G. Loves hip-hop and blues, hot and cold beverages
Paul Simon, Velvet Underground and Blind Willie McTell covers on the same album. You don’t hear that every day. Then again, maybe you’re just not listening to enough G. Love, a guy who has managed to mash Bob Dylan, Delta blues and hip-hop throughout most of his career. He is nothing if not eclectic — and on his latest album, “Fixin’ to Die,” he’s still beguilingly surprising.For this outing, the Philadelphia-born artist, nee Garrett Dutton, decided to go back to his roots — far back, to the days before he began merging blues-folk with a little R&B and hip-hop to create a laid-back funk-soul vibe. Even back before he hooked up with his band, Special Sauce, before he did his first recordings for the Okeh label or landed on pal Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Records imprint. For his first album billed only as G. Love, he collaborated with Americana darlings the Avett Brothers, asking them to both produce and perform after meeting and bonding with them in Boston.For a change, Love does several covers — the title tune is by Delta bluesman Bukka White; he also visits McTell’s “You’ve Got to Die.” More unexpected are his reimagined versions of Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” and Lou Reed’s “Pale Blue Eyes.”“It was a big step deciding I was gonna cover a couple of tunes,” Love confessed in a recent phone interview. “We wanted to do things differently on this record in every way. I thought it was a good opportunity to go back and put some of my Delta blues stuff on the record. Seth Avett brought to the table this old Blind Willie McTell song. And then I wanted to do a Velvet Underground tune, a kind of down-home version of it.”The self-titled Velvet Underground album is one of his favorites, and the iconic “Pale Blue Eyes” is one of his favorite tracks from it — it’s a go-to song, he said, “if I’m sittin’ around the campfire with my friends.”The decision to do covers did not come without hesitation, however. Love said he cherishes the opportunity to get his compositions out to the world when he records an album.“It was a little bit of a mental challenge for me to make that step,” he added, “but once I embraced it, it was a really rewarding thing to cut some of those tunes and put my own stamp on.”After he wrapped his head around the concept, covering “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” wasn’t such a big leap.“My manager was trying to get me to cover that in my live show for years,” Love said. “He always thought that would be a good one for me, and I always shied away from it. But once we decided we were gonna do that, I said, ‘Well, let me figure that song out.’ And it was cool, actually. Because you know what? Anytime you learn a song, you always learn something new.”It went over so well onstage, by the time he got to the studio, he was excited about recording it. But they didn’t want to mimic the famous Steve Gadd drumbeat, so they stripped it out altogether and used claps and kick-drum beats like those they’d applied on “Fixin’ to Die.” Then, for something completely different, they gave it a bluegrass breakdown. Scott Avett’s banjo is a prominent instrument throughout the album.The Avett trio — brothers Scott (banjo, drums and vocals) and Seth (guitar, keyboards and vocals) and friend Bob Crawford (bass) — form the musical nucleus of the album with Love; Special Sauce drummer Jeff Clemons contributes to several tracks as well, including the end of “50 Ways.”As for why Love decided to record without Special Sauce, he said, “We wanted to flip the script a little bit and just send me out with my guitar. Not to take nothing away from the Special Sauce, but we felt it could be interesting to go out with some different musicians, and those guys really fit the bill as far as being some cats that could not only produce the record but play on it. And their harmonies are super tight, so I knew all the vocals were gonna be amazing.“I’ve had a lot of success when I’m doing collaborative efforts,” he added, “and I think when musicians get together in a creative environment, nothing but exciting music is gonna happen.”The brothers have said they knew this was the kind of album Love had in him; it just required a little digging to find. Love said he grew up on country blues and folk music, and was seeking to create a cohesive album with a rootsy sound, “just real simple, honest music” — exactly the minimalistic, heartfelt approach the Avetts share naturally.“You see a lot of my Bob Dylan influence, a lot of my John Hammond influence,” Love said. “We wanted everything to be stripped down; the most important thing was capturing he vibe. And I thought we were really able to do that.”As for recording in Asheville, in the Avetts’ home state of North Carolina, Love said, “When you’re produced by somebody, you choose them because you really respect them and you want them to take you in a certain direction. Sometimes you don’t know what that direction is gonna be, but their first direction was, ‘Come down to North Carolina.’ And it couldn’t have been a better choice.”He described Asheville as a beautiful town in the center of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where music fills the streets and there’s lots of “art and creative juices flowin’ around.”The studio, in an old church, provided even more inspiration.“You walk in and it’s a big, airy feeling and the light’s streaming through the stained glass,” he recalled. “When I walked with my guitar I really got a sense that, man, something special’s gonna happen this week. And it really did.”They recorded “Fixin’ to Die” in only nine days, which helped keep everyone focused and prevented a lot of second-guessing, Love said. “It was nine days because that was all the free time we could get everybody together for. So we had to commit to things.” Ironically, the originals he included span more than 20 years. Two of them, “Get Goin’” and “Walk On,” were written when he was still a student at Germantown Friends School, a Quaker high school in Philly. They showcase his Dylan and Beatles influences, he said.If the album has a theme, it might be reflections about the joys of love — including his woman (“Milk and Sugar”), his dog (“Katie Miss”) and his grandmother (“Ma Mere”). The latter two are long gone; there’s also a possibly unintended emphasis on death, with the title song and “You’ve Got to Die.” “Heaven,” however, is a love song. And “Milk and Sugar,” for his fianc, is, he said, about coffee and love.As G. Love fans know, he’s partial to singing about beverages.“Well, you know,” Love said with a laugh, “I always like to write about somethin’ that people can connect with.”So how does he take his coffee?With milk and sugar, of course.