to me. He told me this is how this genre will be pushed forward; by guys coming in and innovating with their own style. And that’s who I am and what I do. I want to inspire people to keep pushing their way through hard times. My maturity has accelerated by at least ten years by meeting Bruce a year ago. He thinks differently than anybody I’ve ever met. The guy’s always thinking positive, always pushing forward, and it’s helped mold me into the artist I am now. But I’m still nowhere near where I want to be.
First time in Canada?
Do you find the feeling of the blues is universal when you play internationally; that even if they don’t understand the words, they get the feeling behind them?
It’s an amazing feeling to come here and realize you’ve touched them in some way with your music, even though you’ve never been there.